It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy! I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower this week.

Originally published on It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy!

I’ve wanted to read it for a while because a) when I was a teacher, my students were always reading it; b) the trailer for the film had me intrigued; c) I remembered something about “gay themes;” d) Sarah* recently mentioned reading it and I am highly susceptible to suggestion; but mostly e) my iPhone battery ran out the other night when I was in Cambridge, and I needed something to occupy myself during the hour-long public transit ride home.

The first thing I noticed was that it took place in 1991, meaning that Charlie is one year older than me. It turns out the book was published in 1999, when I was a senior in college, which explains why I never heard about it until I was in regular contact with high school students again a few years later. But just as when I finally watched My So-Called Life earlier this year, I was so swept up in the setting’s ability to recapture the specifics of my high school experience that I forgave a lot of things that might have otherwise annoyed me about the book.

And that’s the thing. This book so distinctly recalls my high school experience that I wonder if Stephen Chbosky and I weren’t friends. There’s no one character that maps to me or any specific friends (except maybe Patrick), but the group of kids portrayed in the book is exactly the crowd I spent freshman year with. I know, I’m not the first, last, or only kid to have formative experiences around The Rocky Horror Picture Show and making a zine and reading Naked Lunch and feeling bad for not liking or understanding it and driving around just for the sense of freedom. But that’s the point of the book, right? That we’re not alone.

When I mentioned the book today at work to a colleague who’s just a little bit younger, she mentioned that she and her friends all read the book in high school. I said that I was aware of it because of my former students, adding that I think it’s on the syllabus in most high schools now. She was surprised, saying that in her day it was definitely the kind of book that was passed around behind teachers’ backs because it was dirty.

I hadn’t gotten to the “dirty” parts yet when we had that conversation, and even now I’m more… shocked? I don’t know. surprised, I guess, by the drug content than the sex. But that tells you a bit about who I was in high school too.

(I had originally, accidentally written “who I was in high school tool.” Paging Dr. Freud.)

Anyway, I’m glad I read it, but learning that Mr. Chbosky wrote the screenplay to the misguided film version of Rent has left me with more complicated feelings than anything in the book itself.

(* Was it Sarah? Now I can’t find the post. Regardless, whether it was Sarah or someone else, I agree with her assessment of the ending, in that it wasn’t handled well, but I think the lack of visibility of that kind of situation with that kind of gender dynamic in other popular books makes it important even if ham-handed, so the educator in me gives it a pass.)

Interfaith Family: Review of Reflections of a Loving Partner: Caregiver at the End of Life

Originally published on InterfaithFamily.

Death is much like the famous aphorism about opinions: everyone will have one. Unlike opinions, we tend to keep our thoughts about death to ourselves. On one level, this makes sense: death is scary and it’s a downer, sure to put a damper on any conversation. But on another level, it is our avoidance of the topic that makes death scary. In Reflections of a Loving Partner: Caregiving at the End of Life, author C. Andrew Martin not only makes the case for a healthy discussion of death, he models how to talk about death and offers exercises to assist the reader in considering the inevitable.

Reflections is equal parts memoir and self-help book. Martin became an expert on death and dying in the worst way possible — through the AIDS diagnosis and eventual loss of his partner Gil Victor Ornelas in the mid-1990s. Rather than passively watch his beloved slip away, Martin took action, enrolling in a hospice volunteer-training program so that he could become a more effective caregiver.

Today, Martin is a certified nurse specializing in hospice and palliative care, and his knowledge and sensitivity informs every page. Despite his current expertise, Martin ably recreates the sense of floundering helplessness as well as the desire to learn from his early days. As readers, we accompany Martin in his education about hospice, benefitting from his education as well as the provocative questions his hospice teacher posed at the end of each training session. These questions, along with additional questions Martin includes in the appendix, provide opportunities for the reader to examine one’s own assumptions and beliefs about death and dying. As Martin makes clear, this process is valuable whether one is struggling with someone dying at the moment or not. After all, it is inevitable that at some point in everyone’s life, death enters the scene, and we’re better off having some preparation.  Continue reading

InterfaithFamily: Review of The Choosing by Andrea Myers

Originally published on InterfaithFamily.

I am one of those people who grew up bombarded by messages from the mainstream Jewish community denouncing intermarriage as the worst plague affecting the Jewish people. Often, when whoever was railing on was feeling charitable, their rant would include a parenthetical reminder that converts were considered fully Jewish, so marrying a convert to Judaism wasn’t intermarriage.

Andrea Myers’s memoir, The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days, reminds us that there’s more than one way to create an interfaith family. Although Myers’s wife is Jewish, her own conversion to Judaism created many of the same dilemmas in her relationship to her parents and extended family that many interfaith couples confront. Her parents, themselves a mixed marriage of Catholic and Lutheran, are supportive and even eager to embrace their daughter’s new faith — at times with hilarious results. You mean the Jewish new year isn’t celebrated with midnight noisemakers? It’s not appropriate for a woman to thank an Orthodox Judaica seller for a discount with a big bear hug?  Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Memoir with a Message: An American Radical

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

I read a lot of nonfiction, and more than a few memoirs. But my pleasure-reading tends towards showbiz tell-alls (next up: Tina Fey and Betty White) and pop-history (think Sarah Vowell). So when I was asked to review Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, I knew I’d be wandering out of my comfort zone.

Jewschool readers may know Rosenberg from her work as director of communications at American Jewish World Service. Those with longer memories may recall the 1990 documentary Through the Wire, which detailed a fight that Rosenberg and her fellow prisoners at the Female High Security prison in Lexington, Kentucky fought and won against the government protesting the cruel and unusual treatment they received. Rosenberg’s book connects the dots, detailing her transformation from radical activist on the FBI’s most-wanted list to non-profit Jewish professional.  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: Give Comics for Chanukah

Originally Published on JewishBoston.com.

If you’ve followed me across the blogosphere for any amount of time, you may have picked up on one of my hobbies. I love comics.  I’ve blogged about it here and on Jewschool, I’ve been written up in the Boston Phoenix for being a comics nerd… I even wrote a couple of articles about Jewish comics writers & artists for the Jewish Advocate about five years ago.  So you might understand that I often take gift-giving occasions as opportunities to proselytize about comics by giving them as gifts.

And now, thanks to the power of the internet, I can amplify my message of “comics are awesome” by sharing this gift guide with you.  You don’t need to love comics yourself to give them as gifts!  Here are four suggestions of great recent comics with Jewish content that make for great gifts whether the recipient already loves comics or is just about to find out. Continue reading

It’s Not Where You Start: You Must Love Me

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Don’t freak out, this isn’t a post about my love life. At least, not my romantic life. This is about my first love: musicals.

Within my general obsession with musical theater, there are a few areas I find particularly interesting, all of which can be grouped under the rubric of transformations. I am fascinated with the way stories are told and retold, and few storytelling arenas are as obsessed with retelling as musical theater.

I love to read/watch the books, plays, and movies that musicals were based on to see how the composers, lyricists, bookwriters, directors et al applied their craft. For example, my already huge admiration for Oscar Hammerstein II grew exponentially after reading Edna Ferber’s original novel Show Boat. The way that Hammerstein transformed the central metaphor of the book — Magnolia’s relationship with the Mississippi River — into the central metaphor of the show — Magnolia’s relationship with the musical stage — is genius.  Continue reading

It’s Not Where You Start: I’m Hip

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Tonight I attended the Boston premiere of Howl, the Allen Ginsberg bio-pic starring James Franco as the preeminent beat poet. I have been looking forward to this movie for about a year, and not only for the promise of seeing James Franco make out with Aaron Tveit.

It may not surprise you to know that I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Ginsberg. As a gay Jewish kid growing up in a town with few gay or Jewish (and no gay, Jewish) peers, I found both Ginsberg’s biography and his poetry resonated with me quite a bit when I first encountered it at age 14 or so. Looking back, I wonder if that’s entirely accurate, or if I knew that beat poetry was supposed to appeal to alienated youth, so I convinced myself I liked it. I do remember getting a thrill from “Please Master” that had as much to do with seeing a portrayal of my sexuality as it did with seeing any portrayal of sexuality.
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Jewschool.com: Two gay Jews walk into a bookstore…

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

When I was younger, I was half convinced that all gay people were Jewish. Certainly, the only images of gay people I saw in the media were characters in the plays of William Finn, Tony Kushner, and Paul Rudnick. (That I considered Broadway plays to be “the media” is likely a unique feature of having been a gay, Jewish, middle-class kid.) I’ve remained a fan of all three writers ever since, so I was delighted to see that Rudnick had a new memoir out last month.

I Shudder is a collection of autobiographical essays very much in the David Sedaris mold, although Rudnick’s New Jersey Jewish relatives, New York theatrical exploits and Hollywood headaches provide quite a different framework for his humor. It’s to his credit that stories about his great-aunt Lil are every bit as entertaining as his account of visiting a real-life nunnery for inspiration while writing Sister Act. His only missteps come in the segments that give the book its title. Peppered throughout the book are “Excerpt[s] from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet.” Rudnick certainly can write in character — his “If You Ask Me” column in Premiere magazine, written as middle-aged housewife Libby Gelman-Waxner was hysterical — but Elyot’s complaints about the insufferable people one encounters in life don’t measure up. These essays’ weakness is only made more visible by their inclusion in an otherwise fabulous collection.

Mental: Funny in the Head, by Eddie SarfatyRudnick isn’t the only gay Jewish funny man with a new collection of autobiographical essays. Eddie Sarfaty, a stand-up comedian who’s probably best known to those who summer in Provincetown (where he’s had a regular gig for many seasons) has produced Mental: Funny in the Head. I’ll say up front that it’s unfair to Sarfaty to compare his book to Rudnick’s — but they came out within months of each other, and I read them back to back, so what can you do? On the other hand, I have a soft spot for Sarfaty because he performed a stand-up show as one of Keshet’s very early fundraisers, back before anyone had ever heard of us.

My feelings on Mental are much more mixed. When it’s at its best, such as when Sarfaty writes about his relationships with older relatives, it’s both funny and touching. (His publisher has posted Second-Guessing Grandma, the first essay in the book, for free on-line.) But too much of the book doesn’t measure up to its best parts, and I found myself impatient for chapters on the comedian’s sex life to end so I could get to the good bits about his European vacation with his parents. The nice part of a book like this is that you can skip past chapters you don’t like without worrying that you won’t be able to follow what comes next. The essays aren’t presented chronologically, and when events from previous essays are mentioned, they’re explained as though the reader is encountering them for the first time. I loved roughly half of the essays, but could have done without the other half. (My favorites: “My Tale of Two Cities,” about the aforementioned European trip; “Can I Tell You Something?” detailing the comedian’s experience teaching a stand-up class for amateurs; and “The Eton Club,” a tribute to a certain kind of gay culture that died off with AIDS.)

Both Rudnick and Sarfaty profess their own distance from Jewish religion, but both books are infused with Yiddishkeit, from the focus on Jewish family dynamics to the meditations on how Hillel’s teachings might inform the way we partake in online cruising sites. Neither book is likely to inspire readers to find any great insights into Jewish culture, but I suspect most Jewschool readers will find many moments in each that provoke a knowing smirk of familiarity.

Jewschool.com: Having Faith in the Media

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

When I was in high school, one of the stops on USY‘s Israel tours was The Propaganda Center. I’m fairly certain that wasn’t actually its name, but I defy you to google “Israel propaganda center” and come up with anything useful. Regardless, this place was supposed to teach us about spotting bias in the media. Although I went there twice during high school, I don’t remember the specifics — some of it involved seeing how Hitler’s media peeps used images of Kosher slaughter to make Jews look like devil-worshippers with bloodlust. What I do remember is that even though I was already aware that pretty much all media had some sort of bias, watching the folks at The Propaganda Center poke holes in actual news stories forever changed the way I read the news about Israel (and much of the news in general).

Blind SpotAbout a month ago, I had a similar experience that has changed the way I read the news, only this time it was in book form. Reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion was an experience of consciousness-raising. The anthology, edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Roberta Green Ahmanson, takes contemporary newsmedia to task for misunderstanding and sometimes simply missing critical stories because of an epidemic of ignorance about religion in the world’s newsrooms. Some of the stories analyzed are what you’d expect: Iraq, Iran, terrorism, etc… but perhaps the most interesting chapters cover the ways a misunderstanding of religion crippled the reporting of George W. Bush’s reelection, the hooplah surrounding The Passion of the Christ, and faith-based humanitarian programs. (The best “fun fact” I took away from the book, however, relates to the 24-hour cable news stations. Turns out they get higher marks than most other news outlets. Since they have so much time to fill with only so many stories happening on any given day, they’ve taken to exploring many more angles for each story simply out of necessity. That doesn’t make them any less annoying.)

Naturally, I approached the book searching for bias. After all, this could have easily been a conservative screed against the Liberal Media Elite. And to be fair, there’s a little of of that in evidence. But part of the book’s point is that religion doesn’t always equal conservatism, and that outlook is a huge part of the problem to begin with. So, for example, when religious liberals and religious conservatives banded together to champion human rights legislation (such as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004), the remarkable alliances at work were overlooked in most press. This does everyone a disservice, especially the end-consumers of the news who end up with a flattened and inaccurate view of the world.

The book avoids one of my pet peeves (whining about a problem without offering a solution). The final section of the book is called “Getting it Right,” and includes an article about some notable exceptions to the trend, and another with recommendations for the future. Of course, some of the recommendations, which include something akin to an affirmative action program to place more religiously connected people in newsrooms, may not be so realistic in these end times of traditional media. But at the very least, those writing the news should be aware of their own blind spots and look for collaborations that will enrich their understanding of the stories of the day. Even the most casual observer of world events can see that the place of religion in shaping our day isn’t getting any smaller, so we owe it to ourselves to meet the challenge of understanding head-on.

The Jewish Advocate: Spiegelman draws his comic view of world events for a local audience; Author of ‘Maus’ books brings ‘raw’ message to Peabody Essex Museum

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

SALEM – Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist best known for his Holocaust “Maus” books, drew a sold-out crowd to the Peabody Essex Museum Tuesday night as part of the museum’s month-long look at artistic responses to another horrific event in history, Sept. 11, 2001.

Spiegelman, 57, was born in Stockholm, Sweden, not long after the end of World War II, the child of Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja. His parents dreamed of him becoming a dentist, but when he discovered Mad magazine, the course of his life changed. “I studied Mad the way some kids studied the Talmud,” he told Tuesday’s audience.

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