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Monday, March 29, 2010

Happy Passover (and, oh yeah, a kosher one)

A rabbi used to go around wishing everyone a kosher Purim and a happy Passover. Someone stopped him and said, What are you, crazy? Don't you have it backward?

shlomo carlebachThe rabbi shook it off. "Not at all," he said. "On Purim, everyone is very concerned about being happy, so they make sure to do it. And on Passover, everyone's worried about cleaning their houses and getting rid of their hametz, so they make sure to do that. But on Purim, with all the happiness, people sometimes need to remember to keep it kosher. And on Passover, when everyone's stressed out, they need to remember to keep it happy."

I don't remember where this originally came from, but I heard it from Shlomo Carlebach, as quoted by Shalom Brodt. Either way, have a rockin' Passover. And, yes, a kosher one.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Passover with the Four Sons

If you haven't noticed, since G-dcast started, we've been playing around with the way we tell stories. For Chanukah, we did a sweeping story of the Maccabees. For Passover, we decided to zero in a little bit...and tell you a nice little family story. About arguing. Of course.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Eat Matzah Fast

Jeremy Moses of MyJewishLearning just took it upon himself to break the world record for matzah eating. (Disclaimer: before he tried, there was no world record for matzah eating.)

Every year at seder, we're supposed to eat the entire 2/3 of a piece of matzah (okay, that's if you're eating shmura matzah -- 1 entire sheet, if you go by the machine-made *ahem* cheating *ahem* kind) in one action, without swallowing. Add that to the fact that you're not supposed to have eaten matzah at all in the past 30 days...Well, if you can get it down in one gulp, you're kind of a hero.

(Jeremy also wants me to add that, when he was practicing, he did it much faster than he did on the video. So there.)

Can anyone break it?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Costs of Keeping Kosher

No one ever said keeping kosher was easy -- or cheap. As we get closer to Passover, things like this become painfully apparent to anyone who's walking in the vicinity of any supermarket: small bottles of grape juice for $5? Marshmallows for $10!? And let's not even start with the matzah cakes....

(Although, of course, you could get all the matzah you need absolutely free -- just send us a few sentences about your favorite Passover!)

kosher pizza

This article about recession pizza specials in New York -- it focuses on the heated competition between a $1.00-a-slice pizza place and a $.99-a-slice place -- is one more reason for us kosher keepers to grumble. The cost of a lunch special at either of those restaurants ($2.75 for two slices and a beverage) is less than the price of a single slice at a kosher place. But, as the article says, it's a "basic fundamental of the city’s economy — charging as much as you can whenever and wherever you can."

On the other hand, pizza is notoriously bad for things like your heart and your fat glands. And, whether you're talking about Passover or the other 357 days of the year, kosher food can actually be a lot cheaper than non-kosher food -- just make it yourself. My family and I, hard-line fundamentalist zealots that we are, don't use any processed foods for Passover.* Our grocery receipt for the holiday reads like a shopping list in Odessa, 200 years ago: Onions. Beets. Radishes. Apples. Walnuts. Milk. Avocados. Quinoa. (Okay, maybe they didn't have quinoa or avocados back in Odessa -- but they're some necessary ingredients for a vegetarian Passover.) It wasn't originally intended this way -- mostly because they didn't have things like MSG or high-fructose corn syrup during the redacting of the Talmud -- but one aspect of keeping kosher is the simplicity of the food. No tallow. No solidifying fats. No additives. These days, kosher-food manufacturers are as bad as the rest of the world with that stuff (some are even worse, in the case of "pareve" foods that are about 90% fake-stuff). But the best kosher food -- like the best non-kosher food -- are the foods we make ourselves.

But, if you must eat in restaurants, console yourself with this: Kosher-keepers don't have to deal with the other, sinister side of restaurants: the ostentatious overpriced luxury-food places that sell thousand-dollar omelets.

* -- There are a few exceptions, of course: things that are necessary for the holiday, like wine and matzah, and a few things we can't easily make, like olive oil. (I know. We'll get an olive press, I promise. But probably not till next year.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tznius Envy

There are deadlines, and then there are deadlines. I'm the Writer in Residence this month over at, and I was supposed to turn in my column Friday. How I feel about deadlines is best expressed in an email that my (other) editor (at Scholastic) just wrote me in the form of an epic poem beginning "O deadlines! How I hate thee" and spiraling from there.

But sometimes deadlines can be fun. Nicole, who runs BrooklynTheBorough, asked me to write "a piece just about being a Hasid in know, a slice-of-life sort of thing." I know she wanted me to write about the conflict between Hasidic and hipster worlds, but I just couldn't stomach it. (Sorry, Nicole.) It's just that I live that way 24/7, and there really isn't much of a conflict.

rabbi couture

Some people go to yechidus for love or financial decisions. I go for fashion advice.

The broken deadline got me writing about everyday life in Hasid-land, which I don't often do -- mainly because I hate getting too garish or showy about it. I can write fiction, and I can write about what I think about things, but if I started getting blog ideas from walking down the street? Well, (a) I'd be here till tomorrow, but also (b) I'd feel like I'm faking it among my family-in-law and my friends even more than I already feel.

Even so, a deadline is a deadline. And so I wrote, and this is the pastiche that came out. I'm actually sort of proud of it.
The bar mitzvah was a totally crazy affair, as might be expected. In one way, Hasidic Jews are unfailingly, unflinchingly conservative. In another way, it’s an anything-goes scenario. The party started at 9 pm, an hour away from Brooklyn, which isn’t crazy until you remind yourself that the target audience is 11-to-14-year-old kids — and that these parties often go for four, five hours. The mechitza was in full force with a wall dividing men and women, which meant that I couldn’t even play arm-candy to my wife. Our cousin Shmop was there, who’s just about the nicest, most magnetic and fluid guy you could think of. He’s Orthodox but modern, clean-shaven and he wears a tie – both things that make him stand out in this crowd – but he’s got this lackadaisical, no-stick personality that makes him able to get along with anyone. Seamlessly. Five minutes after we hook up, he’s gliding through the crowd, shaking hands and kissing the hairy cheeks of every rabbi in the room, coasting straight to the women’s section as I struggle to keep up with him, dodging furry hats aimed at the level of my head as the crowd threatens to rip the umbilical cord by which I have attached myself to him.

Hasidic Jews are pretty strict about this stuff. And if you missed it right there, that’s the understatement of the century. Half of the family is pretty cool with these casual social interactions. The other half — well, there’s one Hasidic dynasty, of which many of this family are members, that has a custom of men and women eating in separate rooms. The mechitza is properly only for the dancing which will take place later that night, and so that men and women don’t sit at the same tables and, I don’t know, accidentally bump into each other or get into food fights or something, but when Shmop whizzes me across the floor to the other side, my anxiety squeezes a huge rubber band around my stomach and my eyes pop half out of my head. Not from looking at women. Possibly from watching Shmop’s overwhelming casualness. Mostly from the realization that, one way or another, I am probably about to be kicked out of the family, the social hall, or, possibly, Judaism.

Here. Read the whole thing on the BtB site.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Jewish Authors' Oscars

Last night the Jewish Book Council hosted their annual National Jewish Book Awards, and they were kind enough to invite me. I wasn't a famous author or a famous book-buyer, but they let me in anyway.

At first my (a) shyness and (b) authory anti-social tendencies and (c) not knowing anybody-ness got the best of me. There was a (parenthetically: really fascinating) exhibit about Thomas Mann and German publishing, and the reception was mostly being held in one room ("mostly" meaning that the drinks table was in there, and therefore, so were all the guests) but spilled over into a second room that was ideal retreating space. I gave it an honorable go, checking out people's name tags to see if I recognized anyone. The first I spied was the illustrator of a book that I kind of slammed last year. Then I saw Alicia Susskin Ostriker, whose book of poetry >The Book of Seventy I'd read last week, but what would I say? I always appreciate when people tell me that, but then there's the deadening lack of conversation that's like, where do we go from here?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin whizzed by. I worked with him last year on a G-dcast episode, but he was moving too fast to interrupt, although I made a mad dash of it. So I retreated to the exhibit, where I made small talk with two gentlemen who spoke about Thomas Mann like they went to grade school with him, that familiar. After spending about five minutes (that's long, in the context of a conversation, anyway) trying to explain what my book was about, and failing, I threw the question back at him: "So what do you do?" "Oh," he replied offhandedly, "I'm an acquisitions editor." He smirked. And my stomach hit the ground.

I'd kind of composed myself by the time dinner began. I saw Rabbi Telushkin again, and actually spoke to him. Randomly, he asked me where I lived. "Crown Heights," I told him, to which he raised an eyebrow -- he's working on a book about Lubavitch. He started to grill me about my Chabad connections (I'm not, my wife is, her family is about as Lubavitch as the town of Lubavitch), and, the way that these things go, he used to live with my grandparents-in-law and wrote a book in their house.

The M.C. for the evening came on mic and called for everyone to take their seats. Rabbi Telushkin, who was in the middle of a sentence -- he speaks in these long, fluid paragraphs, each like a train with a hundred cars -- ignored him. Then the M.C. said something about a "welcoming word from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin" and I broke him off, don't you have to go? He shrugged and did something with his hands. Carolyn Hessel, who's the director of the Jewish Book Council and maybe the most important person ever to hold a book in her hands, gave a much-too-polite word. The rabbi grinned at me. I scattered.

Remember how I thought I wouldn't know what to say to someone whose book I read? I slid into an empty seat at the table. There was one person I knew, a sometimes-editor of mine, and one person I knew but didn't realise I knew, since we had one of those email-only correspondences (a writing/editing one, not a sketchy Internet one) -- and then there was the person whose seat I slid next to, who was Dalia Sofer. Who might have written one of the best books I've ever read. Who is probably as close to a rock star as the literary world can offer. Who was introduced to me, and whom, upon meeting, I shrunk about 25 or 30 percent and told, in as natural and un-awkward a voice as I could muster (it was still incredibly awkward and incredibly unnatural) that, geez, The Septembers of Shiraz was pretty technically proficient. Or something. Graciously, she talked to me until I'd un-awkward-ized. And it was simply really cool, in the middle of a room where I was surrounded by people with amazing ideas, to have a straight-up conversation about writing that was pretense-free and unencumbered by all our fancy clothes (my invitation said "casual," I dressed casual-but-formalish, and I was still underdressed) and the weight of all the potential in the room.

I could tell you more about the food, or the people, or the books. I wish I could tell you more about the awards ceremony -- the speeches people made, and how incredible it was to take an arbitrary topic, like landlords in mid-20th century Chicago, and listen as an author gripped the microphone and talked about how it was her father's passion and she never understood what it was all about until she researched this 400-page book about it. For someone like me, to whom reading anything but novels (stories, action, making up stuff) is hard, if not impossible, the night was nearly revolutionary.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Free Matzah. Act Now.

So part of my day job at MyJewishLearning is to come up with new and zany schemes to...well, basically, to keep the site from seeming old and un-zany. This Passover season, I've decided that we should buy someone more matzah than they'll ever need. Even if they have a whole lot of friends coming over and a studio apartment that needs re-insulation.

Here's what I wrote:

What's your best Passover story? It can be a horror story about Passover cleaning, or the story of how your parents met and fell in love at a Passover concert at college...or about the time your grandfather came to the seder dressed as a giant frog.

best seder ever passover contestMy Jewish Learning wants to hear your Passover memory.

It can be silly. It can be serious, or sad, or romantic. It shouldn't be long--tell us in a few sentences (200 words or fewer) the best, worst, or most interesting thing that's ever happened to you during Passover. Or film it, make it 2 minutes or less, and send us the YouTube or Vimeo link.

Send it to by Monday, March 22, at 5 p.m. EST. Make sure to include your address and phone number. The winning entry will be announced on Wednesday, March 24, and published on And we'll send you the biggest box of matzah you've ever seen, just in time for Passover.

(Sorry, but we're only able to send matzah to addresses in the United States and Canada.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

White Purim

I wasn't dreaming of a white Purim, but that's what we got. Saturday night, Shabbat went out, and I shoveled out our car in raver pants that were bigger and bulkier than a dress and a three-piece paisley suit. This was the kind of Purim costume that was the essence of last-minute decision-making: every weird object in your wardrobe thrown out onto the beds, picked over and jigsawed together into a more-or-less coherent outfit. My wife dressed as a pregnant flapper -- only half of it needed a costume. Our daughter was the easiest: we threw wings on her and called her a fairy. Mine was the trickiest of all our costumes, and took the longest time to get ready. A nice change from the usual going-out routine of me being the first dressed.

But here I was, shoveling away at the Brooklyn snow, making the design of my paisley suit more and more colourful by the moment. (I was dressed as, depending upon who was asking, either a pimp, a bootlegger, or one of my wife's accessories.) Itta came out, saw the car still three-quarters shoveled in after half an hour, and decided we'd never get there. So we called a cab.

We were an hour late, but the advantage of going to an event thrown by Jews is that everyone else is 90 minutes late. We ran in just as the crowd was starting to move away from the snack table and get pumped up for the megillah reading...despite the fact that you're not actually supposed to eat until after you hear megillah. But I'm just one of those anal folks. Seriously, in forty-nine years I'm going to be one of those 80-year-old men at the back of the synagogue complaining about everyone else. Tonight, I just shut up and enjoyed the show.

When you're doing an actual megillah reading -- in Hebrew, that is, and without a break to explain the action -- it's hard to have adults and children in the same room. Kids (especially kids that don't know Hebrew) are not going to follow the rapid-fire delivery. Many adults won't, either. As a potential cure, I've seen puppet shows and simultaneous storytelling.

I have to say, this was the first year I've seen a PowerPoint presentation in synagogue on Purim -- or any other day, for that matter. But, as PowerPoints go, this one was damn impressive. Achashverosh was played by Jabba the Hutt, and Haman, questionably, was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Mordechai was Dumbledore. Nice.) This was all the work of JLA Online, an LA-based collective, unsurprisingly.

Last year, my in-laws gave me an actual megillah. I don't eat animals and have some issues with using a parchment scroll, but I've decided to try and ignore that. For this year, at least. And, for the most part, it worked. I mean, as far as several-thousand-year-old stories go, it's a doozy. Fast-moving, plotted with an expert sense of narrative (I realized for the first time this year just how cinematic the megillah is, introducing the story with the character of Vashti, and then alternating between the story of Mordechai catching the king's would-be assassins with Haman's growing menace.) Even the vocabulary is made for performance -- intentionally simple, with lots of repetitions and mentioning the characters by name over and over again.

So I followed the story. Even though the reading moved with breakneck speed, I let myself get swallowed up. I stopped paying attention to my daughter alternately trying to wreck her wings and to repair them, and to the boys throwing Cheez Stix in the front, and to the rest of the world and even to how much my tied-up beard was annoying me. I just sat. Usually, I reserve this level of blacking-out-the-rest-of-the-world for praying, reading, and brushing my daughter's teeth when she really doesn't want me to. But tonight, I belonged to the story. And it was good.

A day later, I'm wondering whether this isn't part of the Purim mystique. We're commanded to get to the point where ad d'lo yada, where we don't know the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Usually this is interpreted as drinking. This year, since 4 shots before noon barely left me buzzed -- I built up my drinking resilience in Australia -- and since my parents were around and I needed to be responsible, I opted for Option B: the midafternoon nap. But really, I think what the rabbis wanted when they issued that commandment was for us to get to the point where we completely lose ourselves. Like Esther lost her sense of self when she went to the king, not caring whether she'd be sentenced to death. When we lose our senses of self in G*d. And when we lose ourselves in stories...or even, this year, in snow.

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