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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jonathan Ames Doesn't Look Jewish

OK, first up -- HBO's series Bored to Death just premiered. Here's the whole first episode of the new season:

Jonathan Ames, the creator of the series, is a hilarious writer, and the author of a dozen or so books. (One of my favorite things about him: he recently told Stephen Elliott that the turning point in his career came when he stopped wanting to be a great writer and started wanting to tell great stories.) He's Jewish, and doesn't look it. This conversation comes from a recent interview with Powell's:

Georgie: In your novels, and sometimes in your columns, you have mentioned being Jewish but looking fair and somewhat "Aryan." Did you ever witness anti-Semitism by people who presumed you weren't Jewish?
Ames: [I]n my youth, for a brief period, probably between nineteen to twenty-one, I probably didn't look Jewish, my hair was very blonde from being at the beach a lot, from the ocean, so I think I made mention of not looking Jewish during that period. And I think it was during this period that people would make anti-Semitic remarks, assuming I wasn't Jewish, and it had the effect on me that I wouldn't say I was Jewish, because I think that I was embarrassed embarrassed for them, embarrassed for me, and wanting them to like me. But I was also hurt, and a little bit disgusted, and that, I think, has to do with the thing of the Aryan appearance.
It's an interesting phenomenon of the Jew, who is a minority, and yet can sort of assimilate into the culture. Someone I was talking to, during an interview, was talking about the unusual place of the Jew, in the way of being this minority that isn't necessarily visibly marked as a minority. Of course, if one is wearing the yarmulke or is Hassidic, then you know. But sometimes we can walk amongst you!
And then you watch the show and realize that Ames is being portrayed by Jason Schwartzman, who might be the most stereotypical-looking Jew west of the Mississippi. Which is kind of an awesome uber-commentary, and a kind of touching hat-tip to the idea that Jews own Hollywood.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Sukkah of One's Own

Jeremy looked out the window to the office and announced it wasn't raining. "There are a few people with umbrellas," he said. "But, just, the wimpy ones -- you know?"

It was 1:15, a little more than halfway through the day. I decided it was time to make my move. So I jumped out to the street and headed for the Bryant Park Sukkah.

Technically, even during this week when we try to eat every meal inside a sukkah, you don't have to duck into one of those fanciful little bamboo huts if it's raining. And I'm at work today in Midtown, not in my awesome neck of Brooklyn with a tabernacle waiting right outside my kitchen.

So you can imagine my surprise when the sukkah -- which is made to house several hundred people at a go -- was dead empty, except for me and the dude who was minding it, the sukkah gatekeeper. Sort of like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters, but, well, less Jewish-looking.

Color me disappointed. I remember last year, I had to fight to get through the doors. And today, after a little rain -- warm rain, at that -- the place is as deserted as a synagogue ten minutes after the end of a fast!? Please, people. This is NEW YORK. You are NEW YORKERS. You aren't supposed to be afraid of rain. Especially when it isn't really even raining.

But I ate. It was actually a really incredible experience -- just me, this huge space, watching people hustle back and forth outside the tiny wooden door. I've said the blessing for eating in a sukkah at least fifty times over this holiday (yes, I snack a lot) but this was the first time I said it with real feeling. Like I'd walked ten blocks and hunted down this sukkah to say it. Like I'd said hi to Rick Moranis and struck up 2 minutes of small-talk with him just so I could say this blessing. So the drops that fell on my head, falling from a decoration posed awry, had purpose. Like I'd earned this blessing to say.

Outside, the sky was gray. Inside, there were weird shopping-mall-like autumnal flourishes of plastic leaves. The zygote-rain gave the inside of the sukkah a fine mist, like the spritz of a squirt-bottle at a barbershop. But do I look wet to you? My hair isn't even frizzing.

OK, well -- maybe it's frizzing a little.

But you can handle it. You are, after all, New York.

1/20: The Punky Trailer

If you're looking at this on Facebook or something and can't see the embedded film, click here right now, because your life is about to change in the best way possible.

Yep -- it's the trailer to the movie I wrote, directed by Gerardo del Castillo.

(Second trailer to come. Or it's not that hard to find. I like this one better, although the other one features the amazing band Against Me, who helped with the movie.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Saturday Night Sukkah

Just when you thought Yom Kippur was over -- I mean, it is -- Sukkot shows up and blows all your expectations out of the water. There's a Hasidic custom that on the night Yom Kippur ends, after bellies are stuffed and children are put to bed, you get out your toolkit and wooden planks and palm fronds and you start building your sukkah.

So Saturday night, still in my Yom Kippur clothes (minus the white robe of a kittel that I spent all the holiday in, which my 2-year-old still insisted was a "papa dress"), I descended into the murky spider-lined depths of our garage and started fishing out the fake-wood panels that our cousins in Crown Heights had bequeathed us -- yes, the cousins with a zillion kids, the ones who also always have a gabillion guests over to every meal. They're the sort of consummate entertainers who are so stunningly perfect that you'd totally hate them...except that every time you're at their house, they make you feel so welcomed and loved and, well, stuffed with food. That's the genealogy of our new sukkah.

And then Saturday morning, when my kids woke up and came into the kitchen for their cereal, something weird was taking up the whole of the view through the back windows.

If it doesn't look 100% done to you, congratulate yourself, you sukkah expert! I finished the frame, but then my wife had a catering job and she had to move all the food (that's food for 150, if you're curious) through the 2-inch margin between the sukkah and the wall. So I deconstructed a little -- I am an author, after all.

Sorry for the gratuitous tushy shot. But there you go. Now you can only mildly make fun of me for my nonmechanical construction abilities.

It still wasn't fully done, though. We had to get schach -- the natural wood/tree/foliage sort of thing that covers the sukkahmy friend Ethan (a harmless and inquisitive friend, who happens to be an amazing comic artist, who's not Jewish, and has no clue about all these tabernacle things we're building). For that, we had to go into the wilderness of Coney Island Avenue, the main street of Flatbush, where a 12-year-old boy selling lulavs and etrogs heard me asking someone for directions, and summarily wriggled in between my potential navigator and myself. "You need schach?" he said. "I got some schach for you." He proceeded to give us an address -- a corner of two streets, where, he promised, "this great guy" would be standing outside with bushels of schach.

Ethan, like any right-thinking person, was dubious. But, after all, this was our adventure. So we trekked across Flatbush, and there was a synagogue, and there was our man. And, long story short (the long story involved some very Do the Right Thing-type lines from our 12-year-old hustler, a fourth-story sukkah, and an ATM search) -- we got our bamboo sheet.

And there you go. You have a new story, and I have a new sukkah. My older daughter's been talking all week about how she's going to sleep in the sukkah. I kind of don't believe her, if only because she never actually sleeps.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Sukkot Song

Just when you thought Yom Kippur was over (I mean, it is) we get started on Sukkot:

Ecclesiastes/The Sukkos Song by Hadara Levin-Areddy, animation by Jeanne Stern, and the holiday brought to you by G*d. Everything else, that's just G-dcast.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Tashlich Confessional

I am a slacker, but a repentant one. The tashlich ceremony, where we ask forgiveness by praying at the water, is supposed to be done on Rosh Hashanah, or right after. I did it this morning, erev Yom Kippur -- not a new phenomenon, even for me, as I sort of publicly confessed in a book (gulp). But today I did it on the subway, riding over the Manhattan Bridge on the way to work.

Which gave me even more things to confess. Last night we went to an engagement party for the producer of my movie, and afterward stopped near our old home to shlug kappores -- that is, to throw a chicken over your head and transfer your sins to the poor bird. (At least, my wife did. I went looking for the PETA people, but since they'd all bailed, I stood by myself and yelled "YOU MURDEROUS BASTARDS!" at her and all our friends.)

But: back to this morning.

"Yom Kippur is said to be a day k'purim – "a day like Purim." This linguistic and thematic connection reflects on the tone of both days, Yom Kippur giving a sense of life's random absurdity and Purim a feeling that even the most outrageous celebrants are in fact approaching the work of reconciliation with God."

- an article on

My older daughter ran outside wearing a King Achashverosh mask as I left for work. She is seriously the most spiritual of us all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Casting the Perfect Baal Teshuva

Just spent way more time than I realized on the phone with some folks at National Geographic, who are planning a documentary on the baal teshuva lifestyle -- that is, people who weren't born Orthodox who somehow or another wind up that way.

"Yeah," I said with a nervous giggle that I wasn't sure where it came from, "I'm a baal teshuva." And right away, it felt like I was admitting something, like I'd come out of the closet with a deviancy that was way too obscure for anybody in the room to know what I was talking about, but which was nonetheless embarrassing the hell out of me to say aloud.

And I wasn't even 100% sure why. Admitting that you didn't grow up Orthodox should be as easy as admitting you didn't grow up Buddhist (for a white person, anyway) -- it's not like anyone expects a fresh-faced kid who can't pronounce Hebrew right and just barely knows how to keep a kosher kitchen to be undetectably Orthodox.

But when you're first starting to be a religious Jew, the last thing you want is to stick out. You want

So I told her my story. I told her how I became Orthodox on my own, outside of a community (in San Francisco, with a bunch of middle-aged gay men teaching me to be Orthodox and a bunch of female-to-male transsexuals teaching me how to act like a guy). I told her about wanting to do Orthodoxy my own way, and then marrying into a family who'd been Hasidim ever since Hasidism started. I told her about how you start thinking in two different languages, one in your job and with your old friends and another with your new friends and the new places you hang out with, how you spend all your time inside a synagogue with random men who you'd never hang out with on your own, and how even your wife doesn't totally understand the life you used to lead.

I realized about two minutes in that I was basically just narrating my memoir (the seasonally-apt Yom Kippur a Go-Go -- read it now! Let it inspire your thoughts of repentance! Or just get a kick out of me explaining Shabbos to my stripper girlfriend!). But I kept talking anyway.

And then, about half an hour later, the National Geographic person (who was being very kind and patient with me) told me that, uh, they were looking for recent baalei teshuva. That is, people who were just starting to become religious, and had just moved into religious neighborhoods.

"But I'll tell my producer about you," she promised.

And then she asked if I could find a baal teshuva (or a few) who might be interested in being profiled.

I reiterated her biggest problem -- that recent baalei teshuva don't want to be stigmatized as baalei teshuva. Not to mention the whole film-crew-following-you-around-as-you-try-to-learn-about-your-new-life thing. But hey, if they cast Jersey Shore, that shouldn't be a problem. Also, for most people I know, Orthodoxy isn't really a gradual process -- people wade in the pool a little, and the next thing you know, they're either living in Bnei Brak with a pile of Shabbos stones or they're straight back to being hippies or investment bankers or reggae singers or whatever they were doing before they started being frum.

So there you have it. Are you a baal teshuva? Do you know anyone? Give me a shout, and I'll hook you guys up.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Half a Life, by Darin Strauss

In Torah times, when someone accidentally killed another person, the victim’s family was allowed to make a revenge killing. The inadvertent murderer’s only protection was to flee to a City of Refuge–one of six cities where the victim’s family was forbidden to take revenge upon them.

It’s a bizarre concept, but it’s kind of thrilling, in the same way that watching horror movies is thrilling: the inevitable chase, the will-he-get-there-in-time?-ness, the fact that you’re not really sure who to root for: the grieving family, or the poor sap whose fault it was.

Darrin Strauss’s new memoir Half a Life, which comes out this week from McSweeney’s, is a case study of this sort of event. At the age of 18, two weeks before graduation, Strauss was driving when he killed a girl from his school. The police called it an accident. But for the past 20 years, Strauss has been haunted by her memory, guilty for having survived, and tortured by the girl’s mother’s plea to him at her funeral: “You’re living for two people now.” (Strangely — and, as in real life, this is never resolved in the book — soon after they promise not to hold it against them, Strauss finds out that the girl’s parents are suing him for several million dollars.)

Through Half a Life, Strauss’s most painful memories are the ones he causes himself. He confesses the accident to women he dates. He constantly confronts her memory in his actions, in his writing, in major life events like going away to college. And he lets it get in the way of his marriage and his fatherhood: “How often do you think about it?” asks his wife, and Strauss is startled by his own answer: “A lot less than I used to think about it.”

These days, the Cities of Refuge no longer exist. But that feeling of guilt that the Torah acknowledged in creating them is no less real, and our basic human need to let this guilt transform us and give our life a new direction–whether it’s starting over again in a new city or transforming that sadness into a profound and moving book.

Yom Kippur with G-dcast

After the onslaught of Rosh Hashanah videos, seems like the least that G-dcast could do would be to make something that full-on fist-pump rocks us out to the Day of Repentance.

And that's not all! Sukkos is coming next week. The holiday, and also the video.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Favorite Jewish Writer

Recently, Moment magazine asked me to write an entry for their "Speaking Volumes" series. They approach current Jewish authors and ask them to write about authors who've influenced them.

Over the course of the next five minutes, a name popped out. I said no, then yes, then noyesno again. And just when I was determined that I wasn't going to ask -- I mean, you can't be a rebel 24 hours a day -- I typed the words "Sherman Alexie" and sent it off.
Unlikely enough, the folks at Moment loved it. My favorite Jewish writer was a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene American Indian.

Alexie wasn’t writing about “every Indian’s experience” and he wasn’t trying to. He’s just this person who happens to be a lot of things—Indian, thinker, queer advocate, zombie fan—and his writing encompasses all of it. He’s not the definitive Indian writer any more than he’s the definitive zombie writer; he’s just Sherman Alexie. And that might be the most profound statement he could make.

If you don't know about Sherman Alexie, read more here, or read his short story "Every Little Hurricane." Or just go and read my article.

(Confession time, which should come as a surprise to nobody: I was originally going to ask if I could write about Dara Horn, who might be my favorite Jewish writer. And then I checked Moment's site and realized that Dara Horn had already written her own "Speaking Volumes" column. But the more I think about it, the more I'm pretty sure of my choice: Dara Horn writes about Jewish traditions and ideas amazingly. But I didn't know how to write about actually being Jewish until Sherman Alexie came along and punched me between the eyes.)

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