Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa is a Big, Gay Jew (and Other Tales of the National Christmas Tree Lighting)

Ocean MacAdams, former head of MTV News and easily the coolest person I’ve ever worked for, approached me with an unusual request last month. He wanted to know if this latke-flipping, dreidel-spinning, sheyne-meidel would be interested in working with him on the National Christmas Tree Lighting show. Because it was Ocean, and because I’m always up for trying something new, I jumped on the chance.

The first thing I was asked to do was produce a couple of packages that would air during the show. One was on volunteerism and the other was on the history of the National Tree Lighting, which was actually pretty neat. I got to look through a bunch of old, archival White House photographs and find some real gems, like this:

(Bill Clinton meets intern Monica Lewinsky at the ’96 White House Christmas party. See what can happen when you let a Jewish girl in on the whole Christmas thing?)

Unfortunately, both packages got cut from the lineup before I even put them together. I was mostly sad because I really wanted an excuse to bring this photo to the public at large:

(Nancy Reagan gets down with the California Raisins at the ’88 Tree Lighting.)

Fortunately, due to Ocean’s aforementioned coolness, he still found some work for me to do during pre-production, and even asked me to come along and help produce the live-to-tape show in DC! This was going to be the most start-studded National Tree Lighting ever, hosted by Randy Jackson and featuring the following lineup as described by their site:
  • Nine-time Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow
  • Hip-hop artist, actor and author Common
  • Pastoral folk, railroad blues, and front porch country artist Ray LaMontagne
  • American Idol Jordin Sparks
  • Jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau International
  • Irish music phenomenon Celtic Woman
My first task? Find a Santa suit. I’m not kidding. Oh, and costumes for Mrs. Claus and the elf, too.


It might seem strange to have the Jewish girl find the Santa suit. However, I did manage to convince Katie McPhee’s little brothers somewhere around Christmas 1987 that I was an elf because obviously only Jews work on Christmas Eve, so maybe I was cut out for the job after all.

By the way, turns out that our Santa was actually a Tony-nominated performer who was currently on tour with Young Frankenstein. How did he manage to get time off for this show? Well, as a matter of fact, he has a CLAUSE in his contract that allows him to play Santa each year. A Santa Clause. You can’t make this stuff up.

To add insult to injury, I called the DC Macy’s store to see where they rent their Santa costumes from. The gentleman on the other end of the line left to find me an answer and after several minutes came returned for this exchange:

CUSTOMER SERVICE: We don’t rent our costumes.
ME: Oh, you own them?
CS (without a hint of irony): No, we have the one and only real Santa.

GROAN! Really?! Must everything be one, gigantic, jolly, bit of Christmas cheer?

Anyway, I finally found the costumes, the best part being when the shop owner asked me, “Will Santa need extra belly?”


Before we left for DC, I also produced the on-air promo and some show elements with Derek, an Orbit editor who’s been working with Alex Coletti Productions most recently on Elvis Costello’s music/talk show, Spectacle. Derek stole my heart as soon as I saw the Star Wars poster on his suite’s wall, and we were trading bodily function jokes within minutes.

Alex Coletti Productions was also running the National Tree Lighting show. Alex has had a prolific career, and is the kind of guy that calls big celebrities by their first names, in a totally sincere and somehow non-obnoxious way. I didn’t find out until the train ride down to DC that he had created and produced MTV's Unplugged series in the ‘90’s, an absolutely iconic and important show for music lovers of my generation. The Nirvana Unplugged episode in particular was pivotal to my own relationship with popular music. I had to stop myself from totally dorking out over it on the train, but I am going to have to hear more stories from Alex over a bottle of whiskey one of these days.

Despite my utter lack of experience in live TV production, I was lucky to be welcomed warmly into Alex’s absolutely fantastic crew, most of whom had worked together on various shows over many years. Walking off of the train in DC and rolling down the platform with several of the crew members, it almost felt like we were a gang claiming our turf—“Here we are, National Christmas Tree Lighting, and we will OWN you!

Once on-site, I was so impressed with the pros on Alex’s team, especially his right-hand-gal, Liz, who co-produced the show with Ocean. The woman is 8 months pregnant, and seemed to glide through 12+hour days with grace and candor.


Soon after arriving and touring the set, stage, and production areas outside the White House and in the shadow of the Washington Monument, we had a large production meeting. The group included someone from the National Parks Service who was actually wearing one of those Yogi Bear park ranger hats, and someone from the Secret Service who was actually wearing those Men in Black sunglasses. Representatives for the President and First Lady were also there, and it was fascinating to witness how carefully (and understandably) calculated their movements had to be at this public event—a good 10 minutes of the discussion dealt with the best way to move Michelle Obama out from behind the security glass to her position for reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas"--about 10 yards away.

(Our stage. The Presidential protective super-thick glass cube is on the far left.)

Wednesday, our big rehearsal day, was a mess. It was pouring rain from early in the morning, and the production and audience seating areas were becoming one big, muddy swamp. Fortunately, I spent most of the day in “the truck.” The truck is the central command, where the all the stuff happens that makes a live event into a TV show. It’s about the size of one of those pay-by-the-month storage spaces and full of people: a tape operator, graphics person, sound guys, teleprompter, technical director, and show director and producers.

(Our production truck on the right, with audience seating, the National Tree, and the White House in the background)


Inside the truck, I mainly worked with the graphics, or “duet operator” person to create all of the chyrons (or lower thirds) that would appear on screen during the show. I also worked with the “tape ops” person to make sure that the elements I created before the show were properly imported into the truck. It’s amazing how specific people’s roles are in the truck. The tape operator’s whole job—and they are experts—is bringing in and spitting out different types of tapes. Despite all of the technology in the truck, something felt very old school about it.

(Inside the truck, our Command Central)

So on prep day, I was mostly between the truck and running around doing whatever else Ocean needed (Can you make sure the “Director of Elf Services” has a briefcase to bring on stage with him?) but I was lucky enough to sneak out to rehearsals with the Marine Band and a couple of the artists later in the afternoon. A highlight was Ray LaMontagne. If I have one thing to be thankful for with this opportunity, it’s being introduced to his heartbreaking vocal talent.


I stayed up until about 1 AM working on the final list of credits, and our call time on the big day was 6:30, but I was so pumped that it didn’t even matter. We had a lot to do, particularly because the rain the day before held us back some.

Fortunately, when the sun rose, it came a-shining and things began to dry out quickly. That meant that some people who didn’t get to rehearse the day before got the opportunity in the morning…including Santa!

So I finally met Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the “Director of Elf Services,” for whom I had done my first task. The charming threesome called themselves “The First Family of Christmas.” And family they were. In real life, Mrs. Claus is Santa’s sister, and the elf is his boyfriend. Wait, what?! Oh, and there’s more. SANTA IS JEWISH. Wait, what, What, WHAAAT?!

Now, you just hold on one cotton-pickin’ minute. Here I am, thinking I’m the sole heathen who has infiltrated the system and then, lo and behold, it turns out Santa is a big, gay Jew. But you know what? I gotta hand it to my Hebrew homie. When he hit the stage, he was the most wonderful, most believable, jolliest Santa I’ve ever seen!


One reason that we had to hustle so much in the morning is that Secret Service had to do a mandatory sweep of the area and the entire place—truck, production tents, stage, EVERYTHING—had to be completely evacuated from noon to 3 PM. And, oh yeah, when they let us back in they were also going to start letting audience members in. Yikes!

Everything went by in a blur, and yet somehow was crystal clear at the same time. Our live pre-show started at 5 PM and I swear the last credit screen was built at 4:59.

Once the truck was fully “on,” with its flashing screens, headsets, and blinking lights, it was like being inside R2D2’s brain. Alex was the conductor, communicating simultaneously with the people choreographing the stage and all six cameras and the other people in the truck who make the onscreen stuff happen, to ensure that each instrument was played to its finest and a harmonious symphony emerged.

(The First Family, just after lighting the tree)

The show, I have to say, was fantastic. I loved seeing President Obama seem relaxed and happy with his family. It was a relief to hear him give speech that took a momentary break from Afghanistan, health care, the economy and all of his other inherited woes to enjoy the season and spread a message of peace.

Other highlights were the First Lady’s fabulous rendition of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Santa’s festive appearance (Word up to my man Robert Mancini’s highly entertaining script, which actually made me LOL), Ray LaMontagne, Jordin Sparks, and the (by the way, super HOT) Common.

After the show, a few of us stayed on to wrap things up and fix anything from the live show that we could before sending the tape to PBS for airing the following day and throughout the month (For example, covering up the little kid with the big yawn during Obama’s speech!). It ended up being somewhere around an 18-hour day, which is pretty crazy for a show that only lasted about one!


Live TV was very new to me but it was seductive. Seeing the highly orchestrated movements on stage and in the truck crescendo into a show before my eyes was thrilling. You can see the results here (but really, the best part is already captured below…)

Happy Holidays, friends!!!!

Monday, December 14, 2009

I’m Grande in Italy

The lovely Italian writer and photographer Chiara Barzini visited Brooklyn this past June on an assignment for XL Magazine to find hot, up-and-coming NY filmmakers and learn how they were approaching their work and finding success outside of Hollywood during this economic crunch. Miraculously, I was on her list.

I had the pleasure of joining doc-makers Margarita Jimeno (Gogol Bordello Non-Stop), Eddy Moretti (Heavy Metal In Baghdad), Jody Lee Lipes (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same) and Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur
Russell) for a photo shoot in Williamsburg that eventually became the fabulous looking spread below (Click images to see larger.)

If anybody can translate the gist of the article, give me a holler. In the meantime, I’ll share my answer to one of the writer's more thought-provoking questions:

Chiara (to all):
Most of your films are addressing ethnic/avantguard/political music scenes. Do you want to say something about why there might be a phenomenon pushing young directors such as yourselves to want to talk about influential, and "underground" music scenes?

Me: Many of the best known directors have made music films or music videos at some point in their careers. One of my favorites, Michel Gondry, started as a music video director. I don’t think it’s a new trend, but it’s a powerful one. Both music and film can be agents for social change, so they have a natural link. Music also lends itself to film so well because the pace and passion of the music can set the whole tone and aesthetic of the film. Also, musicians are often fascinating characters, and that’s what a film needs most of all. For my film “Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land,” the colorful and rebellious young punk musicians of Tel Aviv were the perfect characters to tell an alternative story about the complicated political situation in Israel.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thank G-d It’s the Chag

In the past three months, I’ve
    Attended the funeral of a best friend and the wedding of another

    Been to two foreign countries in two different hemispheres

    Turned 32

    Thrown the bridal shower for my closest-thing-to-a-sister, a friend of 27 years

    Helped clean and move out the apartment of a beloved aunt who left 40 years of swingin’ NYC life for a retirement community upstate

    Started and finished a short documentary, shot in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and edited in the richest one

    Visited parents, in-laws and many friends

    Participated in a conference in Israel where invitees were told that basically the future of the Jewish people lies in our hands

    Only been home for a couple weeks at a time, during which I hosted two different houseguests

    Been on 14 flights and in at least 10 different cities

    And experienced just about every human emotion that I can imagine.
Basically, what I am trying to say is…HOLY SHIT.

I am so tired that it hurts behind my eyes, but I am also strangely exhilarated. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m truly living in the now. I haven’t even had time to think about the past or the future, and this is life—the good and the bad.

It seems very appropriate that the Jewish High Holidays are approaching this weekend. I’m grateful that Judaism insists upon an annual time to reflect and renew. To be honest, I’m a little afraid of what I’ll find when I start to contemplate these last few months but I don’t think I’ve ever needed to embrace the joy, sorrow, and daunting tasks of the High Holidays so badly.

Here’s wishing you all a sweet and meaningful New Year.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Haiti Shoot: July 2009

A filmmaker friend just told me about his 2 months spent in Chad, interviewing victims of Darfur. I was like, “Woah.” I then told him that I just returned from Haiti, having shot footage for a short documentary on Wyclef Jean’s inspiring organizaton, Yele Haiti. He was like, “WOAH!” I guess that should give you some impression of what I was getting myself into…

Haiti is a unique country—the first born out of a successful slave revolt, and currently the poorest in the Western Hemisphere—and we saw it through several unique lenses. By “we” I mean myself and Jenna, from Press Play Productions, who brought me on to the project.

First, we were seeing the country with “Wyclef’s people,” and there were several subtle and some not-so-subtle reminders of the almost godlike status he holds in his native land. (And no, he was not on the trip with us. I can only imagine how hard it would have been for us to get anything accomplished in the maelstrom if word had gotten around that he was there. Apparently last time he was in town, people literally broke down the gates of the hotel where he was partying to get at him!)

(That's not Wyclef.)

Another unusual thing about our trip was the extremes that we were presented with. On one hand, we were rolling with bodyguards in expensive SUVs. On the other hand, we were shooting in some of the most downtrodden and notoriously dangerous slums in the world. On both ends of the spectrum, we were likely traveling in a manner atypical of your average Haitian.

There is also the lens of the NGO itself. Part of their job is identifying the biggest problems in Haiti in order to help alleviate them, and since our job is to tell their story, we witnessed several of these problems—poverty, corruption, hunger, lack of opportunities for women, lack of education, unsanitary conditions—first hand.

And, of course, there is the literal lens through which I was seeing the country—the camera lens. I was very grateful to have that physical separation between myself and my surroundings, to help me to focus on getting the work done in emotionally challenging circumstances.


We arrived in Haiti and proceeded directly to the “Diplomatic Lounge” at the airport, which is where foreign dignitaries, government people, and the like wait while their customs info is being processed. We met a World Bank official, sat in plush chairs, and sipped on espressos. It was all very high brow compared to the zoo that was the Delta terminal at JFK. And then the lights went out. Twice. And everyone continued their conversations and Blackberry exchanges without missing a beat. Oh yeah, I guess I am in a third world country.

We went straight from the airport to Cite Soleil, known as the most dangerous slum in the Western hemisphere. BAM. Straight into the action. I was familiar with the area thanks to the documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which I happened to select for the San Francisco International Film Festival when I sat on their Golden Gate Awards committee a few years back. The documentary took place during a particularly bad period in Cite Soleil, when the district was besieged by a violent war between drug gangs, so I was expecting the worst.

(Cite Soleil)

Fortunately, things have improved considerably in Cite Soleil in the last few years in terms of the violence, and it is hard to imagine it being so dangerous when the streets are filled with people. What I did witness, though, were unpaved roads, no trees protecting people from the relentless heat, dust, rubble, thick piles of garbage, concrete shacks, hollow eyes and an intense stench of many bodies and little sanitation.

The purpose of this first visit was to see some of Yele’s impressive projects and try to identify a family to feature in our video who could really portray the story of Yele’s success. We visited one of the Yele Cuisine kitchens which was apparently operational even through the crisis period in Cite Soleil. At the Yele Cuisine kitchens, women are employed to cook and deliver food to schools without cafeterias. This accomplishes multiple objectives—jobs for women, local food distribution, and encouragement for kids to attend school, as the meal provided will likely be their only one of the day.

(The view from Hotel Montana)

From Cite Soleil we finally checked in at our hotel, where the real shock set in. The difference between the filthy slum and our gorgeous hotel up the mountain, reportedly the nicest hotel in Port-au-Prince, is hardly calculable. As we drove through the city, it looked somewhat healthier than Cite Soleil, with vibrantly colored buildings and more trees, but it was obviously poor everywhere until we ascended up the mountainside where the wealthier Haitians and foreign businesspeople live in well-protected homes and where hotels like ours cater to diplomats and NGO executives. From up there, looking down at the crystal Caribbean waters, leafy palm trees and mountains beyond, it was hard to imagine all the suffering that was happening below.


We only had five days to scout, cast and shoot our entire piece and, as always with docs, things came together in unexpected ways.

We knew that we wanted to tell the story of a mother who works in one of the Yele kitchens and whose kids are educated at a Yele-funded school. Originally, we planned to have the mother’s story intertwined with that of Killa, a former gangster who was influenced by a meeting with Wyclef to change his life, and now works distributing food to poor families with Yele.

Killa seemed like the perfect candidate—a charismatic and colorful guy with a fantastic backstory and a true investment in YeleHaiti. Unfortunately, he also has musical ambitions and a serious rep to protect. He wouldn’t even admit on camera to no longer being part of a gang, for fear that there would be repercussions with its members. After shooting for one of our precious full days with him, where he walked us through his ‘hood (“This is where I started selling drugs when I was 14…”), he pulled out and wanted nothing more to do with the project. He later demanded certain favors from the organization in order to continue.

I have to give Jenna major character-judgement kudos on this front. She sensed this potential outcome from our very first meeting with Killa. Despite our day of shooting with Killa, we still needed a critical shot of him handing rice from Yele food distribution off to our mother character, in order to link their stories together. It looked like we weren’t going to get it but, as always, the show must go on. I always say that the best AND worst thing about documentary filmmaking is that you never know what's going to happen.

(Lenise with four of her kids)

So the next morning, we started filming with Lenise, our "mother character." Lenise is a handsome woman with short, elegant cornrows and a worry-creased face. She is a single mother with five kids ranging from age six to teenaged, and they all live together in her small, three-room concrete house, along with two of her nephews. She works in a Yele Kitchen at a Yele-sponsored school where her children attend class and participate in soccer training. Yele is literally providing a life for this family and preventing Lenise from, in her words, crying herself to sleep every night worrying about how she would take care of her kids, and doing "bad things" to help feed them.

One thing that really impressed me about Lenise was that, despite her circumstances, she managed to keep all the kids clean, polite, and more well-behaved than most kids I know. She does this in part by running a tight ship at home, where everyone wakes at 4 AM and does homework by candlelight while she cleans, prepares them for school and makes breakfast if she has any food, so that they can all be ready to take the dusty one-hour walk to school by 7:00. We shot these morning rituals and then piled Lenise and the kids into our cars and continued filming them at work and school for the rest of the day. This included shooting Lenise's work in the extremely hot Yele kitchen, where she and about five other impressive women cook using two countertops, four open flames, and no refrigeration for around 1,500 kids. During our interview with Lenise later, she said that she felt like a star and it had been the best day of her life.

(Lunch at the school. There's me shooting in the background!)

While scouting at the school, we met Jimmy, their handsome young Administrative Director. As he assisted us with logistics, he told Jenna of his own story--having been raised in Cite Soleil himself but getting educated and deciding to work at the school to help make a better future for his community, despite better professional opportunities elsewhere. Once again, her producer instincts kicked in and she thought we just might have found a compelling replacement for Killa in our story.

As we got to know Jimmy better, it became more and more evident that he would be an amazing person to help tell Yele's story. The Yele folks wanted to make sure that we didn't just present Haitians as victims, and here was a young, passionate, articulate community advocate with high hopes for a better future for his country despite his own underprivileged upbringing. (Remind you of anyone?) We ended up shooting lots of great footage of Jimmy in Cite Soleil and at the school, and he gave us a fantastic interview. Ultimately, the Yele folks will decide between the two men, but no matter what happens, I am so glad that we got to meet Jimmy.


Overall, It was a FASCINATING trip, and challenging too--both physically (shooting hand-held in direct 98 degree sunlight for hours) and emotionally (meeting kids who walk an hour to school in said heat to get one meal a day). When we arrived back in the U.S., I almost kissed the poor customs officer whose thick Brooklyn accent mumbled, “Welcome home, OK?”

(Where there are kids, there's hope.)

As trite as it sounds, I really did think about how lucky we are to live in a land where, though we have many problems of our own, there are opportunities and freedoms that others simply don’t have. I thought it was no wonder that people want to come here from all over the world to try to make a better life. And then, lo and behold, my cab driver from the airport was Haitian! We had a long talk wherein he waxed poetic about the good old days in Haiti before Papa Doc’s outrageous corruption, when tourists visited and noone locked their doors.

It wasn’t until Jenna and I had shot in Cite Soleil several times that one of our hosts casually mentioned the slew of foreign kidnappings and beheadings that happened during the lockdown of that area about five years ago. I remember being asked about my dream career during a college internship. My reply included terms like “travel,” “education,” “storytelling,” and “being creative.” I am living that dream career now. Unfortunately that means that sometimes, in places like Haiti, I am witnessing other people’s nightmares.

As I embark on editing the piece this week, I take some comfort in hoping that our piece will help YeleHaiti spread its message more widely and ultimately do more good work.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


The trip was not nearly over after the amazing ROI experience. Seth flew in on the last day of the summit, and joined me for another week of mayhem, Israel-style. I won’t get into all the nitty gritty here, as I am packing and prepping for the next adventure…leaving on Monday for Haiti to shoot a short doc on some young people who have benefitted from Wyclef Jean’s incredible organization, Yele Haiti. So excited! And a little nervous!

Whether real or imagined, the weight of all of our projections of significance onto a place like Israel is heavy and palpable when you visit. Fortunately, in our case, this was balanced out by many moments of joy, beauty, and love. Check out the pics on Flickr, and here are a few highlights:
  • Catching up with lots of old friends from all over the map, including several who have added babies to their posses, and now-grown-up punks from Jericho's Echo and most importantly, our long lost old friend THE SUNSHINE.
(Watergun fight!)
  • Taking full advantage of our very first day in Tel Aviv, with a trip to Hilton Beach, a massive flashmob watergun fight with several hundred people in Rabin Square, and a late night rooftop party with my favorite Jericho’s Echo punks, Dennis and Tom from Smash4$ (who are now both Mohawk-less) and some of their crazy Russian vodka-swilling friends.
(Russian Rooftop Revelry)
  • Staying with Avital, the lovely and generous woman who hosted me for both the filming and screening of Jericho’s Echo back when she was a swingin’ single lady. The apartment was a little more crowded this time, with her husband Amit, unbelievably adorable daughter Shailah, and another girl on the way!
  • The last night of our trip was the transition between Seth’s birthday (July 9) and mine (July 10) and it just happened to be that two different people from Jericho’s Echo were having their own birthday parties that night (Tom’s girlfriend Malki and Ishay from Useless I.D.) so we got to crash, and see so many of the folks from the movie…everyone from Asi of Chaos Rabak and Tsahi from Retribution (who are now in a new band together, Instinct HC) to all the Useless I.D. guys (who just returned from a European tour) to Roy from Punkache (whose short army crop from the movie has turned into an adorable curly mop and who also fronts a new band, Malkat Haplakat)
(me and Roy of Punkache fame)
  • Outside of our good times in Tel Aviv, we managed to travel to the complicated, controversial, beloved and beautiful city of Jerusalem; the heart of Israel’s “wine country” Zichron Yaacov; the hippie mountain town Amirim; and the center of Jewish mysticism, Tsfat. Whew. Thank goodness for the AMAZING cabin we rented in Amirim with a hot tub overlooking the Sea of Galilee!
(View of the Galilee from our cabin in Amirim)

This was my fourth time in the Holy Land, but the first in 12 years that (after the summit) was purely for vacation purposes, and vacation we did! What a great time.


I must admit, my ancient Israeli roots reared their obstinate heads at the beginning of the ROI Summit, leading me to enter it with a hearty dose of skepticism. For one thing, we did a group exercise on the first night that asked all sorts of questions to gauge the makeup of the group at large. One asked if people would feel comfortable being married by a female Rabbi and the answers came back about 50% yes and 50% no. Another flat out asked if we considered ourselves “conservative” or “liberal” and, once again, the assemblage was split. As much as I appreciate diversity of ideas, I began to dread the thought of spending four days debating, yet again, whether or not Barack Obama is “good for Israel.”

My skepticism continued in the morning, as we entered into a round of exceedingly cheesy icebreakers, led by a little British man with a megaphone who was vaguely reminiscent of Mr. Bean. These included one exercise where you and a partner had to sit on the ground, holding hands and touching feet and then help each other stand up without letting go. All of the religious people were aghast. AWKWARD! It didn’t help that my first partner dropped me on my bum, onto a pile of rocks, ripping a hole right in the seat of my shorts. Great. As if these icebreakers weren’t mortifying enough, now I’m flashing my panties to a bunch of conservative guys who don’t even touch women before marriage. Eek!


Fortunately, an angry mob never tracked me down, and it didn’t take very long for me to drink the Kool-Aid, or more appropriately in this case, the icekafeh (a yummy Israeli Frappuccino-slurpee concoction that was conveniently on hand for all events.) As usual, it was the people who brought me around. As soon as I first met with my Arts & Culture track as a group, I knew that something special was about to happen.

You can see the bios of my 15 fellow artsy- fartsies here, along with that of our lovely colleague and track facilitator, rocker chick Naomi Less. The group was about as diverse as could be in a Jewish context, including religious and secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, Mexican, British, Israeli, American, Chilean, German, Hungarian, and from all over the arts world—filmmakers, cartoonists, a comedian, musicians, a performance artist, and art events promoters. This diversity could have led to an emotional drama disaster, but we met as a group several times throughout the week between the other scheduled activities like skill workshops and networking events, and managed to easily find common passions despite our geographic and other differences.

(Sketch of an Arts & Culture track meeting by the talented participant, Chari Pere. Can you tell which one is me?)

We truly bonded as a group and inspired one another with our very diverse tales of success and failure and brainstorming about how we, as a community, can help legitimize “Jewish art,” getting down to even what that term means anymore and where the Holocaust fits into the current Jewish artistic landscape, if at all.

After the summit, I visited the Tel Aviv Art Museum, which just happened to be showing a recreation of an exhibit from Berlin in 1907—more than 100 years ago—called “THE FRAGMENTED MIRROR EXHIBITION OF JEWISH ARTISTS.” The show explored some of the very same topics of Jewish art, assimilation and cultural paradoxes that we had been discussing. It was amazing to me that I had just been involved in such a similar discussion—more than 100 years later. For me, it underscored the importance of that ongoing conversation, because I truly believe that it is the arts that keep the Jewish people vital and relevant. In fact, the de facto slogan of one of our participants’ projects, Omanoot, kind of became a rallying cry for our group:


Branching out from the A & C track, I met truly incredible and passionate young people doing all sorts of amazing things, like starting an environmental summer camp, running organizations that facilitate heart transplants for Arab children or college educations for Ethiopian girls in Israel, reimagining contemporary culture through the Jewish Salons project and so much more.

Perhaps the most exciting encounters of all were with the brains and bank behind this incredible operation, Lynn Schusterman. Celebrating her 70th birthday this year, Mrs. Schusterman is pretty, petite, and a total firecracker who wields her financial power in part through boundary-breaking philanthropy.

The Jewish funding climate has often seemed to me to be based on fear, sometimes to the detriment of the funders’ original causes, and often impending projects that could take the Jewish future in new and exciting directions. My experience with ROI, however, was quite the opposite of this. Mrs. Schusterman and her cohorts brought people together with the specific directive of innovation in mind. People making real change. People with a shared passion of revitalizing Jewish tradition. People with sometimes--GASP!—controversial ideas. I can’t even express how refreshing this was for me.

One of the running themes of Mrs. Schusterman’s addresses to use was her desire to extend the legacy of her husband and fellow philanthropist, Charles Schusterman, though her work with projects like ROI. I hope we can make her proud and give her the Return on Investment that she desires.


The ROI Summit was four days of little sleep, lots of good food, intensive networking and hours of interesting, mind-opening, sometimes challenging dialogue between passionate, articulate young people from all over the world. In short, pretty freakin awesome. I’ve barely scratched the surface in this entry.

(Arts & Culture peeps Samuel/Antithesis, Andrea, Ziv, Alon, Elina, Rachel, me, Michelle, Naomi, Dafna and Cheri)

One more thing worth mentioning, however, is that some unexpected seeds were planted for me in terms of a new documentary project. Between discussions with some ROIers from Jerusalem and a surprise visit from that city’s young, dynamic new mayor, Nir Barkat, I think I may just be onto something. There is apparently a youth-led cultural and political renaissance afoot in Jerusalem that is reminiscent of the wave of current youth activism around the world. It seems like a very exciting and potentially dramatic topic that is definitely worth exploring. Stay tuned…

A big shout out also goes to the incredible staff of this event—Jewish innovators in their own right—who absolutely worked their asses of for 20 hours a day to make sure that things went smoothly all week long. Thank you and Kol ha kavod!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pre-Israel Jewy Stuff for your Viewing Pleasure

A handful of intense and heartbreaking events have gone down recently that leave me counting my blessings, so what better time to visit the Holy Land for a little spiritual centering? The last time I was there was to screen Jericho’s Echo at DocAviv four years ago. Good thing I'm leaving on Friday for the ROI Summit in Tel Aviv!

I was so honored to be invited to this gathering of "young Jewish innovators" and though I don't know too much about what to expect, I am super excited to meet my fellow participants. They hail from all over the place (Mexico City, Chile, Switzerland, Hungary...) and do all sorts of interesting things (artists, social entrepreneurs, and um...a Zionist rapper?!) I hope that some really exciting creative collaborations emerge from this experience.

In honor of the trip, I wanted to share a couple of short projects that I did for the Jewish world from this past year. Coincidentally, both of these projects were thrown my way by former ROI participants. Maybe there is something to this "Jewish media conspiracy" after all. :)

First, a news package I shot and produced for on some of the Jewy stuff that goes down at my new favorite NYC venue, the City Winery (Except that Blogger seems to be cutting off the right side of this, so to see the original CLICK HERE):

And also, an animation that I wrote and narrated for my awesome girl Sarah Lefton's project, G-dcast:


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lists Make Me Feel Better

It's hard for me to write this post because it's hard for me to admit that things aren't awesome. But they're kind of not. I've been dealing with a family health emergency, and that paired with this economic situation has really been getting me down. Plus the damned rain just won't seem to let up. Mother Nature, what part of APRIL showers don't you understand?

Most of you know that my last gig running MTV's election coverage was a dream job. And after that, Seth and I took a 5-year-overdue vacation to China. So how does one follow that up? I thought I might find another worthy project at MTV (like, NOT The Hills) but Viacom had to go and lay off 850 people while I was downing steamed buns in Xi'an, so that cut my options some.

I've been trying to be uncompromising and keep my values in tact, even in this lame duck economy. I've been trying to stay positive and take this opportunity to work on some of my own pitches and projects and not respond to job offers for things that I think will suck just because they're there. I've had a zillion meetings with people who think I'm great and will totally call me...once the economy improves.

And I'm getting really freaking sick of it! A couple of my closest friends have mentioned that I am a very purpose-driven gal and that I'm a little bit purposeless now, which makes me less me. One suggested that this is a good time to have a baby, but even though we'll have kids at some point, I don't want to go there just because I have nothing better to do! Jeez!

So I decided to do what purpose-driven people do, and make a list of everything I accomplished today. Just to make myself feel like I was not doing nothing and wasting the perfectly good "free time" that I have right now. And it made me feel better! I realized that I am actually doing a lot! And that maybe I'll look back on this time and think about how lucky I was to have all this, well, time! So I thought I'd share it with you, so you can know what I'm up to and that I'm still me.
  • Had a phone meeting with my girl from Reboot about putting their video content online
  • Got coffee and set up shop at my "office," the Greenpoint Coffeehouse
  • Updated my website with some recent speaking engagements
  • Sent 40 emails (Some work, some play)
  • Bought my niece's graduation present
  • Worked on plans for my BFFs bridal shower
  • Planned another friend's graduation drinks shebang
  • Followed up on a freelance job that I really, really want
  • Found out that I get the ION channel and set the DVR to record Barack Obama: People's President (a documentary featuring yours truly! And Desmond Tutu!)
  • Typed up and sent notes about a secret project, from a recent meeting with a collaborator
  • Filled out my registration materials for the upcoming ROI Summit in Israel (Just found out I was accepted yesterday! So excited!)
  • Spoke with my mom on the phone
  • Spoke with my brother on the phone
  • Spoke with my man on the phone
  • Made and ate dinner (Spaghetti & meatballs with roasted garlic)
  • Rooted for the Nice Jewish Boy Stephen on Survivor: Tocantins
  • Wrote this blog entry
OK, phew. Do you feel better? I do. Good night.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I'm not a playa, I just Yelp a lot.

Keeping up with all this social networking hoo-ha can feel like a full time job, and I haven't even gone virtual. Hell no. You won't find me in Second Life, because I'm too busy with my digital life!

I've got a website, this blog, and three active email accounts. In trying to streamline, I've phased out Friendster and myspace in favor of a Facebook/Twitter combo, and I keep photos on Flickr. I occasionally use my LinkedIn and Shooting People accounts for professional stuff. But there's yet another that I just can't resist...

Because I enjoy the following:
  • Eating
  • Writing
  • Sharing my unsolicited opinion
  • Giving props where props are due
  • Pretending to be a food critic
  • Receiving compliments from strangers
...I also enjoy YELP!

(Holla at me if you're a Yelper, too!)

Nonetheless, I still prioritize my REAL life. The one in the touchable, tasteable, sensual, REAL world. After all, without that, what would I blog about?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

SXSW 09: My Twitter Experiment

I'm headed to Texas for the second time in 2 months. Not sure if I like this trend, but at least it's Austin this time! #sxsw 11:11 PM Mar 17th

That was my first “tweet” related to Austin’s massive, annual music fest and conference, South by Southwest—otherwise known as “SXSW” or “Southby” by music industry types who want to seem cooler than you. I headed to Texas’s dusty capital with my husband, Seth, and his record label, Negative Progression, and as I was there for nothin’ but a good time, I decided to use the opportunity to practice up on my Twitter skills.

I've hesitated in the past is in part because I'm not sure anyone cares to read a minute-by-minute playbook of my life and, besides, what ever happened to a good, old fashioned air of mystery? But in Austin, where upwards of 2,000 bands were playing in the space of 5 days and lots of people wanted to know what was going on there, I thought it was a good time to share.

And I wasn’t alone. Billboard Magazine noted that, “Twitter was far and away the preferred method for reporting from SXSW, providing readers with a steady stream of reports on long lines, good BBQ, and bands to watch.”

So here's my SXSW story, told in selected Behind-the-Tweets.

Heading to 1st night of shows. Only at #sxsw can u go from M. Ward to Circle Jerks within an hour! 8:39 PM Mar 18th

The best thing about a place where literally thousands of bands gather is the diversity of music you can see in one day, and since my own musical history is all over the map, it works out well for me. I loved that we were going to see formative punk rock band the Circle Jerks (who, incidentally, still rock after almost 30 years) and HR from Bad Brains (who, incidentally, is still a nutjob but great showman after almost 30 years) in the same night that we would see much-discussed folky singer-songwriter M.Ward of the much-discussed band with actress Zooey Deschanel, She & Him.

(Keith Morris of The Circle Jerks and his impressive dreadlocks)

Ok, I finally get the hype...the Decemberists are killing it at #sxsw! 1:40 AM Mar 19th

We caught this much-hyped Oregon band at the NPR showcase outside of Stubb's BBQ. Friends have been trying to push them on me for years, but I hadn't really loved the recordings that I'd heard. Nothing makes me happier, though, than when a live performance converts me to fandom, and this one really did the trick. Heck, any band that has wildly varying influences and incorporates robots and full-band drum routines into their stage show is allright by me. Seth and I were both blown away.

(The Decemberists' rocking drum routine)

SXSW=Post punk frat party 12:58 PM Mar 19th

This observation was made when it was only 1 PM and the main drag was already clogged by Pretty Young Things drunk on cheap beer, but instead of white baseball caps and Uggs they sported tattoos and, as my girl Dee from MTV so aptly put it, “Flannel for DAYS.”

(The spandex and flannel-clad kids enjoying Death Metal pizza)

At documentary "say my name" about female mc's and sexism in hip hop. Not a single male in audience. Proving the point. #sxsw 1:20 PM Mar 19th

Did I mention that SXSW is also a film festival? It’s actually my dream fest; I would LOVE to have a film premiere there. Although the main film part is over by the time the music fest rolls into town, there were still some movies playing and I was lucky enough to catch Say My Name.

Some dudes did show up, eventually, but it was definitely striking to walk into a large theatre for a film about female empowerment through music and see that only women seemed to be interested in the concept. Compare this to the wide distribution of a film like Notorious about male rapper, Biggie Smalls, and the importance of a movie like Say My Name, which highlights the work of some of rap’s hottest female MC’s, becomes more apparent.

From classics like Sparky Dee and MC Lyte to contemporary artists like Jean Grae and some of the grime girls from London, this film covers a wide spectrum of often challenging topics and does what many music docs fail to do—it captures the energy and spirit of the music that it portrays in the filmmaking itself.

Waited 30 mins in line to see 5 mins each of Great Lakes and the Hard Lessons at Found party. Love me some Davy Rothbart though! #sxsw 5:17 PM Mar 19th

It's amazing how much time at SXSW is spent line, between sets, during performances. My feet were practically ablaze by Saturday night.

The payoff, of course, is seeing great bands. Another big plus is catching up with friends at the parties thrown by their various affiliations. In this case, it was Davy Rothbart, the plaid-clad man behind the excellent Found Magazine. I found him rocking out to one of his favorite bands from his home state of Michigan, the appropriately named Great Lakes.

After a slew of text messages, we also managed to catch up with Josh Rosenfeld of Barsuk Records (one of the world’s finest indie labels IMHO) at his showcase with Merge Records, and inadvertently saw a set there of a band we really liked: Telekinesis. Apparently, Josh is now managing this jangly, singer-songwriter pop outfit.

I know both Davy and Josh from my Jewish media conspiracy cult, Reboot.

At house show watching great Texas bands like old timey rock News on the March from Houston. #sxsw 6:29 PM Mar 19th

Just in case there aren't enough shows going on among the dozens of concurrent performances each hour, the locals (or, at least, the hipster, 20-something locals) like to join in the fun and throw a bunch of parties during SXSW week. Some, apparently, won't even let folks with Southby badges in the door (Love it!)

(Seth and Papermoons entering Casa de Gallo, where a sign out back read: Free BBQ If You Get Me High.)

We were lucky enough to catch such a show at Casa de Gallo, where some excellent Houston and Austin bands played. A highlight was the set by our lovely hosts and friends, Papermoons. (Danny from Papermoons used to play in a former Negative Progression band, Little Compass.) The singer, Matt, has a beautiful voice and Danny’s drumming is so on point, it’s sick. If you are a fan of the Shins or Iron & Wine, I definitely recommend checking Papermoons out on their current East Coast tour. They were so good, in fact, that they kind of ruined our evening, as the “official” SXSW bands that we saw later (especially the aptly named Sleepercar—former At the Drive In and Sparta) just didn’t live up to the expectations set at the little house show.

Dying of embarrassment due to all hipsters looking alike. Just ran up to, hugged and kissed someone who I didn't know by accident. 1:21 PM Mar 20th

SCENE: Girl sits alone at large table in crowded restaurant, awaiting guests. Noticing an old friend passing by on street, she jumps up from table and bursts out of glass doors to greet him.

GIRL: Hi!! (Throws arms around old friend and kisses him on the cheek.)

OLD FRIEND: Do I know you?

GIRL: Glenn?


GIRL: Oh, um, nice to meet you?

Girl returns to restautant as other diners stare. Ducking head to hide bright red cheeks, girl Twitters about experience.

Went to Village Voice party at #sxsw. Amazed newspapers can sponsor anything anymore. 6:15 PM Mar 20th

Seriously, right? Thank goodness they managed to pull it off though, because despite lack of free booze, they did give out swag bags with essential items like a beer koozie and condoms, and more importantly, some great bands played. We finally got to see M. Ward after giving up on the unbearable lines outside his Wednesday night show, and we caught a couple songs of the Crystal Antlers, too.

The highlight for me was Cursive. They are one of my favorite bands and I had yet to see them live. The band played with an extra member who turned out to be my favorite, as he managed to play trumpet and shake a maraca at the same time. I love me a dexterous man.

On the Twitter front, I think I made my first Twitterbuddy, @billyjensen (aka writer and Village Voice Director of New Media, Bill Jensen), by attending this show. I’m one of those people who has their Facebook page all private and never understood my white girlfriend who dated guys she met in the “Ebony and Ivory” chatroom and shit, but I can’t say I’m not flattered that well-educated strangers want to follow my random musings on Twitter.

"if you don't want a girlfriend, then take yo toothbrush out my house!"--Amanda Diva at #sxsw 7:15 PM Mar 20th

Amanda Diva went to drama school with my brother-in-law, and the theatrics were right up front in her performance. Aside from the fact that it was a pleasure to mix up all the white-guy-rock with some R & B flava, I also appreciated seeing an artist who didn’t take herself so damned seriously. She made jokes about people mixing her up with Alicia Keys, did goofy dances around the stage, whipped out some stunna shades for a rousing rendition of her song “NEON”…and still sounded great. Go, girl.

(The Dramatic Diva Herself)

A Skylit Drive= band with hair that Brett Michaels would die for. #sxsw10:04 PM Mar 20th
Case in point:

DEVO!!! What a way to cap off the night at #sxsw. 2:35 AM Mar 21st

Sure, SXSW is one of the best possible places to learn about and catch performances from some of the hottest up-and-coming or most blogged-about indie bands, but it’s also a great opportunity to see some well-known, mainstream bands that you probably wouldn’t otherwise pay for.

Devo was definitely my guilty pleasure of the week, if anything for the whack-a-doo fans wearing those crazy, red, plastic hats from the “Whip It” video. The 80’s electropop band did a very clever thing. Rather than having the audience focus on their faces and the fact that dang, these guys are getting old, they were silhouetted by an enormous video screen, projecting all sorts of bizarre imagery to enhance the show. Good times.

(DEVO backed by digital go-go girls)

Annoyed by long lines at #sxsw AP party. Now chillin on patio with free booze at lovely JDub party. Thanks @bizmonides! 4:51 PM Mar 21st

The fact that I was ten years older than everyone else waiting to get into the Alternative Press party really started to show when I could no longer endure standing in the unmoving monster of a line that didn’t seem to bother the able-bodied youngsters at all. I’m sorry, people, but after three long days and nights of music and mayhem, my dogs were barkin’ way too loud to wait around for your crappy screamo bands.

Thank goodness for the JDub Records party, hosted by my ever-classy pal, Aaron Bisman and his world music crew. I think JDub is one of the most interesting labels out there. Let’s face it, most indie labels are run by the Chosen People (at least every one I’ve mentioned in this blog so far), but JDub is actually, unabashedly, a Jewish record label.

Put on the map for introducing the world to Hasidic rapper, Matisyahu, JDub now has on their roster several very diverse bands that I happen to love—from gypsy punks Golem to Yiddish tent-revival bluesmen The Sway Machinery. I discovered a new one at their wonderfully relaxing party in the backyard of Copa: DeLeon. This energetic band (whose drummer kicked off the set from up in a tree) are self-proclaimed "15th Century Spanish Indie Rock." Ya don't see that every day!

(DeLeon drummer, opening their set)

Tinted Windows at #sxsw: 1 part Hanson, 1 part Smashing Pumpkins, 1 part Cheap Trick?? This is gonna be good. 11:16 PM Mar 21st

Really, I mean, how could we not? Thanks to a tip from my friend John Norris of MTV News fame, I knew that this gig was the not-to-be-missed freakshow of the moment, and it did not disappoint. Fronted by pretty-boy-trying-to-look-older-but-instead-looking-like-a-lesbian-with-facial-hair Taylor Hanson with Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos, who could be his grandfather, creepily leering over his shoulder, this performance was even weirder than I expected. Especially because they sound like freakin’ Huey Lewis and the News! What???

Thank Jeebus that James Iha still totally rules.

P.S. Seth thought they were great. I’m not sure what to make of that.
P.S.S. Sorry to say that no pictures were allowed at the show. But one is burned into my brain forever.

Today: world music > pop punk > indie rock > emo > party jamz > huey lewis rock > lez folk > soul. Only @sxsw. 1:39 AM Mar 22nd

This, my friends, is why SXSW rules. Match the correct band that we saw on Sunday with the correct genre from the above Tweet and you win a personalized @reply from me. ☺

Graham Coxon
Indigo Girls
You Me at Six
Tinted Windows

Have to admit, I really enjoyed being part of #sxsw conversation thru Twitter. Still can't decide if I want to go full time tho...about 8 hours ago from web

I have to say, I did not expect to enjoy the Twittering experience quite so much, but there was definitely something neat about participating in a collective conversation with a bunch of strangers-who-could-be-friends. Remains to be seen whether it will win me over for the long haul, but for now: tweet tweet.

P.S. Want to hear some of these great bands? Or even some terrible but much-discussed ones? There is a downloadable stream of one song from EVERY official SXSW band here,

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Power of Words

We are in an era of faster, more, and I do try to keep up. I shoot digital video; I take zillions of digital photos and post them on Flickr and Facebook and then Tweet about it. I live in a big, noisy, wild city and I love it. But...despite all the visual and audio stimulation constantly streaming in and out of my brain, I will always put great stock in the good, old fashioned WORD.

I was therefore very moved by this passage from "Spirit of '76*," part of a slate of poems written by John Updike as he approached the end of his life:

Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.

R.I.P., Mr. Updike.

(*Spirit of '76 is part of Endpoint, published in Mar 16, 2009 issue of The New Yorker Magazine.)