Singer-songwriter-humorist Lauren Mayer reflects on Hanukkah, Christmas, family, growing up a Jew in Orange County and how all this informs her own, artistic process. May you enjoy this in depth interview conducted by… herself.
What inspired you to write “Latkes, Shmatkes”?
Two years ago NPR did a program on Christmas music, and their expert was talking about how secular songs, like “Frosty The Snowman,” became classics, and then he said, “Some songs should never become classics, like this one”— and used an old recording of mine as an example. It was a novelty song I’d written and recorded years ago, “The Fruitcake That Ate New Jersey,” and when I wrote in to ask how they found it, they ended up interviewing me. I joked that now I was part of the great tradition of Jewish songwriters who create Christmas music, and I really should do a Chanukah album. Once I said it, I realized it could be a fun idea.
Last week, Rabbi Scott Perlo wrote a provocative article in the Washington Post in which he addressed the continuing discomfort that many Jews—even liberal, gender-equity-supporting ones—feel about female rabbis. He suggests that this puzzling phenomenon may be due to the central place nostalgia holds in many people’s feelings about Judaism. It comes as no surprise that this nostalgic vision does not include female rabbis.
On the front page of this morning’s Denver Post a picture of Veronique Pozner, mother of Sandy Hook Elementary School victim Noah Pozner, at Noah’s gravesite at B’nai Israel Cemetery in Monroe, Connecticut, assaults me as I sit down to drink my morning coffee. Veronique stands next to her rabbi, and my eyes are drawn to his kippah. And I’d thought, that perhaps, I was going to be able to start this day without crying.
Although Hanukkah is known as the festival of lights, I think a more fitting name would be the festival of fried foods. It’s the time of year during which people expect and want to find deep fried food on their plates and I’m more than happy to oblige. Although, as much as I love eating latkes and sufganiyot, there are moments where I need a break from all the fried foods. Yet in the spirit of the holiday I still want to eat a dish in which oil is a central component.
How does the American Jewish woman navigate our male-dominated society in the twenty-first century? Jewish women have thousands of years of history to draw from to help make sense of and find our place. According to our ancestral Jewish tradition, women’s empowerment is central to bringing redemption for all humanity -- so let’s get to it!
I love guerilla feminism. And I love that this group of feminists from Baltimore used online guerilla feminism to critique Victoria's Secret and promote consent. And I’m not the only one who loves this stuff! I love the celebration of consent. I love the celebration of bodies. I love the way in which the campaign directly connects the concept of consent to our bodies—by putting it on underwear—showing that to touch my body, you need my consent.
Ever wanted to learn more about an amazing, captivating, female pioneer only to find the story undocumented, or worse, simply buried? That's what happened to me when I discovered the work of Jewish American photographer Helen Levitt. I am making a film to fill that gaping hole. 95 Lives uncovers Helen Levitt's legendary career documenting NYC streets for 70 years and transforming American street photography forever. Born in 1913 in Brooklyn to Jewish Russian parents, Levitt died at aged 95 with an outpouring of obituaries celebrating her art while noting her disdain for fame.
On the Thursday night before Hanukkah began, I attended an event called A Sip of Eser, an introductory session to the ten-part young adult learning program Eser (meaning 10) run by Hebrew College in nearby Newton, MA. Amidst the tumult of a Boston bar, and alongside several dozen people I had never met, I heard rabbinical student, Seth Wax, tell a Hanukkah story none of us had ever heard.
Tell someone a story, and you don’t know what will happen next.
Last summer I was lucky to study at the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Institute for Educators. We spent five intense days learning the Living the Legacy curriculum with top scholars in social activism, Jewish feminism and history. In the coming months, I will be using Living the Legacy to teach a series of social justice workshops to teens in western Massachusetts.
But something else happened because of what I learned at the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Thanksgiving is over, meaning the few remaining stores with some discretion have put up their decorations (joining the vast majority who started in early November), and the holiday muzak is blaring everywhere – so it’s hard for Jews not to feel overwhelmed and outnumbered. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, so we aren’t really going to compete with giant electric menorahs on our front yards, and it’s highly unlikely that Lifetime will air a new series of “Heartfelt Hanukkah” made-for-TV movies. And it’s particularly hard for parents – our kids are singing carols in school, making ornaments out of popsicle sticks, and hearing about their friends who anticipate scoring major gift hauls. How do we help our kids, and ourselves, feel better about this imbalance?
At the NOW (National Organization for Women) conference I attended in June, playwright Eve Ensler delivered the keynote speech. Ensler, who is featured in JWA’s online exhibit Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, was a riveting speaker whose passionate words truly rallied me to action. I’ve been hoping to see one of her plays ever since. Luckily, her newest show Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, is now playing Off-Broadway, and I was able to get tickets!
Yael Kohen’s new book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, has many revealing tales about how change happens. But one stands out for me: in 1966, the actress Marlo Thomas approached the head of ABC-TV programming with a novel idea. She wanted “to play the person with the problem, not the person who assisted the person with the problem.” She recalled:
I didn’t want to be the wife of somebody, or the secretary of somebody, or the daughter of somebody…”Have you ever considered the girl to be the somebody?” And he said, “Would anybody watch a show like that?” I said, “I think they would.” And so I gave him a copy of The Feminine Mystique, and he read it and kind of became convinced.
This weekend I was lucky enough to see two talented Jewish women make memorable art from their family stories. On Friday night, I went to Club Passim, the legendary folk venue in Harvard Square, to hear one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Lucy Kaplansky. Her set mixed old favorites with songs from her new CD, “Reunion.” The title track tells the story of two family reunions. The first in 1971, when she was 11, began at her grandmother’s bakery and continued at a fancy restaurant. The second “40 years on,” moved her to write “Here we are together/our fathers gone/ just daughters and sons.”
Chanukkah (or however the heck you spell it) is a time of lighting the menorah, recounting yet another story of the resilience of the Jewish people, and celebrating miracles both great and small. It’s also a time of eating things you wouldn’t dare touch the rest of the year, letting your standards slide, and finding yourself hung over on January 1st, loathing yourself as you struggle to button your jeans.
Don’t be that person.
In the years I attended Modern Orthodox day schools, I received close to zero sex education. Aside from one class period in the sixth grade dedicated to menstruation and a week during my senior year devoted to learning the laws of Neidah (Jewish ritual purity laws relating to menstruation), I remained in the dark about reproduction and sexual health, as well as about how they related to my identity as a young Jewish woman.
Accepting an award from the Jewish Women’s Archive earlier this year, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a longtime activist, pointed to the Statue of Liberty, just visible in the foggy distance, and quipped, “I love her, even though she’s not Jewish.” Over murmurs of laughter, she spoke of her love for Lady Liberty’s “grace and beauty,” and defined what the monument represents to her: “welcome, freedom, hope.” The same could be said of Pogrebin herself.
Writer Maggie Anton, whose "Rashi’s Daughters” series has sold 175,000 copies, believes that studying Talmud is the most feminist thing a woman can do. “Knowledge of Talmud is the key to halacha,” she says. Anton asserts that modern Jewish law is made at a table full of Talmud scholars, and that women can have a seat at that table.
A fire blazes through a garment factory. The building has too few exits and not enough fire escapes. Fire equipment cannot reach the fire. More than 100 people—many of them young women—die. Bodies, burnt beyond recognition, line the floor of a government building, awaiting identification.
If you’re thinking, “I know that story—it happened at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911,” think again. Though the details fit the Triangle tragedy, the scene I’ve just described is the deadly fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, this past Saturday night.
Just before my favorite holiday last week, I sat down with the prolific food-blogger-turned-cookbook-author Deb Perelman. The founder of the Smitten Kitchen was recently given a spot on the Forward 50 and is currently touring the U.S. to promote her new book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Wisdom from an Obsessive Home Cook. Next week, I will post more of the story about how her recipes have inspired my own culinary pursuits. But first, here is your chance to be a fly on the wall in our conversation about how she came to write and publish her delicious new book.
As we approach this year's Thanksgiving, I asked some of the JWA staff members how far they've come—personally or politically, culturally or collectively—and how that's inspired a sense of gratitude. Here is a sampling from Etta King, Michelle Cash, Stephen Benson, and Ellen Rothman.
For today’s young feminists, the name Phyllis Schlafly may be totally unfamiliar; if anything, it triggers a distant memory of a footnote in an AP US History textbook. Those activists who lived and fought during the Second Wave are, however, all too familiar with the uber-conservative activist.
As the air turns brisk and squash appear in the grocery store, I realize that autumn really is here. Though winter is still a ways off, a quarter of my colleagues and a handful of our patients are already starting to sniffle and cough.
“A Boston girl, one of the shortest girls in the unit. Maybe 4-foot-10. When we came ashore at Normandy, she almost drowned because she couldn't touch bottom."
An hour before she was to die, Army nurse Lt. Frances Slanger sat before a fire and wrote a letter to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Blog." (Viewed on March 6, 2015) <http://jwa.org/blog>.