Shmoozing With the Word Mavens

Schnecken or Rugelach? It’s a Yummy Nosh by Any Name

When we declare that we are going on a diet, all we can think about is pizza and ice cream. So you shouldn’t be surprised that when we contemplate fasting on Yom Kippur, we imagine diving into a fish tray – and finishing up with something sweet. This year, we have rugelach and schnecken on our minds.

We joke that when we were writing our Dictionary of Jewish Words, we came up with the definition of Torah in 10 minutes, but we pondered the difference between rugelach and schnecken for hours. We did enough research to write the definitions. We declared that these two pastries are similar – but not exactly the same. Cousins, you might say.

They call it rugelach at Lipkin's Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia.

They call it rugelach at Lipkin’s Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia.

Since then, we’ve been in delis where they label any bite-sized cinnamon sugar pastry a   rugelach and in others that call them schnecken. When we do our book talk and ask our  audiences – filled with bubbies that love to bake and everyone else who loves to nosh – to tell us the difference between the two pastries, they are stymied. They happily share bits of information like,“You should taste my sister’s cinnamon rugelach” or “My husband hates it when I put nuts in the schnecken,” but no one can tell us exactly what makes the two noshes different.

A few weeks ago, we decided to revisit the debate. (After all, someone had to take on this delicious investigation.) We did our due diligence by closely examining (and tasting) as many rugelach and schnecken as humanly possible.

It must have been bashert that we came upon a car decorated with photographs of schnecken. We knew it was schnecken, not rugelach, because the words “The Schnecken Lady” were printed beneath the photos. The Word Mavens decided to give The Schnecken Lady a call, hoping she could referee the controversy.

Myrna Freedman lives in Northeast Philadelphia and provides her home-baked schnecken to stores all over the region. She told us that she’s been baking schnecken since 1977; she uses her Aunt Minnie Eisman’s traditional recipe, which has cinnamon sugar, walnuts, raisin and orange marmalade (this makes the pastries sticky). She also makes novel versions, including Nutella, lemon curd, and chocolate raspberry.

Myrna declined to take sides. “Call it what you want to. The ingredients are basically the same. It depends on where you live, what your family calls it – some people say kigel and others say kugel – and how you cut it. In New York, everything’s a rugelach.”

Thanks, Myrna, but you’ve clearly taken a side – schnecken is emblazoned on your van, business card, website and bakery boxes.

Clearly, we needed to do more research. We’re old school, so we turned to our cookbook collection for clarity, hoping to find out whether it’s the dough, the shape or the fillings that distinguish these two sweets.

THE DOUGH: Schnecken dough is usually composed of butter, flour, egg yolks and yeast. We learned that kuchen (German for cake) is a precursor to schnecken; the yeast-containing dough can be used for cinnamon buns and coffee cakes. This might give us a clue as to why schnecken is sometimes gooey – like a cinnamon bun.

Back in the day in Europe, schnecken dough and rugelach dough were similar. When these pastries both came to America, someone had the bright idea to add cream cheese to rugelach. In fact, venerable cookbook author Joan Nathan calls rugelach “cream cheese cookies.”

At Lipkin’s, a kosher bakery in Northeast Philadelphia that been in business for four-generations, the bakery lady behind the counter told us, “Of course, Mitch [Lipkin] puts cream cheese in the dough.” At Lipkin’s – which sells chocolate, raspberry and cinnamon sugar varieties – they call them rugelach. “I’ve never heard the word schnecken,” the clerk told us.

THE SHAPE: New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton is the author of From My Mother’s Kitchen and a member of the tribe. She calls schnecken “cinnamon nut snails.” That’s a good choice because the word schnecken comes from the Yiddish word for snail. To get that snail shape, you roll out the dough into a rectangle, spread the filling on top, roll it up jellyroll style, cut it into small slices, and bake.

028448003001What’s the shape of rugelach? In an essay in TabletJoan Nathan wrote, “Rug means spiral or crescent-shaped in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish; a miniature spiral-shaped dough was, therefore, a rugelach.

To get the crescent shape, you roll out the dough into a circle, cut it into pie-shaped wedges, spread the filling on each wedge and, beginning at the wide edge, roll it up to the point, like a crescent roll.

We checked out Green’s Rugelach Chocolate Original from the supermarket. It comes in a plastic bag and has enough preservatives to last a month on the counter. We were pleased to see, however, that Green’s got the shape right. Their rugelach are parve so they left out the cream cheese.

THE FILLINGS: The basic filling for either is a combination of sugar, cinnamon and nuts. Raisins are the next most popular add-in. Then there’s chocolate and apricot jam. After that, the sky’s the limit, like the Schnecken Lady’s Nutella or Abe Fisher’s newfangled savory version filled chicken and schmaltz or salmon, boursin and kimmel seeds.

photoAbe isn’t our uncle; it’s a new Philadelphia restaurant featuring “food of the Jewish diaspora.” The Israel-born manager brought these savory pastries to our table in place of bread. “Have some rugelach,” he announced. We asked him why they weren’t called schnecken; he told us he had never heard that word. They were delicious.

So it seems that what you call this nosh depends on where your ancestors came from. Since schnecken is a German word, unless you are a direct descendant of German Jews you probably didn’t grow up with schnecken. The vast majority of American Jews are children of immigrants from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, where rugelach ruled.

For a final opinion, we turn one last time to Joan Nathan to weigh in on the great schnecken/rugelach debate. She talked about cream cheese vs. yeast, spirals vs. snails and how the best schnecken are sticky like a cinnamon bun. Her conclusion: “Sometimes the pastries seem to only be different in name. If nothing else, the different names offer the perfect excuse to start the day with a schnecken and end it with a rugelach—what could be better than that?”

That’s good advice, Joan. So when we place the order for our break-fast fish trays, we’ll order a pound of each. Assorted, but throw a few more chocolate ones in the box.

10 Reasons Why Celebrating Both Jewish and Secular New Years is a Win-Win

This article first appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward on Sept. 22.  Illustrations by Dani E. Go. 


How is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, different from that other New Year? Let us count down the ways.

10. Resolutions

On secular New Year’s Eve we make resolutions with the best of intentions. We promise to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes a day, to stop wasting at least $4 on a latte at Starbucks and to give up all refined sugar. At Rosh Hashanah services, we say prayers to begin the ten days of repentance because we’ve forgotten those resolutions. This repentance comes in handy at the Kiddush when we see that there is rugelach.

rosh_-9_web9. Get-togethers

Rosh Hashanah is a family holiday; New Year’s Eve is not. On Rosh Hashanah our brisket and kugel entice the kids to come home; these kids are even tolerant of Cousin Ronnie’s embarrassing questions, like, “Do you have a boyfriend yet?” On New Year’s Eve, it’s embarrassing to admit you have nowhere to go except to Ronnie’s party for the cousins.

8. Same Old, Same Old Tunes

The melody to “Avinu Malkeinu” hasn’t changed in a million years. Compared with this, “Auld Lang Syne” is a recent hit; it has been on the charts for only 226 years. With both songs, the crowd starts off strong. Everyone knows “Should old acquaintance be forgot… ” and “Avinu Malkeinu sh’ma kolenu…,” but many trail off after the first line or two and mumble the rest.

7. Cantor vs. DJ

While the cantor is a professional who reads Hebrew and has a beautiful singing voice, the New Year’s Eve party disc jockey might be the host’s nephew who hooked up his iPhone to a set of speakers. If the DJ doesn’t mix it up, he won’t get the gig next year. But if the cantor does a Rosh Hashanah remix, the congregation shouts “Dayenu.” No one expects new tunes on Rosh Hashanah; it’s surprising enough when the cantor comes down off the bimah to sing the prayer Hineni from the back of the synagogue.

rosh_-3_web6. Musical Instruments

The shofar, made from a ram’s horn, has a proud tradition: It was sounded on Mount Sinai when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments. The glitter paper party horn, made in China, comes in an eight-pack for $1.99. When the cantor calls out the notes for the shofar, we happily anticipate the familiar blasts, but when Ryan Seacrest counts down the minutes to midnight, we dread hearing drunk party guests blast their horns.

5. Compulsory Attendance

An old hit song asked “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” That is a fair question, because staying home alone is not an acceptable answer. Those who don’t have plans search for a date and for a party invitation.

Even though we’re married and have a date, staying home can still make us feel like social outcasts. That’s why we’ll cajole our partners to get dressed and go to the neighbor’s party. How would it look if our January 1 Facebook post divulged that we sat on our sofa, ate takeout sushi and watched “Sleepless in Seattle” for the eighth time?

No composer ever wrote “What Are You Doing Rosh Hashanah?” because everyone knows the answer is, “going to synagogue.” Even those people whose synagogue attendance is sparse throughout the year put in an appearance on the High Holidays. That’s why we have to park in the overflow lot at the church next door and say “Excuse me” over and over to a full row of people when we sneak out to the bathroom.

rosh_-4_web4. Staying Awake

The kids make fun of the man who dozes off in synagogue: His eyelids droop, his breathing gets louder and he doesn’t stand up when the ark is opened. We hope the woman sitting next to him gives him the elbow before he starts to snore.

We think it’s worse to fall asleep in synagogue than to doze off before the clock strikes midnight. When our children were little, we would promise to wake them up for the midnight countdown, but we never did. We know the rule: Don’t wake a sleeping child. Now, if our partners start to snore before the ball drops, we just let them be. Why wake a sleeping husband (or wife)?

3. Getting All Fapitzed

On Rosh Hashanah, we know we have to look presentable. When we were teenage girls, we were eager to break out our new school clothes for synagogue. Now we’re happy to wear that old summer skirt and top one more time.

In synagogue, a quick scan of the pews can tell us who bought the latest fall fashions: They are the ones shvitsing in their new tweed suits and knee-high leather boots. We also aren’t enthusiastic about wearing a wool suit when the temperature is still in the 80s. Then and now, we refuse to wear pantyhose. We’re still tan from the summer.

On New Year’s Eve we’ll dig into the closet and pull out the sequined tank top and black crepe pants that we save for fancy occasions. Then we go out into the freezing cold and wish we had worn our tweed skirt and knee-high leather boots.

rosh_-2_web2. The Whole Kissing Thing

Any teen can tell you that kissing at midnight on New Year’s Eve is a big deal. Teenagers jockey for position so that they are not next to the nerd from science class when the announcer calls out “10…9…8….”

At Rosh Hashanah services there is no countdown to a big kiss. When the rabbi says, “Let’s all turn to page 153,” you’re not expected to kiss the person sitting next to you.

1. Greetings

The standard “Happy New Year” doesn’t differentiate between those who are ringing in the Jewish or secular new year. Those in the know greet a fellow MOT in the supermarket or the carpool line with an enthusiastic “L’shanah tovah.” Using the correct Hebrew phrase is shorthand for, “I know you are cooking a brisket, and I’ll see you in synagogue on Thursday.”

So raise your champagne glass and put on your party hat. We’re gonna party like it’s 5775.

A Graceful Exit
August 26, 2014, 11:34 am
Filed under: culture, holidays | Tags: , , , ,

The nice people of the world think you have to say goodbye to everyone at the end of a party. You can’t just say goodbye to the host and hostess or sneak out entirely. We’re here to confess that, in this arena, we are not nice. We have snuck out of many a Bar Mitzvah or wedding that lasted hours and hours past our bedtime.

On the way to the affair, one of our husbands is wont to ask: “What time does this party end?” We remind him that unless it’s a 5-year-old’s birthday party and the magician will be done by 2 p.m., the end time isn’t specified.

Invariably, the follow-up question is: “How long do you want to stay?”

Good question. “When is it appropriate to leave?” and “To whom do we have to say goodbye?” are two big existential questions that we are still pondering after years and years of exiting family picnics, graduation parties, business dinners, college reunions, fancy weddings, and teenage Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. You need to look for your signal to leave.

We’re friendly. We like to socialize. But how long is too long to for a second cousin’s wedding? We’ve never met the lucky bride; we don’t know her family, yet we chatted with her Uncle Earl from Boston for 20 minutes. We heard all about how the food was really wonderful on his recent riverboat cruise.

We’re happy to see our cousins and catch up with them, but we find that we are giving the same spiel when they ask what’s new. No, we don’t know if he’s ever going to marry that girl or what she’s going to do with that degree.

After a while, our feet hurt, we’re stuffed from the hors d’oeuvres, and we’ve caught up on all the news. It’s still the cocktail hour.

How long does a good guest stay? We don’t ever want to be the first to go, so we keep our eyes peeled for the signal. We point out, “Oh, look, the Goldbergs and the McCormicks are leaving.”

While Ellen will be close behind those two couples, Joyce considers dessert — served and eaten — her signal. No matter if midnight rolls around and the waiters are just serving the sirloin, she stays planted until the lava fudge cake with three strawberries makes an appearance.

If it’s a wedding, she’ll wait to see the couple cut the cake, but she doesn’t have to stay around to catch the bouquet or to sway in a circle on the dance floor to the final song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” Been there, done that.


When you gotta go, you gotta go.

Some people sneak out really early. When the waiter carrying two extra plates of salmon points to the empty spots at our table and asks, “Are they coming back?” we know in our hearts that they are not in the bathroom. They snuck out without saying goodbye to us.  Another moral dilemma: Do we tell the waiter they’ve left or keep quiet in case we want extra mashed potatoes?

Ellen is married to the one of nicest guys in the world. He is considerate to everyone. The downside of this is that he thinks you can’t leave a party until you say goodbye to everyone. That’s why Ellen is often seen in the hallway yelling, “Come on; just go. No one will even care. They won’t miss us.”  They usually compromise by saying goodbye to the hosts only before rushing out of the room without making eye contact with the rest of the family.

It’s easier to say goodbye when you know only a few people. When it’s time to leave, you give a general wave to the room and skip out.



In fact, the whole party can be more fun when you only know a few people. You can take as many pigs in the blanket as you want, speak only when spoken to, and not worry about looking silly on the dance floor.

Sometimes you don’t know anyone and you still can’t leave. That was the case recently when Ellen and her son, Andy, had to go to a college “meet and greet” at a stranger’s home. Walking up the driveway, Andy said, “Let’s just sneak out as soon as we can.” After all, he’s his mother’s son. But with parents sequestered outside and teens trapped inside, there was no way to coordinate an escape plan. They were stuck to the bitter end. At least they got dessert.

This article appears today on the very nice website of Philadelphia’s Public Radio station WHYY. You can  click here to see it on their site.

There’s a Word for That
August 15, 2014, 11:15 am
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

Guess who’s coming to dinner? The machetunim.

That’s the Yiddish word you’ll probably use soon after your daughter has announced her engagement, when you’ve invited her fiancé’s parents to your home for the first time.

In contrast, there is no single word in the English language to describe one’s relatives by marriage.

Yiddish is filled with many hard-to-translate words that have no equivalent in English, words that convey a whole range of emotions.

Another is mechayah, literally “resurrection,” a feeling of pleasure, delight and relief. You might experience this when you loosen your belt after a big meal or stand in the surf and splash yourself on a hot day. In English, it could take three sentences to convey the sentiment: “Aaaah! Now that the bar mitzvah is over, I can peel off these Spanx. I can finally breathe again.” In Yiddish, you need just three words: “What amechayah!”

It’s no surprise that other languages have untranslatable words, too. As self-described word mavens, we couldn’t resist taking a closer look at some farkakteh foreign words through a Yiddish lens:

Badkruka is a Swedish word that describes someone who is reluctant to jump into the water outdoors. No wonder they are reluctant: In Scandinavia, there are all those freezing cold fjords. Who would want to jump in and freeze their tootsies off? In Atlantic City, we’re only badkruka when the ocean temperature dips below 68 degrees. Of course, that means we probably won’t wade in until mid-August.

At the swim club, when we see a bunch of women glued to their lounge chairs, we don’t think they are badkruka; we know they don’t want to get their hair wet.

Zapoi is Russian for two or more days of drunkenness, usually involving waking up in an unexpected place. There’s no Jewish equivalent for this kind of drunkenness; we like to wake up in our own cozy beds. The only thing that comes to mind is the custom on Purim when Jews are supposed to drink until they can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordecai. Sometimes people down shots of whiskey in the back of the synagogue to fulfill this minhag (custom), but it’s no zapoi unless you wake up on the bimah.

Kabelsalat is German for tangled-up cables. It translates as cable salad. Klaus might say, “When I keep my earbuds in my pocket, they come out all kabelsalat.” For this word, there is a Yiddish equivalent: “When we tried to move the surge protector, all the cords were ongepotchket (disorganized, cluttered, thrown together).”

Uitwaaien is Dutch for going out for a walk in the countryside in order to clear one’s mind. Our uitwaaien is going down to the basement to put the wet clothes in the dryer and realizing that it’s so nice and cool and quiet down there that there’s no reason to hurry back upstairs.

Ikigai is the Japanese term for a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live. We’re Jewish mothers. Our word for ikigai is “children.”

Then there’s the Inuit word iktsuarpokIt’s described as the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’ve arrived yet. It’s curious that the Inuits, the native people of the Arctic Circle, coined this word. Isn’t it too cold to leave the igloo and stand out on the tundra waiting for the dogsled?

We iktsuarpok all the time–waiting for the school bus to drop off the kids, the UPS guy to deliver the coffee we ordered, and the plumber to show up. We love this word so much that we have adopted it. Since the English language has appropriated so many Yiddish words, we think it’s only fair that we add one word back in.


Mavens Note:

This column was also published on the blog of Moment Magazine… we were waiting for them to post it before we did.

When the Weather Outside Is Sweaty

Northeast on Fire! Massive Heat Wave Bearing Down! No Relief in Sight! When summer comes, TV weather people shout these teasers at us, warning us to take shelter in air-conditioned libraries, avoid caffeinated drinks, and check on our elderly neighbors.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 1.25.55 PMIt has to hit 90-plus degrees for three days in a row to be labeled an official heat wave, and we’ve had two so far this summer. It’s been sticky, steamy and stormy and we’ve lost our Internet service, but as the weather people keep reminding us, it doesn’t compare to the Snowmageddon of 2014.

We really shouldn’t kvetch about the heat, but we will because we’re shvitzing, which is the Yiddish word for “sweating heavily.” Shvitzing isn’t perspiring or having a moist glow; it’s sweating so much that you need to reapply your deodorant or change your shirt before dinner.

Those who live with us might argue that it doesn’t matter what the weather conditions are outside: We’re always complaining that we’re hot and shvitzing. We are women of a certain age, and our internal temperature control is out of whack. That’s probably why we like to sit inches away from an air conditioning vent.
An advertising banner from the Camac Baths.

An advertising banner from the Camac Baths.

The Jewish people have been sweating for thousands of years, and we’re tired of it. When Eastern European Jews immigrated to America, they brought the shvitz – a place to sweat – with them to their new neighborhoods. In 1929, Alexander Lucker opened the Camac Bath House in Philadelphia. (It’s now  the site of the 12th Street Gym. People still shvitzing!) At the bath houses, men would relax and socialize in steam room. Sweating was considered a good thing.

We prefer to sweat in private; we take refuge at home, meticulously following tips from the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service to “slow down, don’t engage in strenuous activities, and drink plenty of fluids.” Although we were reluctant to follow the directive from Homeland Security to make an emergency evacuation plan for the family or the instructions from the attorney to draw up a living will, we have no problem lounging on the sofa drinking ice tea and not cooking dinner – but we still have to provide something.

In the dog days of summer, we look for quick, cold dinner options. Sometimes we do bagels and lox, the traditional, cold brunch that can easily stand in anytime. Or takeout sushi. Or the Seinfeld big salad – with olives, cheese, almonds and whatever else is in the pantry. Sometimes we even say, “You’re on your own. Have a bowl of cold cereal.”

In the days before central air conditioning and microwaves, our mothers had to come up with summer dinners that didn’t involve turning on the oven and heating up the  house. Salmon croquettes, tuna salad and egg salad would make an appearance all too often. On some nights, our moms would cook on the stovetop, and we’d enjoy buttered, boiled Creamettes with those salads.

We’re not complaining. We know we are blessed with central air, microwave ovens and automatic ice dispensers. And we’re grateful not to be among the 2-3 percent of the population that has hyperhidrosis, the medical term for excessive sweating no matter what the weather or physical activity. Hyperhidrosis does not describe your husband when he comes in from jogging. People who suffer from severe cases of hyperhidrosis can be so sweaty that it’s hard for them to “hold a pen, grip a car steering wheel, or shake hands,” according to WebMD.

We read that other causes of excessive sweating include diabetes, hyperthyroidism and a high arsenic level. If someone is slowly poisoning you with arsenic, being sweaty is the least of your worries.

As long as it stays hot outside, writing this essay is enough activity for us for the day. We’re going to pour ourselves a cold drink, sit quietly on the couch, and wait for Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz to announce: Killer Heat Wave Ending!

The Internet Afterlife
June 1, 2014, 9:26 am
Filed under: culture, Current Events, technology | Tags: , , , , , ,

Heaven is often depicted as a place in the sky where everything floats on beautiful clouds and people don’t age.

heaven 8

Is it a coincidence that the Cloud where our electronic footprints dwell is a lot like this place?


On Facebook, it appears that time stands still. When you click through a friend’s albums, you might see photos of a Bat Mitzvah girl smiling shyly with her new braces, a fabulous trip to an Eastern European country, and kids posing by the lake at a summer camp. In reality, that teen just graduated from college, the Eastern European country is now seven independent nations, and that summer camp is a housing development.

In the actual world when time marches on, you can see the Closed sign on the facade of the restaurant and the For Sale sign on the storefront. You notice the occasional abandoned car on the highway. No so on the information superhighway.

heaven 5

In the virtual world –  what’s been abandoned is invisible. There’s no clue that things have changed. Online you’ll still find:

  • reviews of restaurants that have gone out of business,
  • blogs that have lain dormant since the author’s enthusiasm for breeding dachshunds waned, and
  • online stores that appear to be in business until you fill your cart and try to enter your credit card on the last screen.

Likewise, when people die, they live on in cyberspace. This got us wondering: What happens to people’s user names and secret passwords when they are no longer users? Family members will eventual divvy up their possessions, clean out their closets and close their online bank accounts, but will they remove the TripAdvisor review of the bad mule ride down the Grand Canyon and the Goodreads review of Tom Clancy’s spy thriller? Probably not.  Will they take down their loved one’s Facebook page?


It turns out that Facebook has a set of guidelines for this eventuality. When someone passes away, his or her Facebook page can be memorialized. This is different from closing your account or creating a Facebook alias because you’ve posted too many photos of your drunken self-holding a red plastic cup. According to Facebook, memorializing a page means it can be viewed but it can’t be logged into or changed. However, “anyone can send private messages to the deceased person.” Facebook notes, once a page is memorialized, they will take care of the awkward possibility that you’ll get a birthday reminder or a suggestion of “people you may know” for someone who is deceased.

All this playing online makes us realize that we’ve left quite a trail on the Internet. In fact, when we Googled ourselves, as we are wont to do, we got 22,500 results in 0.55 seconds – 8 pages documenting 14 years of writing. Our Passover reminiscences, parenting advice, and musings about kugel are filling up quite a few clouds out there in cyberspace. For writers like us, this is heaven.

P.S. We are proud that we are still blogging as The Word Mavens. This is our 106th post. You’re reading this, and we’re still here. We have not gone out of business or lost our enthusiasm for kibitzing with you.



Be Careful What You Click For
May 8, 2014, 5:02 pm
Filed under: culture, technology, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

We prefer shopping solo. Sometimes we drag our husbands along and it’s not as much fun as we think it’ll be. They have a shorter attention span, and we don’t like anyone looking over our shoulder at the price tag. We’re not fond of shopping in small boutiques where enthusiastic saleswomen assure us that “it looks fabulous on you.” We don’t even go into those fancy stores that put you in the dressing room and bring you a few precious items one at a time. We’ve stood naked while the sales woman hollers to the front of the store, “Do we have it in an extra large?”

We used to think that shopping online was a boon to us solo shoppers – where we could in peace at any hour of the day or night, but it turns out someone is always watching.

We were in the market for a new food processor last winter – and yes, we visited a few websites to compare features and prices. We bought one. For six months after, we were targeted by ads for jumbo-size food processors, battery-powered food processors, and mini-chop food processors. It wouldn’t stop nagging us to make a choice.

When you shop online, every click indicates interest. The computer doesn’t differentiate between window shopping and serious shopping. It doesn’t know that we already made our purchase. How many food processors do we need?

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 4.58.04 PMWe don’t always remember what’s in the back of our closet. We’ve been known to walk into a department store, pick up a purple shirt and buy it because we liked it. It was perfect. We’d come home and find that we already owned one exactly like it. There’s less chance of this happening when we shop online. That electronic reminder that tells us that “customers who bought this also bought…” is a clue to us not to purchase the same shirt again.

In the old days, dress shopping for an occasion meant making many trips to specialty stores, where we’d decide if what looked good on the hanger looked good on us. Now we wonder if what looks good on the laptop will look good on us – and if the color described online as “dove grey” will be more “mud brown” when we take it out of the FedEx package.

We have a friend who bought a fancy dress from She felt a little guilty paying full retail price, but look what she saved on gas. The purchase was complete and gone from her mind – until her computer thought otherwise. The next day, a targeted ad offered the exact same dress at a lower price. Our friend couldn’t resist. She bought it and planned to return the first. The nightmare continued the next day when her computer offered up a third dress at an even lower price. She took the bait. She’s now busy printing out return labels, filling out the forms, and driving to the post office to mail Dress 1 and Dress 2 back. It would have been easier to say yes to the dress at an actual brick and mortar store.

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 4.58.18 PMDon’t make the mistake of shopping online for something sketchy. We thought we were searching privately with no one looking over our shoulder, but we were wrong. We asked Google how to skirt the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba, and now we’re inundated with offers to join the Communist party, buy Cuban cigars, and purchase cases of rum. We peeked at our daughter’s screen and saw that her targeted ads were Victoria’s Secret bras, fancy chocolate, and tickets to Coachella. And we thought she was studying for finals.

We try to keep our online personal information to a minimum, but our husbands might feel bad if we didn’t tag them as our spouses. Likewise, we won’t get invited to the reunion if we don’t list our high school graduation year. The downside is that we are getting ads for teeth whitening, 55-plus communities, and loan consolidation. Our computer has figured out that we are women of a certain age.

We used to have real friends – just a handful – not 367 Facebook friends. We would see them in person and talk to them using our voice, not 140 characters. If we told a friend that we liked her new glasses, it was simply an exchange of pleasantries – without a paper trail. Today, if we click “like” on a friend’s Puerto Vallarta vacation photos, we’re inundated with ads for Mexican hotels.

We don’t enjoy being typecast as middle-aged moms who drive Subarus to Macys to buy Spanx, so we’ve been trying to figure out how to outsmart our computer. Technical advice, like clearing our cache and giving back our cookies makes us nervous.

So once in a while, we click on some things that are out of character. Just yesterday we searched for youth hostels in Hamburg, Germany, and thong underwear in size XS. We can’t wait to see what our computer wants us to purchase tomorrow.



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