Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Blogging the Bible

When user-testing the Tagged Tanakh, the Jewish Publication Society's attempt to user-navigate the Bible, my first reaction was, this is the mother of all blog -- and the logical next step in human technology. When I worked as a trend forecaster, we had a maxim that started, "If Hewlett-Packard only knew what Hewlett-Packard knows," which effectively meant that big corporations have no idea how to fathom the entirety of the knowledge that's already at their fingertips. If there was a way to do that to the Bible -- not just as a simple search engine, but as a real, organic, multi-reference work that ties together the entire body of human religious knowledge -- it could, without hyperbole, rock the socks off of academia.

The thing is, the Tagged Tanakh might do exactly that.

jps tagged tanakhImagine Facebook where all your friends are religious experts. Or, to make it a little more Stone Age, imagine that you could eavesdrop on Rashi, Radak, Onkelos, and the Gur Aryeh writing notes back and forth to each other. And that's just the barest level of the depths that the Tagged Tanakh can plumb.

JT Waldman, the Tanakh's creator, sat me down at his laptop and told me to start out easy. "Search for a word," he said. "Any word?" I asked, typing in "nose ring."

We only received one result, in Isaiah, which troubled both of us a little. "We're working on the search feature," he explained. Attempting the variation "nose-ring" with a hyphen got us what we expected -- Rebecca's gift upon meeting Isaac for the first time; the women of the Children of Israel donating their jewelry to create the Golden Calf. This didn't bother me as much as it should have. It was a minor glitch, which JT said would be fixed before the official launch; besides, Google has accustomed me to searching for variations more or less automatically, like "chazan" when your desired search doesn't turn up much for "hazzan."

But that was only the beginning. "Tag it," JT encouraged me. He showed me a few options: I could read commentary on the verses, write my own commentary, or tag the phrase -- that is, I could sort it by applying a label (such as "jewelry," "gold," or "punk-rock accouterments in the Torah") and grouped it with other similar instances in the Tanakh. I could use a tag that already existed, such as "ritual objects" (since nose-rings were thought to mark engaged women in early Sumerian societies), or make my own, like the aforementioned punk-rock tag.

I went with both. Then I went to a more frequently-visited section -- Exodus 9, one of those "Let My People Go" chapters. I clicked on the lemma view, which displayed notes and annotations by scholars, and came across a note by Elaine Adler Goodfriend (identified as a "scholar," the highest possible designation on the site). On the biblical passage "the hand of the Lord will strike your livestock," she'd written, "A letter from Ugarit refers to pestilence as the 'hand of god/s'." Not the absolute most insightful thing I've ever read, but still pretty insightful. (It led me to Googling "Ugarit," in any case.) Then I went back to the text itself, with all the phrases that had notes on them highlighted. It felt like I'd hit paydirt -- like one of those Internet mazes where you're confronted with a thousand different links, and you want to click on them all.

jps tagged tanakh jps tagged tanakh jps tagged tanakh


Right now, most of the annotations are made by scholars. As more people log on, they're going to fill up the Bible with more and more chatter -- my beloved "punk rock accouterments" category is going to be complemented by more "OMG Ashley Tisdale Has A Nose Ring Too" labels. Which could be as destructive as it is self-serving. If everyone and their bff are commenting on Genesis 24:22, who's going to care about what Rashi has to say about it?

But, even then -- my mind leaps to debate myself -- the people writing stupid comments would have to be reading the Torah in the first place, which is no small goal. And there are enough filters in place so it's possible to only display remarks from recognized Torah scholars, or to only display remarks by people who've never read the Torah before and are recording their first interactions with it. Remarkably, the same far-right Jewish communities who'd want to shield themselves from "liberal" commentaries, such as some of JPS's books, might be the biggest potential clients for this venture. Imagine clicking that you'd only want to read Orthodox commentaries on the Bible. Or that you'd only want Reform commentaries accessible. By giving the common reader the tools to filter and censor the commentaries themselves, Waldman and his cohorts are also fundamentally giving their readership the ability to break down those very same labels.

There are "summary" tags next to each biblical book, which are somewhat helpful when dealing with Leviticus or Deuteronomy, and immensely helpful when it comes to lesser-known prophets like Mihah and Habakkuk. Strangely, the existing commentators (such as Rashi, Gur Aryeh, and those folks) aren't yet included...but a variety of multimedia content, ranging in variety from curious (wacky parsha videos) to awesome (Google Maps!), is.

"Tagging" was originally the province of graffiti artists, who scaled buildings and burrowed into train tunnels in order to paint pictures and write verses on walls. (The phenomenon of tagging one's own handle or name was a relatively recent innovation.) I used to tag in Eastern Europe with an artist friend, and our sole rule was that the only buildings we tagged were ugly Communist cubes. Although our stencils would have looked amazing on Tyn Church, or the Orloj clock, our rationale was that they were already beautiful; we didn't want to ruin it with our art, even if it might be complementary.

I don't know how useful it will be to know about what random teenagers in the future think of Bible verses, but I know that I love writing about what I think of them. And I know I'm curious to see what my friends think. And that's why I can't wait for the Tagged Tanakh to come out for real.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Losers: The Movie

Okay, so, not. But there *is* a movie coming out called "Losers," and it's not based on a novel about comic book geeks, but it is based on a comic book.



Yay. Dammit.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Michael Jackson, Power Girl, and the Deeper Meaning of Chests

I just took a walk outside on the rare lunchtime spent in the company of fresh air -- well, as fresh as it gets in urban Manhattan, anyway -- and I can report back, with almost no mean degree of inaccuracy, that this is going to be the summer of the Michael Jackson t-shirt.

michael jackson t-shirtI'm serious. For a while, I thought that Barack Obama was going to take the cake -- I mean, the t-shirt stores and bridge-table vendors near Times Square have been selling BO t-shirts and baby tees since January, and back then no one was even wearing t-shirts -- but things change, and the stakes are raised. After all, nobody expected the King of Pop to die.

And then I start wondering, where did we get this idea to wear our heroes on t-shirts in the first place? You didn't find the Children of Israel wearing I Heart Moses t-shirts, and how many times did he save their lives? More than Michael Jackson did, for damn sure.

Recently, in Israel, a clothing manufacturer started selling baby t-shirts that bore Rabbi Akiva's summary of the Torah, the words V'ahavta l'recha kimocha -- literally, "love your neighbor like yourself" -- written across the bosom. As much as Rabbi Akiva probably didn't linger too long on the free-love double entendre of his core principle, it's not a bad thing to go spreading to the rest of the universe. And, hey, it encourages various rereadings and reinterpretations...which is the essence of Torah commentary in the first place, right?

When I started working at MJL, there was a dress code. I suppose most day jobs have one. But, being as though I'd spent the past three years doing single days at law offices and anywhere that needed something typed, I wasn't used to having to do something that didn't require my one tie and single pair of fancy pants.

I learned pretty quickly, however, that the MJL dress code didn't cover much -- basically, it was no t-shirts with writing on it. It sounded pretty simple at first (I mean, the last thing that fosters a productive work environment is an ALOHA FROM MAUI shirt, or one of those ITHACA IS GORGES joke t-shirts that nobody really understands but everyone spends hours looking at, trying to figure out) but I soon came to have a different understanding of the rule. Wearing a word on your chest, whether it's "Sexy" or "Rock Star" or "I Voted for Fred Thompson," it's making a statement. It's limiting you. Even if the word is as simple as "hope," it's still setting a direction for your day. And the beauty of us as human beings is, our days can go anywhere.

power girl and supermanIn DC Comics, there's one superhero, Power Girl, whose uniform, in place of a Superman "S" or a Batman bat logo, has -- to put it delicately -- a lack of fabric. For years, it was never mentioned. Then, in a recent issue of Justice Society of America, it was called attention to rather vividly (and, at first, rather indecorously). At the end of the issue, however, there was a blazing monologue that caught me off guard: "Superman can wake up every morning, put on that big 'S,' and he knows exactly what his job is," she said (I'm paraphrasing). "Batman can wear a bat and strike fear into people's hearts or whatever. But I don't know what my mission in the world is, yet. I'm not ready to limit myself to one thing. So I have to keep searching."

Which is the biggest reason (though certainly not the only one) that I'm not going to wear a "V'ahavta l'recha kimocha" t-shirt. But even if there's nothing across my chest except for a blank shirt and a couple buttons, you'll know exactly what I mean.

G-dcast: The Shema, Beatbox version

Husband-and-wife team Rachel Harvrelock and Yuri Lane did this week's G-dcast. I really think it might be the best one yet. Do I say that a lot? Well, I mean it. Evidence: this does mark the first appearance of a capella gospel beatboxing in a G-dcast. And Old Man Moses is making me a little jumpy, after being used to Dynamic Puffy-Beard Moses, but I think I like him. He reminds me of Miracle Max from The Princess Bride. And that swelling of the beatbox just as Rachel fades from her own words into the words of the Torah...man, I get chills.







Friday, July 24, 2009

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!

If you haven't schooled yourself on The Goldbergs -- one of the first American sitcoms, a virtual one-woman show created by writer/producer/director/star Gertrude Berg, who won the first Emmy Award for Best Actress ever given -- there's no better time than now to start.

Gertrude berg


For one thing, MJL just posted its history of The Goldbergs. It's a series that was on the radio for the better part of two decades, and television for five years -- and, today, barely anybody knows about the program. Hey, I didn't even know about the existence of The Goldbergsuntil I was halfway through writing a book about them.

The new film Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg doesn't do penance for this oversight, but it's a great place to start. Documentarian Aviva Kempner's previous film, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg covers the same time period and territory -- that is, the early 20th century, where Jews have already come over to America in large numbers and are just starting to deal with the question of what it means to be here. It's that question, and the various answers that are posited, that Kempner manages to express so eloquently.

If Yoo-Hoo has any major flaws, it's that it doesn't dwell long on the actual Goldbergs series. While Berg was a wild, compassionate, and multi-talented character -- she was a writer/director/actor "triple threat" before a label existed for such things -- so much of her public persona came from Molly Goldberg that it's hard to minimize the fictional Goldberg's influence on the real-life Berg. As Berg was fond of saying, she spent more time in her day writing, acting, and talking about Molly Goldberg than she did being herself.

That's not to say that Berg's struggle with her identity, as well as the struggle with the identity of her most-prized creation, don't come across in the film. It's exceedingly hard to follow the narrative rule of "show, don't tell" in a documentary, but Kempner accomplishes it masterfully. One scene, which combines file footage of Berg showing a TV interview crew around their house with Adam Berg talking about his grandmother's spending habits, it paints a picture that's both understated and incredibly vivid. Berg was both a modern, material woman and a first-generation American, and she combined the two in a personality that was equal parts regality and awe -- almost as if she couldn't believe the life she'd stepped into, but still wanted to do it right.

With a rollicking pace and a bunch of different voices, the film feels almost like an episode of The Goldbergs, telling a story that's warm and funny and existing just on the verge of believability...but always with that undercurrent of wonder that keeps you not just invested in the story, but cheering for the characters.

A bunch of first-person accounts -- from Berg's biographer and grandson, as well as some of the original actors and random people, among them Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recounting their own memories of listening to the Goldbergs -- round out the documentary. There's also an never mind the goldbergsawesome slate of guest appearances -- including the director, Aviva Kempner, as well as Mrs. Berg's grandson (who appears in the film, and tells some great stories), and the granddaughter of the actor who played "Uncle David" (of course) -- to go with screenings of the movie.

It's not an exaggeration to say that virtually every television show that's come after The Goldbergs, from the faintly Jewish tone of anti-Semite Archie Bunker's kvetching to the wacky plot twists of Full House and Arrested Development, bears in some way the genetics of its Jewish ancestor. When I wrote my own novel about a TV sitcom centered on a Jewish family, I called the book Never Mind the Goldbergs and the fictional TV show "The Goldbergs"--in the words of one character, it sounded "Jewish, but not too Jewish." I only learned halfway through writing that there already was a sitcom with that name. After contemplating changing the title, I decided to leave it untouched--both as an homage to the show that I never knew about, and as an homage to the idea that I'd somehow already connected with.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Watching the Signs

Today was funny and sad and moving and poignant and pretty awesome, all told, the kind of day that makes you question why you do what you do, and then shows you by smacking you squarely in the head. Here's the song I'd listen to if I listened to music, but it's still part of that time period where we don't listen to music, so I'm dwelling in the silence instead. Which might be just as well.

First was Young Adult Writers Drinks Night, which are definitely my 5 favorite words in the English language to say together. laughing and making merry with david the editor and coe booth and other good folks. and then i looked up from my drink and saw Richard Nash, who (until last month) was editor and director of my other publishers, Soft Skull Press. And then Anne and Denise, who took over Soft Skull, showed up too, and I had this uneasy realization that, if someone dropped a bomb on that bar, I would have no editors left in the world.

I went to the B&N on 66th Street and did a covert signing. (All they had was Candy, but hey, one book signed is one book maybe-sold.) I don't know if it was a good sign or a bad sign or what. Asked the guy who worked there if they could order more, and he said he'd try to remember to ask his boss in the morning.

Then I went to the Mimaamakim poetry text study. It was a pretty amazing feat -- 80 or so Orthodox folks going over Lucille Clifton and Seamus Heaney, analyzing their words like Torah and ripping them apart like Talmud. It was kind of glorious. Even the painful parts (well, the parts that were painful to an English kid like me) were glorious. People don't just read poetry these days. Especially Orthodox people. Except, they do.

As we were packing up, two girls came up and asked if I was me, and told me how they'd both read Goldbergs and about their class projects in yeshiva and they had no idea there were other people in the universe like them. I wanted to tell them all about Michael Muhammad Knight and how he hadn't known there were other punk Muslims in the universe -- and then I realized, I was the same way with punk Jews. This was kind of my signal flare to the universe, my "are you out there?" call. And, dammit, sometimes people reply.

Yes: it was a good night.

Now I should be asleep. But I'm waiting up for my family to get home. My family! I wonder what Hava would say to that.

No Malice in Wonderland

Sometimes it's better not to be disgruntled or disillusioned or distrustful and, when a bottle tells you to drink it, just gulp it down.

edit: not as good quality. but at least it exists.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=pt-br&from=sp&vid=44ad7500-98da-43a6-b7ec-2796f73849c9" target="_new" title="Trailer">Video: Trailer</a>
Dear Tim Burton: We can so be friends again.

Oh, The Nonprofits You'll Go To

My wife and kid are out of town. Which means that I end up staying out past 6:30 p.m., my daughter's bedtime, and wreaking havoc on the town. To me, blotting out how much I miss them by consuming maddening quantities of alcohol is an expression of love.

So that was how I ended up telling the erstwhile Frum Satire to meet me at a bar in midtown for the most random of convocations, which I'd been invited to by a well-meaning friend: a happy hour for Jewish professionals for the explicit purpose of social networking.

I arrived before Frum, and slipped in unobtrusively, figuring there'd be someone I knew, or at least someone who thought I looked interesting enough to talk to. I was stopped at the door and asked what I was doing there, and whether I was invited -- it was a networking event, but strictly for Jewish professionals -- "that is," I was told, "people in JCC's, nonprofit organizations, that sort of thing." "Oh, dude, I'm totally that," I said, thinking I could brush past, get my nametag, and score some free falafel-based snacks.

But I wasn't so fast.

"Oh, that's interesting!" she deflected me again. "Who are you affiliated with?"

At this point, I name-dropped MJL -- which caused everyone to smile a bit ("I use that site all the time!") and gush over us. (Forgive my immodesty, but: Score!) At this point, I had a bit of an existential moment, realizing for the first time that day -- because I sometimes forget -- that I look like such a hardcore Jew with my beard and payos, and they might have thought I was just stopping by to eat their nosh. Which, after all, I was. What they didn't realize was, i was

I was pretty freely admitted. But then my pocket began vibrating. It was Frum calling. He was right around the corner.

So we had a twenty-second debate. Stay or go? We were by far the least well-dressed people there (-1). We were both artists (-1), and therefore had no grounding or no interest to these people (-2). Except, possibly, that they might want to book us to do a show (+2). And maybe invite us to more events (+1). With more free food (+5)...

This obviously took longer than twenty seconds. What really broke up the argument was when an Israeli in a t-shirt and painter's cap came up to me, started calling me tzadik, which basically means "saint," and asking whether he could get me a "kos plasteek." Frum and the person we were talking to, who was involved in several Zionist organizations but apparently didn't speak Hebrew, looked at us, baffled, for a translation.

"He asked if I want a beer in a plastic cup," I told them.

Because, in my experience -- and in all seriousness -- no one treats Orthodox Jews better than totally 100% secular Israelis. Calling me a saint was totally ironic, of course -- secular Israelis do this often, and it always is -- but it was an even higher compliment than if he'd meant it literally. It means that he considers us close enough to make a joke, and he considers me good-natured enough to take it well. Which, of course, I did.

I explained back at him in my bad Hebrew, and then translating for everyone else in bad English, that you don't need to worry about drinking cold beverages in a plastic cup; that they'll still be kosher. And then I asked him what he was drinking -- and what was he drinking from? It was a mojito. The ultimate Israeli drink: alcohol, soda, and fresh chopped-up mint. And he was drinking it from a Mason jar.

That settled it: we were staying.

It was a good time, even if the food wasn't kosher. Inside, we really did meet some pretty cool folks. Someone who was in charge of the Meira chapter of Hadassah, whose slogan on their cards was "We're not JUST your grandma's hadassah!" The person who runs Limmud NY, who I'd been email-harassing for a year to have me come speak, but who was actually very nice and not offended at all in person. And the guy who runs a travel blog called YeahThatsKosher.com. And then the awesome Sarah Chandler showed up, webmaster of the equally awesome JewSchool. She told me, "I wasn't going to show up, but I figured there was some reason I needed to go."

Yeah, I said to her. I know exactly what you mean.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Britney's Secret (Conversion) Diary

The New Yorker, everybody's favorite highbrow magazine, likes to drag their heels in the mud with the rest of us from time to time. Check out their new illustration regarding Britney Spears' ostensible conversion to Judaism:

britney spears jewish


In the accompanying article, Andy Borowitz skewers the all-too-easy target of Britney, trying on a new religion with as much disposability as trying on a new pair of panties.

Best line: "Madonna is so Jewish I call her Mezuzah." Worst: I was like, “Rabbi P., is there any way you could break this down into a bunch of tweets? I’ll read it on my phone on the way to rehearsal.” He got so mad those curls on the sides of his head started shaking. (I don’t know why he won’t let my stylist snip them off. They’re not a good look for him, K.?)"

Which is, admittedly, more than one line. But you needed to hear the whole thing in order to fully appreciate the awkwardness and the trying-to-write-like-a-ditz-when-you're-actually-kind-of-an-intellectual-ditz quality of the entire falsified diary.

Yeah, you heard me. You come after Britney, now you're comin' after one of us.

Monday, July 20, 2009

G-dcast: 40 Years in 4 Minutes

Just back from LA, and expecting that I will get a full night of sleep one of these days. The G-dcast fiesta was totally awesome. I spoke about G-dcast and the process and the amazing people we work with, and everyone kept clapping when I showed videos, which was weird, since I wasn't sure whether to bow or thank them, or just to tell them that I'll pass it on the next time I see Marcus Freed or Malki Rose or Stereo Sinai.

But the participants were great, and we had some amazing talks -- about my being Orthodox, about what we all thought of the Torah, and about why we were here in the first place. And this is what I didn't show anyone -- Shawn Landres's great G-dcast that takes us right into the Book of Devarim, the last of our 5 rounds of Torah this year.







Thursday, July 16, 2009

Praying (They Don't Think I'm Gonna Blow Them Up)

I'm reporting to you live on location from the airport lobby. At 6:00 AM, the place gleams with a shine usually reserved for window-washing commercials and baby's backsides. Even when it's hygienic, it still has that suspicious airport smell. I couldn't tell you why. I think it's just part of the way G*d created the world.

Anyway, it's not 6:00 AM anymore. It's a little past 9, and the place is a lot more filled and a lot less gleamy. And I'm in Terminal 5, the JetBlue terminal, instead of Delta, where my flight is, because people who fly JetBlue look less gloomy and because there is free (and non-hiccupy) internet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

matthue roth with airportWe arrived at the airport and checked in at 6:02 AM. Turns out, Delta instituted a new policy -- YESTERDAY -- that you can't check in baggage less than an hour before a flight. Need I say that our flight was at 7:01? So the rest of the fam ran ahead, and I hung back to be the proud defender of our baggage.

And to try and scrounge for another seat. Now, I have anxiety issues. At 7:00, there was a flight that they couldn't get me on because they tried too late. At 7:45, same thing. Eventually, it was 8:30, I still didn't have a ticket, and I was getting dangerously aware that the latest time I could possibly pray was rapidly creeping up.

So what's a boy to do? What, indeed, except go and throw the politest, most courteous s#!+-fit that he could. And smile politely afterward and explain that he needs a ticket.

Sometimes, all you need to know is how to speak the language. Not more than five minutes later, ticket in hand, I sat, confident and assured that I still had nearly six hours to kill before my flight, and unwrapped my talis and start to pray.

This was the point where I noticed something was amiss. People were staring at me. And not in that hey-didn't-you-write-a-book-I-read way.

I started swaying into the prayers, trying politely to ignore it. Then I took out my tefillin and started wrapping the black straps around my arm.

That was when they started looking at me like I was about to blow something up.

It's pretty understandable, actually. I mean, I have nervous and paranoid fantasies all the time. I'm always thinking in terms of a worst-case scenario. (Like, for instance, whenever we're headed for an airport, I just know we're going to miss our flight. Totally baseless, and it never actually happens...whoops.) When some dude who looks like an alien with upside-down antennae covers himself in a white cloth and begins wrapping possible-dynamite-but-it's-actually-leather around himself, there aren't too many things that it could be.

And so, if I saw myself praying in an airport, I'd probably think something was up with that, too.

I tried to ignore it. I couldn't, of course, but I had a script in front of me in the shape of a prayerbook, and I just tried to do the best that I could.

And then I turned -- as I often do -- to Lost. Itta's been watching the whole series nonstop, and last night, in the middle of a stakeout (in a boat, watching for signs of the evil people who might not be evil...oh, never mind), one of the characters -- Sayid, the former Iraqi soldier turned US spy -- whipped out his prayer mat and started praying.

It was so nonchalant, and so much a non-event, that it almost seemed natural. The same way that the characters on Friends were always running to and from each other's apartments without knocking, or that a good friend uses the bathroom in your house without asking where it is, Sayid just took five minutes to do his Allahu Akbars.

matthue does his allahusSo I did the same thing. Just straightened my posture, straightened my concentration, and started to pray. I don't know if anyone noticed -- anyone but myself, that is -- but I kind of got it going on. And I came out of it a little out of breath, a little sweaty (it is an airport, after all), but feeling pretty exhilarated. And it was the best praying I've had in a while. No one came up to me to compliment me on my praying skillz, but by the time I was done, I really thought they might.

And, by the way: JetBlue is not always the cheeriest terminal around. For the past 15 minutes, they've been playing all of George Michael's most heart-wrenching synth ballads. And I'm not even supposed to be listening to music in the first place.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mayim Bialik Goes Hasidic

Mayim just sent out this puzzling email, and I'm not sure if I'm supposed to publicize it or not, but she is awesome, and so I am. Any time she's on TV, it's better than her not being on TV.

Which is why you should all watch Saving Grace tonight. When the one and only Mayim Bialik is going to guest-star as, I believe, a Satmar Hasidic Jew living in Williamsburg.

i am certain you are dying to know what i would look like as a chassidic jew and on 'saving grace' on TNT tonight you can find out. here's a hint: no make-up, snood over my hair, very roomy clothing.
so tomorrow morning, please don't ask me about if i liked it.
just enjoy a laugh at my expense.

my upcoming role on secret life of the american teenager will be much more exciting i promise.

Let's all hold hands, sing "Kumbaya," and celebrate Hasidic Jews finally being played by someone who doesn't hate Hasidic Jews.* And, in the morning (or, for those of us who don't own TVs, whenever they put Mayim's episode online), let's all tell Mayim how hard she rocked.

* -- Not including Natalie Portman and the real-life Satmar guy in that short film. It was never released, anyway, so it doesn't really count.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Everybody Wants a Tail

Not to get too furry on you people, but my friend, collaborator, and ex-housemate Ethan Young's comic Tails just got written up in a big way in Comic Book Resources. Like the reviewer said: "It's a largely autobiographical comic about dating and cats. None of those things sound like something I'd be interested in....but yet in less than two dozen pages, Young charmed me with his drawing style and his jubilantly downtrodden protagonist."

It's an appropriate sentiment: people can write stories about the most esoteric things and make them universally-relatable, and people can write stories about walking down the street that no one in the universe will relate to or care about. Ethan falls squarely in the first camp.

(And Ethan and I are working on something together, too...I can't say what, yet, except that it's nothing like you expect and it's going to be awesome.)

Here, check out a page -- and then go read the rest:

16 Days with No Music

Sixteen days to go, that is -- out of a total of 21. During the Three Weeks, we're not supposed to listen to music...leading people like me to drive ourselves insane. This is about when I usually reach my breaking point. For a perpetual headphone-head like me, who likes to walk around with a soundtrack to everything, it's hard to just give up my iTunes -- let alone, the 15 CDs that I always carry around, because I am Old School like that.

sayid tries to find some talk radio

Finding something good to listen to during
the Three Weeks:
How not to get 'Lost'
Here's a few of the tricks I've worked up.

* The Lost Rewatch.
Listening to TV shows is fun! Especially when you're in a forlorn cubicle and the only other sounds would be Manhattan commuters damning each other to eternal purgatory with their horns. Nothing beats a fight scene with no words -- where, for 5 entire minutes, you hear a whiz, then a boom, then the sounds of someone clubbing someone else's brains in. How do you know who won? If they're still speaking at the end. The first four seasons are free to watch (or listen to) on the Lost website.

* Archive.org.
We can't stop praising this site. Books, old radio shows, and even TV and Smashing Pumpkins concerts are all up here, for free. But we're not concerned with any of that -- not for another 16 days, anyway. The Naropa Poetry Institute just provided a massive portion of their archives, which includes Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti lecturing and reading poetry. And there's also (ahem) a few Jewish spoken-word shows by me.

* Authors Talk about Cool Stuff
I can't tell you why, but Neil Gaiman's 7-minute speech from the PEN World Voices convention is really, really beautiful. Something to do with talking about the Chronicles of Narnia and not being able to go home again, I guess.

* AM Radio
I used to hate listening to talk radio. Everyone was either rabid right wing or rabid left wing. Even supposedly funny people like Rush Limbaugh, whose views I couldn't take seriously from the start, stopped being funny when you started realizing how many people were listening to him, regarding him with UTTER SERIOUSNESS AND DEVOTION. I had a friend (uh, acquaintance) (actually, we almost got suspended for beating each other's lights out) who literally took notes during Michael Savage.

It wasn't until much later that I discovered the joy of AM radio. By far, my favorite was Coast to Coast with Art Bell, who invited every manner of supernatural nut, and a bunch of people who actually did know things, onto the show. He'd talk for hours about UFO abductions, telekinesis, paranormal phenomena and the Yeti -- and every moment was a window into the life of someone I'd never have otherwise known about.

There are several other worthwhile non-musical radio shows that you have to check out -- the two essentials are Car Talk and, of course, A Prairie Home Companion -- both available free online, both new episodes and a 14-year archive.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

How I Wrote a Film Script in a Week (drugless and caffeine-less)

Over Shabbos, I read my screenplay.

I know -- three logical responses to this:

* So what? You wrote it.
* What, you don't remember it?
* It's been, what, a month?

And the answer to all three is: Actually, I'd completely forgotten it existed in the first place. I'd spent five months trying to write this script, and writing something -- a thing that, at times, I thought was the script -- only to realize, once the producer (also known as the guy who's bankrolling this whole affair) had flown to Spain to meet with the director and was deep into plotting out WHICH character should be in exactly WHICH place, and whether scenes that were supposed to be filmed out deep in the country would be filmed in the suburbs or a vacant lot in the city, that the movie they were going to be making....well, it was going to be a completely different movie.

What happened exactly was, the day I sent it away, I wasn't completely happy with one of the minor characters. And that character ended up having their own movie. And that movie...well, 15 pages came out that day.

The producer -- who, ordinarily, has a reputation for being a calm and reasonable gentleman -- yelled at me over an international number. His voice sounded more like the Matrix than an actual voice, but the meaning was still clear. "WE. NEED. A. SCRIPT."

"Seven days," I begged. "Give me seven days."

And, in those seven days, all the thoughts that I'd been pushing to the back of my head for the past of those five months came rushing to the front of my head, and the sides of my head, and filling the rest of it, too.

So I wrote it. Put it aside for a week. Realized the ending was wrong, and that there needed to be a scene that there wasn't, and rewrote that part. And, with that, I handed it over to the people who know much more about the visual moving image than I ever will.

That was a month ago. Friday night, everyone else crashed out early, and I found myself wondering what had happened to my main character. And I found myself reading it. The entire thing.

I used to read parts of Never Mind the Goldbergs when it came out. Candy, too. Losers, I haven't read at all. But I've never actually

((yeah, i'm not sure what happened to the end of this...but i figured it was important to post.))

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Taking the Messiah out of the Three Weeks (and Putting Joy In)

Today is the 17th of Tammuz, the day when five big catastrophes happened in Judaism:

* Moses smashed the original Ten Commandments;
* The daily tamid offering was not offered in the Temple for the first time since it was constructed;
* The walls of Jerusalem were breached by Roman armies;
* A Torah was burned by a Roman general; and
* An idol was erected in the temple.

Last night was singer, pianist, and storyteller Rabbi Raz Hartman's last night in town. I got there late (I had a show of my own, and I was running late, and on low energy. But when I heard Raz singing, I bolted down the hall. (Being as though this was a fancy Upper West Side apartment building, with single-and-well-jobbed Jews all over the place, it was probably the first time the hallway had ever seen bolting.) It was a sudden rush of adrenaline, a memory of the first time I sat at his table for Shabbos. There's probably something in Hasidus that talks about the need for sudden devekut, but I don't know the quote. All I knew is, I needed to be there, right now.

And it was a joyous time. It was a really good time. I used to stay on the Upper West Side a lot, back when I was single and weird. I went to a bunch of social gatherings, and they were almost uniformly uncomfortable -- lots of "you're a professional poet? No, but what about for money?" -- and I was almost ashamed of my initial reaction that night, which was to gloat that I was the only male present (bli ayin hara) with a full head of hair.

But I pushed it to the side. Oh, there were the bankers and the lawyers and the people with their shirts tucked in and girls who wouldn't look twice at me, but I have my own girl, and I have my own job. And Raz was singing songs about rebuilding Jerusalem, and telling everyone in the audience that we need to come over for Shabbos dinner when we're in Israel. And it was so awesome and holy and joyful that it was hard to remember that we were on the precipice of a fast day, and that the next three weeks were the anniversary of the amazing city that we're singing and storying about getting ransacked and destroyed by the Roman army.

Occasionally, here at MyJewishLearning, we get in theological debates. (It is a Jewish website, after all.) When I wrote our article on The Three Weeks, I originally included a concluding paragraph that talks about the coming of the Messiah, and how the Jerusalem Talmud prophecies that the Messiah was born on the climactic day of the Three Weeks, on Tisha B'Av. It was cut out -- because, as one editor noted, some people don't believe in the Messiah.

Yeah, I'm Orthodox, and saying that you don't believe in the Messiah is like saying you don't believe in fairies -- you're either a heartless bastard or a 10-year-old boy with something to prove. The Messiah and the World to Come represent hope, and goodness, and that one day we'll have better things to worry about than bills and nuclear war.

To my surprise, though, they let me keep in a quote from the Munkacs Rebbe, who is totally awesome (and, by the way, is a cousin of our site's good friend Dan Sieradski) which closes out the article:

The Talmud says, "When the month of Av enters, one should decrease in joy." The Hasidic rebbe Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira (1861-1937) said that, though the Talmud says to "decrease in joy," it should be read, "decrease...in joy." In other words, though it is proper to mourn, even in that mourning, we should do so joyously, knowing that better times are ahead.

That, I hope, is a sentiment that everyone can get with. Whether they're balding or not.

A Jew and a Muslim Walk into a Bar...

8:00 a.m. It's been 7 hours since last night ended -- and 3 hours since I woke up -- and I'm still shaking.

michael muhammad knightI set up a reading with Michael Muhammad Knight, the author of the Muslim punk novel The Taqwacores -- mostly, I confessed on stage, so that I had an excuse to meet him. My old religion teacher, S.H. Nasr, always used to say how different religions were just parallel paths to the same destination, but before I read Taqwacores, I was never convinced that anyone was taking a path remotely in the same direction as mine.

When I showed up, Mike and his friend were already there. He was apologetic -- "I don't think I'm going to read from Taqwacores tonight," he said. "Not sure if that throws off the theme of the evening, or not." Instead, he said he was going to read from Blue-Eyed Devil, his travelogue of Muslims in America. "There's this ritual I've been thinking about," he told us. "When Shi'a Muslims pray, you remember the battle of Karbala and remember the suffering of the third Imam, Imam Hussein, and you hit your chest."

Sometimes, he said, the beating can get intense. People praying themselves into a frenzy have been injured, and sometimes killed. "There's this part in Blue-Eyed Devil about the bed of nails," he finished. "I think I'm going to read that while I administer the blows to myself."

I nodded. I'm only a dozen pages into the book, but I knew what he was talking about. It's just like the Jewish al chet prayers on Yom Kippur, slamming our fists into our hearts. Easy stuff. Divergent religions, comparable practices. Yay, Nasr.

And anyway, it wouldn't be my first time with radical performance art. I mean, I spent five years living in San Francisco. Having a conversation with someone who was self-flagellating or immolating was practically coffee-table talk.

losersI went first. I read out of the sequel to my novel Losers, where Jupiter forgets it's Rosh Hashana and then runs into God. It started out being about forgiveness and repentance, but somehow he ended up talking about having crushes on girls and checking out girls through the mechitza in synagogue. I can't really explain it. That's just Jupiter.

Then Mike got up to read.

He started reading about going to visit the grandson of Malcolm X, who was incarcerated at the time, and talking with him about Islam and prison life. Somewhere, he transitioned to talking about the Muslim al-chet prayer* and describing it being administered -- it's not just a simple fist-tapping-heart; you raise your arm up all the way, and then slam your palm into your pectoral muscle. Mike talked about people bleeding beneath their shirts. Others just ripped off their shirts to feel the full brunt of the blows. As he read, those people by the bar who were just ordering a sandwich began to order quieter; the line for the monologue show got a little less monologuey.

His voice was really picking up steam now. He pulled off his shirt. We almost didn't notice; it seemed like the natural thing to come after talking about it.

Then he started to read about men throwing themselves down on a bed of nails -- small nails, thousands of them scattered on the ground. Which is when he picked up a plastic bag and scattered a tiny golden rain across the floor.

We craned. Thumbtacks. Literally hundreds of them. He gave the bag a final shake, tossed it aside, and then threw himself on the floor.

When he came up, they were sticking to his arm in droves. They actually stuck to his arm, lining it, kind of like a He-Man villain, or like Dr. Claw on Inspector Gadget. Then he threw himself down on his other side.

Somewhere in between being introduced and when the reading started, I talked to Mike's friend. When we met, he was eating the most out-of-control pasta I had ever seen, but he wore a purple silk shirt and managed to evade the volleys of tomato-sauce with gusto and aplomb. He told me that he was scripting the adaptation of Blue-Eyed Devil, a kind of meta-commentary of Michael Muhammad Knight on himself, exploring his own faith at the same time as he's supposed to be writing an authoritative guide of American Muslims' faith. It's all pretty incredible. Before the event, Mike murmured, in what we thought at the time was a joke, "Maybe tonight'll become a part of the movie." Now, in that meta-meta-everythingle zone of retrospect, I'm not sure about the joke part.

Much later, we showed up to see Raz Hartman, the rabbi from our yeshiva, who was visiting from Israel. He was supposed to be giving a lecture in an apartment on the Upper West Side. As soon as I got off the elevator, I could hear a piano-drum-and-violin jam. I booked it down the hall. Rabbi Raz was perched at the piano, swaying like a spring hurricane in Kansas. He was shockeling, that back-and-forth motion you do when you're praying, but wilder than anyone in America knew how. His fingers never left the keys, though, and like a tornado, he had a steady epicenter that he always returned to. It was a totally different kind of passion -- not the kind that pierced you like pins, but that held you in place like pins.

Same tools, different direction.


* - whose name I can't track down, although I found a fascinating article about the ritual itself

Monday, July 6, 2009

G-dcast: Hesta Prynn & Pinchas

The Daughters of Tzelophechad have the hardest-to-pronounce surname in the entire Torah. That isn't the reason that we asked rapper Hesta Prynn to talk about them in this week's G-dcast -- it's because the story of the Daughters is one of the most intense feminist-or-is-it? stories in the Torah, and we wanted to know her take on it.

The real reason that we asked Hesta is kind of twofold: one, I read an article by ethnomusicologist Mordechai Shinefield about how 2/3 of the hip-hop trio Northern State is Jewish -- a trio which my daughter was really into at the time. (She was six months old then. Now she's 16 months, and is more into They Might Be Giants, but still needs to get her hip-hop fix now and then.) They're also no strangers to my own CD player. So I wrote them up, said pretty please, and Ms. Hesta was incredibly receptive.

And so, without further ado, the Daughters themselves:







Thursday, July 2, 2009

10 Things I Hate about Commandments

I'm a big proponent of making the Torah relevant for modern society and everyday life. Maybe it's my whole Orthodox Jew trip of believing that Torah was given to us as a gift. Maybe it's because I'm a writer, and I want to believe that the stories we tell have life beyond when we tell them, and that they can pertain to different people in different circumstances -- and that the Torah, as the greatest story of all, can apply to anyone, anywhere.

But I don't think I have any excuse for loving this video as much as I do. Except, possibly, that I have dreamt all my life of someone turning my book into the next Ferris Bueller's Day Off.


OK, so the addition of Samuel L. Jackson "as Principal Firebush" at the end is a bit of a stretch, and doesn't at all fit with the tight-as-anything leitmotif that the rest of the video established. But who doesn't love themselves some Samuel L.? He didn't even totally suck playing a one-eyed black Nazi in The Spirit.

(One more note: yes, it is creepy that the narrator says "we'll see who can get the girl" just as Basya -- otherwise known as Moses's freakin' ADOPTIVE MOTHER -- comes onscreen.)

Bowery Poetry Club tonight!

At tonight's Mimaamakim show, I might do something I've never done before, and read a d'var Torah. I promise, though, it will probably involve at least two of the following: crushes, interspacial travel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and robots.

Blog Archive