Tuesday, December 27, 2005

How To Be A Slightly Poetic Modern Chassidic Orthodox Jewish Writer

Live in New York, where Jews can be Jews without Judaism. Question, but know when to accept. Be idealistic to a fault. Daven your way - in your own words, in silence. Meet angels in your dreams. Linger near the waters and rocks. Write before sunrise and after sunset. Welcome solitude and laughter. Love films by unafiliated Jews - Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble In Paradise and The Smiling Lieutenant; early to mid-Woody. Hide your kippah under a cap. Be impulsive. Revel in the rain. See truth and beauty in havdallah and lit candles. Find your place in your family. Absorb trivial details. Believe in souls. Watch from the sidelines. Live your fictions. Trust in Chassidic joy. Announce you are an artist to convince yourself. Get lost between the pages. Work in light and shadow. Overanalyze. Sculpt in clay, and wood and glass and food. Wherever you are, be in Jerusalem always. Sing a niggun. Aim for Malamud and Singer and Ishiguro; ignore them all. Save what matters. Note the leaves. Drink in the innocence of toddlers. Hurt easily. Find your kavannah. Move with the clouds. Dance for the moon. Acknowledge your difference. Listen to photographs. Take long walks on tree-lined paths. Make time for hitbodedut. Champion the uninvited. Write stories around lines and curves. Struggle with the burdens of your people. Give up. Start again. Miss friends. Answer to all your names. Languish in the serenity of shabbat. Admit when you are wrong. Re-create your life. Avoid television - not for religious reasons, for peace of mind. Feel yourself fading. Hold fierce to independence. Believe in possibilities still. Write what you know. Feel guilty about it. Expand time. Avoid centers and edges. Swirl with music in the air. Chart something. Wear gray in a sea of black. Search for the impossible. Be reserved and free. Dream. Dream. Dream. Disdain hypocrisy. Keep Torah with you. Remember to breathe. Be drawn to the mystical. Recoil and return. Crave closeness and depth. Avoid definition. Believe in hashgacha pratis. Let "Lecha Dodi" and "Ani Ma'amin" touch you. Smile wide and often. Laugh fully. Acknowledge kindness. Trace the seven strap marks tefillin has made on your arm. Search for precedents. Know your worth. Derive pleasure from the wind in a night sky. Be a Jew. Wish to be a Jew you can be comfortable with.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Why, it's Christmas music! All the time! Everywhere! And (in the hopes that this will somehow pass as fulfilling the I confess meme I was tagged with by Daled Amos) I confess that I have a weak spot for it. No, not the `barump ba bum bum, yay Jesus!' variety of Christmas music, but the less overtly religious, more innocuous "Winter Wonderland", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" type Christmas music (well, ok, and "Silent Night")- the kind that is not only marked by fine musicianship and songwriting, but which genuinely makes you feel good.

I wish it were great Chanukah songs I heard everywhere this time of year. But guess what? There are none. But so many of the most successful recording artists of all time have been Jewish, you protest! Bob Dylan? Nothing. Barbra Streisand? Neil Diamond? Barry Manilow? Harry Connick Jr.? We have Christmas albums from each, but nary a note on Chanukah. Two of the great songwriters of our time, Paul Simon and Carole King have recorded Christmas songs as well.

And they are in good company. It was a Jew, Irving Berlin, after all, who wrote "White Christmas," perhaps the most well-known of all modern-day Christmas songs. Jews also wrote "Let It Snow" (Sammy Cahn) and "Santa Baby" (Joan Javits), among other songs considered holiday classics.

It is not as if we have been completely bereft of Chanukah songs: Kenny G, paradigm of all that is bland, found no room for a Chanukah track on his 2002 holiday album Wishes, but he did include "The Chanukah Song" on his 1994 holiday album Miracles, and another, "Eternal Light (A Chanukah Song)" on his 1999 otherwise all-Christmas CD, Faith. Just between you and me, though, how do we know these are really Chanukah songs? They are instrumentals...

I was so excited when the Chanukah compilation Festival Of Lights came out a number of years back, only to find the biggest featured names to be Jane Siberry and Marc Cohn (who I always thought was not Jewish (thanks to Stacey for the correction!) - the latter contributing a great version of "Maoz Tsur/Rock Of Ages") - with the added highlight of famed cantor Yosele Rosenblatt singing kiddush backed by a Balinese dance beat. Festival Of Lights 2, from 1999, upped the ante, featuring They Might Be Giants singing the original "Feast Of Lights".

On the parody side, the makers of South Park offered the offensive but funny "A Lonely Jew On Christmas" and "Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel" on Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics album, joined this year by Sarah Silverman's "Give The Jew Girl Toys", and the truly embarrassing "Chanukah's Da Bomb"by Chutzpah. And of course, there is the one Chanukah song radio will play, now in three versions, Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song", which cleverly rhymes funnaka, marijuanica and gin and tonnica with hannukah. Not exactly poetry. I'm not convinced it's actually even music, either. Sure, it was fun the first time I heard it, but now...

The Barenaked Ladies, of "One Week" fame, offered three Chanukah songs on their Barenaked for the Holidays CD - "Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah", "I Have A Little Dreidel" and the original "Hanukkah Blessings". None are particularly good, but if you want them, they have been repackaged as the stand-alone three track EP, Barenaked for Hanukka, available on I-Tunes.

The OC, the TV show which introduced the world to Chrismukkah, has released a holiday album called A Very Merry Chrismukkah, which is oddly made up of all Christmas songs save for Ben Kweller's tepid version of "Rock Of Ages".

Aside from one-offs by under the radar indie bands like Another Man Down's "The Dreidel Song" and Shudder To Think's "Al HaNisim" on different holiday compilations and oddities such as Peter Paul & Mary's "Hayo Haya", an ode to the Maccabees, that's pretty much all there has been on the Chanukah front.

What's a "Winter Wonderland", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", "Father Chritsmas", "Jingle Bell Rock" loving Jewish boy to do?

Fortunately, a change is in the air. With Matisyahu singing about HaShem appearing on MTV right after Madonna's video for "Hung Up", his album Live At Stubbs at 126 on the album charts and climbing, and his single "King Without A Crown" just 10 chart positions from entering the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (it has already reached #14 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart), I would say the time is ripe for Jewish artists to embrace Chanukah on record.

Do you hear what I hear?

Why, it's the LeeVees! Fronted by members of Guster and the Zambonis - not exactly household names, but both are up-and-coming - the LeeVees offer a full-length Chanukah album, Hanukkah Rocks. And the good news is it does rock, with not a single dud among the tracks. With a style that comes across as the love child of Aimee Mann and They Might Be Giants, all of the tracks are fun, tongue-in-cheek guitar-laden odes to the holiday Jewish musicians seem to have forgotten.

"Latke Clan" is a classic-in-the making. Other tracks include: "Applesauce vs. Sour Cream", "Goyim Friends", "At The Timeshare", "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?", "Kugel", "Jewish Girls (At The Matzoh Ball)", "Gelt Melts" and "Nun Gimmel Shin Heh".

You can hear the entire album for free here . Just click past all the Christmas CDs until you get to Hanukkah Rocks. Then turn off your radio stations playing Christmas songs all day long, sit back, and enjoy....not up to par with "Winter Wonderland"? Maybe not, but it's a good start....

Chanukah Sameach!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Who By Birth: The Girl Who Never Fully Was

There was a picture taken when she was delivered, but we did not see it; the gravemarker at her tiny plot says only "baby," followed by our family name. Instead of being surrounded by family, she lies in a section of the cemetary surrounded by other stillborns, and babies who lived for less than a week.

Our rabbi gave her a name, a name of comfort, given to many stillborns, but not allowed to be placed on the tombstone.

I remember very clearly the day my mother left pregnant and came home empty. That emptiness stretched for months, even years. When she went into labor, the baby had already died inside her. She knew it, and still she had to push.

I don't know how to think of the baby - literally. I sometimes wonder who she'd be, how her presence would have changed our family dynamic, how we would be eight children instead of seven, even numbered. Yet there is nothing from which to create or to build upon. She would have to be fully imagined, like a character in a novel or film. Only she is not fixed as any one thing, any one entity. There is no history, no memory, no good or bad. In that way, she is free, unencumbered.

Yesterday, she would have been 15. She was to have been the bridge between my 20 year old brother and my 12 year old sister, connecting the 80s to the 90s. And instead there is a gap. Eight years. Again, there is eight. Seven is shabbat, the days of the week, the days of creation. Seven is this world, but eight - eight is beyond this world. The number is disquietingly fitting for someone who never fully entered this world, who existed, who breathed, only in a womb, as a series of weak heartbeats and feeble kicks.

I have visited her grave, pulled out the stray weeds among the carefully arranged rock bed laid down by my parents to keep weeds at bay and to differentiate her grave from the other little ones no one seems to remember. I would like to acknowledge her in some way, but she is so intangible. I can't feel sad or miss her because I never saw or knew her. How do you mourn someone who never fully was, who never had the chance to be?

We do not speak of her in my family; we let the day of her stillbirth pass by without a word. Yet, she has an undeniable weight and presence. She is a heavy emptiness, a void that cannot be touched. She has come to represent for me all unfulfilled potential, all that is ephemeral, nameless, faceless, both the fear and the comfort of what is unknowable.

In Rabbinic literature, it is written that a stillbirth occurs when a soul only needs the mother's womb to achieve perfection. And so to my perfect sister who never fully was, I hope your soul is at peace. I don't know how to remember you, but I haven't forgotten you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Make An Ugly Woman Your Wife

Jimmy Soul had a number one hit on the Billboard charts in 1963 singing the advice "if you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, make an ugly woman your wife." After the last woman who I was madly attracted to turned out to be more than a little psychotic, Mr. Soul's words sound quite sagacious. The reality, however, is that I don't know anyone who specifically sets out to find a spouse they find unattractive, and I question how happy it might actually make them. I know many, though, who take the extreme opposite route, placing a premium on attractiveness. If a woman is not a size 2 and supermodel gorgeous, many guys will not even give them the time of day. And it is not just the guys. I have met plenty of women who will settle for nothing less than the chiseled, broad-shouldered, over six foot man of their dreams who is rich to boot!

While I am not holding out for a supermodel, I also have fallen prey to placing importance on beauty - and I am troubled by it. I wonder how many great women I have turned down after a date or two - or even before getting to that stage - because I did not find them pretty. Yes, I have also ended things because a woman was not warm, or because she was rude or materialistic, but those are personality traits. I know that beauty fades, it is not constant, and it is purely external, having nothing to do with a person's intrinsic worth.

Yes, attraction has to be there, and attraction for me is not just based on physical attributes, and no, I am not seriously advocating marrying someone one is not attracted to, but it bothers me how great a role the physical plays in my thoughts. Why does it have to be this way? Is it strictly western society's influence? Have we been conditioned to expect everyone to look like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt? Do Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt even really look like the images of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt that we are presented with? When more of marriage is about who's going to get the milk at the grocery store than satiating lust, why is physical beauty so high on the list of essential traits in a spouse for so many of us?

Perhaps it needs to be the initial draw, because genuine love based on giving and mutual respect only develops later, after being there for each other and working together to build something - a relationship, a home, a life together. And just practically, for desire to be there, and to look at each other day in day out, there must be attraction. But how much is enough? What do we hold out for? How do we measure?

I can't quantify it personally, except to say I know it is more important to marry someone who will be a good spouse and a good parent to your children together, and who shares similar values in life. I would rather have those things and marry someone who I am somewhat attracted to than to not have them and be with someone I am madly attracted to - and yet, attraction does have to be there. I do not care about impressing my guy friends. I do not care if everyone else thinks my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. What I do want, though, is to be able to tell my wife I think she is beautiful and mean it - because she deserves that.

For those of you who are married, what was the one trait that figured most prominently in drawing you to your spouse? How important was the attractiveness factor before marriage and now after marriage? And for those of you who are single, to what degree have physical attributes played a role in your dating choices and in what you are looking for in a spouse? I very curiously await your thoughts...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Bears And I

I don't do winter well. Even though technically winter does not begin for another month or so, once we push the clocks back and it begins to get darker earlier, and colder outside, it is already winter for me, and I tend to hibernate, both physically and spiritually.

Already, I can feel it beginning - I grow more reflective and wistful and internal, instinctively grab for sweaters, think of how cold it is before venturing outside, stay a little longer under the covers. The music I listen to is more mellow, the books I read carry greater weight and depth, or at least have more resonance for me.

There are many wonderful things I associate with this time of year: watching snow fall from the comfort of a window, the perfect time to listen to the beautiful Tori Amos song Winter, the lights of chanukah, hot drinks as they go down your throat, more night - for those of us creative types who do our best work after dark, watching how excited kids are to play in the snow, hearty soups; it is a very good time for a visit to California...

And an image: Rav Dovidl of Diniv, the son of the Bnei Yissachar, said that once Elul began, tzadikim would look up at the night sky and see a hand in the stars. Each day, the hand would lower and unfurl its fingers a little more - until Chanukah, when it would close its fingers and return to the sky and invisibility. The hand was of course the hand of HaShem, giving a little extra help and encouragement to those of us who would not have made it into the Book of Life on our own merits. (Many chassidim believe we have until Chanukah to do teshuva for the past year). A very comforting image.

And yet....winter isn't my season. I'm all for reflection, and drawing inward at certain times, but mostly I find winter a time of barrenness and loneliness even within a crowd, of searching for warmth and light (thank God for Chanukah), storing up hope, watching footprints - literally and figuratively - that you've made in the snow, building up, fortifying to burst forth in life, in Spring...

I could use the hand. so I'd like to think the Chassidim have it right.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

I have always had a strong affinity for road trips, whether with friends, family, or even on my own. A car, the open road, good tunes, meaningful conversations or deep meditations, and sometimes, breathtaking beauty - there is nothing quite like driving up the California coastline for sheer magnificence.

When E-the-Brotha suggested a road trip to Cleveland, however, I was a bit apprehensive, on account of the deer in Indiana. Not all of the deer in Indiana, but a specific, large, dead one on route 80, a multi-lane highway (4 lanes? 5 lanes? not sure) that stretches across the midwest.

Last year around this time, my sister and I took a road trip to Milwaukee to spend Simchat Torah with D and Dr. Dobro. As it was a 16 hour drive each way, we stopped for a night in Cleveland both on the way there and on the way back.

On the return trip in Indiana: I was driving 80 miles an hour on the highway, when the car in front of me quickly swerved into the lane to my left. For a split second, I wondered what had caused him to swerve so wildly. But then immediately there right in front of our car in our lane was a large, dead deer. There was a car to my right, a car to my left, and no chance of making an abrupt stop at our speed.

I had no choice but to go over the deer.

The sound of car on deer was horrible. I felt sick as it was happening. Thank God the deer was already dead or for sure I would have killed it with the car. If that wasn't awful enough, because the deer was so large, going over it lifted our car in the air a bit, and I lost control of the wheel. The car did a complete 360, spun across all the lanes of traffic to our right, and then continued to spin back across the lanes to our left.

As it was happening, it felt surreal, like we were watching a movie. Everything just stopped - all thought, my heart. Both my sister and I remained incredibly calm, and I just kept repeating "it's ok." My sister, in a very calm, even-keeled voice, gave a play by play of what was occurring as it was happening:

"Oh my God, MC, we just went over the dead deer."

And then...

"Oh my God, MC, we're doing a complete 360."

And then...

"Oh my God, MC, cars are coming at us at 80 miles an hour."

And then...

"Oh my God, MC, we're spinning the other way."

Unbelievably, nobody hit us as we spun across all the lanes of the highway (twice!) before coming to a stop on the grass divider. Four other cars also ended on the divider, whether because of the deer or because they were trying to avoid hitting us as we careened out of control, I can't say. Though one of the cars stopped just short of going into the other side of traffic, no one got hurt and none of the cars sustained any damage.

Once we came to a stop, my heart began pounding furiously, and I said a prayer of thanks to God for our lives and for no one getting hurt. We sat there in stunned silence for a few moments, then got out of the car as we saw people running towards us to see if we were alright. I was so amazed by how many people had stopped their cars on the side of the road to check on us.

After making sure that everyone else was ok, we took a good look at our car, at the highway, and at the deer. The car was covered in deer blood and had a putrid smell, the road and the grass had crazy skidmarks, and the deer was still where it had been in the road. By the time the police arrived, everyone else had driven off, but we remained to walk around a bit and absorb the shock.

The officer told us it looked like the deer had been dead for some time, that there wasn't much we could have done, that we were incredibly lucky, and that as we did not kill the deer and no one was hurt in the accident, we could drive off as soon as we felt up to it. I went to shake the officer's hand, but he said it was policy not to, as I might be carrying a concealed weapon!

The drive from Indiana to Cleveland was horrible. We were both still shaken up, I had the sound of the car going over the deer in my head, and though relieved that I did not cause the animal's death, felt awful for the deer. Mostly, I was thankful that my sister and I were alive, and that no one was hurt. It was still a bit surreal, however, and I had not yet processed what happened.

A good night's sleep in Cleveland helped, and in the morning, at shul, I bentched gomel (prayer of thanks for surviving a dangerous situation), and we took the car to a car wash. As we headed back to New York, I couldn't help wondering what it all meant. Was HaShem sending us a message that we (or I, was) were doing something wrong in (my life)our lives? Was He letting us know that He is looking out for us? Was it a reminder to have emunah (belief) or a castigation for not having enough? Maybe both. I am not a big fan of "miracle stories, but in retrospect, it really did seem rather miraculous that we weren't killed.

As we approached the George Washington Bridge, my sister's cell phone rang. It was our mom, telling us that our brother Robro, had just been hit by a car while riding his bike. He had gone over the hood of the car, and landed in the road, and was now in hospital. My sister and I just looked at each other in disbelief. Thankfully, he came away with only scratches and bruises and was released the same day. It was more than a little freaky to have these events happen one day after the other.

When I told my Rav about these incidences, he said we should have a seudat hodayah ( a feast of thanks to God) each year to commemorate the kindnesses HaShem showed our family.

The trip back from the midwest this time was uneventful, thank God. We did not have to drive through Indiana, of course, but it is mating season for deer, and I was especially watchful for any darting - or lying - in the road.

I still wonder sometimes about the why, and what I am to take from these events, but can we ever really know? I think about my trust in God and my level of emunah all the time, and wonder at how I did not think of God or death as we were spinning, but only afterwards. I am still troubled by that. Every now and again, the episode replays in my mind. Mostly, though, I am just thankful that my sister, my brother and I are alive to tell the tale.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Veggie Chronicles

Though never a vegan/raw or live food adherent, like any good crunchy person, I was for a time a vegetarian.

It all started when I was 8 and impressionable, especially, apparently, when it was a militant vegetarian teacher doing the impressing. Mrs. Dinner (her real name! for Yonah's benefit) had been an eighth grade teacher at , my school, who after hitting a student, was "demoted" to teaching third graders. Wise move. No, she didn't hit any of us, but she did tell us in explicit detail how cows are taken on the conveyer belt and sent to be slaughtered. Many an 8 year old went home that night and announced to their parents, "I'm a vegetarian" to which most parents, including my own, replied, "No you are not. You are eight." Not realizing at the time that vegetarians and eight year olds need not be mutually exclusive, I acquiesced.

But it stuck with me. And at age 14, I silently resolved not to eat meat - which worked for about three years, until I was told by a rabbi that I could not be a vegetarian for the reason I was a vegetarian. He had obviously never had Mrs. Dinner as a teacher. Nevertheless, he explained, since God gave us permission to eat animals, who are we to say we are above that or that it is cruel? I rationalized in my mind that it was better to kill chickens than cows, and became a chicken eater, though only a tiny amount on shabbat, with ocassional pastrami allowances. Later, as an adult, I read a number of responsa which indicated vegetarianism is fine, but the damage had been done. I was now a shabbat chicken eater.

And a reasonably happy one at that. There's some good chicken eatin' to be had out there! If there was a vegetarian option, however, I would almost always take that over the poultry selection. So, though I would now eat chicken, I often chose not to, but rather just entertained it as an option. As it was limited to second choice shabbat entree, I felt I was still somewhat vegetarian (lacto-ovo chicko?), while not being holier than God, and at least I wasn't eating dead cow. I also felt healthy and had no cravings for red meat.

Somewhere into my second year of yeshiva, I was invited to the home of a Temani (Yemenite) couple for shabbat. I would never tell people in advance that I did not eat meat, as I did not want them to have to go to the trouble of preparing a separate dish just for me, and truth is, there are almost always enough veggie side dishes to fill you up if the main entree is a roast, and a shabbat meal would often feature chicken. I followed that same policy in this case.

This particular couple, however, were hardcore carnivores, which I only realized upon presentation of the meal. There was red meat in EVERYTHING - and I mean everything - the soup, the salad, the main course, the sides. I was their only guest, and I could tell they had put a lot of effort into preparing this meal. When I told them I did not eat red meat, their faces fell, and I quickly added, "until tonight." I consider myself very principled in general, but when pitting a cause I was not fully embracing vs. the feelings of others, the feelings of others will win out with me every time.

So I ate the meat dishes.

And it was fine. I had not had red meat like that in many years. It tasted good, but I was happy I could take or leave it. No sudden red meat cravings developed as a result. The only change was that I was now willing to eat red meat on select ocassions as well. Although I still prefer veggie options, my days as a card-carrying vegetarian and pseudo-vegetarian were over.

Mrs. Dinner has had a lingering effect, though: handling raw chicken makes me want to throw up; I still cannot eat chopped meat, and only rarely partake of steak or brisket; lamb, cornish hens, or anything that is a baby animal or presented at table as an entire carcass will not enter my mouth; I do not eat chicken drumsticks, wings, necks or pupiks, only breasts and thighs.

Hmmm, not sure exactly how that last one is attributable to Mrs. Dinner, but we'll give it to her anyway.....

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Gather 'Round, Kids, It's Story Time...

When I was a kid, one of the things my mom would do to keep us busy was give us a picture or a group of phrases and ask us to write a story. When Hilary over at Superfluous Juxtaposition presented a list of odd search phrases which brought people to her site, and laid down the challenge to write a story using them all, there was no way I could resist.....

The phrases:
.dirty employee breakroom
.prostitutes report los angeles
.madonna chris'mas cards
.vanilla ice rapper costume halloween
.be quiet please hebrew
.comic hamlet how is your day
.god bashert and breakup
.what happened to the gap website?
.jewish men and shiksas
.what happened to the gap?
.los angeles where to meet famous people
.girls in los angeles ready to meet and fold you (no, it didn't say fold, but this is a family blog about lesbians in bars, so we won't be using that kind of language here...)

The impromptu story (told in the voice of a married woman who works in a hygiene clinic; she's got issues):

I saw this great black T at The Gap, and of course I can’t get it. But first, crappy work day. I finally take a break and I’m sitting in the “dirty employee breakroom”, which is where we go when we want to touch some lint and dirt and stuff, to catch a break from all the clean stuff, when this Israeli guy walks in that I’ve never seen before. And he definitely has a different idea of what the dirty employee breakroom is all about. He starts telling me (in hebrew, no less - how did he know I even knew any hebrew?)how he heard about all “these girls in Los Angeles ready to meet and fold you” and how he has this list, a “prostitutes report for Los Angeles”, so he knows where all the prostitutes are. And all I am thinking is how do you say “be quiet please in hebrew”. Cause I am always polite in a foreign language. Even when I’m pissed to hell, I am always polite in a foreign language. So he sees I’m looking pissed, so he changes the subject, and starts asking me if I know Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And I just turn to him and say what is it with these “Jewish guys and shiksas”? If it wasn’t for Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder, we would have no representation at all. And famous people? What the hell? You know how they say “Los Angeles is where to meet famous people”? Well, I’ve been in Los Angeles 12 years, and the closest I’ve come was this guy wearing a “Vanilla Ice rapper costume on Halloween”. How sad is that? Then when I get home, Rod’s already there, and noone pissses me off more than Rod. I know he’s my husband, but the sight of him before 10 PM just pisses the hell out of me. So he gives me this lame-ass smile, and then like some “comic Hamlet, he asks how is your day?” sounding all serious. And I just hit him. Right in the mouth. Engagement ring hand. And I’m finally feeling good for the first time today and my mom calls, and she mentions the three words she always does, the three words I am not in the mood for - “God, bashert and breakup”. For chris’sake, I just hit the guy in the mouth. How am I supposed to think about breaking up with him now? Maybe he’s not my bashert, maybe God had someone else in mind for me. But who else would let me hit them in the mouth like that? I’m not going to go start looking for someone else. So I’m pissed again, and then I remember that little black T I saw at The Gap, and I go online and are you ready? The website is gone. Not down, gone. And I just can’t take it and start screaming like a total lunatic, “WHERE IS THE GAP WEBSITE”?! “WHERE IS THE GAP”?! How can such a large retailer give up their web site? And so I dial the number for The Gap store, and I get this stupid cheerful girl who sounds like she sniffed a little too much glue, and I just lay into her about the website, and she is just so cheerful that I just want to punch Rod again, when I glance at the screen and the site is back. Just like that. The site is back. And I’m thinking miracles do happen. And I even apologize to the cheerful glue-sniffer on the phone, and I’m so happy about the black T I’m going to get that I might just splurge on those “Madonna chris'mas cards” Rod wants to get, where she’s wearing the dress from the Like A Virgin video, cause he really wants them and I did just hit him in the mouth. But I click on the Ts and I swear the only color they are out of is black. I swear. So the stores are closing, I am pissed, and the online place is out of black Ts. So all I can say is no folding way is Rod getting the Madonna chris'mas cards….

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Wall-Staring In Bars With Lesbians

Technically, she wasn't really a lesbian.

To say that I grew up sheltered would be a massive understatement. I never had an actual conversation with someone who wasn't white and Jewish until I reached college. The good part about that: when I did meet people from other religions and races, I came with no preconceived notions or prejudices. The bad: I felt a bit like Woody Allen's character in Sleeper, waking up to a new world. In my case, of course, the world had existed all along.

I never met anyone who was openly gay or lesbian until graduate school. My program of study was in an arts-related field and required a lot of time spent in Soho and Greenwich Village. During that period of my life (my wayward years) I was blessed to work at a job with a wonderful group of people who I actually enjoyed spending time with - not just a few people, but every single one of my co-workers was someone I wanted to get to know. One of these was LM, a brash and sardonically funny woman 2 or 3 years my senior, who smoked incessantly and always regaled me with a play-by-play of her latest therapy session with a doctor she viewed as an incompetent, but whom she just couldn't leave.

Though LM called herself a lesbian (and even included it proudly in bold on her resume), she would flirt with anything that moved, and admitted openly that though she preferred women, she was actually bi-sexual; she employed the term lesbian because bi "didn't mean anything politically." For a sheltered boy, all this was quite an eye-opener, and fascinating. Being an incredibly open, frank and forthcoming person, LM was happy to share her thoughts, opinions, and experiences, which led to many deep, occasionally existential, often touching, and always thought-provoking conversations.

LM's mother had been a nun in a convent who could not fight her urge to have a child, and left the convent in search of an intellectual man who would enable her to fulfill her desire; she found him in the form of a Jewish university professor, whom she contacted only twice more - once to tell him she was pregnant, and again to say she had given birth to his child. They had no real relationship with each other, and neither wanted one. LM's mother later married a gay man, who helped raise her daughter.

LM always imagined what it would be like to meet her biological father. It haunted her, and she yearned for it. As her father was somewhat well-known, she kept tabs on him, knew where he lived, knew of his other children, kept track of his career. She would create different elaborate scenarios in her mind of how she might run into him and how it would be. Once, she even saw him from a distance, but did not approach. This was the one area where she was not impetuous, was downright scared: "Hi. I'm your lesbian daughter by a woman you had a one night tryst with. I have many neuroses and now I'm here in your happy home." In the face of potential parental rejection by a father she did not know, her normally bold, tough exterior was hobbled by fear.

As a result of her dad's Jewishness (to which she attributed her neuroses), LM was intrigued by all things Jewish. She was always very respectful and accomodating of my religious needs, suggesting kosher restaurants we could go to, and never asking me to do anything on shabbat. She did, however, feel the need to broaden my horizons and loosen me up - she introduced me to some great bookstores and record stores, museums and cafes. I drew the line when she wanted to take me to Hell, a bar/dance factory where you have to feel along the wall to find the entrance door. She just shrugged ok when I dropped her off and repeated that I would not be accompanying her.

The office we worked in was a very convivial atmosphere. Any excuse would do to call for an after-hours drinkfest ("hey, it's Tuesday!"). Not being a big drinker, and not entirely wayward during my wayward days, I would sometimes go and not drink, just to observe, and sometimes not go at all. I never understood the appeal of getting blasted on a regular basis, and was especially surprised that this would continue after college.

I asked LM about it during one of our "broaden my horizon" excursions. LM had decided to take me wall-staring, which for the uninitiated goes something like this: you find a dive bar somewhere in the Village, one that is the size of a large broom closet, with a faded sign outside; the bar stools should face a brick wall, where there should be X-mas lights hanging in June. You go to the jukebox and put on some tragic-sounding French music, sit at the bar and drink, and drink, and drink, and stare at the wall until you get horribly depressed and then numb. As she started on her fourth beer, I turned to LM, and I asked her: "Why? I don't get the appeal. I don't get wall-staring, I don't get any of it. Why does everyone always want to go out drinking?"

Being the very open, honest, and forthright person she is, LM looked at me and said, "because when it comes down to it, no matter who loves you, no matter who is in your life, you're really completely alone in this world, and so you drink, to forget how lonely you are."

I was never so glad as I was at that moment that I believed in G-d. That was the beginning of the end of my wayward days.

Monday, July 18, 2005

What Did Della Wear?

My parents left this morning, with my youngest sister in tow, on their annual "states no one else wants to visit" summer vacation. My mother's fear of flying meant all our family trips were limited to where you could drive by car without depleting the energy and patience of the driver - my dad. So from ages 5-14 or so, after exhausting all the enjoyable east coast destinations (Florida, D.C. , Ottawa, New Hampshire), I became very familiar with states like Delaware.

Before I get a rash of e-mails from irate Delawareans, I want to make it clear that I am not dissing Delaware. It is a fine state for setting up tax shelters and for driving through on the way to other, far more interesting states. Delaware is also justly famous for its state bird, the blue hen chicken, and for being the birthplace of actress Valerie Bertinelli (who is either best known as one of the daughters on One Day At A Time or as the woman who married Eddie Van Halen, but not, alas, for being born in Delaware). As a destination in and of itself, however, Delaware is a bit lacking, water gaps notwithstanding.

I was the first person in my family in four generations to visit Israel, and never made it west of Pennsylvania until I was 24, so to my mind, Delaware is the symbol for all that is limiting or marginalized in life, as it was the least ingratiating of all the uninteresting states we visited when I was a child.

And yet...I miss those trips, even the one to Delaware, mostly for the shared family experience. The car rides themselves were always more entertaining than the destinations, as invariably someone would throw up, someone else (why was it never the one who threw up?) would spot a license plate from Hawaii or Alaska (the ultimate point-getters in spot the state license plate game), my dad would threaten to stop the car if we didn't stop fighting, and my mom would remind us before getting out of the car not to touch anything anywhere ever.

There was a warmth and an innocence to these trips it is impossible to recapture. The world is too large now, and I have been weathered by living in it. I feel bad for my youngest sister, who at 11, does not have the camraderie of a bunch of siblings to go with her (the closest in age being 8 years older), and who, having already been to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and San Franciso, will only know places like Delaware as the places no one else wanted to go to...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Somewhere Off The Coast Of Maine

Before four years in Israel, shoko b'sakit, dodgy and ort, my love was an island off the coast of Maine. I had just started my masters thesis and thought it would be a good idea to get away and have time to myself to write. I rented this wonderful cabin - sight unseen - on Mount Desert Island.

I still had the car I bought in high school with my bar mitzvah money (what a good racket that whole bar mitzvah party thing is! I still question the wisdom in letting a 16 year old buy a brand new car, and I sigh when I think now how useful that money would have been during
my time in Israel, but...) It was a scenic nine hour drive from NY to Maine. The first thing I noticed upon arrival, aside from the natural beauty, was the overwhelming lobster presence. There was lobster everywhere, to the point where even if I didn't keep kosher, I would think to, if only to get away from lobster. I don't think I've ever had more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my life in such a short span of time as I did on that vacation.

It was an important vacation for me, as it was my first without friends or family. Just me, completely on my own. My days consisted of hiking (there was a national park on the island), whale watching, beaches and solitude. Sometimes, I would sit on the large rocks by the shore and write page after page, describing waves. I would often stop by the island's only bookstore, Port In A Storm.
Surrounded by water on three sides, the store featured obscure books on the mating habits of moose, Maine history, local poets, and of course, lobster, in addition to whatever was on the current national bestseller lists. Just the kind of warm and quirky spot I like. Comfortable couches, where you might find a cat or two already curled up for a nap, were placed strategically throughout the store. Tea was available for purchase, poured by the owners, who actually worked in the store and always greeted you with a smile and a wave; if you went round back, you could sip tea on the porch and watch the sun set over the ocean.

My cabin was small, but plenty of room for one person. It was far enough from any other
cabin that I could go for days without seeing anyone, if I chose (sometimes I did choose that). The owners of the cabins were transplants from New York who were taking a chance, having both quit their high-powered rat race jobs in Manhattan for a simpler, more peaceful existence as lobster-eating cabin renters on Mount Desert Island. I admired their spirit then, and now, in retrospect, their courage - it is not easy to give up security and good cuisine for uncertainty and lobster.

The trip was relaxing, rejuvenating and very good for my writing. The coast of Maine quickly became one of my favorite spots in the states, a close third behind Berkeley and Boulder for shear beauty. After a few weeks, however, I began to feel lonely, sick of peanut butter, and all writ out, and I headed back to NY, with promises to return. For me, at least, being on my own has a shelf life of about three weeks before I crave the warmth of close friends and relations. I have not been back since that time, but do intend to fulfill that promise one day, perhaps on my own, perhaps with a wife (preferably mine!) who is indulgent of her husband's wistfulness.

My time there had been a distant memory until two years ago, while riding the bus down from Tzfat to Jerusalem, when Mount Desert Island came roaring back into my thoughts. I
had struck up a conversation with the woman across the aisle from me, a lovely, fascinating woman in her late 50s or early 60s. We talked for the entire hour-long trip, discovering not only that we knew people in common through Jewish geography, but also that we shared a love for writing and the arts, and for cabins in Maine.

Turns out, she owns a bed and breakfast on the very same island I had rented my cabin. A recent ba'alat teshuva through her daughter and son-in-law in Tzfat, this woman had asked a rabbi to come down from Portland and kasher her entire establishment, which is now a fully kosher organic vegetarian bed and breakfast. She invited me to her daughter's wedding there that summer. I didn't go, but kind of wish I had...

The encounter was the kind I've only had in Israel, where the past is recontextualized, this time rooted somewhere off the coast of Maine.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Date Getter

There are some things in life it's difficult to own up to. When I was a child, I insisted that my hair was brown, though it was obvious to everyone with or without bifocals that my hair was clearly, undeniably red; I never willingly admit to being a New Yorker by birth (could I help it if I was conceived in Brooklyn, which I am beginning to suspect is really the origin of humanity as we know it - who can't connect themselves back to Brooklyn?); and for the past few years now, I have been reluctant to admit that I own a black hat.

This hat of mine is not your typical black hat. It is both shorter and narrower than the standard. My intent in purchasing it was to be able to fit in with the Charedi crowd while still maintaining my individuality. I was at a point in life where I was not vehemently opposed to being hatted, so once I didn't care, why not wear one?

The change in people's perception of me was extraordinary. I was able to walk into a Charedi shul without being stared at, able to leap small earlocked children in a single bound, and generally accorded the mantle of "ben torah" simply by virtue of the object on my head.

My friend Zvi calls my hat the "date getter" because having a hat meant I could now be set up with a whole cadre of women who were to that point off limits. Magically, the hat provided entree to a world of women who were both stockinged and seriously devout, who wanted their husbands to both learn full time and work full time at the same time. Apparently, having a hat enabled the wearer's wife to believe such things were possible.

As I couldn't bring myself to wear the de rigueur plastic bag with supermarket logo over the hat, I bought an unofficial official hat cover, which was basically a hat-shaped shower cap. Zvi would take to wearing the hat cover on it's own (see exhibit A - picture to come), and I must say he looked quite dashing in it.

Though the number of dates with stockinged women increased by virtue of the hat, I came to find that I really didn't like stockings or the rigidity of the women who wore them. The hat became a mask to hide my quirks and bursts of creative expression. I was able to fit in just fine, but the world I was fitting into was not mine. There are aspects of the Charedi world I like, even admire. But I am no more Charedi than I am modern orthodox, Carlebachian or Chassidic. I am a mix of all of the above, a melange, if you will (certain words like melange, dodgy, milieu and ort can never be used enough, and I reserve the right to invoke them in inopportune places throughout this blog).

In time, I stopped wearing the black hat during the week, and wore it just on shabbat and on dates. Some shabbats I would not feel so Charedi, and took to simply carrying the hat with me, but not actually wearing it. People became very agitated by this, much as when I used to wear my hat with birkenstocks (and shadchanim would say, "I don't understand who you are. How can you wear a black hat and birkenstocks?" to which I could only reply, "because that's exactly who I am - a mix, a melange, if you will, which if you would stop being so dodgy and gave an ort, you would realize...."). It is somehow threatening to others to carry a hat without intent to place hat on head. I knew I was in trouble when I lost the ability to leap small earlocked children in a single bound when carrying my hat.

Today, I am learning to make peace with my hat. I am able to wear or carry it without letting it define me. It is, after all, just a hat. And black. It represents my Charedi side well (Charedim in the house...props to DJ Kool, Let Me Clear My Throat, which peaked at #30 on Billboard in 1997 - one of those songs with afterlife). It's a good-looking hat, it looks good on me, and it comes in very handy if you are walking through Meah Shearim or Borough Park and want to blend in. Of course, by wearing the hat, you open yourself up to being spoken to in Yiddish, but as I've learned, the shoulder shrug is part of the Yiddish vocabulary too, and very often passes for fluency.

As a date getter, the hat has been a mixed blessing. It has gotten me plenty of dates, though perhaps not the right kind. Or maybe it is that I am not wearing the shower cap hat cover on top? I will have to get that back from Zvi.....