Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year, 2008

The secular new year of 2008 of the Common Era has arrived far too quickly. When I was a kid, George Orwell's 1984 seemed impossibly distant; 2000 was when George Jetson's space cars would glide through the air, and I would be an old lady. Happily, the last of my expectations has yet to be fulfilled, but I admit that 2008 is beyond my comprehension.

Still, I better get used to writing it on my checks.

How should Jews feel about flipping the calendar page? I don't think too many of us see it as a time for getting drunk and resolutions; we've got the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which drags through Sukkot to Hoshana Rabba, for introspection and earnestness. But still, we're part of this culture, and we use English dates, and the world shares a time frame. We can't ignore the move from December to January. But some people still try.

I was raised in L.A. The way most parents I knew celebrated the evening was to cozy by the TV and "watch the ball drop" in Times Square in New York. This occurred at 9 pm, and after a few "Happy New Year!" wishes, the oldsters would head for bed. The younger generation would gather at somebody's home, or plan an outing. One New Year's Eve I saw "The Sound of Music" at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. You had to get tickets in advance and they were really expensive. Still, my date and I sat in the very last row of the balcony. At midnight, we ceremoniously kissed in the car, hearing the countdown on the radio on our way to a lame party.

Perhaps my most memorable New Year's Eve was, oh, 15 years ago, when my husband and I were invited to a Hollywood party given by a movie producer. Several big-name stars were there; the house in the Hollywood hills was spectacular, with all L.A. spread out and twinkling at our feet. We played pool with a famous actor, and talked with our host, and looked around, and had drinks. I felt like an interloper as I was not a star, and, as it turned out, would never again be invited into the home of an A-lister. But as thrilled as I was to glean a glimpse of that world, I also sensed depression, as the entry to a new year was not really so happy, and not really so meaningful there--just a kiss and a drink and for the other Hollywood ladies, an excuse to wear a revealing, shiny dress.

Most New Years Eves have been eminently forgettable.
Occasionally with friends, often just us at home looking outside at the Big Moment to see others' fireworks against the sky, popping and snapping. I grab my husband and insist on a Happy New Year kiss, because that's what you do. Sometimes we toast with champagne; tonight it was Martinelli's in an etched champagne glass, as the fireworks fizzed and popped and lit the horizon in their miniature colors.

The year ahead promises to be significant. The Iowa caucuses are but a few days away, and the election, like the horizon, twinkles with surprises. Projects should be completed and released, children released and completed. But is this a time to look back and forward, or just another day in the year? Trick question; in Jewish life, every day is assessed and every day precious. We'll never have the opportunity to repeat the moment, though often I think of the film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray experiences the same day repeatedly until he gets it right.

I'm trying to get it right the first time, and in a strange reversal of Bill Murray's fate, never seem to accomplish it. But I suppose that's what keeps life interesting and challenging and hopeful--I can hear my mom's cheerful voice responding to some complaint I made as a kid: "tomorrow's another day!"

Thank God for that...and it's another year, too. Here's a toast and a kiss that yours is healthy and rewarding.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Visiting My Home in Los Angeles

Just got back from a visit to LA, my hometown. I get down there a couple times a year, but this time, I had a few hours to take a good look. Just like when you see someone you've known well after a span of a decade, I noticed how my dear city has aged.

Judging by its face, not so gracefully.

Ironically, Hollywoodland could use a shot of Botox. It was built up, but not cleaned up. Streets in neighborhoods where a modest three bedroom, two bath house built fifty years ago cost $2 million were lined with squashed fast-food cups and wrappers, and collected brown palmtree dirt like dust bunnies.

An area that had been a wetland now holds dozens of high-rise condos and the businesses to profit from them. But instead of the strip malls of the past, the stores were merely the lower levels of "multi-use buildings" that held more condos on top. The neighborhood where I'd lived--where we'd worked hard to build up a Jewish outpost on the beach--had never become upscale. The housing was the same, except that beat-up plywood-topped "RVs" now lined the thoroughfare we once walked every Shabbat, and the houses on my street all seemed to need paint.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of new Los Angeles is the traffic. Everyone we saw discussed it--or how they averted it. Some scotched a move, preferring cramped quarters to two hours daily on the road. Others described the circuitous routes they devised to avoid crowds. Some merely groused about it, employing distractions like lectures or books on tape, or using the time to make cell phone calls.

Jewish Los Angeles, however, is thriving. We were treated to dinner at Prime Grill--yes, the Rodeo Drive incarnation of the famous Manhattan restaurant. Loved it. Loved it even more because we didn't pay for it. Pico Boulevard felt much like Israel with falaffel and thickly Hebrew-accented English and in-your-face signage and stores wedged together.

The number of synagogues is growing; the Persian community burgeoning. New schools are opening; Touro College welcomed its first students to its west coast campus. Communities are blooming in far reaches of the San Fernando Valley, and the stretch between Century City and Hancock Park is becoming solidly observant. When I was a kid, the Orthodox had left Boyle Heights and clustered around Fairfax, huddled against Reform domination of the region. Now, the streets of Pico-Robertson are alive on Shabbat with families walking; you hear z'mirot (songs) through windows, and passersby greet each other, "Gut Shabbos!"

I believe God smiles on all this, as more and more Jews take His commandments seriously. However, I also see zealousness, division, and sometimes disdain toward those deemed "modern."

The best surprise for me was the winter weather. After two days of rain, and then wind, when my plane descended into LAX, I could see the entire region. The Hollywood sign to the snow-dripped San Gabriel Mountains; the tall buildings along Wilshire to Loyola-Marymount University in Westchester. I saw downtown with its
clustered high-rises, and even the outline of the old City Hall. There's nothing more beautiful than a clear, sunny day, crisp and invigorating (while 65 degrees) in my home town. After enduring weeks of northwestern wet, sitting in the sunshine renewed and reinvigorated me.

And I did see many old friends. After ten years, some had indeed aged, but others seemed much the same. My dear friend from high school, our neighbors, our street, all felt embracing and homey. The house where I lived, once with a mezuza on its doorframe, now boasted a wreath on the portal and a twinkly Christmas tree in our dining room window. Still, it was the same house where I brought home my newborn babies, and where I welcomed hundreds--probably thousands--of Shabbat guests. It was the same gray-blue color, with its expanse of green grass in front, and the low brick wall where my preschoolers balanced, holding my hand.

Yes, I'm sad so much treasured time has passed; I miss those little kids who needed me so much. But like my town, there's too much new to face, too much to accomplish...and precious few clear days in which to savor the entire view.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is America Willing to Watch a Woman Age in the White House?

Are Americans so obsessed with physical perfection and female beauty that they don't want to see a woman age in the White House? This question was posed by radio talk host Rush Limbaugh and drew much comment. I think it's a real question--his point was that unlike England (Margaret Thatcher) and India (Indira Gandhi) or Israel (Golda Meir), America in the 21st Century has become so focused on physical beauty, and has set the bar for acceptability so high, that where men can scrape by with an "interesting" face but towering intellect, a woman can't.

I think he's scrambling a bunch of questions, each of which is worth contemplating. In our Botox environment, where Boomers don't really have to look whatever "their age" once was, we do somehow, unconsciously, equate public figures' exteriors with their interiors. Is it fair? Is it correct? Obviously, no. But is it TRUE?

The photo above, by the way, has circulated all over the Internet, supposedly portraying Hillary on the campaign trail. It's been suggested, however, that some non-friend photoshopped it.

But I think another question is really the issue here, and that has to do more with politics than feminism or superficiality. The issue is Hillary: if she were perceived as selflessly and sensibly conveying honest proposals for the betterment of the country, her "kankles" and folding face would mean far less. We loved Barbara Bush; granted she was not the candidate. But we loved her because she was sincere; she projected niceness, and the Bushes clearly had a love and a marriage all admired.

Hillary emphatically does not. Her "negatives" are as high as her forehead because she comes across as hard-edged (those pantsuits don't help) and sharp-tongued and even at times, mean. She comes across as morally questionable, given the Rose Law Firm and the "deal" she has going with her husband. She seems to me an opportunist trying to capitalize on her husband's popularity and wants the nation to "count" being married to Bill as "White House Experience."

Then there's Bill himself. With the Mrs. behind the desk at the Oval Office, we're reminded what went on in that august space when she wasn't in the room. It's downright skanky. And yet, millions of people still hold a torch for the guy--who will definitely upstage his wife unless they have some iron-clad arrangement not to appear within camera-shot of each other.

And all THAT, I think, is what feeds into the question of our nation's willingness to see "a woman" in the presidency in 2009. If she were Margaret Thatcher, sure. But as the wife of Bill, as the pathetic "I love him anyway" wronged woman who, tabloids continue to remind us, watches as her husband enjoys a series of extramarital affairs--she ages before our eyes

Women feel for her--cheer her on--because they want her to survive and prosper despite her cheating husband. But not as our president. Hillary is pathetic to women because in the area we wives, mothers and daughters care about most--a happy family and solid marriage--she's a failure. To see her wrinkly and bleached-blond and stammering and poorly dressed in her public appearances is disheartening. Even if we share her political beliefs, we don't want to see her age in the White House. Because, perhaps, she's too much like we're afraid we could be.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Staying up till 2 am

It's almost 2:30 am. Just a question: what time is "normal" to go to bed? I mean if you have to get up about 7 am on weekdays? I suspect that people who read blogs go to bed later than other people... If I could, I'd probably stay up till 2 or so every night.

Today was Shabbat. I somehow squeezed in a 1 1/2 hour nap... It's the holiday season, with many fun options for activities--Wal-Mart is open VERY late! I notice there are many Muslim families there; women in full regalia and just faces showing... These nights are made for staying up, and observations...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The" Grammar Error, and other thoughts from the Parallel Universe

As a grammar and punctuation nut, ubiquitous errors keep me in a constant state of disgruntlement. Those apostrophes that appear in the wrong place are perhaps the most frequent offenders. We got a lovely holiday card from someone dear to us...whose reputation slipped a notch when she addressed the envelope to "The Smiths'." You're chuckling because you know darn well our name isn't Smith, but for purposes of illustration, it will do. The sign above, btw, was found by googling "apostrophe error."

Another pet peeve that has increasingly proved an irritant is the unnecessary
"the." Today I made another masochistic foray into the parallel universe--the New York Times Style Section--and found a full-page color ad for Gap (which, ironically, used to be called The Gap) in which each of its featured items was preceded by "the." The ad showed "The Womens Cable Booties" (aren't we missing an apostrophe here?) for $24.50, "The Mens Lambswool Glove," for $19.50, "The BabyGap Crazy Stripe Mittens, Scarf & Hat," ($12.50-$16.50) and "The Womens Sweater Hoodie" ($49.50). Its final offering was "Gap Eau de Toilette Spray" ($28.00) which was inserted just to be contrary. Does anyone remember when this retailer's slogan was "Fall in-to The Gap?" The bass voice hitting those descending notes would sound far less coherent were he to sing, "Fall in-to Gap." But we digress.

In the same issue of the Parallel Universe was an article, "Still Life with Hedge Funds" by the ever-wry
Guy Trebay, that was heavy with names dropped at Art Basel Miami Beach, an "I can afford it, too" social boast-fest ostensibly for collectors, artists, dealers and the middlemen who get rich off them. Pictured (above) were two 50s-ish gentlemen; the caption read, "Making the Scene. Steven A. Cohen, left, the art collector, with Larry Gagosian, the gallery owner. Below," (a second photo, a woman in a bar with a provocative Compari ad) Eva Mendes, the actress." Obviously, we needed definitive articles to prevent confusion with Steven A. Cohen, the accountant, Larry Gagosian, the periodontist, and Eva Mendes, the librarian.

I planned to mention only the "the" there, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, but two other articles floating in the parallel universe (this time apologies to you) require comment. A piece on buying "green" clothes ("A World Consumed by Guilt") shows how PC Al Gore, in all his self-parody, has become. And another, on the availability of knock-off Goyard bags ("Carried Away with Imitation Luxury"), recalls a Canal Street shopping adventure with my daughter that taught me two things: Designer names open doors in walls, and the obsession with those same names is a ridiculous waste of time.

Crusading against errant apostrophes, however, is a lofty pursuit.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

What is a "five and ten"?

Reading over my last post, I realized that readers may not have memories of a five-and-ten. Do I need to explain what that was?
If you know what it was, let me know and give me the name of one or two near you.

Friday, December 7, 2007

"It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like...Uh-Oh"

It's almost 8 am and the sky is beginning to lighten. Among the gray clouds are streaks of apricot as the sun struggles to illuminate the landscape. I just drove my son to school, and on the way home I happened to hear on the radio the cheery seasonal song "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," written by Meredith Willson in 1951 and recorded by Perry Como (above) and the Fontaine Sisters in the same year. It was charming. It was moving in its sweetness.

Why, in the back of my head was there an echo with every pronunciation of the word, a distortion I've heard used by Jews, "Krist-mach"? Should I feel guilty for enjoying the song so much that when I pulled into my driveway, I sat there an extra 20 seconds to hear Perry's "buh-buh-boo" voice, with the Fontaine Sisters' three part harmony, conclude to sprightly orchestral accompaniment,

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Soon the bells will start
And the thing that will make them ring
Is the carol that you sing
Right within your heart."?

Normally, as you can tell by the front seat and floor of my car littered with cassette tapes, I listen to shiurim while driving. If I'm in a musical mood, I favor Yehuda! (exclamation mark is part of his name) or CD collections made by my children with my largely Jewish music taste in mind. Between noon and three, I'm tuned to a particular talk radio show that combines politics and pop culture. How did my dial find itself where it could expose me to Perry and the Fontaines?

It could be the seductive pull of nostalgia for a time when the lyrics of Willson's ditty were accepted everywhere in our country:

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev'rywhere you go
Take a look in the five-and-ten,
Glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Toys in ev'ry store
But the prettiest sight to see
is the holly that will be
On your own front door

A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben
Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen
And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev'rywhere you go
There's a tree in the Grand Hotel,
One in the park as well
The sturdy kind that doesn't mind the snow

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Soon the bells will start
And the thing that will make them ring
Is the carol that you sing
Right within your heart

What? You mean your OWN "five and ten" is "glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow?" Could there actually STILL be a tree in the Grand Hotel and a sturdy one in the park, in this day of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Michael Neudow's crusade to strike "Under God" and "In God We Trust" from the Pledge and our currency?

Why, yes.

I was enjoying a conversation yesterday about the holiday-time dilemma with a highly respected Israeli Orthodox rabbi. He confessed that he shared my appreciation for America's expressions of the season because during this otherwise dark time, strangers share a bond of good cheer. Curmudgeons aside, people are more kindly, more generous, more friendly in "the spirit of Christmas." And fortunately for us in this great nation, that effervescence of joy extends to the Jewish community.

We comprise less than 2% of the populace, and yet nearly every store in urban areas has a small Chanuka section. Articles about the season respectfully include Christmas, Chanuka, and in the last twenty years, the (absurd, made-up...don't get me started) holiday of Kwaanza. If there were a Moslem holiday that stayed in December (their lunar calendar has no "leap month" correction so their holidays drift around the year), you can bet media would give it the nod as well. I do not take this for granted. Naomi Wolf is currently promoting her new book, "The End of America," in which she insists that George Bush is systematically accomplishing the "ten steps" she claims took Germany to Nazism. Somehow the comparison of our president to Adolf Hitler seems too fringy to be taken seriously, but to hear her on the air frantically warning Americans that we're on the verge of martial law, one does pause to evaluate the scene.

Thank God, the scene is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Carolers in Dickensian garb sing harmonies in shopping malls where shoppers toting red and green bags join in and applaud appreciatively. My neighborhood is twinkling with color, which, happily was still illuminating the darkness as I drove my son to school. The other day, a ladies' group I'm in enjoyed our "holiday tea" where red was the wardrobe color of choice, and we Jews ate our certified kosher grilled chicken lunch with our Christian friends in a hall with two lavishly ornamented evergreens and sparkling wreathes the size of Mack Truck tires.

And then I came home, and a few hours later, lit our menorah with my family, and while Maor Tsur, the story of religious Jews' victory over Hellenism, was the heartily voiced melody in the air, I did notice the tinkle of those seasonal bells starting to ring from the carol in my heart.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Latkes and Sounds of the Season

'Tis the season of joy--and I'm happy I'm sane!

I was busy making 150 latkes, a daunting task, with four frying pans crackling oil around the piles of potatoes. As I was transferring some crispy pancakes onto the cookie sheet to be warmed tomorrow for our Chanuka party, I thought I was hallucinating.

I heard what sounded to be a small boy singing.

My son was sleeping on the couch nearby. He had indeed been known to talk in his sleep....but now that he's hit puberty and his voice has changed, how could he be singing like a child? I thought my mental age was skyrocketing. I thought somebody slipped something into my soy "Nog."

Then I realized: The Christmas Ship! Every year, the Argosy cruise company, the one that ferries tourists to islands in Puget Sound and around Lake Washington, strings a large ship stem-to-stern with white lights and a huge white star. Each evening until December 23, blasting the voices of carolers, it glides with a colorfully-lit flotilla to different ports of call, where it anchors while the singers give a 20 minute concert. Many of its stops feature bonfires, and Starbucks offers free coffee drinks
to all who come for the festivities.

Tonight, as I fried up my dozens of latkes, the Christmas Ship anchored at Clam Lights at Coulon Park. Though the park is about three miles across
Lake Washington, I jumped up, grabbed my parka and binoculars, and let my slippers soak up the puddles on the patio. The harmonies were beautiful, though rather distorted over the distance. The ships illuminated the black span of water, and when the announcer thanked the event sponsors--all proceeds from passengers' rides go to charity--I heard a strong cheer.

Sounds of the season had blended with the snap of Chanuka oil. As the ship departed, its music fading up-lake, it was nice to know I was sane after all. And all I could think was, "Aren't we lucky to live in a place like this?"

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Can a Jew Enjoy Christmastime?

I have a confession to make: I like Christmastime.

I'm a Jew through-and-through, and I love Chanuka--as well. This year it starts Tuesday night, quite a bit earlier than the other holiday. We'll have our annual white-elephant-exchange game at our party the first night, planned for that evening so my sorority daughter can then buckle-down in study for her quarter's-end finals that start the following week. Our party with its latkes and sufganiot and many games is a tradition we all love, and many of her sorority sisters will be joining the fun. We put up twinkling white lights and signs and blue and silver garlands. Last year, a monsoon windstorm hit the day before, meaning our entire party was by candlelight and guests kept their coats on in our 30-degree home. The blackout lasted eight days for us...just like Chanuka, and that storm was dubbed by the media, "the Chanuka eve windstorm."

But I still like Christmastime. I like the carols (not their lyrics, except for their message of peace and goodwill to men) and the glitter and bustle and smiles and the Salvation Army Santa bell-ringers to whom I always give a dollar. When I'm in New York, I like the fantasy moving store displays and Bryant Park ice rink and Rockefeller Center. Here in the Northwest, I like the carousel in Westlake Plaza, the nightly drummers and lightshow at Bellevue Square, Tacoma's amazing Zoolights animals, and the Bellevue Botanical Garden's astounding flowers made entirely from lights (above). Though I'm kosher, I love Coulon Park's Clamlights, sponsored by local restaurant icon Ivar's, the motto of which is, "Keep Clam." I can see that display in miniature across Lake Washington from my home, its huge cottonwood trees festooned top-to-bottom with strings of lights.

I like returning a "Merry Christmas" to checkers at Target. I like seeing eager children lined up at the mall for their m
oment on Santa's lap, and their equally pleased parents enjoying their little ones' anticipation. I squeal with delight when I see beautiful light displays on homes, "OOOOH! Beautiful!" And I used to enjoy the sparkles and glimmers on the Christmas trees at Seatac Airport.

Now the story gets complicated. Some in the Jewish world feel that because the entire purpose of Chanuka is to distinguish us as Jews who follow the Torah from our surrounding culture-- hearkening back to the defiled Temple in Jerusalem that Maccabean fighters seeking to restore God's law regained from Hellenistic, assimilationist Jews --we ought to completely withdraw from the Christian holiday around us. That would preclude appreciating seasonal carols, or viewing outdoor light displays, or wrapping gifts for non-Jews in red-and-green paper.

Last year, in an unfortunate misunderstanding, it appeared some Jews were offended by the traditional green Christmas tree display at Seatac Airport. The brouhaha caused the permanent removal of that decor, replaced this year, ironically, by silver-sprayed bare tree branches. No one can object to the theme of cold, leafless winter.

Now, I wouldn't consider any decorations at my own house that smack of Christmas. I wouldn't even come close--no holly, no fir wreath, no colored lights--because we are firmly and unequivocally Jewish and I would feel
uncomfortable with them. And by providing my children a Jewish education, and living as Torah-observant Jews every day of the year, they have internalized a Jewish identity and are not at risk of confusion.

Without a Jewish life--daily prayer, eating kosher, Shabbat and yom tov, constant learning, watching us strive in our Torah knowledge--there might be an issue. They know the purpose of Chanuka, the root of which is "chinuk," education, but that also means "dedication," as the Temple was re-dedicated to its Godly purpose. With that basis, they can bring their friends to our Chanuka party, sharing with them our traditions. And at the same time, they can join me in thrilling to the beautiful light displays and musical performances and feelings of cheer that emanate in the larger culture.

There's lots of beauty in this dark time of year, especially with our "Festival of Lights." On Tuesday night, I'll once again use the heirloom menorah that my mother-in-law's parents spirited out of Nazi Germany among the very few possessions they escaped with. I will joyfully sing Maor Tzur with my husband and two of my three children (missing my absent daughter on that day especially!) and serve my home-made latkes with sour cream and applesauce.

I do not think it detracts from Chanuka, however, to enjoy as an outsider, the sights, sounds and happiness of the majority religion. For me, the ability to fully engage in Jewish life is primary--but the secondary colors and celebration that uplifts and reminds my neighbors of God--enhance this otherwise dreary time of year.

As I write, rain pelts onto my window, as it has all day. Over Shabbat, we had three inches of snow, fat flakes flying in a blustery breeze that gave way in the early morn to warmer drops pinging the skylights. We're supposed to get some more strong winds tonight as the storm becomes more fierce...I can only hope we retain our electric illumination on Chanuka eve this year as we add the spiritual component with the oil of our menorah.