Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Renew our days as of old

Filed under : America,Baseball,Depeche Mode,Judaism
On October 7, 2012
At 5:45 pm
Comments : 3

On the eve of Simchat Torah and the ALDS, a Baltimore tale with a little holiday sermon thrown in. Shana tovah!

Our story begins in the early 80’s but we’re going to jump ahead to 2006, to a story I told in this very blog, about visiting Baltimore. While there, I walked from my hotel where I was staying as a guest of the lovely Dr. Toad, across downtown Baltimore to the nearest synagogue. I had to do this because I was saying Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, for my mother at that time, and you need to say it with a communal group, or minyan. The area to which I was headed, although I did not know it, is called Jonestown, but it’s not in Guyana, it’s just to the east of the Inner Harbor. While walking there, in 2006 remember, I crossed into something totally unexpected, a new development. I mean, literally, a new development. New rowhouses were being built and green spaces and squares and roads. It was a totally new neighborhood within a city that was three hundred years old and fully developed. I was really thunderstruck and curious. At the time, I was also struck by the synagogue (I wrote about that part in 2006) and how old and beautiful it was and what was it doing right there, just east of the downtown in what seemed like the last place on earth you’d imagine a Jewish neighborhood. Last week, I found out what that neighborhood was and why that synagogue was there through two completely separate means, except that both were through Google. Oh, and clearly, since they did have Google in 2006, I wasn’t curious enough to find out then. Plus, I found out what happened to the thing I haven’t yet mentioned from the early 80’s and how that ties in. Onwards!

(Oh my God, I’m going to mention The Wire again, be warned).

If you know any behind the scenes things about The Wire, you know that the “high rise towers” that get blown up somewhere in, I think, Season 3, were a liberty taken by the producers, and that, in fact, all the “tower” public housing in Baltimore city was demolished before the show even started. But it’s based on the time that David Simon was reporting for the Baltimore Sun and they had those towers then. I think it’s generally acknowledged, and I recommend again “the Pruitt-Igoe Myth” that high-rise housing projects are a big, huge failure and most cities got rid of them. The last ones to be imploded in Baltimore, and this was after I left and stopped paying attention, were called Flag House Courts and they were blown up in 2001 (appropriately on July 4th, as the flag house in that neighborhood is the one where the flag that was “still there” was sewn). I was reading about Flag House Courts, and I can’t remember why, but I found that what replaced the housing project was a new development. A new development in Jonestown. It opened up in 2005 and 2006. So now, six years later, my mystery is solved. It was a new neighborhood built on top of the footprint of the imploded housing project and it was called Albemarle Square.

But what was there before public housing? A slum, according to what I have read. But way before that, it was a Jewish neighborhood and there is still the synagogue and a few delis to let you know that. Almost all the Jews moved away to Northwest Baltimore, which is where I lived right after college. The synagogues went with them. And therein lies Part II of our tale.

When I was a kid, we used to visit Baltimore every year for the holiday which begins tonight, Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. That’s the one where the cycle of Torah readings, one each week, begins again, and we celebrate that. My mother’s college roommate had moved to Baltimore and we came each year and spent that holiday with her family. Their neighborhood wasn’t in Northwest Baltimore, it was in Baltimore County and the Internet variously calls that area Old Court, Milford Mill, Randallstown, and Pikesville. When I was a tween and teen, I called it Baltimore. This is what I would also call a tale of real estate. Because what’s the first thing you look for? Location, location, location. A new Jewish academy had opened there and lots of Jews thought it would be the place to be. But that didn’t really happen. As I found after college, the Orthodox Jews remained in Northwest Baltimore where they are to this day. The last time I was in the Old Court area was probably 1991. It seems to have gone downhill as a Jewish community since then. How did I find this out? Let’s go to The Google.

While I was looking at things about synagogues in Jonestown, I found the name of our family friends’ synagogue in Old Court. Really? Had it been in Jonestown? Yes! The congregation in the modernish, 60s-esque building I knew from my childhood had originally been located in the city and it dated from the 19th century. Eventually, according to this great site, it moved to Pimlico. And then, the site simply says, it moved to “the county.” I went to Google Maps to look it up, expecting to see the new frontier building I remembered so well, but confusingly, it was an empty, grassy field. What happened? I Googled the synagogue and listings now say, “closed in 2007.”


Here I was going to post a link to a lovely blog post found about the closing of the synagogue, with great pictures, and which told some of the story. And then I realized through little teeny details that it was by the son of my parents’ friends. The Internet is a small place, people! So you will have to do without that, because I am just private enough to not want to send a pingback there. But he, like most people I knew there, moved to the more vibrant northwest in the 90’s. I found other articles, one from 1998 about efforts the synagogue was making to attract more members and another about the closing. The Rabbi, who was a sweet, learned man, and had led the shul since 1952 “refused to comment.”

So here is this synagogue, which began in the 1800’s in the area known as Jonestown/Flag House Courts/Albemarle Square and moved out to Pimlico and then Old Court, and now has had to close (in 2007…. I’m late). I looked up the address of my parents’ friends who we used to visit…. they too moved to the northwest (and their kids live there with their families, too). Sometimes, you just gamble wrong on where the community is going to be.

I think cities live and die, people and communities move, neighborhoods change and change back, and even sports teams relocate. But we adapt and come back. And as the Orioles begin their first postseason in fifteen years, I wish them luck and I hope Baltimore, too, is rejuvenated.

If not, they’ll just fire the mayor and trade all the city council members to the Dodgers.

(Title does NOT come from this song… it’s an instrumental, aside from everything else).

I have mentioned that for me, the song Oberkorn (It’s a small town) reminds me of Baltimore. The song is exactly 30 years old this month. In the comments of a fascinating article about A Broken Frame’s 30th anniversary, someone says of Oberkorn (it was a B-side from that record), “[Depeche Mode] never really touched on that mood before or since.” I think that’s true. It is a strange, wistful mood, and one I love.

I never would have imagined they ever played it live but here it is, hidden in the intro to the far bigger song, “My Secret Garden” from a 1982 concert.


Thanks, but I’ll be having chicken

Filed under : Judaism
On September 16, 2012
At 3:15 pm
Comments : 3

To continue our Wire theme and paraphrase De’Londa Price, this week is one of them Jew holidays. I say that because this is what my grocery store does on what I’m sure they also call a “Jew holiday:” place every Jew food on an endcap and put it on sale. I don’t know anyone who eats tea biscuits specially for Rosh Hashanah, but there you are (spot the matzah at the ends of the bottom shelf!). The one appropriate thing in this display is the honey, which we eat so that we’ll have a sweet new year. And I wish you all a sweet new year, full of good health, happiness, and prosperity.

I have a feeling if you are the maker of Tam Tam crackers, this is already happening for you.

I also enjoyed how someone spotted the on-sale honey and switched their more expensive honey bear, leaving it on the display. I do that all the time; sorry grocery stock people.

U2 – Wild Honey


What do you want, a cookie?

Filed under : Food,Judaism,Reasons to be cheerful
On March 8, 2012
At 11:45 pm
Comments : 5

Sorry I’m late! It’s been a hectic few days… Purim really needs to fall on a Monday more of the time. Anyhoo, this post is really for me, because I have found this blog to be an invaluable tool to remembering what I make each year. I actually wanted to make a cookie I saw from a few years ago and have totally forgotten what it is or where I got the recipe. Oops.

Most of these are old standbys, but here goes, around the horn:
1. At top, brown sugar poundcake. So easy, so tasty.
2. At right, chocolate chip crack, everyone’s favorite (seriously, people at work want to marry this).
3. Mid-bottom, Hamantaschen, in my traditional raspberry and Nutella (I found better quality seedless raspberry jam this year – hurrah!).
4. New entry this year, although I used to make them all the time, orange spritz cookies. I love these but getting the cookie shooter out and then cleaning it is always a pain. Making up for that slightly is that the cookies are super-quick to actually form (that’s the “shooter” part of the thing). Also, that they’re fabulous, with fresh orange taste. Zesty!

Guest-starring: various Israeli candies, a tea bag.

So there we are, hope you had a happy Purim or live near someone who shared cookies!

Title comes from a comment I saw on Slate in response to someone who made that tedious “I don’t even own a television” comment someone always has to make on posts about modern life.


Jew & A – 13 Candles

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism,Reasons to be cheerful
On March 1, 2012
At 11:45 pm
Comments : 6

My favorite veterinarian and owner of shiny, shiny hair, Mary/Dr. Toad, writes:
My son Alec has been invited to a bar mitzvah. He is invited to both the formal part and the party afterwards.

While his friend has done a good job informing everyone as to what this means, I still have no clues about some stuff.

What does one wear to these things? I realize that the formal part needs dress up clothes (shirt/tie) but the party is being held at a local arcade type place.

I assume a gift is appropriate, but have no clue as to what type of gift. Should it be something religiously significant? Sadly, I’ve gotten nothing but gift cards for most occasions lately as my grocery store is open 24 hours and carries gift cards for most places and it’s on the way to every event. I’m pretty pathetic.

Magic Jewball, save me!

This could be my most subjective, take a stab in the dark answer yet. Both because this is highly dependent on where you live/nature of the celebrating family/type of affair and because I am no longer really on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit and definitely not as a friend of the celebrant. Back in my day, it was a popular gift to give a Polaroid camera, if that tells you anything.

So, with that caveat, I’ll take my stab and then invite others to join me in the social hall, uh, comment area, where we’ll enjoy a kiddush sponsored by the proud grandparents and give further advice.

To fill in everyone else, the actual main part of a Bar Mitzvah celebration usually takes place in a synagogue where the Bar or Bat Mitzvah (this term actually refers to the young person and not the party – he is a Bar Mitzvah and she is a Bat Mitzvah) will be called to the bimah (a raised platform at the front of the synagogue) to chant the Torah portion of the week and/or the Haftorah portion, which is a sort of matching reading culled from the last two thirds of the Hebrew Bible (what y’all would call the Old Testament). It is sung in an ancient melody and the Torah and Haftorah each have their own. The blessings said before and after each section of the reading (there are seven on the Sabbath) are considered an honor and so the Bar or Bat Mitzvah may also or alternately be called up to say the blessings. This being “called up” is actually the point and it is literally called an aliyah or “going up.” A Jew is not allowed to say these blessings before becoming a Bar (age 13) or Bat (age 12) Mitzvah so this is a big, big deal and everyone will be excited and congratulatory. It is a huge moment in the life of a Jewish person. From that time on, a Jew is responsible for his/her actions and takes on more of the responsibilities detailed in Jewish law.

Being that this part happens in the synagogue, dressing up, as you say, would be a good idea. The party afterwards differs immensely from person to person and some people have one party for everyone and one just for kids. An evening shindig at a hotel will probably require different styles than the one you describe at the arcade. I would guess that will probably be informal and kids will wear what they usually wear to kid parties at arcades, or maybe a shade nicer? Maybe the best thing to do might what we ladies have been since time immemorial and do the “but what are YOU wearing?” thing with moms of other kids attending. Then if you’re wrong you can all be wrong together!

And now to the gift question which I know puzzles lots of people. Here’s my take and others can offer theirs. I LOVE giving Jewish ritual objects or things with religious significance for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. But, you know, I’m Jewish, and know what to get. If I were invited to a baptism, I’d really have no idea and I’d assume no one expected me to give anything religious. So no worries about that. No one expects Jewish stuff from non-Jews. Some people like to say, “you’re supposed to give money. And it has to be in multiples of $18.” This drives me crazy. Money is a fine gift but it is in no way what you’re supposed to give. There’s really nothing that falls into the “you’re supposed to” realm with Bar Mitzvah gifts. There’s just “that would be appropriate” or “that’s a nice gift.” Same with multiples of $18 (corresponds to the word “life” in Hebrew). It’s nice but in no way required. Many people do, many people don’t. Gift cards are just fine (in any denomination) and I have given ones to Amazon to cousins myself (we can be both be pathetic!). Lots of it depends on your relationship to the boy. Your nephew? Something personal. Your co-worker’s kid? Money is swell. Your son can ask his friends what they are giving but I think you are totally safe with a GC.

Mazal tov to the Bar Mitzvah and I hope Alec enjoys the party. Thanks for writing!


Jew & A – At the Circus

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism,Reasons to be cheerful
On February 28, 2012
At 11:45 pm
Comments : 6

It’s late and I need to remain cheerful so let’s get to it!

Friend of JBall (but not Derek & Alex) Elena asks:
Becca, I’m cataloging a book on the history of Jewish theater in Gdansk, Poland, and the English summary says the Talmud “directly forbids going to theaters and circuses because they are places of sinful idolatry and blasphemy”. Do Orthodox Jews still follow this instruction? Or it is considered a very old-fashioned viewpoint? I always knew clowns were evil!

OMG, this happened to me last time when I was at the Ringling Brothers when all around me, vendors were hawking cotton candy and fresh, hot idols. And the kids! What blasphemers. No, actually, the Talmud is referring to the types of circuses they had back then, which, when combined with theaters, were the kind of entertainment you’d leave your home for in the evening. Circuses and theaters of the Talmudic period did indeed often involve a ritual sacrifice (I guess it was the national anthem of its day). Plus, the rabbis of the Talmud were extremely wary of anything that might bring Jews into contact with idolators and their ways, which is why Judaism can be so strict and probably why it has survived all this time. Hannukah, as we’ve discussed a few times, is about the struggle of Jews to resist the influence of another culture… one which prized theaters and circuses. So the prohibition was twofold: to avoid the sacrifices to idols and foreign gods that took place at circuses and theaters of that period and to avoid mixing with the wrong element and taking on their ways.

Nowadays, the ritual sacrifices have mostly gone away, what with all the coming attractions they have to squeeze in at the multiplex and the way it kept reducing the number of performing animals in the circus. As I’ve mentioned, “Orthodox” can mean a lot of things, from someone who keeps mostly Kosher to people who dress in the garb of the 18th century and won’t sit next to the opposite gender on the bus. This latter group, the ultra-Orthodox, still avoid entertainments such as theater and circuses, but also TV and radio. On the other end of the scale, it’s recognized that our pastimes of today bear little resemblance to those of which the Talmudic population were fearful. So yes! And no! But I do wonder whether the Jews of Gdansk were strict about it. And whether clowns are evil because they secretly worship Baal.

Here is my favorite circus memory, because I know you meant to ask but just ran out of space. Mmm hmm. When I was in my early 20’s, a cousin and I took my nieces and nephews, all under 10, to the circus. We bought them treats (no idols). We saw acrobats. We saw clowns. We saw animals do tricks. It was (and this is totally my own phrase) the greatest show on earth. Afterwards, we returned the children to their parents and Sister1 asked them, “did you have a good time? What was your favorite part?” My nephew didn’t hesitate and answered, “it was the best thing ever! When the elephant peed right in the middle of the ring!” Wow, was I glad I had spent that money.

Thanks for writing in, Elena! If I can stay awake then, we’ll get to another Jew & A question from another of my favorite people tomorrow.

If you were looking for the happy thing in this post, it was right there! The circus. It’s almost circus season! And if you can’t be happy at the circus, there’s something wrong with you. Or you’re a Hasid. Or you’re afraid of clowns. Could even be both.

If that didn’t make you happy, the title comes from a Marx Brothers movie. Go watch it! We’ll still be here counting down the happy tomorrow.

Wow, I haven’t heard this song in a million years. I can’t believe I threw this cassette out in the mid-90’s.
Erasure – The Circus