Tales of the Book Collector: Judaica

Here’s a recent post from the Times of Israel. As it starts:

My enthusiasm for collecting books on Jewish themes soared on a recent vacation that included a stop in downtown Kerrville, Texas. Dropping by a used bookstore, I found a volume I’d never seen before in decades of visits to stores and tag sales. This encounter with the printed word supported my long-time belief: you never know when an appealing tome might pop up, like a doggie in the window, just begging to go home with you.

The very name of the store, Wolfmueller’s Books, sounded promising, fragrant with an antique Teutonic bookiness. Old Mr. Wolfmueller probably shared the Texas Hill Country’s deep German roots. I strolled in and first perused the highlighted section of books by local favorite son, Jewish musician, author and feisty gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman—another excellent signal that something Judaic lurked therein.

The Forbidden Passages: Tales from the Editorial Spike

Journalists call it the “spike” – the decision to not publish a story for reasons of its truthfulness, incompleteness or other political sensitivity. I used the spike on thousands of words I could have included in my dating book. Even after years of polishing and considering materials, I had to decide what to include and what to delete up until the end. The book could have topped 250 pages had I opted to throw in every pearl of wisdom I’ve ever scribbled on dating topics, or topics completely unrelated to dating.

In some cases, I spiked episodes that I ultimately did not feel comfortable seeing the light of day (at least under my own name). They were just too personal, revealing more than necessary about the inner workings of intense relationships. I decided to leave in related but shorter or milder material that made a point without drawing blood. And in some cases, I think I’ll save the material for either a novel or another try at the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. Something may be too personal for a book, but just right for Modern Love (as I’ve said at times in my life, I’m corruptible).

Still, no harm will come from a peek at what’s not there. So, here, free of most context, are snippets of what I call the Forbidden Passages — Tales from the Spike. Feel free to create your own imagined stories about them.


She had said I was a pain in the ass for never calling, just doing IM. “That’s not true!” I protested. “As soon as Helga gave me her phone number I called her.” Ingrid was stunned by this—she never knew I had actually talked to Helga. I had behaved the same with Ingrid—when a woman gives me her phone number, I call.


A 37 year-old Catholic lawyer of Lebanese background in Latin America, Judy immediately attracted passionate attention from men who loved her glamorous profile and pouting, voluptuous photograph, remarkably similar to Latin TV star Ninel Conde.

In fact, the woman in the picture was Ninel Conde. The profile was a fake, a lark invented by a friend to assemble all the stereotypical themes of a glamour-girl profile. Then the lie became a kind of truth. My friend turned to me, as co-writer, to help figure out what to do with the emotional mess that her sexy monster created.


For months I chased Sandi even as her yes/no/maybe-so ambivalence made the pursuit as futile and maddening as Captain Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick. I knew this opportunity would end badly, but my back muscles strained and my hands and heart bled as I plunged my emotional oars into the churning, blood-chilling waters of romance with Sandi. . . . Then, Sandi flipped her cruel, mighty tail one final time and smashed my pathetic little whaleboat of love, ending contact between us.


Vera says: Come to see me

Van says: That’s a long haul, a big step. Will you be in the US at any time?

Vera says: No, I prefer you come  ladies first choice

Van says: I see. Too bad about all that water in the middle.

Vera says: Bye


My favorite venues have been the Essensuality “erotic expression” salons and the monthly Wide Open Wednesday at the Museum of Sex, where performers gather in the Oral Fix Café for a rollicking, unpredictable time. I’ve had to go deep within to find my own performing style and material. From the start, I knew I had to connect to audiences with my words, not my looks; unlike some performers, I’ll never wow anybody by stripping down to my skivvies. What, I thought, could I possibly say compared to talented performers like Bikini Bondage Babe, Little Miss Orgy Organizer, Gay Phone Sex Dude and Brooklyn Transgender Birthday Gang Bang Guy?


We were in our 40s and used my classic Corvette Stingray to get away from our kids. Better late than never!

Did I say “Corvette Stingray”? I meant my “Hyundai Elantra.” But it thinks it’s a Stingray.


“Headlights on the Driveway,” Now on JDate’s JMag

JDate, the font of so many colorful dating adventures for me, graciously let me contribute an essay related to the book to its JMag section. The title is “Headlights on the Driveway and Other Awkward Dating Moments.”  The essay covers some of the excruciating encounters that the risk-tolerant dater must at times endure, ranging from the short and sour to the endless “Twilight Zone” interludes. Here’s the mood:

You’re out there emotionally, revealing hopes and fears and your brightest smile. Do it long enough and you get a thick skin that still bleeds easily. Sure, you want to leap into the great romance of your life, but that electricity doesn’t always strike. More often, you’re drenched in a chill drizzle of encounters that range between wryly amusing (in retrospect) to heartbreaking.


Thinking About Body Images and “Someday Melissa”

I typically scan the New York Times obituary page for lives well lived, but the December 21 edition with the tiny-type paid notices was wrenching with its sketches of too-soon loss. One very long notice was for Suzanne Hart, the advertising executive killed in an elevator accident a week earlier. By contrast, the memorial notice for Melissa Rose Avrin ran only 7 lines, plus a photo. It read,

Dec. 21, 1989-May 6, 2009. Your movie is a reality. It’s changing lives around the world in the battle against Eating Disorders. Missing and loving you forever, Mom. www.somedaymelissa.com.

I followed the link and found that “Someday Melissa” is the name of a documentary made by Melissa’s mother, Judy Avrin, as a response to Melissa’s death at 19 from a heart attack related to her bulimia. It has already accepted at a film festival and screened at medical schools, universities and Jewish community centers. Someday Melissa includes journal entries from Melissa and interviews with family members, friends and medical and mental health professionals.It deserves wide viewing and discussion.

Melissa Avrin’s wrenching and fatal bulimia resonates with me as the extreme expression of body-image issues. In my dating days in the 1980s, I met women with bulimia and the memories of their deep distress over appearance and other psychological issues still haunt me. I tried to be as supportive as possible, but I realized the matter was far beyond my influence, other than saying I accepted them for who and what they were. Whatever self-perceptions led them to behave this way had no basis in reality — they were attractive and fit. But we’re not talking about reality with any of this. I couldn’t save anybody, and it took years before I realized that.

I touch on body image issues, both men’s and women’s, in my book. I don’t know if Jewish women are more prone to eating disorders than any other ethnic group, but they are perhaps more articulate in acknowledging and addressing them. I look at the film’s website and I think of other women and their pain. The film already has had an impact, judging from the hundreds of comments posted on the site’s guestbook about viewers’ responses to it. I can only hope that Judy Avrin’s response to her great loss leads to comfort and support for people who punish themselves when looking in the mirror and not seeing the God-given wonder they truly are.


“Gloomy Sunday” — Finding Compelling Jewish Cinema Via Serendipity

Planning for a four-day weekend, with three days without library access, I went a little wild on Thursday scooping up DVDs. My son’s with me so I looked for films through his eyes. Several genres called out to me–a big film noir collection, 13 Assassins in the ever-popular Japanese samurai mode, Gilda with Rita Hayworth, and finally, from the German shelf, Gloomy Sunday. I had never heard of the movie, but the Holocaust themes and Budapest setting suggested this could be worth a look.

We kicked off our holiday film festival with this movie. I highly recommend it to anybody looking for a different take on Holocaust cinema. The Amazon link gives plenty of details about the film, so I’ll focus on what made it especially notable for me. First, female lead Erika Marozsán throws out some of the most smoldering looks ever seen in a movie — the term “bedroom eyes” must have been invented for her. She plays a waitress for a Jewish restaurant owner in Budapest, before and during the war. The character and probably the actress aren’t Jewish, but she’s integral to the plot of a movie that relentlessly moves toward the deportations from Hungary, which happened in 1944. I’ve already updated my mental list of the sexiest Jewish movies to include Gloomy Sunday on the strength of Marozsán’s performance.

The Holocaust aspect is compelling but not nearly as explicit as Schindler’s List and The Pianist. I found Gloomy Sunday also interesting also as a Holocaust movie set in Hungary. Other movies that came to mind are the Hungarian-language Fateless and English-language Sunshine are other movies set in Hungary, and they all deal, to differing degrees, with the lives people made after the war ended.

As an extra treat, Gloomy Sunday has a conclusion that makes rewatching earlier parts of the movie a delicious, retributionist pleasure.



Getting This Jewish Show on the Road with . . . Tim Tebow?

Given that tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, this is an ideal time to start this new blog with thoughts on — Christians and Jews. Sometimes I think I stand at the crossroads between two religious traditions with a 2,000 year history of at best uneasy coexistence and at worst, unidirectional slaughter. A news item last week showed the clash very clearly, and the uproar had a personal angle for me.

The issue involved the column titled “My Tim Tebow Problem” by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Stamford, Connecticut’s Temple Beth El. The column appeared first online, and then in the print edition of the New York Jewish Week. Rabbi Hammerman expressed his unease about Denver Broncos’ QB Tebow, from his missionary parents to his long-time public admissions of his Christian faith. The stunning Broncos OT victory over the Chicago Bears was the straw that broke the rabbi’s tolerant back. The column had many unintentionally classic paragraphs, and this captured the tone the best:

If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.

Rabbi Hammerman continues in that mode and closes with this thought:

Unlike some other blue-staters, I do not fear people of faith. I fear people of certainty. The worldwide struggle going on right now is not between good and evil, but between certainty and doubt. I fear people of certainty. It cuts across denominational lines: Progressive modern Orthodox Jews lie on one side of the divide, joining mainline Christians and moderate Muslims, and those on the other side are also Jews, Christians and Muslims; the people of certainty.

The column certainly caused comment, and the worst thoughts soon vanished from the column and then the column itself was yanked from the Jewish Week website. Fortunately, I bought a copy of the December 16 issue and can enjoy these thoughts in a hard copy, whenever I want. Rabbi Hammerman issued a short apology on his own blog, saying his effort to “make broad points about society and extremism” backfired. The Jewish Week issued its own apology.

I followed the controversy with some horrified fascination. In one connection, I attended services at Beth El when I lived in Stamford; in fact, it was the first synagogue I checked out when I moved there in October 2002. I attended community events where Rabbi Hammerman spoke, and I never had any problems with his comments. So, seeing somebody I sort of know getting pounded in the press made me wince. I felt for him, even if I disagreed with what he wrote.

Rabbi Hammerman’s comments also carry a certain twisted validity. He expressed, in a clunky way, what I have heard other Jewish and non-Jewish blue staters say many times. They loathe conservative Christians in terms similar to what appeared in the column. Progressive religious beliefs easily merge into the left wing of the Democratic party, mirroring a process that also happens on the right wing with the GOP. They have little empathy and barely any tolerance for the people of certainty. As in Rabbi Hammerman’s column, the certainty people can be Jewish as much as anybody. I’ve heard Jews savage the beliefs and lifestyles of Orthodox and, especially, Chasidic Jews. I can imagine them reading the column, now down the memory hole, and nodding, “That’s right, he’s speaking the truth.” He was the perfect progressive on the matter and I would have liked to see the column remain up to stimulate discussion. Apologies notwithstanding, Rabbi Hammerman voiced what he and others think about those icky Tebow types, even Jewish Tebow types.

Tying the discussion in to the upcoming book, I’ve had first-hand experiences with doubters. I dated one woman who became enraged at the very sight of Orthodox women, whose politics did not align with hers. At one event, she harangued two of them, shouting, “If you don’t believe in abortion, then YOU raise the kids people don’t want!” I remember thinking, “How can she say that? What if these women lost relatives in the Holocaust, or had infertility problems? She doesn’t know anything about them.”

Another woman, an immigrant from one of the more repressive corners of Eastern Europe, exhausted me during telephone chats with her anti-American screeds, starting with the idiot leader George Bush and working her way through the political and economic shortcomings that surrounded her. My romantic curiosity, which was considerable, crumbled under the hammerblows of her Euro-skepticism. I’m happy to report that she ultimately returned to the tolerant and thriving Eurozone and is much happier with the culture and politics. The fascist hellhole that is Amerikkka just wasn’t her kind of place.

I’ll leave it to others to analyze whether those “mainline Christians and moderate Muslims” are really such pals of progressive Jews, and why Hindus and Buddhists were excluded from the discussion. What’s the JewBu perspective on coalition building? For now, I hope the controversy leads to reflection on how Jews and Christians get along, and what factors drive Jewish blue staters of faith to lash out at others of faith who don’t stick to a very narrow range of politics and lifestyles. I’d like to think doubters and certainers can find common ground. But I’m afraid I’m a person of doubt on this matter.