Candle No. 1.
Who says a baby is too young to light a menorah? As they say, practice makes perfect. So start with the huggable, colorful “My First Plush Menorah” ($13.95, oytoys.com). The best part: It comes with a special pouch holding nine candles that fit right into the menorah’s holders.
Candle No. 2.
Any young child would want to cuddle with the bright blue Mazel teddy bear by Russ Berrie & Co. ($12.99, amazon.com). But if you’re having trouble peeling a kid away from the computer, slip in the CD-ROM, “Who Stole Hanukkah?” ($19.95, davka.com). The interactive mystery game teaches the story of the Maccabees in five languages.
Candle No. 3.
When it comes to teenagers away at college, first thing’s first: send a menorah. A classic Chanukiah will do the job ($24.95, crateandbarrel.com). Then, it’s about what a teenage girl wants. A trendy T-shirt makes a statement. The “Famous Challah Bread” tee takes its cue from rap and hip-hop, sporting the words “Challah Bread” on the front and “Challah Back” on the back — as in, when someone gives a shout, you “challah” right back. The saucy “Kabballywood Tee” pokes fun at Hollywood stars like Madonna who can’t get enough of kabbalah. ($30-$40, chosencouture.com).
For an aspiring superhero teenage boy, pick up a copy of the “Jewish Super Hero Corps Comic Book” featuring Menorah Man and Dreidel Maidel ($3.95, jewcy.com). Throw in some classic, kosher Hebrew Bazooka Gum, which has comics inside its wrappers ($10.95 for 100 pieces, jewishsource.com). Another Jewish superhero, “The Hebrew Hammer,” saves Chanukah, this year out on DVD. ($16.99, thehebrewhammer.com)
Candle No. 4.
If Mom has all the menorahs she needs, give her an elegant dreidel she can display. Waterford makes a beautiful, crystal dreidel etched with Hebrew letters ($49, bloomingdales.com). If you want to splurge, buy a handcrafted, porcelain, Lladró dreidel. The detail makes these pieces unique. ($105-$130, macys.com).
Candle No. 5.
Nudge Dad into the miracle mood with music. The group, Safam, has a lively “Chanukah Collection” and “Passover Collection” two-CD set ($25, safam.com). Original and upbeat tunes like “Eight Little Candles,” “Maoz Tsur” and “Judah Maccabee” will get Dad — and the whole family — hopping. You can listen to some songs on the Web site before you buy, but you won’t go wrong with this one.
Candle No. 6.
Grandparents will love a gift they can share with their grandchildren. Those who speak a bissel of Yiddish are sure to get nachas from reading their grandchildren Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” — in Yiddish ($15, jewcy.com). But if the language of the Old World prompts an “oy vey,” go with a modern classic like “A Blue’s Clues Chanukah” by Jessica Lissy for preschoolers ($11.80, amazon.com) or “Festival of Lights: The Story of Hanukkah” by Maida Silverman, for children 4-8 years old ($5.99, amazon.com).
Candle No. 7.
There’s always the family friend or baby sitter who deserves some love. In this case, your best bet is an edible treat. For a cookie “monster,” get some chocolate-covered Oreo cookies topped with Chanukah decorations. Nine cookies come in a gold box, tied with a blue ribbon ($16.99, macys.com). Make a chocolate lover’s day with See’s Candies’ Star-of-David box. It’s filled with kosher goodies like milk chocolate coins, blue-and-white sugar sticks and lollipops that will satisfy any sweet tooth ($8, seescandy.com).
Candle No. 8.
Worried your pet will feel left out? Chanukah’s no time for ordinary ol’ bones. Throw a dog the blue and yellow “Squeaky Dreidel Dog Toy” ($8, jewishsource.com) and a give your cat some silver and blue “Chanukah Mice” ($7.99, petco.com).
Give Thanksgiving a Jewish Flavor
Confessions of a Bar Mitzvah Teacher
Since, as the Torah says, "Confession is good for the soul," let’s begin with a confession. I am a bar mitzvah teacher. My avocation — my hobby — is the navigation of Jewish girls and boys through the tangled web of the bar mitzvah ceremony.
It is a job that demands a great deal of patience with parents as well as kids. Everything depends on: a) the cranial size of the student, and b) the size of the bribes offered by the parents to the kid.
In most families, a cash gift of a green, oblong paper with a picture of Benjamin Franklin works fine. But parents who are really lousy negotiators sometimes get stuck with a clause in the BAP (Bar Mitzvah Agreement Protocol) that results in a separate phone line for Mark or Miriam; or a trust fund containing a red BMW when the child reaches driving age.
Parent 1: "OK, we’ve signed the contract with Mark. Can you get over here by 7:15? He’s in a great mood — we just gave him some money."
Parent 2: "Come over now. He’s had 50 milligrams of Ritalin. Let’s get started."
Well, Teach stumbles over. Sitting around the kitchen table, I explain to student and family the formidable intellectual challenge posed by the bar mitzvah requirements. The theme is always the same. "It ain’t easy and sooner or later you’re gonna hate me."
Yeah, yeah, they understand — "Let’s Go!" they shout.
Teaching 12-year-olds to chant haftarah is like teaching dolphins to sing "Ah! Che La Morte Ognora" from "Il Trovatore." Sooner or later kids and dolphins swim away. It is not a slick ride on a playground slide.
Take my current student (as Henry Youngman would say; "Yeah, please take him — far away"). Let’s call him Ben. When he talks, his parents open their checkbooks and listen with wide-eyed attention. His mother reveres him and his father addresses him in low, respectful tones. Here, extracted from Ben’s file is the verbatim record of my first conversation with his family.
Me: "Well, it’s time for Ben to begin his bar mitzvah training." (To myself: From what I can tell of Ben’s mental equipment, we shoulda started when he was 6.)
Mother: "Oh, nice of you to call, but I’m not sure Ben wants to be a bar mitzvah." (To herself: My son may not have time for this bar mitzvah stuff. He’s probably the Messiah himself and he’s gonna be busy fixing the world.)
Me: "Well, it’s kinda hard for an 11-year-old to make decisions like this. Why don’t you pitch in and make it for him? Just say yes." (To myself: Lucky he couldn’t express himself at birth — he’d have nixed his own bris. So messy.)
Finally, Mother agreed that since Ben was busy — determining his supper menu preferences every night, deciding on his daily TV agenda, choosing his wardrobe — that yes, she’d relieve him of this bar mitzvah decision.
A bar or bas mitzvah is a real challenge for a 13-year-old: the singing of the haftarah and blessings before and after. Plus the Torah reading and associated blessings. Then, finally, the speech. The Torah reading, especially, is a challenge. It’s not easy. There are no vowels, you see, under those squirmy Hebrew letters and the trop — the tune — is different from the haftarah.
The speech is variable. It can be a simple reading of the words typed up by his teacher; a fail-safe stratagem when the child hasn’t mastered the haftarah until 9:15 the morning of the event. Or, the student can spend weeks researching the prophets and the associated rabbinical commentary. A really scholarly bar mitzvah exegesis can equal a doctoral thesis.
But to deal with kids you need leverage. Something with which to reward, something to punish. But we teachers — unless backed up by parents — have an empty pack. All we can do is conjure up visions of all that loot — those glittering gifts; a Jewish version of Christmas Day. But if the kid already owns the world, what’s to bribe with?
Ah, the times they are a’changing. When I was a bar mitzvah boy, my teacher carried a ruler like a sword. And if you blew the trop he called you a dummy. Imagine! Not a slow learner, not someone with ADD, but a dummy! And believe it or not, he rapped your knuckles with his weapon.
Today he’d be in court. The bar mitzvahee, the ACLU and the parents with Alan Dershowitz at their side, would sue his tzitzit off.
The ideal bar mitzvah is not a bar mitzvah at all, but a bat mitzvah. Girls are easier. Give me a plain 12-year-old female with braces who has no talent for band, chess, basketball or chorus. Undistracted by an admiring world, she’ll shine on the bimah and you’ll get tons of compliments on your pedagogic talents. The synagogue audience will bow as they let you go first through the Kiddush line while the bagels are still fresh. Ah, the perks of a bar mitzvah teacher.
Ted Roberts is a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work appears in several Jewish papers, Disney Magazine, Hadassah, the Wall Street Journal and others. He lives in Huntsville, Ala.
Smaller Classes for Smaller Kids
Psychic Channels Her Gift Into Novel
"Miriam the Medium" by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, $23).
I don’t know how many Jewish psychics there are in Great Neck, N.Y., but Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is easy to spot in the lunchtime crowd at Bruce’s, a restaurant and bakery in the heart of the Long Island town.
On a bright day last week, Shapiro, who has just written a first novel about a Jewish psychic in Great Neck, "Miriam the Medium," is carrying a colorful parasol. She’s dressed in a suit of flowing blue silk, with a pink top, and a tie-dyed scarf that pulls together the colors and adds purple; her jewelry is in the same color scheme. As much as her clothing, her very clear and pale aqua blue eyes stand out.
Shapiro has lived in Great Neck for the past 27 years, but it is only recently, with the publication of this novel, that her psychic powers are becoming widely known locally. A couple of articles have appeared in a Great Neck newspaper, and she penned a "My Turn" column in Newsweek about the psychic gift she inherited from her Russian-born grandmother, who called herself a healer. And, at her synagogue, the Reform congregation Temple Beth El, she recently "came out" to her fellow congregants and rabbi.
At the back of Bruce’s, where a significant scene in the novel takes place, a framed cover of the book jacket is hanging along with the page that mentions the popular eatery. We meet the eponymous Bruce.
A woman approaches the table and introduces herself and clearly wants to ask Shapiro’s opinion on something that doesn’t seem to have to do with the Danish she is eating, and Shapiro reminds the woman that she doesn’t do impromptu readings. This scene occurs again and again for Shapiro, as she explains, whether she’s at a party or at the supermarket and, even when she’s speaking casually, people can attach purpose to her words.
Shapiro is a phone psychic. She used to run ads for her services, but now her business is word of mouth or she’s recommended by therapists. In fact, she has never met most of the people she works with, as she looks ahead — at their urging — at the intimate details of their lives.
She explains that when she would do readings in person, she was always having visions.
"I was breaking for accidents that would happen the next day," she said. "I was losing things."
In working over the phone, she finds that she can "channel" her gift.
"Otherwise my life was distressing with the gift," she said. "It wasn’t a gift to me when I didn’t know how to control it."
Her self-description mirrors her character, Miriam’s, lament. She writes,
"For most of my life, I’d walked around like a big antenna, picking up private hopes and future secrets from passersby, indiscriminately. I suffered from sensory overload."
Shapiro seems to have much in common with Miriam, but the author denies that the novel is autobiographical. She explains that although the setting might be real, the plot is entirely fictional.
"In order for my imagination to run, I need concrete and specific things I know," she said.
So not only is the main character a telephone psychic, but her husband is a handsome pharmacist, just like her own.
The fictional Miriam has always kept her career — helping others in their romantic, business and other pursuits — secretive in the Great Neck community. Her husband, who is having financial problems at his pharmacy, is not interested in her advice and their teenage daughter is embarrassed about her mother’s occupation, and unmindful of her mother’s intuitions about her new boyfriend. Miriam asks, "I could help strangers put their lives together, but how could I keep mine from falling apart?"
Her beloved dead grandmother — who taught her to use her gift for the general good, not for her own gain — rejoins her at moments, even in a bagel store, where Miriam is moved to add a braided challah roll to her order: "Even though she had come only for a moment, she was to my mood what yeast is to dough."
The novel is peppered with references to Great Neck, along with Yiddish and Yiddishkayt. Although she now speaks only a little Yiddish, she has a deep feeling for it, as it was her first language. Shapiro has written a first novel that’s humorous, and also takes on themes of forgiveness and self-understanding in a thoughtful way.
I wonder if Shapiro will know my questions before I ask them. She says that she doesn’t channel her writing.
"What I love best is storytelling," Shapiro commented, discussing the process of creating a novel.
Often, she would call a friend and spin an episode of her narrative, writing it down as she told it. "I don’t think in a linear way," she says, noting that she kept track of the unfolding story on a large roll of freezer paper.
The author, who grew up in Rockaway, N.Y., said she first showed signs of her psychic power when she was a young girl. At age 4, she told her father that one of the customers in his grocery store was going to die. Her father responded by saying impossible, that the man was healthy as two horses. Four days later, the man died of a heart attack.
When she was around 9, she began to be asked to leave friends’ homes when she would make comments about things like impending divorces.
"It wasn’t that I was trying," she said. "It was as if I had already been told, as though someone had a conversation with me."
Her grandmother was able to look into a woman’s eyes, and tell if she was pregnant. And she could look at the whorls on someone’s fingertips and tell if that person were prone to certain diseases.
Shapiro says that she feels an affinity with biblical figures who had visionary powers, like Joseph, in his interpretation of dreams.
"What people like about me is that I’m the thinking person’s psychic. I’m educated," she said. "I won’t be telling them hokey stuff and curses."
As she begins her work, Shapiro prays.
"I ask to be a channel for miracles for other people," she said, "to please serve them," so that through her, whatever it is that they need to hear to heal their hearts and bodies, they do hear — "something to help them live better."
"Sometimes when I’m getting dressed in front of a mirror, I’ll see someone standing next to me," she said. "It can be someone who belongs to one of my clients."
Before beginning to write the novel, which took seven years, Shapiro, the mother of two, studied poetry writing in a Great Neck adult education program. She found that her poems kept getting longer and longer, and that she "has a need to write more."
About 30 years ago, a famous clairvoyant told her that she would publish a story with Simon & Schuster. When she heard that the publisher was looking at the novel, she says that she knew that they would buy it.
"I think it’s so great to be putting out a novel at age 57. It’s such a hopeful thing, that life can always hold out the most wonderful surprises."
Now Shapiro divides her time between writing and working with her telephone clients, and has almost completed a sequel. She said, "I have a lot more Miriam in me."
The Attack on Secularism
Do Party Invites Right
Invitations? Eliminate the possible problems way ahead of time. Have you asked your parents and your in-laws to give you a list? When you do, give them a number. When you ask for a list of 30 from each side, it is so much better than receiving 50 from one set of parents and 100 from the other. Add to that total another 30 of your friends and maybe 30 from your child. So 30 from each side turns out to be 120 — or more depending on who’s doing the counting.
What other problems, you ask? Remember when someone mistakenly forgot to include Aunt Saydie? Remember how one side of the family did not speak to the other side for a long time? While that may sound like a good thing, it really isn’t.
After you make the master list of 30 from each side plus your 30, it is a very good idea to give each set of grandparents a master list to proofread for errors. The errors being, of course, that you are inviting or not inviting someone that may cause a big problem. Let’s have no surprises here. It is amazing how someone may remember, "Look, we forgot so-and-so."
While so-and-so might not have minded, there could also have been another world war in your family if you don’t invite him/her. Purposefully, we do not include the child’s list to the grandparent proofing. We do not need a grandma saying "I never liked that boy!" There is no discussion involving the child’s friends.
Although you will not mail invitations for six to eight weeks, it’s good to begin looking long before that time. At least six month in advance is good to begin your search. With all the choices available, it’s not easy to pick invitations. It’s good to have a notebook, journal or an index card box with everyone’s name and address on a separate card. When the invitations go out, each name is checked. When the response arrives, it is so noted. Also note when a gift arrives and when the thank-you note is sent.
The index-card box is one of the most important items in your home and is referred to each time an affair is coming up — as well as when you need a gift for that person’s party.
Must you have a very formal invite? Will it need the extra color in the envelope? Many forget the reason for your affair. First of all, it’s not your affair. What will be suitable for your almost 13-year-old? Will he or she have a say in this selection? And will it be his or her favorite color?
It was one thing when you chose that adorable little "It’s a Girl" announcement in azalea pink, and it’s quite another for your little girl — almost grown up — to choose her invitation in that hot orange/spring green combination. While the tablecloths and place cards will probably be white, the napkins and accessories will follow through in the orange and green.
You will need a flower arrangement for the table that houses the place cards and another [smaller] arrangement for the ladies room to place next to the basket containing tissues, some pretty guest soaps, perfume and hand lotion.
Imagine the trim on the cake icing matching those two beautiful colors. Imagine her joy at being able to make the decision. The good news is that you will not have to wear a matching dress in those colors. They are just her colors.
Remember you do not have to like it. It is just amazing that, together, you two found something she loves. And your daughter will remember this affair — forever. We can only hope and pray the orange-and-green flowers in the lady’s room do not clash with the chartreuse wall tile!
Eight Crazy Lights
A kosher menorah can be fashioned out of any material, so why
not get creative? During the Festival of Lights we light the Chanukah menorah —
a modern-day symbol of the candelabra used in the Temple, also known as a chanukiah
— to commemorate the miracle of the oil and to celebrate the victory of the Macabbees.
In the tradition of Pirsum Ha’ness, broadcasting the miracle of Chanukah, why
not place a menorah that speaks a little bit about you on your windowsill?
With these creative pieces you won’t sacrifice Jewish
ritual. The eight candleholders are equidistant and aligned, making them kosher
for lighting. So buy yourself some dripless candles, and instead of lighting
the traditional eight-branch, kindle one of these proudly from left to right
each and every Chanukah night!
1. A menorah made for the solider wanna-be. Show your
solidarity with the Israeli army and light this Israel Defense Forces menorah,
complete with tanks, helicopters and jets.
$50. “>www.anymenorah.com .
3. Now if you find yourself away for Chanukah, you don’t
have to take one of those disposable menorahs that might get dented in your
suitcase. Resembling a treasure chest, this solid pewter miniature menorah
travels like a miracle.
$60. “>www.mazaltovpages.com .
5. Even the babes can light the menorah (under adult
supervision, of course). The diorama-like menorah sets a scene of a Chanukah
party with Disney characters Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, Donald and Pluto striking
up the band.
$84.95. “>www.alljudaism.com .
7. The da Vinci among you will appreciate this painter’s
palette-shaped menorah. Crafted in ceramic and hand-painted, this beautiful
piece boasts a dreidel as a shamash.
$35.95. “>www.traditionsjewishgifts.com .
A Whole Lotta Latkes Going On
A Journey to Home
I was born to Protestant parents. By age 7, I was constantly questioning: Why are we here? Who is God? What happens to us after we die?
I think I was 10 years old when I realized that Christianity wasn’t for me.
When I was 15, I fell in lust with the rock band Counting Crows’ Jewish lead singer, Adam Duritz, and subsequently fell in love with Judaism.
Christmas ’95 I received the most ironic of gifts — Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer’s "What Is a Jew?" The book was given to me by a friend, who originally bought it as a gag gift for her boyfriend. He had Jews in his family somewhere but apparently wasn’t too proud of his Hebrew roots. He rejected the book and it became mine.
"What Is a Jew?" spoke to me. This characteristically Jewish way of questioning stood out in weekly Sunday school at church, where a large leap of faith was required. I don’t remember exactly what my Sunday school teachers said to me, but phrases like "Don’t question," "That’s the way it is" and "Jesus died for our sins" were the answers I remember receiving to my most deepest questions on faith.
At 17, I discovered "The Jews of America," an oversized, hardback book with more than 200 pages of pictures of Jews — from Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn to director Steven Spielberg and his mother, Leah Adler. I’d find great joy and comfort thumbing through the pages of that book, most of the time not even really knowing why.
In my junior year of college, I declared a Jewish minor. With that, I took an introduction to Judaism class and two Jewish history courses. I also learned about the Holocaust and was profoundly touched by Elie Wiesel’s "Night." In these secular classes, I came to understand why Israel is so important to the Jews and why the Jews don’t believe that Jesus was/is the messiah.
After graduating from college and landing my first real job, I started seriously considering conversion. I enrolled in a Reform conversion class but dropped out after several weeks, feeling that it wasn’t the movement for me. I stumbled upon Chabad, and a few months later began keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and holding to other mitzvot. I wasn’t sure that I was going to commit myself to Orthodox Judaism; I was merely trying it on for size. However, a few days into my observance and I knew that I found what I had been searching for my whole life.
I always knew that I would someday live in Israel, but there was a part of me that doubted that it was possible. I felt like I had a better chance of winning the lottery or becoming a rock star than "coming home."
I spent my first two months in Israel on a "holy high." Nothing is ever average: you’re either experiencing the most incredible high praying at the Western Wall, feeling the Divine Presence right there with you; or you’re mourning the death of a young Israeli soldier who gave up his life for something bigger than he could ever put his finger on, and you cry like it was your own brother.
I woke up every morning in the breathtaking hills of biblical Judea and studied Torah until at least 1 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Shabbat was never ordinary, filled with extravagant meals, joyous singing and dancing and moments of real rest. The celebrations came one after another — Rosh Chodesh (the new month), weddings, engagements, brit milot, bat mitzvot, Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), and they were never small nor quiet affairs.
After being in Israel, I didn’t think that I could ever return to the States, even for a short period of time. But I missed my friends and I missed my family, so I booked a ticket home for a three-and-a-half week visit. I was in the process of switching schools and had a period of about a month before the new school’s semester began. I was also running low on money and figured I’d work some while I was here and apply for a small but significant loan to cover the costs of tuition, room and board, and other expenses.
But the substantial tuition discount that I had hoped for didn’t come through; my parents, who were happy to see me back, weren’t so eager to loan me money to return to the Middle East. I became more and more worried about taking out large loans when I knew I could get the same education for much less after I made aliyah.
While I wanted nothing more than to return to Israel, it made more sense to stick around until I was able to save money, finish my conversion at my own pace — working one on one with a rabbi versus in a classroom setting — and have the time to learn Hebrew.
But still, it’s tough living in Orange County. There are no kosher restaurants and many of the apartments near Orthodox synagogues are pricey (a conversion candidate, as well as an observant Jews, must live near an Orthodox synagogue, so they can walk there on Shabbat). But I am doing the best I can.
God willing, I will soon return to where I feel I belong, Our Holy Land, Israel.
Before heading off to Israel, Heather Fuller worked as a news assistant in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Orange County Register. She has also worked for BMG, VH1 and OC Weekly.
Giving Meaning to Life
Tzedakah for Chanukah
The Chanukah wish lists of six needy local Jewish families
will be filled by generous families from Rancho Santa Margarita’s Morasha
Jewish Day School.
“These families have been financially disadvantaged for a
long time,” said Charlene Edwards, social services director for Jewish Family
Service of Orange County. “They asked for things our children take for
On Dec. 4, in time for Chanukah, Edwards was scheduled to
collect gift baskets filled with wrapped toys and clothing, along with gift
certificates for groceries, movie tickets and haircuts. The cumulative
contributions from students, parents and faculty likely tallies $1,500, said
Robin S. Hoffman, the school’s Jewish studies coordinator. “We’ve been
inundated in the last week.”
The Chanukah effort is one of the first outcomes of
Morasha’s involvement with a three-year national research project of Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Its Rhea Hirsch
School of Education selected eight schools to participate in Jewish Day Schools
for the 21st Century, a project to demonstrate how schools can serve as a
Jewish learning catalyst for an entire community, said Eve Fein, Morasha’s
As part of the project, a 25-parent panel, which has met
regularly over the last year, settled on enhancing certain Jewish values.
Morasha’s parents chose tzedakah (charity).
“So often, kids never see the end result,” said Kathleen A.
Canter, of Aliso Viejo, a panel participant who has two children in the school.
“We wanted the whole school community involved. It’s powerful when it’s visible
Time to Eat the Doughnuts
Eight Crazy Delights
1. No Nostalgia for Waxing
This Chanukah, there is no more scraping, boiling water, melting with a hair dryer or freezing to remove wax drippings from your menorah because Wax-Off prevents wax from sticking to any candle-holder surface. Visit www.wax-off.net or call (800) 334-9964 for more information.
Question: What would your Chanukah be without your hand-painted “Fiddler on the Roof” Figurine Music Box ($45), “Fiddler” Chess Set ($300), “Fiddler” Chip n’ Dip Set ($50), “Fiddler” Teapot ($36) and set of “Fiddler” Shmear Spreaders ($45)? And the answer: Much less expensive. (www.jewishsource.com ).
3. A Big Blow to the Jewish People
Hebrew Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum Box of 100 ($10.95). If you can’t read Hebrew, don’t sweat it — the comic strips are probably funnier when you don’t understand the gags (www.jewishsource.com).
4. Rabbi Said Knock You Out!
Boxing Rabbi Puppet ($9.50). Finally, a way to one-up your neighbor’s Fighting Nun Puppet (www.mcphee.com ).
5. Ark for Ark’s Sake
The Ark of the Covenant ($11.95). Indiana Jones nearly lost his life searching for his. So why not pick one up for yourself and see what all the hubbub is about? (www.mcphee.com ).
6. Giving You Plaque
Gefilte Fish Plaque ($5.95). A Jesus plate parody for your car. In all honesty, this plaque probably tastes better than the fish that inspired it. Unclear whether it comes packed in jelly. (www.mcphee.com ).
7. When the Golem
Share with your children the legend of the Prague protector with a copy of “Golem,” an award-winning children’s book by David Wisniewski. (Clarion Books, $17) (www.amazon.com ).
9. Winnie the Jew
Winnie the Pooh in a yarmulke with dreidel in hand. Nobody saw this one coming, but then again, the lovable bear perhaps makes a more convincing Jew than a boy named Christopher Robin. ($8.50). (The Disney Store. For locations visit disney.store.go.com ).
Bonus Shamash Gift: The Jewish Version of The Spinners?
The Draydelettes, a chorus line of Chanukah tops created by designer Susan Fischer Weis, grace a light set ($19.95) and mug ($7.95) (www.jewishsource.com ).
Once Upon a ‘Nail’
The joyous holiday of Chanukah is replete with miracles and storytelling. Judy Aronson, Jewish educator in New England, loves telling stories at Chanukah. "The best are handed down from generation to generation. And they change in each retelling," she said. "I first heard the ‘Miracle of the Iron Nail’ in a youth group in Hartford, Conn., when I was 8 years old. Every time I tell it, I add a little something, take a little something out. It’s the same way I cook," she said, mischievously.
This is the story — I couldn’t help but add a little, take a little out:
A long time ago, young Jewish boys were stolen from their families to serve in the Czar’s army. Stalwart soldiers would sneak into their villages at dusk, and march from house to house, wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of brokenhearted parents.
The boys were taken far away, and ordered to forget about their families — especially what it was like to be Jewish. They grew up as soldiers and followed in the footsteps of their captors.
One night, a terrible blizzard blew through the camp, uprooting tents and hurling boys from their beds. Yehuda, Moshe and Reuven found themselves in the pitch-black night in the middle of nowhere. They wandered for days.
Finally, they came to a small Jewish village, looking ragged and pathetic. Instead of taking pity, the villagers ran for their lives, warning each other. "Hide everything in sight, especially your children!" But one housewife wasn’t fast enough, and as the soldiers passed her house they peered into the window and spotted a chanukiah.
Reuven suddenly remembered the holiday he hadn’t celebrated for so many years, and said to Yehuda and Moshe, "Dear friends, it’s Chanukah, remember the delicious latkes our mothers used to make? What I wouldn’t give for a latke." The memory brought tears to their eyes.
They trekked through the town, hoping somebody would give them a latke. They knocked at every door but the only response they got was, "We have no food! Go away!"
Moshe and Yehuda pleaded with Reuven. "Nobody wants us, we might as well go back to the army. At least they’ll feed us." But Reuven was adamant — they mustn’t lose faith.
He knocked at the next house. Miraculously, the door opened. When Reuven saw Nechama, a beautiful housewife, instead of asking for food he stood up straight and announced, "I come bearing food — some latkes for Chanukah."
"How can you possibly have any food?" she asked.
"Because I brought the magic iron nail. All I need is a pot," he replied.
Against her husband’s wishes, Nechama ran into the kitchen and fetched a pot. Reuven led her to the Town Square. He held up his hand and shouted, "Look everyone, I have a magic nail. I’m putting it in the pot. I’m going to make the finest latkes you’ve ever tasted."
The villagers scoffed. Someone picked up a stone and threw it. Undaunted, Reuven stirred the pot. "All I need is an onion." Nobody moved. Finally, Nechama’s neighbor dropped an onion into the pot, then quickly retreated.
Reuven was ecstatic. "We have a pot. We have an onion. Now all we need are a few potatoes." A little girl ran up, dragging a sack of potatoes, and dropped them into the pot.
The three soldiers began dancing. So did the villagers, who started peeling, chopping and grating. "Now all we need is some salt. And matzah meal," Yehuda appealed.
When someone fetched the foodstuffs, Moshe enthused, "We’re going to make it. All we need is some oil." And the oil flowed.
Boruch built a fire in the middle of the square. Rochel brought a fry pan and poured in the oil. Gila fashioned the mixture into latkes and dropped them into the pan, one by one.
The oil started to crackle. The latkes started to fry. Everyone was gleeful, full of the spirit of Chanukah.
The mayor addressed Reuven, Moshe and Yehuda. "We’ve learned there are good soldiers in the world, not just ones who will harm us," he complimented them. "You’ve brought us the most wonderful Chanukah gift we’ve ever had."
Reuven eloquently assured him, "Because you have been so kind, your people will live in peace forever more. No soldiers will harm them ever again."
"All Jewish stories have a deeper meaning," reflected Aronson, a graduate of Brandeis University and Harvard Divinity School. "It’s the community that makes the latkes, the people that create the celebration. If nobody had contributed anything, all they’d have was an iron nail. Because everybody cooperated, they not only had a feast, they had peace of mind forever more."
It’s Just a Present … Really
Legend tells us that Judah and the strapping young Maccabees faced the mighty Syrian army and defeated it against all obstacles. But if you want to face some real odds, try finding a nice Jewish guy courageous enough to accept a girl’s Chanukah present.
I just started dating a guy. Now I know it’s early, but I love the idea of celebrating Chanukah together. My dilemma: how do I prevent him from contracting "commitmentitis" the moment I hand him a Chanukah gift?
The present I’ve conjured up for him is genius. On our first date, he mentioned how much he loved Michael Jordan. His eyes danced when we discussed M.J.’s recent comeback. But unlike Jordan, I was on top of my game.
First, I threw out all the "how to play it casual" advice I acquired from those "Venus and Mars" books. Then I spent hours on the phone hunting down a friend of a friend whose agent’s assistant snagged me tickets to the Wizards-Lakers game. OK, so they’re not Nicholson seats. Best-case scenario: He’ll freak when he opens this present; look at me like I’m the most amazing woman (which, by the way, I am). He’ll conclude that after months of bad blind dates and high-maintenance disasters, he’s finally found the right girl.
Actually, with my luck, he’ll have a conniption. He’ll unwrap the package with considerable hesitation. His mouth will squeak out an insincere "thanks" while his eyes scream, "Why did you buy me this?! What does it mean?! Do you expect a gift in return? First a gift, then a ring. You probably already picked out the chuppah. I can’t breathe. I need my space. We need to talk."
Girls can’t help it. Giving gifts is in our genes. We fantasize about coming up with the perfect Chanukah gift the way guys fantasize about this month’s Maxim cover.
It’s so hard to fight that gift-giving urge when the mall is blizzarding with holiday sales. But we’ve got to squelch that impulse. As far as I can tell, holiday gift giving follows the same absurd set of unspoken rules as every other aspect of singlehood. It seems that giving too nice a gift is a bigger turnoff than calling him first. In the same way that we unfold and refold that little scrap of paper with his number on it, resisting the urge to call, we must crush our present-buying cravings. A girl should play hard to get: an overly thoughtful gift makes her appear eager and less of a challenge.
So at what point do men stop interpreting our gifts as "I’ll get you, my little pretty, and your little black book too?" How far into a relationship do we have to be before it’s safe to exchange holiday presents?
The Better Dating Bureau states that when purchasing a gift for a significant other, spend $10 for every month you’ve been together. It’s the Pythagorean Theorem of dating. If you’ve been dating for one month spend $10, if you’ve been dating for two years spend $240. According to this formula, I should ditch the basketball tickets and just pick him up a pair of Marky Mark boxer briefs instead.
But I can justify the tickets, since technically I can give him eight Chanukah presents: 1.5 months x $10 per month x eight nights = $120.
Then I can designate that entire total for one night rather than distribute it over eight nights.
When did it all get so complicated?
Chanukah should come with speed bumps, warning us well-intended givers to slow down. But the reality is, giving gifts makes me happy. Especially when I sidestep the generic beer-of-the-month-club membership and Banana Republic sweater and find my guy something special. My gift doesn’t have to mean, "I can’t breathe without you" or "I’ll never wash this cheek again." It can simply mean, "You’re a great guy. I like hanging out with you. Happy Chanukah." We ladies don’t expect anything in return. Not much anyway — a kiss, a thank you, a reaction that does not include dizzy spells or hyperventilating.
It’s so difficult finding one such courageous mensch in this sprawling city.
Not helping matters is the Maccabee legend that circulates this time of year that speaks of that entire clan of brave young Jewish men — strong, athletic Jews — all living in one village. If only that were the case in Los Angeles. Now that would be the real miracle of Chanukah.
Carin Davis, a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, has an extra ticket to the Lakers game.
The Age of Reason
I had to buy a present for my sister recently. Shopping for women, if you don’t happen to actually be a woman yourself, is a nightmare.
I’ve noticed that when men go shopping for clothes, there is a sense of purposefulness about it. We’re going to the store to buy something, some specific thing in response to a specific need. A shirt. I need a shirt. We march in, try something on. If it fits, we buy it and march back out. No squealing, no cooing, no fanfare. We take care of our needs. There is a sense of accomplishment. We live from shirt to shirt.
When women go shopping, it’s closer to a jazz dance than a march. They go into a shop with only the vaguest idea of what they want or — Dare I even bring this word into the discussion? — need. Let me tell you, these women are amazing. They are bred to shop from the time they are little girls. They need special dresses for special occasions. They think about what they’re wearing. They are actually trying to look good when they get dressed. Men are simply trying to not be naked when they go outside. We want to be protected from the elements. That’s good enough for us. "Shirt. Warm. Good."
Women don’t need most of the things they buy. How do you explain that you need a pair of black shoes when you already have 50 pairs of black shoes at home? I understand this now that 10 women explained it to me. None of those shoes will do. None of them are right. Those are bad, bad shoes. There is a pair of shoes out there that is absolutely perfect for this outfit, this evening, this destination, and she is going to find it. Somewhere, over the rainbow, perhaps, there is a Manolo Blahnik mule that is calling her name.
I love women’s shops. They’re so civilized; the salespeople so welcoming. It seems to the outsider that they’re inviting you in to relax, sit down, have something to drink. Women’s clothes don’t look like much of anything when they’re hanging on a rack. All the curves are missing; they need to have real live women inside them to make any sense to us. I wonder how women know what looks good on them? The answer: Intuition. The closest a man gets to intuition is bringing his wife, girlfriend or mother with him when he goes shopping.
Sometimes, women go shopping and don’t buy anything. Do you know what that’s about? They’re doing reconnaissance missions, preseason warm-ups. A woman window-shopping is like a batter in the on-deck circle taking practice swings.
How a woman ever chooses a purse is beyond me. I took my girlfriend Kathy to Gucci for her birthday. Some bags were too big, others too small to hold all her crap. She didn’t like the color of this one, the strap of another, the clasp of a third. When she asked my opinion and I told her that I liked the tan one, she looked at me as if I had just passed gas. In Gucci, no less! My utter lack of female intuition was glaringly obvious.
Forty minutes later, she finally chose something that looked roughly like a leopard print-covered human liver with a strap that fit her like a shoulder holster — all this for a scant $650. I was exhausted. Women may have 60 percent of the muscle mass of men, but they have twice the shopping stamina.
In the end, my sister told me that she wanted the faux-crocodile patterned purse in celadon, which is a color somewhere in the sage-mint-celery area, and goes with beige, white and black. "Tell me it doesn’t!" she challenged. I did not dare. Celadon is the new gray. Brown is the new black. Pink is the new red. No wonder I’m so confused.
Women are so free with compliments that buying a good purse can be a confirmation of one’s self-worth. If a woman tells another woman, "I love your bag, is it new?" It means: "You’re so smart, and I can tell by looking at you that you’re a good person. I want to be your best friend in the whole world. You’re going to heaven."
I’m convinced that men have more or less been running the world because we don’t have to choose between heels and sandals. If men had to accessorize, it would throw the order of the universe into chaos. A man thinks: "I’m wearing a belt. It’s either black or brown. It’s either thin or thick. It holds my pants up." Add one more variable to that stew, and anarchy would reign. If men had to buy pantyhose … I shudder to think.
Sooner or later we all have to cross that Rubicon and go shopping for the women in our lives. At the very least it says: I’m sorry about something and I’m trying to buy my way out of trouble. At best it says: I am so thoughtful, and you are one lucky girl to have me. My girlfriend Kathy broke up with me three weeks after our Rodeo Drive shopping spree. She left with the purse and no regrets, explaining that shopping is like sex, but it lasts longer. "Men come and go," she said wistfully, "but Gucci is forever."
A Gift That Keeps on Giving
Chatter Matters is the kind of present one person gets and the whole family benefits from. The board game is the brainchild of Kathryn Retsky, former director of the Stephen S. Wise Temple Parenting Center. Each player rolls the dice, moves along the board, and picks a card. The point is not winning or losing, but conversing. The cards pose questions such as, “A dream comes true. You are invisible for a day. What will you do?” The conversation that follows allows adults to hear their children’s responses and vice versa.
Participants — grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren — open up to each other. Dilemmas, concerns, wishes and dreams get put out, quite literally, on the table. More topical game cards ask questions such as, “If someone in your family was running for political office, what winning campaign slogan would you suggest?” These connect the outside world to the inner world of the participants.
The game is set up so that every answer is right and each player feels successful. Conversation is stimulated a new ideas are shared. Retsky, who is now authoring educational CD-ROMs that promote understanding of children’s health and development, hopes Chatter Matters will provide a thought-provoking vehicle to open up the hearts and minds of each player.
Her company, Parenting Solutions, has joined with Mattel to produce the game, which is available at Toys R Us and Target.
Finally, a gift that really does keep on giving.
Loving “Life” ‘s Lessons
Looking to buy something kind of demented this Chanukah? Faithful Journal readers may recall Up Front’s dish on the Punching Rabbi Puppet earlier this year. Since then, Archie McPhee & Company has greatly expanded its line of Judaicus nonsensicus.
Featured alongside the davening, duking “Semite with might who fights” in this year’s Archie McPhee catalogue is a bag of 145 “Testamints” (in peppermint, spear-mint and wintergreen) with each candy individually enshrouded in Bible-verse wrapping. You can store these holy breath enhancers inside a tiny, gold-painted replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Oh yeah, and for people who couldn’t get enough of those rabbinical trading cards, Archie McPhee is back with Torah Cards II.
But before the thin-skinned among you take to pen and paper in protest, keep in mind that the twisted minds behind the Seattle-based novelty company are equal-opportunity offenders. In fact, the Cat Buddha statue, the Nunzilla, and the multi-armed Hindi Bendy might be the perfect gag gifts for your non-Jewish friends. — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer
For more information on novelty Judaica, go to www.mcphee.com.
Loving “Life” ‘s Lessons
Wrap Party in Redondo Beach
Debbie Simmons earns her living as a CPA in Brentwood. But evenings, weekends and every other spare minute during the holidays and many other free moments during the year find Simmons shopping for bargain toys and wrapping paper, scanning the shelves or standing in checkout lines at Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, the 99 Cents Only store and Party World. She’s buying Power Rangers and Barbie dolls a dozen at a time and picking up donated wrapping paper 50 rolls at a clip.
What’s the deal? A giant neighborhood holiday party? Chanukah gifts for a very extended family? Not exactly, says Simmons. A single native New Yorker, she, in fact, has 60 needy families in Torrance and the surrounding South Bay area for whom she provides gifts, but they’re not relatives; they’re strangers who have become friends through her acts of charity.
Simmons also has become a well-known presence among some local merchants. “At Toys ‘R’ Us I’m kind of a celebrity,” she admits. No wonder. It’s unlikely the store gets many customers who buy 600 gifts every year.
This Sunday, Simmons will expand her gift-giving idea to a new level when the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Redondo Beach opens the doors of its new center on Vail Avenue for a wrapping party from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. In addition to gifts that Simmons has purchased with donations from her clients, friends and associates, hundreds of other gifts are also expected to be on hand. Most will go to needy families selected by such organizations as the Torrance Children’s Center and Head Start in Carson.
The Redondo Beach Chabad’s rabbi, Yossi Mintz, says his organization plans to deliver other gifts to children at local hospitals during the holidays.
For Simmons, the rewards she gets from the project outweigh the year-round effort that goes into putting the project together. “I consider myself very fortunate,” she says. “I have an education; I’m independent. I have a house, a family, a good job. It brings me a great sense of fulfillment to know I’m helping someone else.”
Simmons has received hundreds of thank-you letters since she began the project in 1994 with her sister, Caryle Balaban, after reading a story in a local paper about an “adopt-a-child” holiday gift-giving program. Each sister decided to adopt a family to buy presents for, and the project grew from there.
Last year, Simmons, who is Jewish, approached Mintz and asked if he knew of Jewish families in need, and the rabbi obliged with some names. But Simmons says the program is basically nondenominational; the aim is simply to make needy children and their parents, who are often single moms, feel special.
More than half the Torrance Children’s Center’s 130 culturally diverse families fell into that “in need” category last year, according to center secretary Betty Bruey, who helps select families for “adoption.”
“A lot of our families live with relatives because they can’t afford to pay rent,” Bruey explained. Simmons “has been such a Santa Claus to these families,” she added. “I’ve had mothers coming here crying because they’re so grateful for the help.”
Each year, Bruey passes along the thank-you cards to Simmons. Some come with pictures of children she has helped but never met. They’re her gifts, Simmons says, and they keep giving all year long.
To send a tax-deductible donation to Simmons’ “adopt-a-family” gift-giving project, forward a check to Chabad Jewish Community Center, 1635 Aviation Blvd., Redondo Beach, CA 90278. And don’t forget to come to 2108 Vail Ave. to wrap presents on Sunday. For more information, call (310) 372-6879.
To find out how to adopt a family in the South Bay, e-mail Debbie Simmons at email@example.com, or contact Torrance Children’s Center at (310) 787-3010 or the Volunteer Center in Torrance at (310) 212-5009; both can connect donors with needy families.
A Lesson in Friendship
Baskets Full of Joy
When the Jews of ancient Persia celebrated their unlikely salvation from Haman with gifts of food to each other, they probably didn’t go for the tropical-themed basket with gummy fish, rock candy and dried papaya, wrapped in a sweep of turquoise cellophane.
Clearly, the holiday custom of exchanging gifts of food, called by the Hebrew term mishloach manot [MEESH-lo-ach MAN-oat] has changed with the times.
But even in L.A., where fulfilling the Purim mitzvah has been raised to new levels, the basic idea behind mishloach manot remains the same: to promote a joyous spirit of friendship and unity among a scattered nation.
Mishloach manot is one of four mitzvot of Purim, along with charity to the poor (matanot la’evyonim), holding a festive meal (seudah) and reading the Megillah. The fulfillment of mishloach manot requires sending to one person, on Purim day, a gift of two ready-to-eat foods with different brachot, blessings.
Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, director of the Jewish Learning Exchange and assistant principal at Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn-Toras Emes, says the unity and friendship that results when we exchange gifts is a theme central to the Purim story.
When getting approval for his evil plot from King Achashverosh, Haman refers to the Jewish people as a nations scattered and dispersed among the other nations.
“This was a spiritual indictment. You don’t have unity, and therefore we have the ability to conquer you,” Czapnik explains. Esther’s response, then, was to create a greater sense of Jewish unity by telling Mordechai to gather all the Jewish people to fast and pray for her.
Too Hip to be Jewish
I have just emerged from a four-day conversational jag with an old friend who was visiting me from New York. There is something intoxicating about such reunions — a bit like a family gathering that suddenly and unexpectedly takes you back to an earlier and different life.
My old friend, Lore, and I met 40 years ago, when she was just launching her career as a writer. I was then a young editor, newly settled in New York City. We began in a natural enough way: I read her stories, then her first novel, and commented upon them.
But, soon, there were other markers along the road: meeting the young man who would eventually become her husband; celebrating parenthood (our firstborn were delivered the same day, which somehow meant that we automatically received, just prior to publication, the children’s books she wrote); and dealing with those critical moments when despair and defeat seemed all engulfing — divorce in my case and, in hers, the death of her husband, David, at age 42.
These are memories, I realized this weekend, that have only turned sharper with time.
Our conversations over the four days were almost nonstop. “Remember that obnoxious writer who tried to be a literary gadfly,” I began, “you know, what was his name — “
“Oh, he’s dead.” She waved her hand dismissively.
“But tell me about Sally,” she began. “I still see her, but she has always puzzled me. I admire her. She still writes, never has married, ekes out a modest living and stays very private.”
Lore paused for a moment, but then, given that I was an old friend, went on. “Do you think, she’s …?”
“No, no,” I said. “She had a great romance with Calvin right after college and then married — briefly — an academic who wanted her to darn his socks. You didn’t know that?
“And I have my own flirtation story with her that I can tell you. Once, she came to my apartment for a coffee. I sat at her feet on the floor, looking up at her with an expression that must have been a cross between fondness and adoration, as she stretched out luxuriously on my couch. Impulsively, I offered her the couch for her new apartment because, I blurted out, she looked so good reclining in it.
“It was precisely at that moment that my wife came home. Somehow, without words being exchanged and the temperature in the room decidedly chilly, the offer was tacitly rescinded.”
And so we continued, sharing old, familiar stories, keeping our friendship warm.
“Remember that lovely dinner party you gave,” she began, “when Anthony insulted your wife’s favorite cousin — called her a stupid cow — and the room turned silent as everyone tried to look the other way.”
“And the party at Rust’s house,” I countered, “where your husband, David, made disparaging remarks about Bob’s ability as both writer and editor, and Bob’s wife, overhearing, stepped forward and tossed her drink in his face.”
“Yes,” she started giggling. “And David, without so much as hesitating, tossed his drink right back in her face. Oh that was my David. Unflappable.”
The stories went on like that, rising and falling as another time, another life, came into view.
And then, on the last morning, just before Lore’s departure, in the companionable silence of Sunday-morning coffee, she told me a new story, one she had never shared with me.
It was about a time before I knew her, when she was a young Jewish child in Vienna. It was 1938, right after Austria had fallen to the Germans. Her father, in her words, not a very imaginative or charismatic accountant, had stood in endless lines and pulled together connections, money and all the proper papers to send Lore out of Vienna on one of the kindertransports that eventually carried about 2,000 Jewish children from Austria to England. Her mother had objected: “We’ll all stay together and die together.” But, in this instance, her father — for the first time Lore could remember — had prevailed.
“She will save our lives, will get us out of here,” he had said with finality. And, so, at 10 years of age, she boarded a train that made its way to England. She then lived, as she wrote in her first book, published nearly 40 years ago, in “Other People’s Houses.”
“Oh, I was a terrible child,” she told me. “Not appealing at all. When strangers would tousle my hair in an effort to be kind, I would look at them imploringly and ask, as my father had instructed me, ‘Won’t you please help me get my mother and father and my grandparents and my uncle Paulie out of Austria?’ I did not know it at the time, but it was very un-English. Their hand would freeze in midair, their eyes slide away, and they would soon move to a far corner of the room.”
But her father had also compiled a list of addresses of people with their family name in England. And, so, dutifully, Lore wrote letters to each and every one of them. The letters weren’t bad, she told me that morning. I read some of them recently, she explained. The metaphors really sparkled. And, so, very quickly the letters became a centerpiece, a daily reason for being.
A click went off inside me when she said that. She had used something like that phrase to describe her ritual of rising each day and heading off into her study to write. And, of course, improbable as it sounds, she did save all their lives. One of her letters eventually found a distant cousin, who arranged for her family to exit Austria for jobs as servants in England, while Lore continued to live in other people’s houses.
Today, the family is closer at hand. She, her son and her 92-year-old mother all live in the same high-rise apartment building on Riverside Drive in New York. They inhabit three different apartments, in what might loosely be described as a vertical home.
“I have to call my mother,” she said before departing, “to see if she’s OK.” But we both knew that whenever Lore is far from home, she becomes anxious and needs to connect by letter or voice with the mother she nearly lost 60 years ago.
That was her parting story — a gift to me. A way of renewing an old friendship. — Gene Lichtenstein