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Sunday, May 31, 2009

G-dcast: How to Tell if Your Girlfriend Is Cheating

Inbal Freund is one of the most incredible human beings I know. She's the former director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that stops men from refusing their wives divorces in Israel. She scripted (with Chari Pere) a (masterful, brilliant) short comic about the agunah situation called Unmasked, which explains her life work in more vivid emotion than I can hit you with. (Ouch. Sorry. Bad use of the colloquial...)

And this week, she takes on the Torah.

Inbal is fiercely Orthodox, and fiercely feminist, and she's also just plain fierce. This was probably the single parsha that we were most nervous to do. Even now, when I watch it, I get a feeling at certain points like I was punched in the gut -- it's pretty intense. No one comes off 100% pure: not the wife, not the husband, not the priest, not even G*d.

It's things like this that remind me that I'm Orthodox, and that keep me Orthodox. If Judaism was simple, and I agreed with every little bit of it, I could just say "amen" and keep moving, comfortable with the role of religion in my life. If I was secular, or not Orthodox, I could just resign this to one of those parts of Judaism that I don't agree with -- or that's old or outdated or misogynistic or just straight-up lame -- and move on to something cool, like strawberry cheesecake or listening to Y-Love.

But I'm not. Even after watching Naso, I'm perturbed -- so, what, this dude thought his wife was cheating on her and sold her out to the rest of the tribe? He threw her in front of a priest, who uncovered her hair (which, to a married Orthodox woman, is like ripping off all her clothes in public)? How is that just on anyone's behalf?

Relationships are passionate. (Unless they are boring, and you're comfortable and uninspired by each other, in which case a break-up is probably looming in the distance.) Some couples fight like hell, and some couples love each other with every bit as much passion. A dude has to be a real self-centered douche to accuse his wife publicly of one of the most heinous private sins...and a woman has to be the most forgiving person in the world to stick with him after that. It's true -- whether you're in a relationship or you aren't -- people never understand how other people's relationships work. Compared to this procedure, getting divorced is probably the easiest thing in the world. But if a couple really wants to get this thing resolved, I suppose the message of the parsha is that there's always a way...except that the best way, like marriage itself, it isn't always the easiest way.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Losers: More Bullies, More Books

Things you find out by Googling yourself -- or, rather, things you learn when you're trying to find your new book's listing on Amazon: there's a book by C.J. Bott (don't know him, but awesome name) called More Bullies in More Books that seems to be exactly that. A compendium that lists all books that have bullies in them, and the relationship between the bullies and the bullied.

Jupiter Jason Glazer and his parents left Russia seven years ago and now live in an empty warehouse outside Philadelphia. Now in junior high, Jupiter wants to avoid the insane bully Bates and find a way to fit in. For him, his first step is to lose his accent.

My reaction is split pretty evenly between (a) Rock!, (b) People are doing book reports on me!, and (c) How many errors can you fit into one sentence? Not in a nitpicky way -- it actually cuts pretty well to the point of the book.

But, ok, there are several facts in those three narrow sentences that...well, aren't facts. What are they? Whoever gets closest wins something cool. What, I haven't decided yet. Just email me or post it to my Facebook or something...and, no, saying that Bates isn't certifiably insane is not one of the inaccuracies. He is totally, completely, mentally and in all other ways insane.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Punk Torah: Alive and On Fire

The new site Punk Torah is live today! A few weeks ago, Patrick A -- the lead singer of the band Can Can -- started doing Punk Rock Parsha, a weekly video podcast about the week's Torah portion from a punk perspective.

As the podcast built up steam, Patrick has also delivered rants about anti-Orthodox diatribes (in spite of the fact that he isn't Orthodox by a longshot), Shabbos poems, and Judaism in the year 5000.

In recent weeks, the spillover of new Punk Torahs has seemed to hint that it's building up into something...and, well, this is it. In the introduction, Patrick declares, "If you love G_d, Torah, and the Jewish people...but are really tired of the crap that comes along with it, then keep reading."

The mission statement continues: "We think of synagogues as the Jewish night club...a place where you go and relax for the first time all week. Take a load off, make a new friend, sing, drink, dance...whatever moves you! Somewhere along the way, the Jewish People lost sight of that."

The site has sections for both the weekly parsha and random other videos, and then there are sporadic other features -- including one on YIDCore, who are quite possibly the most talented Australian Jewish punk band to ever play through the entire "Fiddler on the Roof" soundtrack...and, uh, an interview with me. It covers Never Mind the Goldbergs, of course, but also delves into Muslim punks, Hasidic underground culture, and why Jews are always outsiders.

But, really, the most amazing thing there so far is a poem/rant from somebody named "Michael S." I don't want to quote it, because I'm mentioned and it might be namedropping, but it makes me believe so strongly in everything we're doing, so much that I can't not write it:

They talk about their mortgages.
We stand there nodding our heads, trying to interject and talk about the concert we went to the night before, the religious ecstasy of watching another human being bare their soul in front of other people.
They wear khakis and polo shirts.
I wear my tzizits, a t-shirt and jeans.
They like pastels.
I have tattoos.


So we temple shop. We go to services everywhere we can. We stand around with the other “adults” and wait for the opportunity to name drop some underground bands. We mention Matthue Roth or Y-Love, G_dcast, the religious orientation of Benjamin Grimm*, looking for a glimmer of recognition, a slight nod from another weirdo like us, hoping against hope that someone will hear us, someone will recognize the passwords to this secret club that we didn’t even know we belong to and show us the clubhouse we didn’t even know existed.

keep reading >

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Free Love and Communal Shabbos Dinners

When I lived in San Francisco, I didn't have much going on in the way of hospitality -- mainly because I had so much going on in the way of running to concerts and readings and bars and keeping myself sleep-deprived after hours.

robert altman crowd 60s

My one respite from the constant influx of alcohol and art was to throw Friday night Shabbat dinners. I could spend pages telling you about it, but I actually already wrote a book about it, so I'll skip that part for now. At any rate, when I was out-cooked, around the time of the holidays, I used to go to the local rabbi's house for Rosh Hashana dinner and Passover seders and stuff.

Always, without exception, there was a formidable crowd -- a combination of local families stopping by, semi-detached 20somethings looking for a free and decent meal, and the odd traveler. One of those travelers, brought by a friend of his who owned a (fabulous) local bed and breakfast, Noe's Nest, was Robert Altman. "Oh, wow!" I gushed. "Like the dude who made all those movies!"

"I am not," he replied -- gallantly, and especially so, considering that, on a later occasion, he would (good-naturedly) rant that everyone mixed them up, and his web site was ranked higher on Google.

Robert, it turned out, was a cameraman in his own right -- and one of more than significant merits, having been the photo editor for Rolling Stone magazine for much of the Sixties. Through the meal, we sat next to each other, sticking out in both our career choices (him: photographer, me: robert altmanprofessional poet) and attire (him: black mock turtleneck; me: probably something 20 years old and paisley) and not exactly fitting in with the rest of the crowd, although fitting in in the way that we were all of us mismatched, all of us more-or-less haphazardly tossed into the melting pot that is a Chabad House.

Through the meal, he kept joking that he wasn't really Jewish because he didn't keep kosher and this was his first Rosh Hashana meal in years. I kept telling him back: if he hasn't done any of that and he still remembers he's Jewish, he's doing better than most of us.

Flash forward the better part of a decade. I live in New York now, and walking down 35th Street on my way to work, I pass a bunch of familiar-looking black-and-white photos, iconic flashes of the '60s: they are familiar because they are the photographs of my childhood, but they're not only familiar because of that. They remind me of the first time I Googled Robert, really Googled him: a flood of images, some of them iconic, some of them just really damn good (check his portraiture of Tina Turner). That night, meeting him as just some random guy at an even randomer meal for the Jewish New Year, it seemed like a logical extension: just some well-dressed dude who had a knack for telling good stories and better jokes.

Back in San Francisco, we met up a bunch of times. I invited him to my poetry readings; he invited me to his parties -- including, for some reason, a huge exhibition inside an abandoned warehouse in SoMA where his sorts of people rarely if ever ventured and where my sort of people frolicked nonstop. They didn't expect to see some punk kid in a yarmulke and foot-long sidelocks, both more overtly Jewish and more overtly non-Jewish than they were (because most of them were Jews anyway)...but I think after a while I just became one more part of the landscape, one more odd person doing things his own way, just like the rest of them were.

In a side room, the photography on the wall shifted abruptly, and there were canvases scrawled with otherworldly abstractions -- some sort of Miro aliens with bodies made of different kinds of fabric. There was a guy who started talking to me, the artist of these paintings. Later, Robert told me he was the lead guitarist of one of the biggest bands of the '60s. He sold all his guitars and swore only to paint. Everyone said his painting was awful. Truthfully, though, I really liked it -- that is, until he tried to sell me one of them for $26,000. I told him I hadn't even owned $26,000 over the course of my life.

He threw his arm around my shoulders and gestured grandly to the painting. "Then you can look at them for free," he said. "This art, kid -- it's yours. For the next ten seconds, at least. Enjoy it while it lasts."

Robert Altman's series The Sixties is now showing at Macy's, 34th St. and Broadway in New York. He'll be signing books today from 5-6 p.m. -- I've got to pick up my kid from day care, but you should stop by and say hi for me.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Evil Alien Matthue

OK, I Romulanated myself. If you sat through the new Star Trek movie and thought, hey, I bet Matthue would do a better job than that dude in the trench coat, well, you've probably already seen this in your head. If you haven't, this is just plain weird.

Create Your Own

Then again, I'm too much of a sucker for the original series to ever blow up Vulcan. Peace (and long life) out.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Me and the Maharal (Down By the Schoolyard)

maharal, golem, yudl rosenbergJust got my copy of Curt Leviant's translation of The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague, the softcover edition, which has a quote from my review on the back.

I actually don't remember writing it at all -- which is kind of surprising, because I make it sound like exactly the kind of book I'd want to read. Which I already did, I mean -- but it still made my eyebrows shoot up.

"Leviant's translation of Rosenberg's work is both an academic triumph and a fun read....Rosenberg's book succeeds in offering a mix of suspense and Torah with a dash of humor. It's a weird, anachronistic romp through both the mysticism of the 16th century, the sensibilities of the 19th, and the timeless humor and mysticism of Judaism."
— Matthue Roth, World Jewish Digest

The only part that makes me cringe is the fact that I'll never be able to write "weird, anachronistic romp" about anything ever again. Because it is such a good phrase, and I would seriously use it any time I call my kids down to dinner.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hasidic Poetry Slam

OK, as promised:

This past Saturday night was the first Hasidic poetry slam in Crown Heights, at least in the estimations of everyone there. It started out as the brainchild of Levi Welton, a kid in his early 20s (and, incidentally, a rabbi) who does live theater and a weekly comic about the haftarah. He was raised in the Bay Area -- his father is one of the Chabad rabbis there -- and, on his last visit back, he happened upon the Berkeley Slam. He came back to yeshiva in Crown Heights all fired up and bouncing, ready to do this.

And he did. He enlisted the aid of a bunch of us -- mainly, Mimulo, a flowershop and tea bar run by Hasidic hippies who were cool with opening shop at 10:30 on a Saturday night after Shabbat was out. And a bunch of us poets -- coincidentally, I'd learned to slam in Berkeley as well -- and Alona (who, for the evening, was known as Alona the Purple Prophetess), also a Bay Area alumna.

At first, I wasn't sure whether women would be there at all. I pushed the question nervously. Levi barked out a laugh. "If they weren't," he said, "we wouldn't have a show!"

It's true that, even in the most right-wing of circles, there's no halakhic reason why a woman can't get up and launch a poem into a crowd. But most of what Jews do, Orthodox and otherwise, has next to nothing to do with halakha -- it's about social mores. (For that reason, perhaps, the poetry reading that Mimaamakim threw last month was overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly male-centric.)

But this was pretty incredible. Beside Alona, one super-Orthodox girl read a few short, funny, wry poems about being frum in spite of what everyone else around her thinks. This one bad-guy yeshiva kid in jeans got up and read a poem he'd written on the way over -- it was honest and it was about love and being lonely and it was so simple and beautiful that, I feel like there's no way to say this without being cliche, but literally everyone in the room was pushed to the border of crying.

And then, of course, there was the Russian Hasid in one of those Boro Park business-suits that all the real super-religious women wear. She pulled out a piece of paper, mumbled an apology into it -- "I'm sorry, this is not how everyone else writes, but I am not like everyone else" -- and then, no lie, busted out a hip-hop poem about the spirituality of taking the morning subway.

Awesome beyond belief. In a way, it was a more real poetry experience than any I've ever had -- way back before avant garde poetry and university experiences were created, poetry was supposed to be the tool of the people. Think king's courts. Think Shakespeare. It was Lost and Star Wars and Buffy and Lindsey Lohan's relationship troubles all rolled together: it was drama and comedy and tragedy all together.

And, yes, even the fabulous Eliyahu Enriquez came in, and shot the video below.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who loves Chasidim?

Once upon a time, Hasidim were known as a closeted, tight-lipped sect of Jews who practiced mysticism, dressed in an extreme and foreign manner, and offered up little contact with the outside world.

Today, every second household in Hasidic Brooklyn has a webcam, a Twitter feed, and a New York Times story about them.

Continuing the Times' fetishization of Orthodox Judaism, this week's e-paper includes a photo gallery of 47-year-old Colombian hatmaker Bruno Lacorazza, who is not Jewish himself, but whose trade involves selling hats almost exclusively to Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in New York.

The photos, by Times photographer Ozier Muhammad, are actually beautiful. Between the haphazardness of traveling haphazardly with luxury hats and the Old Worldliness of crumbling shops like Feltly Hats in Williamsburg and the more modern Primo Hatters in Crown Heights.

Of course, the only interior photographs seem to be from the Crown Heights store, where Lubavitchers were probably more than amiable than Satmars to being photographed (here's one of one of our favorite family friends) and possibly even saw it as an opportunity for kiruv. You can imagine the conversation: "Can we take pictures of people trying on hats?" "Uh, I don't know..." "But secular Jewish readers of the New York Times will read it and instantly be persuaded to become religious and don big black hats of their own!"

If you've never seen a foot-long beard light up in a smile, it did just now.

Create Your Own Shavuos

The best Shavuot I ever had, I made myself. I invited a bunch of friends, cooked a bunch of food, and then prepared myself for the all-night study extravaganza that is traditional to the holiday. I'm an author, and a geek, and for both reasons a holiday in which you're commanded to stay up all night and study hugely appeals to my sensibilities.

I scattered a bunch of books in the center of the room. Some were Jewish books (my faves: Ben Ish Chai, Outpouring of the Soul, and a book of Rebbe Nachman's stories). There was a Torah and some printed-out translations of the Talmud. And then I scattered a bunch of X-Men comics, for good measure.

Slowly, people started to scatter in. At first, except for the lack of music, it resembled an ordinary night at the house -- a bunch of kids leafing through books, sitting on the couch. Then, a friend of a friend -- a Hasidic kid who'd been visiting from New York -- jumped on the couch and started to tell a story.

From that point on, it was social, but social in a way that parties never had been. It was like there were twice as much company in the room, people + books. We studied individually. We studied together. The night wore on, and not many people stuck around till sunrise, but there were a few of us who did. (We watched it on the back porch, with the world still, one of those rare days when you can actually see through to the Pacific Ocean.) For the final half hour, in the time when we weren't sure whether it still counted as night or not, I ripped open my X-Men comics (the Grant Morrison run, #141-144, I believe) and started learning things from there.

Torah is kind of like a Swiss Army knife. It has a thousand tools that can be used in half a million different permutations. I'm never as smart as I am when I stand up after learning Torah, when it's all fresh in my mind and I really feel like I can do anything. Reading X-Men after seven hours of learning -- reading it aloud to a room of other people who've also had seven hours of nothing but Torah in their heads -- was one of the most transcendent reading experiences of my life. Do you remember the first time you saw your favorite movie? It was that good. Each panel was like a new world of meaning -- the way they fought and spoke, the way Wolverine's adamantium skeleton was actually a permutation of his inner kabbalistic sefirot not being as fluid as, say, Jean Grey's.

So this year, we're hanging out at home. The brilliant Jake Marmer and will just be getting home from Israel, and crashing at his in-laws' near our place. We're going to set up camp and learn. No plans for a big event, either like San Francisco or like the integrated Reform-Conservative-Orthodox all-nite affair last year in Chicago, where 75 people showed up for a random lecture on Hasidic thought and time travel. But sometimes, a good friend and a good book is all you need.

Oh, and a tiny tiny plug -- my old yeshiva, Simchat Shlomo, is having a Shavuot night learn-a-thon, where people sponsor you $10 or $1 or whatever per hour of Torah study. It's a great cause on both ends...and I've got a kid who wakes up early, so I promise not to study *too* long. If you want to sponsor me, give me a holler.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gourmet Jews, Kosher Wine & Cheese Tastings, and Hasidic Beer Parties

On the way out of his goodbye party last night, my doppelganger-in-name Shimon Roth grabbed me and said, "Are you gonna write about this on your website?" Usually, I hate those questions, but between Shimon's good-natured drunkenness on one of his last nights in Crown Heights and the sheer Hasidic wackiness of our day, there was no way I couldn't say yes.

benz's deli

It started at about four P.M., when we went to a kosher wine and cheese tasting at BenZ's Gourmet. If you don't know, wine and cheese are two of the hardest items to find kosher, and until recently, most Orthodox Jews -- especially outside of New York -- had to put up with a very small selection of both. (To this day, when we visit Melbourne, my in-laws order us to bring back as much cheese as our suitcases can fit: "Anything but the processed crap!")

In the past few years, however, due to the combined force of Internet ease-of-purchasing and the greater availability of disposable income in certain demographics of the religious Jewish community, and a small but noticeable closet industry has sprung up: a Hasidic fine food industry.

wine and cheese in crown heightsBecause my wife is a personal chef, I've got a bird's-eye view of the situation: In this section of the community, people are struggling to learn as much about fine food as they can, and the easiest way of investigating is with their wallets.

Thus, we rolled up to BenZ's thinking we wouldn't be the only guests with a kid in tow (we were). Instead, we found a crowd that was part gourmands (actual and aspiring), part food-industry people, and part businessmen. That last group were the easiest to spot -- they were the ones at the pouring station who were complaining that the pours were "too stingy." (Author's note: I still have to figure out the correct way to ask for more, since apparently you aren't really supposed to drink the same wine twice at a wine tasting.)

To make matters even more unspeakably complicated, the night before had been Crown Heights's first poetry slam ever (oh, geez, that's another blog entry -- remind me) and, randomly, I kept catching snatches of conversation about "the slam recital" and "hippies yelling hasidic wine tastinghip-hop rhymes." I felt instantly both scandalized and famous. Add that to the fact that some middle-aged dude kept coming up to me and asking if I was Matisyahu (in Crown Heights, mind you) and it was as trippy an experience as Sunday afternoons get.

From there, it was on to Shimon's party. Straight through the door, I began getting major flashes from college: beer in a Tupperware trunk, Rock Band on the Xbox (currently playing: semi-recent Metallica) and, most telling of all, a kitchen crammed to the seams with people. Just like college, there were the token sketchily-dressed girls in a corner with know-it-all boys. Except that these girls were sketchily-dressed because they were wearing pants, and the boys were those guys in the back of the class, the ones who never paid attention but always answered the questions right.

There were the slackers -- a long-haired kid with no yarmulke who asked after my brother-in-law (he's currently locked away in a yeshiva, off becoming a rabbi in a land with no TV, internet, or women). There were the married-and-reproduced people who were trying desperately to pretend that they still had a life after dark (uh, us). There were the Upper West Side kids with one foot in the Modern Orthodox world, one foot in the secular world, who still came back to the shtetl to check in (briefly, second-guessingly) and see whether there was anyone promising to date in the Old Country. And there was one girl in a tweedy plaid shirt and skirt who I honestly couldn't tell whether she was a Williamsburg cool kid or an old-school Hasid.

And then, Shimon, on the way out, asking me if I was going to record this. I didn't answer him -- just reached into my wife's handbag and took out the gift we'd gotten him, a copy of Benyamin Cohen's My Jesus Year, a book about getting back in touch with Judaism while checking out everything but Judaism. He's moving to LA. I figured it might remind him just a little bit of the old Jewish neighborhood. You know, a place not very different from the environment that Jesus probably grew up in.

I don't know if there's a moral to this story, except to say that Hasidim live much the same lives, at least on a quotidian Sunday afternoon level, as their non-Hasidic brethren. The same things just manifest a little differently.

benz's deli

Monday, May 18, 2009

G-dcast: Amish Beards Are Coming

Not to overwhelm you with posts this morning, but there's a new book of the Torah to talk about. Existentialism, bondage, and Amish beards...and that's just in the first minute.

Candy in Action: The Cover Story

Today on Melissa Walker's blog, she quizzes me about the cover of Candy in Action. Candy's publisher, Soft Skull Press, shared a bunch of the old cover versions and some of the original designs that inspired my editor Jody and I. If you've ever wanted a behind-the-scenes look at cover design, it doesn't get more behind-the-scenesy than this.

(And -- extra added bonus feature! -- here's the very first cover of Candy, which we talk about in the article, but which I stupidly couldn't convert into a normal file. But oh, do I have good powers of persuasion.)

"The moment that my publishers accepted the Candy in Action, I knew what the cover was going to look like. It wasn't even a matter of, what do I want it to look like. I just knew. It was going to be a sleek, glossy cover with black widescreen boxes at the top and bottom. Then the center was going to be a bright, vivid picture of the Los Angeles coast at night, taken from overhead--all neon lights and a million sparkling house parties--and then a black silhouette of a girl doing a kung-fu drop kick over it. That, uh, never happened.

"The publishers didn't ask for my input. I gave it to them anyway. My first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was with Scholastic. At most big publishing houses, if you're a first-time writer and you're really nice to them, you get to say 'no' once, and they might listen to you. I said no three times--I was a total diva. They were cool with it each time, though.

keep reading >

Thursday, May 14, 2009

You Should Have Seen His Bat Mitzvah

Here's the wonder that is Athens Boys Choir. The name is deceiving -- ABC is actually a hip-hop group of one, and that one happens to be a mild-mannered boy named Katz who was born a girl.

I first heard of ABC when I received his CD -- with possibly the most hilariously understated cover you can imagine -- to review for B*tch Magazine. His lyrics tend toward the risque, although he's frequently more playful than offensive (on his latest single, Fagette, he shouts out "girls with the chubby chubbs/and the boys who ain't got no butts")....but, the opposite of every hip-hop sensibility you've ever encountered, this is probably the tamest rap video ever.

It's a composite of videos from Katz's bat mitzvah.

Or, as the intro puts it: "In 2002 I came out as a man. But before I could do that, I had to become...a woman."

Thence follows some of the trippiest '80s retro Bar Mitzvah footage that the human brain can wrap itself around. It's a one-man pitch for the next book in the Bar Mitzvah Disco series.

What I love most about it: how it's so nice. And how even the requisite Jewish kitsch is sweet: ""Now my bubby wanted a doctor to marry me/You got two Ph.D.'s/one in fine and one in sexy!"

The Sway Machinery Cover the Torah

Jeremiah Lockwood, the venerable proprietor of the band The Sway Machinery -- a side project of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Antibalas, and Tom Waits's band -- blasts out, as warned, with the second G-dcast of the week.

It's abstract and moody and kind of the opposite of anything we've ever done. It's courteously animated by the fabulous Liesje Kraai, of They Might Be Giants movie fame. And it kidn of reminds me of that Dr. Seuss book that came out after his death, My Many Colored Days -- which, instead of trying to jive with Dr. Seuss's own style, skews radically against it, possibly even for the better. In any case -- my favorite G-dcasts are always the ones where I have nothing to do with the animation. This one, I've had the least to do with of all -- and, true to form, it's one of my favorites.

Jeremiah closes out the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah -- and I am so wildly exhausted and dizzy and I can't believe that we're more than halfway through this one year tour. And if you're up for a retrospective, here one is....

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

i found a tiny tiny baby bird

Itta: matthue!
can you help me for a sec?
i found a tiny tiny baby bird
and i need to find a number to call to speak to someone...
me: call 311
Itta: well, online it says to call wildlife and fish something
an agency
a gov agenc
me: (718) 482-4922
me: let me know if it doesn't work!
Itta: i'm on the phone to someone, thanks
Itta: it's dead
you'll see it when you get home, it's amazing
but sad
me: what happened?
Itta: i found it on the ground
and i didn't even know what it was
so tiny
so i bent down and looked closer
and it looks like alitle alien
so i put it in a bag
and brought it home
and looked online for what to do
i thought i saw it move
but it's dead
me: you did the best you could
you did good

Lag B'Omer: The Lag Blog, Pt. 2

aLast night: campfire was every bit as awesome as we wanted it to be, except the kids were asleep. This was probably better for all concerned, because Boruch and Itta were doing musical stuff, Karen was tending the fire, and I would have been grabbing all three of them by the scruffs of their collars and held them in the air and not let them walk anywhere because there were ticks and an open fire pit and I am pretty much the typified neurotic paranoid parent who never lets my daughter out of the house, except to stand in the sun for 10 minutes twice a week to get exactly her recommended dose of vitamin D. Yeah.

lag ba'omer in meron

This morning: Taking the Monsey Bus back to the city. Monsey being the place that it is [thanx, Chaviva], I expected the bus to be packed with every sort of Hasid -- the roly-poly kind, the diamond kind, and the opens-three-hardcover-books-on-your-lap-at-once kind -- but found that, pleasantly, it was filled with every sort of Jew, like a mini-Israel crammed into the narrow borders of a Greyhound-type bus. Hot girls in tight pants with sunglasses bigger than the circumference of their faces. Yarmulke-less balding dudes with cell phones that look like Star Trek phasers. And, yes, the roly-poly Hasidim.

At one bus stop, there was nobody waiting except for two pint-size boys in identical white shirts and argyle vests, heads shaved except for their payos. They couldn't have been more than five and six, respectively. As the bus rolled to a stop, the driver joked to the person in the front seat, "You think they're going to 47th Street?" -- a wink and a nod to the street where all the Hasidic diamond merchants work.

The bus pulled over, and a passenger leaned out. "Where you headed, boys?" he asked, then repeated the question in Yiddish. "Monroe," they replied -- saying the word like it had never referred to a president of the United States, much less pronounced in English. They moaned the M through their noses, rolled the r, and hooted the o from the apex of their mouth, not the back, owl-like.

Next to me, two men talked about their respective kids, all of whom had gone to Meron the night before for the holiday. My traveling companions were both old, and both Orthodox, but, you know, casual Orthodox -- colored shirts, knit yarmulkes. Their kids had gone Hasidic, with twenty grandchildren each and wives in burqas, the whole deal. But they talked about them like rebellious teenagers. Their crazy bonfires, the crazy praying. It was pretty utterly awesome. It inspired me to crank up the Sonic Youth on my headset all the way, startling the hell out of the dude sitting next to me, who was learning Talmud out of three books at once.

We're taught that a plague killed off thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students because they did not treat one another respectfully. I feel like the massive party that happens in Israel every year -- and like, in some small way, my bus ride -- are all tikkunim, or healings, of that rift.

And the trip took under an hour -- less than the time from Brooklyn to here! If the bus ride is this exciting every morning, I think we may have a new neighborhood to consider.

Monday, May 11, 2009

G-dcast: Behar!

I hate these two-Torah-readings weeks -- not because we have to do twice as much work, but because we run two G-dcasts on these weeks (one on Monday, one on Wednesday), and not everybody realizes that there's twice as much video goodness to see. Today, we get a farmer (Emily Freed) to talk about the Torah's version of Poor Richard's Almanack. This Wednesday...ok, I can't spoil anything, but Jeremiah Lockwood of The Sway Machinery closes out the Book of Leviticus. Chills of anticipation.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why I Write about Models, one of the coolest bookstores on the internet, runs a series of original essays. They've asked Neil Gaiman and Dara Horn and Robert Thurman and now they've asked me...which is pretty damn cool.

It started as a dare.

The girl I went out with was friendly, funny, flirty — and all of this was confusing to me. I was a punk-rock kid on my better days, elegantly styled in unkempt hair and an artfully ripped t-shirt held together by a bare minimum of strands that kept it (barely) from coming loose from my shoulders, revealing something both embarrassing and dangerous, like my belly — but, more often, I was just a geek. She was popular, beautiful, successful — traditionally pretty, I mean, but actually beautiful, too. Except for the one random friend we had in common, there was no reason we should rightfully be talking to each other.

Except, of course, that we were.

What was weird was that we got along. Even weirder, we had similar things to say. Not about everything, but about a lot of things, including comic books (Madman, Hellboy, and all the X-Men spinoffs — the more melodramatic, the better), television (Veronica Mars), and food (vegan, lots of courses, served together and eaten separately). We weren't in lurve — we were barely in like — but we were intrigued by each other. We were interested.

And before we had the chance to question it ourselves — no, really, us? — she was sexually assaulted.

keep reading >

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mayim Bialik: From Blossom to Brachot

mayim bialik of blossomA few months back, my friend Lisa Klug introduced me to the illimitable joy that is Mayim Bialik. Descendant of the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, neuroscientist, and former child star, she's going through a whole revolution now. With the birth of her second child and the emergence of her interest in Orthodox Judaism, she's wild and thoughtful and funny. (She's also doing a G-dcast for us, so stay tuned in the coming weeks for that.)

And, oh yeah, she starred in Blossom.

I was a child of the '80s in name only. I never watched Blossom when it first came out. I was aware of it only as - and, the few times that I did, it both intrigued me and turned me off: some too-cool kid who was two or three years older than me (at the time, a vast gap) who wore wild vintage-store outfits, used unnecessarily long vocabulary, and had a penchant for confessional D.I.Y. films about 2 decades before YouTube was even conceived of....It made me feel more than a little protective. This was my subculture they were stealing. She couldn't possibly be doing it right.

Little did I know, for its time - and even for ours - Blossom was completely transcendent. In the pilot episode, The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad, wearing a retro-'50s polka-dot dress, drew a map of the human ovaries on a sheet cake with a tube of icing in order to explain to 14-year-old Blossom Russo how her period worked. Subsequent episodes made pretty profound statements on puberty, body image, premarital sex and divorce and parental responsibility. The endings were always sugar-coated, but the TV show itself (which has just been released on DVD) was meaty and unafraid in ways that make current sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and The Office feel positively sanitized.

As much of a travesty as grouping Blossom together with tepid '80s sitcoms such as Full House might be, mentioning the Mayim Bialik's name together with the name of the television show might be an even more audacious generalization.

In the decades since she stopped playing Blossom Russo, Bialik has not sat still. She's earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and has undertaken cutting-edge studies at UCLA as one of the top researchers of Prader-Willi Syndrome in the field. (Read more about the disorder here, or sift through Bialik's blog to find out about her work.) She's also testing the waters of going back into acting, with recent appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bones. And she's also in the middle of another big revival: she's experimenting with being an observant Jew.

What first motivated you to start researching the causes of Prader-Willi Syndrome? Are you still?

I always had an interest in working with kids with special needs, and in the neuroscience department at UCLA, you generally meet a lot of professors and then drop into a project that suits you. There's been a lot of genetic research on Prader-Willi, and there's been a lot of behavioral research, but there isn't a lot of research combining the two..and that's what I thought I could bring to it.

I got my doctorate last year, so my research was my thesis. Since then, I've done some writing for organizations that raise money for Prader-Willi research. In the meantime, I've started acting again, and we just had our second child, so I've had my hands pretty full, taking care of him and doing auditions.

Have you been auditioning a lot?

Yes, actually! Far more than I thought I would be. I'm auditioning for all sorts of things. I'm actually filming an episode of Bones tomorrow. I've auditioned for comedy, drama, movies -- anything they send my way.

Is it mostly one way or the other -- dramatic roles, films, or ironic stuff? Are you being selective about which roles you take?

Not really. I don't think I can afford to be selective. I'm just seeing what's out there, and whatever I do get, like Bones, is great practice to get into the swing of things again.

Have you tried connecting your Prader-Willi research to non-Prader-Willi patients -- that is, once you've discovered the impulse that makes people with Prader-Willi insatiably hungry, can you theoretically control that impulse in people who don't have PWS?

It actually depends on the mechanism itself. There's a lot of reasons that people with Prader-Willi can't control their hunger. Regulating the hypothalamus is difficult, because it connects to the brain and there's a lot of sources in the brain that control every function. There's a theory that the hunger you can explore, there are several different sources for, and we'll never be sure exactly what causes it. You can try and narrow down a little more...but also, the reasons are different. So it's difficult to pinpoint it down to one thing, for sure.

I remember reading a few years ago - you know, the way rumors spread between Jews - that you were active at UCLA Hillel, and that you'd started getting more observant. Um, are you?

My mother was raised Orthodox, and my grandparents are immigrants from Eastern Europe. I was raised in a Reform household, but with a lot of remnants of Orthodoxy. We lit candles. We had two sets of dishes, but my mom never told me why. I thought it was breakfast dishes and dinner dishes. There was no emphasis on halacha and learning. Totally not to disparage my parents; it just wasn't their thing.

When I went to college, I didn't have a lot of friends. Blossom had ended two years before. I'd always gone away to Jewish camps for the summer, and so I kind of ended up at Hillel and I started learning with the rabbi, and it kind of took off from there.

I'm hesitant to label myself or call myself Orthodox because people will be like, "Celebrity Mayim Bialik says she does X, but I saw her doing Y" - I guess, to be safe, I would say I'm Conservative, but in reality, I'd say Conservadox. But my husband and I have definitely increased our observance over the years, and we're always trying to grow.

We kinda do the Big Three [Shabbos, keeping kosher, and family purity], but it's hard. I mean, it's hard for everyone to classify themselves, but it's a whole new level of hard when people are watching you. Like, I pretty much eat a vegan diet, but I eat eggs if they're in things. What I say is, I eat a mostly vegan diet, and that's kind of how it is with Judaism. We keep Shabbos, we keep kosher, and I don't know if people want to hear about the Mikveh, but, um, yeah.

And now that you're acting again, that whole "celebrity Mayim Bialik" factor is coming back into play. Is it weird to get back into the arena after you've been away so long? What sort of gigs are you looking for? What sort of gigs are you getting?

When I was younger, things came in and I got offered things a lot. Now it's my manager saying it's the girl who played Blossom, which has its own attractiveness, and its own stigma.

And then I have projects that I want to do. I just optioned the Rashi's Daughters books. I love that I can do something like that in the first place, and I'd love to get it made into a film. But I don't have the kind of star power to say, I'm ready to talk to Steven Spielberg next weekend....

Do you ever watch old episodes of Blossom? Would you ever show them to your kids, or is it kind of something you want to keep in the past?

No! I stopped watching in the middle of the first season, and I would kind of watch the last half and part of the second season. But I literally have never watched the last three seasons. So, needless to say, my kids haven't, either.

What was your life like during Blossom? Did you have much contact with the outside world?

Yeah. It was actually pretty normal - we would work for three weeks, then I would go to school on my week off. I had tutors on the rest of the set. We got there two hours early than everyone else - me, Joey, and Michael each had our own tutors, and our lessons started at 7:00 and lasted until everyone showed up at 9. I was on the show from when I was 14 years old until when I was 19. At a certain point, I was very recognizable-I'm a pretty normal person, I was always a pretty normal person. I wasn't motivated by fame or money. I just wanted to act.

Were you doing anything Jewish at the time?

Not so much. We filmed on Friday nights. The local Bureau of Jewish Education used to have programs for beyond-bar-mitzvah-age kids, which was helpful. I went on retreats like Shabbatons, and that actually really cemented my Jewish identity. When my parents weren't doing Jewish stuff anymore, I still had a place to pray and live Jewishly. But it wasn't until UCLA that I really fully realized my Jewish identity.

And that was where you started doing chazzanut and leading services, right?

I haven't done that for about 2 years. It's in conflict with some of what I've been learning, but it's also in line with a lot of what I do as a performer. It's a great honor to daven, and to daven on behalf of a community. My grandfather was a chazzan in San Diego and the Bronx, and I inherited his voice. It takes a lot of learning, and it takes a lot of kavanah [concentration], but it's complicated, as anyone in this line knows.

And there's a reason that, in traditional Jewish circles, women don't lead services. I've been pregnant twice in the past three years. Going to shul has been incredibly different after having one child, and then having, thank God, two children, it's been even more different, and Judaism kind of knows that.

How has your Jewish life changed with the birth of your sons? Are you taking them along?

At this point, my oldest son's not yet in preschool. Religiously, my husband and I are both still growing. We're not quite ready for day school yet - we don't feel like it's quite our niche - but a Conservative day school wouldn't meet our needs at this point. Kosher home, but you get into all sorts of conflicts about other things....You have to find the right place; it's very important to find the right place. At this point, he knows all the holidays, and we've started studying Torah, and he knows all the brachos, and he doesn't know the English alphabet but he knows the Hebrew alphabet.

I grew up speaking Yiddish, and I'm trying to do the same thing with my son. He has a large vocabulary - well, for a 3-year-old, at any rate.

Are you still working?

No, it's just me. All day. With both of them. That's how it is most of the time -- I'm filming tomorrow.

Is it true that you're related to Chaim Nachman Bialik?

Yes, I am. I'm from his brother's line; he was my great-great-grandfather's uncle. My grandfather met him when he came to America. My grandfather was young, and Chaim Nachman Bialik passed away young as well, so they didn't have a chance to know each other well. We do get in free to the Bialik Museum in Tel Aviv. We have some nice collections of books, and we carry that heritage.

But all the Bialiks have been extraordinary people. I'm very proud -- especially in Israel -- to carry his name.

What do you have planned next, after Bones? How far are you into Rashi's Daughters; do you have a screenwriter or anything lined up?

I optioned it. So I'm looking to have it written as a movie or a miniseries. I'm kind of a classic actress-performer: I like to be given a script, and then I try to make you laugh or cry. This is the first project that I found that I'm really inspired by, inspired to get involved in the production of. There's a good story there, a meaningful story. But what I'm interested in emphasizing is the beauty of Orthodoxy, and the dimension and depth of women's relationship with study. It's a wonderful story that shows a lot of facets of Judaism that I think want to be appreciated.

Other than that, I'm just auditioning and taking care of my kids.

Which can pretty much fill up your time, just that.

And I learn once a week. My mentor lives in New York -- we were paired up totally accidentally, and it's been amazing. Her name is Allison Josephs, and she runs a YouTube series about Jewish topics. She was a Blossom fan, and wanted to study with me, and I called an organization and they paired her with me. She couldn't believe it, that she found me after all that time. She's my Jewish instructor and my guru. We study melachos of Shabbos and tznius and stuff, but even when my son had a bris, I go to her for moral support.

What are your favorite things to learn?

I didn't grow up with a strong sense of halacha, and I have family who are religious Zionists, but I never really knew about halacha. I'm a nitty-gritty person. I love that our tradition encourages debate, and a lot of what I love to learn is practical -- how to kasher things for Pesach, what legally constitutes bishul. My husband calls it my Jewish book club. It's more than that, though. We read a Soloveitchik book. I read Rivka Slonim's book Bread and Fire, which I've gained so much from. We're making our way through our lives with whatever we come up with.

Star Trek: Social Revolution and Jewish Thought

Am I a sellout? Probably. Here's my new article about Star Trek and Jews for the day job.

When I was young, I used to imagine a dream-team synagogue made up of my heroes from movies, books, and TV shows. There would still be the rabbi, the cantor, the sisterhood president; only, in my head, they were all either famous or fictional people. Most of the minyan was taken from Star Trek.

In my Hebrew school class, the model hazzan who led the day's prayers was always, without doubt, the most popular kid in class. So my imaginary synagogue would have a ribald, take-charge cantor, with a deep booming voice and a gung-ho manner: Captain James Tiberius Kirk, the ladies' man of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Still, personally, I was more taken by the perpetually calm, thoughtful, and withdrawn rabbi, who would be (of course) Mr. Spock, the starship's first officer. He hailed from the planet Vulcan, and came from a race of people whose philosophy, lifestyle, and very essence of being demanded logic. This, to me, seemed like the essence of Jewish thought--or, at least, my eight-year-old representation of Jewish (or, at least, Maimonidean) thought: that logic was the backbone to the universe, a clean, crisp and ordered hierarchy through which problems would be solved, differences mended, and harmony achieved.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On the Transformation from 2D Cranky Character to 3D Cranky Actual Girl

How much does this entry from writer/artist Bryan Lee O'Malley make me look forward to the Scott Pilgrim movie?

And you also have Scott Pilgrim vs. the World coming up, with Michael Cera. Your character, Julie Powers, could be described as "difficult"...
Julie Powers is a crazy bitch! She has a big chip on her shoulder. She's a supporting character who pops up a couple times in the film and is confrontational toward Michael Cera's character. Every time I'm on-screen, I yell at him.

Am I getting giddy for the way-too-built-up meeting about my own movie tomorrow? I am getting just a little bit giddy.

(And it's a massive distraction from the idea that i now am actually legally allowed behind the wheel of a car. Praise the One Above.)

my driving karma

This morning, after 14 uneventful years of being above the age of 16, the inexplicable happened. I got my driver's permit.

matthue: the anti-speed racerGranted, it was in many ways time for it to happen. My wife has a car. We both have a kid. My parents live 2 hours away, in Philadelphia: far enough so it's not a crosstown train, but close enough so that I really should be able to pop down once in a while. My friends are happy as anything. And it's good in an emergency, so that one of us can drive to a hospital. Except that we live 5 blocks from a hospital, and with all the one-way streets in Brooklyn, running there would probably be faster.

But I've been saying for years (YEARS) that driving is evil, and I stand by it. Cars are dangerous, dirty, unwieldy, and they've killed millions of people. Not to mention that car production in the USA was pioneered by a vicious anti-Semite.

I used to shoot guns, and for that you have to have unwavering concentration, a steady hand, and perfect vision. And still, there's a reason that people clean their guns constantly and firing ranges are miles and miles away from where anybody lives. Cars are huge, rusty, and almost everybody who drives them has an attention span equal to the shortest commercial time slot on MTV (15 seconds). Unless they're old people, who have lousy sight, lousy tendons, the shakes, and can't even see over the steering wheel. When you look out the window during rush hour, you recognize the power and beauty of God -- not that this many cars exist in the first place, but that the combined weight and destructiveness of them hasn't murdered all of us in the first place.

If you think this is bad, just wait 6 months till I get my license.

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