It Takes a Village, and Mine is Yummy

I’m noticing connections between parenting and writing this week. Both can be thankless pursuits. You do the work because you love it, or some days because you simply have to, but not because you expect rave reviews to come at the end.

Both can be solitary, like in those dark wee hours trying to comfort a painfully uncomfortable newborn, an all but faded memory to me now. And the solitude of writing is, for me, the antidote to the communal chaos of motherhood.

Both have intrinsic rewards, like hearing a perfect phrase in my head and simply transposing it to the page, or having my second-grader inexplicably wake up to a Mommy-phase, kisses included.  First Friday March 2013

Both take villages to make them work. Grandparents and sisters and friends offering fresh arms to rock a baby, or take them out to a movie; or those same grandparents, sisters and friends sharing the results of that solitary writing time.

Today I’m honored to have the latter kind of of support from the wonderful Jessica Heisen. Her food and photography blog, CopyCake Cook has some seriously tantalizing recipes and photos, and she’s sharing me as her featured artist of the month. Please check it out, and spend some time browsing her site. Whether you’re in the middle of a juicing frenzy (Christopher), freaking about what’s for dinner (me) or a richly chocolate mood (you know who you are), the gal does it all. I’m hoping to get some blogging tips from her, to take mine to the next level.

Yes, it takes a village. I give thanks for mine.

Hanukah Games — Yiddish Password Rules!

And on the 6th night of Hanukah, the Jews played Yiddish Password.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother tried to teach me Yiddish. Do not be fooled. Although she was a first generation American born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to eastern European Jewish immigrants (known to me as “Big Grandma” and “her husband”), she was a thoroughly modern Lilli. Our first lesson took place in the leather seats of her Porsche 911. “Vus es dus?” she intoned, pointing. “Dus es a stickshift.” That’s as far as the formal training got. I suspected her qualifications at that point.

Fast forward thirty years to Hanukah 2012. My extended family, including the still fabulous Grandma Lilli, gathered in the living room of cousins Liz and Mitch. You’ve heard about my extended clan of cousins – like our camp song-filled Thanksgivings. You’ve heard about my grandmother, too, and the trip we took to Brooklyn to visit her birth city and her younger sister Shirley. Shirley taught her grandchildren the wisdom, “Just because you can leave Brooklyn, doesn’t mean you ought to.”

Our Hanukah parties have a flair all their own. We used to spend hours playing football or softball on the field just outside their home. But calmer heads prevailed, and now a certain gang spends hours around Liz and Mitch’s poker table, betting and bluffing like schizophrenic Martians. Pair of 2s? All in!

Mitch has become the entertainment maven for these events. For many years he printed out lyrics for Adam Sandler’s The Hanukah Song, until the children protested that it was embarrassing to hear their parents singing “and smoke your marijuanica!” After a couple years more, we heeded their complaint and switched to singing the Maccabeats’ Hanukah versions of pop songs like Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” (“I throw my latkes in the air sometimes”) and Fun’s “Some Nights” (“StandFour”).

One exceptional year we got to crawl through an elaborate maze built by Mitch and their son Nathan. What had begun as a haunted Halloween maze crafted from cardboard boxes and duct tape in the garage, became the “in search of the first temple” maze for Hanukah, complete with a narrative about Alexander the Great conquering Jerusalem, a battle scene (using skeletons from Halloween), and a Temple Wall the kids could draw on. It was epic, until my niece got left inside and Great uncle Larry had to crawl in to rescue her. Mitch reports that he would have kept the maze but the boxes attracted termites, so that First Temple was also lost forever.

Which brings us to Yiddish Password, this year’s invention, which required far less physical labor than the maze. You may recall the old game show: in teams of two, one person sees a word that their teammate has to guess, and gives their teammate clues to help them guess. The shtick? All the words were Yiddish.

Mitch has generously put his game on YouTube, so do yourself a favor and try it. You will be surprised at how many Yiddish words you know, and how many words you never realized were Yiddish (“stick shift” was not among them). Schlemiel. Putz. Schlock. Schmuck. We’ve got all the best put downs. It’s a great language teacher, better even than Grandma Lilli could have concocted, but best of all is the laughter you’ll generate. Watching my father act out “schlemiel” was one of the funniest things I’ve seen. Meshugenah mishepuchim. Happy playing, and happy Hanukah.

The (Great Big Parenting) Book

As some of you know, I’ve become something of a Torah study geek of late. Weirder still – my sister is now hooked, too.

It’s something I never ever never pictured myself doing. I thought it was for people who, you know, believed that Torah is the word of God, and that we’re supposed to do things because the Torah said so, unquestioning. Not me. Never me. I am a Reconstructionist Jew who sees divinity in the miracles of the universe — like the tides, sunsets, and the way my brain is telling my fingers how to move so I can express my ideas to you. I can get a little spiritual, but don’t begin to tell me that God wrote us a story or that, come Yom Kippur, he is taking names.

So how did I become a Torah Study groupie?

Read all about it in this week’s Jewish Journal, available in print for you traditionalists, too.

 

 

Give Thanks, Give Turkeys

A dozen volunteers hustled back and forth with groceries in their arms. Empty boxes filled the driveway and front yard of the small house cradled between the 105 and the 110 interchange. Taking care not to disturb their hosts’ carefully tended native plants, children and adults filled 125 boxes with groceries, to be delivered to hungry neighbors.

This scene has been replayed every month for fourteen years. On the last Sunday of the month, when many families in the neighborhood have empty pantries and are waiting for another pay day, the volunteers of “One on One Outreach” do their part to fill a need. The idea was the brainchild of the man at whose house we worked, who realized that his neighbors were going hungry.

I went this month with my husband, our seven-year-old son and fifteen-year-old niece. Alongside first-timers and veterans, we used our hands, arms, backs, legs and hearts. Like ants building a hill, we busied ourselves carrying this month’s assorted food and sundries, collected, sorted and stored each month by our host. Potatoes, plums and peaches. Bologna, granola bars and pistachios. Laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and baby powder.

I wondered how my seven-year-old would fare. It’s physical work –  two hours of lifting, bending, stuffing, organizing and checking that every box is complete. He became a boy on a mission. He carried gallons of juice down the long aisle of boxes, he saw to it that every box got a sack of potatoes, he ensured the plums would not be bruised. He grew three inches with the importance of his work.

We loaded the heavy boxes onto two pickup trucks, one suffering from time and use, the other shiny and sturdy. They cruised two short blocks, flimsy bungee cords miraculously holding boxes stacked six high. We followed on foot in the middle of the street (part of the fun for a seven year old).

We stopped at the first apartment building. One by one we carried boxes to appreciative families, until they were quickly gone.

My son and my niece, who have never known an empty pantry, or a refrigerator that couldn’t be restocked, glimpsed into the apartments and lives of people not born with that same gift. Overhearing his dad describing to me how many people were crammed into one particular apartment, our son said softly, hopefully, “But they have a happy life.” Noticing a courtyard of grass and cement, he said, “They have a lot of room to play outside.”

I wondered how to frame my response. Like all of us, he was trying to make sense of what he saw, of the disparity between his circumstances and those of the kids in front of him. I didn’t want him to feel pity, but empowerment and action. And while it’s true that anyone can be happy or sad — rich or poor — it’s a lot easier to be happy when your tummy is full. I thought of the tantrum my son threw two nights earlier, when he didn’t like what I’d made for dinner. I let his observation stand. “That’s true,” I said, “there’s lots of room to play.”

The next night would be Halloween, but in contrast to our neighborhood, there were few decorations. Our host and one of his neighbors are the only ones who hand out candy, he told me, and the kids just go back and forth between the two houses until they run out. He showed me boxes of treats stacked by his front door, ready for trick-or-treaters. “I usually hand out about a thousand,” he said.

We had promised our son one more trip to buy Halloween decorations, so after we finished, we headed back to West L.A to do that. We dropped twenty bucks on things that, despite my best intentions, will likely be thrown away or lost before next year – cotton spider webs, plastic bones, a kitty cat tail.

On Halloween, we accepted a friend’s invitation to join her in Malibu Colony. We passed through guarded gates to beachside mansions professionally decorated in elaborate ghoulish fashion. Up and down the street, generous hosts handed out fistfuls of candy or full-size candy bars. One offered an open bar and encouraged donations to UNICEF. All around us were revelers enjoying the decadent night, filling up on empty calories and joy.

“Twenty-four hours ago we were handing out groceries,” my husband reminded me, as we sat on the deck of a beach house listening to the ocean. It felt like much longer. Good thing we only have to wait until the Sunday before Thanksgiving for our next opportunity. “Bring gloves,” we were advised. “Those frozen turkeys get really cold.”

We will be there. Maybe you will, too.

Donate frozen turkeys to One on One Outreach, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades, 16019 Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades. Frozen turkeys will be collected there November 13, 14 and 15, and November 18. Contact me with questions.

What’s your favorite way to help others? Do you have a Thanksgiving tradition? Please share it.

Break(dancing) with Tradition.

It’s the good time of year. I always forget about the finer attributes of this season when I’m in the throes of summer, barefoot and carefree, no homework to supervise or lunchboxes to pack. Maybe it’s just the human survival instinct to be partial to the present, whenever it is. But this is the time of family holidays, connecting the dots of Autumn to Winter, and there is much to revel in.

As soon as the Halloween candy was counted, sorted, traded and consumed, my five-year-old announced, “I hate Thanksgiving.” I looked at him, considering the source of his proclamation. I concluded it has mostly to do with the food: no one offers him “turkey pizza” or “maca-turkey-roni and cheese.” And, he wanted to know, who ruins a pie by filling it with pumpkin?

“What about being together with family?” I asked him. He barely registered a grunt to accompany a gargantuan eyeroll.

Hate it as much as he wants, Thanksgiving still came. And that’s fine by me. I have always loved Thanksgiving. (It helps that I never host it.) That honor still falls to my parents, who make room every year for up to fifty relatives. From Minnesota, San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Tarzana (and the occasional cameo from New Jersey and New York), we meet in Los Angeles to sing folk songs and argue politics.

Yes, folks songs and politics. Besides Aunt Barbara’s cranberry apple crumb casserole (to die for), it is what makes my family’s Thanksgiving . . . well, my family’s Thanksgiving.

Things didn’t go as expected this year. Traditions fell by the wayside. Normally, at dinner my mother makes a political speech, drawing cheers from the Democrats and silence from the Republicans. My mother does not realize her speech is an annual rite of our Thanksgiving meal. It’s just what comes out of her mouth, a reflex. I guess that’s the genesis of traditions: they express who we are so deeply, that we can’t help but repeat them.

But things were different this year. Our guitar-strumming song leaders were home in San Francisco, laid out by the flu. No singing! Not one to adapt well to change, I was bereft. It must have been a welcome break to others, because my cousin Mitch from Orange County stepped right into the void, busting out poker chips and cards and instructing the children when to hold, when to fold.

Almost as disconcerting to my sense of order, there was no political speech by my mom! Just a generic “Welcome everyone, and enjoy the food!” How could this be? I was cast adrift. No folk songs, no arguing politics? What was left but to eat dessert?

The family room was crowded with cousins saturated with pies and cakes—boysenberry, pumpkin, apple, chocolate babka and amaretto. A smallish dent had been made in the fruit salad, by those of us wishing to balance the scales of guilty pleasures. The twenty-ninth football game of the day played on the big screen television—“Is this the same game that was on nine hours ago?” my mother asked my father.

Then it happened. One of the kids said, “Let’s play ‘So You Think You Can Dance!’” It’s our newest game at home, where my husband and I have been inculcating our “dance-is-for-girls” sons into the cult of a dance competition television show. The game is simple: turn on some music, dance a silly solo, and the panel of “judges” declares, “You’ve made the Top Twenty!” and the dancer goes wild.

There in the family room, with the big-screen football game as backdrop, the dancing began. We picked the most likely to break the ice and began to chant his name, “Christopher! Christopher!” After a few moments, he stood up, took his place on the floor, and Thanksgiving will never be the same.

Within seconds everyone was laughing as he leaped, stretched, and grabbed his body a la Michael Jackson. Immediately after him came my father, who has for years maintained that he is a natural born tap dancer and ballerina. His performance demonstrated that passion for sports and love of dance are not exclusive qualities. Over the course of the next hour, our five-year-old son danced several solos, our eight-year-old son (still with a broken foot) spun on the floor in his version of break-dancing. Their grandfather came back out for a duet with his granddaughter, lifts, spins and all. Their grandmother got up for her turn, and even cousin Joe from Minnesota felt the spirit of dance take him over. All the kids spun and jumped and wiggled together in a grand finale. But my favorite part? My children watching their mother, grandfather and great-grandmother doing a kickline to Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” If that’s not a new tradition to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.

Splashing into Spain – July 24

July 24, 2009.

Day One. Well, Day Two if you count our arrival yesterday morning after a day and night flying from Los Angeles through Atlanta to Barcelona. Three of us half-slept through the arrival day. Emmett, on the other hand, enjoyed it thoroughly, begging Christopher to “test drive” our home exchangers’ Mercedes Benz and swimming in the neighborhood pool—an astonishing Energizer Bunny.

The heat that first morning terrified us; what grand mistake had we made, we wondered, coming to Sitges and Barcelona in summer? Separately Christopher and I started making alternate plans and calculating the financial blow of having to transfer to an air-conditioned hotel for 3 ½ weeks.

But even a fitful, hot night’s sleep made a difference, and our first complete day here was much better. We walked through the narrow cobblestone mazes of Sitges’ historic streets, passing bakeries, butchers and boutiques, past the old church at the promontory, and down the grand stairway to the beach, stopping midway down to be splashed by ocean spray. The fine white sand was crowded with European vacationers and Spanish locals wearing not much more than their tans. Aaron and Emmett didn’t seem to notice. Their eyes widened at the sight of pedal boats with water slides waiting at the shore to be rented. My heart leaped at the sight of blue and white striped umbrellas and lounge chairs lining the sand as far as the eye could see. Christopher didn’t say what he was looking at most. At least all the sights took our minds off the heat. We trudged our way up the  wide pedestrian promenade, changed into our suits, and, our priorities in order, sought out the boat man.

My Spanish kicked into gear and I felt a part of my brain working that hadn’t been put to use for a while. “Queremos alquilar un barco. Cuanto cuesta?” He answered, “Twelve euros.” I guess my Spanish wouldn’t be entirely necessary in a popular tourist town. He warned us that the water might be too choppy for the kids. Chalk it up to jet-lag-induced lack of judgment, he could not deter us from our mission. We wrapped up the kids in life jackets that would not have made the grade in California, and set out to the Mediterranean Sea. The waves crashing into our boat refreshed us as we headed straight out past the breaking waves. It was our first signal that the ocean temperature here would be a gift, much warmer than our own Pacific.

Christopher, Aaron and Emmett all tried the slide, displaying great bravery in my view. It was a great sign for how our kids would embrace this family adventure. Now, I’m a relatively adventurous person. I’ve traveled alone through Thailand where I didn’t speak a word of the local language. I’ve gone head-to-head with Morrocan big rigs driving two-lane highways from Rabat to Fez. I’ve climbed to the tops of Mayan temples that left other travelers grounded by vertigo, and ziplined over deep valleys and waterfalls in Mexico. Yet here I was in Spain, a country I’ve lived in, whose language I speak, at a beach resort, and I knew I was in trouble. I sat in the boat wondering how much longer until we could go back to shore, increasingly nauseous, my landlubber ways getting the best of me on the rocking plastic boat. Before our hour was up, I ordered our ship to shore. We rode the waves back to shore, avoiding a capsize, and stumbled greatfully up to those beckoning lounge chairs. Where my intrepid family proceeded to collapse into a deep sleep for the next three hours. We woke up at 7pm, the sun still shining, the beach still peopled with vacationers. We swam in the warm water once more that day, then headed back to our home for the next three weeks. Rested, refreshed, relaxed. What a difference a day makes.