This morning I pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall I used to drive by on the way to elementary school, at the corner where we made the right onto La Brea, heading north. It used to be anchored by a Honeybaked Ham place, with a giant mural of a ham surrounded by bees on its street-facing window, but that place is a mattress store, now, and tucked into the corner of the mall is a Glatt kosher mart where A had advised me I should buy brisket for tomorrow’s makeshift seder.
I don’t know what I was expecting, on erev Shabbat, midway through Passover or, more to the point, at a Glatt kosher store, but still it startled me: walking into the tiny, crowded space where all of the chametz had been papered and taped over, where almost all of the other patrons were men in black coats and fur hats, t’fillin threads dangling from their sleeves and shirtwaists, each of them enormous and alien and absolutely, viscerally other.
We drove by those men, too, through the eastern enclave of Orthodox Jews who live clustered between Highland and Martel, Melrose and Sixth. People think of the Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles as being Pico-Robertson, twenty minutes southwest in (omnipresent) traffic but there are a handful of shuls here, too. The Orthodox can’t drive on the sabbath but have to get to temple to pray; that’s why they live so close, in villages in the middle of cities, and why you always see them on the sidewalks, even in LA.
The elementary school I went to was Jewish, but Reform— a place where we ate In’n’Out burgers for lunch (no cheese) and the girls were allowed to sit next to the boys in the classrooms and in the chapel. Every morning on the ride there my carpoolmates and I would watch through the window as boys with curled payess and girls in long skirts walked to their school, shepherded by men in hats and women in wigs. I associate those outfits with the merciless Los Angeles sun, especially when the high holidays come early in September, and I look at them and think: if our ancestors came out of the desert, there’s no way that god was commanding them to wear wool and fur.
I want to say that I reject the tenets of Orthodox Judaism because they are intolerant and repressive and sometimes hateful, because it’s a system of belief that dismisses the way I choose to practice, and that tells me men are the one who know what should be done with my body, how it should be dressed, and what it should do, and who it should serve. And it is all of those things, and I reject them.
But my rejection comes with its own intolerance and dismissiveness, and, quite frankly, a vicious, specific anger that I can name but not understand. Because I think my Judaism is better than theirs, and I think their women aren’t feminist enough because of the way they dress, and that’s bullshit, and it’s so deeply rooted I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of it. Either that or it’s as simple as: I am a person who likes following the rules, and I am afraid that I haven’t been doing it right, and someone else has. I’m afraid that someone will take away a thing I love deeply, and desperately, too much to bear losing. I have my faith inked on my skin and sometimes I’m scared I won’t get to keep it. And it’s easier to hate the Orthodox then the people who might actually do me violence over it: the Ukraine thing was bullshit, but the shootings never are.
I pulled my sleeves down over my tattoo when I walked into the store. I don’t care if people see it, mostly, and ask dumb questions, but around the Orthodox I worry: that they’ll see it and misunderstand, and think I’m dumb, and that I don’t understand, that I broke the rules without knowing them first. Those men! They make me angry in the way that only family can: because I’m stuck with them, because I want to love them, because I’m afraid I never will.
You know how the story ends: I bought my brisket, and the woman who rang me up was sweet and funny, even though I was wearing pants, even though she was wearing a wig. I took it home and prepared it in my mother’s kitchen— my convert mother, who was born Catholic. I’ll serve it to my goyishe friends tomorrow, at a table of men and women, and we’ll use a book of poetry K got after a one night stand as our haggadah. I will keep being Jewish, and driving through Orthodox neighborhoods.
Passover celebrates the Jews coming out of Egypt, where they had been enslaved. In Hebrew the word for Egypt is mitzyraim, which many translate as the narrow place. At seder we talk about our own narrowness: the small places we find ourselves, and how we can escape them, or make them bigger. I am good at escape, and at anger: this is a legacy from both sides of my family, Catholic and Jewish. I am not so good at generosity or empathy or forgiveness, at staying, and making space for people. I want to follow the rules because I want to be right all the time— because I want to know that there is such a thing as right. It’s a tempting fable. It’s not a useful one. I’m trying to be bigger than it, and the only thing I can say for certain is that it is very hard to do.
Happy Friday, writers!
Just a quick reminder that next Tuesday, April 15 is the last day to enroll for WWLA: The Conference and get the Early Bird pricing special.
Enrolling is a great way to kick off your literary weekend at the LA Times Festival of Books. Click above or email email@example.com if you have any questions.
Do it, Los Angeles. It’s gonna be great.
I used to be really superstitious about flying: I would shower the night before and blow dry my hair, and wear jewelry given to me by my parents and a broken watch, after Calvin Trillin. (I was eighteen or so, and immune to my own pretension.) If leaving New Haven, I would go to Atticus for a coffee and a morning glory muffin before boarding the Connecticut Limo; if Los Angeles, I would blink three times at my house as we pulled out of the driveway and then look away, preserving that last sight of it against the next one.
I flew more regularly, then, cross country at a minimum of four times a year: to go to school, and come back for Christmas, and again for spring break and a week or two each summer. But also I had flown less, in the aggregate. At some point when I started living in Connecticut— really living there, and not just saying it as a means of evading a Certain Proper Noun— it became an exhausting charade instead of the comforting structure I had come to rely on. I stopped needing it before I stopped doing it. Sometimes I feel bad about having skipped out on it, my own made-up superstition, as if it had power beyond what I had put into it my self.
Speaking of self-fulfilling prophesies, all of my friends in Los Angeles are just as obsessed with pseudo-spiritual nonsense as I am. When T’s car caught on fire a few weeks ago we gathered in her apartment to smudge sage and pull tarot cards about it. When M visited we pulled up her chart on our phones and we read bits of it out loud. She’s a Leo with Cancer rising, and a Gemini moon— or maybe I have those last two switched. Anyway. “Gemini,” we said knowingly. T & R & I are all Capricorns. It actually does explain a lot about us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I believe in, recently. The lesson in those panic attacks— if there was a lesson, and not just a predictable chemical equation in action— seemed to be about the need to be willing to readjust. Even “working on [your]self” can be too much work if you attack it without restraint, as if the work led to some specific achievable end. As if the same things were going to work every time.
I flew back to New Haven, a couple of weeks ago now. I had washed my hair and slept on it wet. I wore a shirt M had left when she was visiting, and leggings and boots and long socks, because it was going to be cold. T texted to ask if I had come into any unexpected money— she and R both had. Maybe it was a Capricorn thing. I took a picture of myself at the airport at 5am, disheveled, exhausted, saying “no.” Then I put on the coat I hadn’t worn since college, and there was a $5 bill forgotten in the pocket.
I made myself a café crème this morning but burned the nice little pot the owners of this apartment supplied. I’m eating breakfast of baguette, French butter and berry jam in the kitchen so A can sleep in. We’re in the back of a 18th century building, overlooking a courtyard and from the open kitchen window I can see Paris spring sky, old walls and shipwrecked window shutters that, the landlord says, can’t be replaced because the building is Protected. The apartment doors are enormous and there is carved molding in every room including this kitchen. It is up four curving flights of stairs with an ascenseur in the middle so tiny that A’s shoulders touch the walls.
Last night we ate dinner in (French sourdough with a salty burned crust, more butter! More jam! Also eggs and oranges and wine) then walked until I got us so completely lost we had to take a taxi back to the apartment. I agreed that today we would take the GPS with us but I feel like I am giving up the important activity of feeling out a landscape. I love maps and planning and learning which street leads to which (we are at 2 rue casimir devigne which is a block long and about as wide as the ascenseur.) A likes to get where he is going. Turn left! the machine insists. Turn right! Wait, wait, I am always saying, I’ve almost got it figured out.
It is beautiful here and I’ve just opened the drapes to encourage A to get up. A whole day to walk down to the river and across the bridge and get lost again.
1. My parents are in Paris without me. What assholes!
2. We all get lost a lot. I think of my terrible sense of direction as being a unique trait but then I remember their story of hiking somewhere— in Germany, maybe? On a honeymoon, maybe? Anyway, getting so thoroughly lost that it actually wasn’t clear that they would ever find their way back to civilization though, obviously, eventually they did.
3. One time my mother and I were trying to drive maybe ten miles from Storm King back to their hotel in Beacon. I had driven down from Connecticut, where I was then living, so I put the address in my iPhone, handed it to my mom and had her navigate. We somehow managed to drive ten or fifteen minutes in the wrong direction twice. Eventually we gave up and switched places and got home fine. She still can’t really navigate the turn-by-turn stuff, these digital maps that make you the center and move when you do. She likes fixed guidelines, unmoving streets, planning a route and following it instead of taking it for granted, as I do, that you will get lost, that something will keep track of you when you do, and find you again, and tell you where to go.
4. A different time, though, dad and I were driving up to San Francisco and we’d stopped somewhere in the middle for the night, because he’d found a Groupon for a nice hotel in a town famous for its particular style of barbecue. You do not know my dad, probably, but trust me when I say those are the words you’d use to summon his spirit if you ever need it: good deal, nice hotel, barbecue.
The town itself turned out to be boring, and much farther from the beach than we’d intended. We couldn’t just walk down to the shore. “Let’s do what we used to do in the old days,” he said. “We know the coast is west of us. We can just follow the compass, taking whatever street will take us west, until we get there.” I thought this was the stupidest plan I’d ever heard in my life. We drove through miles and miles of flat cropland, fenced off with big signs about pesticides warning us not to breathe too often. It was getting later and later in the afternoon.
"This was silly," he said, finally. "Let’s turn around up here."
When I made the left, there was a sign saying we were heading towards Oso Flaco Lake. “May as well,” I said. “We can see some water, anyway, before we go back.”
We got to the lake an hour before sunset, maybe, and walked a long path through scrub and sage and a million sweet-smelling California desert plants. I had only just moved home, and was overwhelmed all over again by the landscape, how familiar it felt, how wild. The path spilled us out onto an empty beach at the heart of the golden hour. I mean it was so empty there were no footprints in the sand: just this enormously high wall of surf, and the two of us, and clear, high, yellow light, and blue sky, and the curve of the coast disappearing off to the north. We never would have ended up there any other way.
5. Hi, guys. I am glad you’re having fun. Bring me a baguette or something, please.
#ToBX banner: painted and done! (I think I’ll just leave it hanging festively at home until the event.) — via nzle
Yes, that’s a homemade banner for The Morning News Tournament of Books, made by editor Nozlee Samadzadeh. (The things Nozlee can do with textiles, you have no idea.)
Both Nozlee and her banner will be at the Housing Works Bookstore event celebrating the Tournament, and our media partner Tumblr will be there providing refreshments. If you’re in NYC on March 24, please come celebrate with us!Nozlee is cool.
Sometimes I think about when M and I came over for book club and Noz informed us that she hadn’t been able to sleep the night before so she’d baked a chocolate cake from scratch. Last time I couldn’t sleep I watched old episodes of The Hills.
I have one spiritual ritual in my life: every morning I check the Los Angeles Times' Homicide Report blog to learn who was killed in Los Angeles County while I slept.
The Homicide Report addresses two questions every newspaper covering a major metropolis should answer: who was killed last night, and why? But most newspapers don’t do this because the logic of most newsrooms is that not all murders are sexy, grisly, or surprising enough to be written about. The Homicide Report operates on the inverse principal: Every murder gets a story because murder is inherently worthy of our attention.
The Homicide report is anchored by a single reporter, Nicole Santa Cruz, an Arizona-born Latina, with glasses, pretty Etsy jewelry and a sweet voice. Nicole makes a round of phone calls every morning to the coroner, the LAPD, and sheriff’s department to find out who died last night. In the weeks and months that follow she attempts to answer the question ‘why?’
FIND OUT HOW she does it! Covering murder in Los Angeles. 580 in the last 12 months. CHECCCCKKK ITT OUUUTTTTTTT. HOMICIDE IS IMPORTANT.
Texas, 2009 / Los Angeles, 2014
I want to write an essay called I Feel Bad About My Instagram, except that’s it, that’s all I really have to say about the thing. I feel shitty about the way it makes my life look, blue-skied and easy, and I feel shitty about how much better it makes me feel to know it looks that way. It’s the cheapest possible response to everything that’s disorganized and out of control: to create an ordered world in a square frame, to blur the focus and change the color.
I was writing an email just now about this weekend’s unpleasantness— mostly passed, now, and all in my head— and had to stop, go back and delete an entire paragraph waxing lyrical about how I’d had a nice afternoon anyway. Pork belly and gin and reading on the front porch in cutoffs— see, I got rid of it there but here I can’t resist leaving it in. But you know how it is. We give our social media feeds a limited set of data, and everyone extrapolates from them; the flipside of being able to perform perfect happiness for various cameras is that anything less feels unbearably exposed, and like it’s giving the world license to write you off as a miserable failure.
I don’t know that there’s anything to be done about it, except maybe quitting the internet, which, hah, nope. I’m just saying: this weekend I had gin and pork belly and a pretty bad panic attack, and these things don’t cancel each other out, and they don’t say anything substantial about me or my life or my weekend, other than that I am lucky, and anxious, which are both things that have pretty much always been true.
Magazines sometimes have parties when they make a new issue. Why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we have one in Los Angeles and escape from the frozen urinal that is New York City?
That was the thinking that landed us at the POT Lobby Bar in the newly-opened The Line Hotel in LA Koreatown last week . Kogi did tacos. Dorien Garry and Sun Araw played records. (I really liked how Dorie worked Future Games into her set!) Roy Choi and his pastry chef Marian Mar sprung a Chang-as-Hello- Kitty cake on us.
Most of the post party talk was about the superiority of Los Angeles and our collective desire to move there. Definitely more and bigger Lucky Peach LA parties on the way.
that cake! & “the superiority of Los Angeles” are only two of the reasons this party was such a great party