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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

The February Dilemma?

A time for romance, flavanols, and embracing the unexpected

By Robin Friedman | The New Jersey Jewish News | February 8, 2007

Never mind the December Dilemma.

The real conundrum occurs in February, when a certain St. Valentine arrives in all his pink splendor bearing lacy gifts of bon-bons.

Eggnog’s one thing. But chocolate?


To attempt any sort of feeble resistance is futile.

As a woman, I’ve always liked the romance of St. Valentine’s Day. As a Jewish woman, I’ve been mostly unaware of its origins.

A midwinter celebration of love, St. Valentine’s Day has ancient roots. The Romans celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia, a fertility festival, on Feb. 15, pairing young men and women for marriage by lottery.

The Day itself is named for three different St. Valentines, all of whom died horrible deaths as martyrs. The first was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II during the third century in Rome by performing marriages in secret for young soldiers. The second Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape Roman prisons. The third poor guy fell in love in prison with his jailer’s daughter. Before his execution, he left a letter signed, “From your Valentine.”

Even though the truth is murky, all three legends emphasize St. Valentine as a highly romantic figure.

When faced with such romance, sweetness, love, and flavanols (the healthy antioxidants found in chocolate), are we really better off fighting this Hallmark holiday than embracing it?

I can speak only for myself. But then, remember, I love romance and need chocolate.

It’s a debate that I actually find reflected in my writing. That’s because as a writer, I’ve always envied authors who grew up in extraordinary circumstances — in Africa with parents as gorilla zoologists or in the hollows of West Virginia in a family of gruff coal miners — because their colorful experiences provide them with rich material for their stories, complete with foreign dialect, language, and expression. What did my plain-vanilla suburban New Jersey upbringing give me but an encyclopedic knowledge of shopping malls and jokes about big hair and Turnpike exits?

But that’s exactly what I mean by embracing the things that make us uncomfortable for reasons we don’t quite understand — or trust.

After spending years searching for an exotic tale to tell, my newest teen novel, THE GIRLFRIEND PROJECT, is a suburban romance about a sensitive 17-year-old boy who’s too sweet for his own good. And, yes, it takes place in New Jersey. There’s even a scene, in fact, at the Freehold Raceway Mall, involving kissing in front of a pet store.

And there are plenty of inside jokes about the Garden State, such as its frustrating obsession with jug handles; bizarre claims to fame (we invented baseball, college football, the boardwalk, and the drive-in theater); and, of course, its infamous, stranger-than-fiction state motto contest (“New Jersey: Turn Signals Are For Wimps”), all to show the world that we’re perfectly capable of laughing at ourselves and don’t need anyone’s help with that, thank you very much.

Fact is, New Jersey isn’t so bad, as my main character, Reed Walton, learns. And neither is suburbia, thoroughly enjoying a holiday that has nothing to do with nice Jewish boys, or admitting one’s addiction to a substance that’s as fattening as it is necessary.

Sometimes, as Jews and as New Jerseyans, we can take our grass-is-greener longings a bit too far, wishing things were different for us here, or clearer, or just plain easier, when, truth is, they’re not. Accepting that — embracing it, celebrating it — can actually be more rewarding, and more fun, than choosing to let it trouble us.

Chill, dude, as our own proud-to-be-Jersey dialect would inform us. Ya know? Yo?

That’s where the beauty of storytelling ultimately lies: not in the extraordinary and distant, but in the up-close and everyday, whether it’s a strip-mall diner nestled along a Jersey highway (we have the most diners and toxic waste dumps of any state) or a heart-shaped box covered with ribbons that may or may not have something to do with Pope Gelasius declaring a holiday on Feb. 14 around 498 BCE.

Did I mention that I especially love the cream-filled ones?