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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So Out It's In

My new feature on Nextbook hits up singer-songwriter Avi Fox-Rosen and the rerelease of the quintessential '70s Yiddish dance-pop divas the Barry Sisters:

Avi Fox-Rosen likes to identify himself as “anti-folk,” part of a movement most notable for its insistence on what it’s not—that is, the hokey and sincere “pro-folk” music that hails John Denver and Judy Collins as its lovable, naively optimistic icons. In some ways, however, Fox-Rosen’s music fits more comfortably in the latter camp. His first solo effort, One, is stuffed tight with nostalgia and melancholy, and feels like a fuzzy sweater you could fall asleep in on a cold winter night. On the first song, “All I’d Like to Say,” Fox-Rosen sings, “I'd like to give you my heart but I can't / It's still beating in my chest and I need it for the time being,” his voice ballooning with emotion that’s more Motown soul than Matador irony; his guitar practically drips with the earnestness that’s boiled over from his voice.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Matisyahu: Return of the "King"

Although I can't actually remember whether he played "King Without a Crown," that iconoclastic first single that a friend swore was going to condemn him to one-hit wonder status forever, it didn't feel like Matisyahu's brief history was being reinvented last night. On the seventh of his eight-night Hanukkah stint at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (insert the appropriate jokes about how Shabbat makes Orthodox Jews late for everything here), he played a more-than-two-hour set that was alternately pensive and meandering and quietly grooving and straight-ahead all-out rocking.

matisyahu performing in brooklyn

Matis's music has always lived in the space between worlds -- the secular and religious, the contemplative and the party vibe, the reggae and the rock. (Here's an article about his new work, just to get you caught up.) Last night, the wings of the place were filled with Hasidic Jews who wanted to come to the show but were avoiding the dancing, and the tiny two-steps-up division served as a makeshift boundary for them. The crowd was all over the place -- I was skeptical that it would be mostly Orthodox Jews, and afraid that it would be mostly hippies, but most of the folks there were just regular people. Good-looking people, too, as opener Mike Doughty pointed out repeatedly in his set*.

The couple in front of us were these Asian-Australian cool-kid transplants who wouldn't have been out of place at the Yeasayer show down the street, which gave me hope that (a) the one-hit wonder thing isn't happening, and (b) his music really isn't as insular as my default listening position (jumping on the furniture around the house, payos bopping, shouting out Aramaic phrases at the top of my lungs) might give one reason to think. And when a hippie did finally pop up, it was onstage -- this dreadlocked kid going wild on a whole array of percussion instruments, doing intense and admirable things to a tambourine.

Which brings us to the music. The band started playing before Matisyahu came onstage, which in normal circumstances I always think of as an egotistical pretense -- the crowd raves, the band builds up, and the singer ascends to his place of glory. But when Matis came on, there was none of that -- it wasn't like he was ignoring it, but more like he was unaware that it was happening at all.

The band launched into "Sea to Sea," which I always used to call "the Amidah song" before I looked it up on Amazon twenty seconds ago -- it's the song that opens his live album, which is the band doing their low bass funk thing while Matis sings the Hebrew words that introduce the silent devotional. It was faster than the album version, and the band was putting in everything, and Matis was holding his own but not going crazy.

Turns out he was just building up.

From there they blasted through "Youth," which gave the crowd the requisite recognizable song before launching into the meat of the set. It leaped between hard, driving guitar rock and more chill, rhythm-propelled stuff. At times it didn't seem like songs so much as ideas, Matis and the band tossing freestyles at each other. At one point, he was alone on stage with Shalom Mor, an Israeli oud player who flew in especially for this series of concerts, and a harpist, and -- after nearly an hour spent beatboxing-free -- he dropped into a fast beat.

That was the pace of the entire show. Usually, you see a band play three songs, and, boom, you know what they're about. Here, every twenty minutes it was a completely different concert. I started to get bored during the first extended jam (although it might have just been annoyance with the cloying pot smell that suddenly sprang from half a dozen different places...damn Hasidim), and then the guitarist started plucking a pop song, the drummer jumped in, and Matisyahu started freestyling over it -- well, not exactly freestyling so much as an impromptu rendition of the liturgical song "Yibaneh Ha'Mikdash," which roughly translates to "building the Temple."

I think the best songs alive are cover songs. Maybe it's because they stick around forever; maybe because they're the songs that are so good that they're addictive. That is, I think, where prayers com from. They're essentially cover songs that we perform every day.

I couldn't tell you why, but "Yibaneh" is the moment I realized that I really love what Matisyahu is doing. I've never been that big a fan of reggae, and though I've warmed to Jewish music, I still mostly feel like Jews and I live in two different worlds: they don't get me, and I don't get them. But that moment when he was screaming out the words -- words that most of the crowd probably didn't understand, and even more of them weren't paying attention to the meaning of -- I felt like I was in the middle of his lyrics and like I understood. There's a midrash that says that the Third Temple isn't going to be built by the Messiah; that we're going to have to start building it ourselves. Not to be *too* cliche, but it seems like Matisyahu's doing exactly that.

* -- who is an amazing musician in his own right, and has a huge archive of concerts on mp3 here. I might write about his set later, but we'll see.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Conspiracy of Covering Up

Because it's impossible to write enough stories on Hasidic Jews and sexuality, Nextbook has an article on dressing modestly in Crown Heights. The neighborhood in Brooklyn is home to the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Jews, although, because of their commitment to outreach, they're known in press circles by their colloquial name of The Hasidic Jews to Turn To Whenever We Need A Story About How Weird Hasidic Jews Are.

the tznius patrol's gonna get yaAnd, no matter what else I say about the Hasidim in my neighborhood, they never fail to disappoint. When I read the article's lede -- "An outsider visiting Crown Heights might be forgiven for thinking that the women in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood represent the height of modesty" -- I was baffled. After all, shuttling between Boro Park and Williamsburg, where the most common accoutrement for women is a body-sized pillowcase, the far-more-liberal Crown Heights is mostly known for French designer clothes worn by 22-year-old MILFs in 4-inch heels pushing baby carriages.

Every year, some people in the community pick a pet cause, and this year, that pet cause is tzniut, or modesty. Admirably, much of the attention has been devoted to modesty among men -- making sure that they're wearing tzitzit, and that their shirts cover their elbows (which is commonly known as a commandment for women, but many observant Jews seem to forget it's also for men). So far, much of the push for tzniut has taken the form of lectures and group Torah study. But there's a new poster campaign, in pink of course, and, like Barry White says, this one's for the ladies, calling attention to such things as:

  • Skirt length! ("No part of the knee is visible--even sitting")
  • Sleeve length! ("Upper arm must be constantly covered...with sleeves extending past her elbow")
  • Leg wear! ("Going about bare-legged without a most grave offense")

The prominent respondent in the article is Ms. Bronya Shaffer, whose primary credential given in the article is being "a mother of 10" (she also answers questions on Her critique is admirable, and very postmodern:

"The medium [of the posters] itself is antithetical to the very essence of modesty," she said of the posters. "It’s not the Chabad way. I cringe at the specter of kids, young boys and girls, reading in huge letters, in bold technicolor, about uncovered legs and necklines and tight clothing."

It's a valid point. But how do you reconcile the medium with the message -- that is, getting your ideas across and perpetuated, but not making it seem overt or lusty?

And, somewhat relatedly, how can Chabad continue to be poster-boys and girls for religious Judaism, both positive and negative, and in some way avoid this fetishistic what-are-the-Hasidim-doing-now attitude?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Star Wars Holiday Special

OK, yeah. I've been trying to avoid watching this all day, and it's just not working anymore.

Subverting - and Loving - Islam

A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times did a story on Muslim punk-rock teenagers -- and we ran a critique of it -- and noted how the article was actually about one Muslim punk-rock teenager, and a bunch of other girls who talked about how weird it was.

michael muhammad knight

Yesterday the New York Times profiled Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim and author of The Taqwacores, a novel about punk-rock Muslims. Both vehemently religious and sometimes vehemently opposed to the official Muslim platform on things -- or what's come to be accepted as the official Muslim platform on things -- Knight's characters are punk band members, co-ed prayer ritual leaders, and a "riot girl [sic] who plays guitar onstage wearing a burqa." The book started out life as a photocopied manuscript that was passed around between young outlier Muslims, but was soon picked up by Autonomedia and has just been rereleased in a sharp-looking printing by Soft Skull Press. But the Times profile gets both Knight's message and the author himself in a way that I think the L.A. Times just glossed over, which is to say, there's a stunning and humbling combination of chutzpah and devekut -- that is to say, in-your-face-ness and piety -- in Knight's work that connects with readers in a truly profound way.

The most awesome proof of this, I think, comes from the novel itself. When Knight wrote the book five years ago, he was writing a wish. Taqwacore was his made-up name; there weren't any Muslim bands playing revolutionary punk music. (And yes, I know I'm being incredibly gushy; my first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was about an Orthodox Jewish punk-rock scene that also didn't exist.) But in the short time since its publication, an entire Taqwacore scene has sprung up.

It seems kind of weird that I'm blogging about this on a Jewish site, I know. But so much of it resonates with my own Judaism -- and who among us doesn't recognize the impetus to both love our religion and despise parts of it? Knight, I think, says it best. It's easy to link Muhammad's actions (the prophet, not the author) to Abraham's riot-boy tantrum that first kicked off monotheism on Earth, but the sentiment of returning our religion to its roots, and separating true Torah from what everyone around you says it is, is a sentiment that we can all relate to:

[Knight] said he wrote “The Taqwacores” to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A travelogue to Philadelphia rooftops

Briefly: I'm going to be performing tomorrow at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia! Opening for the retro-Catskills lounge comedy band Good for the Jews, and guest-starring Adam Brodsky.

Also: awesome new review of Losers:

Matthue Roth’s novel is about the character and the voice, and it rocks. It’s hilarious. It’s more than a little crazy, yet manages to ring true. There are universal life truths in here among Jupiter’s escapades, and you’ll find yourself rooting for Jupiter wholeheartedly. And the writing! Even funnier. Descriptive and gritty and captivating. Matthue Roth can write. I already loved his book Never Mind The Goldbergs, so I expected this to be awesome, and it was. It’s a coming of age story that also falls into the madcap adventure category occasionally, and the result is a lot of amusement minus brain rotting. This is a short novel that packs a lot of punch and will provoke a lot of muffled laughter. Highly recommended.

This one's been putting a mad grin on my face all weekend. As if my sixth-grade English teacher's Xmas party, in which I had beers with a bunch of my former junior-high school teachers and watched this guy (yes, it was late) dislocate his butt...I seriously wonder how I'll ever be able to say that New York is more exciting than Philadelphia.

And there is an amazing roof deck on their house, which looks out on the Schuylkill River and the Center City skyline and a Matrix-like ocean of other rooftops, and I'm already too far into writing the sequel to Losers to decide this, but somewhere in Jupiter Glazer's life, he is going to end up being chased atop this very rooftop deck.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

oh, and....

coming this spring in paperback:

thank you, fred chao.

Chana sings Ana

The countdown to Chanuka continues. Today: Chana Rothman's song "Ana."

A protest singer at heart and a throwback to Janis Joplin in aesthetic, Rothman is almost chastising God for holding out too long from redemption: "Deliver us/we are broken/Be our rock/there's no solid ground." Live, she performs it like an anthem, with the crowd singing along; recorded, it's mellower, though no less contagious.

Hear it and read the rest of the article here...

And, dammit, pray for the Messiah. My rabbi and role model, Rabbi Davide, just sent an announcement heralding "the birth of our son (name to be announced at the bris)...." The rest of the email is the priceless part, though. The rebbetzin "and he are resting somewhere on the outskirts of the Jerusalem forest while I enjoy the full personalities of our other children....praise the Lord."

In Australia, Yalta just learned to clap. In America, my palpable excitement and my jealousy are both rising exponentially at this writers' segue. People I barely know are telling me about the coolest stories, and I keep thinking "wow, someone should turn that into a book"...and then I realize, they are.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Song a day: DeLeon

For each night of Chanukah (uh, actually, starting like a week early) I'm writing up a holiday song for Nextbook. The first pick is Sephardic alt-rock wonders DeLeon singing "Ocho Kandelikas", a Ladino Chanukah song:

Philadelphia, where I grew up, always got hit by winter early, and Hanukkah seemed like a bastion of light and heat. This song is a perfect accompaniment—DeLeon’s matter-of-fact sexiness and swagger feels a little cheesy and, at the same time, honest and revelatory, like a burning menorah of love amid the darkness.

New week, new G-dcast, new you.

New week: Itta and Yalta are still in Australia, and I'm just trying not to go insane. So far it seems like the best way for me to do that is by almost driving myself insane with too much to do. Including being double-booked for Jewcy's Christmas party and a date with Baruch, who talking movie script and going to the Boss Hog concert.

Tonight, Dvora Meyers, full-time teacher and full-time b-girl, is taking me to a breakdance battle. (I know there's some less-geeky way of saying that, but I don't remember. And I'm a geek.) Awesomely, in today's New York magazine, there's a writeup of her dual talents.

New me: The bad part is that I sliced myself pretty gnarily on a broken glass. The good part (the impressive part, really) is that I was doing dishes when it happened. As an aspiring domestic god, I have gotten my first scar. And it's a doozy.

And the G=dcast: Anomaly M.C. of the orthodox Muslim/orthodox Jewish supergroup Lines of Faith does a musical version of Joseph that will roll Andrew Lloyd Webber's tuchus into a tiny little rubber ball and kick it all around the schoolyard.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Orthodox and Undercover

So I kind of wrote an article about Losers, but it ended up being mostly about me. Go fig.

Six years after my first punk show (The Dead Milkmen, at the Trocadero, $6 if you were under 21) I showed up at a synagogue one Friday afternoon, wearing jeans that were ripped at the cuffs and the only sweater I owned. I stopped checking my email for 24 hours once a week, spent my Shabbos nights reading in the dark of my apartment's living room, and that was it. They say you're supposed to become Orthodox slowly, like wading into a cold pool. I jumped in over my head, and only started sinking deeper. Not that I was losing my individuality or anything—my t-shirts were still geeky and tight, I was still at the gay clubs and the punk-rock shows; I just made my Thursday nights longer and took the next night off.

I don't know what I could have been the poster child for, but I was the poster child for something. When all my other friends who wrote moved to New York, wrapped themselves tight into graduate writing courses, I moved to San Francisco and started teaching myself to write at open mics with a bunch of lesbians, all of whom I had crushes on, and none of whom would look my way. They were the best senseis of all. Michelle Tea, who had about as much in common with me as I had with a hamburger, told me to write about what I was obsessed with. She said to write about whatever I goddamn well wanted to write about.

read the whole article >

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is God a Person?

From today's emailbox:

When you think of G_d, do you think of an "entity" (I know it's not the right word, hopefully you get what I'm trying to say) with a distinct identity, or as a bit more "formless"? More like a being or more like a force or power?

chamsa, the hand of g-dI think of God as an entity. I know I'm anthropomorphizing, and in my head, I'm always correcting myself -- think of it as the equivalent of an English teacher who knows how to speak textbook Shakespearean English but goes home and speaks in Ebonics. Further, in our tradition, there are some times when it's okay to actively anthropomorphize God -- when we say that God took us out of Egypt with "an outstretched hand," for instance. When we say that during Passover, is anyone thinking that a giant hand came down from the sky and just scooped the Children of Israel out of the desert?

But there's an interesting midrash that asks the question, when the Torah says in Genesis that we were created in "God's image" -- what, it asks, is God's image? By God's very nature, there's no such thing as God's image. God doesn't look like anything. Or, on the other hand, God looks like absolutely everything.

But then there's another midrash that says that, yes, God does have hands -- as well as arms and toes and a nose (possibly a Jewish nose, possibly not). Humans really were created in God's image...only, God's image is the original. Our hands are the smallest, weakest representation in the physical world of the metaphysical image of an actual Hand of God. There's something called a hamsa in Jewish mysticism that's a representation of this hand...and it, like many other mystical amulets, is meant to remind us of that greater world.

There's a line in one of my poems that says that I learned to picture God as a girl with "long, long hair and a short, short skirt," which gets all the righteous folks a little bit nervous. But it's just what I was thinking -- that I can't talk to anyone with the candidness and the openness that I used when flirting. (Uh, I wrote it before the marriage-and-kids part of my life.) Because, in the half-nervous and half-say-anything immediacy of flirting, you're talking about anything you can to keep her interested, you're not worrying about censoring yourself or holding back and, in that immediacy, you lose the withholding-ness and only say true things...and that, I've always thought, is what prayer should be like.

Of course, once it makes its way to God's ears (again with the anthropomorphizing), God's no more a hot girl than God is an old dude with a beard. But it's somewhere to start from. Just like we can't thank God enough for every aspect of Creation (yeah, by the way, thanks for creating the wood planks on the floor solid enough so that I'm not falling through it...oh, look, I just moved to another part of the room; thanks for creating that part solid enough, too), there's no way to adequately envision God, physically or mentally or eschatologically or otherwise. And so, to thank God, we grasp a few words and hope it's enough. And in order to communicate with God, we reach out for whatever medium we can find, and hope that's enough, too.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

i passed god a note..,

I turned to a blank sheet in my notebook. Very quietly, and very
delicately, I detached it from the spirals. I started to write a note.
And when it was done, I folded it up tight, sealed it with a tiny rip,
wrote God on the outside. I nudged the person in front of me, Consuela
Cortez, and gestured to her to pass it on.

She shook her head disbelievingly, but she passed it to the person in
front of her anyway. He glanced briefly at what was written on it,
then sent it to the person on his right, who then passed it forward
again. Before long, it reached a girl sitting in the front row—a girl
I'd never seen before in this class, but who was more familiar than
even my mother or father. When I turned away from her, I couldn't
describe her and I couldn't remember a thing about the way she looked,
except that she was beautiful.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Just so you know

4:42 a.m.: Phone rings. It's Berwin. He gets disconnected after 5 seconds. In the morning, I realize he called back twice after, at 4:43 and 4:44. I also realize my phone was shut off, and the vibrate is not working.

(Berwin, if you don't know, was my only friend to come to my wedding. We'd hung out 3 times in our lives before. He said, "Australia? Cool!" and then showed up a few months later. He also, btw, is a professional clothing designer, and did all the characters' wardrobes in Candy in Action.)

In the morning, he calls while I'm bathing Yalta. Tells me "I would like to commission some art" and that's all I can listen to before (a) the phone jolts out of my hand and into the water and (b) Yalta grabs the phone, which is her newest favorite food and (c) all three in tandem.

Later, he clears it up by telling me that he wants me to write a screenplay for him and proceeds to list three movies, one big political event, and two band names that are supposed to be the movie's substance. Uh, yeah. We're having an official meeting tonight at this rock show in Greenpoint. The band's name escapes me, but it sounded like someone I was supposed to know about but, of course, don't. I'll let you know details when I do...if, you know, I ever understand this kind of thing.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Swimming in Music

Okay, my new music column is up -- which discusses the infamous "Bart & the Hasidim" episode of "The Simpsons," among other things -- but, as a warning, I'm going to go on about the Sway Machinery again.

First, though, Pink Noise, the opening band. Because singing always sounds better in ESL, and nobody does English as a Second Language better than Israelis. And a screaming Israeli woman? You don't get better than this stuff. A four-piece band, Israeli-born, New York-based, when they climbed onstage, each one of them seemed like their own Israeli expatriate stereotype -- one guitarist was bald and buff; the other, Itamar from Balkan Beat Box, personable and shaggy like a dog; the drummer, tightly-composed and withdrawn; and the singer, whose hair was like a wild weeping willow tree and whose mouth could open wider than her head.

pink noise

The first two songs were very sleepy, very cerebral, sounding kind of like Julee Cruise's backing band at the bar in Twin Peaks. And then, all of a sudden, the singer started playing heavy-metal riffs on her bass, and the rest of the band was trying to keep up, and she was yelling freaky war whoops into the microphone, adapting English words for the purposes of the song that sounded almost-correct-but-not-quite, like a love song called "Ailment." (At least, I think it was called "Ailment.")

They blasted through most of an hour's set in the same fashion -- a short, quiet song, and then they'd rock our heads off. And just when we were finished being surprised, they got off the stage and let the headliners on.

Just in case you missed my chat with singer/guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood around Rosh Hashana, when he performed (literally) a service to a sold-out audience of about 3000, the Sway Machinery is this project wherein Lockwood researches and resurrects old, sometimes obscure, often haunting and consistently mind-blowing cantorial melodies. And he performs like a man possessed, moving in jerky, premeditated, swaying movements, as though he's only partially in charge of what his body's doing.

But last night was a whole new level of possessed-ness. I've never seen him in action with a full brass section before, and it makes such a difference. It seems like it should be lopsided -- a band with a guitar, a drummer, and three horns -- but they don't sound that way at all, like a gospel choir with a ton of voices and just an organ. Jeremiah's voice and the brass makes an excellent call-and-response, and lest you've never heard nigun, you can see the immense power of a wordless melody belted out with little else but the sheer power of religious devotion.

And, if Jeremiah and co. don't happen to be touring near you, you can run to their music page to learn more...or, of course, there's this website with surprisingly good resources on niguns.

Space Time Continuum

In my new Nextbook column, I rave about the Hasidic POWER ROCK band Yood, the Middle Eastern dance-pop band Electro Morocco, and ZZ Top shout-outs on The Simpsons:

There’s a strange phenomenon among people who become Orthodox—they seem to enter a time warp. Their clothes, their colloquialisms, even their musical choices become frozen in a single moment, like Rip Van Winkle or Doc Brown in Back to the Future. Every time they talk about bands or movies or commercial jingles, they're back at the moment they stepped into their proverbial DeLorean.

Eliezer Blumen is one of those people. He’s been living as a Hasidic Jew for the past twenty years, and to the casual eye he’s a standard-issue Hasid: white shirt, bushy beard, well-worn hat. The trademark vest he wears (more Montana mountain man than Boro Park shtetl-fabulous) hints at something less ordinary, but it’s barely noticeable—lots of Hasidim have their dress quirks, a bright-colored scarf or the occasional pair of rainbow-striped socks.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sand is grand and money is dummy

From the NYTimes blog: Olaf Breuning creates sand sculptures in Switzerland, and is being exported to Miami Beach. Reports the Times: "A fleeting masterpiece, it will vanish within days, eroded by wind and sea, but Breuning is not worried. 'I’m very proud to be making an art piece you cannot buy. In our time, it’s actually really perfect.'"

I love miss the idea of art for art's sake. Like writing a book, not because you want other people to read it, but just to throw it up on a little website that only a few people will ever see and be satisfied with the idea that they will see it...actually, I just think money is stupid. But you've already heard that rant, right? Actually, I think I'm just being tempted by the idea of temporariness these days. Itta and Yalta are about to leave for Australia for 3 weeks, and I'm just going to curl up with my computer and write until I can't think of anything else to write. Which might be forever.

Win free Losers!

No, my grammar isn't slipping up -- the indelible Melissa Walker is giving away an autographed copy of your favorite Russian Jewish immigrant geek novel as her weekly contest. She's the author of Violet in Private -- and you know us young-adult authors who write novels about unconventional girls who somehow get into modeling have got to stick together -- and, by the way, she's also going to be quoted on the new edition of Candy in Action.

But, for now, she's got a copy of Losers with your name on it. (Which, I know, sounds wrong, but still -- it's a free book. With a damn cool cover, at that.)

Here's the catch:

To enter to win this contest, you must buy someone a book for the upcoming holiday season. Seriously, books are the best gifts--how else can you buy someone a whole world for under $10? I'm getting a book for every single person on my list this year, which will mean lots of money saved and happy friends!

So go visit her blog already! And let me know what book you talk about....

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Red Rum! Red Rum!

Okay, it's not nearly as gruesome, nor as symbolic of the plight of the Native American in "The Shining" (no joke), but the venerable website Red Room has made me one of their featured writers this week!

It's a new site, but totally worth your time. If only because it's probably the only damn social network in existence that will ever get a Salman Rushdie with a member page or Maya Angelou to keep a blog.

All the same, I'm pretty psyched. Even if Mr. Rushdie has yet to write on my wall.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Esther Kustanowitz! Dating! Torah!

This week on G-dcast: Esther Kustanowitz, no stranger to odd dating situations herself (she runs JDaters Anonymous), takes on the strangest shidduch-date situation ever: How many years would *you* tend sheep to be with your true love?

After Mumbai

A reader wrote in, asking me to post this article, which is the most complete account I've found so far of the siege against the Mumbai terrorist attack.

mumbai terrorist attack, chabad houseIt's been a long Thanksgiving weekend. I know, today's Monday and we're back in work mode, but it feels like the weekend isn't over yet. It was a hard holiday; harder for other people than for us, but thinking that doesn't make it any easier. At our Thanksgiving table was my cousin's boyfriend, who's from Mumbai and whose parents are safe, but who still hadn't heard from his friends; my wife, whose sister is scheduled to go on vacation in India later this week and who's still thinking of going; and all of us, most of whom aren't religious, though we've all been guests at a Chabad house at one point in our life or another.

It's scary. It's mind-boggling, and anger-inducing, and it's pretty messed up. It's hard to pinpoint the exact point of origin for our sadness -- another terror attack, another few hundred people killed -- but the sheer mass of casualties, together with the randomness of the attack itself, which targeted Americans and Britons but took the form of bullets sprayed into crowds of people, gives me a place to start.

As the reports poured in, conflicting reports gave us hope. I was twittering about it all day. I hit refresh on the New York Times frontpage with a frenzy I hadn't felt since 9/11. I was addicted. I wanted to know what was next. Like watching a TV show on DVD, I wanted to keep popping in discs, watching the episodes one after the next. We left to go to my uncle and aunt's for dinner. My uncle and I sneaked away to his laptop, refresh after refresh. I finally stopped twittering with the news that the survivors had been rescued. I could breathe again.

The next morning, we got a call from a friend with the news. The siege was not over. But the bodies had been recovered.

Itta and I both lost it. She pulled the car off the road and we both cried. Her uncles, her friends and most of her cousins ran Chabad Houses. All over the world, they were supposed to be the refuges of innocence, the place you ran away to whenever you needed something. Sure, some Chabad House rabbis are insane -- you almost have to be, to set up camp in a random city and open your door to whatever strangers come knocking. But by and large they are selfless people. Itta kept saying, "They had a deal with God. God was supposed to protect them." And, yeah -- God kind of screwed this one up pretty badly.

On one hand, there's the miracle of the rabbi and rebbetzin's almost-2-year-old son, Moishe, and his escape. On the other -- if God let their son escape, why not everyone else? And why not the hundred-and-whatever other people who were killed?

Right now I'm watching my daughter boogieing to Prince's song "Let's Go Crazy," one of her favorites. Times like these, you don't question where you get your wisdom from; you just take it. Prince is doing a dramatic voiceover: "Life means forever and that's a mighty long time/But I'm here 2 tell u, there's something else: The afterworld."

I'm trying to wrap my head around it. We spent Shabbos with Rabbi Shem Tov, who said that, as good people, we can question what happened -- and we almost need to -- but there's no way that we can understand it. It's impossible, he said, for the human mind to comprehend the way God operates. We don't know how the world stays balanced, and why evil has to exist in order to let good continue to exist too. But it's hard not to look at the result of the equation -- crazed terrorists: 1; good people: 0, and lying in a pool of blood -- and keep up the good faith.

Mumbai is quiet

Twitterers are saying that CNN broadcast their room number on TV. I couldn't find any official media reportage, but a couple are suing CNN -- it doesn't say much more than that -- for endangering them by recklessly giving away information.

This Shabbos will be Moishe Holtzberg's 2nd birthday. Chabad is running a mitzvah campaign -- no money, just good deeds. The numbers are growing. It was 285 last night, and then 20 minutes later, up to 360. I pledged to learn the daily Torah reading every day. I'm still a little uncomfortable about the possible sensationalism -- no, the definite sensationalism -- but, dammit, people all over the world are waiting for a reaction from Chabad. I think this is the most positive reaction that an organization could have.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Same Thing, Only Not

Here's the same exact interview I posted yesterday -- only, in Russian this time.

Мэтт: Да, безусловно - я считаю, что чудо здесь в безграничных средствах массовой информации . Возможность найти все, что угодно в любом виде. Опасность в Интернете, которая беспокоит родителей в том, что произойдет, если нажать на ошибочное Youtube видео и просмотреть порно? G-dcast - совершенная противоположность.

Thanks to Tanya, who is awesome -- and who started translating Losers into Russian. Now, what does Jupiter's name look like in Cyrillic??

20 (or 10, or 21) Questions

Brina, who runs the Young Adult New York website, has just posted one of the most intense interviews I've ever done. You'll see her format, and you'll be confused, and then it will all make sense -- she asks the author a question, and the author responds and then asks her a question, and it keeps going like that for twenty questions. So the interview's actually ten questions, I guess -- except that (a) both answering and asking reveal some surprising things about both of us, and (b) I manage to sneak an extra one in toward the end, as a precursor to my Sandman question.

Me: What are you working on now?

Matthue: I can’t get Jupiter out of my head, and even more the other characters [in Losers]. In one way Jupiter is about growing up with my best friend who just died, and then I wrote/am still writing this book about his death which is kind of about me and Anne Frank hanging out. … I don’t know if anyone will like it but me, but it’s my heart. I just took my heart out and stuck a bunch of knives in it and this is what I got.


G-dcast: The Interview

CK from Jewlicious just posted an interview that he conducted with me and Sarah Lefton about this little website we made called G-dcast.

The wonder of this is that it’s such a mediumless medium. It’s anything you want it to be. The danger of the Internet that parents are worried about is, what happens if you click on the wrong Youtube video and watch porn? G-dcast is almost the opposite. It’s like, you see a cartoon, which you think is going to be funny and snarky and irreverent — which, hopefully, it is — and then it ends up being a little bit hopeful and inspiring.


Speaking of which: New episode today! Courtesy of the Orthodox hip-hop M.C. Y-Love:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hard Core Religion

The L.A. Times ran a piece a few days ago on Muslim punk-rock teenagers, which mostly served as an excuse to run a non-dairy-creamer story on how Muslim kids are wrestling with, and sticking to, the faith.

muslim punk roock kids?!?

The story is told from the point of view of Hiba Siddiqui, a 17-year-old girl in Texas, who's in a rebellious spot (she's not praying 5 times a day or dressing in hijab), but still trying to make sense of her religion. Her room is a pastiche of Rumi books and Nylon magazines.

There are a lot of perfect moments in the story -- a girl quoting Muslim rapper T.I.P. in her speech for Muslim Student Association president; a quote from a song in a book, "Muhammad was a punk rocker and he rocked that town." Another girl confronts her mother with the amazing book The Taqwacores, a Muslim punk-rock novel by Michael Muhammad Knight (which actually kick-started a genre of music) that offers insights like the following:

I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. . . . Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.

But the article's failure, in my opinion, is the same thing I encountered with (sorry, egotism) people writing about my Orthodox Jewish punk-rock book Never Mind the Goldbergs -- it's a lot easier to say "look! kids are rebellious! and still trying to be religious!" than it is to look at the intersection of the two and ask out why it's going on, or what it means. I mean, I'm a journalist too, and I know that the best stories are supposed to tell themselves, and the writer shouldn't let opinions creep in. Hiba sounds like a fascinating person, and I'd love to hear more of what she thinks of herself -- not just that she decided to friend Muhammad Knight and some taqwacore bands on Myspace.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

YA New York: 20 Questions with Matthue Roth

This was actually a pretty cool interview.

Me: Can you tell us a little bit about Losers, the book, not the people?

Matthue: Basically, my first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was my kind of idealized fantasy of the person that I’d like to be, if the person I’d like to be was a seventeen-year-old girl. … Jupiter is everything that I was at seventeen, although more so: He’s totally socially awkward, has relationships that exist entirely in his head, and he lives in a factory.

Question Two

Matthue: What did your bedroom look like growing up?

Me: I moved a lot, so I had a lot of different bedrooms, but one thing stayed the same throughout, which is that I plastered my walls with photographs of my friends; since I only had two or three friends at a time, the same people would often appear in the pictures.

Question Three

Me: You didn’t live in a factory growing up, but you did live in Philadelphia. What was your childhood like?

Matthue: I always wanted to live in a factory. I actually really wanted to move into the basement, which was a big area that had a few couches and a lot of pillows and some seventies furniture that no one had used for years. I thought the wall would be filled with books and the floors would be filled with gigantic Lego sculptures. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid.

read more >

Out of the Extraordinary

Today on Nextbook, I wrote an article about the brilliant Motown funk of the Israeli colony of Dimona, a Hasidic hip-hop duo with their own soul band, and Matisyahu's new opening act, marlon from shem's discipleswho isn't Jewish (actually, he's from Somalia, currently residing in Toronto) but whose name, K'naan, sort of has a Biblical ring to it, and whose mind-bogglingly good song "In the Beginning" definitely does. Click here to download the track, or listen to a bunch of stuff and read the whole article:

Dimona is a small village in the Negev, half an hour south of Beersheva. It’s an incredibly small town, less than three square miles, and since it’s in the middle of the Israeli desert, it doesn’t get much in the way of tourists. Mostly, Dimona is known for two things: its nuclear power plant, and its community of Black Hebrews, a group of African-American émigrés who left Chicago, followed the revolutionary leader Marcus Garvey to Liberia, and ended up immigrating en-masse to Israel in the late 1960s.

The community is featured sporadically in Jewish newspapers, mostly as a wacky story about unconventional Israeli immigrants. The thing most reporters don’t usually write about, however, is the town of Dimona’s unlikely profusion of pop and soul singles in the 1970s.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Post-Open Mic Post

exhausted. shrilled. my body feels like a piece of wood that's been left in the sun too long....

but so exhilarated. josh was profound and michael was hilarious and elana's cover of "samson" was beautiful and elisa albert's reading was searing and brilliant and jeremiah kicked me in the ass and made me realize, i need to pray more. and harder. and like my life depended on it, because it does.

plus, dvora said that she'd breakdance next time. (i know, officially it's just breaking.) and there's actually going to be a next time. i'm excited.

Saturday in Philly!

The wonderful Alex DiFiori made a great poster for the Saturday show. Go here to see the original graphic, print out a zillion copies of them, and give them to all your friends (or at least to Dr. Pavel, the president of Central High School at Ogontz & Olney Aves. -- see if it makes his eyebrows shoot off his face). I love the graphite-pencil look. Old school, like when people did tests in No. 2 pencil (and hell yes, I still write my books longhand).

matthue and prowler in philadelphia

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Word Jam. Music Jam. Gooseberry Jam.

Tonight at the 92Y Tribeca, I'm hosting the (hopefully first) open mic! Jeremiah Lockwood of The Sway Machinery is playing a set, and Elisa Albert, author of The Book of Dahlia, will be reading. A few months ago, it was one of those Shabboses where I'd ODed on writing, and now that I couldn't write anymore, I just wanted to read manically. So I took Elisa's new book, which I'd been wanting to read for a while (her first collection made me actually like Philip Roth, a feat which I'd deemed impossible), and started reading.

And I didn't stop.

The sun was coming up, which seemed particularly noteworthy considering the novel's content. It's a funny, wry, more-wise-than-it-seems look at a girl who finds out she's dying. It's not at all what you'd expect, which is odd to say, considering we basically have every expectation in the world loaded up in our heads when it comes to dying. But the agony of going out to eat with your parents after a brain scan, and the sort of perverse joy in ordering the most expensive thing on the menu, is one of those tiny details that is meaningful and beautiful and terrible all at once -- and that's exactly what you'll find from her.

Sign up for the open mic at 7:30, and have a quick drink with me. Show begins at 8:00 promptly.

Also, the director's-cut commentary to Chapter Four of Losers is up! Read about stealing lines from hip-hop songs, gay teenage bartenders, best friends dying on you, censorship in Candy in Action, and featuring a special music video courtesy of Ludacris.

Another Cure chapter. The song "A Night Like This" is a beautiful song in its own right, track 8 on "The Head on the Door," which some poet-friends in Melbourne performed a track-by-track jam of poems influenced by the songs. But there's another Cure song that my best friend Mike put on a mixtape for me that was just Robert Smith's voice and a brilliant string section and tympani drums that's called something like "Other Nights Like This" -- the handwriting was scratchy. I never remembered to ask him, and now it's too late. Now the tape's broken, and I keep googling the first words, but I can't find anything.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Open Mics & Matisyahu

Gearing up for the 92Y Open Mic, and I'm just nervous -- half that nobody's going to come, and half that it will be mobbed. We actually did a really amazing open mic last year in the dead of winter -- 10 people showed up, and it turned into a tremendous verbal jam session between poems -- but the fact that Actual Amazing Author and Legendary Musician are both showing up makes me fret. Just praying.

matisyahu speaksSpeaking of praying: my interview with Matisyahu is up:

If the songs on "Shattered" veer in directions that are surprising to the artist's existing fans, "Light" abandons the path entirely. The first track, "Master of the Field," was released as a free download on Matisyahu's Web site. It treads on ground both familiar and new, with classic Chasidic (and, yes, Lubavitch) metaphors -- the titular master is a reference to the Jewish month of Elul, when the king comes out to greet his subjects on their territory. Musically, it borrows from the confines of his previous work (reggae-tinted keyboards, infectious pop hooks, a beatboxed transitional bridge) but a little before the two-minute mark, the song explodes into a totally different vein. It's not pop music, it's not experimental, but it manages to retain its catchiness while paring down to little more than a drum-and-bass beatbox and a chanted chorus.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chasidic beatboxing keeps Matisyahu moving

Matisyahu is in a delicate place right now.

hasidic beatboxing phenomenon matisyahuNot emotionally (although in conversation he is raw and perceptive -- he always seems to know what you're thinking, and he's two steps ahead of the question you're about to ask) and not physically (on the night we speak, he's in Norfolk, Va., where soon he will play to a packed crowd of 1,500 in a refurbished 1920s theater). On Nov. 18 he'll be at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles.

Careerwise, however, he's straddling a chasm.

On one side is the possibility of being a one-hit wonder -- his debut single, "King Without a Crown," appeared on all three of his albums to date, and after a strong first few weeks on the Billboard charts, his most recent record, the major-label debut "Youth," fell quickly from sight.

On the other, Matisyahu holds a lucrative contract with Gary Gersh, who manages Beck and the Beastie Boys. His tour is progressing swiftly, new buzz for his upcoming CD is positive and strong, and his upcoming eight-night run in New York concerts over Chanukah is as eagerly anticipated as anything he's done.

But the most persuasive evidence for the longevity of the iconoclastic Chasidic Jew can be found in his new album, "Light," scheduled for release in February. It's a departure from straightforward reggae as well as an experiment in storytelling and pop music. It's also a more intricate statement about God than even his fans are accustomed to hearing.

Last month, the label released a four-song E.P., "Shattered," which finds Matisyahu backed by straightforward hip-hop beats, Postal Service-like indie-tronica and even spoken word (but the good kind of spoken word).

"Smash Lies," the first song on "Shattered," combines an oud, orchestral samples, a Timbaland hip-hop beat and the artist himself ducking in and out of harmonies, preaching and vocal percussion -- and, by that last part, I mean beatboxing, but also a new technique in this song that jumps from beatboxing into rapid spitfire vocals and back again. "Two Child One Drop" takes cues from dance hall queen M.I.A., with a wild, uneasy tape loop floating through the groove.

And "I Will Be Light" is a sad and playful acoustic song, driven by a chorus of oy yoi yoi's, but sounds more like an amiable barroom singalong than a perfectly harmonized chorus ... in other words, a new Matisyahu.

Reinvention is kind of becoming the theme of his life. Partially, the responsibility for this new sound falls upon his new songwriting partners, including an oud player, a hip-hop beatmaker and a teenage reggae prodigy.

Partly, however, it's Matisyahu who signaled this new direction.

"When I started out, I sang in a Jamaican accent," he says as matter-of-factly as if remarking that he sings at all. "But most of what I'm listening to these days isn't reggae. I've also been taking lessons, developing my voice."

What is he listening to these days? Mostly, Ephraim Rosenstein.

Rosenstein, whom he refers to as his "teacher/mentor/friend," is a Jerusalem-based therapist and educator. Together, they studied the Tanya -- the fundamental book of Lubavitch Chasidim, through which Matisyahu started becoming religious -- and studied its ideology together with the ideology of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, another Chasidic teacher, as well as other philosophers.

"We would take themes like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, repentance, and then break down those themes as ideas, as single words," Matisyahu said. "And then we'd bring in stories."

Some of the stories were biblical. Others, like the proliferation of child slavery and the genocide in Darfur, were more current.

Gradually, the stories built into a cohesive narrative. Matisyahu tells the story like a novel, or maybe like a folktale: Two children in Africa, coerced into serving as soldiers, sneak away from their army and escape across the desert. For much of the story, they're lost in the desert -- just like the narrator of "The Tale of Seven Beggars," a Chasidic story originally told by Rebbe Nachman.

"Each idea became a chapter, and from those we would write songs," Matisyahu tells it. In his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, his longtime guitarist Aaron Dugan would start playing and Matisyahu would jump in, beatboxing -- "We'd run for an hour without stopping," he said.

Often, when they would play back the music, he said, they'd both be struck by the darkness. From there, the duo brought in other collaborators. Matisyahu flew to Jamaica to record with Sly and Robbie, generally known as the top-shelf reggae rhythm section, as well as Stephen McGregor, a reggae producer who's still in his teens.

"People are like, 'He's lost his reggae thing; he's not reggae anymore' -- it's ironic, it's this 17-year-old kid who's producing Sean Paul and the Fugees."

His list of collaborators on "Light" also includes Ooah, a hip-hop producer and member of the Glitch Mob, as well as the oud player from Idan Raichel's band. Yehuda Solomon, lead singer of Los Angeles-based Moshav, was also brought in to add world-music-sounding Hebrew vocals over Matisyahu's English vocals.

If the songs on "Shattered" veer in directions that are surprising to the artist's existing fans, "Light" abandons the path entirely. The first track, "Master of the Field," was released as a free download on Matisyahu's Web site. It treads on ground both familiar and new, with classic Chasidic (and, yes, Lubavitch) metaphors -- the titular master is a reference to the Jewish month of Elul, when the king comes out to greet his subjects on their territory. Musically, it borrows from the confines of his previous work (reggae-tinted keyboards, infectious pop hooks, a beatboxed transitional bridge) but a little before the two-minute mark, the song explodes into a totally different vein. It's not pop music, it's not experimental, but it manages to retain its catchiness while paring down to little more than a drum-and-bass beatbox and a chanted chorus.

Matisyahu doesn't expect everyone to grasp the multilayered story on his album, or even to understand his new direction completely. "In the end, when someone listens to the record, they won't hear that story," he said. "When my sister-in-law first heard 'Two Child,' which is a song about a boy dying in the desert telling a girl to carry on, she was like, 'What girl is this about? It's not about my sister ...'" He laughs. Then, with a measure of sobriety, he adds: "Other people say, 'He isn't writing Jewish songs anymore.' They don't realize it's about the world. It's about everything."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

11/11, but i wish it was 10/4

Okay, ixnay on the Long Island action. I know it kind of sucks -- all of a sudden, the person who was going to give me a ride isn't giving me a ride, and it's two hours and a surprisingly expensive train ride.

back from Los Angeles. two red-eye flights in 24 hours can knock a boy unconscious...or at least play havoc with at least three of his five senses. it's weird to rebound from rock stardom right back into a day job (and by "right back," i mean plane, subway, office). los angeles was amazing -- there were the obligatory celeb sightings, a hotel room that i wish i'd remembered to photograph (the entire room was done in pale purple and white, and they'd wrapped 50 old distended books in matching jackets) and C.J. pulled up in his car and we recorded two new Chibi Vision songs in his car outside Steven Spielberg's mother's restaurant when the whole neighborhood went black. I was staring at a giant multicolored neon tower when the power finally went back on.

it was glorious.

I'm not Radiohead's biggest aficionado ever, but this site is doing a bunch to convince me. Perhaps because the mp3s are free (and I could buy several Radiohead albums for the price of the train ticket to Long Island), or it might just be my recent obsession with live albums (roots! mike doughty! i just love listening to people who are being listened to by an entire room of people; it's captivating and almost cultlike).

oh, and laura bush is looking into a book deal. but i thought she already had one.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Art of the Memoir: Live in Long Island

Back from LA, and tons of stories to tell. But first, here are details on my reading Wednesday:

322 New York Ave. Huntington Long Island


Find out what it takes to write and sell your life story from trained professionals who've actually done just that. Memoirists David Henry Sterry (best-selling author of Master of Ceremonies* and talent scout for Levine Greenberg literary agency), Jewish memoirist Matthue Roth (Yom Kippur Go-Go) and agent extraordinaire Arielle Eckstut (Putting Your Passion Into Print) will show you how to write and sell your memoir.

They will read from their memoirs. Then they will discuss the joys and the perils, the agony and the ecstasy of writing and selling the stories of your life. Making a narrative of events of your own life, dealing with issues of privacy and the lunacy of family, figuring out how to navigate the stormy seas of the publishing world, are all topics that will be bandied about. This will be followed by a Q&A session. All questions will be answered.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Genre Benders

matthue rothMy new Nextbook column is up, featuring Yoshie Fruchter's Pitom, NX2, Eprhyme, and everything else that's new and Jew.

Four years ago, Yoshie Fruchter came to New York and plunged into the avant-garde jazz scene that revolved around those clubs, watching local legends like Shanir Blumenkranz (who can coax just about any sound in the universe from a bass guitar) and multi-instrumentalist percussionist Kevin Zubek work their magic.

Now, they’re both in his backing band.

It’s hard to come up with the right word to describe Fruchter, who fronts the band Pitom, and whose debut record, named for the band, is available this month from John Zorn’s Tzadik Records. The album takes the characteristically absurdist and often improvisational jazz that Tzadik bands are known for and adds more than a measured dose of power-chord punk.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Did you vote for this man?

the generations of obama

I actually love staring at this picture and thinking, "This is the president-elect of the United States of America."

Transitions of Power

Welcome to the new world. In his last few months as a lame-duck president, Clinton declared a huge territory in Alaska to be a national park, and could therefore never be drilled or mined, and it was impossible to be overruled.

I'm kind of fearful for what Bush might do with *his* last few months in power. (Or maybe, like Judaism says, I should judge favorably -- he could always devote billions to cancer research or starving children.) And I'm kind of excited about Obama, and if any of the totally unreasonable superhuman powers we've girded him with over the past few months come true, maybe he'll be able to protect us from whatever madness Bush has in store.

Meanwhile: somebody should make a reality TV show about Osama Bin Laden's pacifist, cougar-dating, dreadlocked son, Omar Osama, who is asking for asylum in Spain. Spain? There doesn't seem to be any logical reason, except that, when I was researching Candy in Action, I discovered Spain has one of the most reliably all-night party junkets in the world.

She's 55, he's 27, and he really is a rebellious son. He says he's proud of his father's name, but keeps urging his father to "find another way." There should be some cracks to be made about how his new wife is old enough to be his mother, but considering his father has four wives and anywhere between 12 and 26 children, she's also old enough to be his sister -- which, at least theoretically, makes it less bad (or less hot, depending on your point of view).

Friday, October 31, 2008

Losers and losers

Two new reviews of Losers! Mordy Shinefield in the Forward seems to like me ("charming," "idiosyncratic") but most of the review is spent discussing how I'm not like Philip Roth. Duh. I don't like Philip Roth, I've only gotten to the end of one of his books ("The Ghost Writer") -- and I finish almost any book I read -- the man he reminds me of the pedophile uncle I never had. When people ask if I'm related to the "famous Roth," I always pretend they're talking about David Lee. The review ends by saying that "The real point Roth is making in 'Losers' is that, like Jupiter Glazer, Judaism has gone mainstream," which I don't think has anything to do with the book -- the fact of Jupiter's Judaism is only mentioned twice, both times in reference to the Jewish Federation helping his immigrant parents find jobs, which I don't think is very hipster-Jewish at all.

The other review, in JVibe, is from someone who's 14 -- I love it when actual teenagers review teen books, since the "teen book" industry is like 90% people like me, who haven't been teenagers for a good long while, but still wish we were. "The book manages without a lot of plot or adventure to keep readers glued...What defines being a 'loser' isn't an environment, but an attitude." Rock.

The reading on Wednesday went pretty superbly. Katie Finn's "Top 8" is a Facebook book that manages to pull off the conceit nicely, and makes me question my the world's doubts about Aaron Sorkin's Facebook movie. And have you ever heard of Lauren Henderson? She's British and sassay as anything and I don't even know if that's the right page for her, but it does show her books. At one point, David the moderator encouraged us to go outside and start a rumble. At the time, I kind of froze because I wasn't sure whether the audience would have followed us out. But in retrospect, why would I have doubted it??

Black Ties in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, speaking at last night's Jewish Publication Society 120th Anniversary Banquet, could not constrain himself from talking about the topic that everyone else could barely constrain themselves from talking about: the Phillies.

Seriously: he got up to the microphone, and there wasn't even a pretense of his being more qualified to speak than the impressive assortment of professors, scholars, and philanthropists in the room (not to mention Norma Shapiro, the first female federal judge in the country), much less the expected "Wow, this is odd -- I'm speaking to a random roomful of Jews." No, sir: in his red tie and white shirt, Mayor Nutter said the exact thought everyone else had been trying to articulate all day: "How about those Phils, ladies and gentlemen. I can't believe it. The Phillies."

He paused, changed his approach, and then said something -- and that's when the profundity hit.

"It's not how much you get knocked down, it's how much you get back up. I think that's something that Philadelphians understand about their sports teams, and they understand it about their lives."

The entire night was a pretty spectacular spectacular. Not quite sure what to do, we stood around with glasses of wine in hand, trying to look at least medium-dignified to the half-full but growing crowd of people who seemed to be born into dignitariness. The weirdest part of these affairs, the rather formal ones where you don't know anyone, is by far the name badges. They're always printed in too-fine type, always on display in dimly-lit rooms, and they're always positioned over a part of the body that isn't really sociable to be looking at.

So I met people, wondering whether I was supposed to know them, finding out (relieved, and then intrigued) that the answer was no. And then someone came over and introduced herself, and it was Rena Potok, the Senior Acquisitions Editor, who I've been emailing with for a year, and who was quite abubble -- about new projects, the projects that were on display, and most of all about their new YavNet project, and JPS's forays into multimedia:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

addendum: yes, i suck.

liz: Keith Olbermann last night declared Dennis Prager yesterday's "worst person." And the Phillies won the World Series. Crazy turn of events.
me: the phillies won????
liz: you mean you weren't watching?
you don't deserve to be from there.
they won the friggin world series last night
google it
people in the streets
we won
me: no, i had a reading
and then i went home & collapsed
wow. good for us.
liz: you slept through the world series


San Francisco, for all that city's rent chaos and interweb madness, still has one of the most productive, experimental, and lovably dysfunctional writers' communities in the world. In the top echelon is Sherilyn Connelly, gothic princess, writer of unrestrained imagination, and (according to this woman at the post office last year) a dead ringer for Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.

darryl hannah in blade runner

And she's got about as much to do with Judaism as a polar bear.

Anyway: color me surprised when Sherilyn sends me an email linking to a new story she's written called "Impurim" that's basically a cover version of the Megillah. For all her ignorance of Judaism (she introduces the story by saying, "I had never even heard of Purim when the Beyt Tikkun Synagogue asked me to write and perform a revisionist version of The Magillah, the Book of Esther from the Bible") she does remarkably well on the tone and beats of the story, down to the tongue-in-cheekness rubbing right up against an almost holy tone of unholiness -- I don't know; I could make lots of cracks about how the most qualified person Beyt Tikkun could find to perform at their Purim function isn't even Jewish, but they knew what they were doing. This is good.

It all started when word spread that King Achashverosh was looking for a new queen. The details about what happened to Vashti, the old queen, were a little vague. Some said she'd been killed. Others swore she'd been banished, or ran away. A few people insisted that she'd never existed in the first place, and that the search was going to result in yet another imaginary queen. Achashverosh was known to be something of an odd bird, so that wouldn't have been much of a surprise.


Did I mention that Vashti has become a recurring character in her short stories? Consider this a request for more.

Crossposted on MyJewishLearning

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Eye Candy

Not to get too self-promulgating, but if you're in New York, show up at the New York Public Library, Jefferson Market Branch in the West Village tonight -- I'll be reading from my new novel Losers, and a host of other people will be appearing, including Coe Booth, whose book Tyrell the New York Times couldn't get enough of, and David Levithan, who wrote this little movie about two kids and an infinite playlist.

by greg holm

And the fabulous Greg Holm has a new website! Just in case you don't believe how gorgeous it is, see above. And play a Where's Waldo to find the photo of me (hint: it isn't as hard as Waldo).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Noah, Meet Youtube

First of all: come to my reading at the New York Public Library tomorrow! New book! Free zine! What else do you need?

G-dcast has been going off the hook lately. First there was the wave of Jewish blogs raving, then the New York Times. Now it seems to have led to erudite observations about why Jewish education turned out the way it is, and what the potential for Torah education could be.

Not to ego-ize too much, but I'm excited.

Monday, October 27, 2008

I'm live!

My book is live! My new novel Losers just got a really nice writeup in Booklist. I'm not allowed to say what it says, but I can tell you it was pretty rocking (although they give away 2 pretty major spoilers, blegh.)

I'm live too! If you live in New York, come see me this Wednesday! I'm doing a free show at the New York Public Library, Jefferson Market branch (that's the big one in the West Village), Wednesday 10/29 at 6:00. I'll be reading from my new novel Losers, and possibly dropping some surprises. It's the night before Mischief Night, and I'm going to be spending the actual mischief night at a literary banquet in Philly, so this is going to be the night when I get it all out.

Not to mention the other readers. It's hosted by my editor, David Levithan, better known as the man who puts the words into the mouth of, uh:

michael cera and david levithan, bff

Also appearing: Coe Booth (loved by the New York Times), Christopher Krovatin (adored by the band Deicide), Katie Finn (I met her at a picnic; she's cool) and other folks.

And, not to overload you, but G-dcast is live! This week, I'm the host -- go to G-dcast (remember the dash) to see it, or look below:

Friday, October 24, 2008

Healing Havdalah

What are you up to on November 8? Depending who you are, either celebrating, stewing, or plotting revenge against fraudulent voting booths/elderly Jewish neo-Nazis in Forida, most likely.

bonfire, courtesy of WikipediaLimmudLA is planning a giant bonfire on Dockwiler beach in Los Angeles that night. As the event page says, "The etiquette of the evening is that we will not cheer for the winner or lament for the loser. We will not speak publicly or even whisper between us to make anyone feel that they voted the wrong way....We will celebrate Havdalah together on the beach and sing our hearts out. We will then break into small groups on the sand for a Torah-inspired learning session about healing community differences."

The location alone -- "where the 105/Imperial Highway meets the beach" -- makes me get nostalgic for Los Angeles. (I'll actually be on a plane to LA that night, en route to the AJU Celebration of Jewish Books, so burn some wood for me.) On our site, we talk about the idea of Havdalah as bringing a drop of Shabbat into the week, and there's nothing these next few weeks are going to need more than some good healthy helpings of Shabbat. If you're around Los Angeles, you should definitely drop by.

And, like all Limmud ideas, this is viral, so if anyone is planning another convocation of this sort (or gets spontaneously inspired to), let us know.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Who Got the Beat?

My new column Tuned In is up on Nextbook! With a Sholom Auslander-like digitized picture and everything.

When I first got into Judaism (read, betrayed my secular family and Conservative synagogue and became a religious zealot) I was convinced that Jewish culture was never going to replace secular culture in my life. During some of my first Shabboses as an observant Jew, I went to They Might Be Giants and Fugazi concerts, buying my ticket beforehand and manufacturing excuses, if only because, well, the Miami Boys’ Choir was next to impossible to slam-dance to, and I’d be damned if I was going to listen to any one-man synthesizer band just because we have a God in common.



Also, this is only going to affect about three people in the universe, but it's so great that I need to scream it: the first band I ever loved, The Dead Milkmen, are getting back together. So far it's just a one-off show -- while I'm doing a reading in Los Angeles, no less -- but, for the moment at least, it makes the world feel like a better place. At first I got scared that it would change what I wrote about them in Losers. but I think it makes it even MORE relevant. you know, to today's kids.

Meet G-dcast

Dear Mom and Dad, this is why I've been so busy. But, hey, now everyone in the universe can finally keep up with the weekly Torah portion without showing up promptly at 9:00 AM in synagogue every Saturday morning...or, really, without paying attention to anything longer than 4 minutes.

Keep visiting -- there's a different narrator each week. Up next: this punk-rock Orthodox kid who thinks he knows about floods.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


etrog esrog citron matthue

You'd think an etrog in Hasidic Brooklyn would be easy to find.

After all, when I lived in San Francisco (Jewish population: high; etrog population: maybe 2 dozen or so?), choosing an etrog was easy to select: your synagogue (Chabad, because nobody else wanted to bother with ordering them) would get a box of etrogim in the mail, and choosing an etrog would be pretty simple: the first person in line got the first etrog out of the box.

If you've ever seen the (best) film (ever) Ushpizin, you know that choosing an etrog can be involved, strenuous, even obsessive. Everything from the color to the texture to the bumps means something -- a tiny horizontal indentation toward the bottom curve, for instance, is known as "Eve's Bite," since one school of thought says that the etrog was the fruit that caused Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. And let's not underestimate the prime fact: Jews are obsessive-compulsive about, well, everything.

So here's me on Sunday, going through every one of the dozen etrog shops that spring up in Crown Heights for exactly a week and a half, transformed bodegas and corner stores and even one barbershop. The only thing I really know is that I like to have a pitom, that tiny stem that looks like an outie, on top of mine. And it just so happens that, among Chabad, people try not to have a pitom.

I went into my friend Levi's family's store, set up in the neighborhood matzoh bakery. They always somehow forget they know me until I've caused them even more stress than the last time, upon which they're like, "Oh. You.." and vanish to another room. But they're actually really nice. In this instance, they were almost out of pitomified etrogim, except for....

"These are Moroccan, but you probably don't want them."

"Moroccan?" My synagogue is Moroccan. My eighth-grade term paper was on Morocco. I love Morocco.

"Moroccan. They're not like Israeli or Italian etrogim; they're kind of, how do you say, shvach. Lazy etrogs."

"They are lazy etrogs," I repeat, understanding not at all.

He explains. They're solid, sturdy etrogs, lacking in beauty and bumpiness, all the things we are supposed to treasure in etrogs. They're mostly sold to children, to teach them how to say the blessings and how to handle an etrog, and all that. "You know," he says, "the pitom, it does not last long around the children." Then he looks down at my daughter, who's strapped to my chest in one of those portable baby prison things, and says "You have one year left, maybe two."

I went to another place, and the next. One place, I was fighting to see etrogs, not wanting to jump straight in and endanger my kid. At other places, the etrogs didn't have pitoms, were too expensive (hey, hauling delicate and uncommon citrons from across the world ain't cheap) or just weren't the right etrog.

The last place was around the corner from my house, a convenience store that had literally been taken over a week ago. Mexican beer ads with women who couldn't have been wearing fewer clothes if they were naked littered the floor, mixed with somewhat fresher newspaper fragments in Hebrew. Teenage Israelis were running in and out like worker ants, and it took about half an hour of having a twenty-dollar bill in my hand for someone to notice.

He gave me a shrug, almost imperceptible beneath his huge shoulders. He gestured over to a bunch of huge boxes strewn across the floor, all of which had literally hundreds of smaller boxes -- etrogs -- inside each.

I got on my knees. I started poring through them.

Now my daughter is usually an active girl. She struggles, she blips and beeps and chortles, she crawls pretty much everywhere and she puts nearly everything into her mouth. Today, though, she was kind of dreary -- either because she didn't get a full nap, or from the tedium of seeing a zillion men in bushy beards and black hats, one after the other. She watched me poking through the etrogs with a modicum of disinterest, head lolling to one side. She didn't even feel like eating the corner of the Baby Bjorn, which she's usually pretty nonstop about doing.

And then I unwrapped it. It didn't look that special to me, although it certainly didn't look like any of the normal ones -- tilted to one side, the pitom sturdy and washed to the other, waves of green peeking through the yellow to the top and bottom. I was thinking of putting it back, digging through the rest of the box. I'd already spent an hour; what was another twenty minutes? But then my chest tugged at me, two tiny hands working their way inside the box. My daughter was awake in a way she hadn't been all day, cooing like a stoned dove and fighting styrofoam for possession of a fruit she'd never seen before. She gave an imminent tug, then looked straight up at me as if she was asking, Can I eat it? Just this once?

"This is the one," I announced -- to the room full of Israeli teenagers, none of whom was paying attention to me, and the manager, who didn't even realize what I was stuffing into his hand until the money was pressed deep inside, and I was halfway to the door.

And then I went home to shake my lulav.

crossposted on MyJewishLearning

Hol Hamoed Jam

Back from the Sukkos-imposed hiatus -- and, hey, the whole world has changed. For one thing, Prowler, the band that cameos in Losers, has a new music video...and also, I apparently guest-blogged on Jewish Grandchildren for Obama.

About a year ago, I wrote an essay for an academic anthology -- okay, no, it was Chicken Soup for the Democrat's Soul --saying how I really believed in Obama. He called on Congress to change. He asked the American people to believe in him. I think Shepard Fairy's Obama poster was the summit of this for me: the Senator's face and the single word "HOPE."

But this whole idea of HOPE is weird. You can HOPE for anything....

(keep reading)

And here's your Hol Hamoed jam:

Monday, October 13, 2008

5:30 A.M. Finnish Goth Musicals

Okay, answer now: Why have I been up for an hour and a half?

No -- the real question should be, why is it 5:51 a.m. and I've been up for an hour and a half? Luckily -- or, I guess, judiciously, I have a friend (on the West Coast, so at least one of us is up at a semi-rational hour) who's a doctor who just emailed me this epinion about Sudafed. Which I just took for this weird cold I have.

And things are starting to make way too much sense.

The review starts: "PROS: Clears you up. CONS: Amps you up" and goes downhill from there. Basically: Sudafed is made from the same stuff as speed. And the primary ingredient is, apparently, the same as crystal meth. Why don't they teach you this stuff in straightedge school?

Well, at least I'm getting work done. (And, by "work," I mean that I have two major projects due this week, a Jewish holiday that starts in 12 hours, and I just spent half an hour writing an email to an old friend in which I volunteered to edit a documentary on Finnish goth culture.) For some reason, I thought the documentary was a musical. Maybe this speed thing isn't so bad, after all.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What We Leave Behind

During Yom Kippur services this year, I came up with the best praying strategy I've ever had, I think. It's the kind of thing that makes you want to write it down and look it up next year...except, of course, I never do.

I'm a regular Ashkenazic guy. Blase Hungarian features, thick Carpathian mountain hair, the same prayerbook as half the universe uses...but, for Yom Kippur, I wound up in a Chabad synagogue. Chabad uses a different nusach than most of the rest of the universe. (It's technically called "Nusach ha'Ari," after the Arizal, except that he'd been dead several hundred years when it was invented by the Alter Rebbe, the first Rebbe of Chabad.) To make a long story much shorter, it's mostly the same prayers, in an almost completely different order than, ahem, normal...or, "normal" if you're a Carpathian like me.

We prayed all day yesterday, except for a 20-minute break at 4:30 or so to pop home and see my daughter. Most of it was silent, to ourselves, punctuated sporadically by a call-and-response hymnal, or a sudden moment on the part of the prayer leader of "Hey! This would sound really good sung aloud." (I can only guess that's what he was thinking. I was praying with a 100-year-old machzor that used to be my great-grandmother's; there's no call-and-response instructions, only big text and little text.) Anyway, for about three-quarters of those responsive readings, I was on a totally different page -- in a different section, and on a different mental plane.

And it was totally great.

With nothing to cling to, all I could cling to were the words. As a result of working here (and from a couple years of praying every day) my Hebrew's getting better, and individual words stuck out at me as I went -- healing; forgiveness; screw up. ("Screw up" is my personal translation of "to sin," since there isn't any literal sinning in Judaism.) But the more I went, the closer I got to that ideal relationship that all the rabbis talk about when they talk about Yom Kippur: the idea that it's just you and God alone in a room, and you're not sure whether to say "thank you" or "I'm sorry," and you end up saying both.

That's where this whole confusion about YoKo comes from. Nobody ever says "Happy Yom Kippur!" But people who regard it as sad and mournful aren't getting the whole picture, either. There's a story in the Talmud about how, when we fast, God is fasting, too. Not because God is getting ready to make harsh judgments on us, but because God doesn't want to make harsh judgments, and God's hoping not to have to.

It also got me thinking about the recent exhibition of the diary of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut killed in the Columbia crash. Thirty miles from the crash site, in the middle of a field in Texas, a farmer found the pages -- literally the last thing in life that he left behind. Paper is one of the most intangible, temporary things to leave. But praying, talking, our secret whispers -- if we die this coming year, that's all that we have left, too. Words? Emotions? Complaints? But if you're saying something good, it's nothing to be ashamed of at all.

Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon's diary pages

crossposted from MyJewishLearning

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