Friday, May 28, 2010

The Orthodox Jersey Shore

When Frum Satire showed me In Over Our Heads -- billed as "the first unscripted Jewish reality television series" -- my knee-jerk reaction was, is it good for Orthodox Jews? The first episode followed women on a trip to the mikveh, a bath used for, uh, spiritual cleanliness (or, "ending the period of not having sex and transitioning into having sex," as one character puts it).

The second episode is less abrasively sex-centric, but manages to be even more sexual: Our heroes leave their religious community for the night, go into the city, and stay up all night at a dance club.

The verdict's still out. When new, odd Orthodox articles or stories or videos come out, I get a surge of overprotectiveness, because if you're Orthodox, every non-Orthodox person you meet over the next month will make all sorts of sweeping generalizations that your life is exactly like the thing they saw on YouTube. (If you think I'm exaggerating, I'm not -- you won't believe how many people asked me which Hasidic folk song Lady Gaga stole the hook to "Bad Romance" from.)

The show has its stronger and weaker moments. I'd be the last person to argue that dancing isn't a form of spirituality, but I cringe watching one Orthodox character struggle to defend her spiritual practice, eyelids fluttering from being up all night while scarfing down coffee, while sitting next to some non-Orthodox guy who keeps cutting her off and cursing at her. "A lot of people are afraid of what's inside them and don't express it," she says. "But if you express it, then you're free." On the other hand, it's flippin' reality TV. Of course these people aren't at their most coherent state.

The series has some moments of blinding clarity, and they've picked strong, smart, and likeable characters. We want to know these people. In some way, we do know them. Not just those of us who have friends, family, or who've even been those kids sneaking out at night from Monsey to the city, but for all of us who've been different.

I think I will keep watching In Over Our Heads, even if I'm not totally with it yet. It feels like we're watching a rehearsal for something. I'm not sure what it is yet -- they might not know either, either the producers or the stars -- but I'm excited to see it when it happens.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Paul Auster at Book Expo America

Paul Auster was at the book conference today, signing his newest novel, Sunset Park (which you should buy, and read). The line was surprisingly short -- I couldn't decide whether I was going to spend my entire 30-minute lunch break waiting to talk to him or just skip it and regret it for the rest of my life. Fortuitously, no choice needed to be made. He was perched on a high stool, looking particularly civil and caffeinated, in dark glasses, slicked-back hair, and every bit as rompy as one of his characters.

I asked if he was overloaded with books or if I could give him a copy of my book Candy in Action, which Soft Skull had just passed off to me. He said a pretty clear "overloaded," until his (handler? agent? mysterious female companion?) smiled graciously and said "I'll make sure he actually reads it" and slipped it from my hands. Then we talked about the comic he'd written that I'd read to my daughter the other day -- he cackled when he heard that. "She didn't get it at all, did she," he cackled. I said she understood it pretty well, but she was still checking for an invisible man behind her.

He said he didn't like the illustrations; I thought they were good, but strange, like smelling one thing and tasting another. Then he moved on. But it was pretty cool.

A minute later on the other side of the expo center, I ran into the Jewish Book Council crew. I was still bubbly about my new Auster book. Carolyn hooked into my arm: "Take us there," she commanded. I did. I stayed low because I'd had my moment and didn't want to spoil it, but I saw he still had my book sitting there. Naomi managed to snap a picture of Mr. Auster and my book, and there it sits above us in this post. If *ahem* when somebody makes it into a movie, I sincerely hope they cast Paul Auster as the shady character who gives Candy her missions. And that they pay him a million dollars to do it. I mean, it probably won't be as good as Smoke, but it will be a whole other kind of good. Unless they get Tom Waits to record the music too. Then it might be.

My new favorite photo ever from the Jewish Book Council blog, courtesy of Naomi and co. Thank you thank you.

Friday, May 21, 2010

What's Held Me Up This Time

Sorry for the lack of updateage! But I've got what might be the best reason ever:

She was a big one, and (no surprise for a descendent of an author) was 17 days late. But she got here, and that's all we have to say about that. Her mother is recovering, and our midwife, despite being temporarily outlawed in the state of New York, is a pretty kickass deliverer. And, hey, the packages she shows up with are pretty damn great.

Thank you, all of you in Internet land, thank you immeasurably for your kind words and shout-outs and mazel tovs. Especially the non-Jews who don't know what mazel tov really means but say it anyway. Sorry I haven't been able to reply to each of them in kind, but please know that my heart is swelling like one of those water balloons that you've filled so perfectly that it ends up exploding in your hand.


The Forward just published an article I wrote about the Shondes, a violin-based punk band, which they just wrote very nicely to say that it's one of their favorite write-ups of themselves. So, there, you don't have to take my word for it.


My partner in musical crime, Mista Cookie Jar, will be touring the East Coast next month. I'll be doing the New York shows with him, and doing some of our Chibi Vision songs as well. We have a morning gig for kids and parents at Perch in Park Slope. He wants to book a nighttime club show, too, although he hasn't yet found a place. If you have any ideas, please give him a shout at his website. Tour poster coming soon -- oh, and soon I'm going to post a certain movie poster that I'm finally allowed to show you.

Big things coming up. Little things, too. But all of them worth dancing about, I do assure you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

From Another Planet

My new short story "Hailing Frequency" was just published (and you can hear or read the whole thing online). It's a story about an unemployed geeky dude who moved to Chicago for his girlfriend's job, and then the entire planet got invaded by aliens, and everyone's trying to live life normally, only he doesn't have a life to live yet -- and, yep, it's science fiction.*

It also doesn't have anything to do with Jews.

matthue aliens

In this world where Jewish books are valued at a premium and branding books as "Jewish" can make or break a book, advertising your novel or short story or whatever as a Jewish book is pretty valuable. On the other hand, I just finished reading Joseph Kaufman's The Legend of Cosmo and the Archangel, which is written by a self-proclaimed "ultra-Orthodox Jew" and his Judaism is only secondary or tertiary to the book, behind his being a recovering hippie or a rural New Englander.

(On the other hand, a lot of people think my sidecurls look like antennae, which is a pretty good argument for me writing about aliens.)

There's a huge debate going on in the science fiction world about the split between more literary offerings and more, well, sciencey stories. (For a more in-depth explanation, check out this well-voiced article from the SF periodical Clarkesworld.) Does the television show Lost count as science fiction because there are shady explanations of time travel and otherworldly (or other-reality-ly) dealings? Or does it not, because the focus of the show is on the characters?

I'd submit that it doesn't really matter. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's most popular book, Rebbe Nachman's Stories, is all about beggars and princesses and long walks through dangerous realms -- and virtually no one in the stories is identified as a Jew. (Keep in mind that Rebbe Nachman is one of the original Hasidic masters, not just some Orthodox dude writing fiction on his Twitter account.) Science fiction doesn't need to take place on Mars or in the year 2012, and Jewish books, well, don't need to have JEW printed across the top. (And, conversely, every book with the word "JEW" printed across the top isn't necessarily Jewish. Or good. But that's beside the point.)

Next up on my reading plate is The Apex Book of World Science Fiction -- edited, by the way, by the Israeli writer Lavie Tidhar. I'm kind of in love with it already (okay, it's an anthology, and I've been peeking). My favorite stories are the ones where nothing really matters except the vital parts of the story -- where the characters are like feelings, the setting isn't "Rome" or "Burkina Faso" but is instead a dry swamp, or a child's bedroom. The power of telling a horror story lies in its universality, and the power of an emotional story like Lost is the same -- no matter who you are, and no matter where you're coming from, a good story should be good to you. It should touch you. It should change your life. No matter how Jewish, or SFfy, it is.

* - I'm saying "science fiction" instead of the preferred appellation "speculative fiction," because no one on this website knows what spec-fic means. Sorry, geeks.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sports Kippah

Like we told you before, real Jews wear hats. Don't wear a hat? Then you're not a real Jew. Unless, of course, you wear a doily, in which case you're the Jewiest Jew of all.

But, you might ask, what if I don't like wearing a kippah? What if I think they're too showy? Or too holier-than-though? Or all of mine are in the wash? What if -- you may thunder, evoking a wrath like the first time G-d saw the Golden Calf -- I care about global warming and the ozone layer and cancer and all that stuff, and I want to keep the sun out of my eyes? What if I play sports? What if I'm an outfielder in baseball and I need to block the sun out of my eyes to call out someone? What are you trying to say, Roth -- that real Jews don't play sports?

Whoa, there, imaginary person -- calm down. People like you are the reason that the YamuKap was invented.

Now, one of my friends called it "the most hideous article of Jewish clothing ever invented." And that person does have a point -- it's not like a yarmulke has a special power that an average everyday hat, doily, or towel thrown over one's head can't replace. But I do have to admit, there's something beautiful if inelegant about wearing a Yamukap -- a yarmulke is supposed to keep you mindful of God, and I don't think I could forget for a second that I was wearing this thing, if I was wearing it.

Which I'm not. Because I'm a geek and a tech and a writer. I use the internet, learn Talmud with Rashi, and I never go outside. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't. And for that, you'll always have the Yamukap.


Thanks to Aaron Roller of Mimaamakim for this one. You're a prince.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gay Jewish Cats (who like my books)

The relentlessly cute band Stereo Sinai just sent over this picture.

In their words:

"The attached photo is of George, our gay cat, sitting on our coffee table by your zines and Goldie's book, extremely happy. The only other time he sits like that is when he's near shoes. He has excellent taste. You should be proud."

I'm glad. I love my zines, but I've always worried that they weren't as cuddly as the real-bound books. "Goldie's book" means Goldie Goldbloom, who also lives in Chicago, whose first novel was just released, and is also awesome. And it's weird -- it definitely didn't happen as fast as the pop-up taqwacore movement, but I do believe we're starting a movement.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Give Her a Get

Jewish punk music might have ditched the kitsch for good. While I love myself some YIDcore, the silly Australian punk band, the Groggers' new music video for the song "Get" is everything that punk is supposed to be about -- mostly, positive social change and making you uncomfortable.

I have no idea whether they're disgruntled yeshiva boys or sardonically clever baal teshuvas or another monster entirely. Dear Groggers, who are you? Do you have more songs? And are you actually cool in real life? Give me a shout.

And, if you want to know more about what a get is or exactly why it's permissible in Jewish law to kick that dude's tuchus six ways to Sunday, read's article on agunot get, and check out this other swanky example of art-as-activism: a comic called the Unmasked Project.

(And thanks to the innumerable Heshy Fried for showing me this.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Great Parade

I've got my first music writing gig in a while, reviewing the new Shondes album for the Forward. And while it's weird to be listening to music in the middle of Sefirat HaOmer, it's also kind of cool. The other day, right before my gig, I got a song stuck in my head ("Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, if you were wondering). I was fasting from music, but I could still taste it, so to speak -- much like Roger Ebert, who can no longer eat food due to cancer, writes about still getting ghost tastes in his mouth.

And then yesterday was Lag BaOmer, the joyful day that ends it all.

No matter where in the world you are for Lag BaOmer, either Meron or not in Meron, there are crazy celebrations. In Crown Heights yesterday, we stumbled upon a huge parade, a great paradeparade that was more like a March on Washington -- literally thousands of little Hasid-lets in bright orange T-shirts worn above white long-sleeve shirts. In the grand tradition of Hasidic events with superlative non-descriptive titles like The Big Event, yesterday's festivities were known as The Great Parade.

And I know this won't mean anything to 99% of you, but it was sort of the Hasidic equivalent of a Beatles reunion show, if the Beatles had never played on stage together before. The (Great!) Parade's three headliners were all one-namers, like Madonna or Prince: Lipa! MBD! Avrohom Fried (who, okay, isn't a one-namer, but has that star appeal nonetheless). And -- and, okay, this was a big one, especially for those of us who are under two years old -- Uncle Moishy!

The biggest show going on wasn't even on the stage. It was in the streets. Intent on making my family happy, I trudged to the end of the line that snaked outside the barbershop, where dozens of men waited for their first haircut in 33 days. Ahead of me, a bunch of people were recounting the age-old debate about whether the Lubavitcher Rebbe is really the Messiah -- since the star-studded event brought in thousands of newcomers to Crown Heights, and there's really only one thing that newcomers to Crown Heights talk about. Behind me, people were discussing the merits of Uncle Moishy's music. As you can imagine, I have some pretty strong opinions -- I'm a huge fan, and I think that Uncle Moishy honestly gets what kids want to hear. My only serious gripe is that, since my Hebrew name is Moishy, there's really no way my daughter can have an Uncle Moishy. Unless he's an uncle-in-law. But,

The day went on. Highlight: the What Will Happen When the Messiah Shows Up float, which had a bunch of plastic action figures rising from elaborately-done Styrofoam graves, and a conveyor-belt of babies with impromptu pasted-on cotton-ball beards going around and around in a circle of resurrection. Words can't begin to express how cool it was, and I honestly pray that the real thing, when it happens, will look as cool. Low point: The petting zoo. I honestly don't think I've ever seen more depressed animals. I think the kids were picking up on it, too -- kids were prodding the giant turtle to come out of its shell, which, if you were that turtle, was no incentive to; and there was a monkey inside a cage that was alternately brooding in a corner and having a psychotic meltdown. I'm pretty sure it was mostly the fault of the booking company, and not the parade managers, but still: not cool, folks. And I highly doubt that Shimon bar Yohai's followers had giant turtles or monkeys or ibexes around when they went into the forest for their Lag BaOmer celebrations.

Oh, other high point: Bumping into the awesome singer Dov Rosenblatt (and my brother-in-law Boz, who teaches awesome classes) at a booth for Jnet. In his post-Blue Fringe life, he's moved to Los Angeles and started making musical iPod programs. I was hoping he was performing, but he was just there to have a good time. As is, on Lag BaOmer of all days, totally acceptable.

And now that I can listen to music, it feels like I should binge. My biggest urge so far has been to hear the They Might Be Giants song "Subliminal," which isn't even one of my favorite songs of theirs. But who am I to judge? Like Roger Ebert and his food memories, I don't have control over what my ears want.

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