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Monday, March 30, 2009

Vegetarians and Passover

If you're a Jewish vegetarian, Passover can be really a really trying time, health-wise. All of a sudden, you've got a lot fewer sources of protein, both from wheat products and, for those Ashkenazic vegetarians in the audience, beans and legumes.

From KatiBlack, one of the followers on MJL's Twitter feed, I got a link for's vegan and vegetarian Passover recipes. A lot of us are going to need this in the next few weeks -- not just those vegans and vegetarians among us, but also anyone who gets sick of matzo brei and brisket after about 2 meals, and then realizes that we have seven and a half days left of Passover.

vegetable matzah brieIn some ways, the above link is really great. There's traditional food, some modern twists, and a bit of variety. But VegCooking's Passover reads like a menu consisting entirely of side orders, not meant to fill up anyone whose stomach is bigger than their fist -- and it falls way short in the health arena. (The site, made by PETA, really should take itself more seriously, especially with an advertising budget as big as theirs.) VegCooking also doesn't talk about what to do instead of a shankbone on the seder plate. Fortunately, however, we've got a solution for you.

VegCooking's failings made me wonder what alternatives were out there. Recipezaar has some cool recipes -- especially half-sour pickles -- but you can tell it's not a site made by people who know about kosher cooking. For one thing, it has a bunch of stuff that isn't universally kosher for Passover, and nowhere does it warn that, for instance, no Ashkenazic Jew would ever eat lentils on Passover.

If you are Sephardic, however, you've got to check out I've never done Passover this way, but the recipes look amazing, and a bunch of my Sephardic Facebook friends swear by her.

One of the best resources (and with some great writing) are the brief-but-thorough entries on The Chocolate Lady's blog, which goes through an encyclopedic list of vegetables and other foods, and includes some bonus recipes. (Plantains! Plantain chips! Now this is a Passover to dream about.)

Back to nutrition, though. "It's all about almonds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds," says Sarah Chandler, a practicing vegan and the webmaster of JewSchool. Pumpkin seeds especially -- they have amazing stores of iron and protein. (Here's a complete chart, just in case you're wondering.) But vegetables are also a good source of protein -- "Even one cup of broccoli has a good deal of protein in it," notes Chandler.

Other good, solid bets for Passover food include:

  • Plantains! Plantains look like bananas, although they sometimes look spoiled or bruised. They're not! That's just how plantains grow. Take it as a warning not to eat them raw -- they're starchy and thick, and they taste like biting into thick dough. Fried, however, they're bloody amazing. You can make them sweet (cinnamon, nutmeg) or savory (salt, pepper, paprika) and it's like two entirely different foods. You know that amazing smell that always hits you walking past Latin American restaurants? A lot of that comes from plantains.

  • Wheatgrass! OK, I'm not a big wheatgrass fan. It's not actually made of wheat (it's not exactly grass, either, though the similarity is disturbing), and therefore, it's 100% kosher for Passover.

  • Quinoa! is a great underused food, not just for Passover (and not just for vegetarians) but for pretty much everyone, all the time. It feels like couscous, tastes like whatever you spice it with (it's really good at absorbing flavor) -- but it's actually a tuber, a distant cousin of the potato. (It's also loaded with vitamins and protein.) It comes from South America, so no ancient rabbis ever thought to outlaw it. Today, there's a big question among observant Jews about whether or not quinoa's allowed on Passover, but Rabbi Avrohom Blumenkrantz, who basically wrote the rulebook on Passover food, says that it's impossible to forbid it outright -- and that many people have a custom of not eating quinoa just because it's so weird, but for vegetarians and anyone else who's conscious of their health, you not only can eat it, but you should eat it.

tomato soupMy personal favorite technique for Passover is to make normal food. Uh, whut? Pretend it's not Passover -- just cook without wheat or grain. A really good tomato soup (basil! leeks!) is an awesome meal that's totally kosher for Passover as long as you don't remind yourself; MJL's beet and potato frittata was made to be a light and fluffy post-Yom Kippur fast meal, but light & fluffy is exactly on the menu for someone who's just made it through two seders.

And, if you needed a reason to go vegetarian, this supplies it: In the midst of my complaining about VegCooking, I found a tiny link that sent me to a tiny 3-minute documentary that shows the horrors that went on at Rubashkin's. I know it's old -- but I'd never actually seen the footage before, of a kashrut inspector cutting open a cow and then someone right behind him yanking out the cow's trachea. And now I think I'm more freaked than ever.

Birkat Hachamah: The Untold Dangers and Sinister Pratfalls

On Tuesday, April 8, we celebrate Birkat Hahama, the Blessing over the Sun. It's observed once every 28 years, when the sun reaches the exact location that it did when it was created.

Jews actually also recite a Blessing over the Moon, too. This occurs at night, of course, and it happens once every month -- and, for that reason, is not nearly as interesting and obscure and cool-sounding.

There might be another reason that we only celebrate Birkat Hahama once a generation, however. Check out the beginning of this article, wherein one rabbi is arrested by brave Policeman Foley -- in Tompkins Square Park, one of New York's punk-rock meccas, no less! -- and another, that tricky Rabbi Klein, flees the scene.

Birkat Hachamah, the untold story

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Candy gets covered

The open mic last night was insanely, smashably hit. The place was packed, both with performers and audience -- and we even had an open mic virgin come up at the end and ask if he could perform a song, which is how you know you're being inspiring. Danny Raphael, who's usually an M.C. of the highest order, was like "there's no mic? I don't mind" and blasted into an a capella set, over the course of which I didn't even miss the music. And then these wacky un-yeshiva boys came with their guitars and made a little soundtrack of their own. Yeah -- it was a good night. And I could actually eat the food, since it was kosher (and vegan!), which is always a nice change.

And I got an amazing note from Adam Luckwaldt, significant beau of last month's feature, who's wringing his own inner muse by the neck and making a comic a day. He'd read Candy in Action, listened to the soundtrack, and covered one of the songs (the one by Postal, Odin Smith, and me -- literally turned it into a comic.

Yay art. Yay collaboration. And yay -- continually -- Maurice Sendak.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Make my heart sing.

Q: What does it take to make me burst into tears at work?

A: The trailer for Where the Wild Things Are.

I could be critical. I could start second-guessing what the rest of the movie is going to be like, and whether the Wild Things will have the same voices that they did in my head as a child (they won't) or that I give them when I read out loud to my daughter (probably not). Somewhere in my head right now, I'm thinking about it from the perspective of Maurice Sendak, and whether he would have expected the film version to be anything like his book (no) and whether he would be happy anyway (I really, really believe yes).

But at this very moment in time, I don't care. I just want to run out of here and not stop till I get to the ocean.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Open Mic - A Cry for Help

After much confusion and venue-switching, tomorrow night's Open Mic is safe -- we're doing it at Sacred Chow in the West Village, right near Washington Square Park. Free, of course, and the best kosher sangrias in New York City (and otherworldly food, too). And the estimable Danny Raphael as a feature, just in from London...tomorrow at 7:30. Please, spread the word.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Oh, Excellent.

At the out-of-control and totally uncouth forty-author-signing yesterday at Books of Wonder, it seemed like everyone had a story -- the people who hadn't written books most of all. There was the woman who gave me the MMORPG-type business card and told me that her just-finished novel was like a girl version of the Goonies -- total booklust on that front. And Michael Northrop, who was lurking like a fan, even though his first book is coming out in 2 weeks, and it's going to be bigger than Twilight. And then the awesome punk-rock girl who stormed up to me to announce that she went to an Orthodox day school and we probably had the same history -- and I was like, no, I just wish I had your history. (Which I actually don't. I'm pretty alright having gone to a school which has been fictionalized as North Shore High, and became religious when I did -- but it still would've been fun, I think.

And then there's Hayley Anne Perkins, who was walking around with a beautiful oversized dictionary yesterday (American Heritage, I think) and asking everyone to sign on their favorite word. She very courteously listed them on her site, right after a poem called "Ned Vizzini Stole My Pen" -- but here are a few of my favorites:

CRASH - Blake Nelson
BONVIVANT - Micol Ostow
SNEAK - Lisa Ann Sandell
SLUICE - Adrienne Maria Vrettos

Adrienne replied "oh, sluice!" after not even a second's pause, as if it was the most matter-of-fact thing that could ever occur to anyone. Because every time you say it, it sounds like you're pronouncing it wrong. Go check out the whole unexpurgated list, though -- if only to read that fun poem.

Sometimes Even I Write about Meat

This week on G-dcast: how to grill an animal in the Temple.

Rachel Kohl Finegold, the exemplary ritual director of our old synagogue in Chicago, was totally great about jumping in to launch this episode. As a matter of fact, she (shomer-negiah) strongarmed me at Alan and Miriam's wedding and was like "what's the G-dcast emergency, huh? How many weeks do I have to do this?" We hadn't found anyone for Vayikra. She and her husband, Rebbetzin Avi, started pelting me with pitches right then and there. Usually, it takes us *weeks* to get to pitch level.

But: boom.

(and i know which lines you will probably think come straight from me and my wacky radical vegetarian-separatist mentality. well, you're WRONG. and, may i point out that rachel is a proud meat-eater....?)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rupert Murdoch Dreams

Last night, I had dinner with Ronald Lauder and some other folks who tackled a lot of different political, philosophical, and theological questions -- most of which can be summed up pretty simply: Why does everyone hate Israel?

And then this morning, I woke up to Rupert Murdoch saying the same thing:

"I am curious: Why do we never hear calls for Hamas leaders to be charged with war crimes? ... Whether Israel is ever found guilty of any war crime hardly matters. Hamas gets a propaganda win simply by having the charge made often and loudly enough."

rupert murdochWeirdly, his editorial in the Jerusalem Post takes a bit of a stand-uppy beginning -- "Let me set the record straight: I live in New York. I have a wife who craves Chinese food. And people I trust tell me I practically invented the word 'chutzpah'" -- and then segues directly, and intelligently, into an impassioned and fairly creative analysis of Israel's (failed) PR battle. He reiterates several points -- "If you are committed to Israel's destruction, and if you believe that dead Palestinians help you score a propaganda victory, you do things like launch rockets from a Palestinian schoolyard. This ensures that when the Israelis do respond, it will likely lead to the death of an innocent Palestinian - no matter how many precautions Israeli soldiers take" -- but this editorial succeeds so profoundly because of two things:

1. These are facts that, in the past, have primarily been said by Israeli strategists to other Israeli strategists, like shipwreck victims screaming into the wind.
2. It's Rupert Murdoch saying it. Dammit, he's Australian. People listen to him.

The International Herald-Tribune also featured a prominent article on Israeli rebranding -- or it was touted that way, anyway. The text actually ended up spending most of the article talking about Avigdor Lieberman, the allegedly racist head of the Israel Beitenu party (and prospective appointee to be foreign minister) before turning to these sage words -- which have some pretty hot "duh" action, and which most of us could probably recite in our sleep:

"When we show Sderot, others also see Gaza," said Ido Aharoni, head of a rebranding team at the Foreign Ministry. "Everything is twinned when seen through the conflict. The country needs to position itself as an attractive personality, to make outsiders see it in all its reality. Instead, we are focusing on crisis management. And that is never going to get us where we need to go over the long term."

What will work for the long term? G*d knows, probably not Rupert Murdoch. But he's headed in the right direction, at least.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yiddish 2.0

It's weird and somewhat scary to realize that you can put a cap on the number of Yiddish books ever published -- and, by most reckonings (for the secular world, anyway), the number of Yiddish books that will ever be published. But that's exactly what the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library says in its introductory statement: "Over ten thousand Yiddish texts, estimated as over 1/2 of all the published works in Yiddish, are now online" -- and the implicit notion is, there aren't going to be that many more Yiddish works published.

der purim-berThis by no means diminishes the excellent, massive, and spotlessly-presented Yiddish library on, which came online a few weeks ago -- one of the most unbelievably selfless and thorough nonprofits on the Web. They've been collating every single website since 1996 and keeping track of them (so, if you ever wanted to see your first-ever freshman-year I-just-learned-HTML site, you can), and they also have a massive Live Music Archive with tens of thousands of concerts.

In a way, perusing their archive feels kind of like looking at a time-capsule after the end of the world: It's a perfect fossil record of the Web at any point in time. Michael Chabon, while talking about the impetus to write his Yiddish Policemen's Union, spoke of finding a Yiddish travel phrasebook with translations like "How much is a ticket to Lublin?" and instructions for ordering in a key to a lost world. If the world was no more, and all that remained were the echoes of the Internet bouncing off distant quasars (I know that isn't how it really works), would be the container with every nuanced bit of what we are contained inside, from badly-scrawled blogs to even worse-scrawled CNN and MSNBC reports, and all the beauty that they contain.

der purim-berThe Spielberg Archive is kind of like that, only using Yiddish books instead of websites. Der Purim-Ber is a children's book, as far as I can tell, narrated by the bear itself. A Shṭeṭele in Poyln is a travelogue of the author's trip to his hometown of Ciechanowiec -- which, like Chabon's idea, no longer exists.

This, of course, doesn't include the hundreds of new Yiddish books being published every year, almost exclusively by religious Yiddish publishers, for the Haredi of which my daughter is currently chewing on at this very moment. I don't speak Yiddish, but we can both read it. It's kind of the exact opposite of this archive -- I certainly didn't grow up with this language, but in the place where I live now, it's almost certain that she'll learn it in school, and it will almost undoubtedly come in handy at some point.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Free Music, Filipinos, and (how) Jews (look)

Hey, remember our video? The one about how Jews look? The theme song was composed by my very good friend, the astute and fearless C.J. Pizarro -- and, by the way, you can download the mp3 for free or download the whole album, Snow Crabs, if you like.

matthue roth & c.j. pizarro of chibi visionC.J. is (gasp!) not Jewish. He is, unrelatedly, Filipino -- and together, he and I are in a science-fiction hip-hop band, Chibi Vision, which we used to refer to as an Orthodox Jewish-Filipino cross-cultural multi-platform geek project -- or, to save breath, the "Jew-o-pino team-o."

Anyway: the other day, I received an email from him, sounding as astounded as it is possible for an email to sound. "I found our love child!" he wrote.

The love child in question: Eliyahu Enriquez, a Jewish Filipino poet, publisher, cultural theorist and active Twitterer. After receiving Honorable Mention in Lincoln Center's Robert Nettleton/Ully Hirsh Poetry Prize, he's released several poetry chapbooks, and is currently working on a collection of piyyutim. I've been blasting madly through his stuff, and you should, too. Equal parts irreverent and reverent, his poems are random and play off a big-muscled veneer of stream-of-consciousness, but actually connect and make sense in ways that are both cerebral and factual.

A lifetime of lesion has brought us
Back together in Balikbayan coffins.
His memory is erection.
Forget forgiveness.
Navigate our leather
Phylacteries and arteries.
Toda Rabba for traveling
Cosmos de Vie.
So long,
Galut Graveyard!

That was R.S.V.P. He's grinning in one corner of his mouth and keeping the other corner totally solemn. In "Akhdut," though, he's formal, sentimental, although, curiously, playing it just as cool:

I attended two funerals today
I did not bother to bring an umbrella
Or flower
Or Bible
Or date
A few others did
A few


Me and Robert Pinsky down by the Schoolyard

On the heels of this bizarre viral video from the 92Y, JBooks, needing a big kick in the donations bucket, asked former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky -- who, apparently, is both a fan of poetry and a fan of JBooks -- to help them promote their site. Pinsky hails from the classical tradition, but has both an excellent sense of irony and exquisite comic timing (as evidenced on his Colbert Report appearance).

I could act all swaggery and say that's the reason I'm there, too. It's not -- I'm just a kid who writes books who got asked to talk about Losers, which is just a loosely autobiographical book anyway, except that, in the book, I say and do everything that I'm too inhibited or embarrassed or just straight-up dorky to do in real life.

But asking to talk about yourself is a pretty cool feeling. It's kind of the opposite of a blog, where you're asking other people to listen to you talk about yourself. Here, I kind of excoriate the fabulous Nathan Englander for writing Orthodoxsploitation, and talk about how I there need to be more books in the world that make you feel good about being a geek.

I don't know if Mr. Pinsky would self-label as a geek, but I certainly would label him as one. Purely, purely as a compliment.

A few years ago, I had a bright future as a Young Orthodox Novelist—surely you know the type. A little bit disgruntled, a little bit smarmy; a bit of an idealist, a bit of an exhibitionist. If Nathan Englander and Shalom Auslander were the literary world's reaction to Orthodoxy, then I was the reaction to them. I was a punk-rock kid who'd grown up as a Saturday-morning Jew, going to Hebrew School at my Conservative synagogue when I couldn't get out of it, and sick of the half-baked theories of God that were Xeroxed through three generations of crappy old textbooks. That's the way Judaism felt to me—like a smudgy third-generation bootleg of something that, to my great-great-grandparents, was crystal clear. Whatever that crystal-clearness actually was, I imagined it was God.

I'd almost been born disenchanted. I was disenchanted with leading a secular lifestyle, sick of the hypocrisy of going to synagogue Saturday mornings and then baseball games Saturday afternoon, and of all of that coming to a dead halt after my bar mitzvah. Like Hella Winston's book Unchosen, I was sick of Jewish culture. Only, I was sick of the other Jewish culture, the secular American kind. I wanted something legitimate. I wanted something real.


Monday, March 16, 2009

What Makes You Happy

Hand-written scrawl on a bright orange piece of photocopy paper hanging on the street in Crown Heights:



For all my misgivings about living in the seat of religious Brooklyn, there are things which make me happy. Wildly happy. For all the weird and sometimes uncomfortable social things that happen -- I grew up secular, and yes, I still sometimes extend my hand to shake when meeting women (some of them in my family-in-law -- double ug), I will never tire or de-inspire of seeing these simple, devotion-motivated, joy-inflicted singularly happy testaments to God. Like remembering the commandment that we're supposed to be happy for all of Adar.

So, full disclosure: Yesterday, I danced with my daughter and invited a friend over for sushi when I ran into him in the street and watched the Muppet Show before bed. What can I do to top that today? I'd love to go to the NYC Teen Author Festival, but my #1 contender makes me sound like a total loser: get to bed early.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Punk Rock Parsha

While Googling for Torah texts, the last thing you expect to pop up is the kinetic face of your new favorite band. But Patrick A., the lead singer of Atlanta-based Can Can, just started posting his thoughts on the weekly Torah portion on YouTube -- starting last week with Tetzaveh, and onto this week's confrontation of the Golden Calf.

In Patrick's reading, the Children of Israel emerge from the sin of the Calf with a valuable lesson learned -- a lesson in the importance of avoiding groupthink and learning to think independently. In short, he says, the Torah teaches that individuality and nonconformity is the only way to go, and especially the only way to form a meaningful relationship with God -- which, to me at least, seems like the most punk-rock thing of all.

Shalach Mones Madness

Someone driving through our part of Brooklyn honked at Itta and I, waving us over from the sidewalk. "What's going on?" she said. "Is this a bank robbery, or is it some kind of Jewish holiday?"

It was a fair question, considering we were standing next to a seven-foot-tall in all black clothes and a Mexican wrestler mask. mexican wrestler maskThis was my first Purim in a Hasidic neighborhood, and it was literally swarming with people: pre-tween geishas hammered on our neighbor's door. A woman in full turquoise burqa walked down the street next to a man in a streimel and those tight white stockings. People ran everywhere, literally throwing candy at each other at times, and squeezing chocolate bars into people's mail slots at others. "This is like Halloween, but the way Jews celebrate it," Itta pointed out. "By giving people candy instead of demanding it."

shalach mones by itta rothI've always been a Halloween-positive boy myself, but yesterday, I had to agree: it was pretty much a madhouse of goodwill and thanksgiving. We made thirty-two of our shalach mones packages, and by the day's end we were down to three. (Frum Satire and his friend, paying us a surprise visit, knocked it down to one.) All told, 'twas better to give than to receive, and it was a mad amount of fun as well.

But, because it's not bad to receive as well, here are my shalach manot highlights of the year:

  • A family friend's house had do-it-yourself shalach manot -- there were a row of boxes, both new things and (packaged) food traded in from other shalach moneses earlier that day. "So you guys would like, what, nice chocolate?" she asked, ready to drop in a big old bar that was fancy and Swiss. "No way," I said. It's true -- we're not chocolate people. "Your wife wouldn't like that?" she said. "What should I give her..." she rumbled through the box, pulling out a tin and making a face -- "sardines?" "Actually," I said, "she loves sardines." (Don't worry -- they also gave us two pineapples.)

  • Somewhere along the line (post-Shushan, pre-me becoming observant) a custom started that, ideally, you should give two different kinds of food -- that is, for which you should say two different kinds of blessings -- for Purim. We couldn't find the source for this anywhere, and this year, my in-laws gave wurst and vodka. 40% alcohol, 110% Russian.

  • Berwin, the aforementioned Mexican wrestler, handed us a bodega-bag with a really nice bottle of wine and a three-pound box of granola. I don't understand it, either.

  • Matisyahu and his family gave out falafel, hummus, and vegetables in reusable enviro-plastic containers, along with a plea to keep the Purim-related waste to a minimum -- which was both good advice, and necessary.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Saturday Morning Watchmen

Oh, NOES. Coming slightly behind the Watchmen Babies on The Simpsons is this -- a funked-out '80s recreation of the Minutemen. I love the nod to Scooby-Doo cartoons, but the nod to Jem is what you'll need to rewind and watch in slow motion to catch.

O, Monday.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Jewish Divorce: What You Need to Know

Among the religious community, there's a huge problem of agunot -- that is, women who want a divorce from their husbands, frequently because of abuse or other severe problems, and whose husbands refuse to grant the divorce. Because a Jewish legal stipulation puts divorce solely in the husband's court -- a safeguard from when husbands were required to provide food, money and shelter for their wives, whether or not they were still "together" -- it's become a huge problem in recent times, when to be spiteful, malicious, or merely because of indifference, some men will divorce their wives, sometimes even dating or remarrying, without granting their wife a get.


Among the religious community, there are also a number of insanely heroic people who have made it their life's work to stop these miserable excuses for people. At the forefront of this battle is Mavoi Satum, whose former president, Inbal Freund, is also a gifted writer and performance poet.

She and artist Chari Pere (whose work, btw, you'll be seeing on MJL pretty soon) went to visit one of Mavoi Satum's clients, spent two hours interviewing her and listening to her story, and developed this three-page comic. Pass it around. Spread it everywhere. And let people know that prenuptial agreements aren't just for Donald Trump and his prospective ex-wives -- they're for anyone who wants to avoid years and possibly decades of heartache, legal battles, and trauma for kids that you haven't even conceived of yet.

agunot, or mevaseret get

Go here to read the comic, or here to download a printable PDF.

Monday, March 2, 2009

How Jews Look

A while ago, I got an email from some chick saying asking if I could talk about about being shomer negiah. Yes, it sounds totally sketchy, but Judy Prays was a filmmaker and making a documentary, and you all know how much I like to talk. So, in that context, it was less sketchy -- not much less, but less.

When I started working at MyJewishLearning, one of my first gigs was to start producing short films. I called in the heavy artillery -- by which I mean, Judy -- and we set to work on creating a sort of anti-how-to series.

By which I mean, instead of showing how people should do things, we showed how Jews actually do do them.

The first one premieres today! Check it out:

And this all comes just in time for this week's Torah portion: It's all about the clothes of the High Priest! Whoo, mysterious.

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