Sunday, January 24, 2010

Losers Is Gay

My novel Losers is on the American Library Association's 2010 Rainbow List! It's composed of "recommended titles for youth from birth to age 18 that contain significant and authentic gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (GLBTQ) content."

Each time I'm invited to be in a queer space, I feel a little bit queer -- queer in the other sense, a little bit awkward and a little bit trespassy. I think that might be where this part of Losers came from. It's from the coming-out scene, after the actual coming-out part and after Jupiter and the Gay Character crash a gay party, and in the aftermath they don't feel any less isolated or alone. Because, just because you find other people who are the same way you are -- whether it's gay, Jewish, geeky, or anything else -- it doesn't mean they're the same as you are.

Before anything could come out, he cut me off: “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” I asked, more startled than anything.

“Don’t tell me you know what it’s like, okay? Don’t tell me that you’re different too and that you relate and that you understand what I’m going through and all that crap. Just don’t.”

I said back quietly, almost a whisper: “But I do.”

He didn’t say anything for a while. I turned my head and stole a glance at him, nervous about breaking the moment. He was still staring down the sky.

“Because I used to be the kid in school everyone shat on, and, the first day at North Shore, you made it official. And then everyone started being friends with me. Not because they actually liked me or anything, but because, somehow, I became acceptable. And still, nobody cares about me or hangs out with me one-on-one or wants to hear what I actually have to say. As long as my accent doesn’t get out of control and people like Reg and Tonya keep saying hi to me, everyone else will too. And there’s still no one I can trust, and I still wind up having fantasies about imaginary girls and CD covers.”

Thanks, of course, to the indelible Sharon for the hat tip!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

i hate it when you say a blessing on food that's way too hot to eat but you already said it, nothing you can do, so you just have to shove it into your mouth and hope for the best.

just saying.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why I Don't Eat Animals

I was just interviewed on the blog Heeb 'n Vegan. Michael Croland, who runs the site, managed to get a lot out of me in very little space -- we talk about Muslim punk music, my novel Never Mind the Goldbergs, my vegetarianism -- and, randomly, the last book I read, which is Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals:

It's hard not to talk about the stories in the book. I've stopped multiple dinner conversations because something popped into my head, and I'm really bad about not saying something. Usually in a charming and offbeat and punky way. But, uh, you can't really say this stuff charmingly.

Judaism isn't really a religion of choices. In general, in Jewish law, there are no circumstances that get either/or verdicts. You're either commanded to do something, or you're commanded not to do it. Being a vegetarian falls into a kind of shady ground. Some people will tell you that Jews are required to eat meat on Shabbos or holidays. Others will say that eating meat is a condescension that God made to people after that whole Noah thing didn't work out, and the world was full of people with unrealized hostility. (At least that's sort of the way it's portrayed in the Torah.) In essence, you can kind of say that Judaism supports either position -- that we either have to eat meat, or that eating meat is one of the most base and degrading parts of being human that there is.

matthue roth

He also quoted a line from Goldbergs at me -- which, I think, is the highest compliment you can get. It means that you've said something that's affected someone else enough for them to remember it and process it into their brains, and possibly make it part of their thinking. And then he asked me if it was a blueprint for Jewish punk. (The line he quoted was:"I still believed in G-d. I just didn't believe in other people. I mean, some days, I felt like G-d was the only one who believed back at me.")

I don't think anything can be a blueprint for Jewish punk, although it's awesome that you asked. I think that punk is the idea of taking something in a wild new direction, innovating or mutating it, and I think that the essence of any new development/mutation/pwning in Jewish thought involves going back to the source -- to G-d, to the Torah, to the original things that Moses said -- and asking ourselves, what's my relationship to it? And then looking at the relationship that other people and the Greater Jewish World have to those same ideas, and saying that maybe we've got to get back to the source.

DIY Judaism is the way that Judaism's supposed to be. But I think it also means you have to look at the sources and really get to know them, much like food radicals need to read Diet for a New America or political radicals should learn Howard Zinn.

I definitely don't think I'm at the point of Jonathan Safran Foer, where I can lay out a calm and rational blueprint of each of my beliefs in a wowing and awe-inspiring (although possibly hazardous to your dinner-party conversation) book-length tome -- but I guess that's all part of the discovery process. Whether it's the food I eat or the God I pray to. Either way, as soon as I've got it lined up for sure, I'll let you know.

Miep Gies Shows the Secret Annexe

Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank during the Holocaust, has just died at the age of 100.

The New York Times has printed an obituary that gives some interesting background both on Ms. Gies and her role in the family's survival, both during the war and after, as she (along with Otto Frank, Anne's father) spoke out about their experiences, becoming some of the first people to speak publicly about the Holocaust. And here's an utterly riveting clip of Ms. Gies showing the Secret Annexe and the hidden door behind a bookcase:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Kominas Live: The Only Jew in the Room

Last night I went to my first taqwacore concert. Taqwacore is Muslim punk rock, and what that means to you is basically that I was in a room packed full of angry young Muslims, and I was, well, the only person looking like this. Which could the kominashave been a recipe for disaster at best case and ethnic cleansing at worst, if things had gone that way. Lo and behold, though, it was a crazy, jubilant, good-natured and even sort of flamboyant affair. I was nervous and skeptical on the walk to the Bowery Poetry Club, where the concert was being held. A serious-looking muscular dude with three colors of dyed hair, eyeliner, a heavy beard and a skirt was standing there. He nodded at me as I approached.

"You here for the show?" he asked.

After a moment of hesitation -- did he mean that invitingly or threateningly? -- I threw up my arms and said, as innocently as I could, "Yeah!"

His face split open into a toothy, wild grin. He turned his palms heavenward. "'Mash Allah," he said.

Which, I knew from all the books the movement was based on, meant Boruch Hashem.

The concert was actually only half a concert: the taqwacore band The Kominas played, and preceding that, Michael Muhammad Knight read. He has a new book out, Journey to the End of Islam, and as he took the stage, people shouted requests. It's not that I've never heard requests shouted from the audience -- I have, even for writers -- but these weren't requests for pieces to perform. They were for radical performance art. Mike chuckled into the microphone and shook his head: "Nah, I can't. I didn't bring any thumbtacks this time."

He read a section in which he visits a sacred Muslim tomb, the burial site of a Muslim holy man. One way or another, he's arrested, and quirkily ends up in the office of the curator of the tomb as the man shows Knight movies on his phone of the equivalent (in Pakistani rupees) of millions of dollars being unloaded, the temple's profits from that year's pilgrimage. Knight waxes philosophical about that, and about the unrestrained passion of thousands of pilgrims crammed into a small room -- a scene that reminded me of nothing so much as visiting the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai in Israel. Knight asks himself: does the sheer capitalist profit-making endeavor mean that the tomb isn't sacred? Does the sheer number of people visiting mean that it is sacred? He doesn't answer the question (although, sharing the experience, it does sound like he went through some sort of religious ecstasy there), but he does say this:

My mission is to make religion applicable to people, even if it's not everything you want it to be.

There was one more thing Knight said that stuck with me, even though I'm going to paraphrase it. When the guards were swarming him at the tomb, nightsticks in hand and ready to bash him in, he said: "If Allah doesn't want a guard to ram a stick up my @$$, it will be as safe as if it were made of iron. And if Allah wants a guard to ram a stick up my @$$, then no force on Earth will be able to stop it getting there."

I turned to Mike's and my editor and whispered: "That's exactly the essence of everything I believe."

I've been wanting to do a followup to the story I wrote about The Book of Jer3miah, the Mormon-LDS (fictional) web series, and the way it's been taken by the rest of the LDS church. Although, curiously, while the original Taqwacores book has become a movement, swearing by its on sets of rules, Jer3miah's validity has been criticized by the simple question: Does telling new stories inspired by the Bible invalidate the originals or lessen their power? And then they dig deeper and ask the question: is making up stories -- and twisting God's will to fit your own narrative arc -- even reverent?

This is what they came up with:

"Life isn’t reverent. If someone wants to tell a story for once that’s more like true life, it can’t always be reverent. We won’t LEARN anything. Think of Les Miserables, or The Grapes of Wrath. Also, remember that Jesus himself told parables to teach us through fiction."

I know, they dropped the J-bomb -- but replace that with Moses or Rebbe Nachman, and it totally makes sense. Just by living Jewishly/Islamically/religiously, we're changing the tradition we grew up with, whether we follow it or rebel against it or a combination. And we're putting our own interpretations on it. We just have to keep hoping -- or, at the very least, I want to keep hoping -- that I'm doing it the way God wants me to, until such time as God decides to speak up in words I can understand and reveal all the answers.

The rest of the night was fabulous, of course. I had to leave the Kominas set early so I could wake up with my kid -- and I even missed them playing "Suicide Bomb the Gap" -- but I'll be back. And next time, I'm spiking my payos.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Jews Wear Hats

Jews wear a lot of hats. I mean that metaphorically but also literally: from black hats to fur hats to little white tent-yarmulkes to doilies to the Jackie O cloches of the Modern Orthodox upper-middle-class, hats and headcoverings mean different things -- important things -- to Jews.

obama yarmulke kippah

There's the idea of covering your head to show modesty before God, and the idea of covering your head to shield it from other people. Observant men cover their heads whenever they make a blessing. And sometimes people cover their head-coverings -- when entering a non-kosher restaurant, for example, or when you're trying to appear inconspicuous for one reason or another. (Lest your mind jump to unkind judgments about people who wear yarmulkes, let me tell you: I spent nine months of my life wearing a tweed hat while living in parts of Eastern Europe where you didn't want to be spotted wearing anything vaguely Jewish except an Uzi.)

What got me thinking about all this was Facebook. Two friends of mine, both amazingly talented performers, both from way different parts of the musical/social/spiritual continuum, and separated by thousands of miles, popped up next to each other on my friends list. Their pictures were next to each other -- and, to be honest, it was hard to look away. If for no other reason than, well, this:

jon madof patrick a can can

Insert here the jokes about how all Jews look alike. (It's true.) But it's funny how, aside from their finely-trimmed beards or their studiously artistic composure (Jon Madof, left, fronts the experimental jazz band Rashanim; Patrick A is the singer for Jewish punk band Can Can), both of them have singular headgear.

When I started wearing a yarmulke and hanging out with mostly Orthodox people -- significantly guys, for the purposes of this post -- I would frequently realize how often my yarmulked new friends were, well, not yarmulked. We'd go out on a Saturday night and I'd be wearing my new black velvet kippah, possibly still with the price tag on the underbelly, and I'd be accompanied by half a dozen guys in baseball caps, one in a ski cap, one in a Holden Caulfield hunter's hat, and one, only the good Lord knows why, in a sombrero.

The one thing they'd avoid -- like the plague, like the devil, and like every stigma in the book -- is wearing a yarmulke.

Or: they'd avoid wearing just a yarmulke.

At first I thought it was akin to my reticence to wear a yarmulke in Prague. Not that they didn't want to be lynched, necessarily, but that they didn't want to be instantly identified as Jewish. It's a stigma, after all. Either they were being low-key about it or they were being ashamed of their Jewish pride. In fact, I can remember people going on self-righteous anti-hat crusades, saying that hats equated ethnic shame. "You're a Jew!" they would rant and rave. "Be proud of it! Why do you need to hide beneath a hat? Do black people hide their skin beneath a hat? Did Moses need to hide his Judaism? Did Anne Frank?"

I would stop myself before mentioning that Moses lived several decades undercover as a Coptic Egyptian, and that Anne Frank probably didn't have a choice in the matter -- yellow armbands, you know -- but it's each person's choice. Besides, wasn't wearing a yarmulke and hiding it better than not wearing a yarmulke at all?

Now I'm older. I still wear a yarmulke (covered, sometimes, by a knit cap or a hoody). I live in New York, where I'm surrounded by a lot of other people who also wear yarmulkes -- and many people who don't. Some of them, of course, just don't wear yarmulkes straight-out. But others are deeply devout, and yet you'll rarely catch a glimpse of them in just a kippah -- the hip-hop artist Y-Love, for instance (he wears a tweed jeff-cap), or rabbi/author Danya Ruttenberg (yarmulke with attached devil-horns -- well, sometimes), or even the Biala Rebbe (either a Stetson hat or a fur-tipped streimel, depending on the day of the week).

And I think I've hit upon the reason. Even though we're all Jews, and we all cover our heads to honor the same ancient decree, we all want to do it in our own way. We don't all pray with the same voice, or using the same language. We don't dress the same. We have our own traditions that we might share with our family, or our friends, or the synagogue we attend. But in the modern cult of individuality, for better or for worse, we feel the need to self-identify with everything we do, from the way we act to the way we practice our religious the clothes we wear.

And that's why we cover our heads in different ways.

One last point: In the '80s, the two big foreign synth-pop groups were Men Without Hats and Men at Work. Men Without Hats, in spite of writing a song with a Jewish mother-approved title ("The Safety Dance"), faded from sight. Men at Work, on the other hand -- who have frequently been seen wearing hats, and come from Australia, where ozone conditions dictate that you should always wear a hat -- have a song that's become the most recognizable Jewish wedding song ever:

You see? It's the hats that always win. Hence my argument that, given the choice, Jews will always gravitate toward odd and unique headgear. So there.

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