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.