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Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Praying in Strange Places, a new story





My short story "Praying in Strange Places" was published in Derailleur! Here's how it starts. I know, it starts with Chapter 5 and goes down to 1. Not consciously trying to be weird, just came out of my fingers that way. 


5.

A Hollywood backlot last week. I was there to visit a friend, who’d recently gotten a semi-regular job as a minor character on a major sitcom. Actually, she was my best friend’s girlfriend. But I was in L.A., and my friend wasn’t, and the girlfriend invited me to come to work with her. They were rehearsing, running through the same three-minute scene an infinity of times. I sat in the empty audience bleachers and watched them walk around a fake living room. I envied the ability to be able to do what they did, to rewind time again and again to make it perfect. Inside the hermetically-sealed warehouse, I got the sense the sun was going down. I went outside, to the hallway, and found a place to pray. Three steps back, three steps forward, I transformed that little area into a chamber for G-d to inhabit. I stood still and swayed back and forth.
    The place I’d picked to pray was one of those narrow alcoves, a Cubist lump where the wall hiccupped inward for no apparent reason. The wall faced east, toward Jerusalem, and I fit neatly inside. It was only after I’d gotten far enough into the prayers so that I couldn’t move--once you did your dance of the three steps, I was frozen in place until the concluding section hit--when I realized, inside my sandwich of three walls, I was literally two steps away from the men’s bathroom. I pushed it out of my mind, to keep focused on the prayers. One of the stars of the series brushed past me and into the bathroom. Our shoulders actually touched, even though the hallway wasn’t that narrow. I wasn’t sure why, if he was coming onto me, if he was drunk, if he was just clumsy like I was. I tried not to listen, but, can you close your ears, how can you willfully not hear something? The stream of liquid was long, unbroken, stretching to whole minutes. A strange thing: I’d long had this thought, I’d love to be an actor, except for the long periods on stage and the infrequent, time-mandated pee breaks. I’d wondered how they did it. That was how. Did you know there’s a prayer we say for going to the bathroom, thanking G-d for creating the system of openings and closings in our bodies, acknowledging that if those tubes and combines didn’t work exactly the way they did, we’d be poisoned, immobilized, unable to live? We say that prayer every time we urinate or defecate, after washing and leaving the bathroom. It was not, however, a part of the normal afternoon prayer. The prayer I was saying right now.

    The series star extracted himself from the bathroom, shook his hands in the air upon leaving, far enough away from his body so no loose drops were shaken onto his outfit. He gave me a long, hard look, as if he’d heard my every thought, my entire rambling eschatological intrusion into his pee break, the kind of look he probably routinely gave to paparazzi, a look that said, Don’t you have anything better to do with your life? Nope. No, I thought, I do not.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Saturday Night with the Reverend

 




“G-d needs us to believe in Him,” Rev. Vince extols us, “just like you need someone to believe in you.”

Just as the music drops in, he one-ups himself: “Just like I need you to believe in me,” and on the turn of a dime, he’s no longer preaching, he’s singing, he’s giving us deep-throated growls and can-you-say-hallelujahs.

We are in a biker bar called the Black Coffin, and we have been brought here by my summer landlord, Yoily, a Hasid in dress at least. Tonight, though, he is getting down with a Venus de Milo-like woman of some sort of island extraction — an island that could be any island in the world, really — just about five feet tall and at least that in diameter.

But that doesn’t make him any less of a Hasid, in his own estimation at least. Four shots in, he’s spending most of my month’s rent on the nicest whisky in the house, and it’s loosening him up.

Not that he needed any loosening. I remember once in a lecture being told by a rabbi that we wear the clothes we wear, black pants white shirt, as a sort of uniform, to keep us in line and to keep us from acting immodest or unbecoming. When you look like a Jew, you act like a Jew. For Yoily, who goes to the dance clubs almost every night, these clothes free him from any sort of social norm or expectation. Those clothes, that hair, he’s basically an alien. People assume he’s either a dangerous sex pervert or a kid who’s run away, Amish-style, for a single strange night in the town, looking for a crazy adventure in that American Graffiti vein, or maybe just in that The Hangover vein, he’ll have a dance, do some drugs, have a ’70s-music-filled-montage, have a half-awake conversation with a girl whom in a different state of consciousness he might have shared a kiss or something more, rolled into bed at 5:00 in the morning only to awake a few hours later, a little tired and beleaguered but ready to lapse back into his normal life.

But, no: This is Yoily. He’s never gonna wake up.

He dances harder. The woman gives a loud whoop, so showy and flamboyant it feels like she’s faking, but so fake it’s real. Yoily whoops back, even louder, even realer, and he grabs a piece of her stomach. I turn away, embarrassed to be a part of it, embarrassed to be there at all.

**

It’s been a cool night, a hot night. One of those wild summers in Brooklyn where by day the sidewalks are hot enough to give you first-degree burns and you find yourself checking with strangers on the street if they’ve had enough water. At midnight the air is still bubbling over 100. The people in the bar are sweating and thirsty, it makes them drink more, which makes them wilder still.

Rev. Vince feels it. He feeds off it, hungry for energy. He bangs the keys twice as hard, forcing the drummer to play twice as fast. The band can barely keep up.

The audience is having no problem, though. Our feet can stomp in time with whatever Rev. Vince plays. We need him as much as he needs us.

Tonight he plays fierce, sharp staccato chords at the high end and low end of his organ, one song after another. Then finally, he breaks so fast the rest of his band is thrown off track. The bass is still shaking, the unwilling bassist having struck one note after the rest of the band pulled to a stop, and the string trembles with the weight of every ear in the room.

Then he speaks. His voice is the only thing in our ears, the only sound in the universe.

“How you all doin’ tonight?”

The answer is a single lusty many-voiced yell.

“I can feel the L-rd here, can you feel Him?”

Harder cheers, louder cheers. Hands in the air, we are pouring ourselves into him.

“We gotta praise His name, give Him whatever we have! If you got spirit, give Him some spirit. If you got happiness, you got to share that happiness. Even if you got money, you gotta spread it around. You go on and tell me, is anybody here rich?”

A lone bro whistles from the back. A few heads turn toward us, to the Jews, but nobody says anything. In the rest of the bar it is utterly silent, except for the Rev.

“Hey friends, I’m not pokin’ fun at anyone. There’s no need to be ashamed. Whatever you are, that’s the way the L-rd made you. And the L-rd’s got gifts for all of us. Some of us are smart. Some are wise. Some are physically gifted — gifted in the face or the body,” he reaches down, hands cupping the overhanging bottom curvature of his own stomach to jiggle his own, and here the band starts to play again, soft, like the very instruments are whispering, “others are skilled with their words, or their charm, or even their music.”

His hands sink to the keys of the organ, and he jumps back in, and his voice climbs ever louder.

“So friends, what I’m askin’ is, who’s ready to accept G-d’s gifts? Who wants to be rich?”

I DO!” shrills a voice next to me, and two white-sleeved arms shoot in the air and it’s Yoily, throwing his head back, tossing his beard into the air, shrieking with wild abandon.

The music tumbles back into full force and Yoily starts to dance, and then so does everyone else, and in the moment it’s forgotten by all concerned. Only it’s not forgotten by Yoily, who was a good deal less drunk that night than I’d thought, or maybe he’d just never stopped being drunk, because Wednesday next the big lottery winner gets called, enough cash to never work another day in your life, and not only has Yoily actually had the forethought to buy a lottery ticket, he’s got all six matching numbers.

Now, there’s such a thing as coincidence in this world. G-d stopped sending us prophets, and there’s no longer a Temple to bring the holy offerings, so we got to make do with what we do. G-d’s Hand is still at it, but in a concealed way, and you don’t often see miracles granted as obvious as Yoily.

Right away he stopped going out at night. Started wearing his black hat again, never being seen without a jacket, or outside the neighborhood, or in bars, Least of all a bar where a licensed minister plays organ every Tuesday night.

Once I passed him on the street, asked him about it. He scowled and couldn’t say Rev. Vince’s name without spitting. “That goy?” he said. “All he wants to do is turn Yidden into sinners, one forbidden dance at a time.”

But on Shabbos I wound up at his house — since the lottery, he’d given himself to buying tons of food from the store, paying a shiksa to prepare it all, and inviting over whatever single or divorced or displaced men to feast with a good hot lunch. He’d had too much to drink, or not enough. And he threw a sweaty arm around me and told me why he’d stopped following the rest of us to Rev. Vince.

“I’d be back there in a second if I hadn’t won,” he said to me, his voice warm and cavelike in my ear. “What he did was, he took away the uncertainty. If all you need to do to believe is to get handed a miracle, what good does it do? I wouldn’t have to believe on my own, I wouldn’t have to shout and cheer and scream like an animal, I wouldn’t dance with the fat shiksas because I’d know that G-d was right there, ready to throw a lightning bolt in my face. The second you don’t need to believe anymore, what are you? You’re an angel. You’re a robot. All you do is G-d’s work, because there’s nothing else you can do.”

He says more, but I don’t hear it, because he unfixes his arm from my shoulders and slinks off, still talking. I don’t need to hear it. I don’t want to. I’ve still got my Saturday night dances, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

 

The Rev. Vince is loosely, but not entirely, modeled after Reverend Vince Anderson & the Love Choir. You should think of it as fan fiction. You can find out about the real one here and listen to here and, whoa!, he has live shows every Monday night here. We should go.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Write On!: Sometimes I’m Too Jewish, Sometimes I’m Not Jewish Enough



I want to believe that I’m the sum of all my experiences, that every time I pick up a pen and launch into a story I’m giving it everything that I have —

  • the books I’ve read and the movie I watched on the plane here,
  • the Jewish food my parents raised me on and the watered-down secular Jewish culture they gave me,
  • the first time Eddie Torres kicked my ass walking home after school in sixth grade and the twenty times he did it after that,
  • the time I became an Orthodox Jew when I was 20 years old
  • and the time I started hooking up with a Catholic-raised pagan sex worker 3 years into it,
  • the prayers I said this morning, including the entire story of the Binding of Isaac and his almost-attempted murder by his father Abraham, which we say every day, although I’m still not 100% sure why we say that and not, say, the story of Bilaam beating his ass,
  • the archery lesson I took my Hasidic girls-school daughter to last night
  • and us reading Dracula on the way home, her request
  • as the people next to us stared.

But there’s a problem inherent within that. Stories are microcosms. Salman Rushdie says that, every time you tell a story, at the same moment there’s a million other stories you’re choosing not to tell. If I decide to write, say, a memoir about hooking up with my pagan ex-girlfriend, I’m not telling you the story of when I first became Orthodox, or going to secular Hebrew School as a kid, or how my wife and I celebrated Shabbos when we were dating, or how there’s a white nationalist guy sitting next to me on the plane right now and how I feel as someone who looks like me, with a beard, payos, tzitzis.*

When we write stories, we start at a point. Maybe it’s an idea. For me, it’s usually an image — it might not be the image the story starts with, but it’s an image that I know will come up.

The point is, it’s a point. As storytellers, we take that point and move it along an axis, we tell it, we create a line, and the line goes on as far as our story does, ad infinitum if we want it to. And I know I have suddenly started talking about math in front of a bunch of writers, but bear with me — for every point in the universe, there’s an infinite series of lines that can be drawn from it. If you start here {POINT IN THE AIR}, you can go this way {GESTURE IN ONE DIRECTION}, this way {POINT IN ANOTHER DIRECTION}, or this way. That’s the direction we choose to go with a story.

My first novel, Never Mind the Goldbergs, started with an image of a girl wearing three stacked, ripped skirts — a miniskirt, a knee-length skirt, a long gypsy skirt, all of them crowned with punk-rock patches — and she’s standing on a Hollywood set, and a non-Jewish wardrobe person is trying to tell her what clothes Orthodox people are supposed to wear. It’s a pretty clearly Jewish image, right? Pretty much every direction you’d take that in is has to embrace the Jewish angle, or at least include it at some point.

I wrote this other novel, Manhattan Beach. It hasn’t been published (yet?). Here’s how I first conjured it: imagine the movie The Goonies, where four kids find a map leading to buried pirate treasure beneath their hometown — and, of course, obstacles that keep rogue treasure hunters away — except that, in my vision, the kids are 80-year-old men.

This story didn’t have to be Jewish. Except that, in some way, it did. In the original movie, the kids’ homes were being foreclosed upon; in my remake, it was the synagogue where all the old men hung out all day. I told the story in ten chapters, one for each of the men left who made the synagogue’s minyan: the mentally-disabled caretaker, the celebrity skin-care doctor with the subway ads, the old gay guy who never got a chance to come out because he was a teenager during the Holocaust, and instead he lived alone in a forest stealing from Nazis.

I don’t have to make these stories Jewish. That quality, the Jewishness of it — the religious stuff, the Holocaust stuff, the one-off references to the texture of matzoh and the passing inclusion of an oy — they’re a part of the story, sometimes even a fundament of the particular story I’m trying to tell. But they’re just some of the tools in my toolbox, a few of the memories in the knapsack of my mind. At some point, I was on a hot streak of writing really really Jewish poems, one about my vegetarianism and the profundity of meat in my grandmother’s house, another about my gay Orthodox friends and my non-Jewish girlfriend, and then I wrote a poem about my teeth.

Again with the microcosmos. We defamilarize the familiar, describing a watermelon as if no one in your audience has ever tasted watermelon before, and at the same time we create comfort in the unknown, describing the experience of descending into a ritual bath so it’s as close to the reader’s heart as if they dunk in a mikvah every morning. I don’t write much poetry anymore but I love it, it’s the aesthetic and intellectual challenge of writing a new novel every time you sit down with a new page. We rev up our microscopes and we go on full blast. Sometimes that’s looking at a ritual bath. Sometimes it’s my teeth.

Maybe because I am Orthodox, a word which here means that there are 613 rules in the Torah — some explicit and some obscure, from permitted foods to the correct way to tie your shoelaces — a lot of those minutiae tend to be Jewish in nature. Because I am human, or punk rock, or a boy, or relatively obsessed with the X-Men, a lot of them don’t. One way or another, you will probably be able to find something Jewish about most of what I write. The fact that I wrote my teeth poem on Shabbos morning, walking the bumpy San Francisco hills to shul — I had to keep repeating it to myself over and over again the whole day, till sunset when I could actually commit it to paper — might make it more Jewish now that you know that.

But it’s not going to show up on the page when you read it, and every story I write definitely does not pass muster as a Jewish story. PJ Library, an amazing organization that buys literally millions of picture books each year to send out free to children, has yet to accept anything I’ve written. I literally got two editorial notes back from them two months in a row, “This is too Jewish” and “this isn’t Jewish enough.”

The same thing could probably be said about myself. And yet, for all the good the PJ Library organization does, both for Jewish pedagogy and for the literary community, most of their books kinda suck. The characters are flat. They always do what they’re supposed to do, except when they make a mistake and learn a lesson from it. They are stuck in the eternal cycle of literature that exists explicitly to teach children a lesson, and because of that, they don’t stay in that cycle long. Most of those books, my kids read once and leave near the recycle bin, thinking perhaps that they’re like their weekly newsletters from school.

This might sound like a call to arms to end the canon of Jewish novels, but it’s actually a plea for the opposite. I’ve been dying to write a Jewish novel. Not because I think it might finally get me published as an adult novelist, although that would be very cool, but because I want to have something to read that resonates with me in that very specific way. As authors, we are so fond of taking our characters and systematically deconstructing them, putting them into precarious situations and risking their lives, their morals, and their emotional health. As readers, though, we read because we are isolated and alienated from the world and we want to find a connection, see inside somebody else’s head and say it’s really not so different from our own. And most of the time we’re looking for a bare emotional connection, another nerd as nerdy as us or someone heartbroken or full of heart or yearning to be in another place. But as much as sometimes I need to read about one of Sartre’s displaced journeymen or Winterson’s sexually diaphanous adventurers, I would love to see, or to create, someone who looks like me on a page.

And I’m trying. Yesterday, I was trying to explain why I loved Lolita and was deeply troubled by it — aside from the usual reasons — and I blurted out, “He could’ve written about anything in the world, why did he write about that?” The first time someone I knew read Goldbergs, it was a woman at my synagogue, and she told me she’d read it in the same way she might have told me that she saw me buying opiates on the corner.

Did you read the whole thing? I asked her. No, she said — she stopped right after the Orthodox protagonist hooked up with her costar. “But that’s right before she starts making everything better!” I expostulated (although it isn’t that simple). “I’d just had enough,” she told me, and that was that.

I have a friend who started calling up Jewish Hollywood writers and actors, trying to convince them to put Orthodox Jews on their shows. “Nothing crazy,” she told them, “just a minor character who happens to wear a yarmulke or runs out to shul.” But that’s the opposite of what I want. I want to make stories where everything a character does matters, and where who those characters are — their history, their relationship with G-d, even their anxiety about their teeth — isn’t just a way of telling a shocking and efficient story, but a way of giving people (and by people, I mean myself) something to love. 

 

This was delivered last week as part of a symposium on Jewish Writing vs. Writing by Jews, chaired by Goldie Goldbloom, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa.

Still image from X-Men: Days of Future Past, as if you didn’t know. 

_______________

* – Yep, that part was true. I wrote that line really quickly, then scrolled my computer screen up to hide it. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Write On!: How to Write for Yourself



 Every blade of grass has a story to tell
— Darshan, “Animate My Anatomy”

Hey! I'm just taking some questions from the ol' email inbox. Ready? Set? To corrupt Montell Jordan, this is how we go.

How do you become a professional author?

Poverty is the secret weapon of the writer.

I’m not saying that being poor is a good thing, because it’s not. It sucks. (And I realize that I just contradicted the wisdom of Fiddler on the Roof, which is only slightly more sacrilegious than doubting the authenticity of the Bible. It’s okay. Let’s keep going.) And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get paid well from your writing — thank G-d, there are ways to do it.

I’m saying, have a job that isn’t writing — at least, that isn’t writing what you deeply and passionately want to write, that comes straight out of your heart and keeps all that passion and fire and rawness and fragility intact.

Because if that’s what you want to write, it’s a good thing to tell yourself, I’m not doing this to make money.

And keep repeating it to yourself.

Repeat it when you don’t believe in yourself.

Repeat it when you don’t believe in your characters, and so instead of making decisions you open yourself up to them and let them take the story in whatever crazy way it wants to go.

Repeat it when you don’t even know what the characters want, so you kill one of them in a freak thunderstorm. (It’s ok! Do it! If your brain is telling you to — and this is in writing, not in real life, mind you — then there might be a reason. You can come back later, after you’re finished writing, and figure out the reason, and what it Means for the Rest of the Story. Or you’ll realize that maybe you needed to keep her alive for the rest of the story. Don’t worry! By that point, you’re already at the end, and you have a complete story written, so you can pretty much do whatever you want.) (Also, if you’re curious about where I got this idea from, skip to the end of this essay.)

Repeat it when there’s one really obvious way you could take this story — it’s your first day of school, you’re so nervous you don’t know what to do, you’re gonna get beat up and teased and eventually win the science fair, but really you just want to write about the cookies you stopped to grab at your grandma’s house on the way home.

There’s a power to writing that comes from its powerlessness. Even more so with poetry. Nobody reads anything these days, and especially nobody reads fictional stories or poems, so you don’t have to feel bound by them. You never have to be the poet who only writes rhymed poems about storms and pain — that is, unless you really want to be; the only one holding you there is you. Today it’s not raining and you’re the only person who caught sight of a rainbow before it disappeared. Why not write about that? Go for it. Nobody’s looking. And even if they are — well, hey, then you’ve got a reader.

We’re surrounded by stories. Literally — they’re everywhere. At one point, I remember asking David Levithan — my editor at Scholastic, who edits a crazy number of books and puts out one or two of his own every year — if he’s ever afraid of running out of ideas for stories. He said, I’m more afraid of having so many ideas for stories that some of the best ones fall through the cracks.

Every idea can make a good story. Just honor it and let it do its thing.

At what point in the writing process do you involve an agent or a publisher? Do you let them know as soon as you have a good idea, and get their… go-ahead? Their blessing? I don’t know what you’d call it. Or do you attempt to write a full, complete draft of whatever it is and then start shopping it around?

Okay, fine. Let’s talk publishing. EVEN THOUGH I just spent the past 400 words or so telling you why you shouldn’t think about that.

I’m going to first paraphrase Joshua Henkin, my writing professor, and say: as late as humanly possible. There’s a saying about too many cooks in the kitchen, and for most forms of storytelling, the exact number of “too many cooks” is 2.

It’s great to meet an agent or an editor. It’s double great if you want to show them what you’re working on, and it’s super double great if they actually ask and you offer. The thing to remember is: You’re still working on it. The sooner you show an agent, the sooner you open yourself up to them saying something like, “Hey, you know how you’re mostly writing a historical novel about the Second Temple, but with aliens? Maybe you want to lose the aliens.” And even if you say no, you’ve opened yourself up to the possibility that doing a story about the Bayis Sheni with aliens might not be the coolest thing ever. (Side note: this example might be the coolest thing ever. Can someone please write it?)

But: Doubt. In one word, doubt is why you shouldn’t show your story to publishers, or agents, or anyone except for helpful and supportive friends — and even if you do that, make them swear up and down, no bli neder involved, you DEMAND the neder, that they won’t say anything critical — until your story is finished, and edited, and you’d feel comfortable having it published exactly the way it looks at this moment.

As a side note, the literary industry is in a perpetual time- and money crunch, and editors and agents are looking more and more frequently to take manuscripts that require the bare minimum of editing. The more you can make it sound like a finished book — the closer it is to a finished book — the more likely they are to take it seriously.

Where did you get the idea for the freak thunderstorm?

Lolita. Which I never wanted to read, because the idea was gross, then needed to read, because Vladmir Nabokov basically taught himself English so he could do his own translations, and is one of the best writers this language has. It’s in the first few pages, and known as the shortest death in literature: “‘My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”

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