Monthly Archives: December 2011

From Scratch

One of my pet peeves is the veritable deluge of prepared foods and “meal assembly” emporia that has overtaken America and seem to be spreading like a stain across the rest of the world. Walk into any store selling food, and there they sit – ready-to-heat main courses and side of every imaginable ethnicity and ingredient, indistinguishable, or so the labels claim, from home-cooked (and, of course, priced at a hefty premium over the cost of the ingredients themselves). Nor is it only the mains and sides: to see how pervasive the ready-tos have become, take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and keep mental notes of all the things you can eat right out of the container, or that pre-mix key ingredients (think cake mixes).

Even as recently as 20 years ago or so, an industrial food takeover on this scale was inconceivable, yet very much in the cards. I forget the context, but remember well reading an article in the ’90s that spoke about seasoning mixes that would enable butchers to reap higher profits from value-added, ready-to-cook steaks, roasts, and poultry. At around that same time, during my stint on Wall Street, I worked with the CEO of a company, now defunct, that pioneered treatments for cut fruits and vegetables that all but eliminated discoloration. One has only to look at the proliferation of pre-bagged cut produce to see how visionary the idea was.

What’s behind it? Obviously, from the food processors’ perspective, it’s about profits. Anything you do to an ingredient changes it from commodity to unique product, and in so doing, lowers its vulnerability to the pure-price nature of the commodity markets, taking it instead to a higher realm, where branding and marketing operate to keep prices and profits high. Never mind that the bulk of industrial food processing is based on water and sugar (including fructose sweeteners), the cheapest of additives that also offer processors the advantage of a cheap way to increase weight – both the product’s and the consumer’s (hah!).

There’s a second important financial consideration for the producers as well: labor. From-scratch food preparation requires skilled workers who can command premium wages. The workers needed to cook from mixes and industrial ready-to-heats can be had for minimum wage. Even better, machines don’t get sick or have hangovers, and a retailer can always be certain of having enough product because his distributors will have warehouses full. Once again, technology and industrial production trump competence and experience.

From the consumer’s point of view, those dishes represent savings of time and energy, but at the very dear cost of control and competence. The time issues are understandable. When I was growing up in the ’50s, moms and grandmas stayed at home and had time to shop and cook; today’s economically stressed world puts far more pressure on everyone to go out and find ways to earn money. The simple act of preparing and serving a meal has gone from pleasure to chore, and my grandmother’s pride in feeding her family as given way to a sigh of relief at not having to cook, without the guilt of having failed at this most basic of family responsibilities.

That guilt also is the driving rationale behind the “meal assembly” stores, where people can go to assemble a week’s worth of their own ready-to-heat dinners. Everything is there, pre-cooked and portion-controlled, ready to mix and match into microwaveable containers. It’s exactly the same mindset that built the cake-mix business and propelled bread machines into the appliance mainstream: here’s a way to produce a Rembrandt – or at least an acceptable reproduction – without having to learn how to paint, let alone draw.

At what cost? Monetary, certainly: the ready-tos are substantially more expensive than the sum cost of their ingredients. But more troubling, in my view, is the personal cost. I want to be able to control what goes into the things my family and friends eat. I don’t want chemical life-extenders, mold inhibitors or potentially hazardous additives (think potassium bromate) in my food. I want to decide how my food tastes, not some food chemist who’s motivated by corporate profitability targets and focus-group driven consensus. I want to know how to make the things that please my senses and those of the people I care about, so that I can encourage others to value their own competence.

My wife and I often engage in a revealing dialogue when we go food shopping together. She’ll see a ready-to that she finds appealing and say, “Ooh, let’s try that.” I’ll look at it and say, “Why? I can make it better and cheaper at home.” Sometimes we buy it, sometimes we don’t, and more often than not, when we do, it’s either too sweet, too salty, or both for our tastes (mine, certainly, since she has a far bigger sweet tooth than I). But at least we have the ability to make that choice and still have what we want.

Posted on December 30, 2011

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Sweet and Sour

In my grandparents’ homes, as in the shtetlach from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour – just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950s America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.

Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon heder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.

Sour was a pickle or sour tomato for a snack, a piece of sour rye bread slathered with schmaltz and topped with a slice of kosher pickle onion, a lunch of sour cream, farmer cheese and chopped radish, scallion and cucumber; or maybe a glass of ruby red borscht and sour cream, or shchav (sorrel soup) with a raw egg stirred in and chopped scallions on top. Sour was Grandma Annie stirring a spoonful of sour cream into a pot of warm milk, then pouring it into a tray full of patterned yortzeit glasses and leaving it to sour over the pilot light on her white enamel stove.

Sour was the taste of the shtetl, where a piece of sour black rye bread, a bowl of the fermented beet water called rosl and perhaps a dollop of sour cream was a day’s nourishment. After all, what could be cheaper, easier and more provident for the inevitable times of scarcity than a crock filled with sliced beets, left to ferment by the wild yeasts that fill the air? Sour was the sum of their existence.

Weekends were sweet, and so were our holidays. Sweet was the saucer of honey, the sweet-sticky teyglach and cloves-fragrant carrot tsimmes at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweet gefilte fish and oloptzes (stuffed cabbage), for Shabbes. The challah was sweet and pale yellow, with a shiny brown crust that crackled when Grandpa cut it; the prune and apricot compote was sweet (but with a touch of lemon, to remind us of the week past and the week yet to come). Sour held no place of honor at my grandma’s Shabbes table.

Sweet was spending Saturday and Sunday with my parents and extended family, cookies and rugelach from Grandma and Bubbie, cracking pecans and hazelnuts with my cousins after a big holiday meal, visits to the bakery with my father and bringing home cookies and pastries in white cardboard boxes tied with string striped like a barber pole. Sweet was going to the Saturday matinee (20 cents for a double feature, serial, newsreel and 5 color cartoons 5) with my best friend Richie and eating Black Crows, Jujubes and Sugar Daddy bars. Sweet was being allowed to stay up late so my brother and I could sit in front of the TV with our parents, watching Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx and Dragnet.

As I grew older, my life grew sweeter, more American. Instead of a giant sour pickle bought for a nickel out of a barrel of brine, my afternoon snack morphed into a stack of cookies and a glass of milk. Living in the suburbs, away from my grandmothers, we succumbed to the enticements of the mainstream and there we chose to spend our lives, eating sweet and eschewing sour, except as an occasional culinary grace note. Weeks and weekends merged into unremitting sweetness.

Now, in my 60s, I’ve come back to sour with a deeper appreciation of both its taste and meaning. Still, there is one dish, one taste memory, that haunts me: my bubbie’s marnat – chilled sweet and sour whitefish, simmered slow and long with slices of carrot and onion in a peppery-vinegary-sugary marinade that congealed into an aspic and overwhelmed my taste buds even as the fish dissolved in my mouth. Whenever I went to see her in her Brooklyn brownstone, that was the dish I always asked her to make. And to this day, try as I might, I’ve never come close to duplicating it, perhaps because I will never truly know, as all my grandparents knew, the sorrows and joys of sweet-and sour.

Posted on December 28, 2011

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What Is a “Jewish Bakery”?

Not too long ago, during a radio interview centered on Inside the Jewish Bakery, the host asked me, “What is a Jewish bakery?” I have to confess, I was stunned: no one had ever asked me that question, nor, indeed, had I ever asked it of myself. In my world, everyone knows what a Jewish bakery is – a bakery that sells Jewish baked goods.

But here’s where it gets complicated. What exactly are “Jewish baked goods?” The ones that come first to mind – bagels, rugelach, onion rolls, challah – appear to be no-brainers, but in fact all can be traced back through their Yiddish forebears to the gentile Central and Eastern European societies in which the Jews found themselves living at various times.

Take bagels, for instance. In America, we think of them as a Jewish food that made good, rising to the pinnacle of the American mainstream and assimilating away their “Jewishness.” But boiled/baked ring breads made of double-helix dough strands, called obwarzanki, are the signature street food of Kraków, Poland, and have been for centuries. And lest anyone argue that “Jewish” bagels don’t feature that ropelike twist, I would point out that a 1936 photo in the collection of the New York Public Library shows a Jewish New York City bagel peddler selling what clearly are twisted obwarzanki. At the same time, a 1938 photo in the YIVO collection shows a bagel seller in Lithuania selling the untwisted bagels we’re all familiar with. Go figure.

So how about challah? Nothing more Jewish than that, right? Well, although the term “challah” is derived from the Torah, the bread itself was a loan from 14th and 15th century German Christians, who honored their Sabbath with braided loaves, according to Jewish foodways historian John Cooper. On top of that (and on top of the loaves), the custom of decorating breads with symbols of faith such as birds, hands, keys and ladders – also often thought of as uniquely Jewish – also can be traced back to the Christians of Central Europe. Even the term “koyletch,” an alternative name for challah throughout Yiddish Europe, is of Slavic origin. And to bring things full circle, a braided, egg-glazed sweet bread called chałka is a staple offering in the bakeries of today’s Poland.

The same is true of knishes, babkas, rolls (bulkes), rye breads – you name it and the gentile host cultures had it before the Jews. Even most modern favorites come from someplace else, most obviously rainbow cookies, whose horizontal layers of red, yellow and green reprise the Italian flag and trumpet their origin.

So if everything in the Jewish bakery came from someplace else, what, after all is a “Jewish bakery?”

In my view, nothing less than the history of a people’s wanderings from place to place – from Eretz Yisrael to the Roman Empire, from Rome northward into the Rhine Valley, then west into France and England and east into Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. At every stop, the Jews found the foods of their gentile neighbors and adapted them to the laws of Kashrut. And when it came time to move again, they took those foods with them and added to their repertoire the foods of their next home, again adapted to Kashrut.

And so the Jewish bakery is really a time capsule, a distillation of a thousand years of Diaspora, come to rest in a row of glass-fronted display cases and shelves full of bread and rolls behind the counter. Every bread and roll, every pastry, cake and cookie, reflects a specific time and place in our communal history and connects us tangibly (and edibly) to our shared experience. And you thought it was only a bakery!

Today, the world’s food culture is rapidly homogenizing. You can find U.S. fast-food franchises in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow; Japanese ramen-chain outlets in New York, Los Angeles and London. And bagels are everywhere. TV food porn, as my daughter likes to call it, has universalized once-obscure ingredients and globalized technique and plating to the point where cooking has morphed from the deepest, most visceral (pun intended) expression of a culture rooted in time and place to a media-driven vehicle for individual creativity.

And while I do appreciate the pure sensual pleasures of sculpturally composed, artfully conceived and executed coups de table, I’m also very much aware that even the best of them lack the authentic Yiddish tam of my grandmother’s kroyt borscht, a long-simmered soup – a stew, really – made from beef flanken and an abundance of winter vegetables – cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the mass-market processed food industry is wreaking its own Holocaust on family-run, made-from-scratch restaurants and bakeries, and in the process, severing the connection between people and their personal and communal histories. And sadly, as those restaurants and bakeries die, so too, dies a piece of our cultural history that most of us barely recognize, let alone miss, until it’s gone.

Posted on December 26, 2011

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Adventures in the Cartoon Trade: Israel, US, and Everywhere Else

When I walked down the airplane gangplank for the first time in Ben Gurion airport, I immediately noticed the baggage handlers unloading our plane. I was told they were “gruzinim”, or Georgian Jews. I had thought Israel would be filled with people who looked like my neighbors, my temple congregation, or even me. But they were totally different. I didn’t realize what an amazing variety of Jews and cultures had come from every corner of the world to make up the population of Israel.

I lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority doing illustrating and drawing animation for children’s programming. If I needed models for my work, all I had to do was to step out into the street and walk in any direction.

In the alley in Nachalot, where I lived, in a 17th century Turkish domed apartment, I befriended a Yemenite scribe, Ovadia, who had a tiny one room studio, just off the local well. There he copied the torah on vellum with quill pen and India ink. At times he would be dressed in black pants and white shirt and at other times in a flowing robe and pants. He had different hats, headdresses and turbans that he would change several times a day. It seemed to depend on who was visiting him. He made the best coffee in a small finjan on an electric grill next to his drawing table.

There were others who lived in the neighborhood from Morocco, Bukhara, India, Persia, Turkey and every European country. I’m always trying to fit them into my work. Here is a good example of the Jewish cultural types from my book, The Joyous Haggadah. Ovadia is first on the left.

 

This is a composite from kibbutz families I’ve known.

 

Posted on December 23, 2011

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Too Many Latkes!: Twenty Years in the Making

The idea for Too Many Latkes! came from one of my fondest childhood memories. My mother was the office manager of our synagogue and in charge of organizing the annual “Latke Fundraiser.” She would always say, “This year we’re going to make a mountain of latkes!” Every year, all the latke cooks would gather at the temple on Hanukkah and fried huge amounts of latkes. They never quite made enough latkes for a mountain but the image stuck in my head.

When I had my own kids and we began a tradition of making elaborate holiday parties with ceremonies, music and song. I looked around for something entertaining that I could do. The first thing that came to mind was that latke mountain. Taking bits and pieces from the many stories I illustrated and animated for children?s programming in Israel and the US, I came up with the outline of Too Many Latkes! At the time I was a storyboard artist for Doug, the animated TV show and daily I would make little Post-It flip books to work out scripted action. It seemed natural to make Latkes into a big newsprint flip book that I could act out in front my guests, the way I would a storyboard pitch.

It became a big hit at Hanukkah and every year inevitably some body would ask when is it going to be a book. By the time I got around to seriously making it into book form, the nature of publishing and even drawing had changed. I no longer worked on paper. My drawings were done with a stylus in programs on computer screen. To keep the feeling of the large original black and white marker drawings on newsprint, I had to reduce, scan, color and touch up the drawings in PhotoShop. A lengthy process but well worth it since, the digital images loose little when published in paper or Ibook form.

Now I can do book readings using a computer slideshow, drawing tablet, speakers, projector and HD screen. However, there are places that are just too intimate for all those gadgets. So from the digital files, I’ve printed out again black and white images and made a new flipbook.

Some things never change.

Posted on December 21, 2011

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A Cartoon Education

The memory of my cousin handing me my first copy of MAD Magazine when I was 12 is still fresh in my mind. I can feel my hands tremble as I looked down at the cover painting of Alfred E. Neuman as a scarecrow. My cousin said this magazine was going to change my life and he was right. From that moment on I was hooked. I was a cartoonist. As I turned the pages I knew all I wanted to do was to make drawings that everybody would laugh at, just like that group of talented idiots.

This was also the time when I was obsessed with the Marx Brothers movies. There was no Netflix, Internet, VCRs, or 24/7 TV. There were just three channels on our black and white set and they usually went off the air before midnight. I’d scour the TV listings for weeks looking for one of their films. If one did appear it was usually scheduled beyond my bedtime. That night, when everyone was asleep, I’d sneak downstairs, turn on the TV with the volume just above a whisper and watch, my eyes as big as saucers, the incredible comic anarchy of the Marxes. The next morning, I’d trudge to school where I’d spend the better part of homeroom, Latin, and Geometry classes filling the margins of my notebooks with super heroes, goofy weirdoes and slimy monsters, inspired by my real mentors.

My first brush with notoriety came about from one of those doodles in Hebrew School. Sitting in the back of class, as the teacher pounded away at the blackboard on the pronunciation of Hebrew verbs, I drew a small little sketch of her dancing a hora, naked. Under it, I wrote “Mrs. K…. Blows!” I passed it to the kid next to me. He stifled a delighted guffaw. I thought he would pass it back but instead I saw it make its way around the class with the sound of suppressed giggles.  The teacher, sensing something was up, grabbed the offending scrap. She went on a tirade, which consisted of what an offensive drawing it was and wanting to know what she had to “blow” about since she felt she was a very modest person. The poor lady didn’t get it.

My popularity went way up. From being just a face in the crowd, I was established as The Cartoonist for the rest of my school career. However, the teacher got her revenge when years later I lived and worked in Israel and sorely missed not having a better grasp of the pronunciation of those Hebrew verbs.

My obsession with cartoon drawing has enabled me to make a living from illustrations, editorial cartooning, storyboarding for commercials, TV animation and feature films. Now, with the publication of my own books, like Too Many Latkes!, I’ve returned to the seat at the back of the class.  I still want to make people laugh when I draw.

Posted on December 19, 2011

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Jews in Narnia

Michael Weingrad made something of a splash last year in writing “Why There is no Jewish Narnia” at the Jewish Review of Books. Of course, Weingrad misunderstands Narnia. To explain the seven novels succinctly, let us refer to the following equation:

Jesus was Jewish (therefore) Aslan was Jewish (therefore) Narnia = Jewish Autonomous Oblast (and) The White Witch = Christianity/Rome. QED.

But before you give me the combined Nobel Prize for Physics and Literature, let’s think about that seeming paradox. The fields of both science fiction and fantasy are filled with Jewish writers, from Isaac Asimov (can you get more Jewish than that?) to, erm, William Shatner. (Yes, he wrote TekWar! No, the Federation is not proud). Why, then, do so few genre works deal with Jewish universes? Where are the vampires who laugh at a crucifix, the Space Navy with Stars of David proudly painted on the hull of the ships? Imagine the ending for 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My God! It’s full of Jews!”

Or the Jewish immigrants passing en masse through the wardrobe to get to the safe-haven of Narnia, kicking some holy lion butt in the process. No?

Well…

Yes and no.

Joel Rosenberg’s novel Not For Glory (1988) features a galactic corps of Israeli mercenaries from the planet of Metzada (no, really, it does!). And one of the most obscure of science fiction’s Jewish masterpieces (its only one?) is the unjustly neglected The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, by Isidore Haiblum, concerning the comic adventures of two galactic operators trapped in Jewish history, and turning to the eponymous Tsaddik (and his travel maven Greenberg) for help. If Rosenberg’s novel is, how shall we say, not so great, Tsaddik is a true classic, one I return to with joy every time (appropriately enough, I have both the English and Hebrew editions, both long out of print).

Israel is enjoying something of an awakening in terms of Jewish fantasy and science fiction. Recently it has produced the first true masterpiece of Israeli SF – the novel Kfor by Shimon Adaf. It is an astonishing novel, following the lives of several characters in the Jewish city/country of Tel Aviv in five hundred years’ time, and combining science fiction, detective fiction, poetry and absolutely wonderful, heart-breakingly beautiful writing. It is unlikely to ever be translated.

Another novel by Adaf, however – the massive Sunburnt Faces – will be published in English next year by PS Publishing in the UK, the same small publisher that had taken such a chance on my own Osama. Small publishers can afford to take risks larger ones can’t, and to me this is nothing less than an event, an opportunity for a new audience to appreciate, for the first time, Adaf’s unique talent.

Do we need Narnia? This is what we ask ourselves after a couple of pints at the pub. What’s the real estate value on Cair Paravel? And just which law firm represents the White Witch’s interest? We picture Maurice Levy from The Wire as he defends yet another faun or centaur caught in the deadly world of illicit Turkish Delight wholesaling.

Let them have their Narnia, I say. We have the Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, and we now have Shimon Adaf.

And we’ll always have Shatner.

Posted on December 16, 2011

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Being Compared to Philip K. Dick

Being compared to Philip K. Dick is great, especially when they secretly mean “will die a penniless paperback writer at the age of fifty-three.” In other words, such a comparison doesn’t exactly invite trust.

My new novel, Osama, recently came out. It’s available on the Kindle, and in a fancy hardcover edition from its small, UK-based publisher. It got rejected more times than Andie Macdowell’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral had sex (“less than Madonna, more than Princess Di… I hope”). One can see why. For one thing, it’s called Osama.

The comparison I mention is, specifically, to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, made recently by reviewers for both the UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Financial Times. Yes, I’m tooting my own horn here. Someone has to! But of course Osamaowes a huge debt to Dick’s brilliant alternative history, where the United States has lost World War Two and is divided between the victorious Germans and Japanese.

But I was thinking about Philip K. Dick a lot recently. He’s a constant reminder of Gustave Flaubert’s maxim, “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Forget riches: for that matter, forget holidays, new clothes or a square meal more than once a week. Forget fame, either. Even notoriety is hard to come by these days. And forget respect: you’ll get reviews comparing your work, variously, to processed cheese or toilet paper, and you’ll be glad someone even noticed.

And yet and still. I can’t imagine doing anything better. Maybe I’m a romantic, fondly believing in the image of the artist starving for his art. I often talk about moving to that mythic attic in Paris where I could sit drinking bourbon and punching keys on my typewriter. You know. In the sixties.

I’ll move as soon as someone invented a time machine.

Maybe I’m just putting it on. I’m hardly starving. In fact I could do with losing a few. It’s the sedentary life, you know. You get more exercise from shifting books than writing them.

I commute from the bedroom to the lounge. Writing these days seems to consist mostly of checking your e-mail, Spider Solitaire and Twitter, followed by checking your e-mail again.

Nope. Nothing from Steven Spielberg today either. Red nine on black ten, red five on black six… is it four o’clock in the afternoon already? Where did the time go?

I’d better take another break.

Posted on December 14, 2011

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Historical Figure Fixation

I might be obsessed with historical figures. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. But my two most recent books were Osama (a novel) and Jesus & The Eightfold Path (a novella) – though the one may be too early to be called historical, and the other may not be historical at all. Josephus Flavius, supposed chronicler of my novella (The Gospel According to Josephus, we learn half-way through) is our only contemporary historian to mention Jesus, but it appears quite likely the mention – a single paragraph – was inserted into the text centuries later.

Be that as it may, with a recent short story called “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” (in the Solaris Rising anthology) chronicling the effect multiple clones of the legendary revolutionary had on the world’s various conflicts and wars, I think jesusI might suffer from Historical Figure Fixation, and that just sounds like a bad Woody Allen movie (which is, basically, any Woody Allen movie after 1985. Badabing).

I keep saying my next book will have to be Mother Teresa, Gunslinger. I also like to say I never joke about future books. Though it occurs to me this might be better as a graphic novel. Certainly my planned book about a gun-slinging Walt Whitman traversing a future planet Mars accompanied by an automaton Golda Meir (in search of mysterious alien ruins, perhaps!) isn’t a joke. I’m just waiting for someone to pay me to write it.

I might be waiting a while, though.

Still, as long as you’re willing to be poorer than someone who was made redundant from McDonald’s, the writing life is a wonderful thing. You get to come up with titles like “The Were-Wizard of Oz” and sell the resultant story to an anthology (Bewere the Night, in all good bookstores!) or, indeed, re-imagine what would have happened if the three Wise Men from the East were the three companions of the Buddha (that is, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy) from the Chinese classic A Journey to the West. The working title, needless to say, was Kung Fu Jesus.

Four Jews made an undeniable impact on 20th century culture. Freud gave us psychoanalysis. Marx gave us Marxism. Einstein gave us Relativity. And Haim Saban gave us Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

It’s a hard act to follow.

But history’s a great thing for a writer. Otherwise it just, sort of, sits there. Doing nothing. Might as well package it. Ideally with some kung-fu.

But I think I’m getting better. I avoid the history books. Shun the History Channel. No more HFF for me. The words of my grandfather keep echoing in my ears, instead.

When, he said, when will you stop writing this weird… stuff, and write something serious for once?

I don’t know, Granddad. I don’t know.

Posted on December 12, 2011

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Jews, Non-Jews, and Being Losers Together

Yesterday, I put out a Twitter call: What should I write about? The always-dependable dlevy asked, in reply, “have you talked about responses to your work from non Jewish readers?” I haven’t, not yet — but I also haven’t really talked about my response from Jewish readers. (And, sort of on that subject, I could also puzzle why I’ve gotten such amazing Amazon reviews from readers I don’t know — because, as you know, all Jews know each other — but the one review that I know is from a friend is, well, nice, but so short.)

Weirdly, if you want to keep a scorecard, I’ve written two books that are about Orthodox Jews, my first two, and then two books (and a movie) that have nothing to do with Orthodox Jews. I say it’s weird because, as I’ve become more and more fundamentalistly Hasidic, I seem to be writing less overtly about Jews.

What does it mean? And why does my new book Automatic straddle the boundary, telling stories about me in high school, back when I had no idea I’d ever become Orthodox, but sticking in a blurb or two of wisdom from the Vilna Gaon and kabbalah? Here, let me show you:

Every day I remember I’m alive I feel guilty. Some days I sleepwalk through the day and don’t even remember that much. There are kids starving in Africa. There are kids starving a couple blocks from where I live.

The Vilna Gaon says that, if humans weren’t blessed with the power to forget, we would learn all there is to know in two or three years, and there would be no further reason for us to remain alive.

I’d like to think, in my self-assured way, that everyone (Orthodox people, non-Orthodox people, non-Jews) can float with my weird, Paulo Coelho-like digressions, and that they still understand what I’m saying in the first place. Back when I was going to poetry slams every night, people thought of me as “the Jewish guy,” even though this was Berkeley and half the room was Jewish — because I was the one who did poems about being Jewish. I talked about Judaism like the black kids talked about being black, and the Sri Lankan kids talked about being Sri Lankan, and the Palestinian kids talked about being Palestinian. And all my most popular poems were the ones that included the most weird things about religion, and the most Yiddish words:

One night I said to this gay Arab poet, who’d had to leave his country because they wanted to kill him, that we were both in exile, and he said back, Baby, the whole WORLD is in exile. It was the most Jewish thing I’d ever heard. And one of the truest.

Maybe that’s the meaning behind Automaticit’s my little book about my friendship with my Christian best friend, and how Jewish the whole thing was. Or how Irish Catholic it was. Or maybe we’re all just talking about the same feelings, and using different metaphors to drive it home. And by “metaphors,” I don’t mean in that puzzling poetry way. I mean languages. And gods. And ways to digest the whole thing of our lives.

Posted on December 9, 2011

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