Monday, January 31, 2011

Graffiti in Prague

When I lived in Prague, My friend K. and I used to do graffiti. You can call it stencil art or tagging or whatever, but in Eastern Europe, they say "graffiti," and that's what we called it in Philly when I was growing up so that's the word I'm saying.

Right from the beginning, K. set a few rules. 1: No tagging on architectural magnificence. We only did old Communist buildings, the kind that looked like gray Legos. And one or two places downtown that were similarly horrific. 2: As I had no idea what I was doing, I was basically her apprentice -- I was to lay low, hold the stencils, and wait for her to start with the spray paint. As we went, I sprayed a bit. But mostly I liked being the assistant. Like I was one step between the artist and the art appreciator: just doing my best to beautify and weird-ify Prague for the rest of us.


I'd lived in Prague since January. We started tagging in late June, right around my birthday. I knew the city well by that time. We'd do it late at night, when nobody was around. Once we squeezed into a train tunnel and almost got caught. I was really skinny. K. was really small. We were safe, but I remember the lit-up faces of those old people on the way home when they saw two kids where there shouldn't have been any. Almost as if they were in a submarine and we'd popped up underwater.


I don't have any pictures of our actual piece, but Aviva wrote to me about posting the Moshiach Oi! video, and somehow graffiti came up. And then I remembered that this whole part of my life happened. Weird, the things you can forget.

(Thanks to Aviva for reminding me, and for digging up the carrots in Prague images.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Eating Pork in New York

It was close to midnight, the latest I've been out in months. My friend Fred Chao had brought me to a comedy show in Chinatown, which led to some drinking in Chinatown, which led to us wandering around the streets of Chinatown with our heads full of stories and our bodies craving warmth. It was a weird feeling to get lost in those streets -- most of New York is a neat, orderly grid, but once you hit the Manhattan Bridge, Canal Street turns into a sudden mountain, half going up and half going straight down, and you're never quite sure when a street is going to splinter into three different streets and when it's going to dead-end in the middle of a block. (It's twice as cool because Fred's a comic artist and his story Johnny Hiro: Half-Asian, All Hero, which takes place on these very streets, has just been excerpted in the 2010 Best American Comics.)

In the middle of all this, Fred and I both realize that we are massively hungry. My stomach muscles, through a few years of this, have grown accustomed to being both kosher and out late. My stomach growls, I reply that we are out on the town and that there are no kosher restaurants around, and it quietly sulks to itself in a corner.

Fred is not so disciplined. "I know a great place right around here," he says. And then he suddenly vanishes around a corner, disappears, and takes me along with him.

I don't usually sit with people in restaurants. I feel too much like a second-class citizen. Everyone else is pigging out, eating great-smelling food (and food always looks better in non-kosher places) and you're smiling to yourself and telling them, don't worry, you're really in the mood for ice water.

But it's late, and I haven't seen Fred in a while, and I don't want to kill the conversation. So we take our seats.

"What should I have," he asks me. "Meat or seafood?"

Is this a test? A test from God?

"I'm always weird about seafood," I say. "Not just the kosher thing. It just feels like, is that stuff really dead? Was it ever alive?"

"Okay," he says. And so he turns to the waitress and orders the pork soup.

Wham.

I manage meekly to say: "I'll just have a cold drink." And I dash for the refrigerator.

Okay. But the truth is, I'm curious about trayf. How it looks. The way it tastes. The animals it comes from. And I've also been way curious about real Chinese restaurants, the kind that real Chinese people eat in, because I've always suspected that the places where white people eat, kosher or not, are faking it, the same way that Jackie Chan exaggerates his accent in the Rush Hour movies.

Almost immediately, they bring a plate. It's just a pile of bean sprouts, with a little lemon slice sitting on top. Is that supposed to be a salad? Fred ignores it. He's like that with salads, though.

Then the bowl comes out, and it's huge. He didn't say "large" or "small," but this soup is the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. There's a stack of those special Chinese-food spoons upside down, in the same holder as the soy sauce and hot sauce. I've never seen that before. Fred takes one, and he breaks into his chopsticks, holds them close to the ground and whittles them twice, to throw off the splintery pieces. He dumps the sprouts into the soup, explaining that that's what you're supposed to do, which I never would have guessed.

And then he starts eating.

He alternates with the spoon and chopsticks, working his way through the meat and noodles. I ask him what that meat is, and from time to time he explains. The pink stuff floating on top is nearly raw. The chef does that in order to show you how fresh the meat is. Underneath, pretty much all the meat is brown or gray. There are a few marble-spattered parts, which Fred says are tendons. And then there's a white bumpy substance, which he thinks (but isn't sure) are the stomach lining.

Stomach lining! "That's gelatin!" I say.

"Are you sure? I thought gelatin was the hooves."

I frown. Instead of ice-water, I have opted for a beer, and it's hard to recall the basics of whatever I've read on animal slaughter. "You might be right," I say. "My family-in-law makes this Yiddish food thing out of cow hooves. It's these yellow cubes. I think they're called gullis?"

"Oh yeah! My family makes something like that, too," said Fred. "It's called," he said, and here ends the tale of charming culture-mixing, because he said something in Chinese that there was no way for me to understand, much less transcribe the next morning.

He scooped the last of the soup-meat dregs into his spoon with chopsticks and slurped it up. Then I let him have the last of my beer -- call me a fundamentalist zealot, but I get squeamish about pork-breath in my beer bottle -- and then we were out. 

Thanks to No-Frills Recipes for the pork pic.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Jerusalem Suicide Bomber Monster Movie

I just wrote about this Jerusalem of the Future contest for MyJewishLearning, but right before I posted, I found this. The title of this post is a bit of a spoiler, but keep watching till the end. KEEP WATCHING.



What does it MEAN!? Who made this? If anyone knows, please tell me. I'm baffled and astounded and, like, not sure whether I should be offended or wowed. I'm leaning toward the second.

Matthue's David's Music Poll

David Levithan is my occasional editor and sometimes back-and-forth fan (I love his stuff, he says he loves mine, which I'm pretty okay with trusting him on). He co-wrote Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which you've probably seen, too. Also -- much less well-known than his film work -- he runs this funny yearly blog in which he asks people to list their favorite albums of the year. Here's what I came up with.

(You know how the music that you're listening to influences what you're writing? I'm pretty sure it works the other way, too. Ordinarily I'd choose something happy and poppy, like Mista Cookie Jar, but I'm working on this story that's dark and moody and angsty. And so:

Most essential album
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

I'm not even from the suburbs. I've never lived there and have no way, save a few memories of reading The Outsiders, to verify whether it really is this bleak and beautiful. But this album is.

Other essential albums
Nikki Minaj, Barbie World (or any other non-Pink Friday mixtape)
The Roots, How I Got Over
Regina Spektor, Live in London
Kim Boekbinder, Impossible Girl
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
They Might Be Giants, Here Comes Science

Best moment of music:
Nicki Minaj switches between four different personas and about seven completely different vocal styles in under a minute during her guest appearance on Kanye's "Twisted Dark Fantasy." There are so many distinctive styles of genius in that moment, I can't even begin to fathom it. I think it's influenced my whole best-of list.

Best album of 2010 that wasn't actually in 2010: The Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack. Overflow from last year. Only realized it was awesome this year.

Best new album of 2010, according to my 3-year-old: The B-52's, Cosmic Thing. It's a new discovery if you were negative 20 years old when it came out.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Zealots and Bullies

So right now I'm on vacation in Chicago. Weird to do a trip where we're just visiting people and not Having Meetings or Running To Do Insanely Complicated Things In An Unreasonably Short Amount of Time or something of that sort. But before I turn my computer off and vacate, I just needed to share these two little parting gifts:

The Jewish Press, which is the biggest Orthodox paper in New York and which all my Hasidic Cousins actually read, wrote an article about art in the Orthodox world. More specifically:

A nascent community of religious artists - including the Orthodox African-American hip-hop musician Y-Love, poet Matthue Roth, novelist Tova Mirvis, and the novelist and playwright Naomi Ragen - are all working to create a more art-friendly and embracing religious model.
It is so, so unimaginably cool to be cited as an example of how people can be Orthodox and artists and how it doesn't have to be some big religious crisis. This is my favorite part of the article, though -- apparently, before Yeshiva University introduced its business school, everyone thought it was a crazy idea:
In 1977, a fake ad in Yeshiva University's yearbook made fun of the idea of a business school at the university. The mock ad promised that a school of business "will be opening its doors to all students who cannot cope with liberal arts."
The rest is at the link.


And the Scholastic blog came out with a post about bullying, and how to deal with bullying, and what to do about it. And that, no surprise, one of the best ways to cope and not just be damaged by it is to read about it. They suggest a bunch of resources, and one of the recommended titles is 
Losers by Matthue Roth: This off-the-wall novel introduces readers to Jupiter—a Russian immigrant learning to deal with high-school life in America. With dead-on deadpan humor, Matthue Roth makes everything illuminated about American teen life—like Borat as directed by John Hughes.
Okay. Now I've got some Sears Tower to climb. Shabbos and out.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Na Nach Nachman Punks

I kind of love this video, but I'm not sure how I feel about it morally. It's the Moshiach Oi! guys (your favorite Hasidic punk-rock band and mine) rocking out and sticking Na Nach stickers to public buildings, signs, and a car.



On one hand, the song is great -- if you like loud, raucous, energetic punk music, that is. And it's all structured around the mantra Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'Uman, which, according to Breslov Hasidic folklore, will make depression fade away. On the other, it is, uh, vandalizing public and private property. I'm not necessarily opposed to it on a personal level (I used to be a street stencil artist, which we called "doing graffiti," and I've busked in public places more times than I can count), but is it a bit of a chilul Hashem, a public embarrassment, to go stickering while looking like religious Jews? (There's also some graffiti tagging, though I'm assuming that was on the house of a consenting party.)

Or maybe I'm just getting old and, perish the thought, conservative. What do you folks think?

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