Elisa Albert, Darin Strauss, Peter Manseau and more Great Fiction coming in September

One of the best parts of my job is being able to read in-advance many of the authors we end up bringing for the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. For a four-eyed, lit-geek like myself, sitting on the Metro, reading a book emblazoned with “Advance Uncorrected Proofs: Not For Sale” is as close as I come to getting behind the velvet ropes of life. I may not score any invites to an inaugural ball, but I got to read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America weeks before it hit the shelves. Yeah, the ladies dig me.

So, I am having a great summer riding Metro, reading the lineup for the LitFest. I’ve even missed my stop a couple of times. The schedule for the Festival, running September 14-24 is online now and tickets are on-sale tomorrow. I’ll just mention below some of the books I’ve been able to read. In the coming weeks, we’ll have more detailed posts about the books and authors, as well as interviews and hopefully some multi-media, web 2.0-savvy content for you.

In this post, I’ll start with fiction. I’ve found time to read Darin Strauss‘s button-pushing novel More Than It Hurts You, which centers around a suburban Long Island Jewish couple, Josh and Dori Goldin, brought into tragic conflict with the Dr. Darlene Stokes, a brilliant African American doctor who treats their son for a mysterious ailment in the Emergency Room.

Elisa Albert‘s The Book of Dahlia is way too funny for a book about a young woman slowly dying of a malignant brain tumor. I think I may have dated Dahlia in college, or at least someone like her–damaged from divorce, blinded by low self-esteem to her own beauty, crazy mother, more than mildly self-destructive. She dumped me, with sentiments not unlike Dahlia, “What kind of loser would be so kind to someone like her: someone so obviously fucked up, problematic and issue-ridden? Would laugh at her stupid jokes? Would look at her and see anything but sheer ugliness? Would assert he dumbshit notion that everything would be okay? She dumped him in the most callous way imaginable. No explanation, no care–no returned phone calls, no email.”

Peter Manseau‘s first novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is perhaps a natural follow-up to his award-winning memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son. Like Manseau, the narrator of the story is a young Catholic from Boston who ends up working at an organization dedicated to saving Yiddish books. However, the story truly takes flight in the “memoirs” of Itzik Malpesh, a Yiddish poet that the young man meets and whose story he translates. The story of Itzik’s birth, and how his life was saved by the butcher’s daughter Sasha Bimko becomes the pivotal moment of his life and his poetic destiny, which carries him from Kishinev to Odessa to New York and Baltimore. The “translator’s notes,”  inserted between episodes of Itzik’s life, serve as a counterpoint for the ways in which language can both reveal and hide the truth, just as characters in the story reveal and hide parts of themselves.

I’ve still got more fiction to read, including Adam Langer‘s Ellington Boulevard and Eileen Pollack‘s collection of short stories, In The Mouth. But next Thursday, I’ll post about some of the non-fiction we’ve got coming.

Eric Cantor for Veep? He can thank the Q Street Preschool

Well, since the air is buzzing that McCain will be announcing his running-mate any day now (possibly even tomorrow), I thought it was now-or-never to cash in on our connection to this year’s VeepStakes. Loyal readers may recall that our Pre-K Yanshufim class did a Reggio project on elections during the Primary season that was supposed to last six weeks, and well…went on for a lot longer than that.

Rep. Eric Cantor for Veep?

Rep. Eric Cantor for Veep?

As part of their project they went to visit Congressman Eric Cantor, the Republican chief Deputy Whip of the House of Representatives. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with the Congressman when we first posted about the visit. You figure anyone who makes time in their day for a bunch of pre-school students (from the no-vote-in-Congress-District-of-Columbia) can’t be too important. I guess I sold him short. Way short. Because this past weekend I read this in the Washington Post.

Cantor for Veep Movement Gaining Steam

Conservatives wary of John McCain and worried about who he’ll choose for a running mate are offering up ideas left and — more to the point — right. One of the ideas gaining momentum in conservative circles is Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

The case for a McCain-Cantor ticket has some strong logic behind it:

Cantor, the 45-year-old Republican chief deputy whip of the House, has three great attributes: youth, conservative bona fides and geographic desirability, as Virginia will likely be a crucial swing state in this year’s presidential election.

Oh, and in a year where Jews are seen as a potential swing vote, Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House. Now, that didn’t work out so great for Gore/Lieberman in 2000, but don’t let that stop you John.

So just in-case Cantor is chosen (and he doesn’t even appear on some shortlists on the same Washington Post website) we want to say, “We knew it all along.” If you want to make sense of politics in Washington, just let the four-year-olds lead you.

In Case You Missed It: Tom Friedman Writes About Project Better Place

For those of you who missed the presentation on Israel’s project to create the first infrastructure to support a mass-produced electric car, here’s Tom Friedman writing about it in yesterday’s New York Times:

What would happen if you cross-bred J. R. Ewing of “Dallas” and Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club? You’d get T. Boone Pickens. What would happen if you cross-bred Henry Ford and Yitzhak Rabin? You’d get Shai Agassi. And what would happen if you put together T. Boone Pickens, the green billionaire Texas oilman now obsessed with wind power, and Shai Agassi, the Jewish Henry Ford now obsessed with making Israel the world’s leader in electric cars?

You’d have the start of an energy revolution.

Of course if you’d been at the 16th Street J on July 17th you would have been able to answer Mr. Friedman’s quiz.

Shabbat Surfing: Bikers Beware

  • Jeffrey Goldberg calls Obama a wimp for skipping the obligatory 4am ascent of Masada (Jeffrey should have also pointed out that at that hour, Obama probably would have been hiking with the children of the very voters he was trying to sway with this trip).
  • Many tributes this week to Estelle Getty. My favorite comes from Mr. Q at Q Street News. It reminds you why the Golden Girls really did rule.
  • Hannah Farber has a longish post on Jspot about the dearth of female CEOs at Jewish Organizations. She’s right, but I do want to point out, that the 16th Street J’s CEO, Arna Meyer Mickelson has been at the helm for 21 years, and that currently two out of three JCC execs in the Washington region are women. Unfortunately, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
  • Oh, and if you bike to the J from points north or on one-way streets, beware!

“Be’Tipul” in Hebrew that Means “Emmy”

Three cheers and a hip-hip hooray for HBO’s In Treatment which picked up three Emmy Award nominations this past week. The series is based on the Israeli television sensation “Be’Tipul” starring Assi Dayan, which by coincidence is screening episodes Monday, July 28, 7:30 pm at the Washington DCJCC.

Your assignment is to answer the following questions:

1) Who does the more convincing “index finger on the forehead pose”– Gabriel Byrne or Assi Dayan?

2) Which actress is potentially more tempting for a therapist in a midlife crisis afraid of violating the ethical bounds of his profession–Melissa George or  (Tom Hanks sidekick) Ayelet Zurer?

3) Who would win in a dogfight: Blair Underwood or Lior Ashkenazi?

4) Which actress is not an English speaker: Alma Zack or Embeth Davidtz?

5) The original or the remake?

The Meeting of the Interfaith Couple and their Teacher: A Most Unlikely Rendezvous!

Worlds Collide

Interfaith Meet-Up in Siena

by Marion L. Usher, Ph.D.

(Dr. Usher has been conducting interfaith couples workshops at the Washington DCJCC for nearly a decade. For more information about her fall workshop click here. )

It was a beautiful night. There was a cool breeze in the air, we had just finished a sumptuous dinner, and had consumed an indulgent amount of smooth red wine. I could still taste the lingering tangy flavor of the lemon sorbet which finished off the meal. The evening light was amber and luminous. My husband and I were strolling back to the hotel holding hands and enjoying this magnificent place. This is what vacations are all about!

And then I hear someone calling in the dark, “Dr. Usher, Dr. Usher is that you?” Before I turned around to find the voice, a couple approached me with “I can’t believe it’s you!” And there they were: Jessica and Shanon, a couple who had just participated in my last interfaith couples workshop. What a wonderful reunion and what a coincidence to meet in this idyllic Italian town! Shanon’s parents had rented a villa nearby and they were in Siena for the day. Introductions were made all around. I met Shanon’s sister, his brother and their partners, and his parents who were generous in their praise of the workshop. Shanon and Jessica had told them all about the sessions and they were incredibly supportive of their attending the group. I took a picture of the whole family. Hugs all around and we said our goodbyes.

This was truly a most unlikely and totally incredible rendezvous!

PS. When I sent this vignette to Shanon he reminded me of another coincidence; the family picture was taken in front of the shop of a Hebrew calligrapher artist, something of a rarity in the tiny town of Siena with its infinitesimal Jewish population!

Baruch Obama

The Daily Show makes fun of your grandmother, and you, what are you going to do about it? Probably post it to your blog or something…shtinker!

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Shabbat Surfing: Fashion, Turn to the Left

In a depressing week dominated by posts about the prisoner swap deal with Hezbollah, where can one find solace? Fashion.

Like maybe a Jewish kilt would cheer you up.

Or get that tattoo finally.

This is probably a look you want to avoid, unless you like spending $69 to get the crap beaten out of you. Thanks to the internet, offensive fashion statements can be countered with equally inflammatory fashion statements, although this one is more affordable.

Crap. I just got depressed again.

Field Trip: The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco

Today’s post comes from the West Coast where I am accompanying my wife at the BlogHer08 Conference in San Francisco. While she was off attending panels and talks about building community online and the power of female consumers in a Web 2.0 environment, I took a busman’s holiday to the brand-new Contemporary Jewish Museum on Mission Street. Famously designed by Daniel Libeskind on-top of the remains of an early 20th Century Power Substation, the new building is inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim.” This is only one of the Hebrew character-driven architectural elements in the building, which also includes a “PaRDeS” wall which draws on elements of the letters which in Kabbalah (we are in California after-all) refer to the four levels of meaning found in holy texts, and a “Yud” gallery which is a diamond-shaped tribute in air and light to that Hebrew letter.

The building is brand-spanking new, and the young staff scurrying about reminds me very much of the energy of the possible that so defined our earlier years at 16th and Q and which still can be felt on our better days. This is an institution that has quite emphatically declared its ambitions in the midst of the cultural cornucopia of San Francisco–across the street from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, down the block from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, adjacent to the Museum for Craft and Folk Art. The goal is clear, to pair what has instantly become an architectural landmark, with a world-class level of exhibition and intellectual stimulation-and to do so while keeping a Jewish context as a curatorial touchstone.

The three exhibits I toured today certainly indicate that they are on the right path. On the first floor is “From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig” which reprises the exhibit organized at the Jewish Museum in New York. This was a deft programming move that guarantees a significant non-Jewish audience drawn in both by Steig’s work in The New Yorker and the commercial behemoth that his ogre-with-a-heart-of-gold has spawned. Steig’s career has a depth and variety that lends itself well to a user-friendly introduction to the museum: his concern with social themes coming from his parent’s labor roots, his psychologically complex drawings for the New Yorker along with his more whimsical sketches for the same, his enchanting work for children that never condescends to its audience by acknowledging a dark menace to life that less trusting children’s authors seek to gloss over. It is just Jewish enough without being too Jewish, artistic without being inaccessible, fun without being shallow.

While the Steig show demonstrates that the folks at the CJM know how to give the people what they want, the exhibits on the second floor of the building reveal an ambitious artistic and Jewish agenda. If the Steig show can’t-miss because of its accessibility, then the sound installation, “Aleph-Bet Sound Project” curated by Radical Jewish Music guru John Zorn in the aforementioned “Yud” gallery is its inverse. The high ceiling room is empty save a few benches and sets of speakers suspended from girders up above.  On one wall is a panel and text explaining how Zorn chose experimental musicians to each respond to a Hebrew letter through sound. The results are eclectic and by turns deeply personal, teleological, cacophonous and expressive of an esoteric spirituality. More than the merits of any particular response (which include works by Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, David Greenberger, Erik Friedlander, Chris Brown, Jewlia and Z’ev), is the opportunity to let the various soundscapes wash over you while watching the light play through the yud-shaped skylights.

Straddling the gulf between the easy charm of the Steig show and the empty-space aestheticism of “Aleph-Bet” is the sprawling “In The Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis.” At once historical, contemporary and philosophical, “In The Beginning” surveys the influence of the creation story in graphic art from ancient manuscripts to interactive video installations commissioned specifically for the show, to works by important 20th Century abstract expressionists, to sculpture inspired by the antenna that helped reveal the Big Bang Theory, to installations that advocate for the continuing work of creation and Tikkun Olam. I was unexpectedly engaged by a video that included scientists and theologians responding to the creation story in Genesis and contemplating the push-pull relationship between religion and science. 

I enjoyed the visit tremendously. It is interesting to note, that while Washington seems increasingly populated by $20-a-head edutainment “museums” and wax-statue celebrity shrines, that San Francisco is welcoming an institution where one can consider “first-things,” the basic questions that art seeks to address and accommodate a range of effable and ineffable responses.

Tattoo Jew

Coming Soon to your JCC

Coming Soon to your JCC

According to one of the few, remaining, universally respected sources of information on contemporary Jewish life, The New York Times, it turns out that it is okay for Jews to have tattoos. Since it is in the New York Times, it must be okay. I trust their movie reviews, why not their promulgation of religious rulings?

Well, maybe not okay. In any case, there’s nothing about having a tattoo that prevents you from being buried in a Jewish cemetery–the reason cited by many a parent and grandparent, the more dramatic of whom would go on to describe how they would wail at the side of your non-Jewish grave, and “how could you do this to them?” As if the location of the grave and not your premature presence in said grave would be the true tragedy.

In any case, it turns out that getting a tattoo is prohibited in Leviticus 19:28, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” But that commandment, coming as it does on the heels of a similar law that charges, “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard,” might fall under the category of mitzvot commonly ignored by the great mass of non-orthodox Jews and those who do not take their personal grooming tips from the Torah. But, like we mentioned earlier, until they start refusing to bury those whose last meal included a bacon-cheeseburger, you will be able to rest in peace in the Jewish cemetery of your choice.

But what does this really mean for you? More importantly, what does it mean for the 16th Street J? Well, for starters I think a Jewish Body Art Cluster is in due-order at EntryPointDC/Gesher City (have you signed up for a Shabbat cluster?). Also, we may be making some “cosmetic” changes to the Gift Shop. Stay tuned.

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