Saturday, December 22, 2012

American Psycho

It's that time of year when yet another gun massacre happens in America, when we almost tear our hair out in disbelief at the dangerous psychosis of those in this country who, against all reason, common sense, or morality, equate freedom with having "the right" to privately own weapons designed to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. There is absolutely no reason in God's green earth that a housewife should keep, not one, but three semi-automatic weapons at home. None whatsoever. There is no human law that can justify such an evil monstrosity, let alone the horrifying consequences of it. The fact that Mrs. Lanza, lover of guns, was able to purchase and keep those weapons at home is evil incarnate already. We need not wait for a deranged white male to illustrate this with yet another bloodbath.
Indeed, the Second Amendment, which many are hellbent in misreading and protecting, does not allow for that. It allows for you to form a well-regulated militia and arm yourself with 17th century muskets against the King of England. It's time to dismantle this irrelevant, ancient law, just as we did away with slavery, or enacted civil rights, or other sensible laws that protect our citizenry from human evil.
I guess gun loving Americans don't really care about how this is perceived by the rest of humanity. Because, surely, no other place on Earth has this conundrum. Everywhere where reason prevails, and civilization reigns, and even where they don't, nobody thinks it smart, let alone NORMAL, to arm guards outside of kindergartens, or to give college students weapons. Next thing we know, we should demand a Glock with the price of our movie ticket, just in case. Everywhere in the world but here, this is sheer insanity.
As for Wayne La Pierre (a villainous sounding name, is it not?), the NRA and the rest of this developmentally arrested country, I propose that as we ban, repeal, and burn to the crisp the Second Amendment, we also outlaw once and for all the concept of the "Good Guys vs. The Bad Guys", which is only fit for children the age of those poor little souls mowed down by Adam Lanza. Adults who keep looking at the world in terms of good guys and bad guys are morons, and they seem to be holding us all hostage. They are the ones responsible for our wars, and for encouraging mayhem through violent video games and entertainment. Not a week after Newtown, I saw a preview for a big Hollywood movie, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the two kids now grown and killing witches with oversized weapons that belong in World War Three. A fairy tale turned by the American imagination into a despicable barrage of firepower, people of flesh and blood made into cartoon characters who think nothing of shooting endless automatic rounds at "the bad guys". This violent pornography is aimed to entertain children younger than Adam Lanza, or Dylan Klebold, all these unsupervised misfits armed with violent video games and computers. And it is exported all over the world. Luckily for the world, their children do not have as much access to guns as ours.
The NRA press conference has been labeled as pathetic. It is much more than that. It is the incarnation of sheer evil. One cannot watch it and not feel soiled, revolted at the insanity, the cynicism, the cognitive dissonance of a proposal that offers to arm guards outside of schools but neglects to blame the ease of getting weapons as the source of the violence. The astounding disrespect, not only to the grieving families of Newtown, but to the entire nation, that is to use this opportunity to encourage paranoia and irrationality, to monger fear about "untold number of monsters" that roam free in our society ready to wreak havoc, without mentioning that it is the NRA that makes it possible for them to have murder weapons in their hands. They waited a week to pipe up and this is the grotesque, putrescent bile that came out of their mouths. Listening to La Pierre is fearing we live in a nightmarish parallel universe absent of moral coherence, rationality and sense, of human understanding. It is absolute infamy.
I wonder if the surviving relatives of all the victims of these American catastrophes aided and abetted by the NRA, could not file a class action suit against the organization, much in the way that people sue for millions when they burn themselves with hot food at McDonald's.
Police departments (not the most liberal constituency), mayors of cities, concerned citizens, most people with half a brain, we all feel powerless against the influence of a lobby for the gun industry.
No matter how many statistics scream bloody murders in armed homes, no matter how many countries like Japan and Australia have minimal homicide rates because of stringent gun control laws, here we haven't been able to do anything about it, for no good reason at all.
Let's imagine what Adam Lanza or all the other unhinged shooters could have inflicted in their unfathomable rage without the aid of endless rounds of lethal ammunition. I hold the NRA, every member of Congress, our Supreme Court and our President responsible for the murder of all these children and adults, until they find it in their hearts to pass stringent gun control laws.

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

The Sessions; or The Least Sexy Movie About Sex, Ever.

The Impossible. A Tsunami Of Disappointment.

Movies, 2012: Best and Worst and Everything in Between.

Alert The Media: Yours Truly in

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

We're In The Money

Photo by Yehudit Mam

Actually, no. We are not in the money. Like almost everyone we talk to these days, we are nowhere near the money. But the good news is that we are working a freelance gig in the Financial District. We are among the money!
A lot of people around here hate working in the Financial District. Well, I am loving it. It is funky!
I am working at a building on Broad Street, almost across from the NY Stock Exchange. Broad Street used to be a beautiful curved, wide street; that is, before the terrorists made everything around here into a crappy barricade. Still, it has a je ne sais quoi that transports me to the olden days. I can imagine the horse carriages and the cobblestoned bustle of old New York as it was learning to make money. There is a completely preposterous Hermés store amid the police checkpoints and the canine squad and the bad food joints like Au Bon Pain, Cosi and Pret a A Manger. And a big Tiffany's around the corner. Maybe, every day, when they finish robbing us blind, the wheelers and dealers go downstairs and get their honeys a diamond ring or themselves a silk tie. I don't see no one else raiding the shelves at Hermés.
I love this street with reams of tourists taking pictures of the stock exchange and the statue of George Washington across it. Not far from here is the Customs House where Herman Melville toiled, perhaps not knowing that soon thousands of embittered Bartlebys would populate this teeming neighborhood.
I had lunch with my friend Ildy at Fraunces Tavern, which is ancient, and has just reopened after being flooded by Sandy. It stinks of mold and the food is bad, but it hails from the 18th century. The narrow streets with archaic names like Stone and New and Ann are peppered with old landmark buildings among the steel behemoths. On New Street, there is a crummy barber shop where they also buy gold. In contrast to every other neighborhood in this city that has been prettified, gentrified and generified, here it is still ugly, which is wonderful.
And it is so crowded!  It's where the robber barons and the plebes meet. There are ridiculous fancy restaurants for the Masters of the Universe that seem to offer exclusively carnivore menus in very masculine decors, as befits the alpha males working above them. For the rest of us drones there is a lot of shitty food to be had, with nary a place to sit down, in the guise of endless Subway chains, horrible delis, nefarious Chinese dumps, revolting pizza places etc. However, I have been able to locate some decent food. Sophie's Cuban, a franchise of dependably greasy and yummy Cuban food is on forlorn New Street and it's cheap and plentiful. Today, I had a spectacular pho at Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches on Nassau St. Yesterday, I had a very decent Vietnamese sandwich at Baoguette. Tomorow I may try the Korean Taco place, which doesn't even have chairs. None of these joints goes to the trouble of decorating. They all look like dumps. Many of the fast food joints are tiny enough that drones are discouraged to eat out. You see armies of them brown bagging their lunches to their desks, like modern slaves. Like those men who manned the oars at the crack of whips on Viking ships.
Everything reminds you here of the haves and the have nots and nowhere in NY are they in closer proximity to each other. I just love how horrible it is.
If you walk north from the NYSE, you hit Nassau street, which is New York's version of every funky, graceless street that exists in every big city in the planet. Narrow, dirty, crammed with ugly, cheap clothes stores and fast food places.
The Bank of New York building on Broadway has a spectacular art deco mosaic lobby. It is breathtaking. The neoclassical building of the Chamber of Commerce looks like a beautiful, forgotten cake, dwarfed by ugly giants.
On top of it all, this area was pretty screwed by hurricane Sandy, so many businesses are closed, and there are many noisy trucks still draining water from basements. There is little sunshine in this narrow heart of New York. I am afraid my love affair with this part of town may not last long.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

Sean Penn goes emo in Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place.
Denzel Washington elevates Flight from its lame movie of the week clichés.
Barry Levinson's environmental scarefest The Bay deserves better.
Christopher Walken and Phillip Seymour Hoffman rule in A Late Quartet.
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts duke it out in Jacques Audiard's Rust And Bone (coming soon).

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Common Sense Prevailed

All of a sudden we are in love with the Electoral College we usually so despise, n'est pas?
I think the elation in the country after President Obama's reelection victory is not so much that he won, but a breath of relief that we are not as stupid and benighted as to elect a man and a platform that hinged on destructive lunacy. Almost half of us are were as stupid and benighted as to do that, (looking at the electoral map I feel like scooping out most of the middle/south of the country and kissing it goodbye - except for awesome New Mexico).
But what is truly heartening is that a narrow majority voted for sanity, common sense and reality.
I am very disappointed with Obama. I voted against Romney, rather than for him. As you voted, you probably became aware that there were more than two candidates in the ballot, who were completely ignored by the media. This is a travesty. It's a sports contest between two teams, not a real democracy.
I got a million emails asking me for money from Barack, Michelle, Joe, Bo the dog. I did not donate one red cent to the campaign, as punishment for the issues in which he has been remiss, such as immigration, gun control, the environment, drone attacks and others. I was very disappointed at his unwillingness to push things through despite Republican opposition. And I certainly hope that now he will finally stop campaigning and pretending he can work with the Republicans, and really push the most liberal agenda imaginable; really exercise his Presidential power and deliver on his promise to invest nationally on infrastructure, education, raise taxes for the rich, and send this country in the right direction. Am I convinced he is going to do it? No. But this is what I expect. And this is what those of us who voted for him should demand.
It is undeniable is that the Democrats live in a demographic reality that the Republican party refuses to accept. I was listening to Ed Rollins on Fox talking about including women and minorities next time around as if he was writing a shopping list for the supermarket. This party will pay lip service and effect the most empty tokenism, but it will never understand in its bones the real makeup of the country. It is out of touch with reality. One only had to look at the makeup of each candidate's supporters at their rallies.  On the Romney camp, no one of color and very few young people. On the Obama side, the kind of people that you see on the streets everyday, that means, pretty much everybody. And a lot of young people, who are the most important voters because it is them who have to live with the consequences of their political choices. The Republican party painted itself into the most lunatic corner and this is the end result. But if it served a purpose, was to get apathetic people off their asses to vote against them. For this, they should be thanked. Serves them right for pandering to fringe minority extremes. The vast majority of the American people find their faith-based distorsions revolting (as in legitimate rape, condoned by God). The vast majority of the American people could care less about whether you are gay and you want to marry. And they don't buy the logic of a millionaire paying less than half the tax rate of the working stiff. Many women comprise this majority, and they are certainly not going to vote for someone who seems to hail from the 1950s.
Latinos did not only turn out in force but in the best news in centuries, their power has grown exponentially and has nothing to do with the four and a half Cubans that used to hold elections hostage in Florida for years. The greatest gift of all: Cubans in Miami have become irrelevant. Woo hoo! What's more, their children are probably voting Obama. Times have changed. It's time for Latinos to demand political payback. Immigration reform now.
For all the wringing of hands, Netanyahu machinations, and the despicable disinformation on the part of Republicans whose foreign policy spells real disaster for Israel, 70% of Jews voted for Obama. Lechaim!
Romney ran an atrocious campaign. Just from the way his campaign proceeded one feared for the fate of the country. He seemed incompetent, flaky, insincere, disconnected from reality, aloof and nowhere near ready for the job. Obama had David Axelrod, genius, on his side, but also common sense.  Also a widening gap and a formidable class war that should turn the tide in favor of the 99%.
I can't wait to see what the Republican narrative is going to be going forward. In the meantime, enjoy the reprieve and expect much better from the President this time around.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Sandy: "I'll Take Manhattan..."

Darlings! It's sad that only an event of catastrophic proportions would get your Enchilada back to these pages. She has been busy reviewing movies and working for no pay for the greater good of artists, but she is back to tell you about her "nordeal" apres Sandy, that evil bitch.
After the no-show that was last year's Irene, which left us stranded for four extra days in Cancun, we thought, pinches gringos, how they exaggerate. However, since the images of the great eye of the storm in the sky were pretty dramatic, this time we decided to play it safe and calmly follow the panic. Here's the report.
Sunday afternoon:
The supermarket downstairs is in pre-apocalyptic mode. I have never seen so many people stocking up, including in 9/11. Bread is gone, water almost gone, but most importantly, supplies of potato chips and Doritos, etc. have vanished off the shelves. I guess this is what people understand by non-perishables. Being totally unversed in the arts of post-apocalyptic survival, (despite experiencing the 1985 earthquake in Mexico, 9/11 and the 2003 blackout), instead of buying unappetizing canned goods, I buy the fresh ingredients for a spaghetti carbonara, asparagus and shallots and every single supermarket item that is sure to perish in the event of a blackout. See, being a denizen of chic downtown, I am convinced that power outages are reserved for the unhip. Serves me right.
Monday evening:
We are smugly following the dramatic non-reports as yet from wind battered TV reporters, all appliances working at full speed, when we see a huge blue aura come from about where the transformer of 14th Street is, the lights dip, and pop, we are without power. Being from nations like Mexico, where there are frequent power and water outages, we have learned one thing: power outages are extremely infrequent in the United States, but when they happen, they last forever. Basically, we're screwed. Soon we run out of water, since we live on the 13th floor and the pump doesn't get this far without electricity. Our building does not have a generator. So candlelights and wine it is. Also, pasta with broccoli and anchovies that I managed to cook before lights went out. So far so good. I feel like we're in Barry Lyndon and I am Marisa Berenson.
Outside our window, it looks like everyone is in darkness except for people above 34th St. What we can see of Soho, the West Village and the L.E.S is pitch black. But lo and behold, in the first extraordinary feat of surrealism (there are more to follow), the two NYU buildings next to us are awash in light, TVs glowing, stereos playing, water flowing. NYU has power. No one else does. Typical.

A room without a view. 

Throughout the night, the wind shakes our windows, which the super has informed me, are shatterproof. The building creaks. Soon we learn that the big tree that gave shade to our backyard is down like a house of cards. It broke the sturdy iron garden fence and collapsed on Houston St. It could have killed someone.

Our fallen gentle giant. 

All of lower Manhattan is in utter darkness and silence. No cars, few sirens, no noise. Eerie.
Tuesday morning:
Against all sensible advice, Magnificent Arepa wants to snoop around. So down we go through thirteen flights of pitch black stairs, with our flashlights and Petra in tow.
The streets are empty, everything is closed, the wind has scattered tree branches everywhere, some windows are broken and some street signs are askew. Tourists roam around like Jews in the desert, with nothing better to do. Downtown hotels are in darkness. We go all the way down to Battery Park, with the winds still howling, and sure enough, the water has receded but I have never seen it so high. It is lapping at the level of the promenade. This is super scary. It looks like a Michael Bay movie.
We wonder if Joe's Shanghai, which never closes, is open (soup dumplings and scallion pancake would certainly restore our spirits right about now). You know that you are in deep doodoo if Joe's Shanghai is closed. My cell phone has no signal and I rue the day when I let the fucking cable company convince me to relinquish my land line. I also can't find the transistor radio that helped me miss the party at the 2003 blackout. I heeded Bloomberg's advice and stayed home while everybody had a ball on the streets.
We are effectively incommunicado. I don't mind so much living in darkness, the respite from internet is actually nice in a way, but no water is not fun. The weather has been balmy up to now (surely the reason for the storm in the first place -- global warming central), but now it's getting chilly, and no heat, no water and no power up 13 flights of stairs becomes challenging.
Tuesday evening:
We go to our friends in the NYU building next door (luckily they just happened to move there), for a shower and to charge phones that don't work and go on internet. They are on the 26th floor, and the view of lights above 34th St and a black nothingness below is amazing. It is so reassuring and lovely to suddenly find out that dozens of friends are inquiring about us, some offering shelter. At this point we are seriously considering relocating, because what we hear on the streets is not good: it could take "days" to restore power. We get a godsend message from a friend who offers his apartment uptown. And we take it.
We go for a fast recon mission on the streets before trudging up the stairway. Our neighborhood and beyond are in the darkest dark, but NYU students are roaming about and the Korean delis on Broadway are open. The cashier tells me they will be open all night and selling breakfast in the morning. Two Koreans and a Mexican helper with three flashlights, and they feel safe enough to do it.
People are charging their equipment outside the NYU library and student center. Wicked Willy's, a bar on Bleecker, happens to be open, and it's doing brisk business, an oasis of light and booze in the darkness.
Through our walks during the day and at night we marvel (as we did during 9/11 and the blackout) at the civilization of New York City. I've seen one or two aimless people perhaps looking to steal something (or maybe I'm just paranoid) but other than that, that tourists and citizens feel safe enough to walk around with children and pets in tow is a testament to the safety and the greatness of this city.
Wednesday afternoon:
Coming down in darkness with Petra and our bags and computers in tow, we find a bunch of neighbors huddled in the lobby eating pizza. Suddenly, I get pangs of survivor's guilt. Here we are, abandoning ship, while there are people in our building that have nowhere to go. A lot of elderly people cannot leave their apartments. Luckily, our building is a solid community and I know that neighbors keep an eye on each other. I tell myself that we are helping the building by not straining its resources even further. The no water situation in a 30-story building with 180 apartments is not to be taken lightly.
We are lucky to get a cab (they are scarce downtown) and a cabdriver who does not object taking us uptown and who did not gauge us. All of a sudden, as if there was a thin, invisible line demarcating the damaged from the untouched, on 26th Street there are lights, stores are open, people are going places. Frantic Manhattan as usual. It's surreal.
The trip from Houston St to 66th St, which usually takes about 15-20 minutes, took almost an hour and a half and cost $35. Mainly because of this:

Cranes are flying. 
I'm sure I'm not the only soul experiencing a high degree of schadenfreude at the prospect of bad karma for this building, where the apartments start at $80 million.
Uptown, it's as if nothing ever happened. It's Halloween. Adults and kids are in disguise (so not hip), the cineplex is open (praise the Lord!), restaurants are crammed. The only sign of something askew is that the supermarket has run out of fresh garlic. Meanwhile, this is the first time that we watch on TV the horrifying footage of the damage inflicted by Sandy in New Jersey, Staten Island and other places. We can't believe it.  As is usual, no word whatsoever on TV about the devastating effects of Sandy on other, even less fortunate countries, like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, etc.
But there is a silver lining:
• The Halloween parade has been canceled, which gives me no small amount of glee. I hate this holiday and in particular this parade. Sorry lovers, I'm a hater.
• This storm effectively put a lid on the media obsession with the election and those stupid polls (which I am convinced are fabricated), and derailed the campaigns. This election will arrive at its home stretch with less of the incessant, polluting noise of punditry, and more of the real choice that is staring us all in the face. Sandy certainly puts in perspective the callousness of the Romney/Republican philosophy. The storm affected mostly blue states and the federal government's help will be very welcome. Obama has reacted how a president reacts. He may have severe failings, but he is a decent human being, not a robber baron. When the shit hits the fan, I'm sure all those people who clamor for less government may think twice if it it is them that have to be rescued by federal aid, by working infrastructure, by first responders, by a working government. When the shit hits the fan, are we going to vote for an experienced, serious president, or for a sleazy, indifferent corporate buffoon?

I wish safety and a speedy recovery to all those who are struggling through these difficult times.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Coming Attractions

Not showing anywhere near you yet, but you should run to see them as soon as they hit the theatres:

The Gatekeepers, or, Shin Bet leaders spill the beans. Best documentary I've seen this year.

A trifecta of extraordinary movies:
Amour, the latest masterpiece from Michael Haneke, with the immortal Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva, Cristian Mungiu's masterful Beyond The Hills, and the lovely Like Someone in Love by maestro Abbas Kiarostami.

Also worth watching is the impressive debut of orthodox female film director Rama Burshtein, Fill the Void.

On the other hand, these clunkers are better left unseen.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

The 50th edition of the New York Film Festival is in progress:

Noah Baumbach gets a muse with the delightful Frances Ha.
The Taviani Brothers collaborate with William Shakespeare in the masterful Caesar Must Die!
And the insufferable You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet by Alain Resnais.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

With Friends Like These...

...who needs enemies?
A number of despicable ads have appeared in subways in New York, Washington and San Francisco, which claim to support Israel against the "savages". The posters are misleading, prominently featuring stars of David, so it's easy to think they come from Israel or some benighted Jewish organization.
But they come from the warped fringe mentality of Pamela Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative, an Orwellian name for a racist, anti-Islamic, right wing bunch of birthers and lunatics. Geller is also connected to something called SIOA: Stop the Islamization of America (as if).
In short, she is a dangerous nutcase.
One look into the AFDI website, or Geller's shrill, hysterical blog, Atlas Shrugs (that's right), is enough to understand the depths of hateful propaganda she spews. Yet, in her own words, she does not represent the majority of the Jews in this country:
It galls me that the Jews I fight for are self-destructive, suicidal even. Here in America (and the world over), Israel's real friends are in the Republican Party and yet over 80% of American Jews are Democrats. I don't get it. 
1. Let me make something clear: You are not fighting for me. You are making it harder for me as a Jew to live in peace, you infernal putz.
2. What you don't get either is that by posting these ads, more than garnering support for Israel, and besides using hate speech against Muslims, you are provoking antisemitism, and even more hatred against Israel. For which you should be hanged.
3. Perhaps you are not aware that what your fundamentalist Christian friends from the Tea Party really want is the eventual destruction of Israel. They are rooting for Armageddon so they can have their Second Coming, which cannot happen until the last Jew converts to Christianity, including you.  To judge from your ads on the subways, you are happy to help the cause.

Newsflash for Jews: The tea party, the radical evangelical Christians, and the Republicans who irresponsibly root for an Israeli confrontation with Iran, these people are NOT our friends, nor are they friends of Israel. If you think these people support Israel, you are moving one step closer to ensuring the destruction of Israel. You are supporting the way of irrationality, hatred and conflict, and not the way of negotiation, problem solving and peacebuilding.
I want to know that every legitimate Jewish organization in America, (ADL, etc) has already released statements condemning these despicable ads. The only statement I've seen so far is by J Street, the liberal Jewish lobby.
And this is what you do on Yom Kippur, you unspeakable cur?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Go Preach To The Choir

iWarning: This is a major rant. If you are sensitive to religion, God, atheists, etc, stop reading now. 

Friday, August 24, 2001: A beautiful afternoon to venture out to Coney Island and eat cold borscht on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. We get on the B train. It is quiet, almost empty and very pleasant.
All of a sudden, a young black man starts preaching at the top of his lungs, even though there are only about 10 people in the car. He hollers about how Jesus saved him, and how we all need to follow Jesus, and every two words it's Jesus this and Jesus that. We are with our dog Petra and we're not about to try to change cars in the middle of the Manhattan Bridge, which is the strategic location where this young man chooses to assault us and take us hostage with his extremely loud spiel.
Imagine that I get on a subway car, and in the loudest voice possible, perhaps even with a sound system to back me up, I start screaming at the top of my lungs that God doesn't exist, and that belief in Him has brought humanity extreme cruelty, human imbecility and suffering, etc. I bet a lot of people wouldn't like it. I bet someone may find this really offensive and tell me to shut up. In olden days, much milder stuff would get you burned at the stake. But when it comes to God and religion, even today, we are all hostages, because nobody has the guts to find this religious blather the most aggressive, obnoxious, offensive, insulting form of imposition. People are afraid to speak up against it, because they know it's a lost battle. It's reason versus obsession. You can't engage, because you will never be right. They also live under the misguided notion that somehow God is off limits. God freaks can attack us mercilessly with their certainties but we can't even ask them politely to zip it. It's a taboo to be against God, and by extension the morons who claim to be His messengers.
God freaks, by the way, are so demonically insane that they are willing to change the definition of female rape ("legitimate", "forcible") in order to outlaw abortion. This is the grossest, vilest form of human perversion. But someone screaming about God in your ear? You have to grin and bear it.
What about Jews? Buddhists? Members of the Church of Elvis? Why do they need to listen to this Jesus crap? It's offensive to anyone who happens to believe in something other than Jesus.
I have no doubt that this enraptured young man may be an effective preacher one day. That is, if he actually finds something interesting to say. Demanding that we must all follow Jesus just because he did does not cut the mustard. It is fucking annoying, and it sounds like a broken record. I once went to the Abyssinian Church in Harlem and heard a smart, compelling preacher. I did not agree with everything he said, but he was thrilling. He had interesting stuff to say. If you are going to force me to listen to this bullshit, at least have the courtesy to make it worth my while. Otherwise, shut the fuck up. I don't want to hear it. Freedom of religion doesn't mean you have the right to force me to listen to your bullshit. The subway is not the place to preach. That's what church is for.

The clown from Hell 
We had a wonderful time by the beautiful sea. We got on the D train at dusk. Again, a few people, tired from a day of sun and noise on Coney Island. A dude half dressed like a clown stands in the middle of the car and starts bleating grotesquely and shaking a pair of very loud maracas. He is appalling. He is the exact opposite of funny; a black hole of pathetic, insane cluelessness. He is so bad, he is scary. He bleats like a tortured animal, screeching "I love you" and shaking the maracas in our faces. Even Petra, who is an expert subway traveller, is rattled by this idiot. A French family of three gapes at him like he is the Antichrist, their teenage son beseeching them in French to move to another car*. But nobody says anything. Understandably, since he may be deranged. We gesture to him gently to tone it down, but he keeps screaming.

Appalled French Family
But then comes the clincher. Turns out he's a Christian, and God and Jesus and all that fucking unholy crap from utter HELL. Of course he is a Christian: he knows that's how he gets away with murder. One could call the police on him and get him busted for being a public nuisance. And that's what I should have done. Call 311. But they might give him a pass. Why? 'Cause he's a Christian.
A young black woman eggs him on, obviously making fun of him. He latches on to her, but it turns ugly the minute he finds out that she thinks he's crazy, not funny. He starts hurling abuse at her. The Christian clown that one second ago was boasting that he never curses and he just wants to "entertain and give joy", has a mouth like a sewer, even in the presence of young, scared children. And still, the parents keep quiet. He and the girl start having a ferocious argument. He mentions the word "Christian" once again and that's where I lose it. I scream at them both to shut up. I ask him to please pipe down. We want quiet, I demand. This fat moron comes right at me, and starts insulting me. I tell him what he is doing is aggressive. The crazy black girl actually stands on her seat and looks like she is about to jump on him. Finally he gets off the train, still complaining loudly that he's a Christian. Like he can't believe that we are all evil for not letting him assault us with his deranged screaming.
This is New York. The reason why people do shit like this on subways is because they know we are all afraid to engage with them and put them in their place. I can ignore and tolerate all kinds of annoyances, but religious people trying to impose their beliefs on me, that makes me righteous angry, regardless of faith. Using Jesus as an excuse to pester people is even worse.
I don't go around trying to convert people to atheism. Your faith is your own damn business and you have no right to hoist it up on me in a public place, unless it is a temple and I'm walking through its doors of my own accord. Goddammit.

*Moving to another car is pointless. They may follow suit.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Señora Cecilia: Art Restorer to The World!

By now, you must live under a rock if you haven't heard about the poor Spanish elderly lady who took it upon herself to restore a badly damaged 19th century portrait of Jesus in a church in Borja, Spain. You probably have seen the appallingly funny before and after pictures.
The story is very touching. She did it with the permission of the priest. According to her, people would walk into church and watch her at work and no one said a peep until she finished her masterpiece, which is now her gift to the world. While it is true that the poor soul became a laughingstock worldwide, something more interesting happened. Had we not lived in the day of internet and memes, we would have seen her in the evening news, shaken our heads, and moved on. But Señora Cecilia's good intentions have unleashed a wave of memes that are not only very funny, but that put art where it hasn't been in ages, at the forefront of popular culture EVERYWHERE.

While funny memes are born every day, memes about art are rare, and the ones inspired by Señora Cecilia's artistic inclinations help people remember how difficult it is to achieve good art. The idea that anybody can sidle up to an old fresco and retouch it is surreal. Who walks into a church, looks at a peeling antique and thinks they can fix it? She singlehandedly has made people appreciate how challenging it is to make art. Even unprepossessing art, like the one she fixed. It's not like she defaced a Velázquez. Her masterpiece is also now gracing some of the most iconic art in the history of Western civilization.

There are many people, including me, who feel sorry for her. But I don't feel so sorry that I'm not  enjoying immensely some of the viral things people are coming up with. The purity of her intentions have made her a hero to many. I'm not ready to give her such a pass. Such epic cluelessness has to be addressed. But her touching desire to help is just as epic. I hope she takes it all in stride and people forgive her. She should be proud of how inspiring she has been to the world!

I don't think the memes are personal affronts to her. At this point they transcend laughing at her. A lot has to do with Spanish culture, where already there is talk of squadrons of señoras that are itching to restore stuff. Check any Almodóvar movie. There is always one such essential, folkloric Spanish old lady. She is usually played by the genius actress Chus Lampreave (who should play Señora Cecilia whenever Hollywood options the rights). These Spanish small town señoras are miraculously untainted by malice, they are enterprising and well-meaning and a little dim, and they are all a hoot, because they live with one foot in the modern world and the other one in the 18th century. Beyond Spain, the memes are a comment on the nature of art itself. Take a masterpiece and try to make it better. Jesus ends up looking like a monkey.
Señora Cecilia has unleashed a global wave of creativity where art is at the forefront of the popular buzz, so we have much to thank her for. For one, the restored painting is far more interesting now. It has a sweet art naif quality and it certainly doesn't look like the trillion other suffering Christs that exist in abundance in every church in every Catholic country and are virtually undistinguishable from one another. The town of Borja should be grateful: she just put it on the map. There should be busloads of tourists flocking to that church like pilgrims going to Lourdes in search of miracles.
Imagine the headlines: "New Face of Christ Discovered on Old Face of Christ". In this case, it's worth trying to emulate the saintly goodness of Señora Cecilia, the lady who wanted to make Jesus look better.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The New York Tapas Scam

I submitted these comments on this article in the New York Times that prompted the food critic (who doesn't even have to shell out for his meals) to wonder about the sanity of the small food craze in this rapacious town. It is a subject that has long been simmering in my bile. Here is my beef:

This small plates craze is the biggest New York ripoff since the financial crisis. Certain clarification is in order.
I spent 10 days in Barcelona recently. The tapas there are the size of Wyoming. 
The first time we ordered tapas we were thinking skimpy NY portions so we let it rip: pimientos de padrón, serrano ham, croquettes, tortilla, gambas al ajillo, what have you. It was a meal that could have easily been shared by six people, or more.The tapas in NY are as overpriced as they are undernourishing.
Rajj and Montero are particularly notorious at this scam. I have been to their restaurant Pintxtos, where a montadito is a puny slice of bread with a Spanish schmear. The bill for 3 small plates and two beers came to over $60.00. Any tapa you have at a bar in Spain is generously served and you can see it without magnifying glasses. As the writer points out, the entire concept and philosophy of the tapa has been perverted into culinary armed robbery here in New York. It's time to revolt against it. 
It is the generosity of spirit of those local culinary traditions that doesn't translate in New York. That generosity is an essential part of the cuisine, and if it is not there, no matter how good the food, as far as I'm concerned, the meal is bogus. 

I rest my case

To make matters worse, recently I read something somewhere by some American genius who discovered the virtues of small glasses of beer (as opposed to the disgusting buckets they give you here for draft beers) as if they themselves had found the Higgs Boson under the carpet. Dude, anybody who has ever been to Spain knows that there is no fresher, cooler or better glass of beer than what the Spanish call a "caña". A small little glass, perhaps 8 ounces, of crisp, ice-cold beer that never warms up or loses its fizz.  I have never understood the benefits of drinking flat, stale, tepid beer from a huge glass, like they do here.  

He dicho. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Immortal Chavela Vargas

Mexico will honor the passing of the great singer Chavela Vargas with an open casket viewing in the Palace of Fine Arts today. If I could go pay my respects, I would. Gone is one of the greatest singers in the Spanish speaking world.
I first met Chavela Vargas when I was a child. She was a neighbor of my uncle, who had a house near Cuernavaca in Ahuatepec, a place she wrote a beautiful song about.
At the time, by ten in the morning she already had several tequilas on her. She liked to come over to sing and eat and drink some more. She was always warm and funny. She used to call my cousin Carlos, who was a big boy, her "sietemesino de oro": her golden seven-months preemie. Sometimes she brought her guitar and she sang for us, with that torrential voice of hers, which at the time was still unbroken. My uncle eventually sold the house and I never heard from Chavela again. In fact, many people thought she had died, given her penchant for hard drinking.  It wasn't until the 1990s, when she was in her seventies, that she resurfaced in Mexico, after going through a scare with tongue cancer (she also smoked cigars). She was brought out from semi-obscurity by the owners of a bohemian nightclub in Mexico City, where she used to hold court to packed, adoring audiences. I saw her sing in that intimate space many times. Not once did I ever manage to make it through one of her performances without dissolving in hot tears of pain, joy and gratitude. She was one of the most powerful performers I have ever seen. She seemed to tower onstage, wearing her very elegant ponchos, accompanied only by a guitar player. I remember meeting her backstage after one of her shows and being shocked at how tiny and almost frail she seemed offstage. But when that raspy voice of hers boomed out, she made your heart quake. She used to have more or less the same repertoire of great Mexican ranchera songs every night, but each time she sang one of those torch songs (we call them slash-your-wrists songs) it was as if it was coming out of her guts for the first time. She gave her soul in every song. And the feeling was not maudlin, self-pitying, or forced. It was brutal. It was tough. It was raw. As real and as strong as an earthquake. But then after each song she would make funny jokes about her now sadly abstemious life or engage the audience in puckish repartee.
I remember a very funny story she told one night about going to the Royal Palace in Madrid to sing for the Spanish royal family. King Juan Carlos was her friend. They invited her over for dinner, she had a great time. When it was time to leave, she put on her raincoat and left. It felt a little big on her. When she got to the hotel, she realized that she had taken the King's raincoat, and she found the King's wallet, with the King's credit cards in it. She then imagined King Juan Carlos trying to fit into her raincoat. Whether this is made up or not, it was such a lovely way to conveying to us her own royalty and humility. For those of us who were transformed (mostly into helpless pools of tears) by her power, she was regal. She was a goddess, which is what fans in the audience screamed at her at the end of each song. I am extremely sad to see her go, but I'm glad to know she lasted with power, grace and humor until the end. She had one of the greatest second acts in life. We have been bestowed with the extraordinary luck to have heard her sing her heart out.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

National Bullshitting Company

I have been too busy to post lately (working on a fabulous project that does not allow me to devote myself to this). But I'm still very upset about two things that have already happened in this internet age where everything dies as soon as it lives.
My hatred for NBC continues unabated. A lot has been said about their moronic coverage of the Olympics, but I still need to get this off my chest. When people in Afghanistan and Mexico and the rest of the world can watch the Olympic opening ceremonies live but we in the United States of Farkakteness can't, it is very bad. To be fair, I realized that reading the tweets and facebook updates of the lucky twitterverse was far more fun than watching the unwieldy, ridiculous spectacle itself. But that is not the point. The point is that corporations like NBC are turning the United States into a third world dump with their sheer moronic corporate groupthink. NBC, acting as if this is still 1953 and television is the only broadcasting miracle around, is pandering to their advertisers and what they guess is their idea of what the American people want. They apparently have not read the memo that the entire world is now talking via social media (and not necessarily to "like" Pampers on facebook). It makes us feel like idiots. It makes us feel like we live in a hole in the ground, swamped in human shit trickling from the corporate boardroom above our heads. They are so stupid that they were tweeting the ceremony without broadcasting it or streaming it live, inviting the ire of millions of Americans who would otherwise have been happy as clams. 
Instead of using the billions they spent on the broadcasting rights to create an amazing live conversation with THE ENTIRE FUCKING WORLD, amassing good faith, loyalty and great p.r. among the viewers, NBC managed to alienate everyone with their greed, pettiness and their close-minded, provincial, antiquated, revolting "all-American" narrative, where there is barely room for athletes of other countries. So retarded are they that they cut out a tribute to the victims of the London bombings at the ceremony in order to show Ryan Seacrest interviewing Michael Phelps. 
If I were one of their advertisers, I'd be furious at NBC for deviating the attention and monopolizing the conversation in all the wrong ways. Making people hate their million-dollar commercials in advance. 
I wish NBC Comcast, or whatever corporate clusterfuck they are, death and destruction. 
That idiot who shot the people at the Batman movie in Colorado. Every time something like this happens, it's the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and tearing of garments, but nobody does anything to change the murderous laws that allow Americans to buy assault weapons without even showing an ID. It has been widely pointed out that we cannot buy kiddie chocolates Kinder Bueno in the US because they have plastic toys inside that may make kids choke, but in certain states people can acquire 6000 rounds of ammo as if they were buying Skittles. This is patently insane, but we live in a patently insane country. What will it take to repeal the Second Amendment? Why is this so difficult? When is candidate Obama going to show some balls and talk about the issue? 
Of all the ideological battles in this crazy country, gun control takes the cake (above abortion, gay rights, taxes and everything else that makes no sense). 
Maybe a freaking shootout in the halls of Congress is what's needed. 
The other thing I want to happen is for this idiot to lose his orange hair. Why have the prison authorities not given him a haircut? He's in jail, not at the circus. 

Off with his hair!

Favorite Vidalisms

Goodbye, Gore Vidal, and thanks for these remarks:

"A good deed never goes unpunished."

"The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven't seen them since."

"The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return."

"The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes."

"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little."

"It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."

"The four most beautiful words in our common language: "I told you so."

"There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise." 
(My sentiments exactly) 

Clerk: "Have a nice day". Vidal: "I have other plans".

Thursday, July 26, 2012

We're Lost In Music

We Are Family, The Greatest Dancer, Like A Virgin, Notorious, Let's Dance, I Need Your Love, Good Times, I'm Coming Up, Upside Down... What do all these great dance hits have in common? They were written and produced by the incomparable Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, back in the days of Disco.
I hated Disco when I was growing up. I thought it was tacky and stupid. Of course, now I love it, but then I turned up my nose at it. However, as soon as I heard the unmistakable sound of Chic, I thought:  this is good. This is good Disco. A funky, classy, robust, pared down sound (no tacky oingo boingos) that made me want to get down. It boils down to this: the fantastic baselines of Bernard Edwards (may he rest in peace) and the urgent, buoyant, contagious signature rhythm guitar of Nile Rodgers. Plus excellent arrangements (listen to that piano in We Are Family, or the horns in I'm Coming Up or I Want Your Love) and the cool female voices. The best Disco music in the history of the cosmos. Period.
Rodgers is one of the greatest producers of hit songs ever.
Chic is chic.
Yesterday, the free concert by Nile Rodgers and The Chic Corporation, as it is now called, at Lincoln Center Out Of Doors was the most delightful concert I've ever attended. There was no drama to get in, as is increasingly the case in other free Summer concerts in the city like the ever annoying Summerstage  and the perpetually mobbed series in Prospect Park. This was a breeze.  I've seen the Stones, U2, Pink Floyd, Springsteen and many others. They have been awesome, but this was sheer joy. 
Mr. Rodgers showed up, amiably taking pictures of the crowd before the show, clearly happy to be there, impeccable in a white suit and dreadlocks, with his backup band all in white. Remarkably humble, he seemed to me, perhaps a sign of the consummate musician that he is, more of a session magician than a star performer. He delivered absolute dancing heaven.
At one point, he stopped playing to let us know, as he pointed to a tall round building in the back of us, that there many of his greatest hits were composed, with Madonna, with David Bowie and with his musical partner Mr. Edwards, one of the greatest electric bass players of all time. He let us know that Chic was NEVER a cover band. They wrote and arranged many amazing hits sung by Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Sister Sledge and many others. But we knew that. Or we should have guessed by the ineffable elegance of most of them. The odd man out is Like A Virgin, which seems to have been composed by Minnie Mouse. Still, it does have its catchy hook.
Rodgers was charming, easy going and youthful looking, even as he confessed about bouts of ill health and taking a walk with a member of Duran Duran on the beach at Ibiza recently, both almost crippled and coughing. He said if he had known he would last so long, he would have taken better care of himself. I can only imagine how Chic partied.
The audience was a great mix of young and old, black and white, lucky tourists and people who got down to dance to those amazing tunes. Had you never known what the hell is Chic, you would still recognize all of them incredible dance tunes. In contrast to some of the pop crap we hear today, these songs deserve to be monster hits. Their influential riffs and baselines have been appropriated by countless artists.
Chic has been nominated four times to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It's about time it gets in.

Monday, July 16, 2012

McCarren Pool

Only in New York does going to a public pool feel like entering a maximum security prison, but that is the fun to be had on an adventurous outing to our brand spanking renewed McCarren pool in the edges of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Those who are dying to splash around in a sea of hipsters should probably relegate themselves to weekends. I went on a tranquil Tuesday morning and although hipsters were in attendance (to their credit, you can still tell them apart in a bathing suit), so was everybody else. Old Polish men, Hispanic families, Black families, non-descript white people and everything in between. It was a breeze to get in and the pool was relatively empty. There is a lap swimming section that is delightfully devoid of splashers, but you have to swim laps.
I strongly recommend to visit on a weekday, unless you are a type A personality or you love milling about in interminable lines.
As you approach the entrance, which is peppered with policemen, park rangers and security personnel, you are asked to show the contents of your bag and to produce a sturdy lock. If you have no sturdy lock (none of that wee luggage bullshit), you will be turned away, because the city will not countenance anyone whining about stolen property.
The list of rules is what I assume you have to sign in to when you are welcomed into Alcatraz and short of a cavity search: you can't bring anything with you. No bags, no valuables, no electronics, no arms, no food, no beach chairs, no radio, no nothing. You can bring a hat, a book and sunscreen inside your towel, which you are asked to shake out in front of guards as you exit towards the pool area, after you shower. I loved feeling like a convicted felon as I went for a swim. I'm not kidding. It's what makes this place great.
My eyes get moist at a benevolent administration that spends 50 million dollars in a pool and recreation center that gives FREE access to ALL people. They also give free lunches to kids during the Summer. They have free swim lessons. They have free exercise programs. This is democracy in action. Of course this is also where things may get a tad hairy, but I support cities taking these kinds of gambles and showing people that everybody can enjoy these kinds of programs by consenting to adhere to civilized behavior. Mexico City now has a bike program. I'm sure everybody thought the bikes wouldn't last a day, but if I'm not mistaken, the incidence of bike looting has been negligible if not nil. Our beloved paternalistic mayor Bloomberg and the parks commissioner are betting that with enough police to surround Sing Sing, New Yorkers will be able to enjoy a splash at McCarren pool in peace. I think it will happen. It did the day I went.
So there I was, parking my ass in the hot, hard concrete, another lovely nod to the urban outdoors, swimming in the brisk blue waters and looking at all that humanity, thinking "this is truly delightful".
After my swim, I walked many blocks until I found Pies'n Thighs and I ate three pieces of heavenly fried chicken and cheese grits with a biscuit and I was extremely happy, bordering on ecstatic. I regret foregoing the banana cream pie. When I got home, I read that a floating turd had been found bobbing around in the pool day before and the pool was evacuated for a couple of hours. Was this the reason for the absence of mobs? Perhaps. Oh, well. Let's have some faith. 

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

Take your pick: beefcake soft-porn a la Norma Rae with Magic Mike or the poverty porn of Beasts of The Southern Wild. 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Crocodile Rock

I was crossing a placid, shallow creek that leads to the ocean in Playa Buena Vista, Costa Rica, and when I got ashore, I saw my friends in the other side gesturing with horror.  No more than ten feet from me a rocky shape moved in the water. Our friend Petra, a confident German, ran into the creek and shooed it with her foot. It was a crocodile, about 3 meters (10 feet) long. I was totally calm, safe and sound on the other side. I even made the international gesture for WTF? to Petra.
I never saw it as I crossed. Nothing moved as I crossed. But when it swam away, running away from Petra's foot, thrashing its tail and pushing his head above water, it was awesome and terrifying. And huge. The more I thought about the idea of me having waded only feet away from him, who according to Petra, was coming from where I was, creeped on me up to a slow, extended freak out. The rest of the group would not cross the creek after that.
Petra said crocodiles are shy. I'm lucky he wasn't hungry. I thought Petra had experience, being the manager of our hotel and used to living in the jungle for years. Later on I asked her how long she'd been in Costa Rica and she said 4 months.
I'm so happy I didn't know that then.
I'm relieved that none of us saw the beast as I was crossing, because I don't know if thrashing about like a maniac trying to reach the other side would have been appetizing to him. What does one do? Remain still as with bears, or run for dear life?
Here I was, depleting the world's reserves of DEET, trying not to be eaten alive by insects (I wasn't), only to find that I was close to being a special enchilada dinner for a crocodile. If you don't believe me, here's proof:

Fearless Petra Shooing Croc Away. 

Check out those teeth!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What's In Store For Mexico?

I read with horror William Finnegan's New Yorker article on the Mexican war on drugs in the city of Guadalajara. In general, it seemed to me a good description of the chaos and lawlessness that Mexicans have always boasted they can live with and that now has completely engulfed the country. My big beef with the piece is that it barely mentions the source of all this satanic trouble: the insatiable drug consumption in the US and the cynical, bullying, hypocritical, and idiotic policy of the American government on the issue. Basically, the US is watching how Mexico descends into chaos fighting a problem that resides mostly within American borders, without sullying its own hands, or even trying to come up with viable solutions to curb demand.
Mexico used to be a place where one marveled at how the degree of chaos, corruption and improvisation coexisted with a relatively functioning, peaceful society. Not anymore. The drug business has put the coup de grace on the country and the upcoming elections are not reassuring, no matter who wins. I am extremely curious and anxious, as is every Mexican, I'm sure, to find out what happens at the transfer of power to a different party. I suspect it's not going to be pretty, no matter how you slice it.
Enrique Peña Nieto, the embarrassing candidate for the PRI, our old dictatorial party, is widely ridiculed, but he is on top of "polls" (if you can believe those in a country where rumor is the main source of information and the media has been bought wholesale). Mexicans are disenchanted by the ruling party, the PAN, which has been in power for 12 years and seems to want to call it a day by having chosen a cipher of a woman who has no presidential qualifications to speak of. The Mexican economy is not doing that badly, but the violence of the proxy war president Calderón is losing, will make people vote against the PAN. So the fight is between the old style corruption of the PRI, with an idiot puppet at the helm, and the PRD, the party of the left, and of disenchanted youth, led by an old PRI dinosaur, demagogue and sore loser, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Many Mexicans think he is the "useful vote", the vote that will ensure against the return of the PRI and its monopolistic, corrupt mafia. Compared to the other two bozos, he seems more of an elder statesman. But how would AMLO fare with the Zetas and the cartels? What compromises would he make? And if he loses, will he again throw a massive tantrum and pay for thousands of people to camp out in protest for months as he did last time around? If he doesn't win, will the I Am #132 youth movement take to the streets and protest? Will there be violence?
I would never vote for the PRI. I never did. But I can understand Mexicans who think that it is the only chance of restoring order, because it is simply going to get a cut of the drug profits in exchange for peace. They pine for the era when the cartels were quietly going about their business with the complicity and partnership of the government. But I'm not sure that even the PRI and its dirty tactics can deal with a paramilitary group like the Zetas, which effectively rules the country by fear and uses atrocity as a profit maximizer. Calderón opened Pandora's box and now there is no going back. The narcos are simply taking advantage of a system where the law is pathetic, and virtually non-existent. As long as Mexico has the antiquated, unfair, corrupt and inefficient judicial system that it has, mayhem will rule. 
When I read about the terror the narcos are sowing, I wonder how Mexican children live today. How do you explain to your kids decapitations, the endemic fear of kidnapping, arson in nightclubs teeming with people, shootouts at kindergartens?
How can we expect anyone to continue coming to Mexico when cops are killed at THE AIRPORT? I wonder if in their quest for money and power the narcos have any conscience of the destruction they are inflicting on the country at all levels, economically, psychologically, morally. I bet they are all deeply patriotic, and I bet they love their country as we all do. Then why annihilate it like this? Will it ever stop?

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Threat To Judaism

We Jews worry about Iran and terrorists and anti-Semites and haters, but in my mind, a dire and dangerous threat to the survival of Judaism as a legitimate religion, and also to the survival of Israel as a democratic Jewish state, is the explosive growth of the ultra-orthodox community and the demographic decrease of secular Jews.
This is extremely scary. Judaism is not about the minutiae of whether you are allowed to take an elevator or steep a tea bag on the Sabbath, or to look, God forbid, at a woman. That is superstition, debasement and the distortion of a great religion. Obsessive compulsive religious disorder is what it is. But there is among some Jews an absurd and unspoken view that maintains that the ultra-orthodox are the only ones who know all the rules and therefore are the true keepers of the flame, which is utterly false. Secular Jews are allowing the fundamentalist fringe to distort and take ownership of Judaism through their abandonment of their own culture and history. They will have no one but themselves to blame when most Jews become a herd of retrogrades, like the Taliban.
Rabbis and Jewish Cassandras have always blamed this secular Jewish decline on intermarriage. This may be so, but only to a certain extent. As a Jew, you could marry Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama and still know and celebrate Jewish traditions and teach them to your children, if that was your wish. You don't even have to believe in God to be a good Jew. But you have to know where you come from and what made you this way, and if you have children, you have to let them know as well. The lack of interest on the part of many secular Jews in knowing and furthering these traditions and the Jewish languages is tragic, regardless of whether they are religious or not.
In Israel, secular Jews are to blame for allowing the ultra-orthodox to abuse the citizenry and the state using religious piety as extortion. The abuse is so egregious and has gone on for so long that only recently have Israelis started to demand that their fanatical fellow citizens join the army and obey civil laws like everyone else. I don't understand what took them so long. Actually, I do. Thirty years ago, the ultra-orthodox were still a minority and, since they marginalized themselves from modern society, no one took them seriously. Now that they have exploded demographically, and in the process have become even more intolerant, retrograde and insane, and worse, politically powerful, all of a sudden Israelis can see too well the monster they have created. A monster that demands the humiliation of women on the public sphere, and sucks the teat of the government dry while doing absolutely nothing to ensure the survival of the state, except for breeding like rabbits (a cynical and ultimately self-defeating ploy for those who think this is going to help Israel at all. I'm talking to you, Bibi). A theocratic Israel, drained of intellectual, scientific and artistic talent is as good as dead. 
All Jewish communities in the diaspora have enriched their countries in many ways, but the American Jewish community is unique, given how culturally influential it is and given the singular circumstances of immigration to the US, the fabled melting pot that only happens here. And while the presence of the cultural American Jew is felt more strongly than ever in the public sphere, the actual Judaism of many secular American Jews threatens to become a vestige, since they are quite uninformed about their religious tradition. Soon all that may remain of an intellectually vigorous, vibrant and essential Jewish culture may be the neuroses and the shtick, like an episode of Seinfeld.
I am an atheist, but I went to a secular Jewish school in Mexico, I speak Hebrew and Yiddish and I come from a community that, while thoroughly secular, respects religious tradition mostly in an orthodox way. No one in Mexico, not even the Jews that attend conservative synagogues, would think of shortening a shiva (the Jewish mourning tradition) to Tues and Thurs from 4-7 pm because of convenience, like some American Jews do. This is shocking to me. I have heard American Jews say "my parents are Jewish, but I am not". This is appalling to me. Unless you are consciously willing to renounce your cultural and historical heritage, what the hell does that mean? Nobody speaks Hebrew, let alone Yiddish or Ladino. It's a great loss.
To be honest, (and this is maddeningly paradoxical), as much as I admire the American penchant for inclusion and tolerance, I feel far more at home at an orthodox High Holiday service than at the newfangled smorgasbord of inclusiveness that is offered by some progressive branches of American Judaism. I prefer a male rabbi and a male cantor and all that patriarchal jazz, to a yoga and meditation kabbalistic Shabbat service; so sue me (in the interest of full disclosure, I don't attend either. I've paid my dues as a Jew). Still, the lite, p.c. version looks to me like a new agey jamboree of phony rituals. Maybe that's because I grew up with the orthodox way, and that's what's close to the bone.
This enthusiastic re-purposing of Judaism, by the way, is an American singularity that does not tend to happen in any of the other Jewish communities in the diaspora, except maybe Canada. Jewish American parents, products of a great democracy and brave new children in a land of immigrants striving to become as American as possible, shunned the old world shtetl mentality of their grandparents, then tortured their kids with half-baked Hebrew school and now nobody knows anything.
It's a hard problem to fix, and some American Jews are trying, with magazines like Tablet, a great resurgence of proud Jewish humor (see Larry David and Judd Apatow), hip communal seders in happening nightclubs, prayer shawls with rainbows and other manifestations of modern Judaism. But I suspect that what is needed to ensure the survival of the modern Jew is a revitalization of a more solid Jewish traditional and cultural education.
I'm not saying we should not evolve. Certainly, there are some ideas in our ancient, tribal religion that are incompatible with our modern day ideology (among them the oppression of women, the ostracizing of gays, and practical injunctions that have been rendered moot since the advent of electricity), but I wonder whether we are diluting the great Jewish transition into modernity with such minute tailoring to our lifestyle, that Judaism becomes unrecognizable, inauthentic and therefore, disposable. The greatest irony is that it has been so hard and has taken so long for us to get here: to be able, for the most part, to live freely and safely as Jews in the world, without fear of annihilation, and yet we are losing the battle for Jewish culture, from inside. We cannot allow the ultra-orthodox to dictate the rules of Judaism in the 21st century, unless we want to live in the dark ages again. We must know our stuff and those of us who have children, must pass it on to them.

I have been always deeply anti-religious, complaining as a child that if Passover is supposed to be a celebration of freedom, why then are we forced to eat nothing but Matzoh for eight days. The beautiful Passover seder my grandfather led with gorgeous praying melodies, songs and jokes, I hated during most of my childhood. Now, when I go back to Mexico to Passover seder at my uncle's home, I am deeply moved at the bizarre accident of history that allows us to eat gefilte fish Veracruzana style and a matzoh and mole gratin, while we listen to a beautiful, unique style of prayer that is centuries old. I am deeply concerned that when my uncle is gone, this incredible seder, this authentic connection to centuries of dogged determination to survive, is going to disappear forever. His sons know the melodies, but the investment with us busy, modern Jews is one of diminishing returns. I am already mourning, not the loss of religion, but the loss of a rich and stubborn culture.
I am convinced that living in a self-imposed religious ghetto is not the only way, nor the right way to sustain Judaism. The only Judaism that can thrive in the future is a strong, genuine tradition that accepts its millennial roots while living in harmony with the modern world. But for that, we gotta know our own story.

Sunday, June 03, 2012