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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.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: What You Didn't See

So I've been reading the script (downloadable here) to the film Inglourious Basterds. And it's pretty over-the-top insane.

Not that you wouldn't expect that from a movie that's (a) by Quentin Tarantino, (b) about Jews, and (c) borderline sadophiliac in its embrace of violence. But there are some moments, excised from the final film, that tell the story as...well, as a much different story.

inglourious basterds

In this scene, Donny Donowitz, the "Bear Jew," has just bought himself a baseball bat. (Proprietor: "You gettin' your little brother a present before you ship out?" Donny: "No." Stony silence, as they both realize its significance.) Donny then pays a visit to a tiny little old Jewish lady in an apartment building who invites him in for tea:

Donny: Mrs. Himmelstein, do you have any loved ones over in Europe who you're concerned for?
Mrs. Himmelstein: What compels you, young man, to ask a stranger such a personal question?
Donny: Because I'm going to Europe. And I'm gonna make it right.
Mrs. Himmelstein: And just how do you intend to do that, Joshua?

He holds up his [baseball] bat.

Donny: With this.
Mrs. Himmelstein: And what exactly do you intend to do with that toy?
Donny: I'm gonna beat every Nazi I find to death with it....I'm going through the neighborhood. If you have any loved ones in Europe, whose safety you fear for, I'd like you to write their name on my bat.

I'd assume that part of the reason this scene was cut is because the scene that introduces the Basterds unit -- post-battle, where the soldiers are interrogating Nazi prisoners and collecting scalps -- flows with such brutal elegance. But also, the scenes that feature the Brookline Jewish community would probably take the movie away from being the squarely violent war film that Tarantino intended to make and cast it more as a Holocaust-era character piece.

In Jordana Horn's excellent interview with Tarantino, both acknowledge (correctly, I think) that Basterds wasn't a Holocaust film. But, when looking at Tarantino's original visions for the film -- some reports suggest that his original script, which clocked in at over 270 pages and 5 1/2 hours of shooting time -- the final product could have been any of several types of film.

(One final note: Ostensibly, Tarantino's original concept was to make the film entirely about Shoshana, the Jewish girl whose family was killed in front of her, in which she makes a list of Nazis responsible and extracts vengeance. That apparently turned into his last film, Kill Bill. I do wish Basterds was more like Kill Bill in its embrace of the hero -- nearly all the Jews die, and all the women die in particularly horrific circumstances -- but I understand how both women's deaths were called for by the storytelling ethic. Which doesn't make their portrayal any less anti-woman.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What I'm Listening to

Tonight's my first night editing in a while. Just found out that my fave Jewish punk band of the day, Can!!Can, is going to be in the movie. But that's not what I'm listening to. This is what I'm listening to. One's a dancing-by-yourself-in-the-center-of-the-room song by the emotionally perfect Hadara. And then my friend Soce just sent me this, and in the middle of it, who should be washing a car shirtless but Fred Chao. And that should make anybody's night.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


The producer of our film just forwarded this to the production staff. It's small, but I think it's sweet. I know it sucks to turn every Hollywood death into a Grand Statement (or, as is more usually the case, egotism), but I was blown away that he wanted to keep working on his TV series after the cancer diagnosis. It's like, 98% of acting might be being a celebrity or flirting with tabloids, but behind that facade are some people who really sincerely believe in their creative juices.

In an interview following Patrick Swayze's untimely death, Jennifer Gray recently stated:

"When I think of him, I think of being in his arms when we were kids, dancing, practicing the lift in the freezing lake, having a blast doing this tiny little movie we thought no one would ever see. My heart goes out to his wife and childhood sweetheart, Lisa Niemi, to his mom, Patsy, and to the rest of their family."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An Interview and a confession

Marjolein, of the wonderful Marjolein Book Blog, just interviewed me. She's both one of the most voracious readers on the interwebs, and one of the most devoted. I honestly think she's one of the thirty-six secret pillars holding up the world of young adult literature. She just read and reviewed Goldbergs, so she gets to a bit of Hava analysis:

If you could be a character from your books for one day, who would it be?
Without a doubt, Hava from Never Mind the Goldbergs. I'm an Orthodox Jew, and when I wrote the book and I was single, everyone thought that Hava was my ideal girlfriend. The truth was more like, Hava is my ideal for myself. She's weird and awkward and very cool, and everything that she does, she takes the time to think about. She believes in doing it. She's purposeful about its execution, and she makes it rock. She's like the person version of Sleater-Kinney, my favorite band. Even when they cover B-52's songs, they put, like, 110% of themselves into it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Goldbergs/Yom Kippur a Go-Go Giveaway!

It's almost Yom Kippur. And what better way is there to celebrate than to get a free copy of my tell-all memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go, about how a bunch of friendly bull-dykes and queens taught me how to be an Orthodox Jew, along with a copy of my first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs?

(Okay, trick question. The correct answer is: "by praying, giving charity, and doing good stuff for other people." But this is a nifty runner-up.)

To win, just go here and answer the question:

In which way are you "casting off" and starting new this year?

And then you can win my books, along with Eprhyme's awesome new album, the Cool Jew book and $250 more worth of swag:

cool jew giveaway

And if the rumours are true, there's another Yom Kippur a Go-Go giveaway right around the corner.

(sorry I spelled it "rumours." we're having british houseguests and it's contagious.)

I Am My Beloved's...But I'm Not Only That

For the month of Elul, I've been trying to get myself into shape. One of the things that Rebbe Nachman (and basically everyone else) suggests doing in order to achieve this goal is learning Jewish laws. My father-in-law recently gave us this tiny, awesome Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, which is a handy guidebook to what Jewish stuff you're supposed to be doing at any given moment. It's much more of a Judaism for Dummies than the actual book.

So I've been reading up on my life as a Jew. Sometimes a line or two at a shot (the entries are mostly really short, which plays to our advantage) and sometimes -- like this morning, on the stalled 5 train -- an entire chapter. Part of what got me so excited was the talk of Psalm 27, which we read at the end of morning prayers all this month. (If you've ever seen a horror movie, you've probably heard it in some form; it's the one that starts "The Lord is my light and my salvation; who should I fear?") I know that our article says it's a slightly schizophrenic psalm, I still like it. I get a shiver every time I read "The only thing I ask for is to live in God's house all the days of my life." Not that I have any clue what God's house looks like, but it seems like it would be a good place to be. Just the idea of having a house to curl up into, metaphorical or otherwise, sounds like a pretty good deal. And like a pretty comforting thing, especially in the

(My other favorite line, "When evil men come close to eat my flesh, they stumble and fall," clearly plays to the action-adventure author side of my personality, but that's another blog entry.)

So the Kitzur, whose role usually shies away from the sort of non-how-to thing, goes out of its way to talk about the different acronyms for Elul. Usually, people like to say how Elul is the healing time after the catastrophes of Tisha B'Av, and the strain on our relationship with God that things like massive destruction tend to cause. They point out how the Hebrew letters alef, lamed, vov, lamed -- the four letters that spell "Elul" -- stand for "Ani L'dodi v'dodi li," or "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is for me."

But wait! There's more!

Apparently, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, was the first to play with acronyms. He first cites the verse in Exodus that talks about someone accidentally killing a man: if this happens, God says, "I will find you a place to which he can flee" (21:13). The words "I will find you" begin with aleph, lamed, vov, lamed.

Again with the morbidity, right? But it's actually a comforting verse at heart: even a murderer can find peace. Then he cites Deuteronomy 30:6: "God will open up your heart." This one doesn't just work the obvious (hearts! open! understanding! empathy! Rosh Hashanah!) but also alludes to the exact opposite of what happened to Pharaoh: Our hearts are becoming un-hardened.

Then the Ari proceeds to blow us all out of the water by explaining how each of these three verses covertly refers, respectively, to repentance, charity, and praying -- the three things that, according to the mahzor, dissipate a death sentence on Yom Kippur.

One more cool thing that the Kitzur points out about Psalm 27 and its first few words, "God is my light and my salvation." When the psalm says "salvation," it's referring to Yom Kippur, of course -- since that's the time when some souls get salvated (er, saved) and some don't. But the "my light" part is talking about Rosh Hashanah. It's a complicated holiday, neither 100% good (uh, a lot of us are about to die) nor 100% sad (it's the birthday of the world, and a lot of us are going to get good decrees)...but we do what we can. And that's where the light comes from. We're saying that God should reveal everything...and that God should make it all good.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

G-d, Kids, and Movies

First of all: the important things in life.

It's pretty quiet here, for a change. Working furiously on the new book, now that the movie script is in, approved (mostly), and everyone seems more-or-less happy with it, or if they're not, they're not being unhappy in my direction. Which is a relief. Secretly, by the beginning I was thinking that 120 pages was nothing and that I could spit it out in a heartbeat, but by the fifth complete revision, as I was adding up each 120-page draft in my head -- that's something like 600 pages. Definitely longer than any novel I've ever written. Way longer than anything I've written in three freakin' months!

For a good portion of preproduction, they tried to keep their top casting choices secret from me. They didn't want the people getting in the way of my voices for them, the producer said. Before the last draft, I sneaked a look at the audition tapes, and I could see why. Suddenly, I wasn't writing for my main character, I was writing for this snarky, beautiful, a-little-too-candid young woman who was going to become my main character.

But: There's a new novel in the pots. I don't know what's going to happen, but it tastes great so far.

And, finally, there's a new G-dcast in the house! These are the final few episodes, and I feel like we've upped our ante with them. First up this week: Dahlia Lithwick, who edits for Slate and NPR and Newsweek. And you have to come back on Wednesday to see Mayim Bialik's take on Vayelech. Oops. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say that.

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