Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Beware of the second leg

I am not a huge cat lover. Once I was cornered, b-horror movie style, by my friend's cat who wouldn't let me out of the guest bedroom. I slammed the door shut and the cretin actually stuck his paws through the crack under the door to get at me. I ended up escaping by wrapping myself in a rug in order to walk past the thing without getting clawed.

Perhaps it is because of my past with kitties that I found this gif of a kid doing a cartwheel while a cat tries to attack so amusing.

Cats (and humans) be warned--when it comes to the cartwheel it's the sneaky second leg that's deadly.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A ritual spice

Last night, I rang in Christmas with friends the way only Jews  can--by saying Havdallah and lighting the Hanukkah candles.

As we got to the part of the Havdallah where we smell the besamim, or spices, I absentmindedly sniffed the spices my friend put under my nose and took a whiff of something very familiar--marijuana.

Legends and rabbis have it that on the Sabbath, we are blessed with an additional "neshama" or soul that departs when Shabbos ends. This is why we sniff some spices during the Havdallah ceremony, which closes out the day of rest--to revive or restore the person after his additional soul leaves. Besamim are like smelling salts.

Which brings me to weed. It was quite fitting to smell the marijuana as the Sabbath Queen departed. What else lifts the spirits quite like weed?

Friday, December 23, 2011

And now I've desecrated Hanukkah, too

And now for a little cross-promo.

Over at my (deliciously) wicked step-sister site, The Anti-Girlfriend, I've put up a comic collaboration with Margarita Korol that's a PSA of sorts, illustrating why "CHanukah" (in all of its various spellings and mispronunciations) shouldn't ever be a safety word in bed.

It's safe to say that Hanukkah Harry is not leaving me any gifts this year because the comic is definitely naughty.

Happy Hanukkah to all! (And Merry Christmas to the rest)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Challah-days

A couple of years ago, I was hired to dance as a break dancing elf. Immediately after I got the gig, I knew I was going to go Sedaris on that shit. I went straight home and reread "Santaland Diaries" and listened to his nasal recording of the story from This American Life for inspiration

Tastic the Jewish Elf (on the right)

After the Office Max "Elf Yourself" gig was complete, I sat down to compose "Happy Challah-days" which appeared on The Morning News (and was subsequently picked up by the City Room blog of the New York Times). Since I am not as hard up for money this year, I haven't reprised my role as a Jewish Christmas break dancing elf. But since there is no such thing as deleting anything on the interwebs, here is the story, reposted, for the holidays, a holiday story filled with footwork, velvet, elf puns, elf labor strikes and of course, Beyonce.

Happy Challah-days from Tastic the Elf!

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Matisyahu, British singers and authenticity

Like many other Jews, I was tickled by the success of Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae performer who just shaved his beard. I was amused that a Hasidic Jew with a full beard and peyes (sidecurls) had achieved mainstream success, that words like "moshiach" could be heard on Top 40 radio stations around the country instead of merely in the songs of Jewish boy bands (think Menudo but with velvet yarmulkes and even sillier dance moves) that I had grown up listening to.

But that didn't mean I was a fan of his music. First of all, I'm not a fan of reggae in general. Perhaps I started smoking weed too late in life and wasn't properly stoned during those important and formative "reggae years." In addition, I disliked the simplistic Utopian vision laid out in several of his songs.

And finally, I wasn't too thrilled with his music from a gender perspective. I might be oversensitive when it comes to these issues (wouldn't be the first time) but when I listened to radio hits like "Youth," I found myself getting annoyed at the chorus, which contained lyrics like, "Young man/control in your hands/slam your first on the table/and make your demands."  While I know it is not unusual for an artist--writer, singer, filmmaker--to create for versions of themselves, which means that if they're male, they address men in their work, and women have others of their gender in mind. Yet when it came to Matisyahu, I thought that the maleness of his music had as much to do with the singer's gender as it did with the Orthodox Jewish thought he adopted. And whether or not my assumption was true, it still rubbed me the wrong way.

From other quarters, the criticism that I most often heard in regards to Matisyahu centered around issues of authenticity. On the one hand, many thought that his mainstream success was in large part due to the novelty of him being a Hasidic Jew who sings reggae and beat boxes. (A side note: I can't tell you how many times I get asked how my beat boxing is going. Before this, I never thought that breaking or break dancing would be so easily confused with beat boxing.) Implicit in this criticism is that Matisyahu is somehow inauthentic. Either he isn't authentically Hasidic if he's into and/or good at reggae or he isn't truly a reggae performer, that his Judaism somehow negates that. (You know, the whole "Jews don't do that" argument, which makes every successful hip hop artist and athlete who happens to be Jewish worthy of a headline.)

Add to all of that reggae, in particular, seems to lend itself to accusations of phoniness. In a review of Matisyahu's last album, Light, Brian Howe over at Paste wrote:

"The biggest hurdle for white, Western reggae singers to overcome is phoniness: How to make reggae without faking patois (which sounds silly and condescending) and how to embrace its themes without reducing a racially and politically charged genre to mere shtick."

Howe seems to think that Matisyahu fails on all counts--from the patois (which is sprinkled with a heavy dose of Ashkenazis expressions) to the message of his music.

I don't think he should be harshly criticized for adopting the Jamaican patois since that seems to be something of the norm. The accent, lilt and cadence of the patois is expected by listeners of the music genre. (At least according to my limited knowledge of reggae.)

While thinking about that particular criticism, I was reminded of a conversation I had with someone much smarter than I am--a professor of ethnomusicology (though he primarily writes about hip hop and is pretty intelligent and articulate about popular culture). We were discussing Amy Winehouse and "blue-eyed soul" back when I was working on a profile about the late singer last year. What he wondered aloud about is--why do British singers record in American accents? To his knowledge, very few British acts sing in their native accent. He offered the Clash as an example of a band that sings in its natural accent. (To that, I added Lily Allen, though she seems to speak on her records as much as she talks. I'm sure there are others.) In his opinion, artists chose to sing this way because soul, rock, etc. are musical styles created in America and they acknowledge the tradition by singing the songs as American artists would, especially since many like the Rolling Stones were deeply influenced by the blues. Is Matisyahu acting in a similar fashion by adopting a patois?

Upon a little digging, I found an additional explanation for "un" accented British singing English that has less to do with respecting a culture and genre and more to do with physiological factors (from the National Center of Voice and Speech)

"When people speak with an accent, they produce the vowel sounds differently than the person identifying them as having an accent. When singing, the vowels are prolonged and those differences are minimized. In short: because singing isn't the same as talking from physiological standpoint."

Well, so much for that. (Though I still agree with my friend that at least some of the singing style is conscious on the part of the singer if not to honor the cultural roots of the music then at least to sound like singers who have been commercially successful.)

Anyway, what brings Matisyahu and all of this to mind is his very recent shave and his announcement that he no longer wished to be considered a "Hasidic reggae superstar." This was big news within the Jewish community, with everyone guessing as to what this shave meant philosophically, religiously and commercially. Was he still Orthodox? What would this mean to his record sales if he can no longer heuristically be referred to as the "Hasidic reggae singer"? Also, if he can merely shave off his beard and announce that he isn't Hasidic anymore, how "authentic" had that identity been?

I don't really have any answers to these questions. I saw him in his first post-beard concert on Thursday night and as far as I can tell, his fans didn't seem to mind all that much. Having never attended a Matisyahu show before and having listened to little of his music, I have no basis for comparison, no "before" to understand the "after." From an aesthetic perspective, I think his new look is an improvement though an even bigger improvement would be a handlebar mustache because those are simply awesome.

But please, Matisyahu, whatever you end up doing musically and religiously--don't grow a soul patch.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sex and the single Stern girl

As many people have already heard, last week a YU affiliated paper published a first person account of a sexual encounter that contained no graphic details and in which the narrator expressed regret at the end.

Not scandalized? Well, I guess you are not an Orthodox Jewish student at the school. After many negative comments, the student council decided to pull its funding.

The mainstream press caught wind of the story--from Gawker to The Wall Street Journal to the incredibly philo-Semitic New York Times.

What did scandalize me was that during the course of reporting the story (and after speaking to a few Stern students, including the author of so-called "controversial" essay) was how hard it was to find out information about sex, pregnancy, contraceptives, etc. within Yeshiva University, which is why I decided to dig a little further into the matter. You can read the story in it's entirety at JTA.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Michele Bachmann's unholy association with my namesake, Devorah

A friend sent me a link to a video explaining the possibility of Bachmann's resurgence based on the Biblical precedent set by another female leader (a term I am loathe to use in connection to Bachmann)--the prophetess from Judges, Devorah. (Deborah if you care to anglicize it.) According to the video, Bachmann is set for a second surge.

At first I thought it was a joke, that the makers were mocking Michele Bachmann because I could not conceive of anyone speaking seriously about her. But as I kept watching--and you should definitely see it through to the end--I realized that this was not the case, at least I don't think it is. They are predicting her resurgence and dragging my namesake through the mud to do it.

In which I speak to Blossom Russo

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Mayim Bialik, who any 90s child remembers as Blossom from the show of the same name. Insert obligatory "Whoa" joke here.

Here are the results of this short interview--a brief article over at JTA.