Monthly Archives: January 2011

Crazy Facebook Profiles

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

Just thought I’d throw out something light to start off your weekend. This super cool looking Israeli dude named Tal Spiegel has been changing his Facebook profile picture almost every day for about a year (and every day since the end of February).

What makes this little project of his so unique is that every picture has involved his face being superimposed on some form of a pop culture reference (today’s picture, for example, is him inside (or outside?) of the poster for the movie Being John Malkovitch). Others feature him as a Michael Jackson album, Harry Potter, and even Charles Manson.

These two might be my favorite though.


Check out his Facebook profile in order to see all (as of now) 356 photos. Keep in mind you will have to be signed into Facebook in order to see them.

(Thank Daily What)

Posted on January 21, 2011

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Wise Fridays: Which is the Right Path?

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

wise fridays: sharpen the     reception on  your WiFri

“Which is the right path that you should choose for yourself? One that is admirable in your eyes, and admirable in the eyes of others. ”

Pirkei Avot 2:1

Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.

Posted on January 21, 2011

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

Movies for Tu Bishvat

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays on by .

Over at New York Magazine’s Vulture blog they have a list of movies to help you celebrate Tu Bishvat. Now, I have some issues with the pretense–of all holidays Tu Bishvat has no narrative, and so seems like it wouldn’t lend itself to cinema, plus the holiday is about trees and nature, so I’m not sure staying inside to watch a movie makes a huge amount of sense. On the other hand, it’s cold outside, and I like movies, so I’ll give it a pass. Number one on the list, of course, is the Giving Tree. But number 5 is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and 2-4 will probably raise some eyebrows, too. Definitely check it out.

I was curious about who would write a Tu Bishvat roundup, so I googled the author of the Vulture piece, and it turned out he converted for marriage back in 2006. He had to be circumcised as an adult and he said, “It didn’t tickle.” He also used to be in charge of one of my favorite radio shows/podcasts, KCRW’s The Business.  Cool!

Posted on January 20, 2011

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Eating Pork in New York

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

It was close to midnight, the latest I’ve been out in months. My friend Fred Chao had brought me to a comedy show in Chinatown, which led to some drinking in Chinatown, which led to us wandering around the streets of Chinatown with our heads full of stories and our bodies craving warmth. It was a weird feeling to get lost in those streets – most of New York is a neat, orderly grid, but once you hit the Manhattan Bridge, Canal Street turns into a sudden mountain, half going up and half going straight down, and you’re never quite sure when a street is going to splinter into three different streets and when it’s going to dead-end in the middle of a block. (It’s twice as cool because Fred’s a comic artist and his story Johnny Hiro: Half-Asian, All Hero, which takes place on these very streets, has just been excerpted in the 2010 Best American Comics.)

In the middle of all this, Fred and I both realize that we are massively hungry. My stomach muscles, through a few years of this, have grown accustomed to being both kosher and out late. My stomach growls, I reply that we are out on the town and that there are no kosher restaurants around, and it quietly sulks to itself in a corner.

Fred is not so disciplined. “I know a great place right around here,” he says. And then he suddenly vanishes around a corner, disappears, and takes me along with him.

I don’t usually sit with people in restaurants. I feel too much like a second-class citizen. Everyone else is pigging out, eating great-smelling food (and food always looks better in non-kosher places) and you’re smiling to yourself and telling them, don’t worry, you’re really in the mood for ice water.

But it’s late, and I haven’t seen Fred in a while, and I don’t want to kill the conversation. So we take our seats.

“What should I have,” he asks me. “Meat or seafood?”

Is this a test? A test from God?

“I’m always weird about seafood,” I say. “Not just the kosher thing. It just feels like, is that stuff really dead? Was it ever alive?”

“Okay,” he says. And so he turns to the waitress and orders the pork soup.

Wham.

I manage meekly to say: “I’ll just have a cold drink.” And I dash for the refrigerator.

Okay. But the truth is, I’m curious about trayf. How it looks. The way it tastes. The animals it comes from. And I’ve also been way curious about real Chinese restaurants, the kind that real Chinese people eat in, because I’ve always suspected that the places where white people eat, kosher or not, are faking it, the same way that Jackie Chan exaggerates his accent in the Rush Hour movies.

Almost immediately, they bring a plate. It’s just a pile of bean sprouts, with a little lemon slice sitting on top. Is that supposed to be a salad? Fred ignores it. He’s like that with salads, though.

Then the bowl comes out, and it’s huge. He didn’t say “large” or “small,” but this soup is the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. There’s a stack of those special Chinese-food spoons upside down, in the same holder as the soy sauce and hot sauce. I’ve never seen that before. Fred takes one, and he breaks into his chopsticks, holds them close to the ground and whittles them twice, to throw off the splintery pieces. He dumps the sprouts into the soup, explaining that that’s what you’re supposed to do, which I never would have guessed.

And then he starts eating.

He alternates with the spoon and chopsticks, working his way through the meat and noodles. I ask him what that meat is, and from time to time he explains. The pink stuff floating on top is nearly raw. The chef does that in order to show you how fresh the meat is. Underneath, pretty much all the meat is brown or gray. There are a few marble-spattered parts, which Fred says are tendons. And then there’s a white bumpy substance, which he thinks (but isn’t sure) are the stomach lining.

Stomach lining! “That’s gelatin!” I say.

“Are you sure? I thought gelatin was the hooves.”

I frown. Instead of ice-water, I have opted for a beer, and it’s hard to recall the basics of whatever I’ve read on animal slaughter. “You might be right,” I say. “My family-in-law makes this Yiddish food thing out of cow hooves. It’s these yellow cubes. I think they’re called gullis?”

“Oh yeah! My family makes something like that, too,” said Fred. “It’s called,” he said, and here ends the tale of charming culture-mixing, because he said something in Chinese that there was no way for me to understand, much less transcribe the next morning.

He scooped the last of the soup-meat dregs into his spoon with chopsticks and slurped it up. Then I let him have the last of my beer — call me a fundamentalist zealot, but I get squeamish about pork-breath in my beer bottle — and then we were out.

Thanks to No-Frills Recipes for the pork pic.

Posted on January 20, 2011

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Mark Twain, “Mishpocha,” and Me

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Earlier this week, Erika Dreifus, the author of Quiet Americans, wrote about the inspiration for her book and Jewish-American Literature as Multicultural Literature.  Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

The online literary world has been atwitter (please pardon the pun!) about the changes—some are calling it censorship—that appear in a new edition that presents “updated” versions of Mark Twain’s classic novels, Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The change that has attracted the most discussion is the new book’s replacement of the word “nigger” with “slave”; a second modification is the substitution of “Indian” for “injun.” (For general summaries, I’ll point you to news items from The New York Times and Publishers Weekly; for a sample of some of the commentaries, I recommend an AOL News column by Tayari Jones, a blog post by The Christian Science Monitor‘s Marjorie Kehe, and the multiple contributions featured within the NYT Room for Debate forum.)

I’ve followed the flurry of articles and commentaries with interest for many reasons. But here, I want to focus on one. It is both personal and professional, and it involves “Mishpocha,” the concluding story in my new collection of short fiction, Quiet Americans.

In “Mishpocha,” protagonist David Kaufmann, a son of Holocaust survivors, recalls an incident:

It had happened a few years earlier, when [he and his wife] had been visiting [their daughter] at school and spent an extra day and night in Boston on their own, and as they’d walked down a relatively quiet yet decidedly urban street after dinner, a group of teenagers—teenagers whom he’d instantly imagined must cause nightmares for their parents, tattooed teenagers with heads shaven and clothing ripped—strode up alongside them, their ringleader chanting, “KILL THE KIKES, KILL THE NIGGERS, KILL THE FAGS.” And David had seen his wife’s head turn toward them in outrage; he knew that in about one second she would open her mouth with the confidence of a woman with bloodlines rooted in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and so he’d yanked her arm—hard, harder maybe than he’d really had to—because what you learned from immigrant-survivor parents like his was that it was better to be quiet, better not to give crazy people any reason to get any crazier.

Many opponents to the changes to Twain’s work have argued that the word substitutions distort the historical record. As a nervous debut author in an era when using certain words can destroy a career, I draw encouragement from that stance. Because, despite the fact that fiction writers are often instructed not to counter criticisms of their work with the protest that “it really happened that way!”, I will say this about the fictional incident in “Mishpocha“: It really happened that way.

Not to David Kaufmann, of course. To me. And not in the 1880s. During the 21st century. And it happened in one of the most politically progressive communities in the United States: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Recall, from yesterday’s post, that I am a granddaughter of German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. There’s little doubt that just as this family background has permeated my writing, it has influenced my personality and worldview. Which helps explain why, when those teenagers strode up beside me, and their ringleader recited that awful litany, I, an educated grown-up in her thirties, said nothing. Not one word.

Shortly thereafter (but still about two years before I began writing “Mishpocha“), I received a scholarship and traveled to Prague for a writing workshop. At some point—I no longer recall what prompted the discussion—I mentioned this deeply disturbing incident in class. My classmates, whose backgrounds reflected at least two and quite possibly all three of the groups targeted in the list of epithets, were outraged. But some of them seemed almost as upset with me—for having remained silent—as they were with the person who had uttered the words in the first place.

Absolution came from our remarkable workshop leader: Arnošt Lustig. He listened to me, and he listened to my classmates. And then, this man—who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald—said that yes, one must fight back. But, he said, one must also live. (I cannot mention Arnošt Lustig without recommending his extraordinary novel, translated as Lovely Green Eyes, which I read in Prague that summer. I treasure my autographed copy.)

Six of my collection’s seven stories have been published previously. Only “Mishpocha” is appearing for the first time, which means that no magazine or journal editors (or paying readers) have yet bothered to take issue with my choice to repeat the same terrible words on the page that I heard on the street. My publisher raised no objections, so to some extent, I had stopped worrying about how this element of the story might be received, and how I might respond to any criticisms it might evoke.

Until now. I harbor no illusions: I’m no Mark Twain, protected partially by virtue of my historical reputation. I’m just a debut author with a book of short stories published by a brand-new press hardly anyone has heard of. But I hope that the support that Twain is receiving now from those who, for a variety or reasons, don’t want to see his writing expurgated will extend to my work, and to me.

Erika Dreifus has been writing all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog. She is the author of Quiet Americans.

Posted on January 20, 2011

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Is It Okay To Brush Off Anti-Semitic Incidents?

This entry was posted in History on by .

This past week, four synagogues in my hometown of Montreal (actually, they are even in my neighborhood) were attacked in one night in an obvious string of anti-Semitic attacks. These attacks didn’t go unnoticed in the media. It made the front page of the Montreal Gazette (Ed. note: My mother has informed me that contrary to what I read on the internet, it was not actually on the front page) as well as JTA’s homepage. People obviously cared about these incidents and wanted to spread the word about them.

Except for me.

Don’t throw stones at me yet. I do feel guilty about not caring. It’s not like I don’t think anti-Semitism is a problem–especially in Montreal. I saw first hand the results of anti-Semitism when the other branch of my high school had its library firebombed for the sole reason that it was a Jewish institution.

But four incidents in one night doesn’t actually seem like such a big deal to me. Why? Because in all likelihood, because it was all done in one night, this was probably the act of one person or group. Just because incidents like these happen (and they should be addressed and fought against) it does not mean that the problem is actually widespread. The very fact that there are four synagogues (actually, there are many more than that) in a very affluent neighborhood in a secular like Montreal is very telling. To quote the Backstreet Boys, we’ve got it going on.

I think that it’s true that a synagogue being graffiti-ed is a nice reminder that not everyone out there likes us. In fact, there are some people out there who wouldn’t mind hurting us. That said, the vast majority of folks kinda dig the Jews. Hell, we made the front page of the Montreal Gazette! It’s not the New York Times, but it’s a start! I’m kidding, but that still shouldn’t be taken lightly.

So anyone who gets freaked out by these horrible incidents, remember, the people are on your side.

Okay, commence the stone throwing.

Posted on January 19, 2011

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The Secret History of Sheitels

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel, Life, Practices on by .

Many married Orthodox women cover their hair with wigs as a sign of modesty. Some of the wigs are pretty ugly looking, but many of them are gorgeous, and they can cost thousands and thousands of dollars, depending on the length, color, and style you want. Why the expense? Triplecanopy has a long and fascinating profile of Helene Rosen, a sheitel-maker for Orthodox Jews, who moved to South America (Peru and then Paraguay) in order to be closer to the supply of hair she was using to make wigs:

The market for human hair is generally limited to places with impoverished populations willing to sell a two-foot ponytail—the product of two years of growth—for twenty dollars. Dark hair comes primarily from South America, India, and Mongolia. Helene says that the ample selection of hair colors and textures in South America—the result of more than twenty-five generations of intermarriage between Europeans and indigenous people—make it the ideal source region. The hair of indigenous Peruvian women is thick, straight, and black—perfect for the lace-front wigs sought by black women, who have come to represent the majority of Helene’s business—and is worn in two braids that often stretch all the way down their backs and are plaited with tassels made from Alpaca wool. Orthodox women prefer the silkier, finer texture of Argentinean hair, or else the more rare blonds and reds from eastern Europe and Russia (generically labeled as “European” hair), which garner one hundred dollars per two-foot strand. “The European hair is very bouncy,” Helene says. “It’s just characteristic—like some people have blue eyes, some people have dark eyes. With Indian hair, the bottom is poofy and doesn’t move that much. For a wig to look natural, we need the bottom to be bouncy.”

The profile will probably blow your mind once or twice. It’s long, but worth it. Check it out.

For English on this video, click the cc button.

Posted on January 19, 2011

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A Birthday and An Anniversary: A Book and Its Inspiration

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Yesterday, Erika Dreifus, the author of Quiet Americans, wrote about Jewish-American Literature as Multicultural Literature.  Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Today is a special day: It’s the official “pub date” for my debut short-story collection, Quiet Americans, which is being released by Last Light Studio, a new, Boston-based micropress.

It is also a special day on an even more personal level: It is the 70th anniversary of the date on which my paternal grandparents, Ruth and Sam Dreifus, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s and met here in Manhattan, were married.

In this wedding photograph, my grandparents are pictured front and center, cutting their cake. Although I can’t help being struck, as I always am when I look at this photo, by the many absences—of parents and siblings, aunts and uncles—and by the evidence that my grandmother had no money to spare for a traditional wedding dress (the fancy cake might have been a benefit of my grandfather’s job as a baker), I’m equally moved by the presence of family and friends celebrating with the bridal couple. For my grandparents were, indeed, surrounded by family and friends, including Rabbi Herbert Parzen, who officiated that January day in 1941 and performed my parents’ wedding ceremony 25 years later as well.

Rabbi Parzen (second from the left, standing next to the bride) was family and friend: His wife, Sylvia (front row, second from the right, beside the groom), was a cousin of my grandmother’s. As an American, Aunt Sylvia, as my sister and I called her, helped facilitate my grandmother’s immigration to the United States in 1938, just months before the Kristallnacht. It was in New York that my grandmother found her groom, who had emigrated from Germany the previous year.

In fact, my grandparents met through another émigré present in this photograph: my great-uncle Berthold (“Bob,” seen in profile on the far left). My grandmother had become friends with Bob, and when she went to his boarding-house to pay him a get-well visit while he was recovering from pneumonia, my grandfather—Bob’s older brother—was there, too.

Without the people you see in this photograph, then, many lives would have been dramatically altered, and some (mine included) would not have come to be. Without them, there would be no book, either, because Quiet Americans is inspired so profoundly by the stories that have come to me from my father’s family, and by my preoccupations with the historical legacy I have inherited as a granddaughter of two Jews who were lucky enough to escape Europe in time, and marry in New York City seventy years ago today.

Check back all week for more posts from Erika Dreifus.

Posted on January 19, 2011

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A Different Kind of Dance

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

It always confused me that the religious guys I know are horrible (secular) dancers because they almost all shuckle on a daily basis. Shuckling is the swaying motion that one commonly finds in synagogue. Most people shuckle from the waist–that is, bend forward at the waist, and then stand back up. Shuckling is also generally done to no particular rhythm. One doesn’t often find a whole group of men shuckling to the same time signature–it’s an internal thing, but looks both natural, and in some cases very graceful. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that in Israel there is a dance troupe of religious guys who have taken the movements and gestures of religious life (like shuckling), and made them into dances. But it did, because despite their graceful shuckling, almost none of my religious guy friends strike me as dancer types.

The NYTimes has a piece on the religious dance troupe Ka’et:

Perhaps the epitome of this effort is Ka’et, a group of five Orthodox men working under the direction of a Tel Aviv choreographer, Ronen Izhaki. Together they create spare yet emotionally rich work that takes gestures from daily prayer movements along with chants and synagogue attire, and gently shifts and reframes these elements as postmodern dance. It’s a savvy move, reflecting both the explosive body of Ohad Naharin’s choreography and its social opposite, the trancelike swaying of devout Jews in deep prayer. “We are using the stage to awaken a new discussion between our lives and our bodies,” said Amitai Stern, 25, the youngest member of the group.

The men of Ka’et (a Hebrew acronym that means “timely”) are not professional dancers. In their 20s and 30s, some have families; all have day jobs — one is a rabbi at a yeshiva, another works with runaways from ultra-Orthodox homes. But when they made their debut in the fall at the Lab, an important alternative space in Jerusalem, and afterward in sold-out concerts elsewhere, their lack of performing experience didn’t matter. They presented an astonishingly intense dance, “Highway No. 1,” with movement, costumes and sound score taken from Jewish religious practice.

Here’s some clips from one of their performances:

Posted on January 18, 2011

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Bob Dylan and Cher: Together at Last

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

If you love Bob Dylan and the Band — or, indeed, if you’re a huge fan of Cher — this picture might come as a shock to you. Be prepared.

It’s no Photoshop conspiracy: Dylan, performing with the band that would later become The Band, performing a duet with the ex-wife of Republican congressman Sonny Bono.

Literary-scene honcho and JBooks.com head scribe Ken Gordon (who also wrote some great stuff for our site) runs a reading series called QuickMuse, in which authors write improvised pieces on a particular subject.

Tomorrow night at the 14th Street Y in New York, we’ll see a pretty amazing score: the poet David Lehman, together with Rick Moody (whose new novel The Four Fingers of Death is stirring up great reviews and gunshots) wrote about the night — and you can see a pretty cool “live playback” of the piece actually being written on the QuickMuse site (here’s Lehman’s piece as well).

Learn more about it and buy tickets here. And even if you’re not in New York, you should definitely check out the intrepid writing that came out of this little experiment. Here’s a piece of Moody’s piece:

What you find in a photograph of Bob Dylan jamming with Cher is, on the one hand, that there is hope, because a kid from Minnesota can come to New York with just a love of the music of a forgotten America and conquer the world, and yet on the other hand it is also abundantly apparent that there is no purity, and all is contaminated, and those who would have purity are like the almsgivers who rend their own garments in the temple in Jerusalem. Cher stands for everything that Bob Dylan occasionally is. She also has, on occasion, a nice voice, so deep, so resonant. I don’t think she has sung a single meaningful song. Not one.

Posted on January 18, 2011

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