How to get dressed on the hottest morning of the RNC

Written on July 17, 2016 when I was newly unemployed and the bleeding of normalcy into something entirely different was not yet complete.

It is 9am and I am still wearing the men’s boxers I bought yesterday for four dollars. I keep seeing their polka dotted pattern and the weird way they bulge, and myself, in the sleek floor-to-ceiling mirror my new roommate has placed opposite the apartment door entrance.

I have already burned the toast I tried to broil in the oven, like I have the last few mornings. I finished the last 6 percent of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the book I’ve been reading that makes me think equally of British gardens and Parisian architecture and the holes Germany left everywhere. I’ve read about Milo Yiannopolous from someone who went to his gay neo-fascist party and seems genuinely frightened by the soullessness of the super trolls and “weaponized insincerity” and the fact that after the party a less hardened liberal journalist broke down crying and said, “Why is there so much hate?”

I’ve considered the threat of what would happen if Trump lost for the first time. Until now I thought his losing would make this all go away but suddenly I need to at least consider the possibility that that’s not the case. What would happen to all the hate?

It is hot in New York and it will be hot for the week to come and I’m scared of the heat. I want to ignore the RNC and November and the fact that my brother said he wants Trump to win because his ego will make him try to prove himself. And I don’t know what to make of the fact that someone painted a swastika on my (same) brother’s driveway. I refuse to believe the hate everyone keeps talking about.

In Austerlitz there are just a few pages that describe what the character’s parents thought, living in Prague in the 1930s, how his mother wanted to be a singer and his father witnessed a rally for Hitler and he felt the hell that was coming.

What I wonder is, is there a way that the individuals are not bad, but their accumulation is? I don’t believe in American exceptionalism, I think it’s another word for nationalism from which there is a quick hop to the evils of last century, but are the people who do (believe in it) evil? are they more selfish and needy than everyone else? what makes their sum so dangerous?

I don’t want to think about this. I want to think about what to wear. But my headache is sinking from between my eyes down to my cheeks and jawbones and the single siren outside my window which is white with sunlight is reminding me of the todo list I’ve neatly written in a small spiral notebook I have taken to carrying around with me. There is no floor I fear. No dark, cool corner free of the fear of next month’s rent and the chaos of the RNC and the city’s sun and sweat.

Is it feminism if you don’t know it

I read “The Feminine Mystique” as 2016 turned to 2017. I spent several hours riding from Harlem to Crown Heights and back on the first day of the year, engrossed in the feminist classic, somewhat embarrassed to be coming to it so late.

I hang out with people for whom I assume Betty Friedan’s book is biblical; if they haven’t read it they’ve absorbed its content anyway. And I had been feigning feminism for several years now, so the outrage that began to flame in me as I hurtled to Brooklyn felt amateur.

I was hangry by the time I reached Crown Heights to meet my family for dinner at a greasy Kosher restaurant. They had already posted a picture to WhatsApp — a religious ritual at this point — of the whole gang surrounding a table covered in the disposable flotsam of dinner.

I walked up a dark Empire Boulevard, and passed the Kosher market where the automatic doors were open, framing a large, shoddy man in black hat and beard, paying at the cashier. I stared egregiously at him, thinking that if I looked harder, I would know him.

Then I saw a poster stapled to a pole advertising a lecture series called “Dating with awareness,” with Chana Schneider*, an acclaimed dating expert. The name catapulted me back ten years to a makeshift classroom in Tzfat in Northern Israel when Chana Schneider had come to talk to my seminary class about dating and marriage.

I remember only that the gist of the conversation was advice on how to deal with petty arguments about open toilet seats and dirty socks left on the floor. As a 17-year-old, this genre of marital education seemed ridiculous. I had no intention of marrying anytime soon. And this dowdy woman, in blond wig, oversized suit and buttoned-up shirt, who was heralded as some sort of bride-whisperer, was not going to be my guide to womanhood.

Since then, I have made choices that would have endeared me to feminists, but I did not know it. I went to college, I chose a career, I left a set of rules and searched for new ones. Yet somehow I’ve been called a bad feminist by feminist friends because I don’t know their canon and my version of sexism was and remains different. (The slow realization of my body’s power over men, something I had legitimately not known until my middle twenties, meant that for a long time I preferred reveling in that power, rather than acquiescing to the narrative that a male-dominant civilization equals a male-dominant interaction on a street corner.)

Ironically, in following the path away from early marriage, I ended up living across the street from Chana Schneider and her many happy, well-adjusted children in Los Angeles. I ate Shabbat lunch with her and was advised to seek her counsel by people with my best interest at heart.

Now, reading Betty Friedan, I recognized so many of the argument that had been made in the name of god and the Torah. And here there were, visible now as angry, domineering, morally righteous, outrageous positions of men against every attempt women made at freedom. Some of those arguments had been made by our beloved Rebbe, whose teachings line the walls of my childhood home and continue to dictate the lives of my parents.

Empire Grill is a loud shop, full of Israelis and Yeshiva students. When I came in, a patron was slurping noodles steeped in a brown sauce off a paper plate. I sat down next to my mother, a woman who bore nine children, and who since her last child has left home, has blossomed. Her brown wig had been curled to frame her face like a young girl. She talked gaily about shopping with her twin-sister.

Later, I left my mother outside my brother’s home, where she’d play grandmother to his five or six kids. I took the train back to Harlem where I live with two roommates, too many frozen Trader Joe’s dinners, and a life that is Chana Schneider’s worst nightmare.

*Not her real name


That we’re aware of it (and by we I mean I) does not absolve us of signing away our lives. What has happened now that the childhood virtue, the long hours in rebellious books, is temptation and escape?

Which is it? A life to take and take the best of music and wisdom and sentences, or to add to the beast? Consume or create, the only options.

Who is being hurt? Are we depriving ourselves of the world or depriving the world of us? The answer is among friends. I’ll send you a letter and then publish it for all. Am I a writer or a millennial? Am I enriching myself or drowning?

The redemption is a world submerged in water, engulfed and breathing truth, knowledge and light. Says Maimonides. A frightening image in some ways, if you’re afraid of water. I wonder if we’re not already there. There is no need to wake up, except for better dreams.

We are not prepared for infinity, but it has found us.

Consume and be consumed.

The exodus story

If you’re reading this (don’t worry it’s not too late) you’re probably someone who has come across an exodus story in your life. It’s the story of a religious person, preferably a Hasidic Jew, that finds the world, embraces it, and leaves their community.

It makes for a great story. It’s amazingly American. The search for freedom and the willingness to sacrifice for it. It’s a great reminder for those who grew up with only freedom what it’s like to breathe it, to have it be your air.

It’s also, like all skeletal plots, overused, oversimplified, probably less dramatic and definitely less linear than described. So let me walk you through some of the tropes. Actually, it’s just one trope. It’s what I get asked most often. And that’s how my family’s taken it.

Let me explain to you why that’s not the most important part.

1) There is no dramatic excommunication. Usually, the family figures out how to adjust itself to accommodate you and vice versa. They love you and you love them and in a way it makes it tougher. You know in your heart how much you’ve disappointed them but they won’t tell it to your face, and you know how tough it is for them not to ask you when you’re getting married when they deeply believe that that’s the only way you’ll be happy.

It’s probably a lot more similar than you realize to leaving your rural conservative hometown and coming back a raging liberal New Yorker, or what happens when you’re 29 and you’ve only just settled on a career that you’re not entirely happy with, or when the little brother that looked up to you surpasses you in everything. Every family has its drama that happens completely undramatically at a kitchen table, or in the phone calls about Christmas plans, or the quick weekend home, or when your parents move out of the old house where you grew up, and what’s left is only an old couple with memories that may or may not be real.

2) Some of it is not drama at all. It’s boring shit like how do I get a college degree when I’m 23 and I’ve never heard the terms elective, major, general ed, as they relate to college degrees? How do I choose a career when I’ve never even met a journalist or a biologist? How do I pay for college if I have no skills except reading Hebrew? How do I know what size jeans I am? How do I order a drink at a bar? How do I know when a boy is flirting with me?

3) This isn’t only about community. This is about an entire worldview. If you’ve ever had your heart broken over a love you thought was real, and you truly believed you’d devote the rest of your life to, and then it falls apart and he turns out to be a jerk, you know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever trust yourself again. Try losing trust in yourself, your parents, your community, your books, your way of examining the world and interpreting and digesting it. Try telling yourself that all those things you love — the songs and the tales and that feeling when you enter the hushed women’s section during services and the men are intoning a familiar part of the prayers — are a liability. Tell yourself that you need to abandon that for now because it’s too seductive.

Later, you’ll learn to be okay with the human need for familiarity and belonging, but by then it will be too late. Because by then you won’t belong, and then the intonations and the aphorisms and the shared intellectual foundation will be shells. They’ll be a way to visit a once populated land. They’ll be museums and monuments, a way to mourn a civilization you once knew.

The 20 lost years

In the first 21 years of my life I watched perhaps 10 movies and zero TV shows.
In fact it wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I learned what a TV show was, or that it existed.

The only one I’d heard about before was 24. I’d overheard some males talking about it – something to do with explosions and happening over the course of 24 hours.

The first show I watched I found accidentally on the internet one night in the apartment I shared with a stranger in Brooklyn. Across the street a mobile police tower blinked blue light through my window all night. The show was a reality competition on CBS where they chose a new actress for The Young and The Restless. In what would become a signature move, I watched all the episodes in one night.

I was like a vampire who had tasted blood, and nothing was going to stop me from getting more. Only I wasn’t sure how to get more.

If you haven’t been convinced yet, it’ll be hard for you to fathom the depth of my ignorance. No one in my life watched TV. CBS meant as little to me as FKG or GMO or GPO or NBC. They all meant nothing. I didn’t know what channels were, or networks or cable or prime time or daytime or The Simpsons or South Park. I still don’t know because almost all the TV I’ve ever watched has been on the internet.

Back to that summer in New York. I watched the few full episodes of Survivor and CSI: Miami available on CBS. Somehow, I ended up finding the show Cold Case on YouTube. The episodes were divided in to 10 minute segments because this was when YouTube still had the 10 minute limit.

So I watched all of those on my Dell computer in the guest bedroom of my brother’s house during a very shitty time of my life, which had almost nothing to do with the fact that by then, I was living in New Jersey.

I also knew that this was the beginning of my downfall; that whatever was prompting me to spend hours watching low-quality YouTube videos of actors unearthing dead bodies – and enjoying it – would strip me of all virtue, discipline and probably humanity.

Over the next few years, TV was my escape and my self-sabotaging tool. I stayed up through nights of binge sessions and then stumbled through the days. I watched and I watched and I watched, hoping that eventually I would grow sick of it, confused that it was something so detrimental and something so necessary to me, sure that it proved the folly of my life choices while opening me to all the worlds I was so hungry to know.

I haven’t stopped watching Netflix and I lament the wasted hours.

But at the same time it’s incredibly frustrating to me that no matter how much I try I can’t make up for those lost years. It’s not that I feel deprived, it’s just that there are so many moments where it keeps me apart. So many “What, you never watched The Wire? Gilmore Girls? Sex and the City?” moments. I’m not sure how to explain that while they were watching All American TV, I was translating Yiddish texts about the various ways keeping Shabbat reveals the hidden truth in the natural fabric of the world.

So I just shrug, or maybe launch into an autobiography.

The city took all the rain

Moving to New York in the summer is dumb, my friends warned me. 

The day I arrived in Manhattan it was July and it rained all day. It made me angry just thinking about all those farmers back in California who were beat by the drought, and all this rain coming down and sliding off the man-made city, going nowhere.

All my belongings that weren’t in storage were in a carry-on that I rolled down the wet streets, announcing myself like thunder. I got on a bus on third avenue and rode all the way up town. The window of the bus smeared with the offensive rain stood between me and the city. Strangers exchanged glances that meant something along the lines of ‘Would you look at this rain?’

Everything about the romance of New York City was lost to me the moment I moved there. The rent was ridiculous, a grapefruit cost more than a coffee, and the trains only went North-South, like everyone here had agreed to keep things one dimensional.

Friends asked me how I liked it and I lied and said great, and thought about the Santa Monica mountains when I was in Central Park.
Everyone I met talked about getting out of the city, and over drinks in dark bars, I made plans with a new friend from work to go to Cony Island. She wanted to see the lights at night. She wanted to go late, like 10pm. I was down.

Something always came up. She had work, I had work or family, or the subway ride to way-out-Coney-Island just seemed too far. The summer went by like that until it was the last weekend, and we promised by all that was holy, that we would go.

Then, that Sunday, it rained. We decided to go anyway. Maybe it would clear up. We got off the train at Coney Island and the rain was coming down on the water, meeting it like they were old friends. We stood and watched, like it was a movie. Open sky, deserted seafront, the gravity of rain. Both of my shoulders were hurting from the weight of the bag I was carrying, full of hopeful beach-day gear.

We went to get drinks in a soggy bar. It smelled like sweat and the cheesy breath of summer rain. It was full of people who were willing to sacrifice most anything to live in a city that would never love them back.