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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Regina Spektor Blows (Shofar)

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

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

regina spektor blows a shofar

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2009

Paris Hilton Is Responsible (and Jewish)

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kindly Ones to Keep Us Company

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

kindly ones by jonathan littell

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I Hate Christmas

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

770s of the World

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

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

770 summer camp

770 in israel

770 in LA

770 skyscraper

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Religious Life (the Fan Video Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How to Write a Facebook Invitation

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

chanukah party

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

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

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

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

Santa's All-Star Jewish Dream Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Buffy, Animated

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

Were the Maccabees Jerks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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