Category Archives: Culture

McSweeney’s #40: (Literary) Mixtape of the Month

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So it’s always given me a thrill when a bunch of musicians I love play a song together, and I also sort of feel that way about writers. If anything, writers are even more of a thrill — since ordinarily writers are such solitary creatures, and outside of mystery novels and James Patterson marathon novel-writing sessions, the idea of writers teaming up rarely if ever happens. But the new fortieth issue of the literary journal McSweeney’s has a bunch of favorite-worthy writers in it — some of my favorites, and some of the site’s favorites — and it would be a considerable disservice if I didn’t give it a shout-out.

I mean, just check out this picture of Neil Gaiman discovering the issue for the first time:

So Gaiman, who (depending who you ask, and what sort of mood they’re in when you ask) is Jewish, or has Jewish heritage, or (this one I’m pretty sure about) occasionally uses Jewish protagonists and folktales in his work, has a great little story called “Adventure Story.” I could try and explain how Jewish it is, but I feel like that would only be preying on Jewish stereotypes, and it’s too good a story to spoil it that way. So let me instead share the first lines with you, and you can do your stereotyping and connecting-the-dots for yourself:

In my family, “adventure” tends to be used to mean “any minor disaster which we survived, or even “any break from routine.” Except by my mother, who still uses it to mean what she did that morning. Going to the wrong part of a supermarket lot and, while looking for her car, getting into a conversation with someone whose sister, it turns out, she knew in the 1970s would qualify, for my mother, as a full-blown adventure.

So, um, yeah, Jewish mothers.

And it’s sort of a one-two punch, since Adam Levin also has a story. And Israeli author Etgar Keret, who we profiled recently on Jewniverse) follows his story with his classic melange of funny/heartbreaking called “A Good One.” It’s mostly about a man’s (spoiler) (not really) mental breakdown, but on another level, it’s sort of about cultural miscommunication and the weird, and weirdly successful, things that Israeli businesspeople do to get a foothold in the competitive world of American marketing.

Posted on May 25, 2012

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Stereo Sinai Learn to Skate

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Our friends Stereo Sinai — who we’ve gushed about on Jewniverse, and who you can pick up a free mp3 by here — have just posted a new video. It’s a love story about a pair of skates. It’s a really clever video. At first you think it’s just a random slideshow of beautiful Instagrams, but then it starts to surprise you.

Posted on March 22, 2012

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Footnote: Finally a Movie that Understands Academia

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

It’s tough out there for an Israeli film at the Oscars. When an Israeli film gets nominated for best foreign language film it’s almost always because the movie references the Holocaust and/or the Israeli-Arab Conflict. But while a Holocaust theme is a guaranteed win in most categories, not so when it comes to Israeli films. And a film that seems very sympathetic to Arabs is unlikely to garner a win from the typically conservative Academy voters.

This year, though, the Israeli nominee is neither a careful look at the history of the Jewish people, or a tense war film. Instead, it’s Footnote, a film that casts its gaze on the small and insular world of academic Talmud scholars. Eliezer Shkolnik is a Talmud professor at Hebrew University whose diligent work has never been recognized by his peers. His son, Uriel Shkolnik, also a Talmud professor, is an up-and-coming star in the field, collecting awards and distinction with ease. When Eliezer is awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, father and son have to try to keep their smugness/jealousy in check and generally behave like respectable adults. This turns out to be remarkably difficult for both of them. Also, there’s a surprise twist, and a fun scene involving a fencing uniform.

The movie is remarkably successful: its depictions of life in the academy are spot-on, and I found the set design to be particularly effective at capturing the jumbled papers and library aesthetic of your typical university professor. It also uses voice-overs and some effects that are nicely reminiscent of the meta-story effects in Stranger Than Fiction.

But what’s most enjoyable about it is its narrow focus. At no point does it pan out to view this family drama in the wider scope of the Israeli-Arab conflict, or look back at the tragedies of Israeli history. Instead it looks deeply and critically at the ivory tower, and the way that petty grudges and jealousy drive a lot of the goings-on in any university department. And it looks too at the relationship between fathers and sons, beyond Oedipus and into adult professional competition. But where it cleverly highlights (and footnotes) the academic politics, when it comes to family drama, the film loses some of its strength and sharpness. Uriel’s relationship with his son is a focal point of the last portion of the movie, but the scene in which they finally fight falls flat (perhaps due to the lackluster performance of Daniel Markovich, who plays Josh Shkolnik). And both Dr. Shkolniks are married to formidable women who get barely any screen time (the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test).

Despite not quite being able to pull off the father-son drama it attempts, the film is extraordinary and entertaining. In the climax of the movie the audience watches as the elder Shkolnik takes apart a text, finding its references in other places, and looking up words and phrases in his library. It’s difficult to make rifling through books seem interesting, even exciting, but writer/director Joseph Cedar pulls it off with remarkable aplomb.

Sadly, Footnote doesn’t have a chance of pulling off a Best Foreign Film win—A Separation seems guaranteed a win with all the accolades it has pulled in from far and wide. I can only hope that Footnote will get the cheers it deserves when it comes out on March 9, and won’t be destined to be only a footnote.

Posted on February 23, 2012

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Oprah and the Hasidic Ladies

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Tonight, OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, is airing the second part in its “Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn” special. Oprah visits Crown Heights, and after last night’s episode where she toured a Chabad family’s home, tonight she sits down with a quartet of Hasidic women for an in-depth interview about sex, children, spirituality, and good wigs.

Over at Tablet Rachel Shukert has a great commentary on the episode that aired last night (though she didn’t mention my favorite moment: when Oprah noticeably stopped listening to her hostess because she was distracted by the hostess’s wig). But Shukert’s view is that in tonight’s episode, Oprah is able to get over herself enough to deliver a powerful and meaningful interview. And to a degree it’s true—tonight’s episode is much better than last night’s, and has quite a bit more substance to it. But what the episodes really reveal is how intoxicating Hasidic life and culture can be to an outsider, but also how ill-prepared it is for any deviations from the norm.

Oprah’s questions are understandably pitched in ways that won’t ruffle too many feathers. “Are women valued in [Hasidic] relationships?” she asked last night. I can’t imagine she expected the couple she was talking to say, “No, but we make excellent apologetics.” And tonight, after getting the lowdown on the mikvah, and Hasidic sex rules, she starts trying to push a bit more, albeit rather gently. She asks the women what happens if a woman doesn’t want to get married and have a family. The hostess has a (presumably now-mortified) niece who is 22 and somehow not looking to get married. The other women think this is odd, and one says, “I personally don’t even know people who don’t have that as their dream.”

The major bombshell happens when Oprah asks, “What happens when one of your children is different…and by different I mean GAY.” (She speaks in all caps, I’m not making that up.) The women are initially speechless, and eventually settle on repeating, “What you’re saying is very extreme.” They can go so far as saying that there’s a strong connection between a mother and her children, but there’s no discussion of how that would manifest itself if one of your kids is GAY.

And noticeably, Oprah doesn’t ask what happens when a kid grows up and doesn’t want to be Hasidic anymore. Perhaps Oprah, like a newbie at Ohr Somayach, can’t imagine ever wanting to leave such a magical world. It’s a conspicuous absence, though, when a much-hyped new memoir comes out on Tuesday, telling the story of a woman who chose to leave the Satmar community.  Surely Oprah, who spends so much time in shock that none of these women know who she is, can understand how someone might want to live in a home with a TV and a regularly scheduled date with the Oprah Show.

Oprah’s chat with Hasidic women is compelling, it’s good TV, but while it does give a glimpse into Hasidic life for the viewers, it stops short of asking questions that would force the women to take even a short glimpse out of their world in Brooklyn.

Posted on February 13, 2012

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Pharaoh Was A Nazi

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Culture, History on by .

You know how Godwin’s law says that every internet argument eventually breaks down into someone calling someone else Hitler or a Nazi? This is one of my greatest pet peeves in life, because it’s not just online arguments that devolve into Holocaust finger-pointing…you can find this stuff all over our culture. Want to paint someone as evil? Just connect them to the Holocaust in some way (see The Kite Runner and Girl With a Dragon Tattoo to name just two) and your work is over.

I’m fine with saying that Hitler and his Nazis were evil (though it seems likely that there was some level of nuance within the huge organization of the SS, and some were probably much worse than others) but it just seems lazy to use them as shorthand for evil when they were neither the first or last to prove that evil does exist in our world.

This article answers the fascinating question of who people equated with pure evil before Hitler:

Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?

The Pharoah. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.” In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionists regularly referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. Even after VE Day, Pharaoh continued to pop up in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s so interesting to think that when people want to talk about real evil, they go to someone who picked specifically on the Jews. This reminds me of a fascinating book I read called The Dream of Scipio. The book takes place in three different time periods, and at first there doesn’t seem to be any real connection between the three narratives. As the story progresses you see more and more threads between them, but mostly what you see is that the use of Jews as scapegoats is the beginning of the end for any society. (It’s an outstanding book that I highly recommend.)

Part of me wants to recommend that we go back to using Pharaoh as the prototype for evil, but I have to admit, Hitler does sound like he was better at being evil than Pharaoh. Hitler killed more people, and had a very efficient system for getting rid of people. Plus, we know for certain that Hitler did exist. Pharaoh is more of a mythic figure, and thus carries less weight. Perhaps in another thirty years when we’re more removed from WWII we’ll revert to Pharaoh, or rely less heavily on Hitler. In the meantime, it’s still helpful to have some historical perspective.

Posted on November 4, 2011

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Silence, Blessed Silence

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Earlier this week, Gloria Spielman wrote about finding fellow writers on the Internet and  the University of the Ghetto. Her most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

One of the upshots of all the reading and thinking I did for Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, was that I ended up doing a lot of thinking about something I’d never thought that much about before – silence and its power.

It never used to be like this. I wasn’t always on a quest for quiet. An only child, I yearned for noise, for hustle and bustle, a busy house with lots of people and their comings and goings. Who the hell needed quiet? Quiet was boring, unnerving, depressing, threatening even. A void to be filled. So, on went the TV the second I came home, the radio in the kitchen, a favourite tape, anything, as long as there was noise. Anyway, how could you do homework with no music? I had a friend at elementary school, who came from an odd family. They were odd as they had no TV. I remember thinking. What do they do for noise? It must be terrible, all that quiet. (Ironically, we are bringing up five children without a TV, but that’s a tale for another day.)

It seems I wasn’t alone. The world is full of intentional background noise: TVs no one is really watching, radios no one is really listening to and why? Just to break the silence, that’s why. Silence can be scary, sometimes lonely and it forces us to turn inward and gives us space to think. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes not.

I’m not sure when exactly this craving for noise became a craving for silence but one day there it was. At some point I realized I could no longer remember the last time I’d turned the radio on at home, or while driving. Silence no longer bothered, noise did. With me, it was mainly a writer thing. ‘How do you expect me to listen to those voices in my head with all that racket?’ So, that’s what they mean by “I can’t hear myself think!” I started noticing how much more relaxed I was when things were quiet. I started noticing that quiet brought with it feelings of serenity, peace and relaxation.

All well and good, at home where you can turn the TV, radio or your iPod on or off as the fancy takes you but it’s another thing in the public sphere. No one thinks it unreasonable. We’ve recognized the right not to have cigarette smoke blown into our faces. There are laws against that, so why does the commercial world seem to think it has every right to indulge in acoustic abuse. They just don’t let up, do they? It’s that insidious worm – Muzak. It’s everywhere. Shops, the mall, pool changing rooms restaurants and cafes.

At first, I just suffered without a word. I didn’t like to ask. British reserve and embarrassment, I guess. I mean, isn’t it grumpy old crankies who don’t want the music on? Music is cool. Not so cool to want it off. There are times I’d like to do the writer with laptop in café thing but so far every local café has told me they’re not allowed to turn off the music, even if you’re the only customer. “Company Policy,” they tell me. “We can turn it down but we can’t turn it off. Sorry.”

One waitress confessed, “I’d love to turn it off but if management found out I’ll be in trouble.” The pool is the only Muzak free zone I can think of, but I’ll pass on taking my laptop for a swim. Perhaps, one day, I’ll start a campaign for freedom from forced music in public places but until then me and my laptop stay home.
As I finish writing this, it’s almost time to start my Shabbat cooking. I’ll be listening to Shabbat by The Family Wach while I chop, slice and stir. Here’s a taste.


Did I say I didn’t like music? Oh no. There’s a time for everything.

Posted on November 4, 2011

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My First Writing Group: The Internet

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On Monday, Gloria Spielman wrote about the University of the Ghetto. Her most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

It all started back in March 1999. We’d just got our very first home internet connection and I was setting off to navigate cyberspace and figure out what exactly was out there in that World Wide Web thing that everyone was going on about. These were the days of the Netscape browser and dial-up internet, which hogged the phone line and meant that you could either surf or make a phone call but not at the same time. My husband had assured me that the internet would help my writing. I was about to discover he was right.

I’d been trying my hand at writing, but what to do with my efforts? Were they any good? How bad were they really? And how would I know? Perhaps I ought to take up flower arranging instead? I should probably have someone read my work, but who? I knew no other writers, neither pre- nor post-published. On the other hand, perhaps it was all for the best as who wants to be sitting face to face with a person as they tell you, as we say in cockney, that your work is, a load of codswallop. So, the path of least resistance looked very inviting and I tucked those manuscripts away in my filing cabinet and the dust began to settle.

But now there was this thing called the Internet. It seemed quite clear that Arthur Clarke had been right after all and advanced technology was most certainly indistinguishable from magic. A click of the mouse and everything I wanted to know was now at the tips of my fingers, email lists, writer’s boards and forums, ask any question and it shall be answered instantly. Magic, definitely.

One day I saw an email on a writers list that a new critique group was starting up and open to new members. Time to fish out those old manuscripts. I sent off an email saying I would like to join. I was accepted. It was December 1999. One of our members was a published writer, there to point us in the right direction and the rest of us were just beginning to feel our way in the world of books and writing.

We introduced ourselves and began to share our writings. The last person who’d looked at my creative writing had been my high school English teacher. And I’d never ever given anyone writing advice. I learned on the job. Gently we encouraged each other to kill our darlings, cut the verbiage, rethink the story arc. And thankfully no mention of cobblers. Most importantly we encouraged each other to never ever to give up. Soon we were sharing much more than writing. Grumbles and gripes, joys and giggles. Some weeks none of us submitted a thing but still we talked and laughed. Babies were born, marriages celebrated, jobs lost and gained, the grumbles and gripes shared many words written and lots of laughs. We had no rules, none whatsoever. Anyone could submit anything at any time. When one of us was on a roll we all helped. Whatever was needed. As Verlie says, “I always love those on a roll times when the whole group lights up to celebrate one writing obsessed mind on fire.”

My friends helped me in other ways. These days I have a Kindle and so many books can be accessed on the internet. But in those earlier days, living in Israel, an English reading addict and writer could have gone nuts with trying to get their book fix. I did. My friends knew this and came to my rescue. I never asked, but, it happened that I would come home to an email, saying, ‘We had a bit of a clear-out, went to a garage sale. Just got back from the post office. There’s a box of books on their way to you.” Or, “just got this year’s Writers Market. I’m putting last year’s in the mail.”

I had joked that one day we would have our very own bookshelf. It was just a joke. But then our first member had her book published, then another and another. Today we have over two dozen books to our name. That shelf is starting to fill up. I even dedicated my first book to the group, along with my mother and my husband. Twelve years later and it’s a very different writing life.

Oh, and just one thing. Did I mention I’ve never actually met any of my friends face to face? Or even spoken on the phone: A pretty old-fashioned way of communicating when you think of it. Sometimes I think we’re not unlike Helene Hanff, Frank Doel and the staff of, 84 Charing Cross Road. Thomas Lask, writing in The New York Times about Hanff’s book, said, “Here is a charmer: a 19th-century book in a 20th century world.” Perhaps one day, we’ll be a 20th century book in a 21st century world. It is all down to the written word and that internet thing.

Gloria Spielman is the author of Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Counciland MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Posted on November 2, 2011

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Does This Book Actually Exist?

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Besides being one of our our favorite guest bloggers, Lavie Tidhar is a great science fiction author. His books hop the realm between thoughtfully philosophical and totally bizarre. He also captures — maddeningly, hilariously well — a provocative secular Israeli‘s take on religious culture (did I mention he was Israeli?). And, with a little bit of the science fiction, a little bit of the irreverent, and more than a little tongue-in-cheekness, Mr. Tidhar just sent us the cover to his latest book, Jesus and the Eightfold Path:

Jesus and the eightfold path

I kind of can’t believe this actually exists. That it’s a book (with words inside! pages! chapters!) and not a joke. Or maybe it’s that, too. But it’s just been released, and apparently, it is real. Wow. That’s all I can say. And, maybe, “Jesus!”

Posted on October 28, 2011

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Their (Our) Time Has Come

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On Tuesday, Trina Robbins wrote about a Jewish woman who drew comics. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Last month I flew to Seattle to attend the first GeekGirlCon (but not the last!).  GeekGirlCon is for the Rest of Us; maybe not 99%, but definitely 52%, the women who have for so long been shut out of a male-dominated comics industry, and all the related male-dominated industries, like computers and gaming.  It’s for us geeky girls who spent our high school years as outsiders, never cheerleaders, never dating the football team (often never dating at all!), but with our noses buried in science fiction or fantasy books or comics.  All those geeky girls have grown up into enthusiastic and talented young women  who are making great clothes and jewelry, creating wonderful new comics — and with not a superhero in the bunch. The energy level in the rooms was high and optimistic.

Instead of complaining about the insultingly gigantic-breasted women in the mainstream, male-oriented comics, the GeekGirls are drawing comics for themselves, which means for us.  They’re telling stories that we GeekGirls (and as the oldest person at that convention, I’m still a GeekGirl) can read and identify with, and drawing them beautifully.  I was on a panel devoted to Womanthology, a new women’s anthology project that raised their goal of $25,000 in production funds via  Kickstarter in under 20 hours. By the end of the fundraising period a month later, they had raised $109,301, making Womanthology the most-funded comics project to date. I’m honored to be one of the contributors. I told the audience about my Lily Renee graphic novel, and one woman said to me after the panel that she was moved to tears just learning about Lily’s story.

The week before I left for Seattle, the Occupy Wall Street movement had already spread to other cities: Portland,Seattle, Los Angeles, and my city, San Francisco.  But I’d been too busy meeting my deadlines to visit to their encampment.  Finally this past weekend, I found the time.  I brought with me a bag filled with the stuff hotels give you: shampoos, lotions, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, mending kits, little bottles and packages I always tossed into a drawer upon returning home from my travels, figuring I’d have a use for them one day.  So I finally had a use for them; I donated them to the red cross tent.  Then my partner and I toured the encampment.  It was neat and clean — as neat as a tent city could be — and they had even put up a library tent.  So the next day, my partner and I returned, this time with a carton of comics for the library tent.  Our visit this time coincided with a march to the Occupy encampment from the people of Glide Memorial Church, one of the most prominently liberal churches inAmerica, led by the Reverend Cecil Williams.  They had come to offer solidarity to the people of the Occupy movement.

With the exception of a few seriously decrepit old hippies (for a change I was NOT the oldest person!), the people of the Occupy encampment were, like the women at GeekGirlCon, young and enthusiastic, and like GeekGirlCon, the energy level was high and optimistic.  Somehow active, caring, optimistic young people skipped a generation, if not several.  There was very little in the way of real political activity in the 90s, and less in the first decade of the 21st Century. America seemed listless and depressed.  But now young people are back in action, and I can see them making changes. I marched my last march in the early 90s, for abortion rights.  I’m too old to camp out on concrete.  But I can do what I can to help and cheer on the young change-makers.  This world is yours!

Trina Robbins is the author of the just-released Lily Renee: Escape Artist.


Posted on October 27, 2011

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Dressing the Part

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So a few weeks ago I stumbled across this weird video. It’s a fashion show from the ’80s, a Jean-Paul Gaultier collection featuring hot bored-looking chicks dressed up as Hasidic Jewish men.

Of course.

I was basically compelled to feature it in a Jewniverse, which I did (it’s out next week–subscribe right now to get it!). Then I wrote it. Then I thought that was the end of it.

It wasn’t.

Today I’m wearing a white button-down shirt. It’s a far cry from the punk-rock t-shirts of my choice, the vaguely hip blazers of my wife’s selection, but it’s what I’ve been wearing more often lately. Like Gaultier, I might be going through a phase of my own — albeit, less fashionably. And, uh, less revealingly.

I have to say, I kind of like it. I feel more serious — about work, about myself, and about little things. (My posture is improving dramatically.) It’s a little more distinguished. And when I walk down the streets of my own relatively ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, I get this whole stare of respect and/or identification with a group of people whose respect or comradeship I never thought I’d be after. Which is to say, the old guys. I always wondered why the bulk of retired people didn’t just wear t-shirts and Bermuda shorts. Now I think I know.

Anyway. A few weeks ago, the online show Rew and Who did a feature on 1/20, the movie I wrote. It’s filmed in the East Village, in a studio in the back of a bar called Otto’s Shrunken Head, and it’s every bit as punk and alterna-something as you think it is. I was invited in for an interview along with one of the stars. Heading out of the office, I shed my starched and Jewish shirt and changed into a more-suitable Mumm-Ra t-shirt (which you might think is related to Mamre, where Abraham pitched his famous tent, but is actually the bad guy on ThunderCats) and ran downtown.

So that was how I filmed the first interview:


We got invited back today — we’re appearing with Alan Merill, who wrote “I Love Rock ‘n Roll.” And again, I’m wearing a white shirt. This time, I’m not taking it off. After all, there’s nothing more punk than not looking very punk in the first place. This might not be all of who I am, but it’s a part of who I am.

Even if they mistake me for Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Posted on October 26, 2011

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