Friday, July 20, 2007

The Orthodox Paradox

This is an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It only addresses Modern Orthodox Judaism. The author fails to discuss the potentially explosive "gymnastics" component of Judaism, which is regretable but okay- that's what this blog is for. Still, it is a good read.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Touched for the Very First Time

I was ten my very first time.

I lunged forward with my right leg and propelling myself from a bent knee, I sent my left leg forward and up. My back leg lifted off too, toes pointed and knees locked, and for a split second, I was airborne. My chest was lifted, my chin up and my arms were stretched to a horizontal “T.” I was hovering a few feet above the balance beam, my legs split almost to 180 degrees. After hitting the zenith, I started my descent. A split leap is supposed to be landed in an arabesque, lightly on the ball of one foot, the supporting leg slightly bent and the back leg extended elegantly behind. You’re not supposed to, in any way, betray the effort and difficulty of the skill by landing with an inglorious thud. Beam was my best and favorite event and I had performed a split leap successfully on several different occasions though not without a few hiccups. Just a few weeks prior, after my coach, Lisi had started encouraging me to go for more height, amplitude and split, I slipped off the side of beam, my calf rubbing against the side as I crashed to the mats. The friction between the two, my flesh and the beam’s rough sandpaper covering caused me to break out in a large, red welt. “You’ve got your first cherry,” Lisi told me after she examined my leg, her expression a mixture of concern and excitement. “Congrats.” And after the swelling had subsided, I was thrilled. Lisi, a former Level 10 New York State gymnastics champion, had made it sound like a rite of passage. After three years of recreational gymnastics, I had finally become a real gymnast.

But since that first cherry, my split leaps had been getting stronger, my landings more confident. To date, this was my best attempt. I looked for the bulls-eye, a little spot marked in chalk and reached for it with my toes. The ball of my foot hit a little too far to the left, and my leg, like the defective landing gear of an aircraft trying to set its wheels down on the icy LaGuardia runway, started to slide out from underneath me. I tried leaning backwards but that just threw my weight to the center, where I had no leg to stand on. I went down. Straight down. I split the beam, catching it in my crotch with a thud. I momentarily held it there, before the shock and pain (I’m not sure which one was greater) forced me to slacken my grip. I fell to the blue mats underneath the apparatus.

I immediately cupped my hands over the impact site and curled into the fetal position, just as I had seen done in countless teenage(-) boy oriented comedies that relied on nut hits for laughs. The girls in my group, approximately eight in all, froze in place, some with their hands above their hands stretched above their heads in salutes, unable to continue with their planned cartwheels or handstands. Lisi kneeled down next to me. An infamously strict coach who made you do pushups if you failed to point your toes while jumping on the trampoline, her tone was uncharacteristically soft and concerned. “Dvora, are you okay?” she asked. I rolled over onto my side. She helped me up and smiled at me, “It happens to everyone. You’ll be just fine.” Someone ran to the office and brought back an ice pack and I sat out ten minutes of practice, eight minutes more than I needed to recover. I spent the most of the time gladly fielding questions from my fellow gymnasts. “Did it hurt a lot?” one asked.

“What do you think? I fell on my...” My sentence trailed off. I had already moved way past an age when I could (semi-socially acceptably) lift my skirt over my head in public but I was still many years away from having a use other than urination for my vagina so my language was severely limited in this regard. I couldn’t bring myself to say “vagina” in front of a completely female audience and I didn’t know of any euphemisms.

Denisa, a slim Slavic girl and the daughter of one of Russian gymnastics coaches in the gym, threw her arm around me. “It happened to me not too long ago. It was so bad.” We both nodded gravely and looked down on the rest with a world-weary expression. They just didn’t know what we knew.

At the end of practice, I skipped to the locker room with my friends to change. As I stripped out of my black leotard and leggings, I quickly examined the upper part of my thighs. They were red and irritated just like the side of my leg had been a few weeks prior. I covertly pulled aside the edge of my underwear and saw that the ruddy skin reached further north. I quickly pulled on a long jean skirt and laced my sneakers.

That had been my first time. There would be many others. Just like the cherry, splitting the beam was par for the course for gymnasts and the reason most frequently given when asked why men don’t perform on the balance beam. “You know, cause well, you know.” And even then, still shy about verbally referring to female genitalia, I’d use my hands to demonstrate, using one forefinger to stand in for the beam and two fingers on my other hand to represent legs. I then (quite graphically) jammed the “beam” in between the two “legs.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mr. Beller's Neighborhood> Hip Hop Subway Series

Hip Hop Subway Series

On May 20th, while most of the city was watching the Yankees and Mets slug it out for "Best Team in New York Baseball" bragging rights, just beneath their feet, a different sort of battle was being contested inside the Brooklyn-bound J train. The whole car, even when stationary with its doors open onto a platform, was rattling from the rhythmic pounding of fists. The grey benches were splashed with color from the fluorescent-hued sneakers of patrons standing on top of them, stomping their feet harmoniously with the beats set down by a small circle of beatboxers, a cadre of mostly young men whose lips flapped and tongues clucked and vocal chords vibrated, creating a percussive atmosphere without the aid of drums. On the outskirts of the circle a few young women supplied some harmonies. And in the middle of the cipher, a fierce contest for breakdancing or b-boy supremacy was underway. As the train lurched along the track, the competing b-boys, clad in clothing ranging from baggy jeans and oversized shirts to shortened khakis, well-fitted tees, and fedora hats, performed back spins, windmills and six-steps on the sticky subway floor. Each acrobatic feat was greeted by cheers and each slip, generally caused by the movement of the car, was met by an ooh of concern.

Despite the intensity of the showdown, the mood remained mostly light, which was a testament to the good-humored leadership of the event’s organizer, Terry “Kid Lucky” Lewis. Kid Lucky is a beatboxer and the founder of Beatboxer Entertainment, the first production company to revolve around the specialized art of creating drum sounds and syncopated rhythms without the aid of musical instrumentation or electronic equipment. In addition to his business above ground, he's been organizing bimonthly underground celebrations for a few years, inspired by a friend who used to do the same in the early 90's. Before each party gets started, he stands on the platform to deliver the opening address with his headphones draped around his neck as though he were about to put them back on and sunglasses covering his eyes despite the darkened subterranean environment. “At the first Hip Hop Subway Series,” he always tells the assembled crowd, which can range in size from anywhere between ten and fifty people, “there were only four people--me, my wife and two other friends.”

Kid Lucky resurrected the subway celebrations as a way of demonstrating that hip hop is alive and well in New York, and can be positive despite its misogynistic and violent portrayal in the mainstream media.

“We need to show that it’s not all about angry black men,” he usually says. Lucky is black though he’s not at all angry. Usually one of the last to arrive before the 6 pm departure time, Lucky exchanges hugs with all of the regulars and greets the new faces, most of whom had heard about HHSS from friends, with handshakes and smiles. As the train pulls into the station, he warns the crowd that the event has not been sanctioned by the MTA so if a subway patron asks you to move, oblige him. “Don’t be starting anything. Don’t try any of those conflict resolution skills you learned at the New School. Just move.”

There weren’t any complaints during the battle, which began as the subway departed from the Essex and Delancey stop. Not that any would’ve been heard above the cheers and singing. The contest, which HHSS hosted in conjunction with the dance outfit Boogie Nation was open to anyone with a desire to show off their skills and style on an unstable surface. Those who signed up were paired off to battle each other, and the winner of the preliminary round, decided by two judges, would face off against another victor until the pool was whittled down to last two b-boys. The final showdown would take place on a subway platform in Queens.

Between the rounds of battle, it was business as usual for HHSS, which meant one big cipher with an emcee taking center stage, the beatboxers in the inner ring, the soul clappers and singers a little further back and the rest of the participants, including some with video and film equipment on the outskirts. The rotating cast of emcees pushed their way to the middle and threw down rhymes, unscripted and generally forgettable, but that didn’t seem to matter to the crowd, who applauded them all. Most favored were lines that denounced the war in Iraq and demanded more funds for the inner city. A couple of months earlier, Kid Lucky had attempted to curb the dour impulses of some of the emcees by establishing humor as the official theme of one particular meeting. He meant to remind the audience that hip hop used to be funny and that the early rappers and b-boys were cut-ups and characters in addition to being artists. But without a mandate from Lucky, subsequent gatherings featured a heavy dose of the political though goofy lines slipped in occasionally.

At one of the last stops of the J train in Queens it was on. The final two b-boys, Macho and Frankie, took their places in the cipher as the crowd began stomping, singing and clapping to create a beat to dance to because breaking, first and foremost, is a dance and you gotta stay on the beat. Many people forget this because they are distracted and dazzled by the acrobatics of the discipline. Or maybe their knowledge of the dance is still rooted in the breakdancing fad of the 80's, which featured robotic, herky-jerky movements and a general sense of clownishness. Or perhaps they associate it with embarrassing displays of the worm performed by uncles and cousins at bar mitzvahs and weddings.

But it’s a real dance, one of the four foundations of hip hop culture (the other three being graffiti, DJing and emceeing), and Frankie, the first one to step into the ring, focused on the top rock steps, which are the oft neglected movements done completely upright before the b-boy descends to the floor to do his more flashy footwork. It is during the top rocks that the b-boy gets to inject his style into the dance. Frankie’s upper body conveyed Bruce Lee-style aggression while his lower body moved with loose abandon as though a salsa rhythm were playing nearby. He menacingly approached Macho, who was standing with his arms crossed in front of his chest and staring right back at his opponent. Frankie then dove for the grimy subway floor to begin his footwork. His hands and feet blurred as he made use of every inch of the circle. His only pause came when his windmills spun into a nearby black garbage can though he quickly regrouped. Macho’s turn in the ring displayed a similar frenetic pace and daring athleticism but it was lacking Frankie’s musicality, spending little time on his top rock or flair. And after a few rounds of battle, it became evident that he could not match Frankie’s stamina. Though both b-boys had slowed down as exhaustion set in, Macho’s movements had become sluggish with long pauses between elements. You could see practically see the cogs in his mind turning as he thought about each step instead of reacting instantaneously to the beat.

The judges cast down their bandanas, one red, one black, signaling the end of the battle. Frankie was declared the winner and was presented with a framed poster that had been decorated graffiti-style, colorful bubble letters signifying the date, the occasion and the two collectives, HHSS and Boogie Nation, responsible for the event.

And most fittingly, Frankie was also awarded a monthly unlimited Metrocard so he could ride the subway, a place where there’s always an audience and room to dance for those willing to risk it.

The story was posted on 2007-06-09

Hip Hop Subway Series Video

Friday, July 13, 2007

Mr. Bellers Neighborhood> An Orthodox Jew Walks into McDonald's...

“An Orthodox Jew Walks into a McDonald’s…”

I am not expecting it to be so pink. The floor is tiled light mauve-ish, though it’s having a brown sort of day, what with the rain and the customers tracking in the muck from outside. The counters and tables are a marbleized pink and the occasional wall panel is deep purple. I had been expecting a lot more bright reds, yellows and oranges. The closest I get are the maroon shirts the counter employees are wearing. And I guess the trademark golden arches and red lettering fall into the bright red-orange-yellow category, but the McDonald's corporate logo shouldn’t really count.

I’m not quite sure how many times I have been inside a McDonald's but it’s got to be under ten, including this most recent outing. As an Orthodox Jew, the only acceptable reason to enter a McDonald's is to use the restroom and only after you have searched high and low for at least a half hour in all directions. If you have to take this unfortunate step, you also have to make sure the area is clear of any other Orthodox Jews; lest one see you enter and think, “Hey! I know that girl and she is a good law-abiding frum Jew so if she’s going into McDonald's, it must be alright to eat there.” (Some entrepreneurial Jew should market signs that say stuff like, “I’m using the restroom” or “I only want a Coke.” You could hold the appropriate one up each time you enter a treif restaurant. There’s definitely money to be made in that.)

I don’t look both ways before I go in, but I’m not at all worried. It’s pouring outside so everyone, Orthodox Jew or otherwise, walks past with their heads down and huddled underneath their umbrellas. Also, it’s been six years since I graduated from high school and trashed my long black pleated uniform skirt. Clad in a pair of jeans and Pumas, I look like your average college student.

The first thing that hits me when I enter, even before the pinkness, is the smell of fries. It’s salty and oily and completely overwhelming. I definitely want some. I’m also craving ketchup. Instead, I sit down at a counter (also pink) against the wall and near a potted plant and look at the menu, large enough and bright enough to be read from twenty feet. Everything on the menu looks pretty good, even the cheeseburger, but it is the large picture of the iced coffee with the gigantic ice cubes floating in a sea of milky brown that keeps catching my eye. It’s one of the few things I can order in this establishment.

But I don’t. I’m not ready to stand in line with the others. I don’t want my iced coffee anywhere near their cheeseburgers, bacon or even their fries.

From my counter perch, I spy on the eaters. Behind me, there’s a rather large girl wearing a striped pink shirt enjoying lunch with a skinny friend. I notice her right away because of the shirt. I want to go over and advise her against wearing horizontal stripes in the future, but I pause for a few minutes and when I turn back around she and that skinny one are gone. They’ve been replaced by a guy in a backwards baseball cap and a white tee shirt. A few minutes later, he’s gone, too. His seat has been filled by a teenage boy in a horizontally striped shirt. It’s a little better on him, but only marginally so. Horizontal stripes flatter no one.

I turn to my left so I can better see what people are eating. The cheeseburger that had looked so good on the menu looks puny and pathetic sitting in front my table neighbor. The melted cheese is incredibly orange and plastic looking. Not to mention that cheese melting on meat is just gross and unnatural. The Asian woman to my left eats an egg sandwich cheese and I can’t find any religious objections to her choice except the color--the eggs are practically fluorescent and the cheese, it’s just as orange as it is on the cheeseburgers.

Then there’s the matter of the buns. Where have all the fluffy buns gone? Instead, the ones I see are flat and greasy looking. I realize this has something to do with the way the patrons are chowing down. They squeeze the buns between their fingers before they unhinge their jaws. The sandwiches fit in easily and they finish entire burgers in three or four bites and then wash down the meal with fries and coke. Which reminds me, I should probably check to see if the guy in the horizontal stripes is still sitting behind me. Nope, he’s still there. He must be a careful chewer.

My stomach starts growling. It wants those fries or at least something better than the Tasti D Lite it got for lunch. I contemplate some packets of ketchup. Hanging over the condiment and plasticware section is a photo of the New York City skyline, pre-9/11. I guess if you’re going to hang a photo of the Twin Towers, the condiment station is as good a place as any. A couple of wall panels to the right of the Twin Towers, there’s some artwork, pastel tissue paper cut to resemble Stars of David and mezuzot. They blend in nicely with the color scheme but are as out of place in a McDonald’s as I feel.

I refrain from checking out the restrooms. Starbucks is next door and the baristas never hassle you if you use the bathroom without ordering a latte. But I probably will. I’m hungry and Starbucks’ coffee is kept far, far away from the cheeseburgers.

The story was posted on 2006-10-31

Thursday, July 12, 2007

If Bob Fosse was alive today, he’d be choreographing for hip hop music videos…


Within five to ten minutes of meeting a new person, I usually manage to slip in some reference to my obsession with the sport of gymnastics. This always begs a follow up question- “Were you a gymnast when you were younger?” I nod slowly. “I did it for fourteen years,” I typically add. I immediately regret offering up that piece of information. Fourteen years is a long time and my new acquaintances always seem to assume that I was good at it or at least had been. “No,” I shake my head. “Nothing like what you see on TV. Those are elites, the rarest breed of gymnast.” I always hope that my new friends’ knowledge of the sport is limited to the Olympics and Mary Lou Retton so they can reasonably assume that I wasn’t as good as Nadia Comaneci but much better than their ten year old nieces when in fact, I might have been outperformed by several of those grade schoolers even at the peak of my ability.

Unfortunately, I’m frequently questioned about particular skills.

“Could you do a split?”


“Could you do a back handspring?”


“Giant swings on bars?”

“Not without spot.”

“An aerial carthwheel?”

“No. I could never grasp it.”

And so on. Each time I’m forced to shake my head, I feel myself redden. I keep hearing the same question reverberate through my mind, (usually unasked, at least not aloud)- “Why did you do it for so long if you weren’t any good?” Sometimes, I answer it preemptively, “I did it because I just really loved it,” which seems to satisfy them but never me. Usually, our favorite subjects in school are the ones that we show an early aptitude for and continue to come to us with relative ease. I didn’t understand why I loved something that I wasn’t good at. I was an excellent student, a talented writer and generally well-liked by my peers, all of which pleased and motivated me, but what I wanted more than anything was to be a great gymnast and that didn’t seem possible, no matter how much I desired it. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY as a Sabbath observant Orthodox Jew, which meant that I was unable to practice or compete on Saturdays. I was also hindered by the code of modest dress imposed on Orthodox Jewish women, which made leotards and shorts verboten subsequent to becoming a bat mitzvah. At the age of 12, I had gone from a Jewish Woman In Training to being the Real Deal. The rules that had been merely suggestions or guidelines just a few months earlier were now mandatory. This meant long skirts and sleeves were to be worn in male company, which though not abundant in a gym was constant in the guise of coaches, staffers and few athletes. A burqua this attire was certainly not but it might as well have been as far as gymnastics was concerned. After a few, nearly calamitous attempts to practice in baggy t-shirts and sweatpants, I reverted to skintight leotards and shorts. So though physically unencumbered, I had to deal with the weight of Jewish guilt in addition to that of my own body as I tried to flip and twist. But still, none of this- not the infrequent practices, the dress restrictions and not even having my scoliotic spine surgically fused- has tempered my embarrassment at the low skill I eventually attained. These are all just excuses and we all know that gymnasts aren’t supposed to formulate those. We’re just supposed to keep plugging away.

And so I have, though less and less in the gym and more and more in conversation. Every time I open my mouth, I internally resolve to stop mentioning it. But something ( or everything) recalls it- perhaps a discussion of social mores, politics or even the dominance of the American League in baseball during which I’m “forced” to plead complete ignorance of stats and terminology because the only sport I know anything about only receives significant airtime once every four years. (I can perform similar associative feats with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orthodox Judaism.) “Which sport is that?” I’ll be asked. And so it’ll begin. Again.

Now, as I finally join the blogosphere, it starts again in earnest. And in cyberspace, I don’t have to suffer the rolled eyes and irritated looks that my friends and family often sport. (Please don’t send any pics of the whites of your eyes my way.)

Happy flipping, twisting and reading!