Monthly Archives: February 2010

Don’t Waste the Mumps

This entry was posted in History on by .

Have you heard about the mumps outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox community? The New York Times can fill you in on all the details, but here is a very quick recap. There was an outbreak of the disease in Brooklyn and other religious areas (Rockland County, and as far as Quebec) and the source is from an all-boys camp from this past summer. The large majority of the inflicted are Orthodox boys, ages 7-18. All in all, there have been over 1,500 reported case in the New York metropolitan area.

I can give my own opinions on the issue, but I think Bart Simpson put it better (sorry international readers. Hulu hates you). Seriously kids, don’t waste the mumps.

Posted on February 11, 2010

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The Dangers of Jewish Food

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Do you know about Uncyclopedia? It looks like Wikipedia, but it bills itself as “a content-free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Basically, it’s open-source insanity that is sometimes funny.

This morning one of our food writers, Avigail Hurwitz-Prinz, emailed me a link to the uncyclopedia article on Jewish Cuisine, and, well, it’s possible my mind exploded a little:

In general, Jewish cuisine is very much what one might expect from any sweet-toothed, stodge-loving ethnoreligious group many members of which spent roughly half of their history in a part of the world where food is characterised by extreme flavour and the other half in one where food is characterised by consisting mostly of fat. Early Jewish life in the Middle East and later history in Northern Europe allowed the Jews to select all the least healthy dishes from both and combine them into a distinct style of their own, creating what is perhaps the most unhealthy style of cooking ever devised.

There are weird and gross pictures. There are jokes about blood libels. There’s an extended riff on the Geneva conventions. It’s just crazy. And weird. Very weird.

I haven’t been able to make it through the full article, but if you’ve got some time on your hands because of snow or earthquakes or whatever, it’s worth a look. Doesn’t quite conform to my sense of humor, but I think it falls squarely under the interesting column. Wow.

Posted on February 10, 2010

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Meeting My Giants

This entry was posted in Texts on by .

In his last post, Joel Chasnoff, author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir, wrote about the battle over his book cover. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.jewish_authors_blog2.jpg

Even before I signed the contract to write The 188th Crybaby Brigade, I turned to other authors for advice.

The first writer I met was Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End. Joshua had grown up in Niles, not far from where I grew up in Evanston. I’d played little league with his best childhood friend, Grant. It was at a birthday party for a mutual friend that Grant introduced us.

Despite the fact that he’d just sold a novel that would go on to become a New York Times bestseller and shortlisted for the National Book Award, Joshua was completely down to earth and, better yet, generous with his time. then_we_came_to_an_end.jpgHe read the sample chapter of my book proposal and then, a week later, took me for coffee and gave an extensive critique. He then offered to introduce me to his literary agent, if I needed one. (I did not, as it turned out.) Over the next few years, I’d email him questions about everything from what to expect during the editing process to publicity strategy. He always answered back.

Then, in January 2006, I saw an ad in the Times about an upcoming event at the 92nd Street Y with, among others, Dave Eggers.

Every writer has that one other writer whom he or she emulates almost to the point of obsession. For me, that other writer is Eggers.

I first came across Eggers in the fall of 2003, when I happened to notice his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Shattering Genius, on the front table at a Barnes and Noble in Buffalo.heartbreaking_work.jpg

I picked up the book, examined the amateur-looking cover. I flipped through the first few pages and saw a list of metaphors (and their explanations) contained in the book and an Acknowledgments section that thanked, in turn, the employees of NASA and the U.S. Postal system.

From that moment, I was hooked. I sat in an easy chair and read half the book right there in the store. Then I paid for it, finished it that night, and started to reread it the next morning.

After his reading at the 92nd Street Y, I stood in the signing line for upwards of an hour. When my turn finally came, I handed him a book and a white envelope with a letter in it. “I wrote you a note,” I mumbled, nervous, like a kid meeting his favorite baseball player.

“Cool!” Eggers said.

For two weeks, I checked the mailbox with anticipation.

No note.

Then, somehow, I forgot about it. Until one day, I opened the mailbox and found a letter with a San Francisco postmark, addressed to me in my own handwriting. (I’d enclosed an SASE).

I tore open the envelope. Inside was the letter I’d written to Dave, with his handwritten comments scrawled next to each question.

Eggers offered incredible advice. On my need for an extension from the publisher: “Totally normal. Good to have deadlines, but don’t release it ‘til it’s ready. You can never un-publish.”

On how to know when the book was finished: “Have a group of 5-6 readers outside of your S&S editor. Get these readers committed to reading/helping you make the book as good as it can be. They should be friends/relations who like you, care about what you publish. They can screen for dangerous passages.”

Truth be told, the best part of Eggers’ letter was not any one piece of advice, but simply that he’d written back.

Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir is available in bookstores now. Visit Chasnoff’s official website:

Posted on February 10, 2010

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Omri, We Meet Again

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

Last time I was at a Sacramento Kings game, I had full access to the team’s locker room and I bumped heads with some of my all-time favorite players. Of course, I had a reason to be there. I was interviewing Omri Casspi and his brother Eitan.

omri casspi the jewish basketball player

While Eitan told me that he will be in attendance for tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks, I, sadly, somehow was not granted access to the locker room. (DON’T THEY KNOW WHO I AM!?!??! I’M JEREMY FREAKING MOSES).

I’ll just be stuck with the “regular” folk in the “general seating.” And let me tell you something. I’m somewhat disappointed. Why? Because tonight is Jewish Heritage Night at MSG. This means there will be thousands of Jews on hand rooting for Omri.

You’d think this wouldn’t make me angry. But it does! I want to look like I’m rooting for the Kings. Not because I’m Jewish, but because I’m as die-hard as they come. More than that, I know that New York fans have a reputation for heckling visiting fans.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a HUGE Omri Casspi fan. The kid can ball (I can call him a kid because I’m two years older than him). But I’m also a huge Donte Greene fan. And a huge Ime Udoka fan. Will the Jews be rooting for them? I believe not. (Ed. note: I can all but guarantee this will be the only time Ime Udoka will ever make it onto this blog. He is like the Birkat HaHammah of Jewish basketball references).

Seriously, All I want is to be heckled. For the love of all good things, someone either call me a name or threaten my life tonight.
But of course it won’t happened. And it’s all Omri Casspi’s fault.

UPDATE: Here is a highlight from last night’s game. Omri finished with 18 points.

Posted on February 9, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy


This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

Now I’ll admit to you something. I don’t actually have an iPhone. However, there are people here in the office who do, and they have shown me a new iPhone app that looks pretty good.

Our friends over at Birthright Next have created a free (that mean $0) app, called Mila-4-Phone that helps you learn Hebrew words in a very easy fashion. I can explain it to you, or you can watch the pretty straightforward YouTube video they made with a better explanation than I could ever do. The best part is that you don’t have to be 18-26 to qualify.

You can download the app right here. And you can visit their website for more information at

Posted on February 9, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Goldie Goldbloom Talks POWs, Hasidic Jews, and Hot Italians: The Toads’ Museum Interview

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Goldie Goldbloom‘s first novel, Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders, comes out in February after having won the AWP Prize, one of the biggest literary fiction prizes in America. Actually, one of the most difficult parts of her victory was finding her. Goldbloom, a prolific writer, is not a prolific Internet surfer. She wrote all the drafts of Toads’ goldie goldbloom, toads' museum of freaks and marvelsMuseum by hand. She has published in journals as prestigious as StoryQuarterly and Narrative Magazine, but, until recently, didn’t even have a Facebook account. The contest judges finally tracked her down after Googling her name in a local Chicago Jewish newspaper and contacting the editors — and were as surprised as anything to learn that this broad, sweeping account of rural Australian life circa World War II was written by a quiet Hasidic Jewish homemaker living in in Chicago with eight kids.

Not that I have any experience either as a prisoner of war, an Italian, or a western Australian, but the book, both in tone and in history, feels unshakeably genuine. The narrator, an albino pianist named Gin, is rescued from an asylum by her husband, Toad, a five-foot-tall farmer who’s overprotective, socially awkward, and more than a bit of a terror. They live on Toad’s farm in Wyalcatchem, a remote town several hours outside Perth, with their two surviving children (their oldest daughter, Joan, died very young). Into this confusion, they are assigned two Italian prisoners of war to work as farmhands. The arrangement is anything but straightforward, however. As passions of all kinds are inflamed on everybody’s sides — Antonio, one of the POWs, seems to be falling for Gin; and her husband seems to be falling for the other — World War II seems to pale next to the wars being fought in the Toad household.

We spoke to Goldie Goldbloom about the division between life and fiction, and how it feels for a Jew to write a World War II-era novel without mentioning the Holocaust.

MJL: The subject matter of your novel — a pair of Italian POWs carrying on an unconventional relationship with a married couple in WWII-era — is incredibly specific. Why this time? Why these people?

Goldie Goldbloom: I initially wanted to write about my grandparents, who were pioneer farmers in Western Australia, but for some reason I kept on coming back to the stories about the Italian POWs. My grandparents really did employ prisoners of war on their wheatbelt farm, and I wrote to the [Australian] National Archives to get information about those men.

The documents they sent me included copies of the men’s workbooks which had such personal information as who they were married to, the names of their children, what work they had done before being drafted, and where they lived in Italy.

Suddenly, those men weren’t old stories told around the campfire. They were real people caught up in a war and sent to a country not their own. And yet their real lives, for the most part, remained hidden from the Australians they worked for.

I was fascinated with the disconnect between what was seen and what was not seen, not just with the Italian characters, but, of course, with Gin and Toad, and their children too. In the novel, there is a constant peeling back of external layers that reflects my interest in secrets and hiddenness and internal worlds.

You and I have had a bunch of conversations about blurring the line between truth and fiction — like the story of human-eating octopi off the Australian coast that your editor wanted to take out because it sounded too far-fetched, even though it really happened. Some of the stories that weave the book together, like the loss of an infant daughter, are pretty vivid experiences conveyed in brief, shocking passages. Is it hard to write stuff this personal [Goldbloom is the mother of eight children]?

goldie goldbloom paperbark shoeI think most writers write from their own emotional work and experience. The frame may be imagined or researched but when the writer begins to delve deeply into the emotional lives of the characters, she has to also examine her own emotional life. It seems to me all the talk of “truth” in fiction, is talking about how well the author is able to connect to their own truth. That is not to say that every emotion in a novel comes from the author’s experience. It doesn’t. But I believe the places of greatest emotional depth are arrived at by deep personal reflection.

As far as writing about the death of a child, I remember writing that scene, and being so very cold. Lying in my empty bathtub, late at night, wrapped in a down quilt and crying as I wrote it. It was very vivid to me, and felt very personal, although I have never experienced the death of an older child.

The Toad family is pretty straightforwardly Christian, which was probably strange for you to write as a Jew. On top of that, though, there are folklore customs, like domesticating the supernatural powers associated with a frog’s wishbone. How much of this stuff is true? How do you know about it?

I notice that you seem able to combine a lot of different thoughts into one question here! Ha! Let’s see now…

I didn’t have a problem writing about a Christian family. I went to a private school in Australia that was solidly Christian, and a large percentage of my family are not Jewish either. It was a little strange, because I had to stretch myself well beyond my own level of self-censorship.

What I, as an Orthodox person, might say or think, is most definitely not what Toad might say or think. In order to be true to his character, I had to let myself write what a man of that era and education would say, rather than some sanitized version that might be able to be read at an Orthodox gathering.

Most of the bizarre stuff in the novel is true and historically based. The Cambridgeshire Toadsmen did indeed exist, and they used the bones of a frog to conjure the love of horses. The passing of the boys through trees to guarantee fertility is an old custom I read about while I was sitting in a waiting room in Italy. The world is so full of strange things and I love when they fall into my lap.

Without giving anything away, the ending is pretty much a downer all around. Did you know it had to turn out that way?

I knew that I wanted Antonio’s life to finally have a sense of reality to Gin, and additionally, I knew that I wanted the macrocosm of the novel and the world at that time to reflect the microcosm of Gin’s emotional life, because throughout the novel the reader is caught up in this tiny space; her mind. What does that look like if you open it up and lay it out on a bigger surface?

Also, I researched the history of invasions before I began work, and knew I wanted to structure the novel to have similar patterns, and, in particular, that type of ending.

But probably the true reason I ended it that way is because it was satisfying to me. Happy endings annoy me.

But don’t you ever want to nudge your characters, oh, in the direction of goodness and charitableness and force your story to end with a birthday party instead?

Well, I don’t like to bend my characters in a direction they don’t want to go, and frankly, the thing that interests me about characters is the way in which they are flawed and human and can get up on their high horses and make fools of themselves. I like my characters and other people’s characters most when they are misbehaving. Let Winnie the Pooh have the birthday party.

You also have a story in the upcoming anthology Keep Your Wives Away from Them, about homosexual Orthodox Jews. How did that come about?

For whatever reason, there is this belief among large parts of the Orthodox population that there are no gay or lesbian or transgender Jews who are observant. It’s just not true.

Back in the eighties, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I wrote an article about a young man in the community who had died from the disease. It was basically a plea for education and acceptance. My editor had a screaming hissy fit. She refused to publish it and said that it didn’t apply to the Orthodox world and that even if it did, she would never publish anything about homosexuality.

I have tried for twenty years to get that article published. [It was finally published on Hod, an Israeli site for queer-identified observant Jews.] The subject is still strictly taboo, and every year, young queer kids leave the community because they think there is no place in Orthodoxy for them.

Nevertheless, there is a small number of GLBT-identified people who keep the Orthodox traditions and who remain within the community. I think that anything positive published on this subject is a huge advance and has the potential to change the current stigma associated with being queer that exists in the Orthodox Jewish world. Writing, at its most basic level, is activism. It helps someone who might lead a very sheltered life to step into the shoes of another person for a couple of hours. Bigotry and racism fade with that kind of compassion and understanding.

There are still hate crimes committed against LGBT Jews by Orthodox Jews, especially in Israel, and it is scary to write a story in which I acknowledge that I am queer whilst still living within the community. I fear for my children. I fear for myself. But that is no way to live, and silence certainly hasn’t done anything for queer Jews in the last two thousand years. When I saw the call for submissions to Keep Your Wives Away From Them, I didn’t struggle with it at all. I knew I had to write.

What other projects are you working on? What makes you write about the things you write about?

I have just finished a collection of short stories, and I have a couple of new stories coming out in literary magazines or anthologies. I am working on my MFA at Warren Wilson, which has been a tremendous learning experience and which is the most supportive and fabulous writerly community. There is another novel underway.

My stories are usually a combination of ideas which come to me separately and then — often in the shower! — I begin wondering about what they would look like tangled up together. I have an immense appetite for black humour and I like to see people misbehaving. I like all the ways things can go wrong, and I love, especially, all the quirky ways people are themselves. Endlessly fascinating stuff.

Posted on February 9, 2010

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Help Poor Me

This entry was posted in Culture, Texts on by .

You know how sometimes you have a song in your iTunes library, and you know you like it, but somehow it falls off your radar at some point, and you find it (via the shuffle function, or an old playlist or something) and you’re like, “Hey, this song is amazing! How did I ever forget it?”

I did that this morning with this song, a nice collaboration between BB King and Eric Clapton.

Recently I’ve been feeling a lot of connection between the music I listen to and the weekly parshah, and it was so nice to have this song come on during the week that we study Parashat Mishpatim, which contains a bunch of laws about helping the poor, and otherwise defenseless among us.

Over and over again in the Torah we hear that we have to be good to other people, especially the downtrodden and oppressed, because we were downtrodden and oppressed ourselves. In the King/Claptop collaboration, the conceit is that you should, “Help the poor…help poor me.” Ultimately, this is a similar idea. You have an obligation to help the poor, and I’m poor, so help me.

It’s also a really nice bluesy way to jam on a gray Monday afternoon.

Posted on February 8, 2010

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A Jersey Shore Spinoff

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There’s been a lot of talk about Jersey Shore lately. A lot of people are talking about how the show might never be the same now that the cast is famous. More than that, MTV has announced that season two will not be on the Jersey Shore.

That’s why I’m proposing getting off the Jersey Shore bandwagon now, before it’s too late. You don’t want to mess with perfection. But does anyone else think that a Jewish version of the show would be a huge hit?

Sure, the ADL would call it anti-Semitic but the Shore survived all the anti-Italian accusations. Plus, we’re not limited to Jersey. This show really could take place anywhere in the tri-state area. Triple the options, triple the fun.

I’m on to something here. And I’m not alone.

Posted on February 8, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Joel Chasnoff: Judging a Book by its Cover

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel, Texts on by .

Joel Chasnoff, author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir , is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

If writing a book is like giving birth, then receiving the PDF of the jacket cover is like seeing the first ultrasound: finally, it hits you that this creature is for real.jewish_authors_blog2.jpg

When it came time to discuss the cover of my book, The 188th Crybaby Brigade, I made two requests. First, that the jacket art be directed by Chip Kidd, the “rock star” of book jacket design. I’ve always loved Kidd’s ability to produce a single, iconic image that perfectly captures the essence of a book—such as he does in these two covers for Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris:
My second request—it was more of a demand, actually—was that the cover not be overtly Jewish. The 188th Crybaby Brigade is my memoir about my year as a combat soldier in the Israeli Army. Throughout the book, I discuss my strong Jewish upbringing and my resultant connection to Israel—a connection that, ultimately, led me to volunteer for a combat unit of the IDF.

But I’ve always felt that, despite the Jewish themes, Crybaby Brigade is a human story with mass appeal. It’s a story about a father and son. It’s about myth and the inevitable disappointment that occurs when we come face-to-face with our heroes. Most of all, it’s a book about identity: as I progress from hapless basic trainee to tank soldier in Lebanon, I ask myself just who I really am.

So when it came time to discuss the cover, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I certainly knew what I didn’t want: anything that might drive away the general audience because the cover was too blatantly Jewish. My editor agreed.

So I was shocked when the following PDF showed up in my inbox:


I stared at the image. Speechless.

A minute later, my agent called. “Well?” he asked.

I shook my head. “It’s so…Jewish,” I said.

“It’s a tad Jewy,” he agreed.

Actually, it was tremendously Jewy—way too Jewy for my taste.

I was crushed. Here, I’d just spent three years crafting my masterpiece, and now it was about to be ruined by this screamingly Semitic cover.

My agent (and here I’ll give a shout out, because he was so incredibly wonderful throughout the book cover process—the entire book process, for that matter), the talented Dan Lazar, promised he’d relay my feelings to the publisher. “But don’t be surprised if they ignore you,” he said. “They decide the cover. Not you.”

Not wanting to leave matters to chance, I racked my brain for a way to finagle a new cover. I glared at the image on my screen. That star—so big and vulgar—like one of those yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in Germany. And the soldiers, hanging on the star, as if they were caught on barbed wire…

Then it hit me!

I Googled the terms “holocaust museum jerusalem statue barbed wire,” clipped out the below image, and sent it to Dan with the note, “Tell the publisher that their cover will remind Jews of this sculpture at Yad Vashem“:


Ten minutes later, Dan emailed back. “They’re doing a new cover.”

In the end, Chip Kidd dropped the project. (Or the project dropped Chip Kidd; I never did hear the final version of the story.) Instead, my cover was designed by a young art-school grad in Boston, Holly Gordon. I stumbled upon Holly by chance (a friend introduced us). After a few phone conversations, Holly and I came up with the iconic image that, in my opinion, perfectly captured the theme of my book—the absurdity of life in the Israeli Army:


Miraculously—and I want to stress that it was an absolute miracle—the publisher went for it. “This NEVER happens!” Dan emailed me. “I have never, in all my years of publishing, seen a house accept a cover design from an author!”

Maybe I was lucky. Or, more likely, the house got sick of my complaining and wanted to shut me up.

I immediately sent the cover to friends and asked for feedback. The one note we consistently received was that the image reminded them of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:


I took the criticism to heart. After a few tweaks, Holly and I came up with this:


And then, finally, the image that would become the cover to my baby, The 188th Crybaby Brigade:


It was a harrowing process, but worth the effort. I certainly didn’t want to give birth to an ugly baby. And anytime the process got especially rough, I reminded myself of the following quote by none other than the rock star himself, Chip Kidd:”Whoever said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover never worked in publishing.”

Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir will be on sale February 9th. Visit Chasnoff’s official website:

Posted on February 8, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Best of the Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

Last week, I mentioned that I was bothered by the amount of hits Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” had on YouTube. So this is a bit of a follow up. Earlier this week, I was sitting on the subway, reading The New Yorker so women would think I’m smart, and I notice a lot of noise coming from behind me. And sitting right there is a man in this fifties, dressed nicely (with sunglasses though), dancing in his seat and tapping his foot to his music. What’s he listening to? “Party in the USA.”


This week, we featured our newest video from The Sway Machinery’s Jeremiah Lockwood explaining very eloquently what Jewish music is. The answer? Party in the USA.

I really do love all foods. Especially when they are processed. Second on the processed list for me is gefilte fish. Learn how to make your own. What’s number #1? Party in the USA.

Finally, if you’ve ever been on an organized trip to Israel, whether in High School or on Birthright, you’ve gone to a bedouin tent in the Negev. Learn all about the semi-nomadic Israeli citizens. It’ll be a Party in the USA.

That last reference was a bit far fetched.

Posted on February 5, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy