Seven Questions for: Silvia Sparklestein

Silvia Sparklestein comes to You Had Me at Shalom: LGBT Jewish Speed Dating this Saturday* night with GLOE, as the fabulous drag yenta emcee of the event. Not only will she be helping to make romantic connections among the daters and schmoozers, she’ll also be performing a few numbers… and making sure everyone is eating enough.

Joining us from Queens, Silvia answered our seven most important questions in the world.

1) How would you describe what you do to someone from the 19th Century?

I wear fabulous clothing. I sing and dance. And I sparkle. I’d be the perfect actor in any Shakespeare play (female roles, of course).

2) What did you want to be when you grew up?

A Jewish mother. Definitely a Jewish mother. It’s every Jewish girl from Queens’ dream! Grow up. Have lots of Jewish babies. And guilt them into calling me everyday for the rest of their busy lives as doctors, lawyers and accountants.

3) Is there a book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?

Two books. I would say the book I’m most embarrassed to have not read is Kosher by Design – Short on Time by Susie Fishbein. It’s supposed to be a fabulous Kosher cookbook with simple recipes. I love reading Kosher cookbooks to pass the time!

The other book I haven’t read is The Debutante Divorcee by Plum Sykes. After reading her book Bergdorf Blondes I truly felt like Plum connected with my inner soul the way no other writer has. (And with a first name like Plum! Oy Vey! Delicious!)

4) Woody Allen, Pro or Con?

Woody and I go way back. Although he grew up in Brooklyn, our families always used to get together for the Pesach Seder at my parent’s house in Queens. I still wonder why he doesn’t use his real family name “Konigsberg.” Well, at least I kept my family name!

5) What’s your favorite non-English word?

“Kreplach” for a number of reasons. The most obvious is, who doesn’t like kreplach?! I eat kreplach everyday for breakfast. Definitely the breakfast of champions in my humble and modest opinion. Another reason I like the word kreplach is because of the yiddishe “chhhhhh” sound at the end! I love hearing goy-toys choke as they try to say it.

6) What issue do you wish other people knew more about?

That Barbra Streisand recorded a Christmas Album in 1967. Who knew a nice yiddishe meidella from Brooklyn knew anything about The Lord’s Prayer and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire?!

7) Historical figure, living or not, that you’d want to share a bagel with, and what kind of bagel?

Definitely Wendy Williams! She and I have a lot in common, like, our shoes size! I’m a plain Jane so I would order a plain bagel (no seeds that can get stuck in your teeth) with low-fat cream cheese schmeared on one side and low-sodium lox spread on the other, extra cream cheese and extra lox spread. Wendy would order a cinnamon raisin bagel with butter… low-fat butter.

Read all of the Seven Question interviews.


Monday Media: Dara Horn on Varian Fry

In her new Kindle Single, novelist Dara Horn (a Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival alum) explores the fascinating story of Varian Fry, who saved over 2,000 European Jewish intellectuals from the Nazis. Dara discusses Fry’s mission with Vox Tablet. Was he a brave rescuer, or was he  practicing his own brand of eugenics (or both)? Listen to the podcast here and read a sample of the Kindle Single here.

Varian Fry

Shabbat Surfing: Feeling Good

Earlier this week, NPR aired a story about the new Pakistani Muslim owners of Coney Island Bialys and Bagels. A family business started in 1920 by a Polish immigrant from Bialystock, the shop claims to be the oldest bialy bakery in New York City.  The new owners have promised to keep everything the same: the ingredients and suppliers, hand-rolling and properly boiling the bagels, and the kosher supervision.

In the Bronx, an Islamic Center has opened its doors to a  Chabad synagogue so that they have a place to hold Shabbat services. The two houses of worship have a history of supporting each other and  have formed a deep bond.

The New York Times  took its sports section readers to Kiryat Shmona, one of Israel’s smallest cities, in a feature about its professional soccer team. The small club beat power team Hapoel Tel Aviv to capture the Toto Cup and sits atop Israel’s Premier League with an 11-point lead. The club is full of promise  and on the course for its first league championship. If Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona captures the championship, it will certainly be well-deserved.

Recounting the Count

There are few people that respond to the call of a panhandler or approach a homeless individual, much less engage in a personal survey in the dead of winter.  But that is exactly what happened on January 25, 2012, across the United States, with the Point in Time (PIT) survey.  Planned for the coldest night of the year, this annual volunteer-led effort sets out to provide a snapshot of exactly who experiences homelessness.  Within a 24-hour period, volunteers comb streets, alleys, fast-food restaurants, parks, and other urban or rural spaces to count and ask personal questions to unsheltered individuals.  Additionally, permanent supportive housing programs, transitional housing agencies, hypothermia units, and other service organizations conduct a count of their own.

Collecting data tracks progress and informs service providers, policymakers, the public, and other anti-poverty measures.  This data can lead to more accurate program and policy assessment, site-specific development, and greater funding to alleviate homelessness and underserved communities. Typically, a regional report is released in early May by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Nonetheless, there is controversy on how to count those living “doubled up” with friends and family members (people who have lost their job, house, or apartment for various reasons).  Such individuals are not considered homeless by the Department of Housing and Urban Development standards and are not addressed in the count.

In DC, over 200 volunteers set out at 930pm to predesignated city neighborhoods. In the 12 year history of PIT in DC, yesterday was the first non-hypothermic evening, raising questions as to whether or not the count would be as accurate with less individuals accounted for in the shelters and more out on the streets.  Regardless, volunteers remained diligent in canvassing, and any overlapping of individual surveys would be amended. Questions included age, history of mental illness, current physical disabilities, military status, length of homelessness, and sources of income.  In return for their participation, individuals received a gift card to McDonald’s and hand warmers.  

Our group set off in Golden Triangle, zigzagging from M to P, 19th to 23rd, and back again.  After a slow start, we encountered several individuals sleeping in Dupont Circle.  Responses were warm, wary, fatigued, and sometimes scattered.  More apparent was the general confusion brought on by the apparition of such a blatant group of outsiders, and our genuine interest in their stories.  Some chitchatted and cracked jokes with us while others asked for food or money.  Most quickly answered our questions, closed their eyes, and drifted back to their cold and hard slumber. 


Special thank you to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the entire Point in Time Coordinating Team, and dedicated volunteers.

The Big Waste

It was one of those nights where I found myself at home lying on the couch flipping channels. The Food Network is usually the last channel I go to to find something to watch. Don’t get me wrong, I love their shows, but for some reason whenever I watch I end up eating when I’m not hungry.  It is The Food Network!

Well this night was different, the show that night was The Big Waste, and it made me think a bit more than usual (and not about food).

The Big Waste: First class chefs Bobby Flay, Michael Symon, Anne Burrell and Alex Guarnaschelli tackle one of the most massive problems in food today – waste! Divided into two teams, with only 48 hours on the clock, they are challenged to create a multi course gourmet banquet worthy of their great reputations, but with a big twist; they can only use food that is on its way to the trash.

To an extent, we do this for Hunger Action (we accept donations and most of the shopping is done at the Capital Area Food Bank), but Bobby, Michael, Anne and Alex took things to a new level. Maybe the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service should try some of their recipes!

Or maybe we should be all be freegans. Freeganism is the practice of reclaiming and eating food that has been discarded.  On The Big Waste, Anne spends the evening with a freegan dumpster diving and checking out garbage bags of food being tossed out by restaurants.

The group also went to local bakeries and farms and took waste from there: eggs that weren’t a uniform size, chickens with broken wings, fruits or vegetables with a few brown spots.  All perfectly good to eat but not something most would pick from a store shelf.

Do you have a contact at a restaurant, a bakery or a local farm? Do you buy the non-perfect fruits and vegetables at the grocery? If we all pitch in and collect food that might be thrown out, think of the difference we could make.  Donate it to Hunger Action, DC Central Kitchen or give it someone living on the street.

One-third of the world’s food is wasted. What are you going to do?

What We’re Listening To: When Toons Get Educated

I’m enjoying this fun video created to spread the word about The George Washington University’s Jewish Cultural Arts MA. Where was this cool program when I went to school? I had to learn it all the hard way.

-“Is a Master’s in Jewish Cultural Arts good for the Jews?””
-“Well, it could not hurt.”

Shabbat Surfing: The Jewish Vote and Obama

Image from USA TODAY

While the four remaining GOP hopefuls are rallying supporters in South Carolina, President Obama and his supporters are ramping up his re-election campaign. Yesterday the Obama campaign ran its first television ad in six states, including swing states with significant Jewish voting populations. These voters in swing states are important to both Democrats and Republicans because Jews have historically voted at a higher rate than the general public and they are concentrated in states with a high number of electoral votes. As national voting trends shift and change, it leaves one to wonder: what about the Jewish voter? (“Jewish voter” being a monolithic entity and painted with broad brush strokes, of course).

In September Gallup released an analysis which concluded that “although Obama’s approval rating among Jewish Americans has been declining, it has generally declined no more than it has among all Americans.” Yesterday, news broke that some staffers at the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely associated with the White House, publicly used language that could be construed as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic…potentially complicating the president’s reelection outreach to some Jewish voters. But, wait! President Obama traveled down the East Coast yesterday to announce executive orders to boost international tourism in Florida and the up the East Coast to attend some fundraisers, the first of which was with “about 100 Jewish supporters.”  Not so fast! Shmuel Rosner includes some great graphs and interesting explanations to unpack the question of  whether or not Jews are “trending Republican” in his post on Wednesday.

Is there anyone out there who can explain how Jewish voters feel about Obama and/or predict the group’s voting patterns in 2012? Maybe this post by Brent E. Sasley will clear things up.

Book Trailer: The Flame Alphabet

Check out this haunting book trailer for the new book The Flame Alphabet, written by Ben Marcus. The premise of the novel:  A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal.

Erin Cosgrove, the video’s creator, told GalleyCat,  “Some of the scenes were great fun to animate- like the inflatable rabbis and the ‘Jew Hole,’ which sounds a bit dirty saying it off the cuff like that.”


black squareToday, many of the biggest sites on the Internet are “blacking out” to protest SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill in the House) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) in the Senate.

The protest is based around the idea that online piracy is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed, but that these bills won’t actually impact the pirate websites, and instead only hurt everyone else, through censorship.

We use this space to share what we think is interesting and thought-provoking and entertaining. Sometimes we want to share the latest music from upcoming performers at Music Fest, present trailers from the hot new film we’ll screen, and show you that hilarious bit from our favorite comedian. On this blog and our website, we make every attempt to use creative content respectfully, legally, and with permission/attribution.

We love artists, and want you to love them, too! We wonder about all the wonderful ideas, work and performances we’ll be too afraid to share.

We hope you will take today to think about the ways you use the Internet, what sites you use and enjoy, and learn about this legislation.

Is Yiddish the new cool?

There is a steady increase of Yiddish lovers in their twenties and thirties. According to Neil Zagorin, bibliographer at The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass, the Jewish ‘mainstream’ interest in Yiddish is growing because a number of young Jews “are reconsidering–or considering for the first time–the meaning of the Ashkenazic Jewish heritage as an important part of contemporary Jewish identity, alongside Jewish religion, ancient Jewish history, modern Israeli history.”

Signs of this interest are evident in place like Makor, a cultural gathering place dedicated to New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s and the university courses being offered in Yiddish and Yiddish literature in translation.” YIVO, Workmen’s Circle, and The National Yiddish Book Center host events that also attract people in their 20s and 30s. The National Yiddish Book Center offers graduate students a chance to work on preserving Jewish books while taking Yiddish classes. The Center receives about forty applications each year. This kind of innovative programming is working to keep Yiddish alive for future generations.

Here at the Washington DCJCC, we recently had an EntryPointDC Yiddish event and 37 Young Professionals attended. While this event was more of a scholarly introduction to Yiddish, it got me thinking about offering interactive and humorous Yiddish language courses for YPs.

One of my friends recently co-founded a Yiddish Farm and has been honored as a Jewish Social Innovator by the ROI Community. His Yiddish Farm boasts programs such as a Summer Immersion program and Golus Festival. Check it out at

Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to ask him a few questions…

1.Why are young adults all of a sudden fascinated by Yiddish?

-I believe the reason people are fascinated by Yiddish is because of its glaring omission from the standard Jewish narrative, as if it was hidden from them. Although Yiddish was more widely spoken by Jews than any other language in history (including English and Hebrew), it is barely mentioned in Jewish day schools and congregational schools. In writings about Jewish history, culture, peoplehood and/or civilization, Yiddish is notably absent. For example: In Mordechai Kaplan’s lengthy masterpiece Judaism as a Civilization, which formulates a theory of Jewish peoplehood based on cultural factors (such as language), fewer than 10 pages mention Yiddish. Once people realize how big the discrepancy is between the importance of Yiddish in shaping the Jewish people and the attention that it receives, it is fascinating to discover this major piece in the puzzle of who we are. It is as if we are discovering a major cover-up: “How did I miss this all these years?”

Indeed Yiddish was, in a way, covered up. After the Holocaust laid waste to Yiddish-speaking centers, Yiddish was left to fend for itself in the United States, Israel and the Soviet Union. In all three of these areas, Yiddish was actively suppressed. In the United States Yiddish was a casualty of the desire to become acculturated to American society. In Israel, the Zionist ambition to create a “new Jew” conflicted with Yiddish, which was understood as a symbol of weakness. In the Soviet Union, where separate national consciousness was considered a threat to class unity, the government embarked on a Russification of the Jewish people, including the murder of Yiddish writers in the 1950s. Now that Jews feel comfortable in the United States, Hebrew has blossomed in Israel, and the Soviet Union collapsed, Yiddish is suddenly allowed to be pursued. Let’s hope that it isn’t too late.

3. Tell me more about your Yiddish Farm…

-Yiddish Farm was founded in order to respond to the decline in spoken Yiddish, especially among young people. Given the proper resources and attention, there is no reason why Yiddish shouldn’t be used as a spoken language today among certain parts of the population. The biggest challenge we face in the Yiddish world is that, although people have many opportunities to study Yiddish, Yiddish students usually do not become fluent. We believe that this is due to the following reasons:

1. Lack of sustained Yiddish immersion

2. Lack of access to native Yiddish speakers

People that wish to become fluent in majority languages supplement their studies by practicing with native speakers in foreign countries. Since we do not have this option with minority languages, we must be creative. On our summer programs, people have the opportunity to experience Yiddish in an exciting, new way: by living and working on an Yiddish-speaking organic farm. Participants spend part of the day working the land, and part of the day at classes on Yiddish language, theater, literature, history and cooking. They are exposed to hundreds of hours of Yiddish immersion and they live in a tight-knit community among native Yiddish speakers. We offer a beginner’s track as well as an advanced track for our summer program. We also run an outdoor Jewish culture festival called the Golus Festival. This festival celebrated the diversity of the Jewish diaspora with music, dancing, camping, cooking and shabbos programming.

4. As a social entrepreneur what advice can you give for other people looking to start up programs?

1. It is hard to work alone: Find someone that could partner with you even if it means compromising a little on your vision.

2. Take advantage of all of the pro-bono resources out there: Foundation Center, SCORE, and if you live in New York: NYC Business Solutions, Lawyers Alliance for New York, and if your project serves the Jewish people: PresenTense, ROI, Bikkurim, Joshua Venture Fellowship etc.

3. Be flexible: Nothing ever works out according to how you imagined it would. You may have to update your strategies constantly.

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