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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Regina Spektor Blows (Shofar)

Oh, Jewish blogging world, you are losing your touch.

Or maybe I'm just losing touch with you. Last Rosh Hashanah, Regina Spektor -- whose song "Laughing With," by the way, was just named one of the Best Lyrics of 2009 by, um, us -- blew a shofar at one of her concerts.

regina spektor blows a shofar

This might be Regina overkill. After all, we've already reviewed her new album and blogged about her song lambasting Holocaust deniers. But as long as she keeps being cheeky and inventive and writing crazily good songs, we'll probably keep writing about it. And, with the recent tragic loss of YIDCore -- the only band I've ever seen with enough chutzpah to blow hummus out of a shofar and onto their audience -- well, somebody needs to step up and take the mantle of introducing traditional Jewish instruments into pop music.

Thank you, ReSpekt Online, for keeping me in the loop. *Ahem.*

Monday, December 28, 2009

Paris Hilton Is Responsible (and Jewish)

The awesome Jewish poetry magazine The Blue Jew Yorker has its new issue online today. It probably seems like I'm telling you to go read it because of my poem, "The Other Universe of Paris Hilton," which takes place in an alternate universe where Paris is responsible and Orthodox Jew (and she always wakes up to pray at exactly the right time before sunrise), and I'm a drunken heiress.

But that wouldn't be one-tenth of it. Legitimate (and goood) poet and professor Charles Bernstein gives this very Addams Family-like gothic poem called "Rivulets of Dead Jew." There's a furious poem called "It Takes Awhile" by Heather Bell, and Samuel Menashe, who's basically a living legend of poetry (don't believe me? read the MJL article), has a new poem, "Adam Means Earth," which is as brief and brilliant as anything he's ever written (and that's saying something):

I am the man
Whose name is mud
But what’s in a name

But my favorite might be this tiny little poem by Gary Levine. It's a love song to his siddur.

It goes wherever I go
My little blue worn siddur
Tattered and well used, cover bent and dog eared.
Wrinkled from praying in the rain
On the way to shul on Pesach day
Wine stains on page 178 & 179
Made while standing making Kiddish by a hospital bed


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kindly Ones to Keep Us Company

I got a review copy of Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones -- a massive, 982-page paperweight of a novel about a (fictional) SS officer during the Holocaust -- and didn't immediately read it. Although the novel won one of France's major literary awards and was hailed in Europe, it's still, well, Europe. The American reviews soundly thrashed the thing, calling it bloated and pretentious and severely scatological in its humor. And then there was the size of it:

kindly ones by jonathan littell

Finally, a few weeks ago I sat down to conquer the thing. It actually came at an opportune time: I had to run out of work to go to the doctor's. (I'd gotten a tick in the middle of winter, and even though I live in Brooklyn, a city without any trees or bushes or nature, I decided I needed to make sure I wasn't dying of Lyme disease.) I could run down to the medical center and wait for a walk-in. This sounded to me like the prospect of hours with nothing to do. What better time to dig into a monster such as that?

So I had this period of time, roped off, with nothing else to fill it. I dove in and started to read. And I discovered: The Kindly Ones actually is sort of compelling.

kindly ones littellThe story follows the narration of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a man with no pretense of brevity and a truly OCD mind. The story is by turns relentlessly brutal (explosion after explosion, battle scenes in plenitude) and severely nitpicky. When Aue is given the chance to kill Jews, you get the sense that he thinks of it, not as ethnic cleansing or mass murder, but as an innumerably complex problem to solve, and one more thing to analyze. And the man can analyze: he goes off on ten-page digressions about statistical models and mid-20th-century medical culture. Single paragraphs fill pages, and sometimes when you come to a paragraph break, a chorus plays Hallelujah in your head.

It's cheapening the story to chalk up Aue's neuroses to the author's need to portray the hyperactiveness of the German Nazi methodical mind. At the same time, however, reading this book really illuminates the intricacies of someone obsessed with detail, and how the humanity of humanity can get lost in the process. Aue, at various points in the book, destroys his family, embarks on an incestuous relationship with his sister, and argues -- regretfully, it seems -- that the more accurate tally of Jews killed in the Holocaust is closer to five million than six. There is also the aforementioned scatology: Aue is obsessed with vomiting and bowel movements, both his own and other people's. One of my favorite lines from Publisher's Weekly's review puts it best: "Nary an anus goes by that isn't lovingly described (among the best is one surrounded by a pink halo, gaped open like a sea anemone between two white globes)."

It's not a sympathetic portrait of Nazis by any means. But it's a thought-provoking one. I don't know if I'd actually want to read this book given the choice between it and, oh, just about any other book about the Holocaust (or not) out there. But for those with the curiosity -- and the time to spare -- it's an intriguing perusal.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I Hate Christmas

We are in the strange void between Hanukkah and Christmas, a time where Jews are already sick of being proud and silver-and-blue glitter and singing Maoz Tzur, while the rest of the western world is just about to kick their holiday into high gear. I know it's not fair to pit our minor (though fun) holiday against the birth of the central dude of the Christian religion. But I can't really help it. Kyle Broslovsky was right: it is hard to be a Jew on Christmas. Which doesn't at all explain the song that Josh Lamar and I put together called "I Hate Christmas." It's actually about, uh, why I like Christmas. You can listen to it free right there, or you can download the whole mini-EP for just $1. It's so worth it...both because it's good music, and because you can crank it loud enough to drown out all that Christmas music on the radio. What's interesting is the way this came about. Joshua Lamar, the non-Jewish drummer for the Jewish punk band Can!!Can, asked me if he could have some of my spoken-word tracks to play with. I sent him a volley of a bunch of them -- a while Christmas sack full of presents, you could say -- and the one he picked to work on first is the Christmas one. So take a listen! And, by the way, there's some raw language on it, just as a warning. I'm still kind of nervous about posting this -- much more nervous than posting the Hanukkah songs that we commissioned a few weeks ago -- but, then again, it's a whole different ball game. After all, "Mi Yimalel" and "Maoz Tzur" were written by great people thousands of years ago. This is just me ranting about Bob Dylan and Bette Midler. What do you think?

Monday, December 21, 2009

770s of the World

Admittedly, 770 Eastern Parkway, the biggest synagogue in Crown Heights and the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Hasidic Judaism, is not the most instantly recognizable building in the world. At least, not according to most people. (That would probably be, depending on your POV and cultural background, either the Taj Mahal, the White House, or the Haunted Mansion.) But in the eyes of many Chabad Jews, 770 is the first and last word in architecture, whether it's constructing a new school, a new synagogue, or the perfect little something to fill in the space between two office buildings.

The photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher went around the world, taking pictures of 770s and their spinoff buildings, from a block-wide school in Los Angeles to a summer camp in Montreal to a library in Australia...and, yes, a house between two massive office buildings in Brazil. Check out some of the photos below, and then check their site for all twelve 770s built all over the world.

770 summer camp

770 in israel

770 in LA

770 skyscraper

Yes, it's a little weird. But just like we hang pictures of people to inspire us -- whether it's a rabbi above your child's bed to ward off evil spirits, Robert Pattinson hanging in your locker, or a picture of my favorite rock star next to my writing desk -- having an iconic building around is probably a good thing for inspiration, whether it's hitting new spiritual heights or just getting to synagogue on time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Religious Life (the Fan Video Version)

This new video has been making the rounds. It's an Internet viral video, so I'm not going to psychoanalyze it too much; I'll just say that it's a short fake trailer that takes the underlying themes of chasteness, devotion to love (or the old-fashioned, traditional-American version of it), and religious celibacy and -- well -- blatant-ifies them.

I don't get all the jokes. I don't think I'm supposed to. It's one of those things that's less ha-ha funny and more that it resonates with a specific community -- in this case, Mormons. ("You got your mission when Howard W. Hunter was president," one of those jokes, took me 15 minutes on Google to figure out completely.)

But -- as those of us who are religious fundamentalists who hang out with fundamentalists from other religions are fond of saying -- the stigma is the same. "Twilight Years" is about Mormons who don't get swept up immediately in marriage. Any kind of not-100%-kitschy viral video about 30-plus-year-olds on the Upper West Side will have a different vocabulary of inside jokes, but, done smartly and sympathetically (and with just a bit of creepiness, just to keep things honest) would look a lot like "Twilight Years," I think.

And there are some things that just transcend cultural boundaries. Like this bit of dialogue:

"How old are you?"
"How long have you been eighteen?"
"Fifteen years. Are you afraid?"

This video also led me to another Mormon web video and web-storytelling series that I'm currently obsessed with, The Book of Jer3miah. The New York Times loved Jer3miah, although that didn't directly translate into hits for them -- their second episode is still languishing with a mere 3,000 hits, miniscule for a viral video. But it's geniusly composed, exquisitely plotted, and, on top of that, done by undergraduate students at Brigham Young. Who are taking classes in new media studies. Maybe I was wrong -- maybe all religious fundamentalists aren't the same. Yeshiva University and HUC, you'd do well to start up classes like this.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How to Write a Facebook Invitation

Tonight we're having a rabbi from Israel speak at our place. My wife tasked me with writing the Facebook invite -- meaning, of course, that it weighed on my head whether we'd get a good turnout or not.

chanukah party

The first step was obvious: Don't use the words "intellectually," "stimulating," "rabbi," or "lecture." (Although, come to think of it, "stimulating" on its own might lead people to show up for an entirely different type of party.) Likewise forbidden: "shiur" (the Hebrew word for "lecture"), "conversation," "discussion group," or, most dreaded of all, "Torah talk." I called it a "party," which might be misleading -- or, depending on the subject matter of the talk and whether people stick around, it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it is Hanukkah time. On the other hand: "Free food" always seems to work wonders.

So we've got the list. It's the day of the event, two and a half hours to go. And we've got our statistics in: 19 confirmed guests, 18 maybes, and 64 unanswered replies. I'm sure there must be an accurate way of tabulating how many of these 82 indefinite replies will actually pull through. While I have yet to arrive at an actually scientifically valid way of definitively answering, here's what I've got so far:

* If anyone on your list is married and has kids, put them down as "no."
* If anyone lives more than a 20-minute commute away, eliminate half of them. Eliminate two-thirds of the people who live more than a 40-minute commute away. (If you live in a place where people actually take public transit, and the public transit stinks after sunset -- meaning, anywhere but New York and the Bay Area -- just give up on anyone without a car.)
* Here, I should probably do some sort of analysis of the percentage of single guys who are coming, single-girls-who-like-guys on the "maybe" lists, and vice versa. Like: if your party right now is 65% women, and there are 15 undecided boys, anticipate on getting at least 11 of them.
* The Jew factor. How many people on your list are Jewish? How many of their names sound Jewish? Does the concept of an all- or mostly-Jewish party (er, lecture...sshhh!) excite people, or freak them out?

That's all I've got for now. Can you guys think of any other factors that might weigh in? Let me know, and I'll amend the list tomorrow...after I see how my grand theories turned out.

Santa's All-Star Jewish Dream Team

There's a seasonal uproar about seasonal messages. In the gentile world, the debate rages: How early is too early to start celebrating Christmas? This year, Nordstrom got major props for delaying their Christmas savings until after Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, MyJewishLearning just posted our first Christmas video, Christmas in Calgary, in which comic Ophira Eisenberg tells a story about wanting to visit a mall Santa Claus.

While we were filming, something occurred to me: The same exact thing happened to me as a kid! (And, if you've seen the video, Santa had a very similar response for me.) And then something else occurred: There are probably enough Jews with zany Christmas stories so that we could stock a full-fledged production of A Miracle on 34th Street -- or, at the very least, to create a dream team of Jewish Christmas all-stars.

First up, the character of the Hasidic rabbi in Nathan Englander's story "Reb Kringle," from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. I forget the protagonist's actual name, but it doesn't really matter; Reb Kringle is all you need to call him. He's an in-demand Santa who makes some extra cash every holiday season dressing up in a red jumpsuit -- the managers love him, because they don't have to rent a beard, and that the kids love it because it's so realistic.

And, of course, we'd also have to include Dvora Myers, an observant Jewish breakdancer and gymnast, who just had a seasonal gig as a breakdancing elf.

I don't know who would play the reindeer, but maybe the skeleton reindeer from Nightmare Before Xmas? The kid sitting on Santa's lap, though -- that would definitely be played by Ophira Eisenberg. Just so we get to witness the moment in the video. It's a whole new kind of priceless.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Buffy, Animated

How did this exist? Or, how has it not? As far as I can tell, it's the only almost-4 minutes of Buffy animated footage that exists.

Let me express my extreme OH MAN-ness. And let me say, retroactively, as a parent, that it's still a good thing that we don't own a TV.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Were the Maccabees Jerks?

This morning I got my Hanukkah Project CD, a new compilation record. My band Chibi Vision contributed a song to it, "The Maccababies" -- which, I guess, was an extension of what I've been thinking about this year.

the hanukkah project song music compilationAmanda from The Bachelorettes, one of the other bands on the comp, was telling me about playing our song for her class. (She also happens to teach a Hebrew School class in Jackson, Mississippi.) It's a pretty fun song -- anyway, I like to think so -- casting the Maccabees as underdogs fighting against an invading army. It begins, "The Maccabee guerrillas, hiding in the trees, just chillin'/Till injustice starts pervading/We could use a little savin'." Ever since I was a kid, I loved that image -- of someone hiding out in a tree, maybe a soldier about to attack, but foremostly of someone scared out of his mind, running for his life, and safe, if only for the moment. {I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that you can hear the song here, or just order the album!}

And that's how I always thought of the Maccabees. As these little guys on the run, just tryin' to believe what they believe without someone trying to stomp them out.

"One kid said something about defeating the Iraqis," Amanda told me. "And I was like -- wait a second. In the Hanukkah story, the Jews were the ones who were occupied!"

It's true, and more than a little scary, that the Hanukkah story can be read as an allegory both for seizing the day from fascist, Nazi oppressors as well as seizing the day from democratic American oppressors. But when I was working on a totally different assignment, writing the script for this year's Chanukah episode, I kept inadvertently using words like occupation and resistance, and then having to go back and replace them -- words that have quite a specific connotation in contemporary America, and especially in the Jewish community.

Oh my G-d, I thought. I'm actually in denial. Or I'm a hypocrite. And then I started to analyze my own way of thinking. (As I write this, Dan Sieradski has just tweeted, "i think macy's should have a chanukah window, like their xmas display, with maccabees forcibly removing helenized jews' foreskins.") When I was getting my anthropology degree, one of my professors was fond of saying that the difference between calling something a dialect and calling it a language was as simple as having an army. In other words, it's the big guys who can call the little guys little. Or, in simpler terms, history is written by the winners.

For me personally, a lot of these battles of meaning comes down to autonomy: which culture is going to forbid the other from doing what they want? (Or will neither?) But I recognize that my point of view isn't the only one. It's the scariest thing about writing a children's song (and, by the way, the scariest thing about being a parent) -- but it's also the most beautiful: That, no matter what you say, kids are going to find their own meanings, and their own methods of interpretation. There are huge differences between the Maccabees fighting for freedom of religion and any similarities between any other groups, whether positive or negative. But there's also a lot of universal truth to it.

Amanda's class, I think, are the only ones who really get what's going on. In the end, she tells me, they decided: "It's more complicated then they thought. A lot of times, there aren't good guys and bad guys."

Which, in my thoughts at least, hits the nail on the head.

Monday, November 30, 2009

How to Write a Hanukkah Song

The rest of the world is still eons away from Hanukkah. If you're super-prepared -- like my mother, for instance -- you're just starting to think about buying Hanukkah presents*. If you're like me, you'll realize on December 1 that Hanukkah starts on December 11, and think you have tons of time, and then on December 11, as Shabbat is starting, you'll totally freak out that you haven't bought anyone presents yet.

But this year is different than all other years. Why, you ask? Because I wrote a Hanukkah song.

the hanukkah projectI sat down with my songwriting partner, Mista Cookie Jar, months ago. At first I wasn't sure which direction we were going to take. How could I? It was early November, still basically Halloween. Anyway, my thoughts were a lot closer to shofars and sukkahs than menorahs and Maccabees. It's exactly like department stores that put up Christmas trees in early fall, or hosts who put out dessert while you're still eating dinner. By which I mean to say: you're not in the right head space.

So, when my friend Patrick Aleph of the Southern Jewish punk band Can!!Can came knocking -- one of his friends, Amanda from The Bachelorettes, wanted to put together a Southern Hanukkah record -- we had to rise to the call of duty. (I'm from Philly, but Cookie Jar is from West Virginia, and we both like grits.) It's true that, in my slam-poetry gigs, I do a poem called Dreidel Maven (download the mp3 free!), and I perform it year-round. I also have a chapbook called Dreidel Spinning Champion of the Universe, but the title refers more to being a twelve-year-old boy than to the divine miracle of everlasting olive oil.

So we could go in the direction of kitsch. And, fortunately, Hanukkah is replete with kitsch: menorahs, latkes, sufganiyot, gelt, even chintzy Maccabee costumes. And, closely related, the direction of cheesy rhymes, which Adam Sandler pioneered, and subsequently ruined for all other potential Hanukkah songwriters, ever.

But you know what? Adam Sandler can keep it. I didn't want to rhyme Hanukkah with Veronica or harmonica or marijuanica or anything else. I wanted to write about something cool. Something indie. Something revolutionary.

The story of Hanukkah is a hard one, though -- for all that religious people insist that we're not celebrating a military victory, it sounds suspiciously like we're doing just that. A lot of people died. There was a Maccabee army. Sure, they were fighting for freedom, but it was still fighting. Like it or not, we killed people. And it wasn't pleasant.

It got me thinking, though. If the Maccabees existed today, what in the world would they do? Would they be guerrilla soldiers? Social-networking hackers? Marketing pundits? One pop hook later, and after a lot of sugar inhalation, and we got our song: The Maccababies. It's a little frenetic, a little crazy, and a little can't-get-it-out-of-your-head-y, if I do say so myself.

What did we end up with? Well, you can listen to it here. Or you can buy the compilation CD -- made by a bunch of awesome kids in Jackson, Mississippi, with a hand-screened cover, and including temporary tattoos and a dreidel and gelt -- for $10.

While I'd like to think that our song still conveys the spirit, celebration, and giddiness of Hanukkah, it might not call to mind that same vision of snow flurries as "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree" or "Jingle Bell Rock." Maybe just because it doesn't have jingling bells or kitschy rhymes. Or maybe because, when we started writing it, it was still 65 degrees and sunny outside.

* - Hi, Mom! If you're reading this: A new camera, the final volume of X-Statix, and socks. No, not socks.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wish I Was Here

Pictures of a bunch of strangers mostly make me annoyed. Occasionally -- maybe it's a certain collection of facial expressions, maybe it's a waterslide in the background -- they make me jealous that I wasn't there or sad that I missed something important.

This shot from the set of The Secret Movie makes me a little of both. But it also makes me just happy that it exists in the first place (or, that it will), and that this many awesome people got to meet each other.

But, still, wishing I was there.

(but, thank you, Aleix)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

30 Days Since You Died

In Jewish practice, on the thirtieth day after a person dies, the mourners observe sheloshim -- a lessening in severity of the mourning practices. It's kind of weird how we have different prescribed levels for

Tonight and today is the sheloshim for Shula Swerdlov, a 3-year-old girl who was killed in a horrific hit-and-run in Jerusalem. The tragedy was immense. Not only because of the nature of the accident -- the driver of the school bus, reportedly a felon with 31 previous traffic accidents, ran her over in view of her 8-year-old brother, then immediately drove away -- but also that Shula's parents are Chabad emissaries, and constantly give up the beds in their relatively small apartment for thousands of guests on their way through Israel. Some were friends, or cousins, or just people they happen to meet. When my wife and I moved to Israel for yeshiva, we camped out nights in the Swerdlovs' office, checking our email each night, updating my blog and writing a novel because they didn't think twice about giving sketchy people like us a key to their place of business.

You can check out the comments section to see how many people were reeling from her death. But what you should really check out is the community's response:

* A massive toy drive, collecting Hanukkah toys for disadvantaged children -- in spite of the idea that most Chabadniks don't give gifts for Hanukkah. Check out the link for phone numbers, drop-off points, and other ways you can contribute.

* There's a custom that, when someone dies, we start writing a Torah in their memory. I'm not sure why exactly -- I've heard that it's a reference to when Moses wrote the Torah at the end of his life, or for the everlastingness of the Torah itself, how it's called a "Tree of Life" and all that. A Torah was started in Shula's memory, and you can help sponsor the writing by buying a letter in the Torah -- either a letter of your name, or a letter of a name of someone you want to honor.

* The song "Since You Died," by the Dismemberment Plan, has been in my head all day. Like few others, singer Travis Morrison conveys both the intimacy and the distance -- and the un-understandingness of it all -- that comes with thinking about a dead person.

shula's torah

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Another Home

Just called a friend from my work number. We haven't seen each other in a while. He's Australian, but has lived in Los Angeles for years. He picked up, saw the 212 area code, and was like, "You're calling on an American number; are you in America?"

What he actually meant was Are you in New York? There's something deep about this, I think. For Australians, anywhere they are is Australia. And anywhere you're calling from where they can't meet you for a beer in five minutes...that means, you're somewhere else.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Good Wife: Who You Callin’ Extra?

Matthue Roth worked on the set of the new CBS drama The Good Wife as an extra, and blogged about it Friday and Tuesday. The episode, "Unorthodox," is about the Hasidic Jewish community in Chicago. It aired yesterday.

the good wife unorthodox orthodox jews matthue

the good wife unorthodox orthodox jews matthue

the good wife unorthodox orthodox jews matthue

If you who don't know, the main use of extras in film and TV is as background. Our job is to make reality look normal, or at least palatable, and fill it with much the same grouping of people who would otherwise exist on the very same street or park or police station -- only we are specifically hired, instead of gaping at the movie stars or straining to overhear the story, to completely ignore all of it.

So it's not surprising that, when they were originally casting this, they didn't think to call real Hasidim.You don't have to have an intimacy with God or an extensive knowledge of esoteric kabbalistic teachings to be able to walk down the street in a fur hat. As a matter of fact, it's probably better if you don't. A bunch of us were hassled by wardrobe people for having our tzitzit on the side, covered by our coat, instead of sticking out in front like a weird sort of phallic symbol. Authenticity gives people a reason to worry. They want to make things look right, not be right, and rightly so -- they're in the business of visuals. Instead, we give them roadblocks.

And more than a few additional problems.

We were supposed to have a sukkah. It is the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles, and observant Jews don't eat anything outside of a small palm frond-covered booth. Okay, anything is an overstatement. In severe cases, there's dispensation for eating snack food in small amounts. And it has to be certain kinds: only foods that satisfy the most general blessing, which means they basically have to be either completely ground up or chemically based. (Potato chips, for instance, are a question, because they still sort of look like potatoes.**) But that doesn't change the fact that the catering crew is putting out the lunch buffet, and it smells really good. Even when the menus are posted, and they're serving -- wait for it -- barbecue pork loins. It's not offensive. It's just funny.

Rabbi Elli grabs me by the kapote and whisks me out of there. We head to a local bodega, where we secure the most healthy choices we can muster with our restrictions: tortilla chips and hummus. When we return, everyone's looking at us. When we sit at our own table, with the other Hasidim-for-a-day, and start digging into our Garden of Eatin' Sesame Blues, it does nothing to diminish our conspicuousness. We might all be playing Hasidic Jews, but one thing never changes: the more Jewish you are, the more you stick out.

By the end of the day, playing a Hasid has run its course. I'm a little edgy, since people told me the shoot would take half a day, we've been here since 6 am, and it's already 4:30 pm. I told work I'd be in a few hours late. The other actors laugh at me. "'Half a day' means till 5!" they exclaim. "A full day will take you till midnight or one am" Then everyone takes turns telling their nightmare stories -- Elli was once filming in a concrete tube off the river in the middle of winter until 4 am -- and trade fables of Golden Time. Union pay scale provides for time-and-a-half for hours 9-10 in a day; then double-time up to hour 16. After that is something they call "Golden Time" -- for every hour worked past the 16th hour of a day, actors earn an entire day's pay. Possibly the only thing more legendary than getting paid Golden Time is the tradition of telling set stories itself.

For the final scene, the producers bundle all the extras out into the sidewalk. A truck pulls away from the curb; Ms. Margulies and Ms. Panjabi stand in the center of the street, watching meaningfully as it zooms off. I'm again paired with my wife (sans kids, this time), and we take upon ourselves the now-familiar goal of walking down the street and pretending to talk to each other. Now, though, we actually talk. Either I'm getting to be a passable actor, or we have enough shared experience that we can.

She tells me how she started out as a stage actor, got into this area. How she's good at this, how it's kind of become her regular schedule, how being stereotyped is an advantage. (Her agent says she looks "ethnic," which means that she's often called upon to play Jews, Greeks, and Arabs. Recently, she purchased her own burqa and learned to tie it, which means that, like my beard and sidecurls, she's paid $18 extra a day for "authentic attire.")

Last year, she scored the dream of dreams, a recurring role on a TV show that happened to be made by one of my favorite TV writers (Rob Thomas, who did Veronica Mars). The show was canceled, however, and she was back to doing this.

"It's not a bad life," she told me. "I get to stand in front of cameras. I get to be recognized. And sometimes, occasionally, when I get thrown a line or placed in a good spot in front of the camera, I get to really flex my acting muscles. I get to be somebody else."

My first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was the story of a girl who starred on a sitcom about an Orthodox Jewish family. The girl, Hava, was Orthodox herself -- but being Orthodox was one small part of who she was. You'd never tell by looking at her: she was also a punk-rock New York kid who dressed in different outrageous outfits every day. On the sitcom, however, she wasn't playing the sort of Jew that she was; she was just playing a Jew, an everyman sort of stereotypical Jewish girl. For the time that the camera was on her, the rest of her sort of disappeared.

All day, I've been going through the same sort of thing. The pretty and familiar-looking girl who'd been walking down the other side of street all day -- as soon as the last cut was called, she whisked off her wig. Her jet-black wig was replaced by a shock of bright red Manic Panic-ed hair. Her Jewish features now could have been Turkish, or Greek, or Arabic or just straight-up generic American. She was a Jew for the day, and now the day was over.

As I pulled off my hat and coat and pulled on my actual cold-weather puffy coat -- still Hasidic, just a little less obviously so -- I felt the barest shudder of a Hollywood wish. Would Hasidim ever be more than that? Would anyone in television ever be more than a cliché of themselves? Did we even want to be?

The answer is, in some ways, embodied by Archie Panjabi, who plays Margulies's sidekick, the show's investigator. She might be the only Punjabi Sikh actor on prime-time American television. She is smart, sassy, flirty and just a touch mysterious. She doesn't have any trouble manifesting her cultural identity -- by which I mean, it isn't like she's acting white on the show -- but it's more that she is so many other things in addition to that.

Maybe that's why the knee-jerk reaction of Hasidic Jews to seeing Hasidic Jews on television is to be offended. Not because they're stereotyping us, but because they're reducing us. And, just like every Hollywood actor who gets glamorized in every inch of their lives, from their cellulite to their multiple adoptions -- and just like, I suppose, everyone, in their own way -- we just want to be adored.

** -- I'm grossly oversimplifying it, I know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Good Wife, Part II: Hurry Up and Wait

Matthue Roth worked on the set of the new CBS drama The Good Wife as an extra, and first blogged about it Friday. The episode, "Unorthodox," is about the Hasidic Jewish community in Chicago. It airs on Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 10 EDT.

The Good Wife takes place in Chicago -- fictionally, anyway. There are three Hasidic synagogues in Chicago that I can think of, having lived there for a year, but even the mostly-Jewish neighborhood, West Rodgers Park, is scarcely a hotbed of Hasidic culture like they're portraying it today, with dozens of Hasidic families swarming down the streets. And they definitely don't live in the stately downtown brownstones that we're filming in front of today.

It's kind of bizarre, but it's also kind of flattering. I mean, over the course of the day I will listen to Julianna Margulies inquiring again and again about the meaning of an eruv. Up-and-coming actors are dressed in the cultural garb of my people. What's not to like?They bring us out to the street where they're filming. Fake props abound: clip-on payos (for kids and adults), fake beards, strollers packed with plastic kids. It's particularly disorienting to hear a bunch of ten-year-olds, all payos-and-yarmulked up, talking about the Wii games that they want for Christmas. But, in a way, it's kind of nice to not get stared at by everyone on the street for the way I look. Or, at least, that the staring is divided up between me and all the fake Hasidim.

We are told to wait. I know about this part because everyone's told me that this is the cardinal rule of being an extra: "Hurry up and wait." In a fit of nervousness, I asked my token Hollywood-star friend Mayim Bialik for advice before the filming. She starred on a TV show in the '80s, but more recently has recurring roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She told me two things to remember:

1) Expect a lot of waiting (unrelated to your being Hasidic, just that's what it may be like), and
2) Expect to be poorly treated (ditto)

She also told me: "People may ask you random questions, and you are representing all of us, Hasidic and not, so do us proud!"

A production assistant grabbed my shoulder and started steering me down the street. He grouped me with two other Hasidim (the real ones, that is) and told us, when they called action, we were supposed to walk down the street.

I looked down the street. There, for the first time that day, I catch sight of Julianna Margulies. She's standing in front of the crane, inhaling wisps of coffee and talking to the other principal cast member there, Archie Panjabi. The director is telling them about the scene. I edge closer to the curb until I'm able to overhear, a process which causes several other extras to look at me like I'm crazy, but they do this for a living. They're used to it.

I overhear, and the plot for this scene is thus: They are going to climb out of a car. Then Ms. Margulies is going to walk around to Ms. Panjabi's side, and they are going to walk over to the curb together.

the good wife orthodox

There's a tiny moment of disappointment in my chest. I was hoping for big spoilers. Juicy spoilers. Or possibly a moment where Ms. Margulies makes eye contact with me, something passionate and familiar is sighted, and she decides that the show needs a recurring Hasidic character. In this moment, I realize that walking down the street with two other long-coated dudes, as badass as we look, will probably not make that happen.

Not that it matters. That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to represent my people positively, and to look good. "Action!" the PA calls. We fall into step.

This happens two or three times. Then another PA, our original PA, walks up to us, shaking his head. "Something's not right," he announces, finally, after looking each of us up and down. "You. Come here."

He is talking to me.

He takes my coat again, pulls me back down the sidewalk to the other end. There's a young, short woman there who's been doing exactly what we've been doing from the other end, walking down the street pushing a stroller. Three small kids are in tow. "Walk with her," he tells me. "Be a family. Hustle your kids along. You know -- help out the wife."

I actually do have a wife. She's small and Hasidic and dark-haired. I have a daughter, too. I peek inside the carriage. Yep. Plastic. This is not my wife. This is not my child.

But, hey, I am an actor. That's why I got here. Because I can lie so well, I can even fool myself.

Again, someone calls action. We hustle.

One thing I never thought I'd have to do on a film set: babysit.

My new wife and I have four kids -- three real, one plastic. The real kids (the youngest is five, the oldest is eight; improbable, even for a Hasidic family) are pretty clearly not Hasidic. One boy is flicking the other's payos. The girl is trying to reach into the baby carriage without us noticing and turn the baby upside down. "What's your name, sweetie?" asks my ostensible wife. "Charlotte," says the girl, sweet as pop rocks. "Well, Charlotte, sweetie," she says, "please stop messing around with your little baby brother, or else you'll never work in the industry again."

Her lips curl back in a cruel smile. She manages to be elegant, polite, and unflinchingly brutal. She could completely pass as a Hasidic mother. Well, she could if it weren't for the hair and the hat. She introduces herself as Beatrice, and offers her hand -- a telling sign (as if everything else wasn't) that she's only Orthodox for the day.

And now, a note about the clothes: She's wearing her hair short, tucked up under a cloche, which is a '50s-style hat that's become weirdly fashionable in Modern Orthodox communities in recent years, but is next to anathema in most Hasidic circles. All the women are wearing flats (correct) and dark tights (depends which neighborhood you're in, but, okay, potentially correct) and long skirts, which definitely are Hasidic...although there's something unspoken, something intangible about some long skirts that is Hasidic, and something about others that isn't. I can't tell you what it is. Maybe I've been Hasidic so long that I have some sort of Hasid-dar, like when I had a gay roommate and developed really good gaydar? But right now, I am ostensibly surrounded by Hasidim, and it ain't goin' off.

One thing I will say that they got accurate: the kids aren't wearing Hasidic clothes. For some reason, although men are required to wear white shirts and black pants, and women have to have their wrists and nostrils covered, young boys can wear Gap jeans and girls can wear two-inch skirts and spandex everythings. (As a parent, my hypothesis is that kids will ruin clothes as fast as they wear them, so you're better off just getting the cheap stuff.) Similarly, these kids were dressed in their Children's Place best -- except for the fake payos and (real) yarmulkes, you couldn't tell they were Jewish. As a matter of fact, the next time that Beatrice tells the kids to be quiet and pay attention, they're discussing what Halloween costumes they're going to wear.

A costuming person runs up to us in a frenzy, stopping the action just as it's about to be called. "Your rings!" she yelps. She empties a variety of small gold bands into her palm. The PA grins at us wickedly. "Wouldn't do for that baby to be born out of sin," he says, gesturing toward our plastic progeny.

Beatrice chooses a ring swiftly. With me, it's harder. "I'll wear one," I offer. "But married Jewish men don't wear rings."

The costuming person doesn't believe me. I tell her, I'm married -- do you see a ring on my hand? We go back and forth a bit. Eventually, she shrugs it off and leaves.

"Typical," Beatrice says -- gently, but unmistakably critical. "The women get marked, and the men get let off easy."

"That's not true!" I insist. "There are ways to tell if a man's married, too."

"What are they, then?"

I flounder. The 5 a.m. curtain call is catching up with me. Then I recover: "By this coat," I say, remembering for the first time in a while how I'm dressed. "Only married men wear coats like this. There are also special kinds of hats, and socks"--well, okay, stockings, but I don't want to get too (ahem) technical--"and unmarried men don't wear a tallis when they pray…"

We both fall silent. The Hasidic guest stars for the episode arrive on set, and everyone is checking them out.

The woman looks legit. Her clothes are a little frumpy, but manageable; at least, they don't scream I'm a backwater shtetl girl from the 18th century like the Hasidim in Stranger Among Us. She actually looks pretty decent. And pretty, well, pretty. That's another unexpected development, that the Hasidim are young and actually sort of cool-looking. (She's also in a clochet, though.)

The guy, though. He has a three-day beard as if he came from the other half of Williamsburg. His hat would look more appropriate on a snowman. His jacket is buttoned the wrong way on top. He has long curly hair--not long, but much longer than a Hasid would--and his stuck-on sidecurls aren't much longer than the curls of his actual hair.

When the scene cuts, the Hasidic actors crowd together to complain. One of the younger ones is all afire. "He looks ridiculous!" he shrills. "He looks like a moron!" The older actors laugh at his outburst. "It'll never show up," they say. "When people watch on TV, they'll edit it out of their heads."

In Part III: Pork loin for lunch. Never Mind the Goldbergs. And a push for Hollywood's first Hasidic sitcom.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Burying Books

Here's a cool and poignant little short film about going to a genizah, a sort of cemetery for books. A Torah scroll has been damaged in a flood, and the young rabbi of an elderly community packs up his congregation and takes them to the genizah section of their local cemetery. It's a little bit touching and a little funny.

The commentary is simple, but profound: "It doesn't happen a lot, that a Torah has to be buried," to which another child says: "It's good that it doesn't happen a lot!" Death, in general, is really hard to understand. The death of a Torah is sometimes even harder -- if only because we don't really know what to make of it in the first place. We know we're not supposed to touch a Torah or sit down while it's in the air or curse in front of it. But what is the physical object of a Torah? What does it mean?

And the truth is: we don't know. Like anything else death-related, theories and hopes are all we really have. That's why, when I hear rabbis with fluffily empowering sermons or young kids with no background analyzing stuff like this, I listen more closely: because they're probably closer to knowing what's actually going on than I ever will be.

On National Novel Writing Month

Q: National Novel Writing Month is making me wanna hurt myself. I'm trying to do 6 pages a day, but I'm constantly behind and nothing is actually happening at all and I try to use music to time it, like I average 1/3-1/2 a page per song.

The problem with NaNoWriMo, to get my soapbox hottened, is that it's purely homogeneous. It's not made to adjust for anyone who fits outside the norm. Stephen King writes maddeningly fast. Dickens wrote maddeningly slow. James Herriot writes 1 page a day, no matter what else is going on or how inspired he is. What Nano *is* good for is, it gives you a default deadline. If you need to adjust that deadline, hey, no one's stopping you. But at least you have a backup.


Oh, and update on the secret movie update soon, I promise. To keep you in suspense, though, check this out:

(Thanks to Joy for that.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hasid for a Day

(A few weeks ago, I somehow convinced my bosses to let me work as an extra on the set of the new CBS drama The Good Wife for a day. The episode, “Unorthodox,” is about the Hasidic Jewish community in Chicago. It airs on Tuesday, Nov. 10.)

I've protested so frequently about the portrayal of Hasidic Jews in movies and TV that one would probably figure that I should know how to do it correctly. Being one myself, I'm pretty quick to catch the common errors: eating in non-kosher restaurants (Pi), mixed dancing (A Stranger among Us), being in inappropriate situations between men and women (pretty much every movie out there julianna margulies in the good wifethat involves Hasidim in any capacity). In my head, as I've gone through the little suite of everyday movements that make up our life, I've thought several times about how perfect something would be for a movie -- probably due to a healthy amount of egotism combined with a cinematic outlook. Swishing my talis around me before morning prayers would make a great pan! Washing hands from a double-handled cup would look so meaningful in slow motion! Walking down the street with my black overcoat swishing against my calves like a cape is -- well, yeah, that's my fantasy of being a superhero combining with my fantasy of living inside a movie.

The reality of Hasidic Jews on film, from The Chosen to New York, I Love You, is a different story. When we're not represented as shadowy figures crossing streets in the background, we're old, un-English-speaking naïfs with poor posture and weird hair. The weird hair part, we are totally guilty of, but the rest of it is due in large part to the dumbing down of culture to its barest essence -- when it's not straight-out making stuff up.

But nothing quite prepares me for this: Sitting at a bridge table at 5:45 A.M. with a dozen men dressed as Hasidic Jews, discussing the new Quentin Crisp biopic. Or, more specifically: how one of the 70-year-old rabbi-lookin' guys at the table, whose payos are much straighter and more even and perfectly grayed than mine, is telling me about his role cross-examining an actor playing Quentin Crisp in a new film.

The guys at my table have run through the gamut of Hasidim in films. They're like the gods of Hasidic acting -- they've been in A Price above Rubies and A Stranger Among Us. They've been in sitcoms, dramas, and Law & Order. (This, I will learn, is a benchmark among extras* in New York; as my trophy-wife {we'll get there} will tell me later that day: "If you haven't been on Law & Order, you don't really live in New York City.") These guys have stories as long as their fake beards. Of Stranger, one is saying: "We were filming, and one of the real guys says, 'Hold up! That's not how it's really done.' So the director calls cut, everyone stops, and he shows them how to do it. Then they start again, they roll tape, and someone else says, 'Hold up!' And everyone else has their own way to do it.

"Ah," he cackles, leaning back into his seat, "Jews."

And the whole group starts laughing.

Elli Meyer, nicknamed "the king of Broadway" and known in the industry as the go-to person to play Hasidic Jews, very kindly set me up with this gig. His IMDB profile lists nearly fifty credits to his name (in reality, it's much higher) -- mostly as "unnamed rabbi" or "unnamed Hasid," but he's also played a hillbilly, a trucker, and (once, on The Sorpranos) a Muslim cleric. He put out a call for actors on his Facebook profile -- this new television show needs Hasidim!

It was almost like I couldn't say no. So far, being a Hasidic Jew has only gotten me a whole bunch of fast days that I wouldn't have otherwise known existed. I figured, it was about time looking like a crazy-haired freak should start paying off. I emailed him my details, and he emailed me back the info. Starting, I should note, with the 5:45 call time.

The camera crew isn't scheduled to arrive until seven, but makeup and wardrobe have already set up. One of the makeup artists comes over and starts sending people over to the makeshift station, which is really a bunch of mirrors duct-taped to a wall. The other guys are fishing out their sidecurls. They all have pre-made payos, dyed the exact white of their hair, with little clips at the top. Most of them have beard extensions, too.

The younger guys, the professional would-be actors who are here because it's another gig, and maybe because they happen to look Jewish, are being sent away to be outfitted with fake ones from the wardrobe department. I do a double-take when I see the blond underwear-model guy walk past in his skullcap and tzitzis. The makeup guy does a double-take on me and says: "Oh. You've already been."

Coming on Friday: Part 2. Fake kids! Fake cars! And my fake wife!?

* — I’m grossly oversimplifying it, I know.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Because you asked for it...

Like a butterfly, he emerged from his hairstyling cocoon looking fuller, more wholesome, and distinctly devoid of the trappings of post-17th century life.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Paul Rudnick: The Man Who Tells Bette Midler What to Say

There is no better introduction to Paul Rudnick's book of essays, I Shudder, than its subtitle: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey. And there is nowhere that this description is more apt than the first essay: in which Rudnick tells his life story -- a common story, really, of being a writer and moving to the Big City and coming out as a gay man -- through a series of visits, by his mother and her two sisters, of his West Village apartments.

i shudder paul rudnickRudnick has a gift for writing about any situation -- whether facing off against a movie producer high on cocaine or being a Jew doing fieldwork at a convent for a film script (Sister Act) or emigrating from New Jersey to Manhattan -- with good humor and total nonchalance. More remarkably, he shares that sort of easy wisdom with his characters. He doesn't offer a coming-out story so much as an understanding, sometimes silent and sometimes not, and even the darker sides of his new New York neighborhood are treated with a gentle glibness by his aunts: "'S and M,' said Lil, nodding her head. 'That's when people like to have other people beat them up, right? Like on dates?'"

Aunt Lil, the don of the Rudnick aunt mafia, reappears again and again in these stories. When Rudnick finally achieves the Jewish dream of dating a doctor, his Aunt Lil is the judge and jury to whom he must present his new acquisition. The comic tension is insurmountable, of course -- not so much because of the doctor's gender, male, so much as his name, John -- and the ensuing conclusions about his religion.

And then there are the essays that don't dwell on the Jew stuff at all. Reading about the making of the Addams Family film is a bit of gleeful joy that arouses both my sycophantic goth side and my faux-pas-friendly flamboyant side. Reading Bette Midler stories during the writing of Sister Act (she was contracted to star in the film, until the last moment) is pure joy. His series of grumpy-old-man meditations -- well, meditations, fashion tips, and plots to assassinate Rachel Ray -- are a weird series of interstitial fantasies that make the rest of his essays that much more vividly real.

Most compelling of all, however, is "Good Enough to Eat," which, though it's entirely devoid of gastrointestinal jokes, is no less a quintessentially Jewish musing on food than anything you're likely to find on Seinfeld or the humor bank:

An unlikely number of people, and particularly my family, have always been obsessed with my diet. This is because, since I was born, I have never had the slightest interest in eating any sort of meat, fish, poultry, or vegetable. I wasn't the sad-eyed victim of some childhood trauma; I was never frightened by a malevolent tube steak or a rampaging halibut. A greasy-haired stranger never lured me into his van and forced me to stroke an ear of corn while he took photos. I don't have what daytime talk shows and the Healthy Living sections of newspapers call food issues. What I have is a sweet tooth which has spread to all of my other organs. I probably have a sweet appendix.

I've always thought that David Sedaris was Jewish, even when I've been corrected by people much more in the know than I. Paul Rudnick has done more than enough to convince me -- not that Sedaris is Jewish, but that Rudnick is actually David Sedaris. It's good, and so is he.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

B&H Photo: Camera Shopping As a Religious Experience

We love B&H Photo & Video, the only midtown New York store that I actually have fun in that doesn't sell comic books or Legos. It's not just a massive electronics store. It's not just a massive electronics store owned and operated by Hasidic Jews. And it's not just a Hasidic electronics store with bowls of free sour candy all over the place and mysterious, amazing conveyor belts over your heads that move merchandise with seeming lightning speed. It's unearthly. It's unnatural. And yet, it seems to function with all the determination and efficiency of a synagogue service.

b&h photoEvery time I visit the store -- whether it's a 3-hour trip to pick out a new video camera or a quick run-in for some batteries -- I come out with a new story. Sometimes it's as simple as the Satmar Hasid at the checkout counter asking me what I think of the Sleater-Kinney album blasting from my earbuds. Sometimes it's a little more complicated. Other times, I don't even have to go inside the store to get a new B&H story. Here are three of my favorites:

1. Someone stops me on the street. He asks, in bad Hebrew with a bad put-on Israeli accent, "Ayfo B&H" -- Do you know where B&H is? I start to answer -- in my own equally bad Israeli accent -- but then I stop. Something about the lilt of his Hebrew sounds familiar. "Are you Australian?" He is. He's from Sydney. He ends up knowing not just my wife, but her entire family. As a matter of fact, he had lunch at my parents'-in-law's house a few months ago. He apologizes to me for not wearing a yarmulke (I'm not clear on why) and wishing me a good Shabbos. It's Wednesday afternoon. It makes me look forward to Shabbat. It makes me feel good.

2. Someone stops me on the street. He asks me the same question -- in English, this time -- laughing, like he knows it's ironic. I answer, although I'm a little offended at the stereotype. I mean, does every Jew in midtown Manhattan with a beard and sidecurls have to b&h photobe affiliated with B&H? If he stopped to pay attention to the person I am, and not just the way I look, maybe he'd be a bit less stereotypical and bit more astounded. I'm a freakin' Hasidic Jew who writes films, dude! I'm more than my payos! Just because I'm Hasidic, it doesn't mean I know every other Orthodox Jew in New York. Or where they work.

I smile. Graciously, I give him directions. Fifteen minutes later, we bump into each other at B&H, where I'm buying equipment for a new short film. Sigh. Not so ironic.

3. I'm waiting in line for a refund. I thought we needed a .25" microphone cord and we need a .125". When I get to the front of the line, the guy -- a clean-shaven Israeli guy who starts talking to me in Hebrew -- asks me if everything's inside. I tell him it's all there; I didn't even open it. He tells me, more as a by-the-way sort of thing than as criticism, that we all need to be very careful. People in the world distrust Orthodox Jews. They think we're all out to get them. That's why we need to be even nicer than the world, and more polite and more meticulous in all our dealings. Business. Personal. Life.

With that, he finishes scrutinizing the corners of the box -- all undented -- and drops it into the chute that takes it back home. He offers me a candy. In spite of myself, I accept. He smiles, seeing my momentary indulgence. And, as the others around him all chime in to add their two cents to the issue, he counts out one of each flavor candy from the bowl and gives it to me. When I protest, he tells me to give some to strangers. "They need it," he insists.

Later that day, I speak to Frum Satire. Without telling him about it, he tells me about his B&H blog post -- which talks about basically the same thing. And how B&H turns all that around. He asks: "How many instances can you think of when Charedi Jews make a good impression on non-Jews and irreligious Jews on a constant basis? It's unfortunate, but much of the world only has negative experience and rarely see the beauty of the ultra-orthodox community." Not at B&H, though.

4. This is a bonus -- not that it's an experience, just because it's cool. My cousin Mendy works for B&H's customer service phone line. The other day, someone called him Sammy. We asked what was up with that. He told us that (a) half the floor was named Menachem Mendel, and (b) no one can pronounce Menachem anyway.

Monday, October 26, 2009

We Experiment on A.J. Jacobs

I got to interview A.J. Jacobs for MyJewishLearning. I was excited and nervous and trepidatious -- I liked The Year of Living Biblically a lot, although there were more than a few parts that made me wince, and I loved the hell out of his just-released The Guinea Pig Diaries.

But in his writing he comes across as smarmy and self-assured and, well, a bit of a smartass. And I'm not very good at thinking on my feet -- let alone, having to go up against superpowers like you'd suspect Jacobs to have. In his books, he is a comeback machine. He has a zingy one-liner response for everything, and his subjects quiver and crumble against him.

But it turns out that he's hugely nice and polite and good-humored and actually sort of docile. He's the kind of person who tells jokes that you'd find in joke books for kids and really laugh at them. When I started the interview, I actually thought he was from the Midwest. Maybe I'd just seen A Serious Man too recently, but that sort of homeliness and courtesy was unmistakable. Check out the full interview...

A.J. Jacobs is a bit of a gonzo journalist and a little bit of an undercover secret agent -- but, most of all, he is a living, walking experiment. In his first book, The Know-It-All, he read the entire Encyclopædia Britannica from beginning to end. In his follow-up, The Year of Living Biblically, he attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible -- expunging all polyfibrous garments from his wardrobe, not shaving for a year, living inside a tent in his living room for a week (his wife, an enduring spectator and the eternally good-natured Teller to his Penn, was invited to join him inside but chose to sleep in their bedroom instead) and even stoning sinners in Central Park.

guinea pig diaries aj JacobsIn Jacobs' new collection, The Guinea Pig Diaries, he embarks upon a new project every chapter, from outsourcing every aspect of his life to India (including emails, calls from his boss, and sending love letters to his wife) to practicing Radical Honesty, a method of living in which he tells everyone exactly what's on his mind, from his mother-in-law to an attractive editor at Rachel Ray magazine. He even sneaks into the Oscars, impersonating Australian actor Noah Taylor, and becomes a celebrity for a night.

Jacobs is less a guinea pig than a test tube, letting new theories pass through him with nearly no absorption. But he never misses an opportunity for profundity, and he's always ready to learn life lessons from any source, great or small. Sometimes, it feels like he's learning the same lessons every time --that he needs to stop multitasking, stop being shallow, and relearn the simple lessons of being a child. Although it's never explicitly stated, Jacobs' hero could be Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten -- with a side dish of Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps.

The new book doesn't come close to the emotional honesty and rawness of Jacobs' attempt at in vitro fertilization in Biblically or his reconciliation with his father in Know-It-All, there are basic emotional truths in each chapter of Guinea Pig, like the let's-work-together-and-save-the-world moment at the end of a Stephen King book, or a really good rabbi's sermon. It's punchy, funny, constantly self-deprecating but unfailingly optimistic.

We were lucky enough to talk to Jacobs by phone from Denver, where he was preparing for a reading. After the swarthy, self-assured-but-inquisitive tone of his books, I wasn't sure what to expect -- either the snarkiest person alive or the gentlest. To my surprise, the voice that answered the phone was laid-back, chilled out, and not at all what I imagined from already having read about his innermost thoughts. Inadvertently, I blurted out:

MJL: Where are you from?

A.J. Jacobs: I am actually from New York City. I grew up in Manhattan.

Weird! You have such a...I don't know what to call it, a relaxed accent. It's not at all what I expected.

Well, I'm in the middle of my book tour in Denver. Maybe I've adapted a Colorado accent unknowingly!

This new collection kind of feels like a best-of. There's not really a point A that you're starting from, or a point B that you're aiming for, like you had in your first two books.

About half of the pieces come from Esquire, and half are new. One piece I did, the one about pretending to be Noah Taylor at the Academy Awards, I did a tiny version of it in Entertainment Weekly -- which was just a couple hundred words in a box. I sort of built it up into a full story in here.

How did you recreate the experience? Do you keep a journal?

I do keep a journal, and I did keep some notes. So I felt good. It felt like delving back into the aj jacobs beardglory that was being a celebrity. As a matter of fact, it felt good revisiting all these pieces.

Did you feel like you were digging up dirt on your own past?

Actually, no. Most of them were either very recent or they were completely new, so it wasn't like I had to do too much digging.

You say you always keep a little bit of each experiment over the rest of your life. As a Sabbath-observant person, I felt a little bit of myself shrivel up at a lot of people I know, I hoped you were going to keep with it, or that we were somehow different from all your other experiments.

The Biblical experiment changed my life forever in so many profound ways. First of all, we joined a synagogue. We don't really go, but we're members, which is a pretty big step for me. Also, we're sending our kids to Hebrew day school there. I'm okay whether they become observant or non-observant, as long as they're mentsches. At first, I thought it would be nice to send them there. Now they know more Hebrew than I do.

One of the biggest ways it affected me was in blessings, where the Bible says to bless everything you eat. It changed my whole attitude toward gratitude. During my year, I was saying all these blessings of thanksgiving, and I kind of got carried away, as the Bible tells us to do. I was saying thanks for every little thing in my life. Over the course of our day, we tend to ignore all the things we have that go right. Instead, we focus on the three or four that go wrong, and this has kind of taught me not to overlook those things.

And the same for many of the experiments in the new book, they've changed me for good as well.

Did any of the new experiments activate something in you that you don't like?

Maybe the celebrity-for-a-night experiment. I was getting so many compliments, and people telling me how great I was, that my ego started to balloon out of control, even though I knew deep down that I wasn't a famous celebrity. I got a taste of how these celebrities become egotistical maniacs. Afterward, I remember waiting in line at a restaurant, thinking, "Don't these people know who I am?"

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Noah Was a Survivor

Of all the gigs I've ever had, this had to be the most extreme. And I wasn't even there.

noah graffiti

To celebrate reading the story of Noah in the Torah, Amsterdam Jewish Salon had a cruise. And they showed the Noah G-dcast, which I {humbly} narrated.

amsterdam noah cruise

You might think it's heretical to take a leisurely cruise in order to honor the sole survivor of a catastrophic event that, well, annihilated the rest of the world. I might disagree with you. I grew not far from the ocean. My parents carried on the ancient Jewish tradition of taking us to Atlantic City for weekends during the summer. When I lived on my own, I moved to San Francisco, and stopped at the ocean every week before Shabbos.

I love watching the ocean. And I'm scared to death of it. It's the most tangible part of God that we can get close to: it's bigger than any human eye can fathom, shapeless, and deadly. I think I've read somewhere that humans have explored less than 10% of the total mass of the ocean. If there's undeniable proof of the Flood, or any other mysteries of creation/the Big Bang/early Earth history, it's probably lurking somewhere down deep, protected by some fearsome sea creatures bigger than dinosaurs.

Or maybe there's nothing...and that just makes the mystery that much more mysterious.

Either way, the ocean is huge. It's big and it's bad. There's a reason that nearly every sea shanty ends in tragedy, the same as every life ends in death. Noah's not just the story of some dude and his boat. It's the story of the sole survivor of a global tragedy, and -- although my G-dcast implies that he wasn't the best person in the world -- tragedies transform people. The same way Holocaust survivors and military veterans have some unspoken piece of wisdom that the rest of us will never be able to understand, that's what Noah has. And that, much as God and the depths of the ocean itself, is un-understandable.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free Losers, and Stories for Drunk Baseball Fans

First of all: I'm doing a special deal thing. Order Candy in Action from me, and get a free copy of Losers along with it.

And here's a great reason why. The folks at Stanton Park Review have kindly reviewed Losers. It was pretty awesome of them to do so. The site was inspired by Chuck Palahniuk -- specifically, the idea that "What people consider to be good books are the ones that comfort and lull us to sleep. No, drunk baseball fans don’t want to hear about a kid dying of cancer but if you read them a story about consensual fighting or about waiters pissing in soup or about a guy being gutted in a swimming pool, those baseball fans, they will shut up and listen. Given the right stories, those drunk guys, they will really love books."

So, yeah. I'm pretty proud to be included.

Check it:

Matthue Roth's Losers is a fun read from start to finish. The main character, Jupiter Glazer, is a Russian immigrant who is trying to negotiate the pit falls of his first year in high school. Aside from the normal social awkwardness of high school, Jupiter has to deal with a bully named Bates who is determined to turn him into a human pancake.

keep reading

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Circles" Live with Mista Cookie Jar

I was going to wait till Monday morning to post this, and get the maximum traffic or whatever, but me waiting that long is just not gonna happen.

Mista Cookie Jar just got YouTubetry of some live versions of new songs -- including "Circles," one of the songs I co-wrote for his Love Bubble album, which you can purchase right now for not a lot of money. But, relax. First, just enjoy the songs.

Here's "Magic World," which I didn't write but has CJ workin' it and kids going crazy.

And, now, "Circles."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

For Every Phoenix Born, Another Tastes Dust

Rain in New York is never pretty, except when you're inside.

Last night they put Murphy to sleep. Murphy was my best friend's cat. His mother said it was like losing another part of Mike. One of the reasons I think cats are creepy is that they don't always recognize you -- or, at least, they don't always act like they do. After Mike died, every time I saw Murphy, he'd slink across the room like he was avoiding me. I wanted to tell him, it's ok, we're suffering together. He just wanted to suffer alone. Basically the same way I was with everyone else.

Mike's parents are going to have pawprints made and put them next to his grave. I said it sounded nice, in a Coptic Egyptian sort of way. I got off the phone and put on Velocity Girl, his favorite band, loud. Itta was cooking. She couldn't hear the volume. Yalta started to dance, so I did, too, but only because I didn't want her to stop.

Just found out that one of my closest friends had a baby. Two weeks ago. I don't blame them for it; I can totally understand the need to hibernate. But, especially with the wicked weather and the way the cold has been slowly making its play, I'm starting to remember just how easy it is to fall out of touch with people. Here's my resolution for the season: I will not forget the rest of the world. I won't.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Last to First

So...Simchas Torah. Lately, it's become famous for being the #2 Jewish drinking holiday, but my past few Simchas Torahs have all been pretty clean events -- festive and debaucherous in that wholesome way where we jump around with the Torah and sweat up our thrift-store suits until we've soo earned every penny of that $15 dry-cleaning visit.

And it's not just me, I don't think. People have been raving about G-dcast in a way that makes me blush like they're saying how good I look, and it's all positive and gung-ho in a way that appeals to 5-year-olds. And David's post about the new Moses movie probably will owe more to 300 than Charlton Heston...but making an action movie about the Torah is as close as Hollywood will probably ever come to a studying-books-can-be-cool movie as we'll get.

This year, I went to San Francisco. I'd somehow managed to convince my ex-boss, David Levithan (who wrote the awesome Boy Meets Boy, as well as the so-indie-its-jeans-hurt Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), to narrate for us. So we did V'Zot Habracha with a bang.

Then, of course -- because some good things don't have to come to an end -- we did our real conclusion episode, and did Bereshit again. (There was a whole huge concert, and Elana Jagoda performed her alterna-folk-dancey children's anthems, and Julie Seltzer talked about being a soferet, but mostly talked about her project baking a different challah for every parsha in the Torah, and we all just generally rocked out.)

And then the lights dimmed, and we rewound the Torah, and showed our final episode.

Anyway, some good things do come to an end -- and this was the end of the line for G-dcast. Or, at least, G-dcast as it exists now. We've got some wild stuff in the pipeline, and some even wilder stuff that might happen, but we're leaving you to jump into the Good Book on your own. (And it's definitely not the end of my involvement with Torah -- I'll probably have a new blog about how I got caught in a typhoon next week for Parshat Noah -- but for now, this is G-dcast signing out.

Crossposted on Jewschool

Friday, October 2, 2009

Buying an Etrog in Brooklyn

What do you look for in an etrog? It was hard to top last year, but we had to try. Heshy Fried and I went on a fact-finding mission in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn to investigate.

Here's what we discovered:

(By the way: The dude with the amazing etrog at the end is Yossi Keller, who might know more about etrogim than any other human being alive. He runs the etrog shop in the abandoned matzah bakery on Empire Blvd. and Albany Ave. in Crown Heights, and you should check him out.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sukkot on the Run

One thing I've always wondered about the holiday of Sukkot: If the makeshift tabernacles that we're commanded to erect are supposed to function as our houses, then why do we spend so much damn time in them?

Let's review. We're commanded to go into the sukkah any time we want to eat. When we sleep. When we hang out with our friends. You know -- all the stuff that, normally, would be done at home, we do in a sukkah. Basically, for one week of our lives, we run a 24-hour marathon between our normal lives and our little palm-covered huts.

sukkot on the run

However, here are the most frequent locations where those actions take place for me:

Eating: At my desk at work, and/or walking down the street.
Sleeping: Subway, riding home from work.
Hanging out: Gmail's little chat windows.

To be fair, I could definitely accomplish the last one while inside a sukkah. But the others? Not so house-intensive, for the rest of the year. Last year, I was so busy that, instead of trekking to have my lunch at the beautiful (but impractical) West Side Synagogue all the way on 9th Avenue, I just didn't eat.

This year, I'm going to try to do it different. In our prayers, Sukkot is called "zman simchatenu," which translates to "the time of our rejoicing (or, if you're feeling literal, "happy time"). In the times of the Temple, everyone traveled to Jerusalem to bring their harvest offerings.

It really was a vacation time -- or, at least, it was as close to a vacation as the Children of Israel got in those days. Even though there are five work-days crammed right in the middle of Sukkot between the first days and Shemini Atzeret, it's not supposed to be a return to our dreary business of working and running and not-eating-until-9-p.m. -- it's God demanding that, even when we return to our between-holidays lives, we bring a little bit of the holiday with us. And if I have to take a little bit longer to run out to the sukkah and get back, and put my mind in a different mental space just as I put my body in a different physical space...well, that's putting the "moed" in "hol hamoed," I guess.

(Note to bosses: I'm not actually going to take a two-hour lunch, I promise. Er...every day.)

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