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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Ok Google, say hello to Ellen

So in the gentile world there's this festival called Halloween, and it's based on a pagan festival but we've pretty much reduced it to creepy lights and candy corn.

But Ellen decided to do a special episode, and that Google Assistant thingy that I write had a little guest-starring spot.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The News Anchor Dreams (a short story)

My flash fiction piece "11-6" was just published by Heartwood Literary Magazine at the Low-Residency MFA at West Virginia Wesleyan College. I feel like I've written 4 or 5 pieces that all spin out of visiting the Big Bang Theory set, and you can't really tell it from the piece, but I think this is one of them. It's definitely about moving places with only a modicum of confidence (and slightly more divine faith, but not much) and having your life revolve around your job. 

Here's how it starts.



The news anchor dreams there is a fire, a very bad fire. The only thing that can stop it is water. Everyone is waiting until the fire reaches the ocean. Until it does, the only thing to be done is to report on it. He reads a list of names, of people and businesses and towns affected by the fire. All the names are foreign. He does his best to pronounce each one correctly, short of putting on an accent, which doesn’t test well with the target demographics and makes him feel insincere.
He reads names. He tries to give gravity to each, knowing that among his audience are people with relatives there, people on vacation from there, people whom he is telling that their families are dead. He can’t linger long, though. There are more people waiting to hear the name of the next town to be incinerated, if it is theirs. He pauses before the next name. It is his own language, his own town—the place where he lives now. He lives two blocks away from the TV studio. He can make it to bed fast after the 11:00 news, and then he can be there bright and early for the morning news at six. It doesn’t feel like it’s burning. This must be some weird quirk of live TV, the way it’s filmed, like the five-second delay in case anybody curses.
But they are. They’re burning, and then everyone is dead.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Famous Typewriters (and the Things They Made)

I flew into and out of San Francisco in a day a few weeks ago. Did I tell you about it? Maybe not, it was a bit of a secret.

By far, the weirdest/best thing I found was an exhibit of famous typewriters at San Francisco International Airport. In the middle of the jetlagged night, it felt like the most important thing I'd ever seen.

4. Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I read The Glass Menagerie in seventh grade and adored it, although at the time I couldn't tell you why. Probably something to do with the mentally-fragile daughter, whose condition to me was scary and recognizable. When I moved to D.C., my friends Eric and Matthias used to take me to a bar called the Raven, the first time I had a regular bar, where, according to local legend, Tennessee Williams either hung out or wrote his first book. I started a lot of stories on bar napkins but never finished any.

3. Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast

I was always a little disgusted by Hemingway and a little scared of him, but Marty Beckerman's wonderful book The Heming Way did a bit to dispel it, and a bit to empower a looser, funnier sense of disgust.

2. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. In a purely metaphysical, inspiration-centric way, I identify completely with Rachel Bloom's song. I spent a while just staring at this typewriter in surprised silence (well, I was alone, so it wasn't that surprising that I was silent). Imagining his fingers on those very keys, the pure physicality of it all, the way that every time you hit a key the letter is permanently imprinted, no highlighting and deleting, no going back. Merely existing in the same place at that typewriter felt more dangerous than anything I've ever done. It was a dare never to use a computer again.

1. The Beatles, Introducing the Beatles

And the Beatles. I've never been crazy about the Beatles -- not that I don't like them! I really like them! -- I just, well, never thought they were the ultimate band or the only band that ever existed or anything like that. But also, I never thought about them writing songs. Or writing songs in an actual draft/reworking/another draft/final way. Would they write the words "I'd like to be your man," go back and forth about the word order, the rhythm, change "I'd like" to a declarative statement like "I want," and then Ringo tells you that you need a concrete image and you finally, finally type in the middle of the night, "I want to hold your hand"? Maybe that's not how it happened. But something happened. And the moments their keys struck paper, it turned into something.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Guide to Additions and Emendations in the High Holiday Prayers


Over the 10-day period between the Day of Remembrance and the Day of Judgement, when our ephemeral lives and eternal souls swing in a delicate balance between life and death, there are certain things we can do to ask our Creator not to give us the soul-whupping we deserve. (Or maybe just the whooping I deserve. It is entirely possible that you, reader, are a better person than I am. Hell, I’d bet a few Eternity Points on it.)

So we take the most common prayer that we say all year, the Shemoneh Esrei (Literally “the 18,” the thing we recite three times each day, morning noon and night, even though it’s actually 19 prayers and not 18 — long story, I’ll tell you some other time) and we throw a bunch of new gloop into it. Some of it’s new lines, with new tunes, that comes in between the existing paragraphs. Other parts are remixes of the existing text. All of it catches us by surprise, throws us for a loop, makes us question our routines and our habits and what we think is normal….

Oh, let’s just jump into it and get started. Whether you’re ready or not.

You’ll deal.


Zochreinu l’chaim
זָכְרֵנוּ לְחַיִּים

This is addressed to G-d; we are talking to G-d.Of course. G-d created the world, every time we open our mouths it’s going to G-d; G-d sees all; G-d knows all; one of the first stories in the Torah is Adam & Eve trying to keep a secret from G-d and, of course, failing. There is no question of whether or not G-d is listening; G-d can’t overhear anything because G-d hears everything, right from the assumption it’s being spoken aloud. Then: why pray? (Because sometimes we need to ignore everyone else and talk only to G-d.) But also: that means everything we say is a prayer.

melech chafetz b’chaim
 מֶלֶךְ חָפֵץ בַּחַיִּים 

So why the alternate form of address? The plural object, the command form? We are not asking G-d, we are telling G-d: Remember us! We created a new name for G-d for just this occasion. After the standard opening, the one we use every day, where we address G-d by a slew of titles and panegyrics and names and adjectives turned into names (G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob; the Almighty; the Great; the Stringent; the Awesome), this one-line interjection takes the prayer and swings it for an unexpectedly sharp about-face: Remember us! and then Our King who desires life! As if G-d forgot G-d’s own name, G-d’s own role. We are being chutzpadik here, people. But not undeservedly so: This is our life. It is hanging in the balance. We need to demand it. A Chasidic tradition around the New Year: Everyone bakes honey cakes. When you go visit someone, you don’t ask for honey cake. That would be rude. You don’t sit around politely waiting for honey cake to be offered. That would be pretentious (if you expect it to be) or it would be thinking poorly of your hosts (if you assume they haven’t made any). You demand it: Gebt mir lekach! we are told to demand of them. Give us cake!

v’kosveinu l’sefer hachayim, l’maanecha melech chayim.
וְכָתְבֵנוּ בְּסֵפֶר הַחַיִּים. לְמַעַנְךָ אֱלהִ`ים חַיִּים

This is followed up right away by another demand: Write us in the book of life! I mean, while we’re being demanding, might as well not ask for just one slice but the full cake, right? But then the question really should be, why not ask for that straight up? If we want life, ask for life.

Rosh Hashana is the Day of Remembrance. For better, for worse. It’s a day when the prayer service gets transmogrified from 2 hours into 5, a day when it’s nearly impossible not to have flashbacks to horrible, embarrassing and devastating moments over the past year where you did what you shouldn’t have, didn’t do what you should, often things that are not so horrid as stabbing a man in the bloody chest or making love to a wooden idol in public but instead baiting a friend into buying you a drink or yelling at your kids for stupid shit (and it is all stupid shit). That’s our burden. That’s our shit to remember. What we are saying to G-d is, we’ll remember that shit, you remember the other shit—the good shit, the perfect shit, the moments where all might not be right with the world but it’s good enough, where we were grateful and said thanks for an unexpected blessing or where we were about to explode and held ourselves back. Every woman I didn’t sleep with, and there are nearly 3.5 billion in the world, rather than the one I did. L’maanecha melech chayim. Dear G-d, always look on the bright side of life.


Mi kamocha, av harachaman, zocher yetzirav l’chaim b’rachamim.
מִי כָמוךָ אַב הָרַחֲמִים. זוכֵר יְצוּרָיו לְחַיִּים בְּרַחֲמִים

The first two words are cribbed from an existing poem, one Moses and Miriam recited when they charged through the parted Red Sea: Who is like You? Because nothing is so Jewish as celebrating your redemption from slavery with a rhetorical question. It’s a nice rhetorical question, for the most part, not emphasizing G-d’s amazingness (since we mentioned that extensively right at the beginning) but G-d’s uniqueness. Also emphasizing our relationship to G-d. When you love someone more than anybody else, you can list of a Roget’s slew of adjectives (breathtaking, brilliant, blue-sky bootylicious) but all the best love songs are some variation on Ain’t nobody like my baby. And this is my favorite thing about religion — good religion, anyway, not the oppressive kind: everyone’s take on G-d is different because everyone’s relationship with G-d is different. Who is like You, G-d? Nobody, that’s who.

But there is some common ground, and some common through-line that connects us all or guides us in our own individual relationships, and that’s what prayer is. Av harachamon, Father, the one who has compassion for us. Rachaman officially means “compassion,” but it’s more like sympathy, seeing each of our problems and our cases on its own. And then it’s more like empathy, because G-d doesn’t just try to feel what we’re going through, G-d’s been through it too. The praying. The distractions. The memories. The original experiences of the memories we’re flashbacking to.

And then the final hammerswing of the conclusion: zocher yetzirav, remember Your creations. We belong to You. We are Your fault. Everything that’s good we do, we owe it to You; and every mistake we make is a result of Your Creation as well. It’s weird that it’s yetzirav, the third-person “G-d’s creations,” and not yetzircha, “Your creations,” and I’m not sure why. Maybe someone with better grammar than me can explain?


Hamelech hakadosh
הַמֶּלֶךְ הַקָּדושׁ

Here we go. The catch. This one takes me by surprise every time I read it, the reason why the title of this is Additions and emendations and not just additions. While the first two special beseechings were new lines inserted into an existing text, this is a fake-out, the usual blessing ha-el hakadosh morphing into hamelech. El is one of G-d’s names, one that denotes stringency and anger, which we’re replacing with a more kind, gentle, and flattering name, King.

It’s weird — or, more accurately, an anthropological divergence — that, in Jewish theological literature, being a king is almost always a good thing, even though in the Bible the position of king was granted as a reticent condescension to the Israelites (not a good thing), and in post-Biblical times kings were often the ones who carried out pogroms, forced conversions, and the “Jew tax” (also not good things). But here, G-d being King is G-d being good to us. Ruling our lives and making our lives better.


Hamelech hamishpat
הַמֶּלֶךְ הַמִשְׁפָּט

Just when you hit a rhythm of the regular prayers, the liturgical writers go ahead and screw with you. Hamelech is the third prayer. Then we get the usual prayers, the usual prayers, and smack in the middle — #11 — melech ohev tzedakah u’mishpat becomes…well, this. The usual blessing, Blessed are You, G-d, the king who loves tzedakah and justice, becomes just justice. (Mishpat is a more congenial, gracious, judge-everyone-favorably kind of justice, whereas the other {and more kabbalistic} word for justice, din, belies a harsh, this-is-the-way-it-is justice.) More, we don’t want G-d’s justice to be dependent on the amount of charity we give. We just want it to be given.


V’kosuv l’chaim tovim kol benai verisecha
וּכְתב לְחַיִּים טובִים כָּל בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶךָ

Every time I say chaim I remember (memory again) we’re asking for life. And when we say l’chaim, we say it means “to life!” but that’s probably a bastardization of the text induced by Fiddler on the Roof. We don’t drink alone, we don’t say to life, we say to lives, everyone’s, kol benai verisecha. This one is short and direct and pleading: Give us life!


B’sefer chaim, bracha v’shalom, u’parnasah tova, nizacher v’nikasev lefonecho, anachnu v’chol amcho bais yisroel, chaim tovim u’leshalom.
בְּסֵפֶר חַיִּים. בְּרָכָה וְשָׁלום. וּפַרְנָסָה טובָה. נִזָּכֵר וְנִכָּתֵב לְפָנֶיךָ. אֲנַחְנוּ וְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. לְחַיִּים טובִים וּלְשָׁלום

And then I think about what life really means, and why I want it so bad. I’ve done good things with my year. I’ve lived a complete year. One way or another, G-d has forgiven me for my transgressions of the past, or at least G-d’s forgiven me enough to get me to this point, one complete year and one more Rosh Hashanah under the belt. This is our last ask, the final insertation and the last mention before we shut the laptops of our prayers and let the screen go dark until the next prayer period, and so in one final flurry of typing we cram it all in. Blessings and peace. Good work and good money. Maybe these are the things that really count, the things we can’t do without or at least the things we don’t want to worry about, so we can worry about the stuff that’s more important.

But what is important? We keep saying life, life, life, and I, like Ayala, have had Tishreis where I couldn’t even convince myself with my praying. I’ve never not believed in G-d, which I know is weird, but I have gone through long dark periods where I don’t believe in myself. As much as this part is about the torrent of requests, maybe it’s also about listing how many things we need. Things both exact and nonspecific, things like money (that I don’t really want to think about but can’t do without) and things like blessings.

And who’s really in control of a blessing? Not the blessed but the blesser, and if I do believe G-d knows what’s good for me more than I know myself, then I can put that power in G-d’s hands, I can remember — memory once more — that it’s already up to G-d, that my Creator can give me the blessing to live or the blessing to die, the blessing to stick with my awesome but impermanent good job or the blessing to have no money and lots of time. The blessing to not know what’s coming before you. The blessing that every fate is both the best and worst of fates, and the blessing that, no matter how hard you pray, your fate is not altogether in your own hands.

Give us blessings. Give us peace. We start and end this part with peace — peace between us, for sure, but also peace inside us. And we sandwich it and surround it with requests for blessings. Remember it and write it before you, for me, for us, for all Jews, a good life, a peaceful life, because our life is in Your hands.



Image by Erwin Gerodiaz.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When Old People Go Missing

My cousin is missing. He isn’t where I left him.

There’s a coffeehouse I visit as soon as I come to Australia. It’s easier to find my cousin that way than banking on him hearing his cell phone or being at home. He likes to stay active — he wakes up about 4:00 A.M., hits the streets for his morning stroll and first coffee, then spends most of the day at the coffeehouse, sitting at the tables, talking with his friends (mostly old men) and the strangers who say hi (mostly young women).

He’s easy to find there, until he isn’t.

Čapek is my grandfather’s first cousin. He was born around 1924 in Berehovo, a small village currently in the Ukraine, near the Hungarian border. In the years before he was born and over the course of his life there, until he turned 15 and was moved to a concentration camp, it belonged to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and possibly Romania. Even today, the town’s few streets on Google Maps have alternating Cyrillic, Hungarian, and Czech names.

Then the Holocaust happened. The town got cleaned out. He spent most of the war in Buchenwald, a work camp — the entire rest of his family was killed; he was a teenage boy, he could help the Germans.

After the war, he was taken to Switzerland to get better. Fortunately, he had tuberculosis and had been malnourished enough so that he couldn’t eat solid food. The ex-prisoners who could were fed regular food, and their bodies couldn’t handle the overload. Most died. He spent four years in a hospital, then traveled to Paris, where many survivors ended up, trying to find each other and piece together what was left of their lives. He didn’t find anyone. From there, he boarded a boat to Australia.

My wife’s grandfather also spent much of the war in Buchenwald. He also ended up in Australia. My wife’s grandfather married the rabbi’s only daughter, had five children, a number of grandchildren, and counted close to a hundred descendants before his death last year. My cousin, one barracks over from him in the camp, never married. For 20 years he was a tram conductor. He collected fares, told jokes, let anyone pass who forgot their fares — or said they did — and just basically became friends with everyone he met.

He lives in a tiny apartment just above Acland St., which is the St. Mark’s Place/Melrose Blvd./South St./hip and trendy cafe-culture capital in Melbourne. I know his address, but there’s no point in me going there. “If I’m home, I’m asleep,” he once told me.

As usual, my first morning here I just show up at the coffeehouse — it’s right in an arcade, one of those European-style malls with stained-glass windows and wrought iron that you walk through and you think you’re in an old movie. The cafe has two heavy wooden tables right in the center of the arcade.

Most mornings he’s there with a kind German and a grouchy Hungarian, shooting the shit with each in their respective languages. Today he’s not.

This is not alone enough to sound a warning bell. But my mom has been calling his cell phone and getting no answer, which is also not alarming on its own, but (a) it’s been happening for weeks, and (b) my mom has been nonstop asking me about finding him, which is hitting my anxiety on the head a little too exactly.

His friends from the cafe are also not there. Neither, I soon discover, is the cafe itself. The inside awning is still there, but inside the place all the shelves are empty, the kitchen is in boxes, everything is dust and shadow.

I’d imagined a hundred times over the moment I came back, talking to the barista. I’ve met him over fifty times, talked to him whenever I visited my cousin, known him, weirdly, for over ten years, although the time we’ve spent actually speaking would probably only add up to a couple minutes. But when you’re close to an old person, at a certain point you begin to envision — to fantasize, almost — how you will find out they’re dead. Or, worse, that something terrible’s happened to them, that they aren’t in the peaceful dreamless sleep of death but are somewhere unknown suffering through something and if we only knew how to find them, if we only paid them more attention, we’d be able to help them.

This happened with my grandmother in her nursing home, where they took excellent care of her, and where my parents visited her every day. How we’re not a part of their lives always, how what we mean by “their lives” is such a fragile and unguaranteed thing.

I run down the street. I stop in every place on that street he went — the bank, the other coffee shop, the early-bird special lunch place, the bakery where he used to fry donuts in the morning, as a favor to the owners or as an actual job I was never able to figure out. He just loved hanging out there and they gave him something to do. I’ve been in the country less than 24 hours. Just an evening, a sleepless night, and now this early morning. Except for the eateries there’s nothing else open. I’ve been searching for him for an hour and it’s still only 8:00 in the morning. The world is whirling around me; I’ve crossed the same street a dozen times, I’m no longer being careful about the direction of the cars. I’m crying openly. An old woman asks me what’s wrong. I ask her if she knows Čapek. I describe him — short, hunched over, bald, mustache, a psoriatic scar on the top of his head (I feel guilty saying this to someone else, but it will help, I tell myself, it will help), likes to wear one of those dinky Outback hats like in Crocodile Dundee.

The old woman blinks at me. Crocodile Dundee? It was from the ’80s, I tell myself, that counts as old these days. She should know what I’m talking about.

There is a supermarket called Woolworths. My only association is the dinettes from the 1950s American South, the restaurant where they wouldn’t let black people eat with white people at the counter. They’ve never had that problem here; nobody knows a Woolworths is for anything except groceries. I’ve never seen Čapek in here, but figure it can’t hurt. And I hit pay dirt. One of the self-checkout supervisors remembers him. She says he was always the nicest person in the world, but a few times he’d thrown fits, yelled at people. She thinks he was having Alzheimer’s fits. She thinks they took him to a nursing home, but she doesn’t know for sure and she doesn’t know which one. She’s apologetic and a little accusatory. You didn’t know they took him? What kind of relationship do you have to him?

I’m his cousin, I say. But I don’t live anywhere near here.

I get back to my in-laws’, feeling more alienated than ever. The kids are up. I make sure they’re okay but I can’t play with them, I have something to do, and they’re confused — we’re on vacation, isn’t my work in another country? But I get to work.

The only thing I can think of doing is, I search for a list of elderly facilities in the area. I start calling them in Google Maps order, the closest first. It’s about to be a Jewish holiday tonight. I’m only there for a week. If I lose today, I’ve lost 3 out of my 7 days in the country.

I start calling down the list and find two things very quickly: That every nursing home uses an annoying voicemail system, and that none of them can tell me if he’s here because of patient privacy. But what, I ask, if he doesn’t know how to tell them that I’m a legitimate relative? What if he doesn’t recognize me anymore? I hang up from the fourth place, feeling every bit of the queasiness I managed to avoid on the plane seeping into me. The phone rings. It’s my father-in-law. He suggests I call the local Jewish bureau. They might not be quick, but they must have resources for situations like this. He’s the only adult who was awake during my search, and he has the kind of mind that’s perfect for this. He sees everything like a puzzle. Once you see problems like puzzles, you can solve them.

I call and tell the very kind receptionist what’s wrong and give her all my information. She says it’s no problem and she’ll be able to find him in a week, maybe two. I thank her and slip off the phone.

Then I call the fifth place. “Hi,” I say fast, “can you put me through to Čapek Roth’s room?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think there’s anyone here by that name,” the man on the phone says. “Are you quite sure he’s here?”

No, but that doesn’t stop me. I try the fourth place again, then the third. Then the second.

And the receptionist who picks up this time tells me he’s just gone down for a nap.

The next morning is the first morning of the holiday. I wait outside the electric doors till someone walks through. I squeeze past them so I don’t use electricity, and then I get Čapek’s room number and take the stairs.

And there he is. Sitting upright in a bed, swathed by white paper-thin bedsheets, and, disconcertingly, without his mustache, which I don’t realize till he lowers his coffee from his mouth. Which somehow makes up for the lack of mustache, because coffee is the ultimate normalizer.

And there’s that moment where I’m not sure what is real and what isn’t, and if it’s really him because I can only see half his face with the coffee mug up, and scariest of all, whether he remembers me or not, but then he lowers the mug and says, as chill as if he’s back at the cafe and making jokes in German, “Matthue! How did you get here?” and just hearing the syllables of my name from his mouth, just having myself as the point of reference for him, means that even if everything isn’t okay, it’s still okay for now.

And I hug him, which I’ve never done before, and feels a little violating because he’s in bed and weaker than he used to be and he can’t really do anything about it, but also feels a little bit like what we need. And I laugh, and I say to him, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” And then I tell him.


Photo: Lost Old Man by Alexander Kluge.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Fox in the Ruins

There was a fox in the ruins that morning.

Yosh spotted it first in the corner of his eye, a blur of red and teeth. He recognized it immediately. He had read about foxes in books.

His father, however, had laughed when he’d seen it, and ripped off his holo to see better. “A fox!” he cried, almost jubilant. “That’s remarkable. I never thought I’d see one of those again.”

“Aren’t they dangerous?” Yosh asked, moving closer to his father. For the most part, the ruins were abandoned, but he often thought he saw movements coming from the million layered shadows that seemed to lurk in every corner, especially as the day grew short.

“They were, a long time ago,” his father said. “They might still be now. But we’re dangerous, too.”

He stopped to turn over what might be a large tin of food, or even a refridge, but it was an empty husk, crumbling to pieces between his fingers.

“It’s a good sign for other reasons, Yosh. If there are foxes, that means that there’s food. And if that poor animal’s still alive, she’s probably more afraid of us than we are of her. We’ll give her more trouble than we’re worth. But, foxes! This is sure to be news back in the enclave.”

He pulled himself over a pile of rubble and through a smashed-out hole in the wall. Yosh, scampering up the pile, followed him. He took one last lingering glance behind himself before disappearing into the building. The fox was staring back at them, perched atop a mound of collapsed bricks and fraying metal, as if daring them to give chase. After a long moment of stillness, its ears pitched forward and its nose in the air—during which Yosh was afraid it might lunge into action, teeth bared—the fox gave a tired yawn, its tongue lolling out, and trotted down the far side of the heap of trash.

It was almost sad, Yosh thought. The fox looked so royal, so clean and deadly. It should be out in a meadow, running at top speeds. And it, like them, was reduced to poking around the ruins.

Still, Yosh’s father had laughed. And his father knew more than anyone else in Zebulon, the enclave where they lived. That was why he was first appointed Scavenger. He was almost as wise as the Ones Who Watch. Yosh trusted his father more than anything—and so he had to believe that, for one reason or another, there was something good about seeing that fox. Maybe his father was laughing because he knew the fox had no chance, that Yosh and his father would find any food before she would. Or maybe he was laughing because the fox was still alive, and she’d made it this long…and maybe, just maybe, Yosh and his father and the rest of Zebulon would make it, too.

Yosh took one last glance over his shoulder at the mound of trash. The fox was long gone…and, he realized, he should probably get going, too.


Most days, Yosh spent his time running alone around the shelter and in the bush on the outskirts of Zebulon. Sometimes his father brought him outside the enclave, past the bush, looking for new holes to venture into and digging them a little bit deeper, trying to find out if anyone had reached the bottom yet, or if there was still something of value to be unearthed.

Yosh’s father Scavenged nearly every day in the outer reaches of the enclave. Most people rarely ventured outside of their tiny shelters, scared or suspicious of the world outside, but exploring the world outside Zebulon was Yosh’s father’s job. He was the Scavenger. He knew exactly what to look for, and he was big and strong enough to carry it back to the enclave, whether it was food, blankets, a TV or something else, and make sure it was divided fairly among the people. Sometimes there was a disagreement, or a scuffle, but as soon as Yosh’s father noticed, it ended. The people respected him.

This, Yosh knew, was a different way of saying they were scared of him.

Sometimes Yosh accompanied his father on his trips. They’d never gone too far away from the enclave. But you didn’t need to go far, his father said—just outside its borders, where the light of the Everlasting Fire could no longer reach, there were literally thousands of bunkers. Most of them were in ruins, having been picked over tens of times over again by marauders, bandits, and innocent people with growling stomachs, but virtually every empty shelter still contained something of value for Yosh’s father to carry home. Perhaps the contents of a metal shelf had been left, fallen behind a pantry against a crumbling wall, or sometimes it was tins of food. The marauders and bandits didn’t always know how to open them, but, said Yosh’s father with a twinkle in his eye, marauders and bandits didn’t have all of Zebulon depending on them.

“What about the other enclaves?” Yosh asked, lingering to sift through a hill of dirt and broken things, while he was out with his father one day.

“What other enclaves?” his father said quickly—and then he added, “Don’t dig through there, Yosh. I’ve torn up that stack a dozen times.”

“Well,” said Yosh, “surely there are other enclaves, right? Or else the Ones Who Watch would have nothing else to watch.”

The Ones Who Watch were a group of elders who swept through Yosh’s father’s enclave every full moon, on the night of the mootfire. They came to bring news of the greater world, to settle disputes, to survey what Yosh’s father had collected and to take a small share, usually nothing more than food for the next stage of their journey. The people in the enclave tolerated them, and made jokes and rude remarks when they weren’t around, but Yosh’s father always kept his silence. “They earn their keep,” was all he said.

It occurred to Yosh that his father thought of the Ones Who Watch much the same as the rest of the enclave thought of him: with equal measures admiration and fear.

Yosh’s father gave a laugh. It was brief and purposeful, just like everything else he did. “The Ones Who Watch will always have something to watch,” he said. “That is their business, and they make it so they will always be in business. Get your arm out of that crack, please, Yosh. I need some help with this refridge.”

Yosh’s arm was halfway down a crack in the cement trail outside. The trails had once been fixed in even, square sections, laid flat along the rows of shelters, but had long ago been ruptured and broken. Most of the squares were split into several jagged sections. Yosh had a theory that underneath them was a whole other city, identical to this one but for a subterranean roof instead of sky, and all the shelters there were fresh and unplundered, just like in the World That Was. If he reached far enough, Yosh thought he might uncover a pathway. As yet, Yosh was still not able to reach far enough.

“Sorry, Dad,” he called, withdrawing his arm. “I thought I saw some cans of tomato paste in there.”

He gave a glance inside the doorway, to where his father was already wandering, to see whether he would react. Tomato paste was in great demand. Yosh’s father used it, along with some other cans and kernels of food, to fashion something he called pizza—and when he made it, he made it in great quantity, and the whole enclave celebrated.

He laughed again. It was shorter, this time.

“You’re a funny little storyteller, Yosh,” he called out through the doorway. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but I’m sure it wasn’t that. Here, come inside and help me with this. There’s enough blankets here to clothe half the urchins in…”

He broke off suddenly. Yosh struggled to his feet, abandoning the crack for good, and ran inside to see what had silenced his father.

There was indeed a good supply of clothes—fresh and untouched, several drawers’ worth. It was the kind of reward they rarely found anymore, definitely not this close to their enclave. Clean, untouched and valuable.

The drawers sat behind Yosh’s father’s back, all but ignored now. He stood at a desk, staring in awe at a small silver globe, dirty and old, with flecks of rust adorning its crown.

Yosh didn’t want to sound immature, but he didn’t see what value an object like that could hold. It might be metal, but it wasn’t even a solid plank. It could barely help to barricade his sister’s ant farm, let alone their house.

“What is it?” he asked scornfully. “Some kind of food? Another device from the World That Was?”

“Not at all,” said his father, raising it up. Yosh could see that it wasn’t a globe at all. The metal shape only went down halfway on one side, then stopped in a sharp rim. It was more like a hat. Yosh’s father’s fingers danced along its rim appreciatively.

“I remember this well—as a matter of fact, it’s still plugged in. Here, Yosh. Think of a memory. Any memory.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Yosh. Or he started to, but he broke off as soon as the force of the machine hit him.

And then he was no longer alone in his mind.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

I Laugh at Stupid Things

I don’t know when I started laughing at everything. I used to be cool, I swear. There was just a moment, maybe shortly after I moved to Los Angeles, when I went from being stoic and smart — the kind of person who nodded at jokes rather than laughing at them, not because you didn’t like them but because you did, to show that you were thinking about this clever quip, really internalizing it, rather than just laughing at it and reacting to it and letting it roll away — and started being the cerebral equivalent of a tickle monster.

I watched Hotel Transylvania 2 yesterday. The ending montage was a collusion of monsters — ’50s-style Frankenstein’s monster and his beehive girlfriend boppin’, two mummies doing the Walk Like an Egyptian dance, the one human guy doing bad hip-hop dance moves in an imagistic echo of being the only white guy at a party, and then, of course, the werewolf couple, revealed by a camera zoom-out to be surrounded by a litter of 20 puppies, all of which they inexplicably brought to a dance club — I was cracking up the entire time. I was an embarrassment to my 7-year-old. I was an embarrassment to my three-year-old.

“Papa, I can’t hear the talking in the movie,” she scolded. There was no talking. She just wanted me to stop.

Have you seen it? It’s so delightfully stupid. I have come to appreciate delightfully stupid. I’m pretty sure, if there’s a Netflix specialized queue for delightful stupidity, I’ve wheeled through it more than once.

In San Francisco all my friends were writers, and in L.A. they were all actors. Everyone was an actor. The writers were actors, the producers were actors, and the actors were especially actors, acting all the time. Anything anyone said to you was like an audience suggestion during an improv comedy show. How are you? I just had the craziest day, let me tell you about buying a Snickers bar at the convenience store, it was the most traumatic thing ever. 

I used to be stoic, standing around with funny people, some of them had been on TV, some of them had followings, Twitter fans they didn’t know, all of them saying the funniest things ever, things that rolled out of their mouths once and never be repeated, and I’d just stand around, nod and not laugh. Maybe add a line of my own if I was feeling up to it, something not quite as funny and not quite as lasting, but usually not that — I loved those moments, their fleeting perfection, I wanted them to stay untouched.

I was perfect then. I used to think G-d was my girlfriend, sending me these unreal miraculous moments, sharing them with me in my perpetual aloneness. Because everyone I knew was already couples, I wasn’t because I was orthodox and, who was I kidding, because I was weird, who’d ever want to go out with me? But G-d did. We’d be shooting each other magic eyes across the room, enchanted as all hell by our conversational partners, but, of course, not laughing. That would be our shared night.

I chase these memories. Some nights I still go out, not with the same people but with the same conviction, the same desperate search to abandon my history and narrow all my complicated thoughts down to something pure and simple and easy. I have stopped drinking so much, and I’d like to say it’s because I’m more health-conscious and protective of my liver but it’s mostly because beer makes me tired, whisky makes me asleep.

The past is way more overwhelming than the present, and that, at least partially, is a relief. I don’t need much present. I used to be able to churn out stories, then pick them up a week later and they felt like things that had happened to me long ago, kindergarten friends you run into at the mall, do I know you from somewhere? Now it takes me a month to write a short story. I stop. I gaze off. I imagine all the possible ways it could go, all the possible things I could do to these characters, these kids, my babies. And then I think about it for a while, and then I choose one.

Maybe it’s me being more serious. Maybe it’s me being more sensitive. Maybe I’m still as clueless as ever, as I always have been. But maybe — and this is what I’m holding onto, this is where I’m putting my money down — maybe I’m better at being clueless than I used to be.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Don’t Let the Haters Drag You Down

Here’s a song for Donald Trump after getting his hand swatted by Melania. And it’s for Melania, too, for the days that you just have to swat someone. This is for the Trump haters, and the Trump voters, and the people who are sick of it and the people who just can’t get enough. I want to say, I have been there, I have been all those people, and to all of you I just want to say: I am with you.

I’ve been in a weird mood lately. A cross between frustrated and full of rage, where I can’t decide if I want to radically change the world or walk away from it or start my own society or just give up on other people altogether and stay home for the rest of my life. And now — if you please — snarl with me, and give the air in front of you a punch, and press play, and keep reading after the song starts.

Today on the train, a woman whose appearance and subway stop suggested she was well-off climbed onto the train, asked if I could give her my seat because her leg was hurting. I gallantly surrendered my seat — and I probably would’ve volunteered to, too, if I’d been paying attention instead of trying to write the short story that would’ve gone up instead of this post. Gallantly at the time, at least. I spent half the ride watching her on her stupid 1000-dollar luxury phone playing a Candy Crush clone that probably withered away both our minds and thinking about how, if I was seated and had gravity on my side, I’d probably be writing something that was more coherent and blissful and maybe that could turn into a book I could sell for a million dollars. Or at least 1000 dollars, enough to afford one of those phones (although I wouldn’t buy a phone, I’d buy a room full of Legos instead) and some nice clothes (not ostentatious ones, but ones that made me feel a little bit better about myself) and finally take a week off from work.

And halfway through the ride, I was like, you know what? You just wasted half an hour of writing time kvetching to yourself about things you can’t change anyway.

And I wrote. Oh, believe me, I wrote.

(Not this post, and not a short story I can finish on a single train ride, but something I’m into, something that might turn into something real.)

Today I got into an Internet fight. It had nothing to do with me. A few weeks ago I’d gotten a stupid letter from a Jewish website, the Forward, saying they loved my writing and they wanted me to write for them. The editor, Sharon Gitelle, got my site’s name wrong and the subject matter wrong and it was pretty apparent she’d never actually looked at the site. And when a friend (ahem, co-editor) of mine pounced on the Forward, I did too. And it wasn’t even on my own behalf! I used to freelance, I know it’s crazy hard to sell stories every day, I get super mad when places that could pay writers aren’t paying them! This isn’t just kvetching. This is RIGHTEOUS ANGER ON BEHALF OF OTHERS.

Although the truth is, after the first volley it was like listening to the same song over and over again. (Here’s a new song. It will make you feel peaceful. Save it for after Shavuos if you hold that way.) I made my point. There are so many other points I could follow it up with. But do I really need to spend the most creative and dynamic parts of my life hammering down a point when it’s already solidly lodged in the firmament?

One of the best things about becoming religious was accepting the idea of bittul, or nullification. I’m not more important than the universe around me. G-d has a plan, and sometimes the best thing I can do is let go and let the plan carry me, and not be so damn obstinate and try to fight it. In the moment, the battle feels like everything. It feels like the only way I can make it to the next minute of my life is to completely win this one. I’ve been reading tweets maniacally before sleep, waiting for news about Trump, for someone to confess, or for someone to figure out just what the answer is to all this Russia stuff.

But I’ve been waiting 25 years to find out the end of Twin Peaks, too, and one way or another, I made it this far without my brain bursting open. I learned to get along. I found other stories. I wrote a few of my own along the way.

I take back the first thing I said. That song about the haters and the bastards, it’s not for those angry people — it’s not even for me when I’m angry. It’s not a thrashing song, it’s a ska song. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen people dance to ska music (okay, the anthropological term is skanking) but it’s basically hopping up and down and throwing your arms back and forth like you’re skiing and it’s not you dancing, it’s letting your body dance you.

Rebbe Nachman says that one of the tricks played by our spiritual exile is to make us think that exile is the only place that exists. That there aren’t other worlds, better lives, new experiences waiting for us, that nothing happens after death, that there isn’t anything left to surprise us. It’s been a while since I’ve been well and truly caught by surprise. But I’d like to think I still can be — not just by stuff that makes me angry, but by stuff that makes me see magic.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Leaving Behind The Smell Of Your House


The writer David Sacks said, when you move to a new place, the first thing you should do is record what it smells like. Smell is the weakest sense in our conscious memory, but smell is also the deepest, most sensory-specific memory we have, the only one of the five senses that wasn’t damaged in the Garden of Eden. The nose is connected to the Hebrew letter vav, the connecting letter between this world and G-d’s world.

But in the everyday bustle of life, scents have the least hold on us. When you settle in that new place, smell is the first thing you stop noticing.

There are so many things I want to remember about my grandmom. The smells of her house, kamish bread and blintzes, the warm fuzz of the fresh carpet that was so amazingly fluffier than our carpet at home, which was great for playing with toys on — my sister and I always wanted to take our toys there. Friday mornings when my grandparents came to our house to walk us to school, or whenever they came over, we ran down the stairs to show them our toys.

Later, instead of showing toys, we told stories. She was a great listener. She was the best listener. If we didn’t tell her about a project we did at school or an episode we watched of a TV show, it didn’t really happen.

She was more a listener than a talker. In those first years, I remember my grandfather much more vividly than her — her sitting beside him, her agreeing with him, her showing me the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer he’d assembled while he was sleeping from working there all night. She loved him so completely. All of us she loved completely. When you were in the room with her, she paid attention to you like you were the only person in the world. She was more a listener than a talker.

But she was an entertainer. When she did get a zinger, it always zung. A doctor in the nursing home asked if those were really her teeth — “They better be,” she said, “I paid for them myself.” Even when she complained, it was magical. They played The Doors on the oldies station, the lead singer saying “Light my fire” over and over again at the end, and she swatted the air with her hand, “Oh, just light his fire already!”

She found the humor in every situation. When someone asked what she thought of my poems, her only complaint was, does he have to curse so much? And when I did my first show ever, she was there, in the front row, clapping harder than anyone. I apologized to her, sorry there’s so many curses, Grandmom. She turned around and said to the audience, I’m older than you are, you think I’ve never heard those words before?

She was so adaptable. When my cousin started calling her “G,” she took to it. She really owned it. But her world was the things she knew, the places she was comfortable.

She was raised by her parents, and also by her sisters, the youngest of three girls. And she was raised by the neighborhood, too, growing up in a corner store, back when everybody went to corner stores, working there from when she was a young girl, falling asleep in the back groom on two chairs pushed together because even back then, she was crafty.

I like to think she learned from the best qualities of everyone, that’s how she got to be so good. But she had her safe spaces, the places she was comfortable. She never left Philadelphia, but to her, Philadelphia was the world. She had her gang of girls, the same friends who terrorized the Gingham House, the Country Club, and every other restaurant in Northeast Philly for way over 50 years. They drove themselves. They took the bus. Their kids drove them. They took ParaTransit. “Not many of us still around,” my grandmom said sadly, one day, eight, maybe nine years before they finally stopped going at it.

When she finally moved from the house my father and uncle had grown up in, the house that I, my sister, and my cousins had grown up in, having our first sleepovers, breaking our first Yom Kippur fasts from the pizza shop on the corner, toting home cheese crackers and loose potato chips in ziplock goody bags, to an apartment building down the boulevard, my father and uncle measured the distance between her couches, the height of the paintings and needlepoints hanging on the walls, so the move would be painless and her new place would be just right.

And it was. They took care of her, and she never stopped taking care of them.

She was able to do less. She cooked less, and it must have frustrated her, who knew every inch of her kitchen and whose career was to care for her family. But she kept at it, pushed herself when she could, made schnecken less and frozen dinners more, but never stopped. Sometimes when we visited she was watching TV, sitting on the parking-lot porch, listening to one of the CDs from the single tray of CDs she owned. “I got to keep busy,” she’d say. Smells are the first thing to fade. I don’t want to lose these memories, any of them. I want to be back in there, back inside them, and not here, not today, not this.

She lost her husband, my grandpop, 26 years ago, the winter before my bar mitzvah, a lifetime. But she kept going. She filled the space of our void, she spent another lifetime. One of the first times she met my wife, she offered to cook for us. Whatever you like, my grandmom told her. My wife said, no, whatever you like. And so the three of us sat at her kitchen table having hot borscht and potatoes. The smells, the stories. She never told much about herself. The Old World wasn’t Europe, it was West Philadelphia, born and raised, and the story of her childhood was working in an office and asking her boss, “When are you gonna hire some single guys?” — until the day Bernie Roth showed up for work.

It wasn’t till recently that she started talking about going down the shore, a group of girls and a few couples, with boys…there were so many Grandmoms. Inside the corner store, a whole family. Inside her neighborhood, a universe. I wish I could’ve seen her on the Boardwalk, eyes shining, as excited about each new thing as she was about the art projects I showed her. I knew her for 38 and a half years and it still wasn’t enough.

In the end we are babylike, unable to care for ourselves, struggling to talk, stumbling through a twilight of memories. Her loss of speech mirrored her great-grandchildren’s discovery of it, and even when she couldn’t remember their names, she still basked in the delight of them. Their grandparents, their parents, freaked out at the chaos and mayhem they brought to the nursing home. But she loved it.

Many times she refused to eat, but even within that she provided for us — “I can’t eat another bite,” she said, oblivious to the food not being my fundamentalist standard of kosher, and no one’s standard of vegetarian, and chopped into infant-size bits. All she wanted was for us to be taken care of, for us to be happy. To encourage her to eat, my parents brought her single-serving bags of pretzels and potato chips, goody bags of her own. She turned around and gave them to the kids.

She did make us happy. Even when she couldn’t remember our names, even when her speech lost everything but its bare essence — Who you? Who am I? Where I am? — she seemed more concerned with the loss of our names than the loss of her own, as though, if there were only one name between us, she would have given it to any of us gladly.

In Judaism, every mitzvah we do for the deceased is called chesed shel emes, true kindness, because we do it knowing it can never be repaid. Grandmom’s whole life was chesed shel emes. They say children can never love their parents as much as parents love children, and now I know that to be true. You showed me it’s true. I wish I could show you how much I love you, and I wish I could show you how much I miss you right now.


Contributions in Ida Roth’s memory may be made, according to her wishes, to Kosher Meals on Wheels.

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