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Who Will Tell

March 29, 2010

 | ONE – Who will tell? ONE – I will tell. ONE is the God of the World. |

– ECHOD MI YO-DEYA, THE MODEL SEDER

This is matzoh, the unleavened bread.

 

In the garage, in a former Yahoo DSL box relabeled ‘Passover’ with a black Sharpie, are the haggadahs, sitting on top of Mom’s matzoh-print apron and the afikomon cover.  Some of them are photocopied, though no less Jewish, others date back to my mother’s childhood and their faded orange covers come apart in my hands, and some are even assigned to specific family members, with notes in the margins.  Nana’s cursive is distinctive, cutting through the Hebrew like a scalpel, effectively circumcising these Seder instruction manuals so that the service will be short and the meal will come quickly.  My uncle is the only one who can read the Hebrew anyway.

We are Southern California Jews – not the Orthodox who walk the heated streets of West Hollywood in long black coats, fur hats, or ankle-length skirts, but the secular who have a menorah, maybe a mezuzah, and not much else.  Several generations removed from the shtetls of Russia, our approach to religion has been one of wariness bordering on ignorance.

This is my legacy, this abbreviated holiday called Pesach.  These books, these haggadahs, like the manuals that come with a new computer or toaster oven, tell us how to celebrate Passover, and they are just as complicated as the instructions for my Samsung Blu-Ray player, both written, in part, in another language.    

Reaching back into that cardboard box, my fingers brush over the homemade place cards I made one year with stickers, markers, and folded index cards as a means to prevent bickering at the dinner table.  I can track the evolution of my family in these cards.  They’re yellowing at the corners, and many of the names will never sit down to Seder again. 

In our home, the service is always hurried, rushed, like the Exodus from Egypt; I don’t even know which members of my family believe anymore.  Though they still observe Passover, my aunt and one of her sons have become Christian.  Neither my father nor my uncle’s wife were born to Judaism, and my mother and I don’t believe in God. At our table, my uncle is the only one to have had a bar mitzvah, the celebration of becoming an adult at age thirteen. 

My nana was not a particularly religious woman, but family meant more to her than anything else in the world.  I never asked her what she believed in.  I didn’t want to know, in case my own beliefs – or lack thereof – disappointed her.  I think she believed in God – toward the end of her long illness, I got the feeling that she was looking toward a better place, though the word ‘Heaven’ was never dropped in my presence.           

My mother says, for her, being Jewish is about culture rather than religion, but the two are tied so closely together I don’t see how she can pick the threads apart. Being a Jew has always seemed to be about following instructions. We have so many rules and laws that if you were to follow all of them, I don’t think you could leave the house, so there have to be some compromises, but there’s a line in the haggadah I find troubling:

“Our Jewish way of life is based on a strong faith in God.”

It’s actually written in stone.  Jews are constantly punished in the Bible for lacking faith, it’s why they’re forced to wander in the desert for forty years, the bunch of kvetchers.  What does that mean for me?  Does it mean I can’t be Jewish anymore – or should I move to Palm Springs?

Whenever we get to the story in the haggadah about the plagues God sets upon Egypt, I wonder, how does Moses manage to keep any faith at all?  God keeps promising deliverance, then snatches it away by hardening Pharaoh’s heart against the entreaties of the Jews.  We dip a finger in the wine and tap it on our plates to symbolize each of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, gnats, fly swarms, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, the slaying of the first born.  Nine chances for freedom offered and then taken back, until finally, finally, God stops taunting the Israelites.  Maybe Moses didn’t really believe after all, maybe that’s why he never made it to the Land of Milk and Honey – our God is a vengeful God. 

I don’t think anyone else in my family has these thoughts. The primary emphasis of the evening is on food. ‘Eat’ is written in all-caps in the margins of the stained pages where we are instructed to break for matzoh ball soup – and it’s underlined twice.

These books, dating back to the early seventies, are time capsules.  With names crossed out and rewritten next to various passages, I can track the lineage of my family.  I can see in the pages of these books that my mother’s grandmother, Gamy, once played the role that Nana played for me, that my mother will play now, and that I, by rights of matrilineal heritage, ought to play in the future .

I can feel it slipping away, my culture, the only culture I have ever tried to claim.  I may not be a very good Jew, but it’s important that I have something.  Remembering why we do the things we do is getting harder, if we remember to do them at all.

After the third cup of wine, the spirit of the prophet Elijah is welcomed to Seder by opening the door.  I’ve always liked Elijah, maybe because he, too, is a stranger, someone who barges into the middle of the meal and joins the festivities.  Elijah reminds us that his spirit is with us when we speak of freedom, and always dwells among us, which begs the question: why do we have to open the door to let him in?

I was raised in a house without God.  I never had the option of finding Him, because I didn’t know He was missing.  Even now, knowing I am part of a small minority, I can’t force myself to believe.  It’s too late for me.

Some part of me wishes I could start all over again, with closer ties to my history, really understanding the celebrations that I only watch from the periphery.  I wish I could have a Hebrew name like my cousins, or have been bat mitzvahed, or just have a sense of belonging to something.  The price to be paid for that is a kind of belief I don’t have and never can.  I don’t know if I can have the culture without the religion.

But I think I’ll keep the door open for Elijah, just in case. 

 

Happy Pesach.

Five Movies I Can Watch Ad Nauseam

March 19, 2010

1. Clue (1985) – I can’t for the life of me remember where I first saw this film, but it was love at first viewing. It has an incredible cast and is just non-stop verbal banter and slapstick comedy based on a board game. Tim Curry is especially amazing – the speech he has to give multiple times in the end must be six pages long. This is a DVD I wish there were extras for.

2. Die Hard (1988) – I hadn’t seen the original when Live Free or Die Hard came out in theaters, but it was on one of the movie channels one night not long after, so my parents and I sat down to watch it. I was rapt. It’s not ordinarily the kind of movie I like, but between a lot of great one-liners, Carl Winslow, Alan Rickman being totally badass, and a Fabio-lookalike, I was hooked.

3. The Mummy (1999) & The Mummy Returns (2001) – My mother and I watched the first Mummy movie (with Brendan Fraser) in a hotel room in Chicago after my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We went in with low expectations, but loved the high-spirited adventure feel (and I’m a sucker for Egyptology). When the sequel was announced, we made plans to see it opening weekend, and I thought it was even better than the original. Sadly, the same can not be said for the third in the series, the Movie Which Must Not Be Named.

4. The First Wives Club – Saw this one for the first time on a family vacation in New York City, and most of the good jokes went completely over my head at age eleven. (Based on the title, I originally thought the movie was about the wives of Presidents.) Still, I loved it, and I love it to this day, especially the rendition of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.”

5. Hot Fuzz – I watched this movie before I saw Shawn of the Dead, and as much as I love a good zombie flick, I like Hot Fuzz better, perhaps in part because Simon Pegg doesn’t play the underachieving slacker type. I also love the scenes where ordinary police work like filling out forms and doing research is given the ‘CSI treatment’ complete with sound effects and quick cuts. I’m still waiting for the sequel, Simon Pegg.

Evolution of a Flash Drive Necklace

March 18, 2010
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I love technology, but it can’t be said that the feeling is mutual. I’m particularly prone to losing bits and pieces of various devices – so it was with flash drives. My first, a skinny little 1G with a turquoise case had a cap and attached to my keychain by way of a plastic loop – which broke. Then I lost the cap, resulting in a mangling of the metal drive.

For Christmas one year my uncle gave me a red 8G SanDisk Cruzer flash drive, the kind that retracts like a box cutter. I put it on my key chain. Little did I realize that my keychain (already too weighty) would pull down the drive when it was in a desktop computer. The drive got bent.

I bought a little 4G drive that swiveled in and out of its plastic case like a Swiss army knife. In the attempt to avoid repeating past mistakes, I kept that one in my pocket, though frequently I’d forget what pocket I left it in, and find myself without it. Then it was left overnight in the office one evening, and the next morning I returned to find it bricked and inoperable.

Finally I decided that the only way I was going to be able to hold onto one of the damn things was if I wore it around my neck, and I went in search of one that would let me do just that.

Any and all ‘flash drive necklaces’ I found with a Google search were usually only 2G, hideously ugly, and almost entirely bejeweled by Swarovski crystals. Apparently the world at large thinks that girls won’t buy something unless it sparkles. 

Then I discovered a design flaw in all flash drives. Any drive that was designed to hang from a keychain or a lanyard, had the loop on the wrong end. Every last one of them would have to be removed completely from whatever was holding it before use – even the ones with caps. Why weren’t any of them designed so that the cap remained attached to the keychain/necklace as a reminder that something was missing?

Which only left me one option: make it myself. I bought a silver 4G PNY flash drive from Best Buy, glued the sole survivor of a pair of moonstone earrings to the front, put a jump ring on, and hung it from a necklace – no one even knew it was a flash drive . There was still one problem: in order to put it in the computer, I had to take the whole necklace off, which meant I might still leave it behind. To remedy that, I went to my local bead store and repurposed a necklace/bracelet clasp. Now I could just unclip the drive from the necklace, pop it into the computer, eject the drive when I was finished, and reattach it. The part of the clasp that remained around my neck would remind me to rescue its other half before I left the room.

After several people told me it was a clever idea, I decided to try selling them on Etsy, with success. I’ve sold eight so far (three more were made that were given as gifts), and most to strangers, so it’s not just my friends taking pity on me. Every time I sell one, it makes my day. I designed the necklace to solve a problem I had, but now I like making them as sort of the anti-bling. This goes to a pet peeve of mine – certain assumptions made about girls and technology. I love shiny new toys, but I do not need them ‘girly-ed’ up in order to enjoy them. I haven’t painted my Macbook pink, or put feathers on my Blu-ray player. I don’t buy gadgets because they’re in the shapes of teddy bears or hearts. 

I’m just an absent-minded geek, and apparently, I’m not alone.

Flash Drive Necklaces on uGeek

Sitcom: Resurrection

March 17, 2010

Last week, a little bundle of joy in the form of Night Court: Season Three arrived on my doorstep via Amazon.com. I’m probably the only twenty-something in the world who spends her Saturday nights watching Judge Harry Stone and Co. take on the ‘80s, but I just can’t help myself, I love those wacky courtroom antics. Season three, in particular, brought the cast one step closer to completion with the return of Markie Post as Legal Aid lawyer Christine Sullivan (and her Amazing Mullet!) Night Court may not be the pinnacle of situation comedy, but it sure entertains in a way rarely found in modern times.

After Friends went off the air in 2004, the sitcom format was a bloated corpse on the river of television. Raised in the glow of Thursday’s ‘Must See TV,’ with hours spent learning at the feet of the masters on TVLand – I Love Lucy, Laverne and Shirley, MASH – I was a sitcom snob, convinced we would never recover those glory days. Even the eighties had better programming, if you enjoy a certain level of cheesiness, which I absolutely do.

The sitcom was dead. Every half-hour comedy that stepped into the light post-millennium was either a mindless zombie (Two and a Half Men) or cut off at the knees before it could do too much damage to the American psyche (Life on a Stick).

So when I read that NBC gave an early renewal to Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock, it occurred to me that sitcoms actually make up a decent percentage of my current viewing habits. Stealthily, almost silently, the sitcom has risen from the grave like a vampire to reclaim its position as a television staple and sink its teeth into some unsuspecting victims, including myself. But how did that happen?

In today’s nightmarish world, audiences are desperate for a laugh, sure, but the swell in ‘dramedies’ over the last several years severely reduced space for the old 30-minute creatures of the night. Dramedies are more economical – the werewolves of the television world. They’re motile, adapt and change to suit their environment, and can go it alone. Sitcoms are forced to travel in pairs, always looking for the perfect mate.

So what’s the deep, dark secret for a successful sitcom? Heart. As Community creator Dan Harmon commented at this year’s Paley Fest, “sitcoms have become cynical,” and the TV-watching public is tired of it. The sitcoms that are succeeding are the ones that find comedy in the situation, instead of forcing a laugh from an awkward moment. They also respect the history of the genre, referencing the classics with love rather than scorn. It’s not very hard to seduce the key 18-49 demographic – appeal to our misplaced nostalgia with a Breakfast Club allusion and we’re yours.

As outrageous as they might be at times, these sitcoms touch on something real, something identifiable. They’re realizing characters on screen that remind us of people we know in real life, it’s humanity through a comedy filter. Television that loves television.

I feel comfortable with these reminders of bygone days. There’s something reassuring about their old-fashioned values. Though others of their ilk have been around the block before, these newcomers are reaching out to new audiences, seeking fresh blood. I’m at home with the geeks of The Big Bang Theory. am Liz Lemon, without the career and cast of wacky co-workers. I have a soft spot for hopeless romantic Ted Moseby, even if he is taking forever to find the mother of his future children.

But mostly these sitcoms have captured my attention because I love to laugh, and after a dry spell, half-hour comedy is funny again. The sitcom is hard to kill; like most things it’ll wax and wane in popularity, but it’s never really gone – just lying in wait, ready to strike again.

Shape Up!

March 16, 2010

One of my biggest concerns about embarking on the ten day trip to Israel is that I won’t be able to hack it physically. It’s not an unreasonable fear; I have twelve scars from seven orthopedic surgeries, trouble breathing after any sort of cardio exercise, terrible hay fever, and a general difficulty standing for any length of time. I get winded on a flight of stairs.

So in order to survive the trip I haven’t officially been accepted for, I decided to splurge on a $100 pair of magic shoes.

Skechers Shape Ups ™ are “designed to get you fit while you walk, work, shop, and more. Shape Ups have as much a place in your life as your boots, sandals, and dress casuals, and can retrain your muscles, helping you walk with a positive impact. Used properly, Shape Ups change the way you approach your daily activities. Used regularly, Shape Ups will enhance the way you feel and look; muscles get toned, calories are burned and your posture improves.” Wow. Will they make me a mocha latte too?

I am convinced they are going to change my life. Sure they look a little dorky, the shoe equivalent of the rolling backpack I would never let my mother buy no matter how heavy my backpack was, and they can’t exactly substitute for dress shoes, but it’s not as if I have a lot of fancy dress occasions on my calendar, and I figure any shoe that can help improve my posture (wrecked under the weight of the aforementioned backpack)  is worth a shot.

Wearing the Shoes is a bit like standing on a trampoline, modeling moon boots, or walking on water (Jesus must have been a Skechers fan too.) After an hour or so, I thought I could feel it working in my calf, but wasn’t sure if it was actually happening, or if I was acting like a kid who watches mold grow on a piece of bread for science class (Is that bacteria, or just the multigrain?) It also felt like it was happening primarily on my right side, which led to all sorts of concerns about lopsided legs. Do I tilt to one side? Do I naturally put more weight on my right leg as I walk?  Will continued wear of the Shoes cause one calf muscle swell and tone, while the other one wastes into nothingness?

One thing the Shoes have forced me to do is slow down. I rush through life, completely obsessed with arriving at my destination on time, and not a minute later. Rushing is not an option in the Shoes; it results in stumbling and potential fractures, not to mention looking seriously uncool. Now I saunter at a leisurely pace, taking in the world around me, observing it like a proper writer. Of course, this means it takes me twice as long to get anywhere.

Between my haste and my hyperextension, I have a tendency not to bend my knees much when I walk or stand. I move like an automaton and my butt sticks out – but no more! With the Shoes, I have developed hips. I can actually feel them move as I walk. There’s a little sashay in my step, what a novelty!  I am a taller, more confident person! I walk with my head held high, I see everything from new heights.

But something wasn’t quite right when I started trekking across campus this morning. Sure I was swaying like a fifties fashion model, but it felt like I was putting more strain on my right thigh than usual. Am I doing something wrong? This is the first pair of shoes I’ve owned that actually come with an instruction manual. Have I somehow already broken the cardinal rule of the Shoes? Or will my unique and troublesome physiology, my crooked bones, my flat feet and pronated ankles render me immune to their powers?

No, I say, I will not disappoint the Shoes. It may take some time, but I will slowly readjust the method of walking that has served me for twenty-four years. I will stand taller (quite literally as these things have two-inch rubber soles), and I will bend my knees! I will develop stronger calf muscles and tighten my abs and glutes. I will hike across Israel without an inhaler!

Too bad the Shoes can’t do anything for my arms. Guess the magic only stretches so far.

Five Beloved TV Shows I’ve Never Seen

March 12, 2010

Out of utter desperation to maintain my weekly feature, I present to you this sad little list which will no doubt get more hits and comments than any of my well-crafted essays:

1. Arrested Development. I feel like this is the television equivalent of (500) Days of Summer, i.e. if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out and aren’t a chic indie hipster.*  AD is the show the characters in Summer probably watched.  It’s a cult classic, but since it doesn’t involve SciFi, its fans resent the term, even though it was cancelled by Fox, which puts it in good company. I have no idea if it’s good or not. I may have caught three minutes of one episode once; there was a man painted blue.

2. Mad Men. I’ve heard nothing but great things about this show, but have never been tempted to tune to AMC or pick up the DVDs. I like my period dramas to be British, and contained within a two-hour movie, or miniseries. That’s about all the subjugation of women I can handle.

3. Gossip Girl. Teen soap operas bored me when I was a teen. I never watched 90210 or Melrose Place either. I got enough of the bitchiness in school, and the students in question were never that good-looking. I’ve never really liked watching people be mean to one another just for the sake of being mean, which is why I don’t watch reality T.V.

4. South Park. I’m going to have to go with ‘ew’ on this one. Back in its heyday, it was the bane of my existence, and clips of it – not to mention merchandise – found their way before my eyes. Crude humor doesn’t do it for me, which is why I haven’t seen any of Judd Apatow’s films, and I was scarred for life after my high school film teacher made us watch Clerks because it was a perfect example of shooting a movie with no budget.

5. Dexter. The intense love people have for this show never fails to impress me. The main reason I never picked this show up is that I don’t need to spend an hour a week watching a serial killer do his stuff, even if he’s only killing other serial killers. I get enough blood and guts on my procedurals. The Anti-Hero is a trope I’m over – I prefer likable protagonists, the ones you don’t have to feel guilty about rooting for.

I could actually keep going; there are a number of television bandwagons I haven’t jumped on, but I’m going to cap it at five – mission accomplished.

*I liked (500) Days of Summer.

Five TV Shows That More People Should Watch

March 5, 2010

1. Leverage. Come on, people, it’s a heist movie every frickin’ week! The fact that they can pull that off at all on a cable budget is amazing – and the fact that they do it so well is even more so. The team is a wonderful ensemble, and the characters put just enough of a twist on old archetypes to stay fresh. As theLeverage crew begin shooting Season 3 in Portland, this would be an excellent time to Netflix those DVDs and catch up on what is consistently witty escapism.

2. Chuck. This spy show is clever, and fun, and occasionally serious, and even if it doesn’t always hit the mark (seriously, I’m still not buying the Shaw/Sarah thing), the characters are so likable that I keep tuning in week after week. Rumor on my Twitter feed is that this Monday’s episode, “Chuck Versus the Beard” is the best episode yet. Renewal isn’t a lock yet, so please tune in!

3. Fringe. I had lukewarm feelings for this show in its first season, tuning in mostly to look at Joshua Jackson’s prettiness and remember when he was a Mighty Duck. Then the show killed off Anna Torv’s FBI partner Charlie, which was the best thing they ever could have done. Not for the actor, I’m sure, but it allowed Peter to step in as Olivia’s partner, instead of standing around in the background interpreting Walter-speak and making snarky comments.

4. Community. I’m just going to link to the latest episode, which had me falling out of my chair at Wednesday’s Paleyfest. ‘Nuff said.

5. Lie to Me. It’s like House without the medical jargon and a more likable lead character. The science behind the show is fascinating, and watching it will make you a better liar.*

*That’s probably a lie.