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.

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