Archive for June, 2011

I Miss Ike, or, This Summer of Baseball (Part I)

June 30, 2011

Sports fans are by nature a superstitious and circumspect lot, but the Met fan has a cultivated cynicism that at this point is hard to match. The play that took out two of the Mets best and most popular players – Ike Davis and David Wright – pretty much sums up the season – a little league moment when an infield pop-up caused Wright and Davis to collide. They have now both been out for almost two months. Many head-shaking and major-league-rare moments like this have followed,  including what should have been a double-play to end an inning a few nights ago against the Tigers, if Tejada and Turner hadn’t been confused about whose job it was to cover 2nd  — they both  ended up awkwardly standing on the same bag at the same time looking a bit lost. And their ragtag troupe of young players, like the improved but still somewhat shaky catcher Josh Thole (recently a friend asked a bunch of us what new record we might see broken. I mused that Thole might set one for most passed balls at home plate; but that was a while ago, he’s been ok lately); and the up and comers Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy have been adding to this minor league atmosphere but  also showing flashes of brilliance. Flashes. You never forget what is going on between the watchable exciting moments. What the real storyline is. The second Jason Bay comes up to bat, reality hits back hard.

As any baseball fan, and now any New Yorker reader now also knows from Jeffrey Toobin’s exceptionally informative and painful article, financial difficulty and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme also define this season. Fred Wilpon, the Mets’ rather annoyingly candid owner, is in the cross-hairs of Irving Picard, the bankruptcy trustee appointed to handle the Madoff fallout. This has already led to the sale of part of the team and will undoubtedly affect whether or not the most valuable players will remain in Mets uniform – Reyes, Beltran and K-Rod might be worth too much to keep on a team that is not in contention (but what if the Mets find themselves in the wild card race?  A lot for Sandy Alderson et al to think about.  A lot of bad decisions to look forward to).

So ultimately, this Mets season, at the moment hovering just above .500, is about enjoying the pleasant surprises of individual talents – especially those of Jose Reyes. And the Mets’ recent 52 run/4 game spree just baffles a fan even more – definitely the most manic depressive team in baseball; it’s hard to live with that kind of volatility.

All this leaves a real baseball fan craving & needing more. Some play fantasy baseball. Others fill the void by complaining, whining, hating on the Yankees and Phillies, and obsessing over the flawed stewardship of the Wilpons. My wandering eye almost invariably leads me to the fullness of baseball that really only books can provide.

A few weeks ago at the Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street in Fort Greene, Leonard Cassuto, editor of the new Cambridge Companion to Baseball, and Caryn Rose, of Metsgrrl.com, chatted about this tension between the game as observed by the curious and detached and the game as lived daily by the individual, the more often than not frustrated fan. The two embodied their two worlds perfectly – Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham, speaking in calm measured tones about the more “interesting” aspects of the game and how it figures in the larger fabric of American culture; Rose with a fan’s embittered tone, cursing the Wilpons under her breath and speaking with her inherited bile of being spurned by Walter O’Malley (her father was a Dodgers fan).

For Rose it is all very visceral, for Cassuto it is not. Which is just as well since Cassuto has provided a valuable service with the Cambridge Companion, which starts with a detailed timeline of baseball and follows with various essays that range from baseball in film, baseball and the color line, how one compares the measure of greatness in baseball vs. other things like literature and a great chapter about baseball and the American city. All this is done in a very manageable 200 pages, no small feat for what may become one of the most useful & handy guides to the game. It is hard to imagine there is much to add to the immense canon of baseball literature but what separates this collection of essays from almost everything else before is that it is a purely observational and sociological account. Almost all else out there is written for fans and aficianados by journalists and other insiders. The Cambridge Companion is geared towards those generally interested in American culture and how baseball both defines it and is defined through it. For a fan it takes some getting used to and reads as if it were written for someone who is BSL (Baseball as a Second Language). Most other baseball books, even the most cynical ones, take you along for the ride and add to the mythic grandeur of the game, they speak your language. But to the baseball fan there is never enough new information and Cassuto makes sure to also keep some of the magic intact with inter-chapters, like the ones about Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente, both of whom generated the real kind of super-star tales that defy any fiction-writer’s imagination.

Both Cassuto and Rose are serious music fans and when Rose is not writing about baseball, she is most likely writing about rock. She wrote a recent post about the passing of Clarence Clemons and turns out both she and Cassuto are devoted Springsteen fans. The two tried to compare and define the happiness of being a music fan and the happiness of being a baseball fan. This left me a little confused. Music can bring one such unadulterated joy. There may be some disappointments, as in bad albums or bad shows. But rarely does it drag you through a half year of personal drama and break your heart, year after year. To use the word “happiness” to describe following sports at all does not seem appropriate (except the day you win the World Series).  But it is something more, it is fuller, a bit more like life, but because it is ultimately not real life, it can serve as a unique cathartic release from it.

Rockaway Mania (& Some Woody Allen)

June 20, 2011

Here’s something to round out everyone’s newly-acquired Rockaway IQ  (and by “everyone” I mean those who have just recently discovered what happens at the Queens end of the A Train, the rest of “everyone” I apologize for adding even more to the flood of Rockaway attention, but I’ve always liked to give Rockaway attention, I guess not everyone was listening carefully enough).

Over drinks after seeing Woody Allen’s latest film on Friday – Midnight in Paris – a friend and I reached that inevitable moment in the evening of having to address how this movie compared with the last few and with his best and what it says about the man. It’s totally inescapable, but always fun, and definitely worth indulging (though I probably wouldn’t want to overhear a conversation like that). I won’t say too much about Midnight in Paris, except to say it is too charming to miss (an antidote to the Rom-Com?).  The casting of the American literati of 1920’s Paris was kind of brilliant. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein was maybe my favorite, and that’s the only one I’ll give away (try hard not to read too much about it before seeing it; hopefully, as a rule, like me, you don’t read too much about things you are about to see anyway). And Owen Wilson as a 21st Century wide-eyed American writer in Paris looking for inspiration was great – Owen Wilson does earnest SO well (remember Meet The Parents?).

For the  more savvy and literary transplants,  who arrived here after years of cultivating a romance for this city, Woody Allen looms large as the godfather of urbane and idiosyncratically neurotic  Jewish New York. (Spike Lee is another such godfather, of other outsized myths of New York).   Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977) seem to be the apotheoses of an outside admirer’s visions of New York –  the kind of place where Wallace Shawn’s intellectual animal magnetism causes beautiful and charmingly neurotic  women to fidget and stutter, while Woody Allen stands back, bewildered.  And worried.  But also the kind of place that revels in its romance, in long black and white takes with Rhapsody in Blue playing.

Another of Woody Allen’s odes to New York, and to a long-gone Golden Age, is his Rockaway movie – Radio Days. These days Rockaway is predominantly known and sentimentalized for its Irish-American-ness, once even dubbed the Irish Riviera, now a term reserved for Breezy Point alone, a gated community at the western end of the peninsula, where the Kings County DA, Charles Hynes, has a summer home (not without controversy – there is just something about the district attorney of an ethnically diverse borough, where many people of color are regularly prosecuted, living in an all-white gated community; during the dog days of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, Al Sharpton decided to make a point about this by marching to Hynes’ house in Breezy, with 100 supporters, chanting “Hynes, Hynes, have you heard? This is not Johannesburg!”).

In Rockaway we have our own St. Patrick’s Day parade and a disproportionate amount of cops and firemen. If you want to look at one place where nearly everyone was directly affected by 9/11, almost to a man, Rockaway provides way too many scary numbers and stories; some would even say that my generation was irreparably scarred and there is an unspoken eerie sense of survivor’s guilt, in a community where booze is already a go-to remedy. Amazingly I can’t think of any movies about Irish Rockaway, though I have an uneasy feeling that a Ben Affleck type might want to produce another less than flattering story about Irish America. So maybe it’s best left alone. Rescue Me sort of takes that on – Dennis Leary and a few of the other guys from his house live out there.  Might not be the most nuanced portrayal of Rockaway and Irish Americans either though.

But Radio Days, set during the Golden Age of Radio, in the late 30’s and 40’s, is Woody Allen territory, and so pretty thoroughly Jewish, as much of Rockaway once was. Rockaway used to be about half non-religious Jewish and half Irish, but like most non-religious Jews in the rest of Queens, and certainly Brooklyn, Rockaway Jews left town – to Long Island and Jersey, the richer ones to Westchester.  And loads of Jews (and many others) used to summer down there in the days before AC; I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m guessing that’s how Allen got to know the place. My parents are still there and so are a few others like them, but the “newer” Jews are quite religious, and quite apart. It’s sad that the Jewish New York of Woody Allen is mostly gone, but you can add it to the long list of things once intrinsic to the New York character that are now sealed in history.

In the main household of the movie, a bursting with life working class Jewish one, the individual characters, confined to a stifling and intrusive home, find their escape and fantasy life through the radio. A young Seth Green plays the Woody Allen alter ego and the cast includes Allen regulars like a shrieking and overbearing Julie Kavner and also Farrow and Keaton.  The movie is a lot less “serious” than Annie Hall and Manhattan, and premised mostly on various small stories within stories, often ones with great punch lines, including ones about radio starlets and hanky-panky in the studios.  In one bit, Larry David plays the Communist next door neighbor, who lures his more observant neighbor – on Yom Kippur, in the middle of his fast – to commit an unspeakable transgression (eating pork, and then promptly being punished by God and getting sick).  Another story, making great use of the radio, takes us on one of Aunt Bea’s dates (Dianne Wiest), where she and her suitor drive out to the sand dunes of Breezy Point, only to get stuck in the sand in the middle of hearing about the impending alien invasion (think Orson Welles). A more recent invasion of Breezy occurred on June 6, 1993, when the Golden Venture, a boat carrying 286 illegal immigrants from China, ran aground just off Breezy after a mutiny; 10 people drowned trying to reach shore; several others who made it showed up on the doorsteps of some very confused Breezy Point residents.

Rockaway makes one wistful in many different ways – it’s a vestige of much that no longer exists in New York (including one of the last NYC neighborhoods to retain a local accent) and beach communities often hold on to their pasts longer than other places, and are an easy place on which to project idealized histories and simpler times.  The beach is fun and easy, and away from the city, which you can always see in the distance across the bay.  Radio Days doesn’t completely capture that, and Rockaway definitely deserves its own movie, relating to its more recent identity. But for NYC & Allen buffs, and the generally nostalgic, Radio Days is a charming tour of imagining what a place  and time once were.

Food, Freud & God

June 2, 2011

By far, my favorite and most used cookbook is Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food – an Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. Since Roden’s book is, essentially, a Jewish diaspora culinary survey, the book serves as a veritable tour of world cuisine, or at least wherever the trade winds took Jewish merchants and frequent expulsions took Jewish refugees.  Eastern Europe is given its respective space of course, but the most dog-eared battered pages in my copy are in North Africa and Asia, especially Morocco, Iran, Iraq and India (the dishes my dinner party guests may have already tired of are Fesenjan/Duck or Chicken with Pomegranate and Walnut Sauce, Kofta Mishmisheya /Lamb Meatballs in Apricot Sauce and Moroccan Mezze). Interspersed throughout the book, between different regions and courses, are short histories  — personal anecdotes and more general histories — of the various local Jewry, such as a quick rundown of the three different Jewish communities of India (the Cochinis, Bene Israel and Baghdadis) and the once vibrant community of the Greek Jewish population of Salonika, that make the book equally interesting as a colorful and engaging ethnographic guide as it is a cookbook.  The Sephardi World half of the book is subtitled “Many Styles of Sephardi Cooking, with Echoes from Ancient Baghdad, Medieval Spain and the Ottoman World.”  It more than lives up to the expectations that title inspires and includes recipes for savory pies from Salonika, soups from Yemen and various salads, rice and meat dishes from Iran, Italy, Morocco and Georgia.  The shopping for the ingredients alone  is worth investing in these dishes (especially if you have Sahadi’s nearby, Sahadi’s itself merits buying this book so you can actually feel like you are finally taking advantage of everything Sahadi’s has to offer).

Once, while flipping through the book with my mother, I came across a story about the author’s great-grandfather who was the chief rabbi of Aleppo in Syria. Already naturally inflated with ancestral pride (I was raised to believe Vilna Jews are inherently very special — hard even for me to tell whether I am being serious or not when I invoke it; it may have started as a way to tease my dad who has no roots in Vilna, where my mother is from, but if I am honest, maybe, sometimes,  in private moments, I think Vilna Jews are a little superior), I asked my mother “Do we have any chief rabbis in our family?” My mother replied: “No, I think we’re about 10th generation atheist.”

Spiritual thirst is a totally alien instinct to me and most of my extended family. It is not something we have ever spent any thought or energy on. It is a non-issue.  We did grow up with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything else though – history, politics, food, sports, art, music. Not that spirituality and engagement with the world are mutually exclusive, but the terrestrial world always seems to provide enough material  for us to get lost in.

Growing up in Israel, especially with roots in a kibbutz, there was a very clear,  loudly articulated and socially acceptable demarcation between the secular and the religious, often with much mutual disdain and incomprehension. And Israel being a Jewish country, “doing” Jewish things did not entail actually believing in their spiritual underpinnings. I carried this over when I moved here, and assumed that those who were modern, educated and sophisticated were surely also atheists who were religious only in their habits and practices of going to Church, observing holidays and following those precepts that helped them and made them good people. I did not – not for a second – think people actually believed. Especially not in the miracles. Living for many years in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood, I quickly learned about all the magical “stuff” but always assumed that like Moses drawing water from a rock and an angel moving Abraham’s hand before he could kill Isaac, these were absorbed as myths with larger messages. Not so. Or at least not for a lot of great, sophisticated people I respected and admired. I learned the hard way that the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection are very serious, non-metaphorical, business indeed.  It was not merely about following the teachings of Christ.  And of course, after my limited exposure to religious Jews in Israel whom I dogmatically distrusted, I also met religious Jews who had first rate minds and intellects and are leaders in their professional fields (the amazing and accomplished Twerski family comes to mind – Professor Aaron Twerski,  a legal scholar, is maybe the top products liability expert in the country).  

After a few years of absorbing this realization – that a faithful mind could also be a truly modern sophisticated one – I became transfixed by it. Rather than wrestling with agnosticism, I have developed a deep hunger for understanding this and am always eager to hear it discussed by those whom I respect or at least have thought about their faith with the intellectual rigor they have applied to other parts of their lives. Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens recently had a famous public spar about it in Toronto, though that was more about the evils and virtues of organized religion, which is a lot less interesting. But still, an opportunity to hear someone who has excelled at Britian’s top institutions (and you know, was a popular Prime Minister, until he wasn’t) discuss faith.  But still, it left me unsatisfied, the rationality of faith itself wasn’t dissected quite enough.  My own personal attempts at engagement have mostly failed, as when a boy once asked me on a date, after learning I was an atheist, “But aren’t you worried about Judgment Day?”  — yeah that wasn’t heading anywhere especially edifying.

At last, I have finally come across a truly gratifying conversation about the subject in a play called Freud’s Last Session, at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theatre at the West Side YMCA. In this fun, hypothetical , pseudo-historical jaunt that takes place on one of the most memorably ominous days in modern history – Sept. 3, 1939 –  in Freud’s study in London, where he had taken refuge rather briefly before succumbing to cancer, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines what a meeting between CS Lewis and Freud would have been like*, and their inevitable conversation about their respective “faiths” – Freud’s sardonic declarations explaining why God does not exist, and CS Lewis’ earnest, charming incantations of why he does – you very nearly want to believe him. I could have sat there for a few more hours listening to those two actors and that script.  With the atrocities of Hitler about to be unleashed as the backdrop, the clear existence of evil and total absence of an interventionist God set the tone, and CS Lewis admits to wrestling with that very notion.

 And yet when Lewis talks to Freud about that craving that all humans seem to be born with for seeking some type of God or power higher than themselves, even I, who have never had that craving, had to admit that Lewis was actually using logic  pretty successfully to make his non-logical point, since it appears that most humans do (of course I believe it’s because the as-yet-unexplainable-by-science leads some to this, but still, it is pretty prevalent!).

Psychoanalysis was of course also at play, with the two literally and figuratively taking turns on the couch. Both had fathers whose religious fervor affected them very obviously and directly, with Freud musing that Lewis sought God as the father he never had (or at least one he could love) and with Freud clearly wanting to eschew the faith of a religious father who cowed and submitted to the anti-Semitism around him rather than stand up for himself – in the play Freud muses that he didn’t know whom he hated more, the man who had told his father to get off the sidewalk because he was a dirty Jew, or his father for doing so.

Another reason to see this play is the venue. One of the reasons I am pretty sure I won’t ever leave New York permanently is because there is always more of it. The theatre is in the West Side YMCA, one of the most beautiful buildings I think I’ve come across in this city in many many years, and it had somehow eluded me until last week. Need I say more?

*From the Playbill – “In his book The Question of God, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. writes, ‘Did Freud and Lewis ever meet? The possibility is tantalizing. After Freud immigrated to England…(a) young Oxford professor visited Freud during this time but has not been identified. Might it have been Lewis?’ – His speculation sparked this play.”