Archive for the 'Strange But True' Category

Jewish History – A Clarification

matzohIt’s Passover (woo hoo!) and Jews (and US Presidents) all over the world are sitting down to seders to commemorate the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

This is a tradition that’s been passed down for millennia, but certain aspects of Passover aren’t quite as old as you’ve probably been led to believe.

Take the Afikoman, for example. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Afikoman… meaning “that which comes after” or “dessert”) is a half-piece of matzo which is broken in the early stages of the Passover Seder and set aside to be eaten as a dessert after the meal.

Based on the Mishnah in Pesahim 119a, the afikoman is a substitute for the Korban Pesach, which was the last thing eaten at the Passover Seder during the eras of the First and Second Temples and during the period of the Mishkan. The Gemara states that it is forbidden to eat any other food after eating the afikoman, in order to keep the taste of matzo in our mouths.

In some families, the head of the household hides the afikoman for the children to find. In other families, the children “steal” it and ask for a reward for its return. Either way, there is usually a gift of money or candy made to the children at the table before the seder continues.

Wikipedia is quite correct about how it’s actually done, but the etymology and history… not so much. Believe it or not, the tradition of the Afikoman only dates back about a century.

It was March 30, 1915, or if you prefer, the 15th day of Nisan, 5675 — the first night of Passover that year. The Cohen family of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Moshe and Miriam, with their daughter Esther and sons Samuel, Alfred, and William) had traveled all the way to Coney Island to participate in a seder to be held at the home of Rabbi Leo Bronfman, the husband of Moshe’s eldest sister, Yetta.

The family crowded into the Bronfmans’ dining room and began the ceremonial meal. After the four questions were asked by young Alfie (who had until this point embarrassed his parents by fidgeting throughout the ritual), he asked if he could be excused to go to the bathroom.

And so, the gathered crowd of Bronfmans and Cohens waited. And waited…

Nearly half an hour passed, and finally Rabbi Bronfman threw up his hands and announced that they’d waited long enough, and young Alfie would simply have to miss out on his share of the last piece of matzoh. He got up to fetch the unleavened bread, but quickly returned, saying that it was gone. Alfie had stolen the last piece of matzoh!

Moshe Cohen leaped to his feet and headed to the bathroom, saying something about teaching that spoiled little thief why this night was different from any other night, but he returned without Alfie. Apparently, the boy had slipped out the window and run off.

It wasn’t until two hours later that Esther Cohen found her little brother sitting on a bench on the boardwalk. Reportedly, when she asked him why he’d run away, the boy replied that “Tante Yetta’s house was smelly.”

It didn’t take long before, despite Rabbi Bronfman’s efforts to silence the embarrassing story, the tale of Alfie Cohen the Matzoh Thief was featured in the Daily Forward. A song about Alfie was even a hit in the Yiddish theatres of the Lower East Side. You think Burt Bacharach wrote Alfie? Nope. All he did was slow down the tempo and change the lyrics.

I can’t find the song anywhere now, either in Yiddish or English, but I still remember a few lines my grandmother used to sing:

What’s going on, little Alfie?
Are you just living for the moment?
Why did you run away with the last matzoh?
I didn’t mean to be cruel
I don’t want to be a fool
But my auntie’s house is smelly, smelly, smelly
And I can’t eat in a smelly house.

It’s all true. I wouldn’t lie about something like this.

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An Open Letter to Nicolas Cage

Dear Nic,

Nicolas CageI recently caught your performance in Ghost Rider. Actually, I think I may have dozed off for fifteen or twenty minutes, shortly after the goth kid is interviewed on the eye of hell after you save her from the mugger, but I definitely got the gist of the film. Kind of cute casting Peter Fonda as a motorcycle Satan, by the way.

Anyway, here’s what I wanted to let you know:

You’ve convinced us. You’re Elvis reincarnated. Never mind that you were about thirteen years old when he died. We’ll just say that his spirit went from that toilet at Graceland straight into little Nic Coppola.

I understand now that you married Lisa Marie just to protect your little girl. I totally get why you’ve chosen the roles you’ve chosen. You’re the King. I believe you.

I guess that means you can stop now. You’ve got nothing more to prove.

No more swaggering across the screen. Enough with that lip curl. You can proudly wear your black belt and chow down on those banana and peanut butter sandwiches. Nobody’s going to question your authenticity.

Feel free to send me a scarf soaked in your sweat if you like. TCB, baby. Thank you very much.

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What Does Google Mean When It Asks What I Mean?

I have a client who is a Minneapolis interior designer. (Yes, that’s a plug for them. As if you wouldn’t do the same thing.) Earlier today, I was checking out the progress of their rather new site using Google’s webmaster tools, and was pleased to see them starting to move up, and even get some traffic, for searches like [interior designers minneapolis] and [interior design firm minneapolis]. They’ve got a ways to go, but they’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Google also listed them at #4 for [interior designersminneapolis] (note the missing space). That’s a little troubling. They rank higher for the search with the typo than without. I took that to mean that either someone’s linking to them with the typo in the anchor text, or they’ve got the typo somewhere on the site. I couldn’t find either one, though.

I was further confused by Google’s attempt to correct me:

Google search result for interior designersminneapolis

Google wants to know if I meant “interior designers minneapolis” and if I meant to search for “interior designers minneapolis.” Wha? Obviously, if I meant it, I meant to search for it. What else would I be doing at a search engine?

And the two searches being offered to me are indeed identical. The first one links to and the second to

So what’s the point?

As it turns out, this is not Google’s doing. I run a Greasemonkey script called GoogleMonkeyR. I use it to number G’s results. If I disable it and run the search again, I only get the “Did you mean: interior designers minneapolis” line. I have no idea why it’s adding that extra “Did you mean to search for” bit.

So, problem solved, for the most part. I’ll write to the script’s author about the bug, and I’m no longer freaked out about tripping over a bug in the all-knowing Big G.

It’s still a bit odd that my client is ranking for that search containing a typo, though.

Anyway, it gave me a decent excuse to link to them.

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Napolitano: From CB to DHS

Janet Napolitano and Johnette Napolitano

And you thought Al Franken had an unusual career path. He went from comic to comedy writer, satirist, left-wing radio personality, and perhaps to the Senate.

But Napolitano has now gone from “alternative” radio sweetheart (rumor has it Michael Stipe himself came up with the name “Concrete Blonde”. I wonder if he thought up the spelling of her name, too.) to Governor of Arizona, and now she’s on the verge of becoming Secretary of Homeland Security. And it looks like she’s keeping busy, too. Her MySpace blog indicates that she’ll be working with John Trudell on his next album starting after Christmas. I hope she can squeeze it in before she has to go to DC for her confirmation hearings.

Congratulations, Janet/Johnette!

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Giddy Up

You know how sometimes you get a song stuck in your head, and it just won’t go away? Sure, that happens to everyone. What about situations — something happens, or you notice something about your surroundings, and there’s that damned song. I knew someone long ago who’d find a rock song, usually by the Stones, that she’d find relevant to almost any situation: if your shoelace was untied, Iris would somehow connect it in her head to Waiting on a Friend or Miss You, and she’d break into song with a voice that sounded like she’d never inhaled anything but cigarette smoke since birth — kind of cool considering she was 15 and didn’t smoke.

I find myself in a similar situation whenever I hear Joe Biden’s name. I don’t know for sure yet whether he’s going to be Obama’s running mate, but it’s looking more and more likely, and that means that at least until November, I’m going to be hearing his name a lot, and if Obama becomes president, I’ve got four or even eight years of hearing that name pretty damned often.

What song is it I hear whenever someone says “Joe Biden”? It’s Elvira, by the Oak Ridge Boys. Iris was lucky. She loved the Stones. Me, I can’t stand the Oak Ridge Boys, and I hate that song in particular. But that doesn’t mean I’m throwing my support to Johnny “Lotsa Houses” McCain. I’ll just have to deal with it. It’s my sacrifice for the future of this great land.

I guess I should consider myself lucky it’s not Thank God For Kids.

Joe Biden and the Oak Ridge Boys

Eyes that look like heaven, lips like sherry wine
That girl can sure enough make my little light shine
I get a funny feelin’ up and down my spine
‘Cause I know that my Joe Biden’s mine

So I’m singin’
Joe Biden, Joe Biden
My heart’s on fire Joe Biden
Giddy Up Oom Poppa Omm Poppa Mow Mow
Giddy Up Oom Poppa Omm Poppa Mow Mow
Heigh-ho Silver, away

Tonight I’m gonna meet her at the Hungry House Cafe
And I’m gonna give her all the love I can
She’s gonna jump and holler ’cause I saved up my last two dollars
We’re gonna search and find that preacher man

Now I’m a singin’
Joe Biden, Joe Biden
My heart’s on fire Joe Biden
Giddy Up Oom Poppa Omm Poppa Mow Mow
Giddy Up Oom Poppa Omm Poppa Mow Mow
Heigh-ho Silver, away

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From Comic to Politician

It seems Al Franken isn’t the only comic (I’m sure he’d prefer “satirist”) who’s gone into politics.

Funky WinkerbeanDo you remember that guy over on the left? It’s Funky Winkerbean. Frankly, I’m not particularly familiar with the comic strip. I’m sure I’ve read it a few times, but the only thing that stands out in my memory is that name — Funky Winkerbean.

I did a little research, and found out a couple of things that really set it apart from most other comics:

    Funky Winkerbean at age 46

  • It takes place in an actual place: Ohio
  • It’s dealt with some serious issues, like war and the rights of the disabled
  • It had a major character die of breast cancer

But the thing that really struck me is that the characters have actually aged. Funky is no longer a high school student. How long has Archie Andrews been trying to get his diploma? That’s Funky Winkerbean on the right, at the age of 46, the co-owner of the pizzeria where he used to hang out. Off the top of my head, the only other comics I can think of in which the characters have aged are Doonesbury (rah!) and For Better or For Worse (blah).

Carty FinkbeinerWhat if Funky Winkerbean was some 20 years older still? I believe that may be him on the left, still living in Ohio. In fact, he’s serving as the mayor of Toledo.

Naturally, he’s changed his name. You can’t be mayor of a “Business Friendly City of the Future” with a name like Funky Winkerbean. So it just follows that, when he decided to sell the pizzeria, move to the big city and get involved in public service, ol’ Funky would drop the comical moniker and go for something a little more sophisticated.

Say hello to his honor, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner.

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More Prayers to the Rain God of Dixie

Remember back in July, when Bob Riley, the governor of Alabammy, issued a proclamation calling for a week of prayer for rain? One could argue that it met with some degree of success. One would be wrong, but that never stopped anybody.

On Sunday, a series of strong thunderstorms brought torrential rain, flash floods and lightning to the area, but apparently not enough to bring much relief to the drought-stricken area.

“I don’t think it made a big dent,” said Patrick Gatlin with the National Weather Service’s Huntsville office. “… This is the most rain we’ve seen in quite some time but it definitely won’t get us back to normal.”

Sonny PerdueWith a record of success like that, it should come as no surprise that in Georgia, where they’re dealing with a drought of historic proportions, Governor Sonny Perdue would put that tried and true method to use:

Bowing his head outside the Georgia Capitol on Tuesday, Gov. Sonny Perdue cut a newly repentant figure as he publicly prayed for rain to end the region’s historic drought.

“Oh father, we acknowledge our wastefulness,” Perdue said. “But we’re doing better. And I thought it was time to acknowledge that to the creator, the provider of water and land, and to tell him that we will do better.”

Hundreds of Georgians — ministers and lawmakers, landscapers and office workers — gathered in downtown Atlanta for the prayer vigil. Some held bibles and crucifixes. Many swayed and linked arms as a choir sang “What a Mighty God We Serve” and “Amazing Grace.”

As Perdue described it, “We have come together, very simply, for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm.”

And did the Rain God deliver?

Gov. Sonny Perdue said Thursday morning that he’s not gloating over the fact that it rained a day after he held a prayer vigil at the Capitol.

“This is hopefully the beginning of more,” Perdue said from Canada, where he is on a trade mission. “One rain won’t refill the reservoirs. It is great affirmation of what we asked for.”

Most of metro Atlanta got a little rain overnight ahead of a strong cold front that blew through North Georgia, and a wind advisory was in effect for gusty conditions behind the front on Thursday.

“As we do all we can from a conservation standpoint, virtually all of us know we are dependent on rain. I am just a person who believes it comes from God,” Perdue said.

While almost all of metro Atlanta got rain, most rainfall totals were only around a quarter-inch or less.

Overnight rainfall totals included .14 inch at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, .21 inch at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and .28 inch at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

The rain was a little heavier north of town, with Cartersville reporting .82 inch and Gainesville .75 inch.

The wind advisory for 20 mph winds gusting to 30 to 35 mph was in effect from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

“Such strong winds may result in weak or small trees being blown down, some possibly onto power lines,” the Weather Service said. “Loose outdoor objects such as lawn furniture and garbage cans, should be secured or stored indoors.”

The forecast for metro Atlanta calls for sunny skies on Friday, with early-morning lows in the mid-30s and afternoon highs in the upper 50s.

Lows will be in the low 30s Friday night under mostly clear skies, forecasters said.

The weekend outlook is for mostly sunny skies Saturday and Sunday, with highs in the mid-60s and lows in the low 40s.

There is a 20 percent chance of rain Tuesday night into Wednesday, the Weather Service said.

Praise be.

While we’re on the subject, what’s the deal with the names of Southern politicians? You’ve got Sonny Perdue, Trent Lott, Saxby Chambliss, and I’m sure plenty of others. I’m guessing that Lott and Chambliss carry old family names that remind their constituents of the glory days of the region, kind of like the confederate flag.

Do you think anybody with a name like that could be taken seriously up here? I mean, “Trent Lott” sounds like a name Elvis would call out in the middle of a song to introduce a bass solo, and “Saxby Chambliss” has to be the sort of effete upper-class fellow Scarlett O’Hara’s family would have tried to marry her off to, but he just wasn’t manly enough for her.

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Google the Yenta

I was doing some research for a blog post earlier today. I needed to get some information on a member of Congress who’d officially come out as an atheist, so I ran a Google search for [atheist in congress]. Look what I got in the onebox:

Google results for atheist in congress

It seems my mother has been speaking with Larry and Sergey. They’re all in cahoots, trying to get me a date even when I’m not looking for one. A word of advice: I’m not going to date someone all the way down in DC, even if she is an atheist. I’m sure there are plenty of perfectly nice atheists right here in Boston, so stick that in your algorithm and smoke it, Google.

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A Different Thanksgiving Story


Here’s a wee hunk of American history that you probably don’t know.

We’re all familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving, the feast shared by the Pilgrims and their neighbors. No, turkey was apparently not served. Instead, the meats feasted upon that day were most likely venison and duck. But that’s not the piece of history I’m here to teach. I’m here today to talk about the corn that was served that fateful day.

Even without butter, corn on the cob is kind of sloppy food. And when you’re a Puritan, sloppy food is embarrassing food, and embarrassing food is sinful. One particular fellow by the name of Joseph Lymon expressed his disgust with the concept of grabbing the corn in one’s bare hands and gnawing on it, leaving little wet torn up bits all over it. He vowed that he would find a way to make corn eating sufficiently godly, or that he’d make sure no one ever ate it again.

At the second Thanksgiving feast a year later, after the prayer, Lymon stood up to announce that he had found a way to enjoy corn without insulting anyone’s (including god’s, of course) sense of propriety. He held up his invention: small, beautifully polished pieces of wood with one end sharpened. He proudly demonstrated how to insert them into either end of the corn cob and feast on the lord’s bounty without ever having to touch the food with one’s hands. “With my new Corntensils,” he declared, “we can give thanks and praise to the Lord without acting like lowly beasts.”

His announcement, much to his surprise, was met with laughter of derision, and he stormed away in a holier than thou huff.

A week later, Lymon and a few of his followers packed up their belongings (including the colony’s supply of Corntensils) and declared that they could no longer stand to live among the ungodly beasts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They traveled inland to the west and the south for weeks, until they arrived at a wide river. It was there that they declared they had reached the land promised to them by god, where they would create their own colony, with their own laws, not the least of which would be the law of Corn Etiquette.

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ErrThis is your idea of terror, Boston? It’s Err, for fuck’s sake!

I was supposed to go to the pharmacy today, and instead I sat here terrorized by all that terror in the streets. The bridges were closed! The River Chuck was closed! They even found one of these “packages” here in the ‘Ville!

So because of this panic over a cartoon character, I wasn’t able to pick up my drugs — the drugs that are supposed to keep me from panicking over stuff like cartoon characters!

If anyone on the news had bothered to mention that these tools of terror were LED Mooninites, I could have told them not to worry. Instead of that, this day, which was supposed to be a joyful celebration of gorilla suits, is now going to live in infamy as the day of the . (I will admit, however, that for a day about gorillas to become famous for guerrilla marketing is kind of cute.)

Honestly. Get a grip, Mayor Mumbles.

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