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
everything
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

Impurim

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.

KEEP READING


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.

more


...

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!!!

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

Monday, October 6, 2008

Losers Press

And there's a ton of new press on Losers. Check out the site for the whole megillah, but here's some of it:

Bookami
"As the volumes of YA novels published each year continue to grow, it's going to be less and less about what happens, and more about how you say it, and I think Matthue Roth knows how to say it."

The Bloody Snow
"Losers...shows that not all kids want or like to be popular, that some strive for something more meaningful, and that awkwardness is an art form. The resulting product is a story of not only meaning, but also hilarity."

Vilde Chayas

I'm the first person to 'fess up to my Maurice Sendak obsession -- Where the Wild Things Are is the only book that my daughter actually asks for on her own. (The fact that I toss her around during the Wild Rumpus probably has a lot to do with it, but I think she admires the strong narrative tone, too.)

Anyway, I kept telling everyone that the Wild Things themselves were given traditional Yiddish names from the 1940s and '50s: Moishe, Emil, and Tzippy, but no one seemed to believe me -- even when I tracked down references).



Anyway, here's a site where you can buy mini-Wild Things of your own -- named, as it turns out, after Sendak's uncles and aunts. Even the term "Wild Things" comes from the Yiddish vilde chaya, which is what your grandmother called you after you had a little too much salt water taffy and were leaping on the furniture.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Doctor Who geekout moment

I don't know if anyone I know will find this riveting, but I do: A catalogue of every time anyone has said "What are you doing here?" on Doctor Who.

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