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Friday, October 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

B&H Photo: Camera Shopping As a Religious Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

We Experiment on A.J. Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MJL: Where are you from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Noah Was a Survivor

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

noah graffiti

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

amsterdam noah cruise

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free Losers, and Stories for Drunk Baseball Fans

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

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

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

Check it:

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

keep reading

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Circles" Live with Mista Cookie Jar

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

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

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

And, now, "Circles."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

For Every Phoenix Born, Another Tastes Dust

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Last to First

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Jewschool

Friday, October 2, 2009

Buying an Etrog in Brooklyn

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

Here's what we discovered:

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

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