12/18/2014

A Christmas Memory Off Broadway Style


Last evening, December 17, 2014, my sister, Jo-Ann  and I went to see an off Broadway production of Truman Capote's story, "A Christmas Memory" at the DR2 (Daryl Roth 2) Theatre (The Irish Repertory Theatre). I smiled from beginning to end, though occasionally the smile turned downwards. for there were some bittersweet moments. It was clearly a collaborative effort among 7 outstanding actors, at least 3 musicians (I say at least, because they are artfully placed behind the lovely and simple set and we never actually see them, though they are a recurring audio-presence, adding so much to the whole of this production), the author of the book written for the play, based on the book by Capote, the composer of the music and the lyricist who wrote the words to 16 beautiful songs, some sung in unison, others by just one of the actors or a duo or trio with pleasing harmonies, humor, warmth and sincerity, and last but not least, Queenie, the cute little dog that intermittently graces the stage. All of these parts come together as an outstanding whole, which I would call a Play with Music, as opposed to a Musical, This reminds me of the blog I wrote about 5 years ago, "Next to Normal",for which I also had a very hard time fitting into one specific theatrical genre. Suffice it to say that both were completely satisfying theatrical experiences. 

The 7 wonderful actors were all new to me, with the exception of Alice Ripley, whom I absolutely loved in her Tony award winning performance as Diana in the 2009 production, "Next To Normal". In the book, "A Christmas Memory", the story is told by Buddy (based on a young Truman Capote), about himself and his relationship with his much older,distant cousin, Sook. Their relationship is the center of both the book and the play, and it is its heart and soul. Alice Ripley did such a beautifully subtle interpretation of cousin Sook in her pure feelings of love and friendship for Buddy, as well as her innocence, which seems to others in the family as childlike, not responsible, but, in reality, it is she who was responsible for giving her friend, Buddy, the assurance that there was someone in his life who looked after him and cared for and about him. I also really liked how Ripley's Sook dealt with her expression of her religion, in a straightforward, honest and non-confrontational way. It almost made me want to believe like she did. 

In this production, the other characters who are more or less just referenced in the book, are brought to life to support and expand on the core relationship between Buddy and Sook. I just loved the adult Buddy, played by Ashley Robinson. He was not only believable as the man you would imagine young Buddy becomes, but also as Truman Capote, whom Buddy did become.There was something in his smile and the twinkle in his eyes, behind those round, black glasses, that brought authenticity to his role as the adult Buddy and as Capote, himself. and that bonded the characters of Buddy, young and older. The boy who plays Young Buddy was also true to the character in Capote's small tender book. This young actor, Silvano Spagnuolo's performance, was fresh and real and filled with an innocence and wonderment that I think was much more present in a child of 1933 than one in 2014. I am not sure that it is so easy for a young child actor to accomplish all of this, but, accomplish it, he did. And what's more, I couldn't take my eyes off of him because he so closely resembled the son of a nephew (hint-hint Eran and Daniel). 

Sook's sister, Jennie, also Buddy's cousin, pretty much rules the roost in this spreading old house in Monroeville, Alabama, made warm and "homey" by Sook, yet cold and unyielding by Jennie. Jennie is as strict and demanding as her sister, Sook, is loving and easy-going. However,there is a wonderful song sung by Nancy Hess, the actress who plays Jennie, that besides for being a lovely song, serves to make her character into a more dimensional person, allowing the viewer to see beyond her harsh rigidness and into her heart's desire for young Buddy to become his greater self. I didn't want to see Buddy sent off to a military school and I am sure it was pure hell for the real Truman Capote, as a sensitive, creative young boy, but this song helped me to understand that what was behind Jennie's decision was, in her own way, love. 


Virginia Ann Woodruff plays the family's maid, Anna who acts as a conduit between the present time of the play,1955 and the past, 1933, In the present, 1955, the adult Buddy, comes back to the homestead out of nostalgia and to conclude some concrete business and an aging Anna immediately bonds with the grown up Buddy, whom she hadn't seen for so many years. Her songs and choreography add ragtime and blues to the musical mix. Samuel Cohen is wonderful as three very different characters in the play, adding integrity and humor to the production. The final character is the young girl who we know to be in real life, Harper Lee, Buddy's neighbor and friend. They have a kind of coy, love-hate relationship that boys and girls of a certain age have. Taylor Richardson plays Nelly Harper with  vivacity and charm.

In conclusion, I am grateful first and foremost that Truman Capote, originally Truman Streckful Persons (I would have changed that name too) saw fit to write the little gem of a book, called "A Christmas Memory" in 1956. I am grateful that The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City saw fit to make the book into a gem of a Play With Music in  2014. And I am grateful that I have a sister who shares my sensibilities, such that she appreciates both of these gems as much as I do. Until "fruitcake weather" comes again...I am a grateful reader and theater attendee...

"Imagine a morning in late November"
  ~Truman Capote
  ~ and Sherril Smoger-Kessous




         

2/05/2014

And The 2014 Oscar For Best Picture Goes To....

As my good friend Charles Osgood (I don't really know him, but I feel like I do) says on CBS' Sunday Morning, here's the Academy Awards, by the numbers. Today is February 5. The Academy Awards show is on March 2. I have seen 5 of the 9 nominated films. I have 25 more viewing days to see them all by Oscar night. 

I will review them in the order I viewed them

Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and featuring Barkhad Abdi and other native Somalis, tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-Flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. 

My expectations of the movie were more or less neutral. Upon coming out of the theater, I held it in high regard.  I cared very much about the characters. I knew that the captain was going to make it through, but I did not know how and I knew nothing about the other crew members, if and how they would survive. It speaks well of a movie when you care about these things. 

The other aspect of the film that was most riveting was the portrayal of the so called pirates by this group of previously unknown, non-actors who had been recruitedwell, actually they auditioned for the parts, from a Somali community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Barkhad Abdi and the others played the parts so well, they were so captivating that you felt like it was really happening, as though it had been videoed. I give the film a B+

Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (he also directed the movie), tells the story, based on the book,The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, of a world-weary political journalist (Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book) who half-halfheartedly decides to pick up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken from her decades before, after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent. My only complaint about the movie was the way Philomena was initially portrayed, as if she were in the thralls of early dementia. She appeared somewhat dim witted and lacking nuance in her comprehension of Martin's dialog. As the movie progressed, it became clear that she in fact had a sense of humor and was in complete control of her faculties. 

In any case, the film is filled with feeling, yet not at all sentimental. It is a well told story with excellent performances, perhaps award worthy for "Dame" Dench. I give it a B+

American Hustle, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Brad Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. (I would have seen it, if for no other reason than to see him in a movie) was a movie I did not expect to like. Just the 1970's clothes and slick and greasy and tightly curled and combed-over men's hairstyles were enough to turn my stomach. The story is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, of the late 70's, early 80's, in which the FBI employed con artists to carry out sting operations. I really was not that interested to see this played out.

Well, was I ever surprised to leave this movie thinking it may be the one to win that coveted Oscar. The film far exceeded my expectations. One description I read called it "delicious debauchery" and that just begins to tell the story. 

American Hustle was at one moment so intimate and real, that you felt yourself imposing by watching and then at another, so totally crazy, like zonky crazy, that you can't believe they are doing what they are doing, but they are and you can't take your eyes off the screen. I think every one of the main actors (female and male) is deserving of a prize. We'll see. I give this one an A. 

Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb (not very well known until now) was a movie that I expected to love, after seeing coming attractions and having read and heard several interviews of a few of the actors. I did not love it, quite the opposite. It was for the most part dreary and, dare I say it, boring. It was in Black & White, which often adds a special dimension to a movie, but in this case, I think some color may have added a much needed dimension. 

The 'road trip' scenes were long and tedious. After all, there's just so much one can watch the flat prairie land going by, before finding one's eyes closing. The 'father-son' scenes missed the mark. And the people scenes made Nebraskans look like a bunch of dead-heads (and I don't mean as in The Grateful Dead), at best and less than intelligent, at worst. If they were not sitting immobile faced in front of sport TV, they were trying to beg, borrow or steal the money they thought their otherwise uninteresting relative or friend had supposedly won in a sweepstakes.

In fairness, Bruce Dern played the part of Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic, overly-trusting and mostly catatonic character to a 'T'. However, he'd already played the part in the HBO series, "Big Love". There was one saving grace in the movie. The actress's name is Angela McEwan and she plays the part of Peg Nagy, the owner of the town's small newspaper, who tells Woody's son, Will Forte as David Grant, about the relationship she had had with Woody before he married. She was soft spoken and completely real. She  totally drew me in to her character, though she was only on the screen for a few minutes. I would have liked to have seen more of her. It may have changed my opinion of the movie. I give it a C-.

Her, stars Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johanson as the voice of the "operating system".  It is about a lonely writer of email letters for special occasions, who develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that is designed to meet his every need, by being programmed with intuition and desire to know and understand it's owner. 

I start this review with a question. Why did the main character, Theodore, wear his trousers high-waisted like a nerd from the 50's? And why did the fly on these pants start all the way up where the belt hoops ought to be, but were not, because there was no belt? OK, I think I may already know the answer or at least an explanation after the fact. I just did a bit of research and found this... "Joaquin Phoenix's high-waisted Her Trousers go on sale. The sci-fi pants worn by the hero of Spike Jonze's Oscar-tipped romance form the centerpiece of a new fashion collection inspired by the film. They are destined to be the legwear of choice for the hipster cineaste in 2014". 

I went into this movie wondering what it was about and more importantly, why? I knew it was directed and written by Spike Jonze (not to be confused with Spike Lee) and I'd done some homework on him before I went to see the movie, Where The Wild Things Are and I became interested in him from that. So, this movie, Her, had Spike Jonze in its favor.

The coming attractions looked, well, silly. And parts of the movie were silly, like when Theodore is running through a courtyard with a huge smile on his face and so happy to be alive because he's finally found his soul-mate, even if she is only virtual! Who doesn't want a significant other who really gets you, who truly likes, even loves you for exactly who you are. We all want that "perfect" someone, though in reality no one is perfect. Samantha (the name Theo's virtual love gives herself) is perfect, well she starts off perfect. 

What I liked about the film was that it made you think about relationship in general. I found myself thinking a lot throughout, like for example, how it's so much easier to know a person via emails and messaging than in person because you can be so smart and witty and you never have to actually smell a person's breath or be annoyed by a stupid expression on their face or...well, you get the idea. Going back to silly, or maybe not so much silly as predictable, the relationship with this gorgeous, sexy voice (a la Johanson) goes the way of (Spoiler Alert!) most relationships with flesh and blood; in that real emotions get in the way, like jealousy and fear and selfishness (is that an emotion?) and feeling abandoned. Amy Adams, who plays Amy, a neighbor and good friend of Theo, is one of the best things about the movie. She is one hell of an actor and it's no surprise that she's in two of the nominated films  and she herself is nominated for actress in a leading role in American Hustle.

I would not say I did not like this movie, as I expected not to, but I also didn't really like it a lot. I give it a C+. 

So, that's the 5 movies I've seen to date. Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave...await me.

Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is a movie that must be seen at the theater and preferably in -IMAX 3D. It's just that kind of movie. I believe, seen any other way, will lose what makes the movie so totally engrossing. Although it's always nice to keep your eyes peeled on the beautiful George Clooney, it is Sandra Bullock who makes the film amazing, well Bullock and all of the special effects. I loved seeing a space movie where the female astronaut was central and key to the meaning of the movie. It was one of those "I'm lost, but now I'm found" experiences, but this time done in outer space. 

I read a critique criticizing the direction and writing, both done by Alfonso Cuaron, better known for Y Tu Mama Tambien, for making Bullock's character, Ryan, not strong enough, not able enough and not nuanced enough. I might agree with the lacking of nuance in character development overall, but I found myself relating to Bullock's character because she was not a hero astronaut, but she got through it through her own tenacity, which at times seemed limited, but it pulled her through. The camera got so close to her face and it was here in her face, that you could see nuance. I loved her performance in this movie. 

Some may, and have, found fault with the movie, Gravity, but two things are for sure. One is that it has to win for best cinematography. Two is that despite any fault, I did not take  my eyes off of the screen for one second. It was that compelling. I give it a B+. 


Last evening I saw the 7th of the 9 movies nominated for Best Picture of 2013. The movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, was not an easy one for me to watch, but I watched it with absolute attention. It affected me on a visceral level and after the credits, I got up and shouted, “I hated that movie”, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of my movie-mate, Haim. In talking about the film, just after viewing it, I had a hard time thinking of it as merely a movie because I wasn't sure if, to some degree, it wasn't justifying the debauchery that it portrayed.

The film was an adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir chronicling his rise and fall on Wall Street and his hard-partying, addiction-fueled personal life, spilling and overflowing into his professional life. If the intent of the movie is to show the “American Dream” on Quaaludes, then it hit its mark. But what bothered me was that though the main character, who is the epitome of greed, lust, drunk on power, money grubbing, conceit and worse, he never really gets his just desserts. Yes, (spoiler alert!) he is ultimately found guilty of money laundering and some other financial misdeeds, but because he agrees to “cooperate” with the feds (who for me were the good guys here) and name names of his former close friends and associates, his punishment is minimal and in the end he still, to some extent, succeeds to succeed. Belfort's lack of comeuppance for his misdeeds, serves to highlight what is wrong with the economic world of America.

Many people will see The Wolf of Wall Street as a thoroughly entertaining movie. It is filled in excess with nudity, sex, profanity and drugs up the yin yang, to such an extent that it loses any shock value it may have had the first or second or third or fourth time around. Maybe that’s the point. 

From the point of view of movie making, I did think Leonardo DiCaprio was extraordinary. His face and body go through so many different permutations, I thought he was a chameleon. Jonah Hill was very good, but his teeth annoyed and distracted me. He reminded me of some other past actor that I couldn't and still can’t place.
Maybe it’s not fair to say, but I hope this film does not win any awards. I give it a C.

 Here's my updated analysis of "Wolf". I just watched the interview of Leonardo DiCaprio by Lee Cowan on CBS Sunday Morning and having learned why and how DiCaprio got the movie made, after 7 years trying, my opinion was altered. “Because the world that we live in seems to be very surreal sometimes," DiCaprio said, "The incessant need for more is a part of our culture, and I see it all around me. And you know, doing this movie we wanted to put that darker nature of humanity up on screen." I see the intention was not to laud the sickening excesses, but to expose it. I maintain that there was an excess of the excess...girls parading around nude and seducing the boorish men, having sexual intercourse on any available surface...point made, taken...move on!!! But, still I up my grade to a B.







I have been knocking my brain about to figure out who Jonah Hill reminded me of with those overstated teeth of his in "Wolf of Wall Street" and it just came to me. Alan King, the comedian and actor who I liked, but he too had that look of a mouth full of newly CAPPED TEETH!


Dallas Buyer's Club is the 8th of the 9 nominated films I have seen. Unfortunately I viewed this one on my TV via Amazon Instant Video. I say unfortunately because I don't think one ever gets the full effect of a movie by viewing it outside of the movie theater. I paused it a few times and I became distracted. But since the Academy Awards is next weekend, I am making exceptions to  my own rule.

My initial reaction to this movie was enough already with America's excess of decadence, enough alcohol abuse, enough drugs and enough illicit sex. I have seen enough degeneracy in the past few months of movie viewing to last me a life time. As the movie progressed, however, I understood why it was nominated for best picture, and Matthew McConaughey for best actor and especially, Jared Leto for best supporting actor. 

The film takes place in 1985 Dallas, where an electrician and hustler, Ron Woodroof (another movie based on the real character), is filled with anger when diagnosed with AIDS (must be a mistake, "I'm not a homosexual"), and works around the system to get the medications he needs, by any means. He eventually starts a "buyers club" to help other AIDS patients get medications not available in the US, while, of course, filling his own pockets. Talk about hard to watch, viewing the good looking actor, Matthew McConaughey as a stick thin sickly looking victim, one must give him credit for his total lack of vanity in playing this role. He plays it beautifully (in the broadest sense of the word). 

If eliciting tears is an indication of greatness, this movie will win for sure. But, then crying is one of my strengths, some might even say easily elicited. Once again America's foibles take center stage, greed, stupidity, lack of compassion and over-bureaucratizing .  This time it is seen in pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment and the FDA. The movie isn't always easy to watch, but it's easy to see why you should. I give it a B+.








1/26/2014

♫♫♫ I'm A Middle Aged Woman ♫♫♫ - Sherril's 60th Birthday Party October 2011

ssahttps://www.facebook.com/Sherril987?ref=tn_tnmn


Today is a blustery cold day, Sunday, January 26, 2013, over two years since my 60th birthday, which means now I have to get my head around the age 62, instead of that younger age of 6o. I'm procrastinating going outside with a heavy basket of laundry and walking around my building to the laundry room. So, it came to me to watch this video of me singing the very funny and clever song written by LISA KOCH "I'm a Middle-Aged Woman" - YouTube, a song that women around the world, experiencing menopause, peri-menopause or post-menopause can relate to. A friend of my daughter filmed it and it is my daughter you see near the beginning coming up to help me with the microphone. My "backup" group are some of my friends all of whom were either fanning themselves or feeling like they wanted to and all Beautiful Dancing Babes! The party signified a passage in my life into years and ages I never thought I'd be, but now that I am there, I'm trying to "be here now" and be me!

3/18/2013

Classic Movies Not Always B&W

I haven't always liked classic old movies, but it seems the older I get, the more I do. The day I wrote this was a snowy, blustery day, I'd been watching them on the Turner Classic movie station (TCM). It started with "On the Town", a corny musical with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin as three sailors who dock in New York City and proceed to "do" the town and meet some pretty ladies, all of whom sing and dance and say corny lines and make corny dance moves and the more I watched, the more I could appreciate the corniness, the dance steps, the music and think about the times the movie was made in. I"d never heard of Jules Munshin before and wondered why his name was unfamiliar, even though he'd played such a significant role in such a famous movie.

Two actresses singing the song, "For the Boy I left Behind". The blond in the pink pj's that look like long underwear, shows her nipples. Never, in a 1940's movie, but there it is. The PJ's themselves very unusual for the time. 1945 movie, Tonight and Every Nigh, takes place in a seedy old music hall, which never misses a performance even at the height of the "blitz" a previously unknown movie to me..another strange thing that caught my attention...a young German dancer is auditioning for the show which I assume is a German show made for the enjoyment of the Allies. He is dancing to the "tune" of Hitler's voice and the roaring sound of the audience cheering him on and it ends with the dancer doing the Heil Hitler sign. It gave me the chills and as far as the movie was concerned, it had no significance, well, it did contine the plot. OMG, the color in this movie was spectacular, at times too spectacular...a little to red in the face.The film was used as a Technicolor vehicle for Rita Hayworth after her success with Cover Girl. The Blitz...London was burning, but the show must go on.

Amour

I finally saw Amour  at the movies yesterday (it's only playing at a few theaters in NJ; we caught it at the South Orange Clearview Cinemas). I had read much about it, so was prepared to have a ton of strong, sad feelings. For most of the movie, I did feel deeply, but the extraordinarily and tortuous slow pace of the movie, conflicted a bit with emotion and overall appreciation. Then something happened that left me feeling, well, nothing. The movie went to my head and left my heart. For those who haven't seen it yet and plan on it, consider this a "spoiler alert". After the husband smothers his wife with the pillow (which I found as a huge relief), from that point on, I did not understand clearly what the rest of the movie meant. For example, what was the reason for cutting off the heads of the stemmed flowers into the sink of water? My friend suggested it was akin to what the Hindus do with flowers in water after death. But, there was no religiosity up to that point in the film. When he taped up the door, which door was it? I thought it to be the bedroom door, in order to hide the smell of a putrefying body. My friend said it was the front door. But then, why? I didn't get that he also killed himself. My fellow movie goer said that he put on the gas to do so. That never occurred to me. When the daughter comes in at the end, I expected her to call for her parents, before I realized that she must have known already that they were dead (I thought it was only the mother, however). Of course, I remember how the movie started with the police coming into the house, with hands up to their noses and some wearing masks over their mouths and noses. Again, I read this as means against putrefaction. One may get the idea that I have a smell obsession, and this is true. Still, I think it was the movie itself that led me to these conclusions, not my funk fixation. My co-movie viewer said it was the gas, and that's why they opened the window. One last point, about the pigeon that twice got into the apartment. The second time, when he threw the blanket over the bird, I expected him to throw his body over it, as he had his wife. I thought that somehow killing the bird in that "gentle" way, would give him some solace. The real point here is not the details, but that because it became confusing for me, I only thought about it and I no longer felt anything. For me, this was a mistake on the writer's and director's part.  A movie so important about growing old, family and mostly about love itself and how powerful love can be, should not leave the viewer thinking. It should leave the viewer “feeling” as it did through most of it’s long, sometimes tortuous, 120 minutes.




10/08/2012

Revisiting My Ode to New Orleans




It is Autumn, 2012 and the HBO series, "Treme", has begun its 3rd Season. It seemed an opportune time to revisit the blog I originally wrote on September 10, 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina. If you have been to New Orleans, reading this will bring back the memories in which you will recognize and feel the adventure I am about to unfold. If you have never had the privilege of visiting New Orleans, a unique and astonishing city unlike any other in the United States, then reading this should motivate you to go. 

In December of 2001, I took my daughter Rachel with me for a New Orleans adventure during the week between Christmas and New Years. I wanted Rachel to experience the city of New Orleans as I had done two times before. I wanted her to know that this incredible city offers everything a person could possibly want to satisfy all of her senses. 

I was hooked on the Crescent City for life. My plan was to return again and again. But then Hurricane Katrina came and devastated my lovely, exciting, delicious, extravagant, naughty, funky, live-and-let-live city of a myriad of music, a delicacy of tastes, a profusion of colors and accents and sights and sounds like no other place in the world. And worse, it profoundly devastated its people. Sadly, since Katrina, I have yet to return to my beloved city.
I vow that I will. In the meantime, I offer my "ODE TO NEW ORLEANS: A Return Visit with My Daughter in December of 2001.



  Our Accommodations were made at a hotel, which was THE best buy of the century. Since Christmas is the slow time in the Crescent City, we stayed at the rather luxurious Chateau Sonesta on the corner of Iberville and Decatur, with a Canal Street entrance, and one block from Bourbon Street, at the extraordinarily low price of $79/night. The room was large and the service was friendly and efficient. I highly recommend it.

FOOD Food in New Orleans is not what you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but rather an adventure in eating each and every time you sit down at a table. Having a sweet tooth the size Canada, the first place we headed on our first day was Cafe de Monde for their world famous Beignets (deep fried dough smothered in very white, very powdery, very sweet sugar) and  Cafe au Lait (made with chicory, a root first grown in France, that makes the brew taste stronger and smoother). I was determined not to leave New Orleans this time around without 
eating certain indigenous foods. Top on the list was Jambalaya (essentially Creole paella, but with sausage or ham). In case you failed to notice, I made little attempt to adopt either a Kosher or healthy eating style on this trip. The next on my “not to miss” list was a Mufalatta sandwich (some may say equivalent to a hoagie or sub sandwich, but some would be wrong). This sandwich, with its incredibly yummy olive salad, is far better than any hoagie I've ever eaten. I got mine at the Central Grocery (home of the original Mufalatta), while Rachel got her sandwich, next door at an even better grocery than Central. What she ordered was something between a Mufalatta and a Po'Boy sandwich, made with turkey, not roast beef, oysters or fried shrimp, and of course served on a baguette-like New Orleans French Bread, known for its crisp crust and fluffy center. I could  go on indefinitely about the food, but suffice it to say that we ate Rice and Beans (on Monday of course), Rachel took the leap and slurped an Oyster, and we both chanced tasting Fried Alligator (yes, it tasted a lot like chicken).



Rachel ate Gumbo (a seafood stew/soup with among other things crayfish) and we both had some of the best blackened, Creole-style fish we'd ever eaten... (onions, green pepper and tomatoes make the sauce and usually served over rice), though our was  served with sweet potatoes and collard greens (incredibly delicious!). If your mouth is not watering at this point, well, mine is watering enough for both of us. Did I mention my sweet tooth? I sampled a few Pralines (caramelized and hardened sugar and pecans) before I bought a box to bring home. So, as you can see, the trip was an epicurean's delight and believe it or not, eating was NOT the only thing we did



.
MUSIC Though Bob Seeger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" has for many years been my musical mantra, I would now have to say, the times they are a'changin. Since New Orleans, the music 
that most moves me (literally and spiritually) is Jazz, Blues, R&B and Funk or some combination thereof.

While strolling the Farmer's Market, we met a man selling music CD’s and asked him for some music locale suggestions. He proceeded to take our OFFBEAT magazine and rate the contents of the music menu from one to six stars for each night we would be in town. He made great choices, but I have a feeling that there were no bad choices. We went to Bars called "The Maple Leaf" and "Donna's" and "Le Bon Temps Rouler." At each bar, the music got better and funkier, the environment got smaller and smokier, and the number of people crushed in, rocking and bopping to the vibes, grew larger. For the most part, I loved it and I stood and bopped with the best of them, but on one occasion you could find me on the other side of the window....that would be outside, which any other menopause mama would totally relate to, given the excessive body heat and smoke inside. We came home with two new CD's and a whole new appreciation for what it means to participate in music as opposed to just listening to it or, God forbid, have it on as background. I will definitely be looking for "blues buddies" to accompany me to New Orleans style clubs at home.



So, that's Accommodations, Food and Music. What else? Ah, yes...

SIGHTS and SEEING We did our share of sightseeing. We saw the Bayou on a Swamp Tour, in which the guide designed his boat and made his living on it. He was very cute and an excellent guide to boot.



 






There were no alligators to be found, as they hibernate in winter, but we did see  herons and other lovely birds, and one animal whose name escapes me, but it resembles a beaver. 
We wondered at the canopies of Spanish Moss surrounding the swamp. We watched as the guide fished and caught crabs, which I’m pretty sure he ate with his family that night.


Another outing took us to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum where we watched an hour-long video on Voodoo. We left with a Gris-Gris bag and perhaps a bit more skepticism then we’d entered with, but it was fun, though Rach thought it was pretty much a bunch of hooey (the museum, that is, not necessarily the practice of voodoo).


We went to the De Gas House, which I found to be fascinating. There is a long, involved history of the French painter, De Gas, and how he came to have this house in the Garden District named after him. It turns out his maternal grandmother was born in New Orleans and the story of his family reads much like a Soap Opera. The house has copies of many of his paintings, 17 of which he painted during his brief stay in New Orleans. As it happened, the guide at the De Gas House also gave tours of the city and had a tour scheduled of the French Quarter that very afternoon, to which he invited us. We learned that New Orleans is rich in history and the home of many cultures. Though its history is representative of the South in some ways, it is unique in other ways because of its diversity and liberal motto of live and let live.


We managed to do our fair share of shopping in New Orleans. One of my favorite purchases was a signed and numbered, beautifully framed lithograph entitled, “Royal Street – 1890” by Al Federico, 1996.



I must mention another of our walks in the French Quarter. We went to two bars of note. One, by chance, we stepped in for a drink and found ourselves to be the only women at the bar. The men were happy and gay (or gay and happy) and served our drinks, as well as took pictures with us to bring home. The other bar, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, was a "return trip", as I had been there once before on a "Vampire Tour" of New Orleans. It is dark and dingy and makes the BEST BLOODY MARY in the world, with a delicious pickled pepper, instead of a piece of celery, sticking out of the glass. I thought it was well worth the return trip. Rachel agreed.               


                     
Creole vs. Cajun The city is a complete blending of Spanish, French and French Canadian, with some Irish added to the mix. As a side note, there are several synagogues in the city proper, the
most well known being Touro Synagogue...yes, there is an association with the famous Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. Interestingly, we met the proprietor of a little eatery near our hotel who, as it turned out, was Jewish, from Morocco and knew our family name, Kessous!!!
It’s a small, small world. But I digress. Cajuns are basically descendants of French speaking people from Acadia, Nova Scotia, forced out of England to Canada and then to Louisiana in the mid 1770s. One of my guidebooks said that a Creole, from the Spanish word criollo meaning colony-born, is a native-born New Orleanian of French and/or Spanish extraction. It seems, however, that there are many different definitions of Creole and different outlooks as to who is rightly considered one. In any case, the word, Creole, has come to describe almost everything indigenous to New Orleans.



In conclusion, my intention here was to give you "Lagniappe" (Lan-yap).
That is to say, I wanted to give you a small taste of New Orleans,
while for the same price, "a little something extra”. I hope I have succeeded.





My Prayer for New Orleans

MAY NEW ORLEANS BE BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE AS WE  KNEW IT before Hurricane Katrina’s devastation AND MAY ITS PEOPLE FIND SUCCOR, STRENGTH AND RENEWAL. AND ONCE AGAIN....

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler! MAY THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!






9/26/2012


9/10/2010


5771 - For a Sweet New Year

~Revisited 5773




Today is 9/26/2012, 5773, two years since I originally wrote this post. I was reminded of it by a fb friend who messaged me, asking for a little clarification as to my belief in the divine. Rather than respond directly and immediately to him, I decided to revisit and once again share this post. He was  confused, because he noticed that I had shared many comments on my facebook  page regarding the Jewish High Holy Day Season. I can understand the confusion, which is why I'd written this post in the first place. I think being Jewish is more confusing than being Christian in America. The majority of Americans are Christian and I think, for the most part, they take their religion more or less for granted, perhaps because the American calendar is influenced by the Christian calendar. That is to say, the year is based on the Gregorian calendar, i.e. the "year of our lord" or the time of the birth of Jesus. Also, holidays tend to be the markers by which we define the progression of the year. Interestingly, I assumed that the Christian holidays greatly outnumbered what I call the "All American holidays, but I was mistaken. They are actually equally divided, 6 Christian to 6 All American. I have delineated them by color, All American are red, (white, between the words) and blue and Christian are green:  New YearsMartin Luther King DayValentine's Day,  President's DaySt. Patrick's DayEasterMemorial dayIndependence Day (July 4th), Labor DayHalloweenThanksgiving and Christmas. I love the All American holidays and am grateful for them. I think many other Western nations delineate their calendars solely or mostly by the Christian holidays. The fact that whatever our religion, in the United States, we are all very much American and that is one of the things that makes us great. Having said that, it is still noteworthy that much of the year, we as a nation, are celebrating Christian holidays. Which brings me back to the "Jewish confusion".
Rereading what I wrote two years ago, I realize that I could and would write the same thing today, so I am revisiting it. I will concede one thing. Although I continue to consider myself an agnostic, the presence of a divine spirit or the notion of God is more credible to me in these Jewish High Holy Days than at other times of the year, which should be of some solace to my "believing" friends (and you know who you are...wink wink).

Original Post: 9/10/2010
I am Jewish, but not religious, in the way that most Americans seem to define religion. For example, I am an agnostic. I do not capitalize agnostic, because I don't see agnosticism as a religion, nor a confirmed ideology, but rather a belief based on a myriad of feelings and thoughts on the subject. Unfortunately I also find that religion in general divides us rather than unites us as an American people, not to mention how divisive it is in the world at large.

However, in my case, and I believe, in that of many Jewish Americans, I do see my Judaism as a part of what makes me, Sherril, me.Judaism is a cultural thing, an educational thing, a language thing, an historical thing, a minority thing and on some level, a "national" thing. I believe the last "thing" is a direct result of the one before it, which is to say that Jews, having been historically despised and discriminated against as a minority in most every community in which they lived, have needed a refuge from the bigotry, i.e. a homeland in which they could live with the promise of safety and acceptance. Thus, the state of Israel ant the attachment to it is also a part of being Jewish. 


  

Part of my family's tradition has been observance of what is considered the "High Holy Days" on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, rosh=head, hashannah=the year, thus the name means Head of the Year or New Year. The greeting at this time of year is "L'shanah tovah", which means "for a good year", often shortened to simply "Shanah Tovah". This traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting is actually a truncated or shortened version of a longer Rosh Hashanah greeting which is: "L'shanah tovah tikatevu", meaning "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year". Yet another way would be to say

"Shana Tova Umetukah", which means, for "A Good and Sweet Year".




My contribution to the R.H. culinary feast, a "kugel" orsweet noodle pudding.







There was a time that all members of my extended family attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the synagogue, back when my parents were alive, but alas, only members of my immediate family (me, Haim, Rachel and Jeremy) continue to go today, and I must admit, that our attendance is limited, given the many hours of services at our synagogue (Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark, NJ).. Still, we make the effort and I give us credit for this.

The Rosh Hashanah service consists of many prayers that are chanted only on this holiday and a small number of them are what gives the service meaning, for me. Most of the service is chanted by the Cantor or other single congregants, mainly because they are numerous, long and complicated. I would be lying if I didn't say it is, for the most part, boring. I spend much of my time either with my mind wandering to more profane matters and/or reading different parts of the prayer book in English, to find my own meaning, where I can. However, there are a handful of prayers that are representative of the holiday service and many of us learned them as children in Hebrew School, and chanted them year after year, so that they became familiar, enabling us to sing them in unison to this day.

One of these prayers brought me to tears this particular Rosh Hashanah. It begins, in Hebrew (transliteration) with "B'rosh ha-shanah yika-teyvun. U-v-yom tzom kippur yey -ha-teymun".
The English translation is: On Rosh Hashanah it is written. And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

It goes on, and here I will write only the English translation of the prayer....How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before; (At this point, the leader and congregation again chant the first line in Hebrew, B'rosh ha-shanah yika-tey'un...etc.,) after which the leader goes on...Who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by a wild beast; (the refrain is again chanted and again after every semi-colonWho by by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall rest and who shall wander; who shall be serene and who disturbed, who shall be at ease and who afflicted; who shall be impoverished and who enriched, who shall be humbled and who exalted.
Then the congregation chant...BUT REPENTANCE, PRAYER, AND DEEDS OF KINDNESS CAN REMOVE THE SEVERITY OF THE DECREE.


It is enough to say that my tears appeared due in large part by a sadness I have been experiencing for the last few months, perhaps making the words, who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before, and who shall be serene and who disturbed, who shall be at ease and who afflicted, felt a little too close for comfort this year. Also, most of the other descriptions like who shall perish by earthquake, plague, fire, water, sword and who shall perish by stoning? Well, if those means of death were not taken out of today's headlines, I don't know what were? Perhaps for the first time, it felt so personal, so present and so powerful.
Another aspect of the R.H. service that maintains significance for me is the blowing of the shofar. The shofar is actually a rams horn. It is difficult to blow in order to make a squeak of a sound and all but impossible to blow in order to make the sounds that respond to the commands given in the Shofar service, which is dispersed many times throughout the RH service" TIKEYAH...SHEH-VARIM...TIKEYAH...TRUE-AH...TIKEYAH GIDOLAH!!! Give heed to the sound of the shofar.  It is a moving experience, partially because it is only heard on this holiday (and at the end of Yom Kippur, if you happen to still be around and not already at home "breaking the fast" with yet another feast) and partially because it is considered a mitzvah to hear the shofar blown, a mitzvah, meaning a commandment. I'm not sure why that makes it more significant for me, being an agnostic and all, but it does. Go figure!