What do Yiddish-speaking chickens, screaming latkes, and a pig who really, really wants to be kosher have in common?
They’re all characters featured in Jewish Books Cooking, a children’s theater show that brings eight popular, contemporary children’s books to life with bright characters and catchy songs.
Jewish Books Cooking (JBC) is a project made possible by The Covenant Foundation. The show debuted earlier this year in New York City. Created and directed by Liz Swados, the New York production of Jewish Books Cooking was mounted at several venues around the city. This December, along with a new director, new music director, and new cast, the show is also going to have a whole new destination – the Deep South.
How does a show like JBC wind up traveling through the South? It happened how it always happens in show biz, baby: “ya know a guy.”
While preparing for the inaugural New York production, the staff at Covenant thought about how great it might be to bring a peppy show like this to smaller communities. They would need a director for the touring show, and an organizational partner with connections to smaller communities…
But they knew a guy – or, in this case, a gal – and they knew of just such an organization. So they made a few phone calls. They called me (because I’m a theater nerd who lives in Mississippi, and was lucky enough to intern with Covenant awhile back). They called the ISJL (since they’re an organization located in Mississippi, accustomed to partnering and delivering programming to smaller communities). They posed the question: what do you think about teaming up to bring JBC to Southern cities – smaller communities that aren’t always reached by this sort of performance?
Everyone was excited about the idea. I mean, who wouldn’t want to bring something totally different to Southern audiences … namely, a children’s show filled with moxie-rich Jewish stories, not to mention all the kooky, rapping, dancing, hilarious characters?
In short order we had actors, venues, and everything else the recipe called for to stir up a Southern helping of Jewish Books Cooking. Though a lot to wrangle, this has been a fun and rewarding process. The stories included in the show are all upbeat, sometimes poignant, sometimes zany, but never dull. The music gets stuck in your head for days — in a good way, as the entire cast can assure you. And even the craziest of the characters is charming and relate-able, especially as conveyed by our talented actors. (These guys are pros: they go from being rats to parrots to witches to fried foods, without batting an eye!)
Directing JBC has been a treat. But best of all, knowing that this show will travel around and delight audiences who might not see anything like it all year … well. It’s practically a theatrical Chanukah miracle.
Next week, this show hits the road, traveling to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, and closes out right here in Jackson, Mississippi. The show is free, and the Southern touring production will be followed by a family program focused on exploring Jewish stories and sharing family bedtime rituals. The program was written and will be implemented by the ISJL Education Department staff – so it’ll be just as fun as the show itself.
Welllllllllll, maybe it’ll be more fun. I mean, the show is pretty hard to beat. Did I mention there’s a Yiddish-speaking chicken?
If JBC is coming to a city near you, find more info here and go check it out! In the meantime, tell us: what’s your favorite Jewish children’s story?
Hey girl! I read the open letter written to you by that rabbi in Dallas. You know, the one where he claims you’re not really a Jewish woman? ‘Cause apparently unless you’re married (presumably to a dude of Jewish descent), raising Jewish kids, refraining from “making public what is private”… the list goes on and on, but the point is: according to him, you’re not actually a Jewish woman.
And oh yeah, since you’re being cheeky while also not meeting certain critical fertility-related requirements, and therefore are not really a Jewish woman, you MUST REFRAIN FROM co-opting, referring to, or riffing on any “traditional Jewish terminology … because to do so is a lie.”
Like, that video you made encouraging folks to get out to the ballots? “Let My People Vote”? According to the letter, cease and desist, yo! You can’t use phrases like that! They rip off the Bible. You’re not really Jewish, he claims, so you have no right to such sacrilegious wordplay! More than two million views and energizing young voters, be damned! (I mean, for real. That’s what he said. Sigh.)
Well, I understand that religious differences abound. I don’t want to be disrespectful to the Texas rabbi, only two states over from me as I sit here in Mississippi. Instead, I wanted to reach out to you, to let you know that I feel your pain. ‘Cause according to him, I’m not a Jewish woman, either. Maybe I’m really a small Irish boy who practices Jain! Who knows? I am not what I thought I was!
I’m afraid a mass identity crisis may well be on the horizon. Because I’m pretty sure a lot of us ladies who thought we were Jewish – snarky, single-past-30, social-justice-oriented – just learned that we’re outta the tribe.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m in your tribe.
So, um, what are you doing next week? Want to go get some coffee and compare comedy bits and dating advice? We can meet up wherever it is that the tribe of Make-‘Em-Laugh-and-Make-a-Difference, Oops-Always-Thought-We-Were-Being-Our-Authentic-Jewish-Selves chicks are allowed to hang out.
(Also, let’s come up with a catchier name for our tribe.)
PS Your dad’s responses to the piece were totally awesome, even if NSFW. Guess that runs in the family! He can be in our club, even if he’s not a Formerly Jewish Woman. I also liked him mentioning your rabbi-sister, who, incidentally, was a mentor of mine in college. Small world, huh?
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience has a collection of over 3,000 objects and archival materials that tell the story of Southern Jewish communities. This includes temple sisterhood minutes, Jewish store memorabilia and objects from temples that are no longer active. I’m excited to use this space to share some pieces that best illustrate the history of these communities.
I’ll start with one of my favorites, a collection of youth group scrapbooks from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale, most famously known as home of the Blues, also happened to have some Jews. We have 8 books from 1962-1975 in our collection but this one from 1970 stands out because of its ornate custom circular design and hand drawn calligraphy. Someone crafty was clearly excited about being yearbook editor.
The Clarksdale Jewish community has a long history, starting with early Jewish settlers in the 1880’s. At its peak in the 1930’s, Clarksdale was home to 400 Jews, but by 1970 the community was only a hundred families; the youth group had 25 members. This group was active in the community and participated in regional conclaves that enabled them to network with other Jewish teens in the SOFTY (Southern Federation of Temple Youth) region.
Here are some of the gems from their scrapbook:
I can’t help but wonder what these kids would have thought about their book being cataloged into this museum archive. Could they have known that their thick rimmed glasses would come back into style 40 years later? Would they have included their “play on marijuana,” featuring a progressive dialogue between teenagers and their parents on the merits of the drug?
These scrapbooks are especially telling of the Southern experience because it was this generation of young people who did not stay in Clarksdale or other Delta towns to grow the Jewish community but moved to larger cities like Memphis for greater opportunity. As a result, the community could no longer sustain the congregation and, like many pieces in our collection, these artifacts are from a temple that had to shut its doors.
They are paper and glue relics of the past since today most of our memories are posted to digital pages on Facebook. These should inspire you to print out your favorite Instagram shots and paste some into a book. You never know what important material (or embarrassing hair cut) you’ll be leaving for historians to blog about in the future.