Friday, January 30, 2009

Ode to Misanthropy

If Sartre is to be trusted and hell really is other people, then I must have been a real bitch in a past life. For someone whose work is intended to help humanity (not through this blog, but in my paying job as a fundraiser/Jewish communal drone), I sure do hate a lot of people.

#1 People obsessed with their pets
A Facebook friend of mine who will remain anonymous, actually had this status a few weeks ago, "... is missing Twinkles. Can't believe she went to kitty heaven over a month ago. I miss you baby girl."

Whoa. It's a cat. I'm sure you loved her, but I'm also pretty sure that kitty heaven is a red herring. Plus, if she was stuck with a name like Twinkles, maybe she's better off. Add to this category people who put clothing on their pets (they have fur, duh!) and people who incorporate their pets into their wedding ceremonies.

I loved my dogs growing up and it is still weird sometimes that Sassy isn't there when I come home, or even my friend's dog Sweetie (of course, she was so ill-suited for her name that we nicknamed her Crack Whore). But I digress.

#2 People who speak to everyone as if they are children
Or mentally retarded. I work with a woman whose son is autistic and I'm sure even he hates that she talks to him as if he's stupid. No one really digs condescension, especially when it's coming from someone you're smarter than. Maybe your spouse can tolerate being spoken to like a short-bus rider, but the rest of us really hate it.

#3 People who base all their reading selections on Oprah's Book Club
No disrespect to Oprah. That woman has shaped popular culture, buying habits and the national dialogue in ways I can only dream of. And she did it all on her own terms and from scratch. However, I abhor those people who ask me if I've read a book solely because of its appearance in Oprah's Book Club.

Be a little creative damnit! Go the library or bookstore and read books that YOU like, not just the ones that some rich lady in Chicago liked (or her assistant). Besides, it's generally been my experience that if the American populace loves something, then I should probably run. Don't believe me? See The DaVinci Code, the Dallas Cowboys, adjustable-rate mortgages.

#4 People unable to use proper grammar
Hey asshole, "your" and "you're" cannot be used interchangeably! Go back to second grade and learn the difference.

What's most ironic about my loathing of so many human archetypes is that my relationships with several friends are based on a healthy dose of misanthropy (long live the remaining members of the Sarcasm Trio!!!). There's something comforting about finding someone who hates the same folks you do. Your rage is justified because it isn't your weirdness exclusively and little more is true than the notion that misery loves company.

I could go on forever listing types of people I despise (and synonyms thereof) in a bizarre antithesis of the Stuff White People Like blog. But I'm much more interested in hearing about who my readers hate - please comment with your most odious offenders and happy hating!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cook What You Know

With the Arizona Cardinals making their inaugural Super Bowl appearance, various friends have asked me about cooking some Grand Canyon State specialties for their parties on Sunday. OK, so it was only one friend (thanks Roy), but it did get me thinking about how where we come from affects how and what we cook.

Since my parents are East Coasters and my mom is plagued with Crohn's disease and a distaste for spiciness, we didn't have too many traditional Arizonan foods at home. But that didn't stop me from developing a taste for enchilada-style burritos (now I eat vegetarian/kosher versions), nopales (prickly pear cactus pads), chiles and prickly pear-flavored concoctions. Never quite got into fry bread - the Pima/Navajo answer to funnel cake - but there's something about it that always makes me think of the state fair.

Sadly, finding decent sopapillas and Southwestern-influenced food is not too easy here in the Tristate area. I've mastered a darn-tasty meatless chili and if I'm looking to go truly authentic, I could substitute native Nimbus beer, and I rarely make anything containing chocolate without throwing in a little cayenne. Not bad considering most of my Arizona food encounters were limited to restaurants before the age of 22.

Meanwhile back at the late 1970s-built rancher, the flavors in my mother's kitchen took on a decidedly eastern flair... Eastern European, that is. My grandparents came from Hungary after World War II and holidays around our house included at least a few traditional dishes. Homemade apple cake, stuffed cabbage (without tomato sauce), potato/sour cream/beef casserole (from my pre-kosher days), cream of wheat dusted with cocoa, chestnut puree, stuffed peppers and other delicacies filled our table on a regular basis.

When my siblings and I had our bar and bat mitzvahs, the big guns came out and my mom ordered from Schwartz's, the big Hungarian bakery in LA (with locations on Pico AND Fairfax!). Awesome ruggelach, kugeloaf and beigli streamed in and filled the bellies of family and guests alike. And it's one of these treats, chocolate-flavored beigli, that I've decided to tackle for #12 on my 30 By 30 list.

It's on the docket to be checked off in mid-February and I will be sure to let you all know how it turns out.

Apparently, like writing and so many other creative endeavors, cooking is all about drawing on what you know and making it your own. The Southwestern and Hungarian flavors and sensibilities that shaped my cooking style are not as divergent as one might think. Lots of peppers, tomatoes, stewed meats, sour cream and paprika permeate both cuisines. Maybe I'm on to some new fusion concept and Bobby Flay or Rick Bayless will be knocking down my door for menu advice. Just remember this post when you read a New York Times review for that new Magyar-Mex craze that's sweeping the nation.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jews by Choice

I was born Jewish but had interactions with those going through conversion or Jews-by-choice literally since I was five years old. I've been roommates with a girl who after 12 years in Catholic school in the heart of Cajun Country decided her soul was Jewish. I've had close family friends who converted as a family when their kids were young. I've known Black Jews by choice, the list goes on.

What I've learned from all these encounters over the past 25 years is that EVERY Jew is a Jew-by-choice. From Boro Park to Bombay, being Jewish isn't easy and we all make daily decisions about what we eat, what we say, when we pray, etc.

Hearing about people choosing conversion who encounter barriers or discrimination really bothers me because we as Jews should do all we can to encourage those who would willingly join our ranks. Even in the relative safety of 21st Century America, it still isn't easy to be a Jew. Lots of holidays to take off, whole new sets of rules and regulations to consider (whether we observe all the commandments or not) and umpteen questions about weird topics like circumcision and matzah.

Now, I think we should keep up the tradition of turning would-be Jews away three times to make sure they are sincere in their quest. But once a person has made the commitment and immersed in the mikvah, he or she is a Jew and deserves all the rights and privileges as anyone who was born Jewish.

So maybe my own attitudes have de-facto attracted Jews by choice into my life. Maybe it's because of those Passover seders my parents would host when I was a kid where every stray person found a spot at our table. Or maybe it's just my insatiable social butterfly instinct.

Whatever it is, I hope it is a position that more people in the organized (and not-so-organized) Jewish community adopt. Might be a good solution to the economic crisis!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hat Trick Week

Three unbelievable events in one week - two of which I never thought I'd live to see.

First, as I mentioned in my last post, I truly believe the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson was a miracle of science, skill and luck. While it's out of the major media, this is still big news in the New York area as they pull the plane out of the water.

Second, the inauguration of Barack Obama. Yesterday I was driving back from Baltimore and listening to snippets of the We Are One concert on the radio. Every time Obama began to speak I got goosebumps. I'm having a tough time deciding whether I'm more excited about the inauguration of our first black president or about the inauguration of a president I voted for and truly believed in. It's probably both.

Of course, this moment in history is all the more momentous because it coincides so closely with MLK Day. I will admit that I am shirking my civic duty to make this a National Day of Volunteering, but in my defense I haven't really heard about any volunteer opportunities around here. I searched the USA Service website (an offshoot of Obama's campaign site) and found zero activities in my county. The site offers options to filter by activity - food bank, blood drive, clean-up, shelters, health, etc. - and so I'm going to rationalize that giving blood last week covers me in some way. Maybe I'll pick up a spare can of food when I go grocery shopping today to donate.

More than guilt in failing to volunteer and radical amazement (thanks civil rights pioneer A.J. Heschel) at the imminent prospect of a black president, I just feel tremendous pride in my country. For the first time in my adult life, I feel represented by the people at the forefront. My values, my priorities, my aesthetic, my worldview - they are all embodied when President (elect) Obama, Mrs. Obama or his deputies speak.

Though I won't be at the inauguration festivities, many of my friends will (and they'll be freezing their asses off!). I will be celebrating while safely and warmly ensconsed in my cubicle and I will likely shed a tear of joy at what we've built together.

Third and finally, an event I truly could not have imagined I would live to see. The Arizona Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl!!! You have to understand, most people who live in the Phoenix area are not Cards fans because they often come from another city with a vastly superior football team and because those red birds generally suck.

Those days are over! The sports commentators remarked that the record 70,000+ crowd was dressed predominantly in Cardinals red and friends in Phoenix told me people were setting off fireworks in their neighborhoods. Arizona is such a nebulous place - we're not the West and we're not the South; we are a state of migrants and many of us have divided loyalties in politics, sports and other arenas.

But now for a brief, shining two week period, we have a chance to go absolutely crazy at the prospect of winning the Super Bowl. And it's all the more exciting since we could take the Steelers down in the process. I have not bought my Larry Fitzgerald jersey yet, but who knows if next fall I could be cheering for Big Red as much as Big Blue?

Just as Barack Obama has made me proud to be an American, the Cardinals having a shot at a Super Bowl victory makes me a little prouder to be an Arizonan. Not only do I know what I'm doing on January 20 at noon, but now I know where I'll be on Sunday, February 1. GO CARDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson

Heroic, miraculous, downright amazing. Those are the words that instantly leap to mind when I think about the fate of US Airways Flight 1549 and its crash into the Hudson River yesterday. As I first listened to the report on NPR, I flinched, figuring how could anyone survive a plane crash into chilly waters. Then an incredible sense of relief as the news broke that there were no fatalities and that the pilot beat extraordinary odds to land in a shallow part of the river and the luck in having many ferries immediately available.

A few hours later, extreme media fatigue set in as it seemed every person who ever flew in a plane or worked along the Hudson chimed in with their take on the event. CNN had surgeon general nominee/chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta talking about hypothermia (guess what, cold water is bad!). NTSB officials flowed onto the screen like lemmings off a cliff. They even had Dr. Phil spouting off because he's a pilot.

While I don't mean in any way to diminish the unbelievable alignment of events that had to take place to keep this from becoming an utter disaster, aren't there other news stories to cover? Are we so desperate for any good news that we will devote an entire news cycle or two to this story?

In my opinion, yes. With wars in three Middle Eastern locations, failed economy, despicable greed, job losses and the Obamas still not commited to a new dog, we are more than ecstatic to get it up for the smallest shred of goodness and cheer. And who said all the heartwarming shit only happens in time for the holidays?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Fear and Ambivalence in the Strip

Somewhere in the haze of the depressing news about the economy and the exhilarating news about the inauguration, there has been ample time for the media to cover the incredibly depressing news of the war in the Middle East. Which came first - the incursion into Gaza or the Hamas bombardment of civilian targets in Israel - depends on who you ask. What everyone can seem to agree on is that the situation is ripe with potential for pundits, commentators and of course, bloggers.

My colleague, Jack over at Random Thoughts and curator of the Haveil Havalim, has compiled no fewer than 14 editions of blog carnivals devoted to the current violence in the Gaza Strip/Southern Israel. (In the interest of brevity and political correctness, heretofore referred to as the GS/SI Shitstorm.) Many of my Facebook friends have yielded their status reports to daily-updated tabulations of rocket counts. Others have attended rallies from Baltimore to New York to Los Angeles.

Yet in 17 days of formalized battle, I have remained uncharacteristically silent. No submissions railing against Hamas violations of three-hour humanitarian ceasefires. No money paid to help Palestinians held hostage by threat of airstrikes. No posters carried to convince world opinion of Israel's rightness in waging this fight. Why?

More than fatigue or absorption with pressing problems closer to home (and literally within my own family), I feel an incredible sense of ambivalence about the GS/SI Shitstorm, which by the way is known as Operation Cast Lead in Israel.

On one hand, I firmly believe that Israel and all Israelis have the right to live in peace and security without fear of constant rocket fire. Just as America would strike with furious vengance if a projectile launched from Sonoita detonated in Tucson; Israel has to defend herself.

But on the other hand, I don't see how the deaths of more than 900 Palestinians accomplishes anything more than making more suicide bombers, more Hamas militants, more extremists. Because I gotta tell you, if I didn't already hate Mexicans (which I totally don't), having them lob murderous weapons at me would make me freaking hate them.

Some people instantly throw down the anti-Semite card at the first sign of media leaning to any side that is not 100% pro-Israeli. Protests have sprung up throughout Europe condemning Israel's actions as disproportionate, aggressive and (dare I say) terrorizing and as expected, the organized Jewish community has labeled Jew-haters anew.

Sure, the Israeli Defense Forces are held up to a different standard than that of any other country. When 40 civilians died near a United Nations school in Gaza, it wasn't an unfortunate and tragic mistake. It was further evidence of the barbaric Tzahal airstrikes. Nevermind evidnce that Hamas booby-traps schools and uses children as human shields.

My best advice on this issue is to simply get used to it. Mass media will always expect more from the IDF - they made the same mistake I did and were entirely too good at the beginning. Maybe if we'd let the Six-Day War go on for a whole week, they would cut us a little slack now.

Today the New York Times published a story about how the worldwide criticism has forged solidarity among often-fractured Israelis, and their Jewish brethern in the Diaspora. So why is it still so hard for me to outwardly express my Zionism?

As a child, I was sold the notion that Israel was this mystical, magical place where milk and honey flowed from every crack in the sidewalk and where every Jew experienced some sort of spiritual awakening. In my two entirely too brief trips, I have fallen in love with the sights and been inspired by its people, but I've never been able to give myself over to Israel whole hog (pun intended).

Just as I love America, despite her faults, I love Israel in the same way. Enthusiastically and unconditionally, but still with a few questions. And maybe that's why when times are tough in Israel, I will defend her to our enemies but will shrink from the front lines of rhetorical battle. Besides, healthy criticism is much easier when the rockets aren't raining down on you.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

30 By 30

Over at Day Zero they encourage people to come up with 101 in 1001 (that's 101 things to do in 1001 days), but that seems really ambitious. Instead, I'm launching 30 By 30, my list of 30 things I want to accomplish in the 365 days before my 30th birthday.

I'm going to do my best to follow the advice of the Day Zero folks and create specific tasks with measurable or definable results. You can track my results through this link (provided the Blogger Help Group people are right). Tasks in progress will appear in blue. Finished tasks will appear in green with the date of completion. Of course, there will be frequent Facebook status updates related to the list.

1. Travel to a new place below the Mason Dixon Line (March 14, 2009)
2. Visit three tourist spots in New Jersey (went to the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts in Madison, the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick and the Morris Museum November 2009.)
3. Get another stamp in my passport before it expires (I left the country on July 3, 2009 but didn't get a stamp because Canada doesn't roll like that. Then I got a stamp from Costa Rica on Aug. 4, 2009.)
4. Watch four foreign language films (May 16, 2009)
5. Do a yoga class focused on meditation versus exercise (April 23, 2009)
6. Spend a little time exploring an outer borough (Aug. 15, 2009)

7. Say blessings over my food
8. Volunteer meaningfully. Hey, I even started a group for young Jews to volunteer: (December 8, 2009)
9. Give Divine thanks for the blessings in my life and the lives of others
10. Learn about another religious faith or tradition (April 2, 2009)
11. Find a synagogue I enjoy for the high holidays (not fully enjoyable, but it was good enough. September 19, 2009)

12.Master a complicated Hungarian dessert (Feb. 14, 2009)
13. Cook with two new vegetables or fruits per season (3/4)
14. Make coffee tasty enough for others to drink/enjoy (Feb. 15, 2009)
15. Eat in one of the umpteen New York City restaurants I'm always reading about & lusting over - I'm planning to hit the Second Avenue Deli for my birthday lunch!
16. Cook Indian food (September 3, 2009)
17. Roast a turkey and serve it at a dinner party (or Shabbos dinner)

18. Comment on five new blogs each month (4/12)
19. Earn $100 from Google AdSense ($35 as of mid-July!)
20. Increase my readership by 20% from where it was last year
21. Submit posts to a blog carnival each month (Been doing for at least half the year so I think we're good. July 17, 2009)
22. Launch three new blog-related (or writing) endeavors (April 12, 2009)

23. Get over my fear of driving on bridges
24. Read 25 books in one year (15/25)
25. Have an emergency kit in my car
26. Get a new car (Feb. 28, 2009)
27. Get a new job (Aug. 19, 2009)
28. Get a new place to live (Since my new job is only 4 miles from my current apartment, I'm not moving. Sorry to disappoint.)
29. Practice speaking/reading Spanish (Aug. 12, 2009 in Costa Rica)
30. Master the art of doing nothing. I'm pretty sure this will be the hardest item on the list. Didn't fully do it, but I think I'm getting better. (January 1, 2010)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Birthday Presents for Everybody!

Remember when you were a kid and your birthday rocked, not just because you got presents but because you knew you'd be invited to all those other kids' birthday parties where you'd get those favors? It was like getting another round of presents!

This year, I've decided to kick it old school and offer some of my readers a chance at a little birthday favor that is Shtetl Fabulous. My birthday is on Thursday and I just got some cute postcards that I really want to send out.

The first 20 people who respond to this post (either via comment or email) will get an original limerick or haiku sent to the address of their choosing. If you don't want anything dirty, please be sure to include that in your message as my poetry skills flourish most when I can be a little blue.

Hoping to have a more thorough post in time for the big day and thanks for being a part of the first official Shtetl Fabulous birthday giveaway!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Haveil Havalim Shout Out

Check out my post and a whole ton of other fantastic stuff at this week's Haveil Havalim! Ima on (and off) the Bimah did a fantastic job compiling all the submissions and making it readable.

If you've been following the latest tragedies in Israel, there's also a collection of posts there about the conflict in Gaza.

If you've just got a lazy Sunday night ahead of you and you're dreading the inevitable alarm tomorrow morning, this is a great way to spend a few minutes (or hours). Feel free to peruse and enjoy!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Passion of the Everyday

It's New Year's Day. A day both reviled and praised for its insipid power to make people introspective and to arouse a need for revision in one's life. Those bloated with an excess of holiday goodies crowd the gym (though luckily for the avid exerciser, most of them quit a few weeks later), I'm sure sales of Nicorette increase and especially this year, people open up their outdated Quickbooks software in a futile attempt to balance bank accounts.

For whatever reason, January first is our cultural cue to hit the reset button and attempt (often vainly) to draw new inspiration into our lives. I have generally eschewed the entire concept of New Year's resolutions on account of the fact that they have minimal staying power.

My innate and pathological need to get things done means I feel more let down than normal folks when I don't achieve a goal. Believe me, spending most of New Year's Day on the couch was as much an accomplishment for me as losing ten pounds and cleaning up the basement might be for you.

Two of the activities I indulged in today have converged in my head as rather striking and serve as the real inspiration for this post. First, I read a bit more of this fantastic book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. It's a nonfiction piece about a disgruntled secretary who embarks on a quest to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking in her Long Island City, Queens kitchen. Dogged by hard-to-find ingredients, a lifestyle that does not allow for hours of cooking and a rebellious plumbing system, Julie charts her experiences on a blog and fuels her efforts with many vodka gimlets.

You have to get past some histrionics, but ultimately both Julie Powell's story and the framing biography of Julia Child are a testimony to following one's passion, even when found in an unlikely place. They faced more existential obstacles than the average amputee war hero or blind race car driver, but their zeal nonetheless comes across ebulliently. Neither Julie nor Julia truly uncovered their talents until their late 20s/early 30s and as a gal with a birthday coming up next week, I find that particularly comforting.

Second in my New Year's Day agenda came watching Man on Wire, a new documentary that tells the story of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, a few other daring walks. NPR's David Edelstein offers a pretty good review here, that you can read on your own. What fascinated me about Philippe's feat was the sheer audacity of it all. While preparing for the "coup," he repeatedly flew back and forth from Paris to New York, had to purchase expensive equipment, procure false documents and convince friends to participate in the effort.

For the life of me, I could not get over how this all happened; even more so because he did it for the art of it. The only explanation the film offers and the only conclusion I could come to was - passion.

Just like Julie Powell threw all logic and quite a bit of money out the window in order to whip up more than 500 baroque French recipes in the span of a year, Philippe risked his life and his freedom for the beautiful thrill of accomplishment.

In no way do I mean to assert that getting through my lengthy to do list of grocery shopping, trips to the gym and blogging is on par with walking on a thin wire, 110 stories up for 200 feet; but it's a start. The notion of discovering my passion occupies probably too much of my brain time these days with a monumental birthday just 395 days away. Maybe I believe in resolutions after all.