Friday, October 31, 2008

From the Forward

Larry David Returns


Thu. Oct 30, 2008

Larry David has purchased scalped tickets for temple seats during the High Holy Days (and was subsequently kicked out of services). He’s invited a convicted sex offender to a Passover Seder. He’s pitted a Holocaust survivor against a castoff from the TV series “Survivor.”

Are there any other rituals to ridicule? Any more Jewish cultural stereotypes left for David to reinforce?

HBO seems to think so. It has just renewed the popular series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for a seventh (and possibly final) season. Nearly a year after the last episode aired, fans of the mockumentary, starring David (co-creator of “Seinfeld”) as a caricature of himself, have at least one more season to watch their favorite, cantankerous New York-styled Jew bumble his way through Hollywood. According to Variety, the show will be back in production in December. Ten episodes will be filmed.

Although the exact premiere date has not been set, we can expect to see more kvetching in early 2009.

Counting electoral votes instead of sheep...

I have suffered from insomnia since the age of 14 and I've tried every drug in the book- Valium (my mother gave me those), Diazepam (generic Valium), Ambien, Ambien CR and Tylenol PM (that stuff is like candy to me). I am afraid to try Lunesta cause I hear its like crack and I don't have a baby to sell.

But after so many years of searching, I've finally found something that works- FiveThirtyEight.com. Every night before I go to sleep, I check Nate Silver's electoral vote projections. When I read that Obama is up in the polls and ahead in the electoral votes, I collapse into my bed and dreams of an Obama presidency (I also dream of doing windmills). It's my own personal Lunesta/crack.

Side effects include: a delusional belief that I live in a liberal Democracy and will soon have medical insurance.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Maybe the second time is the charm

ABC Family has just announced that it will pick up a new series based on gymnastics called Perfect 10. (Someone should inform the show's producers that the series title is anachronistic- the famed 10 is no longer the measure of perfection in the sport.) This is no doubt due to the popularity of the sport at the highly watched Beijing Olympics, the individual success of Nastia Luikin and Shawn Johnson , and Alicia Sacramone, who despite two falls in team finals, was the most searched athlete after Michael Phelps, most likely due to her cover girl worthy looks.

The show will follow a group of Olympic hopefuls as they train for the big time (i.e. National and World Championships, the Olympics) and dramatically show viewers what it takes for gymnasts to reach the top (You can find a preview right here).

Now you would expect that someone like me- who has done the sport for over a decade, blogs about it and is currently writing a book it- would be beyond thrilled at the prospect of a gymnastics television.

But I'm not.

I've had my heart broken once before and I won't allow myself to hope again.

Back in 1998, ABC premiered a prime time soap opera called, Push. It was about a group of elite gymnasts training and sleeping with each other and the new hot coach. I was fifteen when it premiered and very excited for it. And then very disappointed after I watched the first episode. I was unimpressed by the level of difficulty the characters/stunt doubles demonstrated. I could do half of the suposedly elite level elements they were doing and I had just had two rods fused to my spine. Also, I didn't find the bitchiness, big breasts or sex to be plausible based on my gym experiences- most of the coaches were old men or women, we were flat chested and there were very few guys in the gym to crush on (except for Stefan- the sight of your perfect handstands and abs helped sustain this yeshiva girl throughout four years of high school).

Despite these objections, I watched all five episodes. Like most gym fans before the advent of YouTube, I was starved for any gymnastics related media during non-Olympics years and would watch and read anything (including the book series, The Gymnasts, which frankly, I was too old to be reading).

So my fellow gymnastics fans- before we get too excited about Perfect 10, let's have a moment of silence for the deceased Push. A show that introduced the world to the talents Jaime Pressly.


Yes, before she played a hick on My Name is Earl, she was best known (to me) as Nikki Lang, the evil temptress in the gym (Alicia Sacramone totally has the 'tude to carry off this kind of role). Pressly needed no crash course in gymnastics to play the role- she had trained in the sport for 11 years.

(There she is, seducing the most attractive, unmustached gymnastics coach ever.)

It also gave the world Jason Behr. Before playing an alien on Roswell, he played a different kind of alien- the male gymnast.



Of course Nikki looks unhappy- she's got a pommel up her ass.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

NOOJ

NOOJ (pronounced nudge): Non Observant Orthodox Jew

Definition: A Jew who no longer observes Jewish law (i.e. kashrut, or keeping Shabbat) strictly or at all, yet still thinks that the Orthodox Jews have "the right idea." These individuals, when/if they attend synagogue, go to only Orthodox ones since Orthodoxy is their default observance mode.

(Special thanks to Ezra AtypicalJewishLast Name for introducing me to this acronym. I've long known the type but never the terminology that refers to them.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Speak Ashkenazis to me

"Can you speak Ashkenazis to me?!" my roommate called. I was at my desk in my room. I walked out and found her in the common room, going through my high school yearbook, which was filled with pictures of famous rabbis that hadn't taught at my all-girls' yeshiva followed by photos of the graduates, a study in straightened hair, high collared black shirts and pearls (these were our shidduch pictures, after all). And then, alongside our names, Hebrew adages.

"Read this," she demanded, pointing to the phrase next to my photo.

Now, she didn't want me to read it because she can't read Hebrew. After spending four years studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva, it's safe to say that her Hebrew is better than mine. What she wanted me to do was to translate the Hebrew into Ashkenazis, which is a language that shares some similarity to Hebrew in etymology but has completely different diction.

The verse next to my yearbook photo, in Hebrew reads: "Chachmat adam ta-ir panav." (A man's wisdom lights up his face).

Beautiful, right?

In Ashkenazis: "Chochas adom sair panov."

The slight differences- the softening of the "Tt" sound into a "Ss" sound; the underpronouncing of the "Aah" so it sounds like an "Oh"- all of these morph modern Hebrew into Ashkenazis. It is a language I grew up speaking in Brooklyn where the hard "T" is discouraged in order to distinguish the good heimishe yids from the Israelis and Sephardis.

I've worked long and hard to enunciate clearly, to speak modern Hebrew but sometimes I get tired and lazy and I lapse into Ashkenazis, which means that I start sounding like an old rabbi. This is something I'm ashamed of.

But when my roommate beckoned me with, "Speak Ashkenazis to me," I began to think differently about my mispronunciation.

Could this be a tool of seduction? A different way of talking dirty? Could this be a way of getting men?

Surely there are Jewish men at there who want their "Tt" ignored and their "oys" to come directly from the diaphragm.

For more Ashkenazis, call 1-900-FRUMBOY

Monday, October 13, 2008

TINSTAAFL?

TINSTAAFL, Mrs. Tuchman, my high school history teacher, wrote on the board. It was at the start of junior year and a unit on economics.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” she said, expanding the acronym for the class of approximately twenty-five girls. She went onto explain what this meant, that a person can’t get something for nothing.

This was seemed true, especially the lunch part. I grew up listening to my mother moan over the cost of kosher food and no matter how sweetly I smiled at the Israelis who manned the counter at Jerusalem II Pizza in Flatbush, Brooklyn I received nary an extra fry. Mrs. Tuchman was right.

After college, I moved from New York to Los Angeles, and there I became an acolyte of Trader Joe’s. They had good prices, tons of products with a hechsher (kosher certification) and free samples. Upon entering, I’d help myself to a sample size cup of coffee before beginning to shop. I never took a food sample since it was not kosher though I eyed it when I returned for a second “cup” of coffee.

Then one day, they had spinach and potato puffs.

I smelled them before I saw them leave the convection oven. I was short on money that week and had resorted to eating a kindergartener’s lunch at the school where I worked as an assistant. (In my defense, he was absent that day so he didn’t miss it much). Amazingly, I was still hungry after eating a five year old size lunch portion.

“Do you want to try a puff?” a perky Trader Joe-ette asked as I emptied a packet of sugar into my coffee.

Of course I did. I was sniffing them like I was doing a line.

But first, I had a few questions.

“You sure there’s just potato and spinach?” I asked. “You sure?” I leaned menacingly closer.

A look of growing alarm spread over her face. I wondered if the security staff at Trader Joe’s also wore Hawaiian shirts.

Scared but still perky, the Trader Joe-ette pushed the product’s box towards me. “You can look at the ingredients,” she said. And I did. I scanned the tiny print on the side and could find nothing incriminating on the list. Just the run of the mill vegetarian ingredients.

Up until that point my kashrut policy had been as follows- all the products in my kitchen had to have a recognizable hechsher. Out of my home, I only in ate kosher establishments or vegan restaurants. No animal products, no problem, I reasoned though I knew that grape products, such as the balsamic vinaigrette that I doused my salads in, were technically not kosher. I joked with friends that I should ask the waiter if the dressing had been poured as a libation in front of an idol at the back of the restaurant.

I didn’t go on an unhechshered sample rampage after the spinach-potato puff episode. No- I waited until I was in grad school and truly broke to go nuts.

I roamed the aisles of Whole Foods in search of their samples on Thursday. From a friendly employee I learned that I could ask to sample foods that weren’t being promoted. At Starbucks, I gleefully ate up the bite size cake and cookie pieces left on the counter. On the street, I grabbed shot glass size smoothies. Basically, if it was free and vegetarian (an assertion I never bothered to investigate very carefully), I ate it.

And then there was Cosi. I sat in the Union Square location for hours writing my papers because they offered free wireless and free coffee refills. And free bread. Every hour, I’d grab a few pieces of bread from the sample basket. The combination of whole grain bread and coffee was toxic to my intestines, but hey, I had medical insurance. Eventually I diversified my Cosi diet when I befriended one of the servers who still provides me with all the vegetarian soups and salads for free. No more picking at table (or kindergartener) scraps for me.

Now of course, most nonkosher establishments don’t give away their food for free. But when you increase your restaurants to include the treif variety, you’re more likely to get a few meals for nada. And while I might be turning away from the Jewish practice of eating only rabbinically supervised food, I’m respecting another time honored Jewish tradition:

Don’t buy retail.


(Cosi Flatbread Pizza)

Perhaps the adage should read:

TINSTAAFKL

There is no such thing as a free kosher lunch.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Why am I not on the list?

The blog, College on the Record, just listed its picks for Top Ten Hottest College Gymnasts. All the usual suspects make the list- Alicia Sacramone (who had the most hits on NBC's Olympic website after Michael Phelps), Nikki Childs, Tasha Schwikerts and Nastia ("Nasty"- the good kind) Liukin. These young women are lauded for their toned appearance and overall Gumbiness. I understand the editorial board's choices and I have only one little bone to pick:

Where am I?

Now true, I've been retired for four years. And also true, I'm no longer a student (though my grad career only ended in May, around the same time that the undergraduate careers of several on this list had ended). But my shoulders are still just overdeveloped as any linebacker's and my breasts are undersized as any prepubescent female. I still look like a gymnast, goddammit!

(here I am in one of my last competitions at the University of Pennsylvania- take note of the excellent foot and hand form).

Now some might say I'm "cute" at best, which I'm willing to agree with if my appearance is being judged against the general population. But this is a college list and if I remember college accurately, there is this thing called "curves" (not the physical kind that gymnasts lack) and "grade inflation." Objectively, I might be a "B." But on a curve, I should be an "A."

This is the type of consideration I demand after 7 years of dating Jewish men. If ever a population was graded on an appearance curve, it is this one.

Skinny and nerdy morphs into "adorkable and sweet." Short becomes, "well at least he's taller than me." Or, "I like them pocket sized."

I'm not saying that I don't. After so many years of focusing exclusively on this population, I actually find so-called appearance "flaws" endearing.

I just want the same grading generosity applied to the women of The Tribe.

And I want to get on that list. (I'll demonstrate a split if necessary).

Thursday, October 9, 2008

For once my work is easy

After returning from a break fast, I found a blog alert in my inbox and when I saw this headline: "Gymnastics meet starts early for Yom Kippur."

From the article:

Overland High School in Aurora started a gymnastics meet three hours early Wednesday so a Jewish student could compete and still get to an evening Yom Kippur celebration.

Jennifer Buechler's mother, Lisa, had complained that the meet fell on one of the two most important Jewish holidays of the year.



Now, when I tell people that I write about the convergence of gymnastics and Judaism, they give me strange looks and ask what the two have to do with each other. If I'm feeling talkative (which is always) I'll launch into my spiel- which is a synopsis of my 100 page grad school thesis . Eventually my audience grows bored and walks away.

But just this once, my work was done for me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What's missing from this list?

On Yom Kippur, we don't.

1. Eat
2. Drink
3. Bathe
4. Apply lotions
5. Wear leather shoes.

If you guessed sex, you're right.

This week I taught my sixth graders in Hebrew school the five things we can't do on Yom Kippur and I relied on a trick used by my teachers in an Orthodox Jewish Day- in order to fill up the five slots and avoid mentioning S-E-X in the classroom, I split Eating and Drinking into two separate prohibitions.

And I'm glad I did. Cause when I said that makeup is prohibited (according to the Orthodox), one of my students announced that he was going to tell his mom that she couldn't apply lipstick. Now imagine if I had mentioned sex. Would my 11 year olds have gone home and told their parents that they couldn't sleep together on Yom Kippur.

I would've had some explaining to do.

Tashlich at the Garbage Dump

When I was growing up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, my family went to the local sanitation dump to do tashlich. And it wasn’t just us- all of Canarsie’s Orthodox Jews dressed in their Rosh Hashanah finest walked to the plant on the first day of the holiday (second if the first fell on the Sabbath) to dump their sins (in bread form) into the creek that flowed at the back of the dump. It was the closest body of flowing water to the Jewish community and the New York City Department of Sanitation obliged us and our inability to get into our cars for a trip to the Canarsie Pier by opening its doors to us- a very smelly way of saying, “Happy New Year.”

What a funny place for tashlich.

In our newly purchased holiday shoes, we trudged through the mud. My mother sometimes had me wear my sneakers in order to protect my more expensive shoes. I hated this especially since everyone I knew in Canarsie would be there. Tashlich at the garbage dump was the social event of the year.

What a perfect place for tashlich.

As we tossed our sins to the fish (though they always got picked off by the seagulls before the fish could bite), we were reminded via smell and decrepit surroundings how truly odious our actions had been.

This is for the gossip I spoke, I thought as I tore off a chunk and sent it sailing over the fence.

This is for snapping back at my mother.

For not bentching after I ate. For not washing before I touched bread.

But as guilty as I felt for all those transgressions (especially the latter ones), I would sometimes pull a piece of challah and pop it into my mouth when no one was looking. I committed a sin (eating bread with washing and a blessing) to eat a sin in a place where I was supposed to be getting rid of sins.

This year I went to Riverside Park, which is in an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan and not far from my apartment. I had cooked through the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah and missed the communal sin unloading. I was on my own.

From the trees, I tossed some leftover challah into the Hudson River. Missing were the sights and smells of my youth- no rotting garbage, no sticky mud. Those around me were not ridding themselves of sins. They were pushing strollers or jogging. And the homeless people- the only ones who could’ve intruded on the idyllic nature of this scene- they were further up and away, asleep on the benches.

It wasn’t as easy to come up with sins as I threw my bread into the water. True, I still gossiped but I couldn’t truly discard that one. Experience has taught me that the one is here to stay. I get along really well with my mother and when I do speak less than respectfully to her, I either immediately apologize or console myself with the knowledge that of her two children, I’m still the better daughter.

In the years since the garbage dump, I’ve learned to rationalize. And so I threw bread, but not sins.

This is how I learned my splits

Is there a chair shortage that I haven't heard about?

When people stare at me in wonderment as I slide into a split, I explain how easy it is for me to do this after my ligaments were permanently stretched by a coach who used my back as a chair. I don't say that with a hint of bitterness. I'm very glad that she did this to me. That split will stay with me for the rest of my life.

But no, that's not me. My coach was wise enough to not leave evidence of her. It is most likely Daiane dos Santos of Brazil who is being folded in half by her coach, Oleg Ostapenko.

The Palin Sheitel



A short blurb in this week's Forward about a new style of wig being marketed to Orthodox Jewish women on the website, www.sheitel.com, styled after the Republican VP nominee, Sarah Palin. The good news- you won't have to drop as many g's as the Sarah does in a single sentence to own this wig. Or even 1 G. The price of the 100% real human hair wig has been reduced to $795.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

High Holy Days for Jewnasts: A Guide for the Other High Holidays

Gymnastics is my religion and the Olympics are my High Holiday. I know that it is strange to equate an Olympic sport with a major (or minor) world religion and I can already see my friends’ eyes rolling at what they perceive as yet another outburst of my gymnastics flavored irrationality. But after spending the better part of August in front of my television and the subsequent weeks reliving the competition on YouTube, I am not only convinced of gymnastics position among the world’s great faiths, but also of its usefulness to those about to celebrate those other High Holidays. Here’s a set of Olympic derived guidelines for the upcoming Days of Awe.

(But before I proceed, I need to address the naysayers who do not buy the basic premise- that gymnastics functions as a religion. Though no one split the Red Sea or handed tablets down from on high, there was revelation. At the 1976 Montreal Games child prophet, Nadia Comaneci scored the first- and now nonexistent- perfect 10 in Olympic competition. This act inspired millions of other acrobatically inclined children to try the same. My own baptism in a sea of loose foam blocks in a six foot deep pit came at the age of 7 though I continued to practice the Judaism of my forebears. Its rituals resemble popular religious ones. Gymnasts wrap injured joints in tape just as Jews bind their forearms in the leathers straps of the phylacteries. There are dietary rules more restrictive than the laws of kashrut. And an epically- or biblically- long Code of Points.)

Now onto the guidelines… 1. Expect Judging Delays: Viewers of the Olympics saw gymnasts wait upwards of ten minutes to begin a routine while the score of the previous athlete on the apparatus was being tabulated. This was mostly due to the implementation of a new rating system that still confuses many of the judges. Some gymnasts used their extra time on the podium to stretch and remain loose. Others twitched, rolled their eyes and heads and subsequently, rolled off the event. Unfortunately, the wait for judgment is even longer in Judaism. Jews chant: On Rosh Hashanah it is written/And on Yom Kippur it is sealed. The “it” in the verse refers to the ruling against every human being and it is ten days (not minutes) after it is drafted that the details are finalized. And some conventional rabbinic wisdom states that one has until the end of Sukkot, which begins five days after Yom Kippur and lasts for another seven. This means that it could take anywhere from 10-22 days before you know your wretched fate. So take your cues from the gymnasts who successfully handled the nerves. Stretch. Maybe take a yoga class. Or find some time for sincere prayer and repentance (Brazilian gymnast Diego Hypolito can be your role model- he crosses himself before every daredevil floor exercise performance). But whatever you do, don’t hold your breath. It’s going to be awhile.

2. Look Your Best: The Olympics are the debutante ball for many of the gymnasts. They slip on the leotard equivalent of a formal gown- long sleeve suits instead of the tank ones used in practice- get out their bedazzlers and go nuts. And after they apply heavy eye makeup and roll around in a vat of glitter, they are paraded around in front of suitors (i.e. corporate sponsors). While shiny spandex and eye glitter might not be considered appropriate for most synagogues, it is still important to look your best. Especially if you’re a single female and want your bashert to be part of the comprehensive judgment package God is preparing. If you’re seated in an Orthodox congregation, make sure that your hair looks especially nice since this might be the only part of your body visible to the straining eyes of the men from the other side of the partition. And before you bemoan your figure flaws- hips that are too wide or thigh that are Ben & Jerry’s chunky- remember, you got something that most female gymnasts can only dream of- breasts.

3. Don’t try to do anything too hard: This year, the gymnastics competition featured an astoundingly high degree of difficulty matched only by the resultant number of falls that cost many top contenders a shot at the medal stand. Many would’ve been better served had they only included skills they could easily execute. The lesson for Jewnasts is simple- keep your promises modest. It is tempting to swear that you will never utter another word of gossip. Or that you’ll floss every day. But you know you won’t be able to follow through. Making big promises, such as the coming of the Messiah, only works if you’re the Almighty and you’ve got several generations to deliver on your Word. Taking a cue from gymnasts who rearranged the order of elements in their routines to maximize their scoring potential. Promise something as simple as washing before Kiddush over wine and the blessing over Challah. It’s perfectly legal (and the tradition of German Jewry) and easy to do.

4. Lie about your age: One of the biggest controversies of these Olympics was the fact that half of the female Chinese gymnasts were younger than the minimum competition age of sixteen. There are several advantages to using preteen athletes- they are less afraid of performing dangerous flips and they lack pesky curves that are responsive to gravity. And for different reasons, youth is also rewarded in Judaism. According to halacha (that I was taught it in my all-girls yeshiva), one does not become truly culpable for one’s misdemeanors until the he/she reaches the age of 20 (though I just read a different that says 13 so choose the most convenient age). Until you leave your teens, your parents are held spiritually accountable. And surely, you dislike your parents for something and would like them to suffer for your deeds. So do your best to look younger. You probably have all the tools in your medicine cabinet- anti-aging serums, hair dye, creams. Use them liberally. Cause as in the Olympics, it pays to be young in Judaism. But make sure your document forger is top notch- I’m not sure whether God will be as easily fooled as the IOC.

5. Make time to reflect: The High Holidays are perhaps best known as a time to think about the past in order to improve upon things for the future. Well at least in the gymnastics world it is. After the Closing Ceremonies, the Powers That Be (i.e. the Federation of International Gymnastics) convene to decide what the next four year cycle in the sport should look like.

Which skills to increase in value? Which skills to devalue?

How many elements can count towards the difficulty score? How many tenths will be deducted for a fall from the apparatus? Should we raise the age minimum?

This of course is the less morbid version U’Netanneh Tokef, allegedly composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz and chanted every year in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

How many will live? How many will pass?

Who will die in a flood? Who in a fire? Who in a plague?

Though gymnastics-style contemplation doesn’t ask the important existential questions, it does result in a complete rewriting of the sports’ bible to reflect lessons learned. This has recently led to a revamped scoring system that abolished the famous Perfect Ten. As for us Jews, we’re still working from the original document (with just a few thousand minor adjustments) and no amount of reflection will result in scrapping the original document. So maybe Olympic gymnastics has nothing to teach us- but who knows? Maybe if we check back in a few millennia, we’ll discover a gentler Bible that punishes with timeouts instead of rocks.

So my fellow Jewnasts — go forth and repent, reflect. Or lie. Whatever it takes to please the Head Judges upstairs.

Shana Tovah