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Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

Although I often find myself advocating in this space how crucial it is to keep moving forward in life, no matter what, I’ve never been one to take any large step lightly. A good case in point may be my wedding. I haven’t seen the video in several years, but as I recall it begins with the groom pacing the hall in the restaurant, asking my mother anxiously where I am and when I’m coming out. And my mother replies with audible trepidation in her voice that I’m still in my dressing room, and it doesn’t appear that I will be coming out.OurweddingThebridecutsthecake.JPG
We all know how that one ended, because nearly three decades and two children later, I’m still married to the same man and happily blogging away as NiceJewishMom.com. Then again, my prenuptual jitters may not be the perfect example. Or maybe it’s just that it’s in my nature, like many a Jew, to question almost everything. Because there’s hardly been a week or even a day in the past 27 years during which I haven’t revisited my choice to finally come out that day… or wondered for at least a moment what the heck I was thinking when I did.PattiewithbabyAidanleavinghospital.jpg
I also continue to have qualms on the eve of almost every vacation we take, although I never, ever fail to have fun.  Plus, I had my share of hesitation and misgivings the first time I gave birth, and that’s something I’ve never regretted for as much as a millisecond.
I only bring this up because we’re on the verge of taking another fairly big leap, and although I probably should be jumping for joy, I mostly find myself feeling anxious and jumpy.
When our beloved dog Zoë died, in February of 2011, I was almost offended when people asked repeatedly if we planned to get another dog, as though it were remotely possible to replace her. I answered them each definitively that we wouldn’t, without one iota of doubt.Zoeonthegrass.JPG
Over the ensuing months, we continued to feel consumed with grief, missing the adored creature who had brightened every day of our lives for over a dozen years. At first, I found myself almost unable to bear going out in public. It’s almost impossible to walk down a street without encountering someone out walking his or her own pet. Yet it was equally painful to stay home and watch TV; not until that moment had I realized how large a percentage of commercials these days feature the antics of some cute or incorrigible canine friend.WeegodogonBudLightcommercial.jpg
Gradually, as I began to bounce back somewhat, this gave way to a very different sort of behavior. I found myself becoming a public nuisance, accosting every pet owner I passed and often leaping out of cars in the middle of the street to examine every dog I saw. Then I’d proceed to barrage the owners with more questions about their furry charges than there were plagues back in Egypt. It wasn’t so much that I was desperate to know the name, breed, age and other particulars of each. This simply served as a ploy to prolong the time I got to spend ogling them while rapturously stroking their backs or scratching them behind the ear.LuckydogonSohoweekendUSE.JPG
We never actually entertained the notion of getting another pet ourselves, however, until early last winter. As I described in this space, we rented a bedroom in someone’s apartment in New York one weekend through a Web site called Airbnb. When we discovered one morning that our hosts had gone away overnight themselves and left their dog behind, my husband and I began vying for the privilege of taking this poor animal out for a walk. Never mind that this was an aging rescue dog, and a rather decrepit mutt of indeterminate breed at that. Over the next 90 minutes or so, as we ventured triumphantly through the streets of Soho with this lucky creature (whose name actually was Lucky) in tow, a dormant sense of joy and purpose reawakened in us both.
Afterwards, my husband said this had been the best day he’d had since we’d lost poor Zoë. “I was no longer just some old guy,” he noted. “Now I was a man with a dog.” Soon after, he began asking pet owners we encountered more pointed questions, and I realized that he wasn’t inquiring out of idle curiosity. He was actually shopping for a dog.Airedalestanding.jpg
This culminated in a trip I described here in January, in which I accompanied him to meet some Airedales that were up for adoption. As appealing as these attractive and highly intelligent dogs were, I decided that they were just a little too much dog for me. This didn’t deter my husband from continuing to dog-shop, however. And whether I was correct in coming out of that little dressing room 27 years ago or not, the fact is that I did come out. And marriage, if it’s built to last, is all about compromise and embracing each other's inklings and urges, or at least their fondest dreams.
For a few weeks, we both checked out rescue dogs online, and I found myself falling in love at first sight with several of them, including a sweet-looking pair, a male and much larger female named Spock and Skye, with a gripping tale of woe. Their owner had died suddenly over Thanksgiving, and they were too attached to one another to possibly be separated. We tried to contact the agency to find out more about them, but they were coming from far away, and we were required to fill out a lengthy application to even be considered.RescuedogsSkyeandSpock.jpg
And as noble as it might be to adopt these or other such animals in need, I began to realize how hesitant I was to take on a grown animal (let alone two) which might harbor all sorts of health or behavioral issues. Also, whenever I thought of getting a dog, all I thought about was Zoë. I still missed her excruciatingly and longed to have her back. Or the closest thing to Zoë we could find.
So I finally leveled with my husband and told him that if we actually were going to get another dog, I’d only be happy with one as similar to the original as possible. It absolutely had to be a Portuguese Water Dog, preferably one actually related toPWDtowels.JPG Zoë. (And this was not just because I have an entire Portuguese Water Dog wardrobe and a house chock-full of Portuguese Water Dog towels, signs, and other tchotchkes, and I just couldn’t imagine starting over again with another breed.)
He immediately grabbed the phone and called Zoë's breeder, who revealed that a new litter of Zoë’s grand nieces and nephews was about to be born that week. And although she already had a waiting list,Zoeondeck.jpg she said she’d be happy to give us one, based on the excellent care that we’d taken of Zoë and how much she clearly had been loved.
However overjoyed he was at this news, my husband had one stipulation. He feared that having a dog who resembled Zoë too closely would be too painful for him to bear. So instead of getting another black dog, he wanted one that was brown.Beckysbrindlepup.jpg
Unfortunately, only two brown dogs were born in that litter. One was unavailable for some reason. The other had such unusual coloring – a gorgeous and very rare combination of brown, black and white – that the breeder, Becky, wished to reserve it for breeding purposes.
Of course personality traits and temperament are much more important in choosing a pet than something as superficial as coloring. But men, as we all know, are hard-wired to have their types, particularly when it comes to hair color, and it can be tough for them to fall for a brunette when they have their heart set on a redhead or blonde. So it was a bit of a relief when Becky came up with an unexpected solution.Lisaslitter5puppies.jpg
She said that a friend of hers had a litter of 12 that had been born a few days after hers. Although these dogs weren’t directly related to Zoë, they had the same father as Becky’s own litter. Eleven of those 12 were female, which was our strong preference. And six of those females were brown! Becky was so eager for us to have exactly what we wanted that she was willing to let us get a puppy from her friend, Lisa, instead.Lisaslitterbrownandwhitepuppy.jpg
I must confess that I’d been excited at the prospect of getting one of Zoë’s actual progeny. However, there was one key advantage to this alternate arrangement. Becky lives near Albany, NY, two hours away from us, and Lisa was located much closer, in Connecticut. Also, of course I wanted my husband to be happy. So we decided to accept.
Our daughter Allegra was so elated to hear our plans that she came home from New York when we visited Lisa earlier this month. We’d been cautioned that, at only four weeks old, her brood was still too young to exhibit any distinct personality traits yet, so it was premature for us to consider selecting a puppy. We simply wanted to see them in person.Allegraandpuppies.jpg
At Lisa’s invitation, we seated ourselves on a blue blanket in the middle of the floor as she let all dozen descend upon us en masse. For some reason, most of these furry little mongrels made an instant beeline for me. And as they crawled all over my arms and legs, sucking gently on my fingertips and battling fiercely to take control of my lap, I found myself cuddling and kissing one after another and smiling radiantly for perhaps the first time since we’d lost Zoë, 13 months earlier.PattiewithPorties1.jpg
In those moments, any misgivings I’d harbored melted instantly, and without any reservation I wrote out the deposit check sealing our fate.
Last weekend we visited again, now with the intent of narrowing down our choice. Lisa had earmarked one particular puppy for us, only to have a veterinarian discover that it had been born with a congenital heart defect. Called Patent Ductis Arteriosus, this condition, essentially a small hole in the heart, affects an estimated seven out of 1,000 live births. The poor animal was scheduled to undergo surgery to correct it, and Lisa assured us that its prospects to lead a full and normal life were high.PattiewithPorties3.jpg However, after having watched helplessly as Zoë succumbed within just a few days to liver disease, we felt some hesitation to take on a pet that already had known health issues. Lisa could sense our trepidation, and although she felt that this was a superior puppy, she realized it was probably not right for us and wanted us to meet two others.
Once again, my husband and I positioned ourselves on the floor and prepared for the fluffy onslaught. One, a live collage of white and dark chocolate, leapt giddily into my arms and began eagerly lapping my entire face. Meanwhile, the other, a purely brown puffball with a soulful gaze, sought affectionate refuge against my husband’s chest and summarily refused to budge.Newpuppybestphoto.JPG
After a few minutes, my little plaything lost energy or interest, waddled across the room and fell asleep at Lisa’s feet. Meanwhile, the love fest between my husband and what had instantly become Daddy’s Little Girl continued. Lisa didn’t have any doubts.
“That’s your puppy,” she declared.
Since Nice Jewish Dad had gotten his pick of the litter, however, she proclaimed, with the infinite wisdom of Solomon, that it was only fair that I got to choose the name. (Evidently, along with raising dogs, she also breeds harmony in the household.)Harlanwithpuppybetter.JPG
To my delight, I learned that she had yet a third and equally appealing sideline. She said that she regularly boards the puppies that she has sold and would be happy to have this one back for overnights anytime. Since she lives just off the highway on our way to New York, we realized that this would be an ideal and extremely convenient option whenever we drove down to visit our human children, who both live in the city.
        I was also excited to discover another unexpected thing. We mentioned that we were a little worried about how we would manage a brand new puppy when my relatives descended upon us for Passover a few days after her arrival. At this, Lisa noted that she was also expecting her family for the holiday and had yet to make her chicken soup, then offered fresh eggs from the chickens she keeps for me to use in my matzah balls.SamIAmwithGreenEggsandHam.jpg
She assured me that these eggs were extremely delicious, despite having shells that were distinctly pale green. She needn’t have worried. The startled look on my face had nothing to do with those green eggs (which decidedly won’t be served with ham). It was just my total amazement to learn that Lisa was a landsman, having assumed otherwise. (Her husband isn’t, so she doesn’t have a Jewish name.) Since our puppy’s human mother is of Jewish descent, as far as I’m concerned she is automatically a Jew, too.
We agreed to pick our pup up at noon this coming Saturday, and I’d like to tell you that I went home brimming with excited anticipation about our imminent new addition. But as I have already intimated, I’m someone who not only looks before she leaps, but also agonizes, obsesses, frets, frowns and loses a whole lot of sleep.
And so, although I continued to revel daily about our impending adoption to anyone who would listen, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve found myself waking up in the middle of the night repeatedly, wondering if we might be on the verge of a big mistake.BetsyandRusty.jpg
In the past year or so, nearly all our friends have sadly surrendered their own dogs to old age, and not one of them seems to be seriously contemplating getting another. Why are we daring to start over again at our age and relatively advanced stage of life? Are we trendsetters (as one reassuring soul suggested when I bluntly pointed this out)? Or have we simply lost our minds?
        As much as our tiny new offspring will resemble Zoë (her hot-fudge-hued fur notwithstanding), I know all too well that she isn’t Zoë and won’t ever be Zoë. Will I ever grow to adore her on the same level, or was that deep connection a magical, once-in-a-lifetime thing?ZoeaspuppywithHarlanandthekids.JPG
I’m also painfully aware that she won’t, like Zoë, ever be our family dog, the one our children grew up with. Our kids are grown and long gone, and although they visit now and then, they’ll be relative strangers to her, a thought that makes me rather sad.
Will this dog ever grow to be as good as Zoë, as smart as Zoë, as able to intuit my every mood and every move, as well as vice versa? On the other hand, what if she’s too much like Zoë? What if, despite trying to do better the second time around, we make the same mistakes, being overly generous with treats and overly lax with training, allowing her to get away with murder (only of the occasional squirrel, mind you) or her tendency to leap onto guests and poke her muzzle into places they would rather not have sniffed?Zoeprancing.jpg
Most of all, though, I worry about the extent to which the new arrival will disrupt our lives and curtail the new freedom we’ve begun to enjoy. As much as I find life without a canine companion to be empty, colorless, and lacking in daily moments of delirious joy, I must admit that there’s something liberating about having no one depending on me anymore for daily care and feeding. Sure, my husband still likes having dinner on the table, but the kids are gone, the dog is gone, and we can take our time whenever we’re out and about. We can even go away for an entire day or night, taking off spontaneously without having to first make complicated and costly arrangements with a sitter.Puppy.jpg
Now, instead, we’ll be back to square one, getting up in the middle of the night or being awakened before dawn to take the little critter out. We’ll have to walk her several times daily, late at night and in all kinds of weather. We’ll be largely tied to the house. Never mind no longer going away for frequent weekend excursions; when we go out for the evening this spring and summer, it will be for dinner or a movie – not both.
I even question how I’ll be able to continue with this blog. I’ve grown accustomed to writing for hours at a stretch, all day and well into the night. Zoë, in her final years, was happy to keep me company while I did this, snoozing on the sofa across the room or curled up contentedly at my feet. The fact that I work at home makes me an ideal candidate to care for a dog. Then again, a puppy is bound to have much more energy and far less empathy for my desire for uninterrupted hours of quiet concentration.Zoesilhouetted.jpg
Given all of these doubts and potential dilemmas, are we insane to move forward? Or, given the immeasurable bliss that Zoë gave us, am I insane to have these doubts?
Without a doubt, there has been nothing as fulfilling, gratifying or meaningful in my life as being a mother. And as much as my children continue to phone, email or text, whether to kvetch or kvell, life hasn’t felt remotely as full or purposeful since I ceased to have someone or something in the house to dote on (and yes, to spoil).Pattiewithpuppycropped.jpg
Although I continue to correspond with you, my readers, as Nice Jewish Mom, it hasn’t really been all that nice around here since I stopped being that much of a mom.
And when you think about it, how can anyone legitimately worry about sacrificing a little bit of liberation in order to let a whole lot more love into their life – unconditional, unwavering, devoted love, the likes of which you just cannot get from another human (other than perhaps your own mother, who in my case is unfortunately no longer with us)?
        And if that isn't persuasive enough an argument, then
 let’s just face it: Who in their right mind could possibly resist this face?!?!Puppywithsadeyes.JPG
Whatever happens next, the fact is that once again I am coming out to face the next phase. That is, we are moving forward, and that is almost always a good thing. Forgive me if, between my new parental duties and Passover cooking obligations, I don’t manage to write much next week. At the very least I’ll try to post some new photos (and I am not talking about pictures of my brisket or the green-egged matzah ball soup).Gigimovieimage1.jpg
In the meanwhile, I should stop spinning my wheels with all these awful what-ifs and focus on more important matters, like the task with which I have been so judiciously entrusted: choosing a name.FrannyandZooeyimage.jpg
      My husband has been lobbying for Lulu. That’s pretty cute, but I have my own ideas, including Gigi (after one of my all-time favorite movies; Lola (as in “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets…”); and Fannie (which would mean we’d have named our dogs Fannie and Zoë, which brings to mind a certain book).
        If you happen to have any better ideas, please write and let me know a.s.a.p. I'm wide open to suggestions.
Whether it ends up being a typical girl’s name, or a typical dog’s name, I would far prefer that it be a somewhat Jewish name. And so we are also considering Latke (which could potentially be "Lottie" for short).
Yes, I know that was the name of a male character on an old TV show called Taxi. But that’s not the kind of latke I have in mind.
        My husband says it’s ridiculous to name a dog after potatoes. But I think it kind of fits. After all, she’ll be Jewish. She’ll be delicious. And  as you can see, she’ll definitely be a gorgeous shade of deep, toasty brown.
3:53 pm 

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

        I’m afraid I’ll have to keep things short and sweet (or at least somewhat shorter and sweeter than usual) this week, because I’m too busy living my life to write about it.GreaterHartfordJewishFilmFestivalphotocropped.jpg
There are those who might question whether, as NiceJewishMom.com, I truly live a Jewish life, but I don’t think anyone would debate that I’ve just had a very Jewish week. No sooner did I finish up with Purim than I found myself attending a Gargantuan so-called “Women’s Seder,” along with more than 550 other women, followed by several nights at the Greater Hartford Jewish Film Festival, which continues through next week.
The films have been phenomenal so far. But I want to talk about that seder.WomensSederphoto1.jpg
I often tell my kids that there are few, if any, rain checks in life – that most opportunities you get are now or never. But for me, the Women’s Seder last Wednesday night was not just a second, but a third chance of sorts.
It all began two years ago, when the original installment of this illustrious event, sponsored by the local Jewish community center, took place. I must confess that when the invitation first arrived, there was a part of me that thought, “Women’s seder? What the heck is that?” Not to mention, “Seder? Huh? On March 2? Passover isn’t for almost another four weeks.”
However, that invitation also indicated that this event would be presided over by Debbie Friedman. I’m talking about THE Debbie Friedman – indisputably the most celebrated singer-songwriter of modern Jewish music during my lifetime.DebbieFriedmanwithherguitar.jpg
        This was the woman whose folk-inspired melodies transformed Jewish worship in innumerable American synagogues, particularly Reform ones like mine, ushering in an updated and highly accessible sing-along sound far removed from the stuffy, operatic organ music with which I was raised. The woman credited with the lioness’s share of Jewish tunes performed today, including "Mi Shebeirach" (the prayer for healing), the exuberant “Miriam’s Song,” and my personal favorite, “And You Shall Be a Blessing (L’chi Lach).”
And so what I really thought was “Debbie Friedman? Here? Live? I’m in!”
And so I was. Or would’ve been, if life, as so often happens, hadn’t gotten in the way.
So many other women were thinking like I was that more than 800 of them quickly signed up, and the event had to be relocated from a local synagogue to La Renaissance, a mammoth banquet hall in a nearby town. But that was not the problem.Allegraonourdeck.JPG
The problem was that my daughter, Allegra, became afflicted with a mysterious ailment shortly before this event. She came home for Purim anyway, as usual,  then I drove her back to college in Boston, where I realized that she was far too ill for me to leave. She had severe pain throughout her body, with nearly all of her joints inflamed and her back aching so acutely that she could barely walk, let alone lie down comfortably. These inexplicable symptoms would eventually be diagnosed as fibromyalgia, and I’m happy to report that they have since then largely resolved. At that time, however, I was terrified. We had no idea what the heck was going on and I was far too anxious about her to consider driving home to Connecticut, some 100 miles away.
Yes, I would have loved to attend that women’s event, but it goes without saying that I love my daughter much, much, much, MUCH more and that her welfare (and that of her brother) will always take precedence for me. So I spent that evening in her little apartment, applying a giant heating pad to her back and thinking, “It’s OK. I’ll go next time.”DebbieFriedmanseder.JPG
Little did I realize how right I was about that rain check business. The event was such a resounding success that they no doubt planned to have an encore. Yet 10 months later, in January of 2011, to the shock of the world and distress of all Jewkind, the incomparable Debbie Friedman tragically succumbed to pneumonia at the tender age of 59. And I realized that this seder had indeed been a once-in-a-lifetime thing.Womenssederinvitation.JPG
Or had it? This past December, I received an invitation to another such event sponsored by the Jewish community center. It was a Women’s Seder with Julie Silver. This time I didn’t think, “What the heck is a women’s seder?” Neither did I question why anyone would hold a seder in mid-March when Pesach wasn’t until early April. But I must confess that I did wonder, “Who is Julie Silver?”
I also frankly am not the sort of person who feels comfortable planning my life out months in advance because, as I’ve already indicated, life always has a way of getting in the way. So when my women’s book group, the Shayna Maidels, began emailing back and forth about whether we should attend it or not, I didn’t jump on it right away. After all, it wasn’t even Chanukah yet, and I prefer to take my holidays one at a time. My fellow Maidels did jump on it, though, and within hours had managed to fill a table of eight.
This is not the sort of event you go to alone. You go with a whole group of women, preferably ones whom you know. And since my group’s table was already full, I figured that I’d have to get my fill of matzah next month, and once again maybe I’d go next time.Patatwomensseder.jpg
That conclusion changed abruptly in early January, when my friend Pat got wind of the event and decided that we should put together our own table of eight. She loves all holidays, particularly Jewish ones, and she is happy to take them whenever she can get them. She also likes to “festivize,” a word that I believe she coined herself. What she doesn’t like is to take no for an answer. So like it or not, I realized that there might or might not be a next time. But I was going. My time was now.
As ambivalent as I may have been at first, as time went on my sense of eager anticipation grew, so much so that I bought a tasteful new spring dress for the occasion. (I wasn’t just being extravagant or self-indulgent. Most of my wardrobe, I always sense, is a little too funky for temple-type events.) I also convinced my good friend Liz to join us for the seder, along with her sister, Jane, and they offered to pick me up.LizandJane.jpg
We arrived at Temple Emanuel, the conservative synagogue where it was being held, to find a vast room already teeming with women, creating a din so deafening that we could hardly hear ourselves think, let alone making fun of what other women were wearing. (Not that I would ever do such a thing, and to be fair, many people there looked perfectly nice,Tablesatwomensseder.JPG stylish even, but honestly, what is it about religious activities that brings out the inner aging aunt in so many Jewish women?). At least the tables looked bright and totally festive.
Julie Silver, it turned out, is another American singer-songwriter distinctly in the Debbie Friedman mold. She specializes in music of a predominantly Jewish nature, as is apparent from theJulieSilverItsChunukahTime.jpg eight CDs she's released to date, including It’s Chanukah Time, From Strength to Strength, and Reunion, a new collection of original Jewish songs in a similar modern, folksy mode. Like Friedman, she plays guitar and has a rich, sonorous voice, as well as severely short-cropped hair and a decidedly mannish style of dressing. She also identifies herself as a lesbian (not that there’s anything… oh, you know), and when not making the Jewish singing circuit evidently lives in L.A. with her partner, Mary Connelly, the executive producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and their two daughters.
As for the Women’s Seder itself, it turned out to be part Passover seder, part songfest, and part feminist celebration of the enduring and too-often-overlooked power of women – in the Bible, in history, and in our lives today.Miriamscup2.jpg
In that vein, the tables (all 70 or so of them) were set with a new ritual object, Miriam’s cup, placed beside the cup designated for Elijah. This was meant to symbolize “Miriam’s Well, the source of water for the Israelites in the desert.” Toward the very beginning of the proceedings, we were instructed to pass these wine glasses, which had been colorfully hand-painted, around our table, so that each of us might pour a bit of water from our own glass into them. It was a lively, although admittedly rather messy, exercise.
Each place setting also had been provided with a small tambourine and a handful of colorful ribbons, and we were instructed to tie these ribbons onto our “timbrels” and then introduce ourselves to our table mates by telling what each ribbon we had used signified, whether it be a member of our family or some activity in which we excelled. Pat decreed that after each such introduction, everyone at our table would shake their tambourinesPatfestivizingatseder.JPG in the air, punctuating the introductions with a jingling round of applause. Most of my companions took this opportunity to make some reference to their various children. I simply identified myself as NiceJewishMom.com and stated my only two notable areas of expertise: writing Purim spiels and annoying my husband.
We each also had been given a special Haggadah imprinted with the title The Journey Continues. This, of course, contained many of the traditional elements, including The Four Questions (“Why is this night different from all other nights?...”) and the blessings parsley.jpgsaid over the karpas (parsley) and affikomen (the center piece of matzah that’s hidden and then hunted down by the children after the meal). But absent, as far as I could tell, were all the standard references to Rabbis Tarfon, Ben Zoma, Eliezer and Elazar, the son of Azariah. In their place were countless passages promoting women, feminism and social justice.TheJourneyContinuesHagaddah.JPG
Instead of the traditional parable of the Four Sons, for example, there was this: “The daughter in search of a usable past. Ma hi omeret? What does she say? ‘Why didn’t the Torah count women among the “600,000 men on foot, aside from children” who came out of Egypt? And why did Moses say at Sinai, “Go not near a woman,” addressing only men, as if preparation for Revelation was not meant for us as well?’ ”
hy was this Hagaddah so different from all other Hagaddahs? Because it was created by Ma’yan, an organization in New York that, according to the book, “acts as a catalyst for change in the Jewish community in order to create an environment more inclusive of and responsive to girls, women, their needs and their experiences.”
Personally, I’m all for promoting women and their needs, and the usual references made to God with a masculine pronoun always make me squirm. But there’s also something to be said for tradition, and I’ll still take the standard issue Maxwell House give-away almost any day.MaxwellHousenewHagaddah2011.jpg
Then again, it was quite exhilarating to be celebrating women among women only. Maybe even empowering. Along those lines, the usual recitation of the ancient story of our exodus from Egypt was punctuated with observations about how need and hardship persist in our world today. As it noted, “Seventy percent of the world’s poor are female. The United States has the highest child poverty rate of any industrialized nation: one in every five American children is poor.” What's more, “Until hunger is eliminated we remain slaves. Only when all are nourished will we be free.”
To recite these passages, the organizers of the event had enlisted every prominent Jewish woman for miles around. I don’t know what term might be the female equivalent of "Big Macher" (which is, basically, Yiddish for “bigshot”). Nor can I say why, despite all the advances women have made, no such phrase comes to mind. But my community evidently has more than its share of notable women, because this segment of the evening went on indefinitely, with countless macherettes (macherenas?) getting in on the act.WomensSederdancing.jpg
Enlightening as all this may have been, it all felt a little self-righteous and overly political, and it was a bit of a relief when all the statistics and campaigning for social change began to wind down, and suddenly everyone leapt to their feet, waving their tambourines in the air and forming a conga line as Julie Silver launched into a rousing rendition of Friedman’s famous “Miriam’s Song”:
And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted
Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long…”
And then, with that, dinner was served. Well, I guess you could call it dinner.womenssederfood.JPG In deference to all those with any and every sort of special dietary need, the menu was triumphantly declared to be not just kosher and vegetarian, but also vegan and gluten-free.
This meant that it consisted entirely of a mound of quinoa and spinach embellished with sauteed onions sitting atop a golden slice of sweet potato over a disc of stewed eggplant. Healthy? For sure. Delicious? Well…Reasonably so. As for filling… Not so much. In fact, though I would never make a tsimmes about it, I must confess that I’d sooner take the customary Pesach fare -- gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, roast chicken and yes, good old-fashioned carrot and prune tsimmes -- any day.WomenssedermatzahandManischewitz.JPG
As for liquid refreshments, each table had been equipped with a traditional bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape, but there were other kosher wines on sale for those who wished for something a little less… uh… syrupy. As table captain, Pat had been thoughtful and generous enough to purchase one of these on her way in, even though she generally doesn’t drink wine or alcohol of any kind herself. This bottle, however, a white muscat, proved to be “dry” only in comparison to that Concord Grape, which, as we all know, makes honey itself seem "dry" and is indisputably the sweetest substance known to man this side of maple syrup.kosherwineforPassover.jpg
Besides, there were eight of us at the table, and by the time dinner was served, nearly two hours into the proceedings, we had easily polished off the muscat and even made a pretty decent dent in the Manischewitz. So I was more than a little amused when Liz and I slipped off to buy a second bottle, this time a kosher Chardonnay, which totally mystified Pat.
“Why did we need more wine?” she asked us earnestly. “We already drank a bottle.”
What could I say… other than that dry wine goes better with quinoa (and with pretty much everything else), that we were thirsty from all the dancing and singing, and that, in the end, let’s face it, as illuminating and enriching as this occasion was, it was essentially just a very good excuse to have a much-needed girls’ night out.Womenssedercirclephoto2.jpg
After the meal, there were more prayers, more recitations, and even more songs. Then we were entreated to form a massive circle around the perimeter of the room and join hands to sing a closing song or two.  I would like to tell you that it was kind of magical, maybe even moving. But I must admit that it all felt a little corny. Also, along with liking to “festivize,” my friend Pat likes to fool around. And she was in particularly highPatandPattieatseder.JPG spirits by now, perhaps having joined us just a bit in one of those bottles of wine, so she chose to begin bumping her hip against mine to the beat, jamming me repeatedly, to my extreme embarrassment, into the poor woman just to my left.
“What are we, in middle school?” I repeatedly whispered to her, repeatedly to no avail. But everyone else in the room, aging aunts and all, looked misty-eyed.
The most moving moment to me came a bit earlier, just before dinner, when we sang that other Debbie Friedman number I like – the one that remains forever fixed in my memory as the moment during my daughter’s bat mitzvah when I finally succumbed to overwhelming emotion and began sobbing on the bima.Allegrabatmitzvahphoto.jpg
Somehow, I’d managed to hold it together through all the prayers, as well as her Torah portion, her Haftarah, and even her heartfelt speech to the congregation. Then her choir teacher from both our temple and Solomon Schechter Day School, Laura Deutsch, came up with her guitar and sang this song as a tribute to Allegra, one of her longtime and clearly favorite students, and try as I might, I could hold back no longer. Within an instant, Nice Jewish Mom was a gonner, and I lost all composure shamelessly as my eyes gave way to a tidal wave wider than the Red Sea:

        L’chi lach,
To a land that I will show you
Leich l’cha,
To a place you do not know
L’chi lach,
On your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing
L’chi lach.
        I get a little teared up even now, nearly a decade later, just thinking about it. I also can’t seem to get that darned tune out of my head.PatandLizatwomensseder.JPG
In the end, I’m glad that I went to the seder and would probably go to one again. The best thing is that I no longer feel like I missed some incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience. No, I will never get to see the real Debbie Friedman perform live. I’ll probably never get to daven and dine with an audience of over 850 Jewish women either. But Julie Silver’s sterling vocal tone is pretty special, too. And in the end, although the Women’s Seder wasn’t exactly life-changing or necessarily even Passover-changing, it was a really good night out with my friends. And honestly, what could be better than that… even if I did go home afterwards and chow down ravenously on all sorts of items that were neither kosher, vegetarian, vegan, nor gluten-free?
As for Passover, the real deal still looms iminently. My kinder (kids) are coming home for it, and my brother’s family and my dear cousin will be here, too. So I need to begin ridding my house of chametz (leavened bread), start making chicken soup for the matzah balls, and find myself a nice kosher brisket to cook. Come to think of it, it actually looks like this is going to be a very Jewish month.

To hear the late Debbie Friedman sing "Miriam's Song," click on this link: http://youtu.be/1dcBTze-T4o
        To hear her sing "L'chi Lach," click here: http://youtu.be/nPa9VE29VKw
11:46 pm 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

       QueenforaDay.jpg My kids will no doubt have no idea what I’m talking about, but when I was growing up, in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a popular show on television called Queen for a Day. Each episode of this dreadful program, a precursor of today’s reality TV, would begin with the host, a slick guy named Jack Bailey, trumpeting the question, “Would you like to be queen for a day?” Then he would prompt three female contestants to tearfully divulge assorted personal hardships they had recently endured. Ultimately, based on an “applause meter” measuring the studio audience’s outpouring of rachmones (Yiddish for "compassion"), the woman who’d managed to arouse the most sympathy would be crowned with a bejeweled tiara, wrapped in a sable-trimmed velvet robe, and showered with gifts ranging from a new washer-dryer and other appliances to a stylish new wardrobe and night out on the town.QueenforaDay2.jpg
Now, although as NiceJewishMom.com I find more than my share of tsuris to kvetch about each week, I am hardly a hard luck case. (I’m also all set for household appliances, thank you.) I only thought about that show just now because I get to be queen for a day once each year, and that day was this past Sunday. And please believe me, I am not boasting, nor trying to put on any airs, when I claim that as far as Congregation Beth Israel of West Hartford, CT, is concerned, I am The Purim Queen.
After all, I have taken it upon myself to write the lyrics for the synagogue’s annual Purim spiel for the past 11 years, by writing brand new words to tunes from South Pacific, Mamma Mia, West Side Story, or some other Broadway musical, as well as always performing in this illustrious production.PattieinPurim2012again.jpg
But my subject this week is not so much my royal reign, nor that one annual glorious day, but rather the days, like this one, that immediately follow it. For as with that old TV show, once the cameras stop rolling, the winner abruptly relinquishes her crown and returns to her squalid circumstances (albeit with better clothes). Similarly, I am back to my humdrum life of housework, daily gripes and virtual anonymity. And so I am, as always, in the throes of what might best be described as my post-Purim depression.
Think about it. After I make my big decision and come up with yet another musical to adapt – this year, although it may not sound exactly appropriate, I selected Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the disco inferno now playing on Broadway about drag queens looking for love in the Australian outback – I spend months listening to the cast album at every opportunity, in order to commit the melodies to memory. Then I spend a week or two in December writing lyrics night and day, crafting brand new words to eight or nine songs. (My favorite this year by far was the grand finale, “We Will Survive,” sung to the tune of “I Will Survive,” the ‘80s disco anthem recorded by Gloria Gaynor.)RabbiFuchs.jpg
This year, I also spent extensive extra time writing a script to convey the story of Purim in place of the narration normally delivered by our former longtime senior rabbi, who left us last summer to become president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
        I'd like to say that I did all of this writing in my spare time, but I have no spare time. Each element of the project kept me up well past 3 a.m. more than once.
Then, beginning in early January, Nice Jewish Dad and I spent months attending lengthy rehearsals every single Sunday with a cast of nearly 30, often frantically racing back from visiting our kids in NYC. During those weeks, weBarbaraingoldsequinedjacket.jpg wandered relentlessly around our house, the neighborhood and the supermarket rehearsing lyrics aloud or preferably under our breath. We also attended additional rehearsals, since we were the two people narrating the script. Plus, I spent hours online and at thrift shops around town hunting down affordable costumes for other members of the cast (such as the gold sequined jacket worn by the woman who played Queen Vashti).
Last week, we attended three dress rehearsals. I also spent an entire day designing the program containing all the lyrics, cast names, special thank you’s, etc. (something I always do), then yet another full day making last-minute revisions to the script.PattieheadshotfromiPhone.JPG
And then, Sunday morning we performed it.
        All that work. For one show only.
        Then it's over. Done with. Fini. Just like that.
Sure, I always wander around for an hour or so at the carnival my shul throws afterwards. And invariably a handful of people stop me to say how much they enjoyed it. But then I leave, am completely exhausted for several more days, and life goes on.Purim2012byAmy1.jpg
A large part of the letdown I feel is related to the fact that almost no one I know ever comes to it. Of course, I don’t do it to get attention, nor for personal gain (no one pays me a cent for this). I do it to contribute to the community because, being a writer, that is the one special skill I have to offer. I also do it for the members of the cast, many of whom come back year after year, because I can see that they get enormous joy from participating and getting to bask in the limelight -- albeit also for one day only -- in front of their family and friends.Purim2012crowdshotbyJaneZande.jpg
And the audience evidently enjoys it, too, because we invariably draw upwards of 500 people, enough to nearly fill the sanctuary, making Purim what our temple wryly terms “The Third High Holy Day at Congregation Beth Israel.”Purim2012SophiebyJaneZande.jpg
Yet as much as I try to kvell about the positive Jewish experience I helped give to a few hundred kids and adults for much of a morning, as soon as I depart, any satisfaction that I feel quickly dissipates. I'm utterly exhausted. My house is in disarray, and I’m way behind in my work. (As you may have noticed, I was too busy to write my blog last week.)
Most people I know have no idea what I just went through and don't ask about it. And even if they do, no one can begin to imagine what a monumental effort it was, nor do they really care. So within a day, life just goes on as though it never even happened.
And I find myself thinking, "Was it worth it?"Purim2012KingbyJaneZande.jpg
I wonder sometimes how professional actors can continue to feel enthusiastic and engaged while performing the same play night after night to an audience of total strangers. Perhaps they crave the applause, and/or simply relish getting to exercise their talents. But after the audience goes home, so do they, and their houses are probably as quiet as mine.
I can’t complain, of course. There were a dozen people I knew there last Sunday, including my cousin (who lives in town and was nice enough to turn up even though she was feeling worn out from starting a new job), and a few close friends, not to mention the two most important people in my life – my own children. Yet still…PurimwithFriendsbrighter.jpg
It’s funny. Although I always go whenever anyone I know is performing in something, for some reason I’m hesitant to ask anyone to come see me. Why is that? Is it a Jewish thing, or a woman’s thing (or perhaps a Jewish woman’s thing), not to call attention to yourself?
It’s not only that I do almost nothing whatsoever to publicize this blog, and rarely mention it to anyone unless they ask first. It’s that I don’t invite anyone to come to the one thing I both write and appear in each year – the spiel. Not only do I invite no one, but I go to great lengths to discourage the only two people I know who always show up – my children -- from feeling any obligation to attend. I tell them they don’t need to schlep all the way from New York just to see it again. I begLevysatPurim3.JPG them not to come. Of course, they invariably do it anyway, and that truly means the world to me.
It’s a little like when my daughter told her boyfriend repeatedly last month that they were not exchanging Valentine’s Day gifts, so he shouldn’t get her anything. Of course she wanted something for Valentine’s Day, and of course she bought him something small herself, despite what she had said. And no doubt when he took her at her word and bought nothing, she was at least a little disappointed. (She’ll kill me for saying this, but when I asked her why she’d told him that she wanted nothing, she shrugged. Then cried.)
So tell me. Are we all our own worst enemies? Are we idiots? Or are we afraid to ask for the things we want, or even to admit to ourselves that we want what we want?VaginaMonologues2.JPG
Last month, a woman I don’t know terribly well yet but really like emailed me that she was appearing in a local production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Although she had only a few lines in a single scene toward the very end, I was genuinely thrilled that she had thought to ask me, and of course I bought a ticket and went. Yet I didn’t dare tell her about my own production, even though I had written the entire thing, was playing a starring role, and appeared in almost every scene.
I didn’t do it for the same reason that I don’t invite anyone else. I figure that most people I know don’t really want to get up bright and early and come to something held at a temple at 10:30 on a Sunday morning (particularly the morning that Daylight Savings Time dictates we move the clocks ahead).JoelatAllegrasrecital.jpg
I don’t even invite my one and only sibling, who’s never seen the spiel in the 11 years I’ve been doing it. I just don’t sense that he’s all that interested. Also, Passover comes right on the heels of Purim, and his family lives three hours away. I can’t really expect them to drive up for the spiel and then come back within a month for a seder.CharlieandHolly1.jpg
Yet his son Charlie, my only nephew, who went to college nearby, came a couple of times with his girlfriend (now fiancé) Holly, and that was such a thrill. Now that they live out in Portland, OR, they couldn’t make it this time, but Holly, who isn’t even Jewish, emailed recently to ask me what show I had chosen this year, and that made me feel just great.Purim2012byAmy2.jpg
The show does get videotaped, and once I tried showing my relatives the DVD. But it doesn't come close to being a remotely accurate representation, thanks to the lousy lighting in the sanctuary, the fact that it’s generally shot from one wide angle without many close-ups, and that you don’t get any sense of it being performed before a huge and highly enthusiastic audience. So it’s one of those “you just had to be there” things.Purim2012photofromCindyCallisme.jpg
Had you been there this year, you would have seen that the new format went over rather well. To make up for the loss of the rabbi, who always injected his delivery with a hefty dose of personality and verve, I constructed the script as a semi-humorous dialogue between two people. At least it was intended to be humorous. One narrator tells the story of Purim while periodically quizzing the children in the audience, as our former rabbi always did, while the other helps tell the tale but mostly offers foolish answers.
I chose to play the first narrator, of course, and got Nice Jewish Dad to play the idiot – er, second narrator. I would ask the name of the king's first wife, and he’d say, "Queen Latifah? Nefertiti? Queen Elizabeth?" I'd note that there were two men who were plotting to kill the king, and he'd guess, "Ben and Jerry? Simon and Garfunkel?" Or I'd inquire about the one important thing that Mordechai advised Esther to do when she became queen, and he’d guess, “Clean her room? Remember to brush her teeth and floss after every meal?"
You get the picture.CantorSiskininPurim2012.jpg
Of course, the cantor, who always directs the production, had some misgivings about the injection of humor, so she chose to cut out a good number of my jocular lines. She was not particularly amused by one section in which I observed that it wouldn’t be all that easy for the king to find a new wife because he couldn’t choose just anyone; he needed a woman with “special qualities.”
        Narrator 2: Ah, yes – someone well-read and fluent in three languages, with a Ph.D in economics?AngelinaJolieimage1.jpg
Narrator 1: Uh... sure. But I was talking about other qualities. You know…The fairest in the land? Skin as white as snow? Like Marilyn Monroe. Or Brigitte Bardot.
Narrator 2: Huh? Who are they?
        Narrator 1: Oh. Sorry! Make that Emma Stone or Angelina Jolie.
Narrator 2: Oh! I see. Special qualities!

That whole bit got edited down to about two sentences.NewtGingrich.jpg
Then there was the part in which I said that there was one man in the kingdom who refused to bow down to wicked Haman, and Narrator 2 was supposed to guess, "Newt Gingrich?" I initially refused to delete that one, but was overruled by the new rabbi, who deemed it too political forDonaldTrump.jpg temple. I argued that even anyone who’d actually want to vote for Newt Gingrich still must realize he's an arrogant sonavabitch. But he couldn't be persuaded. So I changed it to Donald Trump instead.
With all these changes, as well as many last-minute revisions to the choreography, I must admit that I felt unusually stressed out this year. It wasn’t about politics, or religion, or artistic differences. I was just kind of a wreck. In most past years, I’ve always declined to take any kind of a starring role, preferring to simply sing in the big production numbers and let others have the greater glory. (Yes, there was one year when I agreed to play Queen Esther, but that was only because I’d written so many verses for her song that no one else could have been expected to commit them all to memory.)Purim2012KingssongbyJaneZande.jpg
Each year, I wonder if I’ve made a big mistake in declining a starring role… until the morning of the spiel, when I wake up and realize that I’d be totally shell-shocked if I had to get up in front of such a large crowd and sing a solo. I have awful stage fright and prefer listening to others, who are much better singers, deliver the words I’ve penned.
This year, though, the cantor prevailed upon me to sing the opening bars of the first song myself, as well as to narrate the whole story and sing backup in seven of thePurim2012VashtissongbyAmy.jpg nine songs. The moment one number would end, I’d have to race back to the microphone and begin telling the story again. I began to be plagued with horrific visions of losing my place in the script, messing up the complicated choreography, or tripping and tumbling down the stairs of the multi-tiered bima on which we perform. (A skilled or self-assured musical performer, I’m not.)
So in the final days, I must confess that I suffered a major meltdown or two.Purim2012Harlanatmic.jpg My husband, a former on-air TV reporter, is smooth and confident with a microphone. Me? Not so much.
Also, censored or not, I was painfully aware that my script was pretty corny. “By the way, can you tell me the name of Haman’s wife?” Narrator 1 queries the crowd.
“Uh, Mrs. Haman?” ventures the idiot – er, Narrator 2. (Actually, it’s Zeresh.)
I’m far more confident about the lyrics. This year, I had Queen Esther sing “Queens Just Get to Have Fun,” to the tune of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” originally sung by Cyndi Lauper. King Ahasuerus whined, “What’s Love? I Am Through With It,” to the strains of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” And Mordechai crooned a soul-searching number, “True Courage,” to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors:”Purim2012MordechaibyJaneZande.jpg

And show some true courage, Esther do
Please show some true courage,
Our people need you!
So don't hesitate -- to the king go!
It’s true courage, true courage
That is what makes a true hero!

But I’m proudest of that final number, sung to the tune of “I Will Survive,” which came after I explained that the Jews prevailed and are still going strong today. It goes, in part, like this:
Our people were afraid, we were terrified
A tyrant threatened us with not just death, but genocide
       But then a hero came along with the chutzpah to stand
       And we were saved
And so we lived to sing this song!

Yes, we’re still here! We read Torah!
       And when our children reach 13
       They become bar or bat mitzvah
       We still light candles on Shabbat
       On Rosh Hashanah go to shul
       We still plant trees on Tu Bi’Shvat
       And how we love religious school!Purim2012photoFUNfromCindyCallis.jpg

We keep Shabbat, and when we eat
       We don’t eat pork or shrimp or bacon
       Or mix milk with meat
       And we give gelt on Hanukkah
       And to the poor give tzedakah
       And our brides and grooms still marry
       Standing under a chupah!

       Yes, we’re still here! We are alive!
       And as long as there’s one Jew to pray
       Our people will survive
       We’ve got chutzpah, we’ve got heart
       Lots of doctors, ‘cause we’re smart!

       We will survive! We will survive!
Hey, hey!

(For the full song, see my navigation page.) 

As for all my performance anxiety, obviously that’s over now, too. We didn’t bomb. Rather, the crowd (well, the hundreds of kids there, at least) went crazy. And as we took our bows, the temple demonstrated its deep gratitude by Purim2012photofromCindyCalliswithflowers.jpgpresenting me with something absolutely incredible that money couldn’t buy – a magnificent bound book that the cantor had created, including all of my past lyrics, as well as photos from every spiel and testimonials from key participants, including my good friend Pat, who used to direct this entire ordeal, and the current rabbi, who noted that it's long been a custom for synagogues to appoint a "Purim rabbi," someone to creatively reinterpret the ancient tale each year. (So it turns out I'm not just a queen, but also a rabbi for a day. Who knew?!)PattieinYoungEsthersilhouetted.jpg
       Before I left, countless people stopped me, as always, to ask what show I’ll be doing next year. Which brings me back to the question I started with. Not “Do you want to be queen for a day?” but rather, in the end, “Is it worth it?”Purimbook.JPG
For my answer, my mind goes back to what may be my favorite moment of the entire year. Every year. It’s not when the audience is applauding. It’s not the minutes before we go on, when various women in the cast, ages 8 to 80-plus, are asking me which shade of lipstick to wear and whether they have on enough blush (although the excitement in their voices never fails to warm my heart).
It’s when we sing the very last notes of that very last song. This year, they went, “We will survive! We will survive! WE WILL SURVI-I-I-IVE!!!” Everyone is singing loudly, in perfect three-part harmony, no less, and our arms fly high up into the air, our fingers splayed euphorically. And three thoughts instantly flood my head.
        “We did it! We did it! We did it!”
Followed by a fourth. “We may be just a bunch of schmegegges, but wow! We actually sound GREAT!”PurimphotoCindyCallis4.jpg
And in that moment, though fleeting, I know that it is all worth it. Worth the time. Worth the effort. Even worth the multiple minor meltdowns. I can't even begin to think now about what the coming year will bring. But I guess I am and probably will remain the Purim queen, perhaps for another day.

To hear Congregation Beth Israel's Not Ready for Purim Players sing "We Will Survive," the grand finale of "Young Esther, Queen of the Desert," click on this link: http://youtu.be/oqvW--dvLDU

1:30 pm 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

Oscarstatuesilhouetted.jpg        While everyone else was buzzing about the Oscars and "Nipplegate" last week, we had our own film industry gala to attend. Our son Aidan, an aspiring screenwriter, had produced a short film, for which a release party was held in New York on Thursday night. No, there was no red carpet. No song-and-dance segment by Billy Crystal. No after-party hosted by Elton John. And no -- no controversial sighting of Angelina Jolie’s bare leg, thanks to a black dress slit up to her pupik. Still, this was pretty heady stuff for Nice Jewish Dad and me. In fact, we were invited to this event as associate producers. Now, how could we miss that?Angelinawithbareleg.jpg
It all began several months ago, when Aidan declined an invitation to dinner from us because he was busy shooting a movie.
“Shooting a movie?” I all but howled into the phone. "What movie?”
He explained that a former classmate from Brown had approached him to produce a short film that he’d written, and Aidan, having both extensive film crew experience and too much time on his hands while attending graduate school, had readily agreed.
“And when were you going to tell us about this?” I asked. I also wondered who was footing the bill for this venture. He replied that he was raising money for it on Kickstarter. This, he explained, was a popular Web site on which people list all sorts of projects they’re involved in, from philanthropic and start-up business ventures to more creative undertakings, and then friends as well as complete strangers cough up contributions both large and small.
“You’re asking strangers to fund your movie?” I asked. “Why didn’t you ask us?”PattieandHarlaninNYC.JPG
To this, he responded somewhat defensively that he wanted to do it on his own. Besides, he was worried that if he mentioned the project to me, I might feel moved to plug it on my Web site, and then family friends might feel obligated to contribute.
I assured him that no one would have felt obligated. Even his dad and I didn’t feel obligated. We simply wanted to contribute to it… not just because we were his parents, but because as his parents we’re eager to support anything and everything with which he gets involved.
“So, what’s the name of this movie?” I queried, as I hurriedly Googled Kickstarter.Kickstarterlogo.jpg
“The name?” he asked, sounding oddly evasive. “Why do you need the name?”
I began to wonder what he might be covering up. Of course I wasn’t going to insinuate myself into his business if he really didn’t want my help. But was there something about it that he wasn't telling me?
        “OK,” he said with a weary sigh, surmising correctly that I wasn’t going to simply drop it. "It's called Shabbat [Meal].”
Shabbat Meal?” I squealed. “You’re making a movie called Shabbat Meal and you don't want me to mention it on NiceJewishMom.com? Maybe some of my readers actually would want to contribute to a film about Shabbat.”ShabbatMeal.jpg
Then I found the listing, described on Kickstarter as a short film by my son. And I proceeded to read this synopsis: “Shabbat [Meal] is a short film about two high school boys who meet at a family dinner and discover they are attracted to each other.”
A siren went off in my head. Aidan, at 25, has had three long-term girlfriends and might be best described since moving to NYC as a serial dater. Or a very active dater… of girls.
“Uh, honey,” I said, my mind reeling faster than it was able to find the right words, “are you… gay?”
He didn’t hesitate for so much as a second.airport2.jpg
“Yes,” he said.
I didn’t know quite what to make of this. “You’re gay,” I said. “I mean, you’re … gay. And this is how you tell me?”
“Yes,” he said.
“OK,” I said. “You’re gay. This classmate of yours who wrote the movie – Michael, you said. Is he gay?”
“Yes,” he said. “He’s gay.”
“OK,” I said. Aidan’s good friend Kris was evidently shooting the movie. “Is Kris gay?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. "Kris is gay.”
Kris didn’t seem gay. What he seemed to be was Aidan's regular wingman when the two of them went out on Saturday nights... to meet girls. And Aidan, like me, has kind of a dry, deadpan sense of humor. Was he just putting me on?AidanandKrisatShabbatDinnerparty.JPG
“OK. Fine,” I said. “You’re gay. Kris is gay. Is Allegra gay too?” I was referring to our daughter, who’s been dating the same guy for over two years and remains in a committed relationship with him, even though he moved to California six months ago.
“Yes,” he said. “Allegra’s gay too. She just doesn’t know it yet."
I tried hard not to laugh. “That's great,” I said. “But just tell me now. Is everyone gay?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Everybody’s gay.”
“Fine,” I said. “We’re all gay. I’m gay. You’re gay. But if you’re gay, then why have you been shelling out so much money over the past two years dating girls on JDate?”AidanandMary.JPG
“Why?” he asked. “Because you signed me up for it. You signed me up twice!”
This was true. I did sign him up -- twice, in fact -- without getting his permission. (And if you want to know more about that, check out “Adventures on JDate,” which you can find on my site’s navigation page.) Still, it’s possible to be gay on JDate, I noted. “You can be a Jewish man looking for a Jewish man. Why didn’t you use it for that?”
“Because you had signed me up for it,” he retorted, “so you would’ve known.”
“But you want me to know now?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “Because I’m gay.”
I hope I’m not offending anyone by making light of this little exchange, considering that many a parent who’s heard those two words has no doubt not taken them quite as lightly.JerrySeinfeld.jpg
I also hope you didn’t stop reading several paragraphs ago because you were late for a lunch date or needed to call everyone you know to spread this juicy tidbit of gossip about my son’s sexual orientation. Because I finally got Aidan to admit that he isn’t actually gay – not that there’s anything wrong with it, as Jerry Seinfeld would say. (Neither is Allegra. Nor Kris.) Michael, whose sexual orientation is his own business, had simply approached him to help him with this project because Aidan was the only person from their class he knew of in the film industry. And Aidan had agreed to participate… despite the fact that everyone would now probably assume he was gay.
        Then again, i
f anything, he predicted that this assumption would only aid and abet him in his career. Because almost everyone else in the film industry is gay.FundedwithKickstarter.jpg
Their entry on the Web site described it as a film by Aidan only because of the way Kickstarter.com works, he explained. You describe your project and set a monetary goal, then people make pledges on the site in various increments. If you don’t reach your stated goal by the deadline you specify, then you don’t get any of those pledges.  To prevent this from happening, Michael planned to supply any shortfall that they had in the end. Yet the site prohibits you from contributing to your own project. So they’d elected to put the undertaking strictly in Aidan’s name.Kickstarterandgetstuffinreturn.jpg
As is customary on Kickstarter, they offered various incentives to motivate people to contribute. Those who gave $8, it said, would be listed on the web site with gratitude, since “every little bit helps.” But giving $18 (a nice Jewish number) would be rewarded with an actual gift -- a signed copy of the DVD -- as well as an invitation to a release party, to be held  “on a Friday night, of course!”
he level that appealed to me most, though, was two steps up from that. Pledging $110 or more entitled you to all of the above, along with rewards ranging from the ridiculous (a sticker bearing the name of the movie) to the sublime (an associate producer’s credit). You also got your choice of a specially designed mug or T-shirt, plus a sense of privilege, or je ne sais quoi. “You are now part of the magic of the movies!” it gushed.ShabbatMealmug.jpg
Never mind that Aidan hadn’t written the script, so this wasn’t exactly his project. Never mind that he isn’t really gay – not that there’s ANYTHING wrong with it. We’re his parents, and we wanted to participate. We wanted a copy of the movie. We wanted to go to that party. We even wanted the sticker. And we certainly wanted a T-shirt or mug.
Most of all, his dad and I wanted to be listed as associate producers – and Aidan assured me that if we pledged $110, as I intended to do, he would give us both that title. So although he still maintained that we were under no obligation, I quickly filled out the Kickstarter profile, listing both my husband’s name and my own for producer’s credits.
With the help of 90 different backers, they managed to not only reach their goal but slightly surpass it by raising $2,788. Soon after, work on the film commenced, leading Aidan to find the truth in the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for” (or in this case, what you raise funds for).ButtingheadsSupermanandTheHulk.jpg
Or maybe it’s just that movie-making, like politics, being a highly collaborative enterprise, makes strange bedfellows (whether or not those fellows are actually gay). For Michael, the writer/director, and Aidan, as producer, soon began butting heads.
What, you might ask, does a movie producer do? I can’t presume to answer that in any kind of universal way, but I have a fair idea of what Aidan’s role was in this case. He recruited an experienced cinematographer to shoot the movie (Kris) and rented all of the necessary cameras and lighting equipment, as well as a van to transport it all in. He helped audition and select the cast of six. He scouted locations and hired a costumer, makeup artist, and propsVictoriasSecretmodel.jpg master, and yet still ended up hunting down many of the props himself. (I spent several hours with him one day trying to find cheap posters that might be appropriate for the walls of a teenage boy’s bedroom… and we’re not talking about pictures of Victoria’s Secret models, because the teenage boy in this case was supposed to be gay).
        Also, given his experience working on movies and in TV over the past few years, as well as his job as a writing tutor during college and an active journalist since moving to New York, he edited the script. Or tried to. His collaborator, Michael, did not seem particularly open to his suggestions.
They also bickered over how to spend the funds they had raised on the site. Aidan was in favor of offering at least some compensation to the cast and crew, mostly young professionals who were all volunteering their services. Michael was determined to use every penny left over from equipment rentals for film-festival entry fees instead.
        When shooting began, what might be termed artistic differences arose.
I don't know all the specifics, nor would it be appropriate for me to divulge them. And as not only the parent of one of the participants, but his nice Jewish mom, you can of course imagine where my allegiances lie. But I can offer one detail – and please pardon the indelicacy of this. Over Aidan’s adamant objections, Michael insisted on including a scene in which the two main characters, who are supposed to be only 15 or so, appear to be engaging in oral sex.Allegrawithnewhaircut.JPG
After several days, it was finally a wrap, but there was one more misunderstanding. Michael had agreed to help Aidan return all the equipment by the time it was due back, early the next morning – a two-man operation – but instead inadvertently overslept and, since his phone had died, was totally unreachable. Aidan had no recourse but to wake up Allegra, our daughter, who’d gotten off work at her own job at 1 a.m. the previous night, and get her to help him instead.
That, to Aidan, was the final straw. He began participating less in the project and discouraged us from attending any of the test screenings held to gather feedback.
That brings us to last week. Contrary to what had been promised initially, the NYC release party was scheduled for a Thursday night, far from convenient for us to attend. My husband had to work the next day, and I had an important meeting early on Friday morning at home in Connecticut. Our only choice was to make the 2 ½-hour drive home that night, after the party ended at 10. But there was no way we were going to miss it. After all, our son had produced the film. And we were associate producers. Or were we?
A week before the party, Aidan had confessed to me that there was a problem. He’d discovered that Michael had neglected to put my husband’s name in the credits. It's virtually impossible to judge whose fault this was. But since I had filled out the form on Kickstarter myself, stating only my own name as the credit card holder, the credits that rolled at the end of the film listed me exclusively.HarlanatShabbatreleaseparty.jpg
If only it had been the other way around, I sighed. Despite any delight I may have professed earlier about that associate producer’s credit, I truly had forked over those funds only to support our son. Aidan aptly sensed, though, that this would be far from his father’s reaction. My husband had been proud to single-handedly subsidize the first short film Aidan and Kris had made together a few years ago, and he clearly relished being able to help bankroll another. Sure, he was mostly delighted to help our kid. But he also wanted the credit.IMDbimage.jpg
        To make matters worse, w
e’d learned that everyone who had backed the film at the top levels now had their own pages listing them as associate producers of Shabbat Meal on IMDb (International Movie Data Base), a Web site that covers the film industry. Everyone but my husband, that is.
“Don’t tell Dad,” Aidan begged me, explaining that he was hoping to persuade Michael to add his name to the closing credits before the film was shown at the party. This small task, however, was far more complicated and time-consuming than it sounds, and Michael was too busy with last-minute arrangements to attend to it.
So Aidan had no choice but to break the news to his dad, who, as expected, did not take it well. He seemed so crestfallen that Aidan quickly redoubled his efforts with Michael, still to no avail.AidanatSwing46.JPG
I chose to go into the city alone the night before the party. As long as I had to be in the city midweek, I wanted to attend the gig Aidan plays every Wednesday with a Benny Goodman-style big band at Swing 46, a dance club on West 46th Street. Aidan met Allegra and me for dinner there first, and he was seriously distraught. He had spent half the day in Brooklyn stuffing envelopes with the DVDs that would be distributed to backers at the party. Michael had intimated that if Aidan helped with this, then he might find time to add my husband’s name to the film. But after Aidan had spent hours doing this and other grunt work, Michael had admitted that he still might not get to it anyway.Aidanheadshot3.jpg
I assured Aidan that despite anything his father may have said, the film credit wasn’t that important. As parents, we really only want our children to succeed and to feel good about their efforts. And the things they accomplish are entirely about them and not about us at all. But he remained unconvinced and so consumed with guilt that he could barely eat. He was certain that his father would be gravely disappointed, and blamed himself for not having checked earlier that Michael had included both our names.WhiteRabbitexterioragain.jpg
“I knew it was wrong to let you guys get involved,” he grumbled. He was so fed up with the entire venture that regretted having agreed to let us attend the party and dreaded going to it himself.
My husband drove down the next evening and met the three of us for dinner, along with our friend Liz, who’d chosen to join us for this illustrious event. Then we met up with Kris and headed over to White Rabbit, the hip East Village club where the party was being held.KrisandAllegraatreleaseparty2.JPG
Arriving at this semi-grungy bar on East Houston Street, we found around 40 young guests milling about. Hoping to cheer up the kids and help them chill out, I insisted on buying them each a drink. Allegra settled beside Kris, heartily toasting her brother’s efforts with a frothy White Rabbit White Russian. Soon enough the screening began, and we sat down to view the 12-minute film.AllegraatWhiteRabbit.jpg
As stated on Kickstarter, “Shabbat [Meal] is a story about two high schoolers, William Shore and Virgo Bernstein-Cohen, who meet at a Friday night dinner organized by their neurotic mothers. After escaping the grown-ups’ chatter about dairy-free ice cream, juice cleanses, and how to interpret the law, they look for something to do.” They end up retreating to the privacy of William’s room, where they begin to discuss girls, whereupon Virgo suddenly divulges that he’s gay and has just come out to his parents.
Although William, clearly shocked by this revelation, professes to be straight, he ends upShabbatMealdisc.jpg impulsively kissing his new companion, after which one thing leads to another… including the act that Aidan deemed too explicit to show a teenage boy performing on film. Having viewed the final product now, though, I can assure you that nothing truly graphic can be seen, and it was all done in relatively good taste.
In fact, despite Aidan’s angst and protestations, the entire film turned out to be much better than any of us had anticipated. Yes, the dialogue elicited countless howls of laughter that may or may not have been intended. But in the end, as the hearty applause indicated, it was an effort rather well done.ShabbatDinnertablescene.JPG
Also in the end, the credits rolled and it turned out that Michael had somehow found the time since the night before to make that little change, after all. My husband’s name was indeed up there in lights.
Then Michael summoned Aidan, Kris, and the cast members present to join him at the front of the room for a short panel discussion.
“Basically, everyone here has taken part in the film in some way,” he began, then waxed more philosophical. “Film, to me, is about community,” he stated, “and this film to me isn’t just about the Jewish community or the gay community, but about the human community.” That universal element is what he felt made it significant and worthwhile, he said, noting that “no film is doing its job if it doesn’t address the human community.”ShabbatMealpaneldiscussion.jpg
they began fielding questions from the crowd at large. Hands buried in his pockets, Aidan understandably looked a little uncomfortable standing up there, considering that he had been given no warning that this presentation would occur. But he deftly stepped up to the plate when asked why they had chosen to make the movie, echoing in some respects Michael’s point of view. This wasn’t just a gay story or a Jewish story. It was a coming of age tale that in some broader respect was universal and therefore meaningful.WhiteRabbitpartycrowd.jpg
There was one question from the crowd, however, that managed to throw all the panelists for a loop.
        “There’s a mention in the film that in the Jewish community, it’s important to marry a Jew,” observed one young man, “rather than, as it says, a ‘goy.’ But is that still true if someone is gay? Or is it that once you’re gay, all bets are off?”
Michael shrugged, confessing that he had no idea and preferred to defer to someone else. Yet there were no takers among the other six or seven young panelists. And suddenly, purely on impulse, I found myself piping up from the peanut gallery.HarlanAllegraandmeatWhiteRabbitparty.jpg
“I can handle that one,” I cried, introducing myself as NiceJewishMom.com. “After the parents eventually calm down, they say to each other, ‘Well, at least he’s Jewish!’ ”
To my great relief, Aidan didn’t look daggers at me, and everyone present laughed.
Michael soon concluded the formal segment of the party by announcing that Aidan would be standing near the coat check passing out the DVDs, as well as the mugs and T-shirts people had ordered, more of which were on sale for anyone interested.Shabbatfilmtshirt.jpg
I had chosen to opt for a mug as my reward, fearing that any shirt I ordered might be too large or too small. But it turned out that the T-shirts were fairly attractive, and they were imprinted on the back with all the names of the cast, crew, and chief backers. And although my husband’s name hadn’t made it on in time, both Aidan’s and mine had, and my husband was dying to have one.
        I proposed that we ask if I could exchange my mug for a T-shirt, but Aidan decided to handle the issue somewhat differently. He went over to the box, which held dozens of shirts, removed two and handed one each to his dad and Kris, who wanted one, too. Both of them seemed delighted.ShabbatMealTshirtback.jpg
Soon, it was 10 p.m. and the party was winding down. We congratulated Aidan, bid an affable goodbye to Michael, to whom we had introduced ourselves, and, as exhausted as we felt, hit the road and managed to make it home safely by 12:30 a.m.
I’d like to be able to conclude by saying all’s well that ends well, but, unfortunately, that particular universal experience does not apply in this case. Aidan phoned the next morning to report that he had already heard from Michael. He had emailed bright and early to complain that Aidan had failed to hand out DVD’s to many backers who'd been present, and now he'd have to mail these out at $3 apiece. On top of that, he said he'd learned that Aidan had given two T-shirts and a mug to his parents, when we had only been entitled to the mug.ShabbatMealDVDcover2.jpg
        He seemed to be clearly implying that we should still pay for the two shirts. Aidan wrote back explaining that he hadn’t deliberately failed in his DVD duties. He’d stood by the coat room at great length, but almost no one had come forward to collect an envelope, so he'd just assumed that few backers had been present. As for the T-shirts, “I'm baffled that after everything I did for this project -- even turning down highly paid film production work so I could be a part of it -- that you would begrudge me two T-shirts,” he wrote flatly.
        Although I hate to side against my son and antagonize him further, my own opinion is somewhat different. I'd say that Aidan, who worked endlessly on this for nothing and endured a lot of grief in the process, probably should have been offered a shirt himself. But we'd been told from the start that we were entitled to a single gift. So Aidan should've asked Michael's permission before giving out those two T-shirts. Or if my husband wanted one so badly, he should have paid for it (although $25 does seem exorbitant).AidanatPo.jpg
Yet Aidan maintains that we weren’t just backers but his own parents, and the shirts should have been offered to us gratis, as well as provided to all members of the cast and crew as a small token of gratitude for their work. He forbid me to send a check to cover the cost. Neither do I dare mail the mug back.
        And the truth is, I’m so exhausted from all of this controversy that I would actually like Michael to remove my name from the credits at the end of the film. But I don’t want my son to have to stuff any more envelopes in exchange for that.Shabbattable.jpg
        Sadly, I see that we have a lot to consider over our actual Shabbat meal this week. For however well-meaning we may have been, my husband and I were the ones who inadvertently ended up causing most of the controversy.
        So in the end, I realize that Aidan was right. As parents, we’re still eager to support anything and everything that our children undertake. Yet Aidan had good reason not to tell us about that film. Sometimes the best way to help our kids may be to just accept them for whoever -- and whatever -- they are because we love them, and they are ours. But it isn’t about us. It’s about them.LevysatTreva.jpg
        Besides, film credit or not, my husband and I were already associate producers. We produced Aidan together 25 years ago, followed by his younger sister, and we couldn't be prouder of either one of them. What they do and who they are reflects well on us.
        And that's all the credit we need.
12:01 am 

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That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.

     No, sir, that's not my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
     Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in their 20s, both are currently living on their own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
     Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
     Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
     Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions, from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
     Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!   
In coming weeks, I will continue posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often, and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together): That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New York.

Comments? Questions? Just want to kvetch? Please go to GUESTBOOK/COMMENTS.