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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Jews of the Future

Oh, hey! Check it out: My article for Patheos on Orthodox Jews and technology got picked up by the Washington Post and Newsweek!

(I know, it's exactly the same article as I already told you about, but I'm still pretty psyched. Okay. Now I've got to get back to the wedding parties...but I'll see you when I'm back in the States.)

Oh, and thanks to Natasha Nadel for letting me know!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Schindler's List and Hip-Hop Remembrance

When I was in Junior Congregation services at OCJCC-BI in Philadelphia, we spent Tisha B'Av -- the holiday that's the anniversary of the Temple's destruction -- watching depressing Jewish videos. Some of them (Shoah) conveyed the appropriate they're-dead-and-it's-sad response from my 12-year-old self. Some of them (Schindler's List -- specifically, the scenes of Oskar Schindler in bed with the naked bouncing-breasty women getting all pogo-stick on top of him*) left, uh, a different image in my head.

The London-born, Jerusalem-based poet Danny Raphael just laid down some rhymes of remembrance. It's only 2 minutes long -- and, back in 8th grade, I wasn't very open to appreciating hip-hop -- but I'd like to think that I would've appreciated this.

* -- It feels like heresy to say, but as a geeky barely-teenage boy who'd just seen Jurassic Park (loved it) and was expecting something I could do a Hebrew School book report on, it was unexpected, to say the least. There was plenty of stuff that depressed and inspired me, as well, but when I left the theater that day, the sole image that stuck with me was not a skeleton-thin man behind a barbed-wire fence but a full-bodied woman who touched off a strange chord of both attraction and haunting in my spread-wide-open impressionable mind.

Now, this isn't to say that I disapprove or disagree with the film. I think the only people who wouldn't say Schindler's List is a work of art are either anti-Semites or jealous (the latter category includes all you film-school snobs). The most common feedback I get from my book about becoming religious is that it'd be a great story except for all the cursing and sex. Real life is real life, and portrayals of life are going to contain stuff that isn't exactly ready for prime time. Was I ready for it as a kid? I don't know. Although, on the other hand, most of my formative life-changing experiences were things I wasn't ready for. And this would be the footnote that's longer than my actual blog post.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Rugelach and Blessings To Go

My friend dropped me off across the street and pointed out the shelter where the minibus stopped. "The 16 sherut will take you straight to the train to the airport," she said. "Don't get on the 4 or the regular bus." I wasn't sure if she was telling me to avoid the normal bus because it didn't go to the same destination as the sherut did, or because the large regular buses are often the target of suicide bombers. (They're larger, and they're government-subsidized; both are attractive reasons for a potential terrorist to get his bomb on.)

Not that it mattered. I liked the feeling of the private minibus. The clientele was a mish-mosh of scraggly hippie kids, snowman-shaped Russians, and old ladies with shopping trolleys bigger than they were. Before that, though, I stopped to pick up some rugelach.

Now, rugelach are an important part of any Israel experience. Fresh from the oven, painted with honey and sticky from melted chocolate and cinnamon that's still oozing out the sides. I know people who've finely tuned the art of buying a box of Marzipan rugelach straight from the oven, hailing a sherut to the airport, and landing in New York 10 hours later with the gummy dough still warm and the chocolate still drizzly.

But Marzipan, and the people buying it, had the disadvantage of being in Jerusalem, which is an hour away from the airport on a good day. I was in Tel Aviv. And I was, by my friend's estimation, 20 minutes from the gates of Ben-Gurion International.

So I popped into the closest store with a kosher certificate. I picked out a selection -- mostly cinnamon, a few chocolates, some savory triangles to satiate that side of our mouths. (And by "our," I mean my wife and kids, because if I got away with one whole piece of the loot, it'd be a good day in Brooklyn.) I picked up the tongs. The guy yelled at me that I shouldn't touch all the rugelach, that I was taking too long. I told him that I was choosing them for my kids; I was about to get on a flight to America.

The other baker looked up from across the room. "Do you live in New York?" he asked, in Hebrew. And, when I nodded: "In Queens?"

I said, well, Brooklyn.

"Do you ever go to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe?" he asked. I said, sometimes. The truth is, I'd only been once, although my wife gets around there fairly often, being of that ilk herself.

But sometimes was as good as yes. He fed out a piece of paper from the cash register and wrote something down in Hebrew. "This is my son," he said, and read out the name. "When you go to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I need you to ask him for a complete healing. Heal his body, heal his soul. Here." He fumbled in his pocket and drew out a handful of change. I told him, don't worry, I already had tzedakah to travel with, but he insisted. I promised him I would. Then he came around the counter

My first reaction was, Don't you realize I'm going down? When someone moves to Israel, we call it making aliyah. No matter what you think of it politically, the land at the latitude and longitude of 31 o 30' N and 34 o 45' E is a pretty potent place, metaphysically. The only major world religion that hasn't had some sort of epiphany near Jerusalem is Buddhism*, and that's because they're all vegetarians and don't have any energy.** Whereas I am going to New York, which is most famous for people making money and soulless TV shows.

Then he came from around the counter and hugged me. Yes, he hugged me. For something I hadn't even done yet and wasn't even sure I was going to do personally. It was that potential, that in-the-moment energy, that I really could help him out, that I would transverse boroughs for him, or even just that I happened to be in the neighborhood of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's cemetery and I'd blurt out a prayer.

In the moment I said yes, I was a complete tzaddik.

I've been back for 4 days so far. I haven't gone yet, but I'm really going to try.

I wasn't sure about going to Israel for 4 days. It was a hella long flight and an awful long time to be away from a very young baby. But that's the reason why we do the things we do, whether it's going to work to earn money or going to Israel and saying a prayer at the Western Wall -- because in those moments are all the potential in the world. Fate could go any way. And, if we push hard enough, it really might.
* - Yes, I'm including Hinduism. Ask me about it sometime.
** - Sorry, but it's true. And I know all Buddhists aren't vegetarians; it's just funnier when you say it that way. And, as a further postscript: I am a vegetarian, and I'm feeling pretty tired right now because I forgot to pack some proteiny thing for lunch today (or, I did, but the lentils were crunchy. Ewww). So there.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Future of Orthodox Technology

A few weeks ago, Talia Davis wrote to a bunch of Jewish techy and thinky folks and asked us what we thought about the future of Judaism. Talia is the force of nature behind the religion blog's Jewish site, and when she chops down a tree, we hear it.

A bunch of folks -- including MJL's Anita Diamant and Patrick Aleph -- responded. Some of the highlights include a piece about activism from Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (who's shaking up ethical kashrut in America) and a pretty awesome article on feminism that argues that equality is not the only answer.

I weighed in about how technology changes Orthodox observance and gossip. Here's a snip:

If you look at the biggest change in both communication and skeptical dissent in religious communities, you'll find two web sites with overwhelmingly huge traffic numbers: Vos Iz Neias and Yeshiva World News. These sites have created a sort of self-policing news filter, reprinting mainstream news stories (from sources as varied as FOX News and PETA), sometimes with names filtered out to prevent gossip or immodest photos deleted, with which ultra-Orthodox people can reliably access "safe" internet content. Of course, the actual news stories reprinted pales next to the comments sections of these sites, which routinely run up to 500 or 1000 entries per story, in which people trade information, debate rulings of Jewish law, and call out mainstream Orthodox authorities (and each other) on inconsistencies or simply gossip about the best new kosher restaurants in a certain area. Is the internet becoming the new rabbinical authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews? Of course not. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't know tons of people who have Googled their own halachic questions (and I've used the same methodology once or twice myself).
I also rant a fair bit about Orthodox extremist sites like VosIzNeias and Frum Satire, and talk about how the comments are the best part of the Web. Read the rest here.

(And although they didn't include a photo credit, I'm writing it here: the awesome new pic is from Dan Sieradski. Of course.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Running Away to the Western Wall (and knocking over movie stars)

Leaving Jerusalem, we passed the corner of Raz's house. I wanted to jump out and run there, to pop in for a second and stay there forever. Sometimes Israel makes you so sure of things. It's crazy to say this about Rabbi Raz, who's about the least straight-Haredi person ever, but it makes you think how good an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle must be.

So. I'm in Israel.

We'd just had our two free hours in Jerusalem, virtually the only free time on this whole manic 5-day, 20 hour-a-day conference they call ROI 120. There was a reception with wine and hors d'oeuvres and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who I'd thought was in jail, but, hey, good for him that he's not. (And, yeah, sorry I don't know anything about politics.) Kobi Oz, who's an Israeli rock star, showed up for a surprise performance. But (a) it's the Three Weeks, when we're not supposed to listen to music, and (b) it was, as I said, our only 2 hours to do something, so I left my seat and ran.

I turned inside, to the amazing Israeli animation pavilion that the event was being held outside. Everything about the pavilion's architecture reminded me of the Disney studios in the 1950s, which they always used to show you at the beginning of the Disney Sunday Movie, the Place Where Magic Happened. Hey, that could be all of Israel. Inside the lobby the only other Orthodox person was hiding out, a refugee from the music. He grinned at me, a companion in his zealotry. And I hated to tell him -- but I wasn't a refugee. I was a runaway.

I ran outside. I ran down the hill to Jerusalem, the real Jerusalem where cars drove like they didn't believe in pedestrians and restaurants seduced you with neon lights and pictures of melted cheese over basically everything. I stopped at my sister-in-law's house, who I haven't seen in a year. Who just had a baby, and even though they're total first-time parents and are paranoid about opening the door on a sleeping baby, let me see him. He was breathing so radically. His chest rising and falling, half his body mass growing. I stayed for ten minutes, trying not to let my anxiety kick my ass, just talking to them. And eating pizza.

And then I ran to the Kotel.

I don't know why going to the Western Wall has occupied this spot in my life. The one thing I need to do in Israel, and the one thing I always try to squeeze into 3 minutes of time. Most of the time involves running to and from it -- just going through the Old City is a 20-minute trek each way -- even if, as I did, you cut through the Arab Shuk and coast along the stones and almost break your neck. And then you get there, and you throw yourself against the wall and say Shema, you say Psalms, you grab for any script you can, any arrangement of words that's already been written for you, because there's nothing you can say of your own that packs in quite enough pain and/or power. And you cry, without really knowing 100% why, maybe because you've built the experience up in your head or maybe you realize that all of the problems in your life, and all the incompleteness you feel, is all because you're waiting for the Messiah to come and heal it all and bring back your dead best friend and stop worrying about your kids quite so much.

Or maybe it's the Wall itself. The promise that hasn't been fulfilled yet, so it could be basically promising anything.

I finished praying. Ran back the long way, through the main streets of the Old City, hoping I'd bump into someone. Didn't. Grabbed a cab back, used my last 20 shekels, because I was late, and why would I change money when I could make a crazy zero-time dash to the Kotel instead?

I ended up returning to the party before the buses showed. Figured I had time to run to the makolet (translation: bodega, or, for you real English-speakers, a mini-mart) in the corner and grab some kosher Doritos for the family. Bumped into Matt Bar on the corner, who ran with me. He dashed into the store. While I swiveled on the front step, because this guy had just walked out and was in the process of bumping into me, and he was six and a half feet tall in a white shirt with tzitzis hanging on top of it and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor, because the last time I'd seen him had been on a movie screen, and he looked more like this:

I asked if he was Shuli Rand. He nodded guiltily with a smile. I told him I loved him. I think he understood how I meant it. Matt Bar took the opportunity to shove my book at him (which he'd had in his hand) and told him I wrote it, which I think showed him that I wasn't a crazed fan, or, at least, I wasn't just a crazed fan. He apologized for not being able to read English well. I told him I'd send him a copy if we ever got it translated. And I told him I'd just finished my first movie, and I hoped it was going to make the world a better place like his, and not just screw things up more.

He pulled me out to his car, which was tiny and black and old and totally awesome. It was a total fulfillment of his prophecy in Ushpizin, the movie he wrote & starred in, that even if he did get all that miracle money, he wouldn't spend it on something stupid like a fancy car. And his wife -- His wife! The all-time Adi Ran lip-synching champion of the world!* -- pulled out his new CD. Because he wanted to give me his address, and that was the most convenient way to write to him.

So now I've got an assignment. Remind me, please, if you get a chance. And, yes, by the time Matt and I got back, the buses still hadn't left. So we were safe.

* -- you'll know what I'm talking about if you see the movie. So see it. Really.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Out of Office, But Still into You

Hey! So by the time you're reading this, I'm going to be far, far away, running to Israel for this odd Young Jewish Innovators convention. If you miss talking to me, TeensReadToo just posted a pretty lengthy interview with me about Losers, Neil Gaiman, the ZZ Top/Hasidic Jewish episode of The Simpsons, and a bunch of other stuff. And A Wrinkle in Time comes up for the fourth time this week. Here's a cool deleted-scenes type moment from Losers:

You have the chance to go back and change a scene from one of your previous releases. What book would you choose, what scene would you change, and how would you alter it?

There's one scene in LOSERS about a girl Jupiter likes, and how they both wind up in a very random and very suddenly emotional place, and he winds up discovering her eating disorder...and then something big happens. I totally understand why we took it out -- it was too much of an unexpected turn in the book, and it didn't really fit with everything else that was happening to Jupiter -- but I still think it's a great scene, and it still fits into the Jupiter chronology. It's been getting under my skin, how a 14-year-old guy deals with dating someone who has an eating disorder, and I think it might be growing into its own book.
keep reading > 

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