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Thursday, April 29, 2010

1/20: A Motion Picture

Update: Watch the 1/20 trailer.
Other update: read about our first film fest, or all 1/20 news.

I'm finally allowed to tell the title for the movie that I've been working on, and there it is. The title, I mean: "1/20." (We've been saying it out loud as "One-Twenty," but if you want to be a real geek about it, you're welcome to use the "slash.")

The title doesn't give away all of the movie's secrets. It doesn't even reveal that much about the purpose or the theme of the film (although, if you read it the right way, it might).

I'm not really sure where to begin, so I'm just going to do a little interview with myself about it. If you want to see my older blog posts about the movie -- about 1/20, I mean! -- just look for the label the secret movie (by clicking on those words, I mean). And if you have any other questions, just put 'em in the comments section. I'll try to say everything I'm allowed to.

How did this happen?
A producer read my book Never Mind the Goldbergs and really liked it. Then he read all my other books. Then he asked if I could write a screenplay. I told him I'd never done it before, and he said that was okay, he'd never made a film before either. So that was that. A director (expereinced!) was brought on, and he had his own idea of what movie we should make. Then we enlisted a talented (and also experienced!) production company, who were like the Oompa Loompas, but without all the creepy undertones. They were just that damn good.

What's it about?
This is where it gets tricky -- how much I'm allowed to say, I mean. Two girls are stuck in the suburbs, beating their heads against the wall, and they decide to run away to Washington, DC. There's a little bit of science fiction. A little bit of a love story. A little bit about how to break up with your best friend.

You mean it's not Jewish or punk?
It's not Jewish -- well, not flagrantly. None of the main characters are -- all the characters are collaborations between me and the director and the actors, and I think we all squeezed a lot of our spirituality/religion/punkitude into them. Ayako, who plays the lead character, is the kind of brilliant that shatters glass from miles away when she's angry, and spreads love pheromones to people two counties away. She's this demure, soft-spoken girl who -- literally five minutes into the film -- emerges into something fierce and savage and beautiful.

It's pretty flagrantly punk, though. You'll see as soon as I'm allowed to show the movie poster -- Ayako's hair is an art piece. An art piece that's 18 inches tall.

Where did the idea come from, anyway?
I lived in D.C. for five years, from when I was 17 until I turned 22, moved to San Francisco, and decided to be a poet. It was a weird five years -- I became Orthodox, was homeless for a bit, became a coffee addict, got off coffee, spent a lot of time alone wandering around huge empty boulevards. You haven't lived till you've been alone at the Lincoln Memorial at 4 a.m. Of course, you also probably haven't come that close to being abducted by a psycho and disappearing off the face of the earth, either. D.C. is a beautiful place, but it's also frightening. It's where I learned how to be an adult.

Have you seen the movie yet?
I've seen a rough cut, and I've seen about two minutes with film. It's beautiful. Gerardo del Castillo, who directed the film (he's the only one whose name I know I'm allowed to reveal), is a genius. If he made thirty-second TV commercials, prime-time audiences would be jumping to their feet and giving a standing ovation five times an hour.

Where did you film?
All over the place. Most scenes were shot in Queens, Manhattan, and upstate (well, semi-upstate) (well, Monsey). Some great stories came out of that, mostly involving Ayako's mohawk and Hasidic Jews. The last week of filming was all in D.C. proper. I missed the last day of filming, which was on Thanksgiving and at my favorite location in the city. But I got to be at the White House scenes, which was way worth it.

What's your favorite part?
That would be telling.

Fine, then. Biggest surprise?
Melinda, who did the art direction and props. I didn't even consciously realize there would be an art director. But when I wrote about what Ayako's character's bedroom should look like, I was basically fantasizing -- it was my bedroom if I knew way more about electronics and graffiti art and hacking Christmas lights than I do.

What's next?
Filming was completed in November. Now the movie's getting all professional-fied: The film is being cut and edited in Barcelona. The actual sound is getting mastered in London, and they're working out the soundtrack. And we're trying to get a distribution deal, which sounds like nothing, but it's apparently the hardest and scariest part of this whole enterprise.

And, most of all, drumming up support. Talking to people. Letting you know how good 1/20 is going to be once you're watching it in a theater (it will be amazing, I promise) and letting the Hollywood Industry Folks know that there are people who want to see it. That a movie doesn't have to have naked folks or guns or blue naked people with guns...sometimes, that all it takes is a lot of heart.

Dodging Suicide Bombs

This morning I was walking to work from the subway station, nose stuck in a book as usual. We are the People of the Book, after all; and I follow J.K. Rowling's advice that, any time you're not doing anything else, you should read. I didn't stop until I reached the I HEART N.Y. gift shop on the ground floor of our office building, and then I looked up from the page, saw a kid, and froze. Half of my body wanted to throw up, and the other half wanted to cry.

Sorry -- it's a really emotional week. But let me explain:

Almost Dead

That book was Almost Dead, the novel written by our recent Authors' Blog correspondent Assaf Gavron {read his posts here}. It's a book about an Israeli tech geek who lives through several suicide bombings. All the reviews so far have been describing it as a comedy -- and it is funny, you should be warned -- but more than that, it's a real fast-moving, cerebral jaunt through the mind of an average Israeli.

And Eitan Enoch is an average Israeli. He's a chilled-out guy who has his normal routine, taking the Little No. 5 maxi-taxi to work every day in Tel Aviv, working at a time management company, living with his ex-fiancee Duchi (which is a common-enough Israeli nickname, but only occurs to me now that it wouldn't be an out-of-place name on Jersey Shore). When he stumbles into celebrity as a result of his bizarre survival talent, the press demands that Enoch feel angry, or grateful, or demand revenge on the Palestinian population. He does none of them -- he's just more than a bit perplexed, and, as he says on the country's most popular TV show, he doesn't really hate anyone.

Enoch's reactions to the bombs -- and to his bizarre survival skills -- are funny, embarrassing, honest, and real. It's not the gruff caricature of the Israeli (although there is plenty of that, too, especially in his relationship with Duchi). More than any other attempt I've seen, Gavron gets to the heart of the Israeli attitude about Palestinians, and about living in a country where going out to dinner is as dangerous as walking into a combat zone, and doesn't reduce it to an equation of settlers and refugees. Israel is a place where peace is a very fragile and very carefully-constructed illusion, and Gavron depicts both parts with spine-shivering accuracy: both the world behind it and the illusion itself.

So that's what I was thinking about when I was reading this morning. And then, standing outside the T-shirt store, I spotted a boy, maybe six years old, with a vivid shock of red hair. And he looked exactly like the boy in M.I.A.'s new video -- which, if you haven't heard, is the controversy of the moment, depicting red-haired men and boys being rounded up by the U.S. military, taken into the desert, and brutally shot. Starting with the six-year-old boy.

I don't know what to think. Is the world around us getting more violent because our books and movies are? Or are our books and movies getting more violent because the world around us is? Dammit, most of the books that I feel compelled to run up to everyone I know and shake them by the shoulders and shout, "READ THIS!" are books that make me feel good. Almost Dead is definitely not a book that makes me feel good. But it's still a book that I think nearly everyone I know can benefit from reading -- so that's my recommendation.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Any Given Hasid

This morning I got an email from my friend Dugans (of the awesome band Dreams in Static) asking, "Hey, isn't that you on some random person's blog?"

tess lynch

Yep! Turns out it is. Tess Lynch, a writer and actor in LA, weighed in on the Hasidim-vs.-hipsters debacle in Williamsburg. I guess she was scrambling for a picture of Williamsburg folks, and even though my memoir about becoming a Hasid took place in San Francisco and the photo was taken in Jerusalem, I looked the part.

Her observations about the bike-lane controversy are actually pretty astute and non-one-sided. To wit:

Obviously religious beliefs, particularly ones that have their roots in the way-back-in-the-day, aren’t what one would call “flexible” or “evolutionary” or “susceptible to the charms of trends like the sort sold at American Apparel.”
Because you are doing something great for the environment, you bikers can have my respect (1 point for you); but because you ignore traffic rules so much of the time, I am going to award one point to the Satmars.

I've never wrote about the issue, although a bunch of people (including the editor of, where, coincidentally, the photo of me was lifted from) have asked. But, for about five minutes, I'm going to let it fly. Hasidim, hipsters, hold onto your outdated hats: All of you are kind of wrong.

So: I've always believed that one person's autonomy stops where another person's starts. Bikers (and bike lanes) are inevitable when you live in the city -- the same way billboards in your face and taxi drivers honking at 6 A.M. are inevitable when you live in the city -- but I think what's really an issue, as you astutely pointed out, isn't the *actual* bike-riding; it's the in-your-face-ness of both the Hasidim and the hipsters.

No one lives in Williamsburg because of convenience. It's expensive, it's crowded, pretty much every wall in the entire borough leaks; it's actually pretty gnarly. My cool-kid friends who live in Williamsburg keep saying they live there because it's cheap. (It's not. A few years ago, I was paying $800 a month for a closet; now that closet is something like $1200.) My Hasidic friends live there because it's where their families have lived there forever. But the kids are drawn to Williamsburg because of the scene and their friends, yes, but also because of the ambiance of living among the Hasidim and the abandoned-warehouse aesthetic. The Hasidim living there don't move out to Monsey or Kiryas Yoel because of family and friends and because they've lived there forever, but also because living in Brooklyn is special -- as one of my cousins put it, "we like to be around a little diversity."

(And yes, there will always be the creepy outsiders, like all those Craigslist stories of a Hasidic guy who proposition a random woman for sex -- but they're a huge minority. I mean, I've met Hasidic pervs, but in a microscopic amount compared to the amount of non-Hasidic pervs I've met; even proportionally.) Again, that's the price of living in New York City -- there are several million people in a very small space, and you will come into contact with most of them.

That said, there's one thing I've learned from living in a very cramped Brooklyn apartment with a wildly copulating couple on one side and someone with every major sneezing disease on the other: You learn to ignore things. You learn to let people have their privacy, to avert your eyes when immodesty rears its naked head, and to politely turn your music up to cover up the mucous and the "Yeah, baby, just like that!"s. You also learn to respect other people: You give your seat to a pregnant woman on the subway. You step out of the way of a person with a cane. And whether you're a dude in Spandex shorts or a chick in Spandex anything (or vice versa), you don't shove yourself in front of people who have never in their lives wished to see that much of you.

Ms. Lynch herself gets it. As she writes:

By the way, in case you didn’t know, as the hipster in the NYMag article seemed to not know: don’t go around damning God in front of a Hasidic jew. It is a bad idea and makes you look like a real idiot. I can do it here because I’m posting a blog and there is no one around to make uncomfortable but myself.

That said, it's also kind of creepy that she lifted a random photo of me and my rabbi and plastered it to an article talking about Hasidim at their worst. I'd hate for one of my kid's friends to be reading about Hasidic protesters and Hasidic perverts and then they look up and think, hey!, I know that guy. We can talk about autonomy, but it's important to remember that it's not "the Hasidim" or "the hipsters" we're hating on -- it's a bunch of individuals who happen to live in the same neighborhood.

Ms. Lynch ends the article with a great proposal: that a cross-cultural barbershop should open, specializing in beards. The idea is a great one, but sadly, it'll never happen. We don't cut or trim our beards. That's why they're all bushy and upside-down Jew-fro-y. But maybe we can all sit out on the stoops and drink Manischewitz together out of brown paper bags some time?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Scholastic Authors' Favorite Books

Scholastic has a wildly cool video of me, Micheal Northrop, Siobhan Vivian and a bunch of other folks talking about our favorite books and how we ended up being writers. And, bonus!, me imitating Hermione Granger right at the beginning.

Coe Booth was going to do it, too, but she got stage fright and chickened out, and I am only telling you this so that you realize the huge glowing ball of inspiration that is Coe and Facebook her right now and tell her she needs to let people film her more. Especially good-hearted folks from the Scholastic blog who are scarcely rude enough to qualify as paparazzi. (Even if they whittled down my 5-minute-long answer to "what's your favorite book?" so that now I just say "Where the Wild Things Are." Although, actually, I probably just took 5 minutes to say that exact thing.)

Where Are You At Sunset?

Three weeks into Sefirat HaOmer, and I don't want to ayin hara myself, but it's the first time that we've gotten this far.

bart simpson omer

I'm usually really good at doing it for myself, at completing this strange and obsessive ritual that us Jewish people have. Starting on the second night of Passover, and lasting until the first night of Shavuot exactly 50 days later, we count Omer. Omer used to be a measure of wheat that was brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. These days, omer means a number. And that's basically it. On the first night we say "today is the first day of the omer," and on the second we say "today is the second day of the omer," and so on, up to and including Day 49. Usually, I say it during the evening prayers.

This year, though, I'm draggin' my wife along.

I don't mean this to sound sexist, although given the circumstances, it almost inevitably will: gung-ho religious-nut boy yanks his lady friend along with his particular brand of fundamentalism. But the reality is more like, in my wife's family, the men always counted omer and the women never really did. Until now. (Cue lightning striking.)

We've worked it into a little ritual for our family. Usually we count right at sunset, after we've put the baby to sleep. We'll have dinner (both of us! eating together! the same food! every night! for us, this is revolutionary). We'll hang out a bit, pack for our upcoming move (tomorrow, bli ayin hara), and watch the sun go down. And then as soon as it's dark, one of us will inevitably remind the other by running up to shim and saying, with no prelude, "Baruch!"

Baruch, of course, is the first word in most Hebrew blessings. Including the blessing over counting the omer.

There's a big rabbinical debate over counting omer. Not whether you're supposed to or not --more or less everyone agrees (a rarity, for Judaism) that the omer counts as a mitzvah, or a commandment. But is it one big mitzvah to count all 49 nights, or is counting each night a different mitzvah? The conclusion that the rabbis of the Talmud reached -- which, of course, is more of a compromise than a conclusion -- is that, if you remembered to count every night so far, then you should say a blessing. If you forgot, even for one day, then you can still count -- but you can't score with the blessing. (All of this, of course, is a way-simplified version of the more-or-less official account of how to count the omer on MJL.)

And that's also a roundabout way to say: We haven't forgotten yet. And we're still counting with a blessing.

Yes, it's a bit self-serving. But that's because I'm a little bit proud of us, and a little bit astounded at us, too. Wonder Twin powers, activate.

Image thanks to DWallach.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Huge moving sale going on at the Matthue bookstore! Get books cheap! Help us not have to move them all!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Hasidic Numa Numa

If you haven't gotten the flavour of Jeremy Moses's writing, what are you waiting for? Here's the direct link on to read the entire past year and a half of his blog oeuvre. Study it. Memorize it. You will never again be at a loss for a joke, a witty comeback, or an in-depth analysis of a prime-time reality TV show. Or just watch this incredibly viral video of Jeremy setting the world record for matzah eating:

We're proud like parents that Jeremy has a new weekly column on National Lampoon's site. Each week, he's reviewing a YouTube classic video in exhaustive detail and deciding whether it's one for the ages.
Probably more than any other viral video, “Numa Numa Guy” has infiltrated popular culture the most. Quick word of advice to all Moldovan pop group managers. If you get a call from one of Mr. Brolsma’s people, never call him back. Ever. They owe that guy millions of dollars. Trillions. Basically every cent they’ve ever made since 2005 should go straight to Brolsma.....

First, a hypothetical. Let’s say that Gary Brolsma were to appear in a rap video, dancing along side Ludicrous, or 50 Cent, or whoever the young people are listening to these days. Would the video automatically become cooler? Just think about that for a second. The fact that it doesn’t automatically seem out of the question for a rapper to invite Brolsma to be in a video dancing with hot women with champagne on their breasts (and the fact that you’re probably wondering in your head if Brolsma might actually have already been in such a video) is all the proof you need.
His first review, he told us, was of the Numa Numa video -- one of the most popular videos of the Internet world. Which, of course, I nodded and said I'd seen a million times. Which, of course, I'd never seen.

"What!?" Jeremy exploded. "You've never seen Numa Numa? Seven hundred million people have seen Numa Numa."

"Or," I countered, "One person has seen Numa Numa seven hundred million times."

We all logged onto the National Lampoon site the second it was posted (remember: proud parents, proud parents!). Then we saw the video. Then I realised: I have heard the Numa Numa song. About a million times. It's the exact same song -- with slightly altered lyrics -- that played when I lived in Israel, climbing the mountain to Shimon bar Yochai's grave in Meron, dancing with the Hasidic hippies in Crack Square, or just turning the corner into an unexpected party in the middle of nowhere.

Yep: it's the Na Nach Nachman song.

It's hard to explain exactly what this song signifies to me. A combination of religious ecstasy, triumphant dancing, and the cheap religious books that the caravans of Hasidic rave-boys sell across Israel (neon covers! kabbalistic wisdom! all yours for, what, the Israeli equivalent of $2.50?). Yes, there's definitely a lot of drug use among a minority of Na-Nachers. And yes, it's not a sustainable lifestyle -- that is, jumping around to trance music and going village-to-village selling books all day. But for what it is, I think, more than anything, it's really an expression of bittul, the idea of nullifying your own will before God's. The idea that, even if you look like a total dork when you dance (and I do) (but who doesn't, when you're hopping up and down?), you're fulfilling Rebbe Nachman's entreaty that "it's a huge commandment to be happy."

And -- and this, I think, is the hidden mystical dimension of Jeremy's column -- who exemplifies this total self-nullification better than the Numa Numa kid?

Or, like Rebbe Nachman says, Mai yahi, mai yahoo hoo.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I still haven't broken Passover. And I'm kind of cool with that.

(Okay, I sort of promised myself as I sat down to write that this wasn't going to turn into a my-Passover-was-cooler-than-yours post. I'll try to keep it that way. But it still might.)

A few years ago, when I was living in Israel, I went out to lunch with a bunch of folks. This was two, maybe three weeks after Passover ended. My friend B., who's kind of a spiritual giant and lives on a different plane of existence than the rest of us -- he routinely takes half an hour or longer to pray the (usually 3-minute) mincha service -- happened to mention, while we passed around the wicker bowl of laffas, that he hadn't broken Passover yet.

This was soundly greeted by a round of "Whut?!"s from the table.

B. explained. It's not that he was purposely prolonging Pesach (say that three times fast) -- he just wanted to hold on to the feeling. He didn't even say that. What he said was much more subtle, and much more wise. Something about how going from from chometz to bread, was a single huge step, like going from slavery to freedom, and if we do it all at once, we miss the full spiritual experience.

Caveat #1: Not everyone has the patience (or the space in their lives) for a full spiritual experience like that -- and most of us need to dive back into our bread. I was going to make a salad for lunch today, but I didn't have time, and so I grabbed a bagel from the freezer, slathered on some cream cheese, and made my train in time. But yesterday I packed Passover leftovers, and I was feeling pretty damn good about it. (Caveat #2: my wife is a personal chef, which most people aren't -- and hence, my lunch of manchego gratin and ratatouille was probably not most people's Passover experience. Gloat gloat gloat.)

People like B. amaze me, not because they have spiritual experiences, but because they have such a talent for making spiritual experiences last. For me, I have a great morning prayer, or hear a great song, it's gone the moment I step out the door and the angry Brooklyn traffic crashes me down to reality. Sooner or later, I know real life is going to sink in -- and, with it, the hametz.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Passover Price Gouging

I told you how my family and I don't use many processed foods for Passover, thus avoiding many of the ugly price-fixing that goes on during the holiday. But some things, you just can't buy -- unless, of course, you want to squeeze your own olive oil.

These two bottles of grapeseed oil look basically the same, don't they?

passover oil

There's just one tiny difference: One bottle, we bought a couple of weeks ago, before the Passover rush (that's the open one). We ran out last night (during Chol Hamoed) to buy the second. Aside from that, they're virtually identical. Or are they? Oops -- look again.

passover oil $8.99

That's the bottle of oil we bought way before Passover -- before the supermarkets started isolating their Passover products to a specially-tagged PASSOVER SALE NOW! section. And what about the bottle on the right? You'll notice it doesn't have a price tag.

Fortunately, we managed to save the receipt.

Now, $8.99 versus $12.49 isn't a huge difference, 29% of the total cost -- unless you think of it on a macro scale. Imagine being charged 1/3 more for everything you bought in a week. (In our part of Brooklyn, with an average family size of 10, chances are almost everyone is affected more than we are.) Despite the successful lawsuits against Manischewitz and other matzah companies for price-fixing, there are huge problems that need fixing. Even after all that Pesach cleaning, it's still a dirty business.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ignoring Passover

I always look forward to the Passover seder. Any ritual organised around reading a book is good by me (those people who shout Bible verses in your face on the subway platform notwithstanding...although, if you catch them in a quiet mood and ask about their lives, you'll get some pretty wild verbal autobiographies), especially when you're with the people you love, or a bunch of strangers with interesting things to say, or some combination of the two, which is the way it played out this year.

We were de-invited from our first seder because our hosts' kid developed mumps, which, since we've got an 8-months-pregnant woman and a toddler, is not an ideal situation. (Of course: we live in Crown Heights. Where else in the world is there an outbreak of matzah lasagnamumps in 2010?!) On the other hand: Being that we're in Crown Heights, it's totally natural and normal and not at all a breach of social etiquette to call some random folks and say, we need a seder, can we come over?

And that's what we did -- my friend (and awesome poet) Jake Marmer's in-laws were glad to take us in for the night. And the next night, we returned the favour -- not to them, but to the aforementioned combination of friends and strangers, some of whom knew the seder inside, out, and backwards, and some of whom hadn't been to a seder in years.

That's one of the advantages of a seder. With the same text in front of you, the preeminent Torah scholars of the generation and the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask a Question are on the same footing. The big question of the Haggadah isn't "How is this night different?" -- anyone can see how this night is different, and the Four Questions are really just statements that echo that. The real question is, why is this night different? And anyone is equally qualified to dig into the text and answer that.

When I was a kid, Passover eating was pretty simple. Most nights, we had regular meals with matzah replacing the bread: matzah burgers, matzah pizza, matzah lasagna. It's totally doable, and even cool as a change-of-pace sort of thing. Desserts were plentiful: macaroons, coconut marshmallows, and jelly-filled whatevers. My grandmother made "matzah rolls" out of matzo meal and lots of eggs, and we could even have sandwiches. We were always okay with that, with the matzahfication of our food. Or at least we were for the first couple of days, until we got bored of matzah and our pee started smelling like burnt toast and we started counting down the days (ok, hours) until we could eat the B-word again. Life -- for the 8 days of Passover, the day before (when you stop eating grains in mid-morning), and the month before (when you stock up desperately for food you can barely stand) -- becomes centered around this frantic rush of fortifying our boundaries to Passover. Food substitutes and iPhone apps seem to be created for that very purpose, to help us ignore the un-ignorable: that we're neck-deep in a leaven-less life.

This year, it seems to be the official position of MJL's blog (well, of Tamar's posts and my own) to advocate a different sort of simplicity: rather than doing a simple find-and-replace routine on your diet, where you replace any sort of grain with matzah, try eating simpler foods, unprocessed foods, and stuff that doesn't come out of a package.

All of this is a long way of saying, there are as many ways to keep Passover (both food-wise and otherwise) as there are people who are keeping it. And one of those ways is to pretend that nothing's wrong, that your diet is completely fine and that you just forgot to buy some bre -- yeah. But why turn a potentially awesome transformation of your diet into a gnarly routine of substitution?

Matzo lasagna image from Albion Cooks.

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