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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jewish Christmas Music, 2010 Edition

You know, I don't think I've ever actually heard "White Christmas."

Sure, I know that it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, and that it's become a vital part of American culture. I'd definitely heard part of it before, the end part, where everyone sings "may all your Christmases be white"...but does the song really go like that? Is it really sort of pretty and actually funny? Does this make me a bad Jew? (Add this to the fact that I admitted on our Jewish parenting site that I actually like Halloween, I'm about to be kicked out of the so-Orthodox-I-don't-own-a-TV camp for reals.)

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pixies and Magical Miniature Butlers

Here's where I get all confessional: I kind of hate New York City.

Don't get me wrong--I love living near a zillion cousins-in-law and a gabillion kosher restaurants. But you know how people say that, in L.A., people say "thank you" but mean "f-- you" and in New York, they say "f-- you" but mean "thank you"? Well, I'd rather people hated my guts but were still polite about it.

The Village Voice just came up with their list of 50 things to love about New York. And, fresh off another shift at the Park Slope Food Coop, I fell in love in particular with #25:
25. Except in select 'hoods like Park Slope and perhaps the Upper West Side, children are viewed as mysterious beings, rarely sighted and only occasionally understood, like pixies or magical small butlers. Until they scream, in which case, they are banished from the palace.
Admittedly, we sometimes are not very good about that (example: seeing Scott Pilgrim in midtown, when our infant was totally quiet for an hour and 25 minutes and then screamed her head off during the last fight scene. (I know, go figure.) But in all other instances: yes.

I really do live in two worlds. At home in Brooklyn, everyone has kids -- often 5, 7, 12 or more. When I'm at work, or hanging out with my non-Hasidic friends in the city, though, my kids are like aliens. (Friendly, curious Gizmo-like aliens; not like Alien aliens.) They are treated with curiosity, amazement (childlike amazement, you might say) and utter wonder, the kind given to roadshow zoos and Times Square subway dancers: Do these things really exist? Can people be that cute without the assistance of Japanese animators?

In general, I prefer the Brooklyn side of things. We live there. We don't have to watch what we say, translating every Hasidic idiom we drop and making sure we don't talk about our kids too much. But the other thing about kids is they wear you out. You have other things on your mind that have nothing to do with them (job, bills, the Buffy season you're in the middle of watching), but the things that they have on their mind (food! peeing!) always involve you.

And therefore, it's a relief -- sometimes a huge one -- to remember that the island of Manhattan exists, to jump on a subway and watch your hipster friends fawning and E.T.-ing over your miniature heirs. Oh, you will say to yourself,they really ARE wonderful and miraculous -- and you'll be right.

Of course, there are limits. Whilst hanging out with my friends Jason and Emily a few weeks ago, I casually mentioned how it's hard to find a good babysitter -- whereupon they jumped at the opportunity. "Call us!" they raved. "We love kids! We won't even charge you!" You do realize, I asked them, that we get babysitters at night, when our kids are asleep? "Oh," they said, shuffling their feet. "Never mind." And then they bought me a beer -- as a consolation prize, I guess.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


We watched Jaws tonight (on Netflix Instant--is there someone who keeps a list of amazing movies on Netflix Instant, to weed out the great stuff from the trash?) and I am agonizing, agonizing. Every scene of that movie is so well-thought out. Made in that way that movies don't get made anymore, with long lingering scenes and visuals that any 12-year-old would decry as fake in a second, but you know that's the way these things work in real life. One second you're just smokin' a cigarette

and the next, you're, well, lunch.

Then of course, because I am obsessive, I dove into Wikipedia and read about the Hollywood impact of Jaws (and read the complete Wiki summaries of its three sequels, which is probably as close as I'll ever get to watching them) (not because they're bad -- usually that's an incentive to watch movies, peoples -- but because of the no-time thing). And that studied, minimalist storytelling thing (there are, what, 3 scenes that comprise the entire last hour of the movie?)...yeah. It kind of doesn't show up in the sequels.

I'm the last person to say that fast and furious isn't a great way to tell a story. I like to think that Losers, in its 189 pages, is the two-minute punk version of a five-minute anthem. But slow can be good too. (Please don't take this theory and apply it to the Green Day musical. I mean, come on. Green Day. Made a musical. I'm sure it's good or whatever, but please don't tell me.)

It's also National Novel Writing Month. I've definitely written novels in a month before (Stephen King says to write fast, while the idea's fresh in your head, and edit slow) and I actually did the November 1 - November 30 thing once. But this November I'm taking it purposefully slow. I've been working on this book for ten years -- I remember because the main character used to seem way too old for me to write him, and now I keep wondering if he isn't way too young. And I'm writing a book where the main character is a dude. Why does that keep weirding people out?

(Okay, so realistically, of the 4 books I've published, 2 have had male protagonists and 2 have been female. But, of the boys, one was a memoir where the protagonist was me {well, more or less me} and one was basically a 14-year-old version of me. {There's a longer answer to that, essentially, that Jupiter isn't me, he's my best friend, only Russian and Jewish and not dead. But that's another post, I think.} And then my two ladies, Hava from Goldbergs and Candy from Candy in Action, are both basically superheroes. Which says something about how I variously idealize and torture the people in my books, right? How did I start analyzing my own books? I should stop. Now.)

Annyway. I planned to come on here and write about Jaws for a minute and then leap back into the book and as you can see, that hasn't really happened. But Bram from YIDCore is asking me questions about his new book and I have about 20 pages of tinily-lettered rewrites to type and two tiny children who are already plotting their evil ways to wake up at sunrise, which suggests that this should be the point where I jump into the water, make my own fingers-pressed-together shark fin, and do my slow descent.

Only, not slow anymore.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kosher Nation

Why do we love to read about food?

I'm in the middle of Kosher Nation, a history of kosher food in America. The if the industry is a veritable behemoth -- kosher sales, according to writer Sue Fishkoff (who blogged for us last week), make up a billion-dollar subset of the American food industry -- then this book is a travelogue of its guts and insides. Fishkoff writes with a surgeon’s steady hand, casually recounting episodes in the past few hundred years of kosher food in America in between these bizarrely compelling interviews with kosher supervisors, Reform and independent rabbis, and Chabad rebbetzins who give challah-baking classes. In a nutshell, she talks to virtually everyone across the spectrum who has something to offer to the discussion of kosher food in America -- what it means, where it comes from, and why people care about it.

kosher nationeating animals
I haven't felt quite so passionate about a book since I read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, last year. Animals wasn’t just about the vegetarian/non-vegetarian battlefront -- it was about the idea that a large portion of the food we eat has a story behind it that we only know the barest, vaguest parts. I saw Foer speak a few weeks ago at the Slingshot conference and he was emphatic about his book being for omnivores: Chefs in NYC non-veg restaurants, he said, kept asking him to come and speak. They had no idea what happens to their meat before they get it, and they wanted to learn.

I love food writers. (It’s not just that I’m married to a meat-loving personal chef, I promise.) I’m fortunate to work with two of the best, Tamar Fox and Leah Koenig, who aren’t just foodies but writers with a lust for flavor: When they write, you can feel the saliva sandwiched between the words, oozing out. People are surprised by how many food books are coming out these days, but they shouldn’t be -- just look how much erotica/porn/gossip/dating books are written and published every year. People love reading about sex because we all have it (or want to). But we’re so damn intrigued by reading about food because we constantly have it. And need it. And, just like skeletons, we all have one, but we’re never sure what they look like up close -- and when we see it from afar, we’re both scared and fascinated.

Fishkoff is a great writer, and it’s easy to imagine her sleeping in a bed each night surrounded by kosher symbols and diagrams of cut-up kosher animals. But the passion that people are already feeling about her book -- that gets me wanting to read passages out loud to everyone in the room at the time -- isn’t just the mark of a great book. There’s something about food that fires us up, that makes us more personally invested.

Maybe it’s that we all eat. Or maybe it’s that Fishkoff and Foer, in writing about where our food comes from, know more about what we’re eating than we do. And in their stories there isn’t merely an emotion that we recognize, but a pre-conscious action that they’re defining for us, peeling away the layers of flesh and showing us what we look like on the inside.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Moment When All Prayers are Answered

When you pray by the first light of dawn, the Talmud says, Heaven pays attention to your prayers immediately. And when you time your prayers so that they culminate with the Amidah prayer at the moment that the sun breaks the horizon -- again, according to the Talmud -- that's the moment where the gates of heaven are flung open unreservedly, so that any prayers are answered immediately and without question.

My daughter is still on East Coast time. She woke up at 5:00. This is the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean from the villa we've been staying at. (We're down the street from Julia Roberts and one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Although, at this particular moment, none of that earthly name-dropping stuff seems to matter.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Kobi Oz, You're My Hero (most of the time)

So I'm editing this little daily email called Jewniverse, which tells you about one cool/amazing/unusual thing each day that you've never heard of. (If you're like my mom, someone probably forwarded you this thing about a Yiddish workout video about five thousand times in the past week; and we also show you things like rabbis in space and a blessing over weird fish.)

And this is one of those little behind-the-scenes stories that would go on the director's DVD commentary, if emails had that sort of thing.

A few months ago, I was at the ROI Conference in Israel -- which was mostly a way for a bunch of Jews with wacky ideas to get together and trade ideas and get blown away by each other. We had one big, intense networking night, culminating with a concert by Koby Oz, lead singer of Teapacks -- who caused the biggest stir in years at Eurovision with this awesome/insane performance about Iran:

Oz -- whom you'll notice in the video, wearing the wild beret and that great vest and doing drop-kicks -- just released a solo album. The ostensible highlight of the networking night was a performance by Oz and his band. Except that, because (a) the audience was composed of funders and prospective fundees, and (b) you had a handful of us wacky Orthodox Jews, nobody really paid attention. The event happened during a mourning period called the Three Weeks, when some people don't listen to live music -- so I ran to the Western Wall and had my own punk-rock crying freak-out and then unexpectedly ran into my favorite Hasidic movie star.

Flash forward, and -- equally unexpectedly -- I get Koby Oz's album in the mail.

And, most unexpectedly of all, I listen to it. And it's freaking amazing.

It's unexpectedly quiet and reserved and meditative, featuring a duet with his dead grandfather in that Nat "King"/Natalie Cole style -- only, Oz's grandfather is a Yemenite cantor, and the song is about God.

I won't tell you much about the album -- you can read the Jewniverse for that -- except to meditate on the irony of it. Oz, a secular, Tel Aviv-based Israeli musician, makes this album whose name (Psalms for the Perplexed) is a subtle pun on two major religious works (Psalms, of course, and Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed) and whose entire concept is exploring what is and isn't religious, what it means to be Godly in our society and to ourselves.

In short, it's a game-changer for the entire genre -- an album of love songs about God.

Dammit, Mr. Oz. I'm stunned. I'd take off my hat to you -- but, you know, it's a yarmulke and all.

Thank you.

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