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Monday, April 18, 2011

Liveblogging Passover

The holiday of Passover starts at sunset tonight, right? Not really. In our household, Passover started about a month ago -- due partly to the fact that my wife is crazy & obsessive, and partly to the Hasidic idea that you're supposed to start cleansing the specks of hametz out of your life, both physically and spiritually, thirty days before the holiday starts.

But 24 hours before Passover is when it starts to kick in hardcore.

Come back all day. I'll be doing my regular MJL day-job from home, but I'll also be updating with all sorts of crazy stuff that's going on in my house, in the neighborhood, and in the spiritual realms (I think).

6:30 A.M. My alarm goes off. Tonight the holiday really starts, but today is the Fast of the First-Born. As the designated first-born son, that means that I've got to get my butt in action and get to synagogue. Or I could sleep 5 more minutes.

6:45 AM. Yes, I am still in bed.

The reason I have to get to synagogue, today of all days, is in order to participate in a siyum, or the completion of a study of a book of Talmud. In Jewish tradition, certain fasts can be alleviated if there's a reason to have a party. The easiest and most dependable reason to have a party is when someone finishes studying something significant (most commonly, Talmud). If I don't make it, then I will not eat anything until the seder tonight, when I drink 4 cups of wine -- 2 of them before any food is consumed.

Which could make the seder a totally different and wacky experience.

But it also could mean I'd put the pass out in Passover.

6:50 AM. OK, OK. I am going to synagogue. But I really should get dressed first.

8:15 AM. Prayed fast, prayed hard. I called the rabbi last night to ask if there was a siyum at synagogue. He said there was, and also, there was an article about me in last week's Forward. Which I did not know, and is also an awkward thing to hear -- especially when the first sentence that struggles to get out of my mouth is, Do you know anything embarrassing about me now? Yes, I live a weird life. Here's the rabbi finishing his Talmud volume:

He tells us a bunch of stuff about what time to bring sacrifices to the Temple. And he tells us: When we think about the Talmud, the Talmud thinks about us. It sounds inspiring enough for me to tweet it. Under his breath, a man next to me whispers, "I don't want to know what the Talmud thinks about me." And now we can eat!

Somebody brought schmaltz herring, macaroons, and Slivovice. (I pass on the herring.) I also get asked if we have any room at our seder. Our seder has ballooned from 8 people to 15, but I say I'll ask Itta what she thinks. Remind me to do that.

9:15 AM. I run down the street and dump our last chametz trash bags in the public dumpster. On the way back, I see our neighbors, sitting on deck chairs and eating bagels on the porch.

The father waves me over. "You want one?" he says.

I am chametzed out. I am still stuffed from last night, when we had unbelievable vegan heroes at Sacred Chow and I ate enough seitan and legumes and stuff to keep me protein-ified for 14 days of Passover. (Not that being a vegetarian on Passover is hard, but still.) One other thing: They are wearing rubber gloves while they eat. I could make fun of them, but I'm sure they have plenty of things to make fun of me right back. Really, it's just awesome that they care that much.

9:55 AM. There goes the last of our chametz.
10:17 AM. OK, folks. In the general New York area, the last time for eating chametz is T minus zero minutes. (I'm not exactly sure the reason in Jewish law, but I always suspected it was to have enough time to...uh, get rid of it. Gastrointestinally.)

Goodbye, bread. It's been lovely to know ya. Next up: We burn the last remains of chametz! With fire!

11:01 AM. Today's Jewniverse is out! Yes, I am actually working, too. I added a last-minute link for this awesome handy handout about how to set your seder plate which we released together with Moishe House and Birthright, and which I really wish I'd printed out when I was near a printer that understood what my computer was saying. In other words: You should print this out and have it near your seder plate. And I will wish I was you.
seder plate
12:05 PM. So, guess what I smell like right now?
1:40 PM. After that particularly inspired bit of pyromania (and, by "inspired," I mean "inspired by Beavis and Butt-head"), I sat down to focus on work for a bit. In my new hametz-free lifestyle, it's harder to concentrate, since I'm used to chewing with one hand and typing with the other two. Maybe it's that I need my mouth to be moving, whether I'm talking or writing? I don't know.

In any case, burning the hametz was fun. My older daughter kept running close to the trash can (I love, love, our Oscar the Grouch-inspired trash can, by the way), peeking in, and then running away, while the baby squashed matzah into the grass a safe distance away. We didn't need much tinder (just a paper egg carton). Then again, we didn't have much hametz -- just the traditional 10 pieces of bread that we hid around the house last night, wrapped in old newspaper.

Those big scratchy sticks you see are our lulavs from Sukkot. There's a tradition that you save the lulav to burn today, along with all your hametz. They burned pretty quickly, and let out a smell like sage, which was a nice contrast to that smoky, lung-clogging malodorous odor that you'd expect. (We save our etrogim, by the way. They dry out nicely, and they look sort of like the etrog equivalent of dried flowers.)

The fire went up pretty quick and died out pretty quick. And, in a puff, that was that. No more hametz in the house. No more hametz in my body. It actually felt pretty cleansing. Now we're in Passover-land for real.

And then -- yes, bosses -- I got back to work.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jupiter Is Back (or, A New Book! Sort Of)

I'm publishing a new book! Well, in a way. Here. First, check out the new teaser site for Enemies:

Ready? OK. So here's the story.

Last year, an editor named Liz Miles asked me if I'd ever written any stories that were a little funny and a little edgy. Hey, I said, I do edgy for a living.

A few months before, my awesome agent-at-the-time, Suzie Townsend, had sent around my manuscript for Enemies. It wasn't a direct sequel to Losers, my last book, but it had the same lovable Russian hacker/geek/girl-anti-magnet, Jupiter Glazer. She'd tried to sell it with remarkably little success. Most publishers were reticent. The few candid ones told a remarkably depressing story: They weren't buying books for teenage boys. Most Young Adult (marketspeak for "teen") fiction was selling to girls. Guys were either buying adult books, or they weren't buying anything.

I took a chance. I sent Liz the first chapter. She liked it.

And now it's the first story in her new anthology, Truth & Dare, which is coming out next month in the US (but which is available on Amazon now!) and also in the UK with a much bubblier Britpop cover.



So that's just the beginning. Chapter 2 is going to be published in Apiary this spring. And the other chapters are going to be pouring out, bit by bit -- five chapters are in upcoming anthologies. One is already out. It's sort of like a scavenger hunt, except that we're all on the same page.

Thanks for reading this! And, hey, thanks for paying attention to Jupiter and to me in the first place. You rock the rock.

(And one more thing: if this isn't too desperate a plea, please like the Enemies page on Facebook! And send the page around to everyone you know! It's pretty easy, I know it's ridiculous to hope that, if a million people click "like," then Scholastic or someone will publish it. But I'm a ridiculously hopeful person.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Downtown Seder

Last night was a culmination of good fortune, good luck, and -- as always -- my wife running late. The good fortune came in the shape of a dinner invite on the night after we finished cleaning our kitchen for Passover. The good luck was our good friends Miriam and Alan from the band Stereo Sinai inviting us to the Downtown Seder. And the running late ... well, we just won't go there.

The Downtown Seder is a creation of Michael Dorf, half postmodern religious ritual and half cabaret. Rock stars and stand-up comedians and various random famous people are each assigned one step of the seder. And then it's you in a room with bands like Stereo Sinai, comedians like Rachel Feinstein (who was on Last Comic Standing with our boy Myq Kaplan), half-band-half-comedians like Good for the Jews, and Dr. Ruth. Yes, I said Dr. Ruth.


dr ruth seder

(Yes, she's that short pink dot in the picture. We weren't sitting that far, but she is short, 4'7". My Holocaust-survivor grandfather who's 4'11" looks down at her.*)

And she read the Four Questions, too. Granted, she was not the youngest one in the room (she'll be 83 years old on June 4) but she did it, and she did it up. Backed on a bluegrass guitar by C Lanzbom, she sang the first question solo, and then instructed the audience to accompany her. "If you sing with me," she said in that undeniably adorable German accent, "I promise that you will have good sex for all the days of your life." And if we don't? "Remember," she told us, "I used to be a sniper in the Haganah."

Did I sing? You'd better believe I sang.

A few of the guests were esoteric. Others were total crowd-pleasers. Here's Stereo Sinai, courtesy of my cheapo camera-phone:

Their take on the Son Who Doesn't Know How to Ask a Question was one of only two all-out dance numbers (the other being, of course, Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Choir) -- but each act was so well-thought-out and cool and unusual that I kept wanting to call someone and let them listen. I'm not a bootleggy type of person, but I wish I had a bootleg of last night. I kept wanting to write things down. I kept wanting to remember them. Joshua Foer* summed it up: "Our tradition demands not just that we eat matzah, but that we interact with it and explain it." Or, to paraphrase Faulkner: Not only is the past not dead, it isn't even past.

Because we're Hasidic and don't get out much, this is probably the closest I'll ever come to a non-religious seder. Boxes of Manischewitz matzah on the table. Behind us, Rachel Feinstein was getting down with woman in a severe Florida-retirement hat decked with flowers. The singer of Good for the Jews was wearing a ruffled tuxedo shirt.

Yes, it was bizarre having a seder a week before Passover starts. It was bizarre having matzah on the table in Manischewitz boxes instead of knitted sleeves, and celebrating with two hundred people I'd never met. It might have been a celebration of freedom, but it was also a celebration of getting down.
* - Who also referred to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, as "the great cognitive scientist," which probably nobody else cared about but which absolutely made my night.

Friday, April 1, 2011

1/20 at the Guadalajara Film Festival (photos!)

This week was the Guadalajara International Film Festival, and 1/20, the film I wrote, was an official entrant. Guadalajara is basically the Sundance of Latin America. It's a clearinghouse for everything artistic, political, and a combination of the two, which 1/20 ended up being. Gerardo, the director, is from Mexico, and this was his triumphant return, riding into town on the back of a donkey and all that.

They assailed me with stories of champion drinking and famous-people elbow-rubbing and guerrilla advertising. I started complaining that they left me behind. They reminded me that they had lots of important business meetings, too, which I would have either been too scared to walk into in the first place or vomited with nervousness as soon as they began. "This is why you write the stories," they said. So I settled into my bed and felt better about myself.

Yeah, guerrilla advertising. There were 2,000 films showing in Guadalajara, and exactly one film hung any sort of posters. Sometimes they were minimalist and subtle:

And sometimes they were not.

I think my mind is officially blown, just thinking of my name in another language hanging on a poster on a wall in another country. Once, an anthology I was in got translated into Turkish, and it was so cool, seeing a few words I recognized ("challah," for one) interspersed with entire sentences that I didn't recognize at all, but that I wrote. At least this time, they didn't have to translate the title.

Here's Berwin, the producer, with Damián Alcázar, who's one of Mexico's most famous actors. I don't recognize him, mainly because I basically don't know any actors who weren't on an episode of Doctor Who (ask my coworkers if you don't believe me), but he's in The Chronicles of Narnia and some Gabriel Garcia Marquez film adaptations, which is sort of the dictionary definition of awesome.

And here is an award of some sort, I think.

Or maybe it's a statue? At least there isn't food on the tables behind. Then I'd really be jealous.

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