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Things to Do During Heritage Month

May 8, 2013 By:
Rebecca Soffer, JTA
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NEW YORK 

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a commemoration first recognized by President George W. Bush in 2006. Since then, hundreds of programs have taken place nationwide annually to honor the countless contributions of Jews to American culture and society.

President Obama added to the annual festivities by launching an annual White House bash. But this year’s party was canceled because of the sequester.

Not to worry: In anticipation of the big month, we’re suggesting 31 activities to keep you busy each day in May. You’ll see some of the usual suspects, but we have included plenty of new ideas in entertainment, food and travel, and overall fun.

For a rundown of official Jewish American Heritage Month events, visit: www.jahm.us. You can also follow @USAJewish on Twitter. Here are 30 more things to do to celebrate this month:

Make cholent. Our people are into stews. So is it really surprising that the great American Crock-Pot originally was coined the Naxon Beanery All-Purpose Cooker after its Jewish inventor, Irving Naxon? Naxon, who died in 1989 with more than 200 patents to his name, conceived an inexpensive and safe heating element inspired by his mother’s tales of making the traditional Sabbath meat-and-potato stew — a nearly 24-hour process — in her Lithuanian shtetl (Naxon’s daughter, Lenore Naxon, recently wrote about her family memories for the Beyond Bubbie online food project). Not into the idea of cholent? Toss anything into a Crock-Pot, from lentils to grits to an entire chicken, and thank Mr. Naxon for making cooking so darn easy.

Celebrate Hollywood’s female showrunners. In case you hadn’t heard, Jewish-American women are taking the entertainment world by the beitsim. Writer-director-producer Jill Soloway won the 2013 Sundance Award for U.S. Dramatic Directing for her debut film, Afternoon Delight (she also founded the Los Angeles community organization, East Side Jews).

Allison Silverman, the former co-executive producer of the Colbert Report, has been penning episodes for The Office and Portlandia, the IFC show starring hipster Jew Carrie Brownstein. And creator-star-writer-director Lena Dunham, she of the $3.6 million book proposal, has turned the HBO series Girls into a cultural sensation along with showrunner Jenni Konner. Buy a movie ticket, subscribe to HBO or tune in to NBC, and thank the ladies for the laughs.

Start a book club. Put down the “Angry Birds” and dive into a tale written by a young American Jewish author. Some ideas to start out the list: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander’s elegant and darkly humorous collection of short stories; Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, Rebecca Dana’s debut memoir about living with a lapsed Chasidic rabbi in Crown Heights while nursing a broken heart; and Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, Jessica Soffer’s (no relation) debut novel inspired by her love of cooking and her Iraqi Jewish heritage. All are available on Amazon, Kindle and Audible.com.

Take a Philip Roth bus tour. Novelist Philip Roth, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, turned 80 in March, and his hometown of Newark, N.J., has rolled out the red carpet for celebrations in honor of the man referred to as the greatest living American writer. The Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee is running a bus tour showcasing highlights from his novels and early life in the city.

It’s not too late to check out “Philip Roth: An Exhibit of Photos From a Lifetime,” a show of some 100 photographs running through Aug. 31 at the Newark Public Library. Can’t get to North Jersey? Check out the next PBS American Masters airing of Philip Roth: Unmasked, a documentary featuring the author discussing intimate aspects of his life, or just reread Portnoy’s Compaint and call your mother, already! For all things Roth, visit: rothsociety.org.

Write a poem. American Jews have produced a rich variety of poetry, including Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Robert Pinsky’s tributes to baseball, and Adrienne Rich’s feminist and lesbian fury.

A notable example is Emma Lazarus, a New York Jew and early Zionist of Sephardic descent who wrote the sonnet, “The New Colossus” in 1883 at age 34, shortly after witnessing the Russian pogroms. If you don’t recognize the title, how about the lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They appeared on a bronze plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, 16 years after her death.

If you’re feeling so inspired, you can compose your own poem on Smith Mag’s online Six Words on Jewish Life page. You can also read a compilation of its best submissions, including the late Nora Ephron’s words of wisdom: “Secret to life: marry an Italian.”

Rock out. American Jews have long embraced pop, rock and hip-hop. We all know about the Beastie Boys, Van Halen and the Bangles (Susanna Hoffs is a nice Jewish girl from LA).

Discover some newer bands this month, such as the San Francisco-based punk duo Happy Fangs, featuring singer Rebecca Bortman, a Pittsburgh Jew; New York City’s The Sway Machinery, whose amalgamated style is rooted in band leader Jeremiah Lockwood’s early experience singing in the choir of his grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg; and L.A.’s indie-folk pop duo The Wellspring, whose members Talia Osteen and Dov Rosenblatt had an official showcase at this year’s SXSW festival and who are scoring tracks for the upcoming feature film, “Coffee Town.”

Laugh with the classics. Pray that a rainy day in May gives you an excuse to enjoy some classic American Jewish wit on film. Choose any or all of the following for a guaranteed better day: Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan or Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.

Speaking of Woody, check out this clip showing his infamous stammers recorded on film (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/26/every-woody-allen-stammer_n_293...). It was edited together by two guys at the Huffington Post with what we assume must be a large amount of free time on their hands.

Visit South Florida. Though the old haunts like Wolfie’s and Rascal House only live on in nostalgic anecdotes, one can easily re-create a classic Miami Beach Jewish experience with a little creativity. Step 1. Fly to Miami Beach. Step 2. Change into pastels. Step 3. Play some shuffleboard at North Shore Park and Youth Center. Step 4. Start a mah jongg game at the new JCC. Step 5. Enjoy a bagel and schmear at the 40-year-old Sage Bagel and Appetizer Shop in nearby Hallandale Beach. Step 6. Take a respite from the heat by splashing around in the Atlantic while shrieking “What a mechaya!” Rinse and repeat.

Go to therapy. According to a 2012 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health, American Jews are significantly more open-minded to therapy and more tolerant of the stigma associated with it than participants in other groups. Jewish openness to psychological treatment shouldn’t come as a big surprise, given Woody Allen’s love affair with psychotherapy and the groundbreaking work of such American Jewish psychologists as cognitive behavior therapy pioneer Aaron Beck and social psychologist Thelma Alper.

There’s also the generations-long tradition of Jews dispensing shrewd and practical advice through therapy’s more accessible cousin, the advice column: examples include Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer (aka Ann Landers); Emily Yoffe’s “Dear Prudence” column on Slate.com; and the Jewish Daily Forward’s Bintel Brief, where for more than 60 years, editors addressed the profound and humorous quandaries of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant population.

Ask questions. Do you know your mother’s earliest memory? What about your grandmother’s? Embrace the most Jewish of traditions by asking questions about a relative’s life while he or she is still around to tell his or her stories. Whether it’s a conversation about a wartime experience, being a teenager in 1950s America or how they would like to be remembered, you’ll be thankful you took the time to get an oral history from someone you love.

To record an interview, head to the nearest StoryCorps booth. If there’s not one nearby, it’s easier than ever to become your own sound studio: Check out The Next Web’s recommendations for DIY recording. You may even want to ask a son or daughter.

Make Bob Dylan a birthday cake. Embrace all things Robert Allen Zimmerman during his 72nd birthday month. Visit his birth town, Duluth, Minn., for Dylan Days, a lineup of Dylan-inspired activities running from May 23 to 26. While you’re there, drive by his childhood home in Hibbing, Minn. Listen to “The Essential Bob Dylan,” available on iTunes. Read his autobiography, Chronicles One.

Watch I’m Not There, the 2007 musical biopic starring six actors as different versions of Dylan (Cate Blanchett won a Golden Globe for her performance). And try to spot the Jewish influences throughout his works, from “Highway Sixty One Revisited” to his 1961 yodeling in “Talkin’ Hava Nagila Blues.”

Get to know a sports hero. That scene in Airplane was an exaggeration: the list of famous Jewish sports legends would fill much more than a pamphlet. Watch last month’s DVD re-release of The Life And Times of Hank Greenberg, a documentary on the “Hebrew Babe Ruth.”

Pick up Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame,  the recently published compilation of essays on Jewish male and female sports figures edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. And check out The First Basket, a documentary about the enormous role played by American Jews shaping the sport of basketball, including the first points scored in the Basketball Association of America (the NBA’s precursor) by the New York Knickerbockers’ Ossie Schectman in 1946.

Get on Twitter. If you still need an excuse to start tweeting, follow the Modern Seinfeld feed (@SeinfeldToday). Started last December by Buzzfeed sports editor Jack Moore and comedian Josh Gondleman, the account has amassed a whopping half-million followers who re-imagine the sitcom’s plot lines set in today’s world.

Some more memorable ideas include Kramer’s use of a gay app to meet friends, George getting dumped for texting on the toilet, Elaine’s Pinterest addiction, Jerry getting dumped for not liking Beyoncé and Newman’s forbidden romance with the Flowers.com delivery woman. This feed is about anything but nothing.

Find your match. Spring is finally here, so rewrite that dusty profile, or write up one for the first time, and dive into the online dating world. Need further convincing? One in five people are now finding love online (possibly even more after counting the ones who don’t admit it).

As long as you avoid the statements, “I’m just as comfortable in Converse as I am in stilettos,” you’ll likely be better equipped to take charge of meeting your bashert than a shadchan (traditional Jewish matchmaker). Pick up some tips from “Spin Your Web: How to Brand Yourself for Successful Online Dating”by JDate.com columnist and dating coach Damona Hoffman.

Watch your back. The pursuits of Jewish American gangsters encompassed a cornucopia of criminal activities, including murder, racketeering, bootlegging, and prostitution. Read Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams, Rich Cohen’s investigation and anecdotal collection about the Jewish mafia, including one mobster who refused to whack anyone on the Sabbath.

Watch the 1991 Bugsy Siegel film Bugsy. Plan a visit to the new The Mob Museum in Las Vegas, where you can learn more about infamous figures such as Siegel, Monk Eastman, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and the ruthless Meyer Lansky, the cat’s-eye, pinky ring-wearing mobster who established an international gambling empire but, in true Jewish form, was still concerned with his grandson’s math grades.

Go to the market. You can easily make your next food shopping trip a nod to Jewish American contributions. Need hot sauce? In 1920, Jacob Frank and his business partner introduced Frank’s RedHot (fun fact: Frank’s RedHot Cayenne Pepper Sauce was the secret ingredient for the first Buffalo wing in 1964).

Making a sundae? Thank Aaron Lapin, a reformed clothier from Missouri whose 1947 Reddi-wip® whipped cream was the first aerosol food product on the market (hence earning him the title “The Whipped Cream King”).

Roasting a chicken? Look for one from Empire Kosher, founded in 1938 by Austrian immigrant Joseph Katz in his adopted home of Pennsylvania. Put all the ingredients in Oklahoman Sylvan Goldman’s shopping cart, which was first introduced in 1937 at his supermarket chain Humpty Dumpty.

Swing the night away. Invite some friends over for a night of American Jewish big band dancing. Prepare a soundtrack with “King of Swing” Benny Goodman’s soaring clarinet in “King Porter Stomp” and “One O’Clock Jump,” “King of the Clarinet” Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine” and “Interlude in B Flat,” and Gene Krupa’s energetic drumming in “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Drum Boogie.” Finish the night with a viewing of The Jazz Singer, the story of a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family to pursue his dream.

Learn a show tune. Watch the new PBS documentary Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, which investigates why the Broadway musical has proven such a long-standing success for Jewish artists (Cole Porter not among them, contrary to what many people assume).

The list of composers reads like an embarrassment of riches: Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, Company), Leonard Bernstein (On the Town,West Side Story, Candide), Jerome Kern (Showboat), Irving Berlin (White Christmas, Easter Parade) and Frank Loesser (The Most Happy Fella, Guys and Dolls), to name a mere few.

Keep an eye out for local professional, community or high school productions of these musicals. In the meantime, several film versions are available on Netflix or iTunes.

Rebecca Soffer is a New York-based writer and producer who has worked at “The Colbert Report” and Reboot. She tweets from @rebeccasoffer.

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