Israel presents: How to politicize the Holocaust.

The following ran on today:

You would think that if anyone on earth didn’t need help understanding the Holocaust, it would be Israel’s leaders.

You would think that between Holocaust Memorial Day, the public school programs, the documentaries, the books, Yad Vashem – not to mention the actual survivors, living their lives in simple defiance of the Final Solution – Israel would be the one place where you could rest assured that the enormity of the crime and the obligation to honor the dead are clear.

You would think that the country’s leaders could be trusted to have a grasp on the monstrousness of it all. Mechanized torture and execution; the enslavement and rape of old and young; babies slaughtered upon birth; men, women and children worked to death, starved to death, gassed to death, shot naked and left to rot in shallow graves. Nearly a thousand concentration camps; 30,000 slave labor camps; 500 brothels in which the Nazi regime profited from the sale of its victims’ flesh.

You would think. And yet again and again, Israel’s politicians remind us that no, in fact, the country’s leaders don’t have a clear grasp on that enormity, nor on the imperative to recognize and respect the inferno of anguish in which the 6 million were consumed.

For surely, if Israel’s leaders understood, the prime minister would never liken a blusterous political movement to the Nazi ravages of the past; surely a member of the coalition wouldn’t equate a speech criticizing the occupation – delivered before the Jewish State’s own parliament, no less – with “incitement to annihilation”; surely the deputy foreign minister wouldn’t call the Jewish State’s internationally recognized boundaries – defended, as they are, by the Israel Defense Forces – “Auschwitz borders.

To read the rest of this post, please go to “Israel presents: How to politicize the Holocaust”

Kid President sez: We should say these 20 things more often.

Full disclosure: I laughed out loud at #5.

Happy New Year, y’all!

h/t Samhita Mukhopadhyay

On pumpkin season – in which I seek to allay Mary Schmich’s autumnal worries.

Yesterday I sat in my living room and read the Sunday paper — on actual paper, as one does, if one has any remaining sense of decency and/or culture.

The Chicago Tribune is so small these days, shrunken in both page size and page numbers as bean counters continue to try to mitigate the damage done by Sam Zell and an entire culture that held that it was reasonable to expect a 20-30% return in print news, even as new technologies were changing our very understanding of the word “print.” When I delivered the Tribune as a young girl in sleeply suburban Lake Bluff, the Sunday paper was so massive that the delivery process could break your back, and if not your back then your bike, and if not your bike, then at the very least the panniers in which you had cram-jammed as many copies as you could fit for your first trip out on a frost-aired morning.

I’m sure veteran Tribune columnist Mary Schmich remembers those papers, and I’d guess that like me, she remembers them fondly — aside from her column duties, Schmich was also the writer of Brenda Starr for 25 years, and back when the Sunday paper weighed a ton, the comics pages were broad as a river, their brightness a kind of beacon amid the black and white spread across and tumbling off the coffee table. Although I often argue that the good old days weren’t actually all that good, some things really were better once upon a time. The Sunday paper is a sterling example. Nostalgia isn’t always wrong.

In yesterday’s Sunday paper, though, Mary Schmich argued for a different kind of nostalgia, one with which, alas, I cannot agree. In the course of a sweet rumination on the beauty of October in Chicago, she expressed frustration with the fact that pumpkins have become big business. “There was a time,” she wrote, “when a pumpkin was a pumpkin.”

Carve it up, stick a candle in, make a pumpkin pie. The humble pumpkin, however, has morphed into a marketing monster.

Autumn as Pumpkinpalooza.

There are pumpkin lattes (Starbucks). Pumpkin bagels (Einstein Bros). Pumpkin pie doughnuts (Dunkin’ Donuts). Pumpkin cheesecake doughnuts (Krispy Kreme). Pumpkin pie blizzards (Dairy Queen).

Schmich goes on to present an incomplete list of the pumpkin-flavored items currently available at Trader Joe’s — and though it is incomplete, the list numbers 14 items. It’s hard to argue with her logic.

Indeed, I’ve also been known to shake a metaphorical fist at pumpkins — and also in the general direction of inflatable lawn ornaments, a month’s worth of Halloween programming on Disney Channel, and the annual roll-out of “sexy” costumes for girls aged roughly toddler and up. Gentle reader, if you know me at all, you know me as a shaker of fists.

But lately I find myself taking a different approach to the Pumpkinization and/or Halloweenization Of Everything, because though it represents marketing run amok, though it encourages the sale of neon-green spider “webs” and bedazzled purple “spiders,” though the very idea of pumpkin in coffee is an outrage that should have coffee growers rioting in the streets — it’s all rooted in the season in which we happen to find ourselves, not the one that’s still two months down the road.

Moreover, not only is Pumpkinpalooza an entirely autumnal affair, not only does it fend off the frantic selling of The Holidays until at least November 1, not only does it mean that I can re-stock my supply of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix (note: pumpkin pancakes are not an outrage) — it’s also completely American and utterly without import.

Christmas actually means something, and that something is a thing which many Americans do not celebrate or in which they find no meaning, and much as we rabbit on about “the holidays,” as if to include Hanukkah and the New Year, we all know which holiday is king.

And I’m kind of ok with that. I’m Jewish, but that just means that I’m in the minority — as are the atheists, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and all the many, many Americans for whom Christmas is not their jam. The vast majority of our American brothers and sisters celebrate Christmas some way or another, and the captains of industry long ago realized they could make a buck off of joy. So ok: From November 1st, it’s red and green as far as the eye can see.

But in October, everyone can just be a regular American. Whatever All Hallows Eve once meant, modern-day Halloween no longer means anything even remotely similar, and the pumpkin in our foodstuffs means even less. It’s just a kind of collective silliness, an enjoyment of frivolity and sugar, with a nod to the harvest and bounty and your unalienable right to scary yourself silly. I can drive around with my kids, gaping at houses bedecked in Halloween ghoulery, and feel that nothing but my own curmudgeonly and mildly lazy character stands between me and my neighbors. I can love the smell of fall leaves and secretly miss the smell of them burning, eat too much candy corn and be grateful it’s a once-a-year thing, and freely mock Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiasts with fellow cranks everywhere.

So Ms. Schmich, let me just say: I, too, remember the days before Pumpkinpalooza, and I agree there is a certain shine to the memory. But mostly what our new fall traditions have done (in addition to further lining some well-lined pockets) is carve out a little breathing space for the here and now, to be equally shared by all Americans. It’s ok.

And just in case you might want to come over someday for pumpkin-free coffee and an Airing of Grievances about inflatable ghosts, I’ll save you a chair. I’ll even share the comics.

For our Canadian friends (& those who love them).

Yesterday was Canada Day, and if you didn’t know that, it’s probably because you’re not Canadian, which is a perfectly fine way to be and frankly a condition shared by most humans.

We here at In My Head are also not Canadian, but we believe it’s important to respect and honor our neighbors to the north. And so we have brought them cake:


Canada Day cake


Caption on original: “My American friend made us a cake for Canada Day. . . . Thanks buddy.”

Moses was a jerk, & Passover wouldn’t have happened without five women.

Re-up from a couple years back, but every word (down to “tonight is the start of the second holiday” and “writing about Passover on Easter Sunday”) is true again, so here ye be! This is the kind of stuff I like to think about. I hope you enjoy it, too.


Moses appears to be a bit doubtful that this is going to end well.

It really does seem that every year, Passover goes by faster. One minute I’m hyperventilating over the inhuman amount of cleaning, the next minute I’m all “what, it’s over?” But here we are. Tonight is the start of the second holiday, the one that closes the week, and then boom – it’s back to bread*. What this means for you, dear reader, is that I won’t be posting on Monday (it being a holiday and all) – so instead, here I am on Easter Sunday, writing one more time about Passover.

On the whole Passover dealio, let’s be honest.

Anyone who knows anything about Passover (and is over the age of 10) already knows the main message: Let my people go, freedom from slavery, big-ass crackers instead of fluffy bread for a week, etc and so on. (And by the way, if you’re under the age of 10, you really shouldn’t be reading this blog).

However! There are other messages that emerge from the story, if you poke around and look a little, messages that are also powerful and necessary.

Like the fact that people can change. That even the worst dregs of humanity can turn their lives around — can, perhaps, become heroes.

Like Moses.

Do you know who Moses was before he became the dude who stared Pharaoh down, the great prophet, the redeemer of the Israelites, the fella who got to go up to the mountain and chat with The Holy One Blessed Be He?

He was a confused princeling with anger issues — and a murderer, to boot!

Moses was ultimately raised in Pharaoh’s family, but he was cared for early in life by his biological mother, and he knew he wasn’t really Egyptian. One fine day, he “went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors” — which is to say, there he was, all dressed up in his royal finery, watching the slaves go about their business (survivor’s guilt, anyone?). Seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses did what any of us would do: He turned to his adoptive father and asked that reforms be instituted.

No, no! I kid!

He killed the dude. And hid the body. (Exodus, chapter 2, if you’re wondering).

Discovering the next day that there were witnesses (and I have to ask: How was this a surprise, exactly? Dude was a prince. How exactly did he think he would not be noticed in the act of killing someone?), he runs away to the land of Midian, where he becomes a shepherd, a husband, a father, and a prophet (in that order).

So, to recap: Moses is a murderer. And then he becomes the savior of his people.

We don’t really know what happened to Moses in the intervening years, up until the point where “a long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God” — but I’m guessing quite a lot. One doesn’t move from life as a prince to life as a shepherd, or abandon murderous anger for hesitant, self-effacing leadership, without undergoing an internal change or two.

But no matter who you are, or who your enemy is, or what that annoying asshole at work or in elective office did or said — there is always room for change. As long as there is life, there remains the possibility for genuine, even earth-shattering redemption.

And I’ll go one further: Sometimes our heroes are the people we most despise.

Sure, Moses is the prophet. Sure, he was the one who turned his life around and saved his people.

But he would never have gotten the chance if it weren’t for Pharaoh’s daughter — the actual child of the evil emperor.

When you read the story of Moses-in-the-bullrushes (Exodus 1), it emerges that five women (I’ll just repeat that: FIVE WOMEN) are the real heroes here:

  1. The two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to kill the baby boys despite Pharaoh’s decree
  2. Moses’s biological mother, who hides him at home and then hides him where he might be found and kept alive
  3. Moses’s sister Miriam, who stands watch over him and has the courage to offer her help to Pharaoh’s daughter
  4. Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucks Moses out of his basket, agrees that Miriam should find him a wet-nurse, and then pays Moses’s mother to care for him.

Reading the story, it becomes blindingly obvious that the daughter of Pharaoh — who, let’s just recall, was heinous enough to order the mass murder of infants — knew exactly what she was doing. And that without her, the efforts of the other four women would have been for naught.

She says, straight up: “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then another child, who could only have been equally recognizably Hebrew, pops up out of the bullrushes and offers to find a wet-nurse — and then a wet-nurse is instantly found.

Pharaoh’s daughter had to know — and she went with it. She saved the baby, gave him back to his mother for as long as she could get away with it, and then raised the child as her own.

So on top of the freedom-from-slavery thing (which is, don’t get me wrong, a very, very good message), here’s another message that I get out of Passover:

No one’s life is predetermined. We cannot know what people are capable of, we cannot know who will save us. We cannot even know about ourselves.

We can only open the basket in the reeds. We can only listen to whatever voice of goodness and grace we hear, whether by water’s edge, or while moving sheep from point A to point B. We can only make ourselves available.

And believe that redemption is real.


Though we live in America, we’re Israelis-in-exile, so we observe the holidays in keeping with the customs of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), which means a seven-day Passover. Most observant Diaspora Jews keep eight days — that is, through Tuesday.

Fantasy Seder – like Fantasy Football. Only nerdier.

Jon Stewart at a table that is clearly not a Seder Table as there are rolls present.

Jon Stewart at a table that is clearly not a Seder Table as there are rolls present.

Americans have a penchant for making lists and imagining scrupulously constructed alternate realities in which we, the individual Americans, play a central role. Dungeons and Dragons comes to mind, as does Fantasy Football. Not to mention the List of Five popularized by Friends.

Which is the closest I can come to an explanation for the fact that if you were to look closely at the insides of my brain you would find—tucked behind all the other brick-a-bat—my Fantasy Seder List. Because (apparently) being an egghead who likes a good Ottoman joke isn’t quite nerdy enough.

The rules undergirding the Fantasy Seder are as simple as they are few: To make it in the imaginary door, the potential guest has to be 1) Jewish (duh); 2) alive (double duh); and 3) a complete stranger to me (this is why we call it “a fantasy” and not “an actual guest list”).

Jon Stewart.

I figured I should just get that out of the way, because of course Jon Stewart. I’m an American Jew of a decidedly liberal bent with delusions of low-brow intellectualism. Of course Jon Stewart. The only reason he’s not on my List of Five is because I’m afraid I’d fall in love, and then where would my marriage be? Fantasy Seder it is.

And if Jon Stewart, then Adam Sandler. Sandler and Stewart go way back, and it’s always nice when people have friends at a party!

Now, I will confess that there exists a not inconsiderable handful of Sandler movies of which I am… not a fan. But I did like Zohan and Fifty First Dates, and I loved Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People—but more importantly, every time I see him interviewed, I’m impressed with one very simple fact: Adam Sandler is a mensch. It oozes from his pores, you can see it plain as day. I think he’d be ferrying food to the table, and trying to help ease my nerves. And I’d be apologizing awkwardly for admitting in public that I’m not a huge fan of some of his movies, because frankly, that wasn’t very nice of me.

Here the list grows a little more random: Peter Himmelman — semi-obscure rocker with a decades-spanning career, scorer of popular TV shows such as Bones and Men in Trees, Grammy-nominated children’s performer, son-in-law to Bob Dylan (yes, really), and Orthodox-ish. Himmelman is very, very invited. According to one of my favorite radio DJs of all time (Terri Hemmert, WXRT-Chicago, not Jewish, so not invited), he’s a fascinating conversationalist who’s as likely to talk about philosophy and theology as he is about rock n’ roll or his kids. Heck, I’d even have the event catered for him, as I suspect my Conservative Movement kitchen might not be kosher enough.

The Gyllenhaal siblings are also a shoo-in, though I fear I would jibber and jabber—and possibly giggle—over Jake. Given that I presume my husband will also be attending (not to mention Jon Stewart), fingers crossed that I keep that in check. And Maggie—the presence of Jake’s way-too-cool-for-the-likes-of-me sister might also impose a certain respectability. One can only hope.

And oh, oh! Barney Frank! Totally! I would feel not nearly smart enough to talk with him directly, but I would love to her him chatting with, say, Peter Himmelman. Or with Jack Black! Who is, of course, also invited. Can you imagine Barney Frank and Jack Black conversating over the harosest? Dude. To be a fly on that wall!

And you know Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan will have their invitations printed on the good stationary—but I don’t think I’d let them sit next to each other. Or next to Barney Frank. They’d start talking about the other Justices, or get going on DC insider-baseball, and we’d all be like, “What up Elena, Barney, and Ruth Bader? Talk with the rest of the class!” No, we’ll have to scatter the Washington types amongst the entertainers. I’ll make a note.

Finally, Terry Gross. First of all, she knows everything but is utterly charming about it. Second of all, she really, really likes musicals. Third of all, if there’s anyone on earth who could keep a conversation going among such an odd group of weirdly gathered individuals, you know it would be her.

And there’s your minyan! Mind you, my family and I round the number up to 14, which is neither round nor has any meaning in our religious tradition, but whatevs. If I can get Jon, Adam, Peter, Maggie, Jake, Barney, Jack, Elena, Ruth, and Terry to come to my house? I’ll deal with it.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

It’s hamantaschen time. You all need my latke recipe.

latkesYes, it’s hamantaschen season (being nearly Purim, and all) and thus not the time for latkes. But there is a lively debate underway on Twitter as regards the relative worth of hamantaschen (three-cornered cookies with [usually] jam filling made in homage to the three-cornered hat said to have been worn by the Purim villan, Haman). (In Hebrew [fun fact!] they’re called oznei Haman, Haman’s ears, and I like that better).

This debate is something of an annual ritual in American Jewish circles, and really, the future of our people depends on all right-thinking Jews understanding the clear superiority of the latke. I mean, really.

HOWEVER – in the course of the Twitter debate, it has become clear to me that some poor souls have never had a decent latke! They have even been referred to as (gasp) “meh hash browns”! o_O

And so I have taken it upon myself to educate the unwashed Jewish masses with the following: my latke recipe. It is the best latke recipe in the world, and I can only take a little bit of credit because though I added one small tweak (flour rather than matza meal), I actually found it somewhere. I just don’t know where anymore, and so in the tradition of great chefs everywhere, I believe I’ll now take all the credit.

Und zo – just in time for your Purim celebrations, I give to you:

THE BEST LATKE RECIPE IN THE WORLD (the trick is in that second step)

2 lbs potatoes (about 8), peel if desired
1 T grated yellow onion
2 lg eggs, beaten
¼ C flour
1 t salt
½ t black pepper
Oil for frying

1.Grate potatoes (by hand or food processor).

2. Place grated potatoes in thin, clean dishcloth. Wring cloth with potatoes over small bowl. Set liquid aside and allow to settle. After a few minutes, discard water, but reserve collected starch.

3. Place drained potatoes in medium bowl. Grate onion into bowl, add onions, eggs, flour, salt, pepper, reserved potato starch, and mix well.

4. Heat oil in heavy skillet over medium flame (should be about 1 inch deep). Use ¼ C of potato mixture per pancake; form pancake with hands, keeping the thickness uniform. Let fry until golden (about 6 minutes), then flip. Keep warm in oven (200 F).

Serve with apple sauce and sour cream. Serves 4-8.

Blessings of the season.

My now-annual holiday post, an essay I wrote for the Chicago Tribune a few years back. If you’re celebrating, have a wonderful and very merry Christmas — and if not, I hope you have a really terrific Tuesday!

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; Christmas c. 1930s

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; Christmas c. 1930s

It’s about bringing light into dark places, isn’t it?

As I understand the winter holidays, our Holy Days, this is what they mean: Hope, life, tomorrow. Light, where there was none.

That’s what we mean at my house when we light our menorah, and that’s what we talk about with the kids. For eight nights, after saying the blessings, we sing a sweet, rousing song in Hebrew that announces to the darkness that it shall have no quarter: “Each of us is a small candle,” we sing. “Together, we are a great light.”

And though I am not a Christian, it seems to me that that is what Jesus’s birth means, too. Light in dark places, a small baby who brought hope to millions. “The weary world rejoices,” goes Oh Holy Night, one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, “for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

And Kwanza? I’m white, but it seems to me that lighting candles to remember the struggles of the Black people, to reflect on unity, and to anticipate the future triumph over oppression is a statement of hope most deep.

There is so much darkness in the world, there always has been. But God – or Nature, or our own collective Best Self – has given us the tools to drive it back. The Jewish tradition speaks of tikkun olam, repairing the world in conjunction with the Almighty. This is our job, our highest calling. To quote another song, “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.”

And indeed, we are not the same. Our holidays are not the same, and even within our communities, our understanding of those holidays is not always the same. But in our own ways, we all seek a brighter tomorrow, a world without war, without hunger, without despair. And these holidays, even the ones that are not in my own heritage, can serve to remind me of that – as well as reminding me that there are many ways of battling evil and wrong, and that we need all of them.

We were created in a mighty multitude, and I believe God knew what He was doing when He made us different. Different brings creativity, it brings unknown joys, it brings solutions. I don’t need you to light candles at my house to believe that you are doing what you can to make the world a better place.

Every year at about this time, we hear over and over again, as we rush about our business,  that we don’t focus enough on “what really matters.” We hear from Jews who are sick of being wished a Merry Christmas, Christians who believe that one could, actually, take the Christ out of Christmas, and worshippers of the Simple who decry the cultural trappings of the whole thing. Our national anxiety about being made a victim comes to the top, and it isn’t pretty.

We need to stop. Take a nap, maybe have a cookie, and then look at each other. We’re trying our best, almost all of us, I’m certain. Sure we need to focus on “what really matters,” but bottom line, that’s what we’re trying to do.

We’re human, so sometimes we don’t do it very well. But I am certain that when my Christian neighbors tell me “Merry Christmas,” they’re just wishing me well. And when parents buy a lot of plastic for their kids, they’re just hoping for that up-from-the-gut smile that only a kid can give. Neither of these things are bad; neither of them can reduce in any way the power of the Divine to guide and comfort us.

And after all of this is behind us, it will be a new year. Let’s agree to fill it with hope, and with as much light as we can muster, for the victims of Katrina who are still without homes; for the people living with AIDS in African shanty-towns; for Israeli and Palestinian children who are growing up afraid; for the women of Darfur who cannot get water for their families for fear they will be raped. The world is a dark place; we are the ones who can bring the light in.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.

(C) Chicago Tribune, 2005

Alice’s Restaurant, because: Tradition!

It occurred to me, having listened to “Alice’s Restaurant” on Chicago’s WXRT  at 11 am — as I do every single year on this day — that I should go ahead and post it here. BECAUSE IT’S THE BEST.

(And now, if you’re looking for entertainment, you can spend close to an hour right here, listening to Arlo, then watching the President, and finishing up with the classic WKRP turkey episode. I live to serve!)

(But Arlo’s the best).

The President would like a word.

Bo wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving.

I do, too. “Today we give thanks for blessings that are all too rare in this world.” Amen, amen.

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