Thursday, September 12, 2019

Good Omens

Every Friday night, my family celebrates Shabbat by saying the prayers, eating challah and … watching British fantasy/sci-fi television.

For several years now, the Shabbat candles have shimmered their earnest little lights on the dining room table, as we have gathered a few feet away in the living room to bask in the LCD glow of “Sherlock Holmes,” “Dr. Who” and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Most recently, Shabbat has meant a family viewing of “Good Omens,” Amazon’s six-part series adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel of the same name. While none of our TV viewing choices (or, indeed, the choice to view TV at all on Shabbat) could be described as “Jewish,” our weekly intake of “Good Omens” seemed to be the least Jewy of all.

Centered around an odd-couple relationship between an angel and demon who attempt to avert a New Testament-style apocalypse, there are exactly no Jewish people or allusions to Judaism anywhere in the show. Even the flashback scenes involving Old Testament stories, such as the Garden of Eden or Noah’s Ark, predate Abraham, obviating the need to deal with the People of the Book. Or, for that matter, the Book. (For what it’s worth, there is also no mention of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or any other “isms.” Wiccans, however, get good billing.)

Despite the decidedly un-small-c-Catholic perspective of the show, I felt as drawn to these perfectly imperfect Christian archetypes as I do to Miriam Maisel.

A Jewish fan of the book posted a question on Gaiman’s blog about whether the author’s Jewish heritage informed the characters, particularly the demon Crowley, who often questions the morality of G-d’s actions.

Gaiman responded: “I think my Jewish heritage influenced how the whole of ‘Good Omens’ was written. You can’t be familiar with the midrash and also assume that anyone in the Bible has any idea what’s actually going on, after all. And Crowley is someone who asks questions.”

But I think there is something even more distinctly Jewish underlying this bit of Christian theological fan fiction. The story wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for the relationship between Michael Sheen’s angel Aziraphale and David Tennant’s demon Crowley. The two actors play off each other brilliantly, making their character’s unlikely friendship deeply believable.

And that’s where, I think, the true Jewishness of the story comes in. The characters, who should have been sworn enemies, cling to each other as they are the only angel and demon on Earth. They have little in common with their warmongering brethren “upstairs” or “downstairs,” and they are obviously not human. So, they are the perennially wandering “others.” A tribe of two who work together to (pre-emptively) repair the world.

The Jewish fan who asked Gaiman about Judaism’s influenced thanked the author for making “it possible for me to experience a tradition that often excludes me.” To that particular fan, Gaiman’s Jewish influences made the book, and I’m assuming the show, more widely relatable.

As the series came to a satisfying, clever and (spoiler alert) non-disastrous end, I could see from the corner of my eye the wisp of smoke that rises when the last orange glow of the Shabbat candle ashes away.

Yes, Gaiman’s strong understanding of Judaism likely made the show more relatable. But, in the end, it was a strong relationship that made the show just a little bit Jewish.

Originally published in OC Jewish Life.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Strong princesses open up ‘a whole new world’ for little girls

We have a few “girl” superhero costumes in the house. A puffy-sleaved lavender Batgirl costume and a Supergirl costume trimmed in red tulle and sparkles. But when my 4-year-old wants to dress up as a superhero and fight crime, she no longer reaches for these vestments of token girl power.

She dresses as a princess.

I had forever sworn that, should I be blessed with a daughter, nary a single tiara would enter my home. Having grown up watching Snow White get saved by a prince, and Sleeping Beauty get saved by a prince, and Cinderella get saved by a prince, and (well, you get the idea), weak damsels in pretty ball gowns make my skin crawl.

Then came Tiana. Disney released “The Princess and the Frog” when Zev was four, and it threw me. Zev was swept up in the music (and who could blame him?) but I was more focused on how an aspiring business owner who spent most of the film as a frog could leap into the princess pantheon. Yes, the fairy tale includes a handsome prince and a beautiful gown, but it actually concludes with the opening of a restaurant. That’s their “happily ever after.” A service industry tycoon marries a cute guy and puts him to work.

I figured that was a one-off. But the princess power didn’t stop in New Orleans. Pixar’s “Brave,” featured a fearless princess whose only flaw was that she didn’t listen to her mother. Then came Elsa and Anna of “Frozen,” sisters whose love for each other save the world.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Confucius Says: I Have No Idea What to Cook for Hanukkah

I have a problem. And, if you usually host a first night of Hanukkah celebration, I’m guessing you have a problem, too.

Hanukkah this year begins on Christmas Eve. So as I prepare my menu for the first night, I find myself wondering: Latkes or kung pao?

Before we dive into the sweet-and-sour meat of my problem, first let me be clear that I don’t think Hanukkah is something special. It’s a weird little commemoration of a short-lived military victory that pales in comparison to Yom HaAtzmaut in terms of pride and importance – and to Christmas in terms of absolutely everything else.

And second, we’re all going to have to come clean about Christmas. My rabbi, of all people, last year wrote a Facebook post about our tribe’s devoted rituals surrounding the holiday that began, “I think we should stop pretending that Jews do not celebrate Christmas. We do. Perhaps not with Christmas trees and Jingle Bells. But certainly, we have created our own tradition…”

And yes, the rest of that line read, “Chinese food and going to the movies.”

We Jews love our Christmas rituals. We love Hanukkah, too, but only because of its proximity
to Christmas. Without the Christian holiday as a counterpoint, Hanukkah is basically Veteran’s Day with hash browns.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Advanced Child Placement

I never liked my belly. Long before its served as an infant Airbnb, my abdomen has been abominable. Now that three children have stretched me out like a spent Mylar balloon, my gut is even more of a problem. But every problem has a solution, right?

I’ve discovered mine.

No, it’s not diet (and to hell with you for suggesting that). It’s not exercise either, smarty-pants. It’s the Strategically Placed Child.

A few years ago, I realized that by standing directly behind an adorable child, perhaps with my hands draped gently on the kid’s shoulders, I can both hide my gut and make myself appear warm and motherly all in one selfie. This pose also makes me look tall. It’s a nice trick.

Since first unleashing the cosmetic power of children’s heads, I’ve made sure to shove a smiling (if bewildered) child in front of me in every Flickr pic or Facebook photo I take. The marketer in me is brimming with taglines: It’s like Spanx that you’re no longer allowed to spank! It’s like a tummy tuck, only without the surgery and you still look lousy in person! OK. Maybe the taglines need work.

The strategically placed child is the photographic cousin of the weirdly placed lamp or large envelope that TV shows typically use to hide actresses’ pregnancies. In those case, the babies are the problem. In mine, they’re the solution.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Babs Revisited

After years of hearing mothers’ laments about how Barbie poisons young girls’ minds with an unrealistic ideal of womanhood, Mattel created a new line of Barbies with three different body types (short, tall and curvy), 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. These are not “friends” of Barbie, but actual Barbies.

I should be rejoicing. But instead, I feel a little disquieted.

It was so much easier to bash Barbie when she was the mean girl from high school with the perfect coif and the impossible bust-line. But seeing her transformation is like running into your nemesis 20 years after graduation in the plus-size aisle at Target and having her bend your ear about her scaring divorce.

I need Barbie to remain ridiculously proportioned and blonde. The uber shiksa with the unobtainable curves. I need her to be that way because – after all these years – I realize that my problem with Barbie wasn’t a problem at all.

As it turns out, I relied on Barbie to be blonde and button-nosed because I needed a foil for my Jewishness. I needed her to represent the ideal for assimilation and the ideal for womanhood, so that I could know what to push back against, as well as what to embrace.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Breaking Up is Havarti to Do

Dear Cheese,

These are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write to a food product, but I have to be honest with you and with myself, and tell you that it’s over between us.

We had an amazing run, Cheese. From those innocent days of Kraft singles and string cheese through those experimental college years of Stilton and Gruyere, you’ve been a constant in my life – the first food I ever truly loved.

I remember discovering goat cheese and thinking that I had tasted Heaven. Some snickered when a girlfriend declared, “Havarti tastes like sex.” But I didn’t snicker. I knew exactly what she meant.

You were sweet. You were salty. With blue, veiny abandon, you were sometimes a bit nasty. My mother warned me that you were bad for me, but that just made me want you more. I had you first thing in the morning, spread out on my bagel, and I twirled you around my tongue atop pasta any evening I thought I could get away with it. I loved it when you were soft, and oh, how I loved it when you were hard.

But I can’t go on like this.

I’m of Ashkenazi descent, Cheese, and there’s this thing called familial hypercholesterolemia that affects my people with a greater frequency than the rest of the world. (You knew, the first time I refused a cheeseburger, that religion would eventually come between us.) I’m at an increased risk of having my heart broken by you… well, not broken so much as stopped. Clogged up with cholesterol.

I have to protect myself; I’m a married woman and a mother. I can’t just go about, cavorting with any food product I like, as though there were no consequences.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

You say Thanksgivukkah, I say Chanksgiving

This year, for the first time since 1888, Thanksgiving will overlap with the first day of Hanukkah, and I for one am excited to smother latkes with cranberry sauce. But even as I scour the Internet for pilgrim-themed dreidels and a turkey-shaped menorah (You’re welcome, Etsy shop owners), I’m feeling kinda sad.

According to, the happy convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will not likely occur again for another 77,798 years. And since kale and Botox will only take me so far, I doubt I’ll be around to celebrate this ever again.

How to fill the void left by the fleeting Thanukkah? I propose we alter the Jewish and Gregorian calendars every few years to pair other holidays, and I know just the ones to link. The following are some suggestions that I think would go together like gelt and gravy:

New Year’s Day and Yom Kippur: On which holiday do you wake up feeling awful and repentant about recent indiscretions, resolving to change your behavior from here on out?

Exactly, both!

Imagine reciting Kol Nidrei to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” Or popping a few corks with your pre-fast meal. And how much more interesting would the Amidah be if it were recited on a Rose Parade float?

Mother’s Day and Pesach: An interminable, bland and overpriced meal in which you rehash a litany of past misdeeds suffered at the hands of a tyrant. Does this describe: (a) Mother’s Day brunch or (b) the first night of Pesach? If you answered both, you are correct!

Why is this brunch different than all others? Because it features poached eggs on matzah and chametz-free mimosas. Dayenu!