Monthly Archives: December 2009

I Hate Christmas

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We are in the strange void between Hanukkah and Christmas, a time where Jews are already sick of being proud and silver-and-blue glitter and singing Maoz Tzur, while the rest of the western world is just about to kick their holiday into high gear.

I know it’s not fair to pit our minor (though fun) holiday against the birth of the central dude of the Christian religion. But I can’t really help it. Kyle Broslovsky was right: it is hard to be a Jew on Christmas.

Which doesn’t at all explain the song that Josh Lamar and I put together called “I Hate Christmas.” It’s actually about, uh, why I like Christmas.

<a href="http://chibivision.bandcamp.com/track/i-hate-christmas-matthue-roth-joshua-lamar">I Hate Christmas by Matthue Roth &#038; Joshua Lamar</a>

You can listen to it free right there, or you can download the whole mini-EP for just $1. It’s so worth it…both because it’s good music, and because you can crank it loud enough to drown out all that Christmas music on the radio.

What’s interesting is the way this came about. Joshua Lamar, the non-Jewish drummer for the Jewish punk band Can!!Can, asked me if he could have some of my spoken-word tracks to play with. I sent him a volley of a bunch of them — a while Christmas sack full of presents, you could say — and the one he picked to work on first is the Christmas one.

So take a listen! And, by the way, there’s some raw language on it, just as a warning. I’m still kind of nervous about posting this — much more nervous than posting the Hanukkah songs that we commissioned a few weeks ago — but, then again, it’s a whole different ball game. After all, “Mi Yimalel” and “Maoz Tzur” were written by great people thousands of years ago. This is just me ranting about Bob Dylan and Bette Midler. What do you think?

Posted on December 22, 2009

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Too Much Time On Your Hands: Cholent Cookoff 2009

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cholent cookoff I really like ranking food. So much so that I even held a 16-team tournament to determine the best Jewish food out there on this very blog.

During the food tournament, cholent didn’t do too badly. Getting knocked out by latkes is the quarterfinals in nothing to be ashamed of. So when my brother told me he and my friend Ariel (pictured together with their cholent) would be hosting a cholent cookoff, I told them that I’d be happy to report on what happened.

Where I come from, if you are going to do something like this, you go all out. And I’m happy to report that “Cholent Cookoff 2009″ was a serious event. With five different teams participating and four judges to determine the winner, the night was intense.

Yes, there were five whole crock pots of cholent to consume. And all were unique. But who would win? Would it be “The Chunt,” whose use of ground beef made the cholent, as one judge declared, “taste like butta?” Or would it be “The Inkishkables” who relied on copious amounts of kishka to win over the judges?

Or would it be “My Daddy’s Cholent,” whose use of curry made for a very unique end result? Would “My Sweet 16″ named after its 16 ingredients be too complex for the judges? Or, finally, would “Quality Control,” using classic flavors, reign supreme?

cholent cookoff

As the judges (above) conferred, it became apparent that some cholents were worse than advertised. The Inkishkables did everything in their power to make the judges not vote for them. One judge questioned whether it was a vegetarian cholent (it was not), while another thought it was mass-produced (it was not). Better luck next year girls!

Overall, there was a consensus. “The Sweet Sixteen” was the winner with an overall rating of 8.5/10 from the judges. With a great ratio of kishka, to potatoes, to sweet potatoes, the judges gave it a slight edge over “The Chunt.”

Will 2010 bring better luck to the losers? Will Team Zevriel, makers of “The Sweet 16″ be able to repeat or will they implode like the 2004 Lakers? Will we ever be able to accept a curry cholent into the mainstream?

Only time will tell, kids. Only time will tell.

Posted on December 21, 2009

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770s of the World

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Admittedly, 770 Eastern Parkway, the biggest synagogue in Crown Heights and the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Hasidic Judaism, is not the most instantly recognizable building in the world. At least, not according to most people. (That would probably be, depending on your POV and cultural background, either the Taj Mahal, the White House, or the Haunted Mansion.) But in the eyes of many Chabad Jews, 770 is the first and last word in architecture, whether it’s constructing a new school, a new synagogue, or the perfect little something to fill in the space between two office buildings.

The photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher went around the world, taking pictures of 770s and their spinoff buildings, from a block-wide school in Los Angeles to a summer camp in Montreal to a library in Australia…and, yes, a house between two massive office buildings in Brazil. Check out some of the photos below, and then check their site for all twelve 770s built all over the world.

770 summer camp

770 in israel

770 in LA

770 skyscraper

Yes, it’s a little weird. But just like we hang pictures of people to inspire us — whether it’s a rabbi above your child’s bed to ward off evil spirits, Robert Pattinson hanging in your locker, or a picture of my favorite rock star next to my writing desk — having an iconic building around is probably a good thing for inspiration, whether it’s hitting new spiritual heights or just getting to synagogue on time.

Posted on December 21, 2009

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Best of the Week

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays on by .

“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted. One moment. Would you capture it or let it slip?” -Eminem

That’s right. The end is near. Tonight is the eighth night of Hanukkah. By tomorrow night, it’ll be over. You might as well get your fix of Hanukkah related articles right now. Because tomorrow, it’ll be too late.

“You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow this opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.” -Eminem

First, here are some awesome looking recipes for Hanukkah-related cupcakes. The best part about these recipes is that you definitely can make them after Hanukkah (Eminem lied. What can I say?).

Second, we have the fascinating history of gift giving on Hanukkah. Did you know that GI Joe invented Hanukkah after he outsold Barbie for eight straight days? Neither did I.

Finally, we have a awesome recipe for Mujaderra. Do you like lentils and rice pilaf? Then it’s pretty much assumed that you like Mujaderra.

Posted on December 18, 2009

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Religious Life (the Fan Video Version)

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This new video has been making the rounds. It’s an Internet viral video, so I’m not going to psychoanalyze it too much; I’ll just say that it’s a short fake trailer that takes the underlying themes of chasteness, devotion to love (or the old-fashioned, traditional-American version of it), and religious celibacy and — well — blatant-ifies them.

I don’t get all the jokes. I don’t think I’m supposed to. It’s one of those things that’s less ha-ha funny and more that it resonates with a specific community — in this case, Mormons. (“You got your mission when Howard W. Hunter was president,” one of those jokes, took me 15 minutes on Google to figure out completely.)

But — as those of us who are religious fundamentalists who hang out with fundamentalists from other religions are fond of saying — the stigma is the same. “Twilight Years” is about Mormons who don’t get swept up immediately in marriage. Any kind of not-100%-kitschy viral video about 30-plus-year-olds on the Upper West Side will have a different vocabulary of inside jokes, but, done smartly and sympathetically (and with just a bit of creepiness, just to keep things honest) would look a lot like “Twilight Years,” I think.

And there are some things that just transcend cultural boundaries. Like this bit of dialogue:

“How old are you?”
“Eighteen.”
“How long have you been eighteen?”
“Fifteen years. Are you afraid?”

This video also led me to another Mormon web video and web-storytelling series that I’m currently obsessed with, The Book of Jer3miah. The New York Times loved Jer3miah, although that didn’t directly translate into hits for them — their second episode is still languishing with a mere 3,000 hits, miniscule for a viral video. But it’s geniusly composed, exquisitely plotted, and, on top of that, done by undergraduate students at Brigham Young. Who are taking classes in new media studies. Maybe I was wrong — maybe all religious fundamentalists aren’t the same. Yeshiva University and HUC, you’d do well to start up classes like this.

Posted on December 18, 2009

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The Curious Case of Professor Barabtarlo

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Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. In his previous posts, Michael wrote about the reception of his work in Russia and the challenge of self-translation. He has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

michael idovThe plan was for me to write this post about The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s unfinished final work -– on the logic that, as a first-time self-translator from English to Russian, I might have something original to say about it. I don’t. Is it a great novel? No, because it’s not a novel at all. It’s a great diary of writing one. Should it have come out? Sure. It should have been published decades ago, quietly, tucked into the fans-only section of the novelist’s bibliography well behind the letters to Edmund Wilson and somewhere next to the handwritten recipe for “Eggs a la Nabocoque” (“Boil water in a saucepan… Consult your wristwatch”). As things stand now, we’ve slathered an adolescent dream of secret treasure – Swiss vault! Tormented son! The big reveal! – all over a text that cried out for dignified academic obscurity. We’ve taken a Nabokov manuscript and written a Dan Brown manuscript about it.

original of lauraBut I’ve long noticed that everything having to do with Nabokov has a tendency to turn uniquely Nabokovian. Real life begins to teem with temporal pretzels, unreliable narrators and phantom doppelgangers. And so the twisty story ofLaura continues in the most amazing case of its Russian translator, Gennady Barabtarlo.

Professor Barabtarlo teaches Russian Lit at the University of Missouri. He only dabbles in professional translation, and when he does, he translates almost exclusively Nabokov. His superb version of Pnin is, without a doubt, the most splendid act of Nabokov repatriation to date. (Western readers don’t give it too much thought, but the main irony of late-career Nabokov is that he is virtually untranslatable into his native tongue; there still isn’t a half-decent Russian Ada). So it was no surprise when Barabtarlo was hand-picked by Dmitry to translate Laura, whose first Russian chapter appeared in Snob magazine in November. This is when Gennady Barabtarlo began to exhibit signs of… well… I don’t even know how to say it without sounding ridiculous. In short, he began turning into Vladimir Nabokov.

He gave his interviews Nabokov-style, by demanding questions in advance and preparing florid, alliterative replies in the manner of you-know-who (“In the slightly salinated Moscow of my youth…”). Mutual friends reported his rising use of archaic Russian – equivalents of “thine” or “giveth.” It all culminated in a recent Q&A with Chastny Korrespondent, which Barabtarlo insisted on conducting entirely in pre-Revolutionary grammar. The poor publishers had to re-import three long-extinct letters into their font in order to print it. Barabtarlo pulled this stunt in order to underscore a point that the only salvation for the Russian culture would be to denounce everything Soviet (no matter that the work on the grammar reform has been going on since 1911). Along the way, he also informed the reading public that “No masterpiece… has ever been, or can be, written by anything other than the desnitsa (ancient term for right hand)”. Damn the “Remingtons and Macintoshes,” suitable only for typing drivel.

A Nabokov reader will experience a shudder of recognition here. Prof. Barabtarlo has, basically, become Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire, a deranged presence inserting itself between the text and the reader. In fact, this is all a bit too perfect, since Kinbote’s real identity is Vseslav Botkin, a Russian professor at an American university. The question remains whether Prof. Barabtarlo is doing this as a practical joke on the Russian reader or has gone genuinely bonkers. I’m afraid the former is a more upsetting proposition than the latter. God knows the publication of Laura was surrounded by enough gimmicks. That said, I’m almost sorry that the U.S. readers don’t get to experience this highly Nabokovian sideshow. Something is always lost in translation – except the fun of losing it.

Posted on December 18, 2009

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Poll: Hanukkah Presents

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

With tonight being the 7th night of Hanukkah, I’ve started to wonder, how come I haven’t gotten more presents? My parents got me presents. But did any of you? No. Hang your heads in shame.

Maybe you all had better luck. This week’s poll question is…


Posted on December 17, 2009

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We Did It! Thanks To You Of Course.

This entry was posted in General on by .

2 dollars I have some fantastic news to share with all of you. As most of you know, we recently asked you — our devoted readers — to make small donations (as little as $2) to help us raise $10,000 and complete a matching grant. Well, thanks to all of you, we surpassed our goal!

But the news is even better than that. This $10,000 was the final leg of a larger $50,000 matching grant. So, your $2 didn’t help us raise $10,000. It actually helped us raise $100,000!

Thank you so much once again. Your support enables us to continue producing the engaging and informative articles, blog posts, Torah commentaries, and recipes that you and hundreds of thousands of other people come to MyJewishLearning.com for.

Posted on December 17, 2009

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Hanukkah Minstrels Are Making the Rounds

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MyJewishLearning’s new versions of traditional Hanukkah songs have been getting noticed! Alicia Jo Rabins’ cover of “Sivivon Sov Sov Sov” was just hailed in the New York Times blogs as a “tender version of the ‘other’ dreidel song,” which, they rave, “should be a Hanukkah standard.”

But my favorite part of the article is the commentary by Alicia Jo herself. “The great thing is that even Hanukkah songs are in minor keys,” she says, “which makes it easy to cover them with a creepy twist.”

Go listen to it yourself here.

Meanwhile, Mista Cookie Jar, whose cover of “Hanukkah O Hanukkah” has been blowing folks away, just released this video for his song “Aunt Carol”:

Posted on December 16, 2009

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A Kind of Homecoming

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. In his last post, Michael wrote about the challenge of self-translation. He’ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

michael idovRussia is incredibly small. Yes, I know it’s the world’s largest landmass. But the visible and audible Russia – the Russia emitting the light and noise we call culture – is tiny, comprised of a few thousand people in Moscow and St. Petersburg with occasional outposts in places like Perm and Krasnoyarsk. And even in Moscow, the chattering classes are small enough to fit into two or three smoke-filled bistros (where they, in fact, do spend most of their time).

This makes the processes of literary hype, as I recently found out, churn much faster than in the U.S. – at an almost comic speed. The Russian translation of Ground Up – now called Kofemolka (“The Coffee Grinder”) – came out in mid-November. The reception was… remarkable. It went from “Who is Michael Idov?” to “Who does Michael Idov think he is?” and back in the space of, roughly, two weeks. I am still feeling the double whiplash from being discovered, denounced and rediscovered all before Thanksgiving.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, I had been a little worried that the book’s very specific focus on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, its Jewish history and its most recent generation of hipster arrivistes would glaze any foreign reader’s eyes. At best, I was hoping, the readers would follow my flailing characters like they would a couple of fish in a fishbowl – amusing, pretty perhaps, completely unrelatable. I was michael idov ground upcompletely wrong. Globalization, it seems, has created a phenomenon wherein every culture is foliated into very thin layers, but each layer has much more in common with its equivalents in other cultures than its neighbors above and below. As a blockbuster economic theory, this needs some work: it’s a kind of Big Millefeuille of Long Tails. But I’ve watched it at work in Moscow.

My first readers seemed to overlap with the audience of Afisha Magazine, a youth-oriented biweekly that takes its trendsetting responsibilities seriously: its first slogan was “As we say, so it will be.” They got every tiniest reference, be it a parody of the Antifolk musician scene at the Sidewalk Café or a passing mention of a 2006-2007 Williamsburg vogue for lumberjack beards. This was their world – much more so than the reality outside. These were the people that read Gawker at work and ordered Chinese delivery at home; each lived in his or her own private Manhattan, just like the hip youth of America used to live in their own private Paris. They had been starved, like most of us perennially are, for a book about themselves – and, paradoxically, found it in a story of two hapless New York yuppies. I’ve had two Q&As with readers in Moscow – one at a very Americanized coffeehouse called Coffee Bean and another at a great independent book shop called Dodo (the name both quoting Lewis Carroll and hinting at the enterprise’s endangered status). About 30 percent of the questions were about the book. The rest were about the finer points of New York nightlife, fashion, etiquette, renumeration for certain trades, etc. I have unwittingly found myself a tour guide.

Then (in a week or so) the backlash came. Even the head of the publishing house that put out the book referred to it in an interview as “Afisha’s favorite toy.” By the time newspaper reviews rolled around, they were almost entirely reacting to the blog hype. My name caused further confusion: was I an American writer or a Russian one? The story of the book informed every judgement: one critic wrote that my language, “preserved” by living in “exile,” was cleaner than the average Russian novelist’s; another – that I had forgotten it. “One of our best novels this year has been originally written in English,” marveled one. Another looked up the original’s meager sales rank on the Barnes&Noble site as proof that the king was naked – the book wasn’t a blockbuster Stateside, so why should we care about it? We’re being duped, people!

In the end, though, I came back to New York exhilarated with the Moscow trip. It felt fantastic to be a Controversial Novelist for a week, one whose very status as a part of the culture was subject to media debate. The Russians still take all things literary with utmost seriousness. At times I remind myself of Holly Martins, the main character of The Third Man -– a writer of breezy Westerns who meets with his readers in Vienna expecting an autograph session, only to get hit by a volley of wheedling psychoanalytical questions. In my case, the questions I was not ready to answer were about identity. I have no idea whetherKofemolka is “a Russian novel” or not. I’m just glad someone cares enough to claim or disown it.

Check back all week to read more of Michael Idov’s blogs. He is the author (and the Russian translator) of Ground Up.

Posted on December 16, 2009

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