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!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Letter to My Daughter

Dearest Sivan,

May your intellect and humor propel the human race forward. May your kindness inspire nations to beat swords into plowshares. May your beauty dazzle brighter than all the stars in the sky.

But, most of all, may you be a colossal pain in the ass.

The women who came before you – who dug, pounded and paved the path to your existence – these women were giants. They didn’t do what they were told. They didn’t make the easy decisions. They didn’t shut up when shutting up would probably been a pretty good idea. You wouldn’t be here if they had.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Remembering Ann

Her name was Ann Chervin.

I don’t know much about her. I don’t know which concentration camp she and her husband, Marion, were in or how they got out. I don’t know how her husband and their adult child, Eve, preceded Ann in death. Or why Eve was childless when she died.

But I do know Ann liked red roses. I know she custom ordered her oak veneer kitchen cabinets from a place in Torrance in the 1970s. I know she let her ficus trees grow rampant and that she must not have been very tall, because her bathroom sinks were installed slightly lower than you’d expect.

I know all these intimate details about Ann because I live in her house. People say it takes six months for a new home to feel like your own, but it’s been three years and I still sometimes feel like the caretaker.

For one, I still get her mail. Mostly stuff from survivor groups and Shoah foundations, particularly at this time of year. More deeply than that, though, Ann’s spirit is still here. I don’t mean that in a haunted house kind of way; just in the sense that the touches she put in her home are still very much present: The mezuzah she kissed every day is still here, tucked in a drawer in my living room.

Her red rose bush is still here, too, the only plant that survived the year between her death and the time her home went on the market. I have a strict policy for my garden: I’ll only plant you, if I can eat you. But I made an exception for Ann’s roses. A survivor’s only surviving plant deserves love.

Then there are the intangibles. I think about her when I chop vegetables at my kitchen counter for my family. I am certain Ann did the same for hers. Did she roll up her sleeves the way I do? Or did she keep them down to hide the numbers tattooed on her arm?

And what about the fact that her daughter died? I think about that when I read about the Six Million Coins project. It’s a program in Los Angeles to collect money for Holocaust survivors in need. As part of the project, Jewish leaders in L.A. plan to read the names of all 6 million people who perished in the Holocaust.

According to Rabbi David Wolpe, who gives the intro on the project’s Web site, the reason given for reading the names is not to remember that these people died, but that they lived. We say a person’s name to remember them.

Ann Chervin may have survived the Holocaust, but there is no one left to say her name. She has no grandchildren to fuss over her rose bushes or to keep her mezuzah safe. She survived, but it’s unlikely she will be remembered. Maybe that’s why I still feel as though I live in Ann’s house – because it is my duty as a Jew to remember that Ann lived at all.

And so I remember this stranger. This person whose house I inhabit. I remember Ann Chervin.

As Yom HaShoah approaches this month, I hope you will, too.