Category Archives: Jews

Shana Tova

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Overheard at the nail salon today:

“Hey, Rachel, how are you?”

“Good. Tired.”

“You hosting?”

“Oh, Sarah. I am. Both nights!”

“Oy. Poor you. That’s so much work.”

“It’s OK. I hired a girl to help out with the cooking, the serving, and the clean up.”

“Oh good! So it shouldn’t be too bad.”

“No . . . I thought this was the best way to do it. Why should my nanny have to do everything by herself?”

. . .

Shana Tova to all the Yidden out there — the rich, the richer, and the rest.

Shana Tova! Love, Poor Princess, The Scientist, LL, Cool J, and Baby MoFo

Shana Tova! Love, Poor Princess, The Scientist, LL, Cool J, and Baby MoFo

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I WILL NOT YELL THIS WEEK!! (bli neder)

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One teenage summer, I took a job as a counselor at a summer camp in a Jewish cottage colony. All the campers slept at their cottages, which surrounded the camp, and all the counselors, who also had cottages nearby, slept on-site. The set-up made the camp very exclusive, as rare was the counselor who had not been going to the camp his or her entire life. Still, my BFF, Geddy Lee, whose cottage I had visited many times over the years, convinced me to join her. So, though a bit nervous about how I would fit in, I did.

The camp was (and is) about an hour from the city, and on the day we started our pre-camp training, we threw our sleeping bags and duffel bags in the back of Geddy Lee’s mom’s station wagon (a wood-paneled artifact from around the time Geddy Lee was born) and headed out to the country roads. About five minutes into our drive, Geddy Lee’s argument with her mom began. I think it was about Geddy Lee’s supershort cut-off shorts or maybe her boyfriend (the neighbor’s gardener) or perhaps it was about the clay penis she had sculpted and insisted on leaving out on display in their house. I’m not sure. All I know is that it escalated and escalated and that 70s wagon was vibrating with their voices (OK–or age). I tried to distract myself by thinking about what a fun time I would have at camp.

Finally, the fight hit its climax. “I refuse to have my daughter to talk to me that way!”
“I refuse to have my mother talk to me that way!”

“If you don’t like it, you can get out of my car and walk to camp!”

“We will! Come on, PP!”

The car came to a screeching halt in the middle of nowhere. Geddy Lee’s door flew open. I sat in the back quietly, pretending to be invisible. “Let’s go!” Geddy Lee repeated.

“Do I have to?” The sky was black. I slowly dragged myself from the car.  By the time I was out, I discovered Geddy Lee’s mom had already tossed my stuff out onto the gravel and was gone. The rain began to fall almost immediately.

“Sorry,” Geddy Lee said sheepishly as the rain soaked us. “But I figured you would understand.” Huh? “I mean your house is always high drama.” It was? “It’s just like mine–a yelling house.” She then proceeded to do a perfect imitation of my mother shrieking my name.

It took us about 3 hours to walk to camp. The duffel bags were heavy. I held one handle on Geddy Lee’s bag, one handle on mine, and she did the same, walking in front of me. It poured the whole time. I was starving. And I was thinking. My house was high drama, it would seem. My house was a yelling house. I made myself a promise: when I grow up, and I have kids of my own, my house will be so calm, people will be sure we’re WASPs. No one will call us high drama. No one will call us a yelling house.

So, it turns out that I failed.

That voice Geddy Lee imitated over 20 years ago sounds eerily like my own today.

In truth, I forgot all about that high drama episode between Geddy Lee and her mother, and my internal promise, for the longest time. It was obliterated from my mind by all the fun I had at the camp (and also by a high drama incident of a wholly different kind that happened that very night, involving a drinking game). On Monday, however, staying at my in-laws’ cottage, with my kids attending a similar day camp filled with Jewish kids who summer in nearby cottages, I had a flashback to that stormy day years ago. I remembered, and in so doing, I had a painful realization: I yell almost every day. Sometimes it’s a safety yell (Get off the road!), which I think is OK, but too often it’s a mad yell (Go to sleep already! Who peed all over the floor?).

After dropping off the kids at camp, I was reading this great blog post about Tisha B’av. Now, I actually had no plan to fast (or if I did, it was so fleeting it doesn’t really count), but I decided that to commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple, which has been chalked up to baseless hatred, I was going to do a very unhateful thing: I was not going to yell. All week. No matter what. I was going to have a low drama house. I was going to be a WASP.

Wish me luck, will you? I am on day 3, and so far doing pretty well. Mind you, the kids have been relatively well-behaved. It’s possible (highly likely) that will change. And I will have to keep saying to myself: I will not yell this week. I will not yell this week. I will not yell this week. Of course, I didn’t make any such promise about not leaving them by the side of the road in the rain . . . It’s a good thing their camp bags aren’t too heavy.

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These bags were made for dancing–not schlepping in the rain.

After the Quota System

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A couple of years ago, fresh off the long drive to my new princely town, I wrote about its remarkable WASPiness (here and here). But now I barely notice it, and I have even come to realize that among the professors and post-docs in The Scientist’s department–whose names are along the lines of Itai, Amichai, Shai, Oren, Shulamit, Michal, Shachar, Jonathan Goldberg, David Bloomenfeld, and Brice–it’s possible there are a few people like me (and that poor Brice is understandably confused when he shows up on Yom Kippur, which he might think is an ordinary Tuesday, and his lone voice echoes down the empty hallways. “Hello? Hello? Anybody out there . . . ?”).

If this town and the university at its centre still don’t quite advertise themselves as hotbeds of Yiddishkeit, that doesn’t mean my neighbors aren’t in a Klezmer band (they are) or that Baby MoFo can’t attend a local (non-Chabad) summer camp that will be conducted entirely in Hebrew next month (he is).

But it’s fun to see this princely town as I first saw it–to see it through the eyes of one first seeing. This afternoon, a beautiful, sunny day, the boys were off from school, and I took respite with an iced coffee and a chapter of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (née Nathan Weinstein), a novella about an advice columnist with a Christ Complex (think the Bintel Brief in the hands of the other folks). A few minutes after perching on a bench outside the Starbucks with my cold drink, I saw, out of my peripheral vision, an elderly woman with thinning, carefully set white hair, polished nails shaped into old-fashioned ovals, and sturdy but not dowdy black patent leather shoes, sit down beside me. She watched me intently, clearly waiting for me to acknowledge her. I didn’t (How often does one score a break from one’s kids to do nothing but sit and read and drink an iced coffee and enjoy the sound of silence and the sun on one’s face??). So she gave up waiting, and she cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said. I marked my passage in the book–the protagonist is attempting to escape his despair through a pastoral fantasy and arrives in a rural world where the deer run wild: “The man said that there was still plenty of deer at the pond because no yids ever went there. He said it wasn’t the hunters who drove out the deer, but the yids.”

I look up.

“I’m just visiting here, and I was wondering–Are you a student here?”

I smile. “No,” I say, “I teach here.”

“Really?” Flattering though it might have been from someone a bit younger, the comment made me realize that when you’re in your 90s, college age and 30s seem equally and unattainably distant — kind of the way millions and billions of dollars seem equally and unattainably distant to this Poor Princess.

But it turns out there was something else she meant by “Really?”

She continues: “They let you in here?”

Me? A woman? A dark-skinned person? A Canadian?

She pushes further. “They welcomed you?”

“Yes,” I say hesitantly.

“With open arms?”

“I think so . . .”

“And are there others?” She gestures at my pendant.

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“Are there?”

“Yes,” I say. “There are others.”

“And what do you teach?”

I tell her.

“Do you teach them about us–your know, our stuff?” she asks.

“I do,” I say. “Do you know The Jazz Singer?”

“With Al Jolson?” She laughs with amazement. I wonder if she knew him. She lowers her voice. “And the goyim–they like it?”

“I think so,” I say.

“I don’t believe it,” she says.

“Believe it,” I respond. And we say our goodbyes, and I saunter off.

And when I get home, I remind LL that I am signing him up for ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons at Barclays. It’s a revered institution where children who use their chopsticks as swords and have other defects of manners (or circumcised bits) can learn to be proper, poised, socially sophisticated WASPlike little gentlemen and ladies. After all, we’re in a princely town. Barclays is by invitation only, but I might have an in– I hear there’s a Jew on the board.

The Better Story

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life-of-pi-book-coverThe Scientist’s favorite book is Life of Pi. One day, shortly after we were married, I listened to the book on tape (literally tape) during my long commute to work, one that passed several entries into Manhattan and thus could be not only long but gruelingly Shantaram long. The book is about the victory of science: Pi trains the tiger through classical (or is it operant?) conditioning, allowing the two of them to cross the ocean together without either being killed. When I got home, I told my scientist-husband that he would enjoy the book. This was, of course, the same husband who had recently informed the rabbi who married us that he felt uncomfortable with the way the date was written on our ketubah–“in the year . . . since the creation of the world“–since the world had not been created 5000 and change years ago as any good scientist and rational human being recognized (to his credit, Marrying Rabbi, an Orthodox but logical rabbi–not a contradiction in terms, it seems–wholly agreed and soothed The Scientist by telling him that we Jews speak in parables).

That evening, The Scientist bought Life of Pi and stayed up through the night reading it cover to cover.

Afterwards, we discussed it. Back then, we used to hold our own, romantic, two-person book club. As a mom, I go a different route: I hang out with a bunch of other moms so we can drink wine, bitch about our husbands, and discuss how birthing multiple babies ravaged our hot bods. But I was a newlywed then.

Funnily enough, while The Scientist was interested in what or wasn’t an accurate representation of conditioning, he also loved the parable part of the story. It turns out we Jews not only speak in parables; we like reading them, too. But it wasn’t just that the tiger story was a parable. “What I appreciated was the way it came back to the beginning,” reported The Scientist. “To that ‘I was told you have a story that would make me believe in God’.” “Huh?” I say. That was how we discovered that the book-on-tape version excised the “Author’s Note,” which was in no way actually an “author’s note,” to be read as a thing outside of the story itself except in the way that Lolita‘s “Foreword” is an “author’s note” (Oh, Nabby, you tried to confuse us by telling us Haze rhymes with the heroine’s real surname and tease us by inserting your anagrammatic self, Vivian Darkbloom, while incidentally mentioning the death of Mrs. Richard F. Schiller along with the details of a bunch of minor nobodies–you sly dog, you) (And if you were wondering what my favorite book is, now you know). But anyway, after I read the book (and thus ended my brief and inglorious love affair with books on tape), I agreed. It was not just a good parable; it was a great piece of theology. Boy searches for meaning of god through Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, but ultimately Boy uses science to keep alive. Yet, this is not about the victory of science (though perhaps it’s a bit of a Gouldian tale of non-overlapping magisteria?). Boy does not lose love of god using science; instead, he decides that if given the choice between life given meaning through God and life given meaning through science, God is the better story.

(Though you might remember that both the atheist –the believer in science–and the religious man–the believer in God–are held up as believers and therefore people willing to make a leap of the imagination–“Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them — and then they leap” . . . “Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might [when dying] try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”)

Natch, it was more because of all the scary tiger stuff, and the sparkly jellyfish, the Ang Lee show-offy cinematics, that made us think the kids might enjoy the film, which recently came out on DVD. It wasn’t theology.

The truth is, we don’t really talk to our kids about God in any serious way. In fact, the only time I remember The Scientist engaging the idea is when he told LL that Nietzsche killed God. I thought about our aversion to the subject this morning as I was reading this great post at Kveller, a site that was obviously made for me (a small part of me admits that the accuracy of that statement would be much greater were the site called Kvetcher instead of Kveller, but we ought not quibble about the difference. You know what Vladi says: “the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.”). In any case, the dad in this Kveller post thinks about how he talked to his kids about God when they were younger, and then asks the kids (now teenagers), and the son says, “I think you told us we could believe whatever we wanted about God, and you would support us . . . But then again, that’s the kind of thing you would say.” Shit. That’s a nice dad. I’m such a bitch. I do more of the Hashem-is-here-Hashem-is-there-Hashem-is-always-everywhere-and-he-knows-when-you’ve-been-naughty thing. Like this invocation, shortly after Cool J announced he was going to be a rabbi. We are heading into town, and he is being reckless. I yell at him: “Be careful crossing the street! Get off your scooter! That’s not safe!”Cool J scoots gleefully across the street, hits a rock just in front of the curb, flies to the ground.”You see?” I say (even more gleefully — told you I’m a bitch). “You know why you fell?” Cool J, standing up defiantly, dusting himself off: “Why?””Because you didn’t listen to your mom. So Hashem punished you.” Cool J, dismissively: “Oh please. I fell because there was a rock in my way, not because of Hashem.” And off he scoots. “Oh yeah? And who do you think put that rock there?!” I call out–but he’s gone by the end of “oh yeah.”

So when we show the kids the movie, I am surprised at how fixated they are on the second telling of the story–what I think of as the theological part of the movie. This is the part when Pi retells the story and the hyena becomes the cook, the zebra the sailor, the orangutan his mom, and Richard Parker Pi Patel. This is the part that ends with the Canadian writer asking which story is the real one, and Pi Patel asking which the writer prefers. The boys make me replay this part twice. When it comes to Pi’s question, I pause the film. “So–which do you prefer?” I ask.

They answer in unison: “The real one!”

Now, my kids are, as Mannahatta Mamma recently called hers, “Same recipe, different soup.” So you might imagine I’m surprised by the identical answer. I tease it out a little. “What does that mean?”

“The real one,” says LL. “The one we saw. With the tiger . . . and the hyena . . . you know, the real one.”

Cool J, an all-too-smart 5 year old, looks cynically at his older brother. “Don’t be silly. He wasn’t on the boat with a tiger. That was just the story part” (and I swear he hasn’t even read Tim O’Brien’s great bit on “story-truth vs. happening-truth”). (He’s not always so smart, mind you. The other day he consoled Baby MoFo, newly toilet trained, for hitting the wall with his stream. “I stand too close to the urinal and splash myself in the face–all the time,” reported Cool J).

Cool J continues: “Of course the real story was with his mom.”

Hmmm.

“And what do you guys think of the way we’re attracted to a good story? About how God might be a story we’re attracted to, not because the being itself is a true being, as in a being up there or out there controlling us or listening to us, but an idea that gives us comfort because it’s easier to imagine a supreme being than randomness, than nothingness? What do you think of that?”

“Mama, can you press play? I want to see what happens at the end of the movie.”

“Yeah, can you? I want to see if the tiger comes back.”

LL this morning at his Torah Ceremony, happy with his burning bush God and undisturbed by theological questions.

LL (and a pal) this morning at his Torah Ceremony, newly received chumash in hand. He is happy with his burning-bush God and wholly undisturbed by theological questions.

One more nugget from my little nudnick

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To finish of his week of witticisms, Cool J declared his future profession yesterday–

LL: “Is Pesach over yet?”

Me: “Almost.”

LL: “Can’t I get a muffin?”

Me: “Tomorrow.”

LL: “But why do we have to keep Pesach? Dada doesn’t keep Pesach.”

Me: “Well, boys, the thing is that Dada grew up religious. You know how at Babi and Zaidy’s house we can’t turn on lights or the TV or anything on Shabbos or yontev?”

LL and Cool J: “Yeah, so?”

Me: “So, sometimes when kids grow up, they do something called rebel against their parents. It means whatever their parents want them to do, they do the opposite. It’s a way of showing that they can make their own decisions now.”

Cool J: “So Dada’s mom and dad wanted him to be religious?”

Me: “You could say that.”

Cool J: “But he rebelled so he’s doing the opposite of what his dad wants?”

Me: “Right.”

Cool J: “Hmmmmm . . . So when I grow up, I’m going to become a rabbi.”

Nach

This Vagabond Life–Forever???

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All three kids have now lived a good part of their lives in the US, a good part in Canada. Is it time to move on? Are we destined to be vagabonds forever, moving from one country to the next, never settling, never buying that aluminum-siding, characterless McMansion, never investing in any long-term commitments (like phone contracts), never, as they said back in the 20th century, “putting down roots”? Is that, perhaps, not such a bad thing?

Alright, readers, here’s the thing: We have a chance to move to the UK.

S0–should we stay or should we go?

Option A

Option A

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Option B

Put another way:

Option A

Option A

Option B

Option B

Well, this could go on. I will give you the pros and cons for our family, and you will tell me what to do with my life.

Here we go–

The Pros:

* Jewish day schools are state-funded in the UK. That means FREE! (you can give a *voluntary* donation, which is bubkas compared to what we pay on this side of the Atlantic). Not only are they FREE, but they are also multicultural (since they can’t discriminate on the basis of religion for a state-funded school). 

*We would live in Europe! Granted, it’s not the continent, but the continent is a hop, skip, and a cheap Ryanair flight away. Hello, weekend in Barcelona, ski trip in Slovenia, a little shopping in Milan.

*The Scientist would be in a “real” job–an actual faculty member in a strong department with good research. As he moves from mid- to late-thirties, the time might be nigh to play big boy!

*We can vote. Apparently our Commonwealth status is worth something somewhere beyond Canadian borders. Of course, I know nothing about British politics, but it might be nice to get to have a say about the place I’m living in. Can I vote, by the way, for Canada not to be a part of the Commonwealth anymore (I’m really big on that whole republic thing, and do not appreciate being a monarchy with a foreign head of state), or would that be kind of self-defeating? (Would I be voting down my right vote?)

*We love welfare states! That’s so left-wing pinko commie academic of us, too, and sooo Canadian, too. But universal healthcare, you are a beautiful thing. It means the end of the very American kind of mail that arrives at our house and startles the crap out of us: “This is not a bill. Emergency room visit: $1480. Your insurance paid: $260. You owe: $0.” Huh?

The Cons:

*I LOVE SUNSHINE. The Scientist is of the opinion that weather “doesn’t matter,” but I DISAGREE! I might DIE in the grey, dreary, and drippy short dark days of the UK. And does it ever end? Rainy winters lead into rainy springs lead into rainy summers . . . Well, you get the picture.

*I would be jobless, friendless, and colleagueless. English departments at UK unis seem utterly devoid of American literature. I suspect the attitude is something along the lines of, “So, have they produced anything over in those colonies yet? Nah . . .”

*Babi and Zaidy and Gramma and Saba and aunties and uncles and all the cousins will be oh so far away. And phone/Skype conversations might become a challenge once our accents have morphed and we can no longer understand our family or them us.

*At heart, there is something deeply American (aka materialistic) about us. We go on about getting rid of clutter, going all minimalist, etc etc, but the truth is this: we love stuff. When I asked an American in the UK recently what it was that he missed most about the US, this is what he said: STUFF! (I panicked. What? No stuff? No stuff? What will I do without stuff?) He then he went on to point out that in the local Sainsbury’s or Tesco, at best you could find 30 or 40 kinds of cereal. Only 30 or 40! I mean, we’re not going to starve, but–?! (Ugh, if I were a better person, this would go in the pro list. So maybe the more appropriate con is that I have to realize what a bad, materialistic person I am.)

*We will be even poorer than we are now–in a not so cheap part of the world (some would say obscenely expensive, even). I know I’m all, yeah, whatev, I’m used to being a  באָרוועסר פּראָפעסאָר

. . . but can I handle being any poorer?

So–what should we do?

Poor Princess Meets Frankenstorm

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At 4:21, I’m getting on an airplane to Go west, Young woman! —Not that I’m really young, but I’m about to behave as though I am. After all, here’s what I’m going to do when I arrive in Scottsdale, Arizona, where today’s high is 87 degrees and–what else?–sunny:

I’m going to meet with 7 other fantastic mamas from far-flung cities.

We’re going to go on an artwalk. We’ll eat. We’ll drink. Maybe dance?

Tomorrow, we’re going to get up early and go on a canyoneering trip. What’s that? Well, let me tell you: We get driven in 4x4s across the desert. We then hike and scramble; we rappel down waterfalls; we swim across crystal clear springs. We do some other stuff. It’s all insanely awesome and beautiful.

Check out the pictures.

Then, when we’re good and tired, we go home, quick shower, quick-quick beautification–

PP and Salsa Shaker — Jewish Mamas’ Annual — 2011

and then off to dinner at Cowboy Ciao where some of us will indulge in duckfat ice cream (and some of us will definitely not!). Where then? The night is young, and all that is calling our names in the next couple of days is the pool, long runs, perhaps a hike,  some shopping, lunches with aguas frescas, dinners with lots of alcohol, and who knows–maybe we’ll have to hit the V Spot again, as we did on one of our previous Jewish Mamas’ Annual Scottsdale Trip–

2010 –where we all learn the word “vagazzle” — but none of us were daring enough to try it. (Tatazzling seemed a safer bet).

Now there’s a business model I bet you didn’t think of!

Or maybe find a post-Halloween Halloween party–

The trip will end with me meeting some very old friends for a much-needed catching up. And I will return to my family happy, refreshed, and full of love.

It’s the perfect Fall Break and the perfect Girls’ Weekend. Which is why it’s the THIRD annual.

Except — poor, poor, poor Princess.

That’s not what is happening today. I can sing “I’m leaving on a jet plane” all I want (FYI–it’s Chantal Kreviazuk I’m channeling, not John Denver), but I am not leaving on a jet plane today, thanks to this baby–

Instead, I am huddled in my house where the temperature is not 87 or 77 or 67. It’s 53F.

I’m under 4 blankets with four other people and we’re all hacking away like a bunch of consumptives sleeping together in a freezing Lower East Side tenement at the turn of the 20th century.

From Jacob Riis’s time — not so different?

We have no heat, no electricity, no home phone service, no cell service, and no internet. When we’re not under the blankets, we’re smushed together in my office–surrounded by offices where people are trying to actually work–and fighting over the screens (oh internet, I miss you so!). And when we get good and hungry, we’ll wait in line with the rest of the town to get into the one restaurant that’s running. It’s all good.

I really really really want to leave on a jet plane today, but with roads blocked or jammed, and transit not running, there’s no way of getting to the airport and getting the fuck outta here. Poor, poor Princess.