Author - yuri.kruman@gmail.com

That Time Kasparov Thought I Was a KGB Assassin

We’re at the OB/GYN’s inside the Woolworth Building. The boss doc has delivered for celebrities galore throughout the years. Best Doctor lists, Gwyneth and Whoopi family candids grace the walls.

We got in through the backdoor, family connection. Dr. Moritz’s aunt in Casablanca bakes like no tomorrow. My mom-in-law’s a frequent customer and hence the introduction.

A clever twist of fate. I worked here – this exact same space – a very long 8 years ago. My first and only corner office, for a summer, with a Hudson view. Scott Sherman & (I, his) Associates, personal injury attorneys. He cast me in a primetime Russian TV spot (Russians enjoy Freedom of Lawsuit).

Therein, succeeding miseries are shown (car accident, trauma at home, trauma at nursing home). Bizarre, uplifting music leads me into frame, assuring viewers in a dubbed-in voice that we will do our damndest to defend their interests. Random cab drivers and grandparents recognize me in the street for months.

All that was five lifetimes ago, it seems. Scott Sherman’s long moved on from here – priced out by condos and Cornell, no doubt.

The office is brand new and spotless. The doctor walks in, joking with my wife in French. A former journo, he is jovial and warm. Before we mention babies, he throws in that he’s just met Kasparov. Although the man’s a genius, over dinner, he is hard to stop, the doctor says. Too much chess strategy for Russian politics, too little ruthlessness.

Garry and I have never met, but have a long and storied history. Back in the innocence of law school, I signed up to fact check for New Yorker for a week. The reason was Keith Gessen’s article about the murder trial of the alleged killers of Anna Politkovskaya. Kasparov had his say as opposition leader and I called him to confirm his quote.

Mind you, it’s no small thing to call your childhood hero (nerd alert, we share a birthday) and then talk to him about the geopolitics of Mother Russia, which you left when you were 9. It was a nervous, fascinating 15 minutes on the phone. Very polite and friendly. Thank you and good day.

A year and something later, I am at a crowded Fairway, getting groceries. I run headlong into a grayer version of… my dashing hero. In Russian, I intone, “Are you… Garry Kasparov?” What happens next is shocking to the core. Confused and scared, he pedals backward, muttering. Next thing I know, he basically runs off and out of sight. Is it the beard? The tired, red eyes? I’m sure I showered this morning.

No, that’s just it… He must have thought I was a KGB assassin! Yikes. What a disaster, goodness. Disarmed, I totally forgot the New York rule: do NOT disturb celebrities in nature.

It’s not the first time, sadly. Outside a movie theater once, I couldn’t help but argue with a feisty Michael Moore. Julianne Moore made small talk with me briefly, holding a white cockatoo. I ran right into Mario Batali with his trademark ponytail and shorts and Crocs outside my law school several years ago. Soon, he’d be sued to pieces by my family lawyer.

And yet, Kasparov keeps on popping up, as always unannounced. Sooner or later, we will meet again, I feel. I’m just a Brooklyn hipster now, a startup guy, not threatening at all (except when posing as a scary Russian in the local ghetto). I will have trimmed my beard, I hope, and introduce myself in English when it happens.

We wrap up with the visit now. The OJ and fresh-baked croissants I’ve smuggled in have made the glucose test impossible today. I’m only following a pregnant woman’s orders.

Doctor Moritz bids us goodbye, until next time. We walk out and I think – how odd that both my hero and myself are both new parents at this stage. I always pictured Garry as the young and virile Jewish underdog to Karpov, brilliant, erudite and showing the authorities the finger for the lot of us. He’s done his part and then some, but the odds are stacked against the premise now. 2016, we are just Russian emigres in town who share an OB/GYN. Life is a circle full of irony – you either laugh or die.

So Garry, baby, call me. Let’s do dinner, BFF.

I’m Back In The USSR Today…

I’m back in the USSR today… 8 AM, knock on the door. The super is outside along with a marshal and the ConEd man.

“Kathleen Travis?” the ConEd man asks.

“Hm, no. Who is that? Nobody here by that name.” My dear wife is clear as day.

“You haven’t paid your electricity bill in 6 months and we’re cutting your service right now.”

Despite our protestations of a ridiculous mistake, they shut off our power right then and there.

I spend the morning on the phone, dialing through a Spanish-only menu to get to a ConEd rep. I explain that they made a huge mistake and kept the old tenant on the electricity bill, instead of us, as they promised at the switch during the move. The rep acknowledges the mistake and says a supervisor will call back after an hour to send someone back out to turn it on.

By 5 PM, the ConEd guys are here. The super just had to let them down into the basement to set the meter. 40 minutes and tens of calls and texts later, no response from the super or the landlord. The ConEd guys leave.

The house is totally dark. Kid is freaking out. We ask our amazing neighbors Amir and Melissa to plug in an extension cord. I quickly run to Crown Heights and back for burgers that my wife orders in French. The owner asks me in French, “Français ou Americain?”

“Russe.”

“Ah, oui? How did that happen?”

“You don’t always choose.”

I sign and leave with the goods, looking into Rite Aid for dry ice and a cooler.

There’s none anywhere for our no-longer-frozen meat and fish, alas.

We eat and experience glorious, fiery heartburn. Then, we proceed to defiantly, shamelessly, flippantly watch 2 episodes of “The Americans” on an iPhone screen (the laptop is dead and anyway, Internet is down with the power).

And then Paige finds out her parents are spies.

Our house is totally dark and the old days of power shortages in the Mother country bring back (freezing-balls) warm memories of Russian winter.

Mother of necessity… (Mother Flipper, Fuggetaboutit).

P.S. Thanks, ConEd, for your bottomless ineptitude – and 6 months of subsidized electricity. Pleasure doing business. DMV-level pleasure.

 

The Age of Incandescent Mediocrity

The Age of Incandescent Mediocrity
By Yuri Kruman

In every generation, snobs and malcontents – and critics – always moan, “This is the end of culture! End of our civilization!” Culture’s survived them all. Our broken Western business model lives to see another day.
And yet, one feels the creep of cultural stagnation, everywhere. Take ‘80s music, clothes, the general aesthetic at your Urban Outfitters, American Apparel – the same old, tired hipster antics. Cue dirty ‘staches and long beards, lumberjack flannel, Warby Parkers. After the Mad Men wave, the ‘50s, ‘60s are alive in fashion. Now note the prevalence of irony and feebleness in mainstream fiction, festivals of art and music, film. Tupac’s alive again, in Hologram. Wuhaa!

“The Wolf of Wall Street” didn’t help things; neither did “Great Gatsby.” Immediately, memes of Wall Street Scarface and the Flapper crowd made waves. For yet the umpteenth time. When you compare it with monosyllabic pop, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” sounds like thoughtful elegy. There was a time when all of this would be derisively dismissed – derivative! And now… epitome of class.

Is this phenomenon a blip along the line of endless progress or a true inflection point – a “thing”?
– –
‘Tis true, the classics of our Western repertoire have died the slowest death, for decades. Ye olde-hat art forms like the symphony, ballet, performance art and painting have declined in impact in our culture. That is, despite some notable attempts at reinvention through exotic media, increased accessibility and Sass!

Simply, the young don’t care, don’t show, don’t pay (don’t want to pay or can’t). They are not moved by hybrid paradigms or media, not shocked, inspired beyond consumer’s awe. Nor do “abhorrent” spectacles, the likes of dung Madonnas, blood-soiled panties and the other Shock Art treats. After YouTube beheadings, these are quaint rebellion.
– –
We live in heady times for artists. Never before has it been easier or cheaper to make films or music, literature, paintings or a play – quite any art, to show-and-tell it, sell it, make it viral, maybe even make a buck. (Irrational exuberance, apologies.) Just pick a medium, work hard, test what is working and what’s not with trusted inner circle, then go practice, practice, practice until ready for the world. Worst case, there’s always a consultant/mercenary/virtual assistant at the ready. (Just ask Siri!)

Throw up a website, tell a story, shoot some video, campaign on social media, get funded by the crowd. Offer your stuff as gifts for cash, call in your favors with your friends and family, go viral, BOOM. Now you’ve got money and an audience, devoted. Rinse and repeat, you’ve got a following, some revenue, maybe enough to live on, if you’re lucky. Now grow that email list! You go, girl!

Efficient markets and a sharing ethos, plus crowd-funding and the open-source explosion have dropped barriers to entry for untold new artists, writers and musicians, not to mention coders. Mix in the sure steamroller of democratizing taste, elites with flitting power to ignore or trample self-made wonders, plus the low cost of pop-up urbanism. Voila!

The trouble is, now everyone’s an artist upon declaration. That was easy. Likes, shares and t-shirt sales – virality, once more – have jettisoned the need for critical approval. Worse, in a market glut, only the winners get to eat. The rest take jobs in finance or in Starbucks or continue mooching.

Hence, by and large, the death of art for art’s own sake. Yet, Long Live Art (please SHARE and NOW)! The medium’s the message. All the rest is humblebrag.
– –
The moment in our history confounds. We seem to quietly have reached an evolutionary cul-de-sac in art, even as old Moore’s Law keeps chugging on toward The Singularity. How can this be, you scream? Just 3-D printing by itself will mean a giant Forward Leap! And what about the endless pool of under-fed and desperate creatives churned out every year? Recession drives renewal! Hipsters, save us all!

Ease of production and supply chain economics are no measure of aesthetic standards – that, we know. The trouble is, what are our standards? On one end of the spectrum are the goons of the establishment – Jeff Koons and Shepard Fairey, Ai Weiwei, Maria Abramovič, Basquiat and like. The hot new things are “deconstructing painting,” picking up the pieces of the Humpty Dumpty back onto the wall. What passes as the edgiest and freshest – by the critics’ cut – these days is little more than Pop Art kitsch 2 (is it 3?).0, riding the horse of irony, the cracking whip – investor frenzy. What’s the deal?

One sadly titillating and paradigmatic act well illustrates the state of art these days – a naked queen – (Venus de) Milo Moiré, performing “The Script System” at Art Basel, in past June. A woman in the nude performing publicly is hardly interesting or novel, in our age – especially in Europe. The painted words on flesh hardly arouse examination of script theory, as intended. She has pre-empted and transgressed all possible objectification with this statement – native, as it’s brave – and post-post-feminist. Pardon me while I laugh, then cry…ironic tears.
The trouble isn’t lack of aptitude or cleverness – quite well the opposite. The ease of entry, wealth of talent and profusion of new tech has led to massive growth in sheer production, exhibition, dabbling and collaboration.

Last March, I was a part of the Asylum Arts Retreat for Jewish artists in upstate New York. Each of us – seventy, in all, from far-flung places such as Buenos Aires, Budapest, L.A. and Tel-Aviv – brought objects of significance to give away, telling the story and the provenance for each. Between black Persian oranges and poems from a manic teen, drawn comic strips and my own Don Quixote flask, in Spanish leather, it was grand. We then filled out a giant timeline with our personal milestones, historical events that stuck with us from childhood, also paintings, books and music that have made us who we are as artists. Imagine all the myriad impressions and cross-pollination of ideas, new plans to work together that immediately flowed!

It isn’t that prevailing brilliance has gone dormant, or that genius has evaporated, suddenly. Each epoch makes its own, this one being no exception.

It’s that we’re clinging to soft, rotting notions of a trickle-down of taste determined, packaged and delivered by elites. Publishing’s holding by its teeth to staid prestige. Orchestras dying a slow death are scrambling to cross-over, cross-promote. The greatest gallerists trip over one another to anoint the next big thing, to stage the retrospective, buttress bottom lines. Endorsement’s everything. Returns are king. The robber barons wait to pounce and hedge and pocket the prestige. Prevailing taste is parsed “objectively” from data, analyzed and bundled in fat tranches, like financial instruments. Fait accompli.
– –
Except, of course, it’s not. The laws of economics are the wind, but not the rudder to this ship. The latter is consumer sentiment. And there’s the rub – the Audience is suspect. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
In the interminable weeds of constant busy-ness, distraction and the speed of change, we’ve largely lost our patience and our curiosity beyond the listicle and Youtube exposition to a subject. The Crowd is king, every decision outsourced for presumed collective wisdom, in the place of cultivated taste. There is no time for thoughtfulness or exploration. Even our memory of things is fleeting, outsourced to the cloud. To be a walking Google is no badge of honor in a smartphone world. Unless we’re paid curators, dilettantes or students, we need pre-digestion.

Per Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of art is crap, across the board. If in a clever, thoughtful crowd, one benefits tremendously through access to the good stuff. If not, reliance quickly spirals into wasted time. Mistakes are costly, worse than FOMO.
– –
And was it always thus, as cynics may suspect, or is this truly a new moment?

Art history suggests this may be a reprisal, in a way. After the end of guilds came the Salon des Refusés, embracing the “alternative,” for once. Marcel Duchamp destroyed the value of inherent meaning in his view of art. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring utterly scandalized the audience. John Cage’s 4’33” then simply robbed it blind (and deaf). Last year’s Whitney Biennial revealed an august group of tired and trite, half-baked contraptions, compositions, machinations, ideations that embrace the “End of Art,”1 or as the artist Alan Kaprow called it 50 years ago, “postart.” Then are we done, kaput?

Not quite so fast. In order to achieve a succès de scandale, one must rebel against a norm of taste or values, clauses in the social contract. Short of committing crimes – obscenity or lechery or racism need not bother – few barriers remain against which we may throw ourselves, artistically. We’re treading water. Our total “freedom” is our downfall.

We constantly hark back to times of great repression, war, upheaval to find gems of literature, painting, music – or at least their wellsprings. Art’s born in crucibles of trauma; that will never change. In times of peace and relative prosperity, like ours, it’s trauma of the personal that dominates our art, not ideology. One turns to painting to relieve divorce, to writing as a misfit, singing as a channel for one’s yearning. Most of us Western children know no war, starvation, double-speak or gulag, thankfully.

Yet we don’t seem to care and keep on making things, creating, ‘cuz it just feels good. Maybe the core of “greatness” in our bubble isn’t born of copies sold or prizes won, but simple understanding, recognition by our peers – community. Our maxims are: Come join our studio! Write for a blog or perish. Do Kickstarter. Be the startup of you. Sell it on Etsy. Start a pop-up store. We have our student debt, portfolio careers… and brunch.

– –
Thus, in the end, we’re faced with a perplexing paradox. Art’s never been so easy to create and spread, but hardly anything escapes self-reference. 90% is crap, but when just metrics matter, taste is obviated. Crap has become de facto taste. The middlebrow is depilated. Amateur critics lurk and shout with impudence. Elites and experts huff and puff, sarcastic and self-righteous, while Rome burns.

Never before in history have experts and elites been dragged over the coals for vapid judgments, quite as now. Never before have works of art had half-lives equal to the news feed scroll. Art’s simply a commodity and artists, too. Art has no rules, no definition, just marketability. Cogito, ergo sum artifex. I think, therefore I am an artist. The ghost of pretense has already given up.
Mediocrity
Ours is an Age of Incandescent Mediocrity.

Bridge on the River Moscow (on Boris Nemtsov’s Death)

Nemtsov photo

Bridge on the River Moscow

by Yuri Kruman

My pulse is rushing as I write this. Upset, dislodged from equanimity, I’m punching air and jumping to the ceiling for release. I breathe out, hoping this will disappear. Why is this anger, pooled beneath my stoic’s skin an ocean deep, coming to surface now?

Changes are coming. Spring’s pushing out from under feet of snow. First pangs of March. Pandora’s feeding me some sort of Southern hipster blues. Maybe it’s student loans depressing my good mood, maybe expenses coming with our move to Brooklyn.

Nemtsov is dead, that’s it. Somehow his execution bothers me above the months of endless stress, G-d’s brutal sense of humor in my case, my wife’s complaints, my daughter’s cries, my mother’s hit of guilt with every daily conversation. Moroccan relatives are visiting. I’m drifting, but Nemtsov is looming. They have crossed the line. I can’t stay silent any longer.

Why now, why this? I’m not much of a patriot, especially with Russia. Frankly, we left and that was it, hands washed. This bothers me to hell, more than it should. It isn’t just, the guy was Jewish and a dissident – that’s bad enough.

It’s that I wrote a book almost two years ago titled, The Egypt In My Looking Glass. The character we never meet, around whom all the action swirls is Edouard Yablonskiy, dissident and physicist, who perishes *like that* when the regime decides. They killed my character, the bastards!

No, that’s too crass. It was like killing the whole world I grew up in, along with figurehead, a whole milieu already long endangered, fossilized – the context that my parents knew and lived in for a generation. Mom lurched, as well. This hits too close to home. In a peculiar way, my father died a second death last Friday on that bridge.

We left in 1992, what seems like five lifetimes ago. That’s what you did back then, especially when offered tickets to America – especially a job. We took our first flight ever on a Delta plane, Moscow to JFK, continuing to Lexington, Kentucky. November 5th, the day that Clinton was elected. Can’t get much more symbolic than Slick Willie, from a clapboard pig sty to the White House.

What was so special that we left back there, twenty-plus years ago? Soviet construction? Poverty? KGB-flavored Ceylon tea with just a hint of mint?

Our corner of the Soviet paradise had charm and character, all right. Our town of academic institutes 80 miles south of Moscow – Pushchino – sloped down toward the river Oka, truly beautiful. The rolling hills, wheat fields, lush forests with their mushrooms, berries were our wonderland. Like all good Russians, we grew herbs and veggies, made our salted cabbage on the kitchen table, pickling everything we could for winter.

The institutes attracted top-notch biochemists, physicists and other academics from around the country and republics, making for one fascinating mix. My parents, having met in Moscow, moved there before Sis was born. Dad was a physicist and Mom’s a biochemist/cell biologist.

This was a crowd well-read in literature and poetry, philosophy and film, classical music and in history. To be a polymath was minimum expected. The knowledge came in through the mother’s milk. Hardly surprising, many scientists were Jews, folks who had struggled through discrimination in their path. Only the brilliant, perseverant had got through. To be a scientist back then was well-respected in the Soviet Union, one of few ways to “make it” for a Jew.

Nemtsov was born in Sochi, never lived in Pushchino. Although baptized as Russian Orthodox at birth, he was a Jew and looked it, facing anti-Semitism. Before he ever went political, he was a physicist who published well. He had the sensibility, resourcefulness; he was “a head,” as Russians say to honor. That he loved women and loved politics doth hardly take away. A Russian Clinton? We will never know.

Simply put, he was one of “us” – “us” being the émigrés and those that stayed behind, in equal measure. He did what many were too scared to do, especially in Putin’s Russia – he stood tall. He took the road less traveled by for all of us, except the bridge before the Kremlin, in his death.

The Naked Emperor wears Gucci, after all.

My FIRST FEATURE for HAARETZ ENGLISH EDITION

Please enjoy and SHARE (Behind a paywall, unless accessed through social media)!

http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.647858

When a Russian New Yorker finds himself celebrating Hilloula in Morocco

Yuri Kruman finds a community that is vibrant and yet racked by scandal, and feels at one with his Jewish brethren – yet utterly different.

By Yuri Kruman Mar. 19, 2015 | 4:24 PM

hiloula6

We find ourselves in the deep Moroccan south, hundreds of miles – and six hours by car – from our base in Casablanca. After unending unpaved roads, unmarked detours, avoiding bikes and trucks – and donkeys – we pull in. The compound is guarded by police and army everywhere. We are surrounded by the Atlas Mountains in a verdant valley deep in the Moroccan south. Without Wi-Fi and wireless, we are… nowhere in Africa.

Near the entrance, there’s a Berber market selling saffron, argan oil and local honey, with a petting zoo. Once we unload our things and enter the gate, we see men in skullcaps, women in headscarves with their children, playing. Hebrew is thrown around as much as French. And then there’s me – a Russian from New York.

This place is a Moroccan shtetl, thrown together for five days in the countryside. Everyone’s loaded – or invited – and preoccupied with gossip. There is a scandal brewing surrounding Morocco’s richest Jew, a “mini-Madoff” affair. The reports are grim: One macher lost $10 million because of him, another one $8 million, yet another $4 million.

These are the pillars of Casablanca Jewry, vacationing together in Marbella, doing business deals. The suspect took their money, gave to charity like mad, then … poof!. Now ill in a Paris hospital, the man says the investors will recoup their losses, and then some. Time will tell.

We are 600 people, all of us, who have come from elsewhere in Morocco, France, Israel and the United States to celebrate the yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death – of Rabbi David Ben Barroukh Cohen Azogh, a tzaddik (righteous man) who died in 1953. The latter title was earned by proven blood ties to Aaron the biblical high priest, brother of Moses.

Across a plaza, two butcher’s assistants lead their lambs to an abbatoir for slaughter. Leaving our daughter with cousins, I walk down to see the gruesome ritual, in prime time. Crispin, a kosher butcher from Casablanca, is in his element. Boys young and old crowd around. As one assistant holds the poor sheep’s head, Crispin says a blessing and then, with a slice, the animal’s life force drains, in fits and starts. The sheep rotates with a formidable determination and then sulks. I feel I have been initiated now.

Night falls. We’re in the synagogue for Maariv prayers. It is packed. Traditional Moroccan tunes fill the hall. The glorious vibrato of the cantor warms all the cockles. What a treat! It’s Christmas Eve back home, I note. Good to be worlds away from frozen Rockefeller Center.

We finish praying and an auction begins, accompanied by loud Moroccan music. The auctioneer is selling candles to put on the grave, in order. The honor of being first to win and light a candle at the rabbi’s grave is a big deal. Nevertheless, Millionaires’ Row here is nervous to bid too high, afraid of the tax police and cell-phone cameras. I’m told the proceeds go for site upkeep – a tithe, essentially.

After rousing ululations by the women and a couple shots of Johnnie Walker, we go out with the throngs toward the graveyard. It is a brilliant white affair, the gravestones elevated and unmarked. In the center stands a canopy, shielding the graves of Rabbi Ben Barroukh and his son from the elements. They say the rabbi passed through here en route between various communities; hence, the far-flung location.

Charity and basketball

A homely stranger with a Hebrew accent shakes my hand and blesses me repeatedly. He’s earned tzedaka (charity) for his thoroughness of his divine requests. He’s not a rabbi, I am told, but what’s the difference? A Jew’s a Jew; I’ll take the blessing happily. He tries again to bless me for payment throughout the evening, repeatedly, and again next day, but is rebuffed.

After acquiring packs of candles for a few dhirams, we place them on the rabbi’s gravestone and commence praying. A ner tamid (eternal light) – is blazing from a chimney off to the side.

Together, as a family, we go for snacks. Inside a small dining room, my wife’s aunt has set up long tables with red cushions. We sit, quite famished from the drive. The servers bring more dishes – shells filled with tapenade, mushrooms with onions, then spring rolls, pastries with anchovies, beef sliders, merguez sausage. Next comes smoked salmon salad and Marcona almonds. That’s a snack.

We shuffle out, already bloated. Dinner awaits us, still. The women stay behind. The guys play pickup basketball. Despite being out of shape, I manage to keep pace with three 10th-graders. We almost win; I have to run. It’s time to rock our daughter to sleep.

I take the stroller out, around the square, a large menorah standing in the center. Jews of all stripes and colors hang around here, chatting: Black-hatted and long-bearded rabbis, overage Israeli hipsters, older men in Arab dress, women in wigs. Now here’s a treasure of the Orient, I think: There is a rabbi looking straight from Safed, yellow djellaba-clad with pointy slippers, a gray beard – a mystic, with an iPad.

My wife calls me over. It’s procession time. The cousins take our antsy daughter for a stroll. We camp out near the synagogue to watch. A special chant accompanies the Cohen family, descendants of the rabbi. Awaja! The saint is coming! Moroccan shouts erupt. Yilililili! Everyone blesses an old, fragile rabbi and his family. They follow the sage for further prayers at the grave.

The feast is set inside the dining hall. Hundreds of people jockey for grilled lamb shanks, couscous and grilled chicken, every kind of salad and spicy beef-filled cigars. One can imagine the same scene – sharpened elbows, sharper looks – at any Kiddush in the world. Indeed, this makes me think of a Bukharan wedding: senseless amounts of food, a crazy band and crazy characters who could fill a novel, easily. Even the music and the singing are quite similar to that heard in a Bukharan wedding – how odd. One quickly senses gorging is a keystone of Moroccan life.

Yet the Olympic sport here isn’t eating – it’s the hosting. Here, in one corner, the three Cohen brothers pour the finest Scotch and bless each person who comes their way: L’Chaim! We squeeze in at a corner table with the family. I’m passed a plate with sumptuous pastilla (a meat pie sprinkled with powdered sugar), lamb shank, an enormous hunk of veal and salads – always salads. If I were to eat like this all the time, I would grow huge, says this guilt-filled New Yorker to himself. And yet, when in Rome… The pounds will come, but life is good, thank God.

Long day’s journey

The spectacle plays out. The men out-man each other with their generosity and spending; the women prepare the food and tables, shining in their gorgeous clothes. As I wolf down delicacies, ladies eat their endive. For them, no extra alcohol – too many calories – and never any extra food. Just like back home, one notes the botox smiles, hears all the gossip and deal-making. It’s a way of life.

The singer calls the crowd to dance. After I’m done stuffing my face, I join them eagerly. It’s good to shake one’s bones after the last few months of winter misery. The band begins to perform a sentimental anthem of the Maghreb emigrant:

“J’ai quitté mon pays, j’ai quitté ma maison
Ma vie, ma triste vie se traîne sans raison
J’ai quitté mon soleil, j’ai quitté ma mer bleue
Leurs souvenirs se reveillent, bien après mon adieu
Soleil, soleil de mon pays perdu.”
(“I left my country, I left my house
My life, my sad life drags without reason
I left my sun, I left my blue sea
Their memories awaken long after my farewell
Sun, sun of my lost country.”)

The song hits home. Most everyone has family in France and Israel. Enrico Macias, the singer at this event, made aliyah last year. This celebration comes two weeks before the terrorist attacks in Paris.

After a late, late night of singing, chatting, eating and wandering the grounds, we settle in our room. Our daughter fell asleep with Grandma; we are free. As we attempt to sleep, we’re interrupted by a conversation outside. The smell of grilling meat is downright suffocating; Crispin’s working late. Despite a warning to our chatty neighbors, they continue yapping. Blah blah blah, en Paris. Blah blah blah, en Netanya. A long day’s journey into night.

We wake up late. The sun is strong and welcoming. After morning prayers, there’s breakfast. Inevitably, indigestion strikes. My wife is sick all day and spends most of it sleeping. It’s all too much.

While strolling about the grounds with our daughter, I find a courtyard offering some peace and quiet. Without a word, an Arab woman living in the room next door brings out a chair for me. My little one asleep, I smuggle out my notebook and a pen for some writing. Two boys are playing in a puddle on the other side. Their parents’ tired eyes and voices tell a story.

I turn my music on. Stan Getz and Chet Baker’s “Yesterdays” pops up. Carefree and easy, no commitment. People pass by, with looks. With my hipster glasses and writer’s notebook – plus the stroller – I feel out of place. Sure, I speak French and might pass for Moroccan, on a dark night, but I’m afield and far. Not for a lack of warmth or hospitality or friendliness… It’s just that I’m Soviet.

The guilt, the second-guessing, triple entendres and skepticism so characteristic of Russian Americans are hard to bleach out even with sunshine and good food. And that’s the rub about living in New York. We work like hell to earn the money to escape – not to live like kings, exactly, just survive. Here in Morocco, life is simple, full of pleasures, but it’s a gilded bubble. With all the crap that living in New York brings, all things considered, why not live here for a while? A bubble bursts, but then at least, there’s always Israel.

The little one’s been awakened by all the noise. The kids are playing, looking down, amused. Back to my senses, ruefully. My mother-in-law is calling me – she wants me to experience the Berber market. We go through the gate, nodding to soldiers and police, and see the barnyard animals for sale. Turkeys and goats and sheep and chickens – and a peacock – strut their stuff. The another merchant is selling goodies from his truck. Special raw honey is voted down as fake by my father-in-law. He knows his stuff. There is a mix of argan oil and almonds, called amloo. We’ll take a pot back home with us.

Increasingly, we’re getting restless from the schedule: Eat, pray and love if possible, but don’t forget to eat! Should we stay for Shabbat or leave? We throw around the question and decide to go. We’ll drive out in early morning, in order to arrive in Casablanca before Shabbat.

We pack our things into the car at 6 A.M. It is pitch black, save for a lonely parking-lot floodlight, and dead quiet. We buckle up, preparing to go back to sleep, while my wife’s father drives. Just as we leave the compound, we drive off the road and find ourselves balancing perilously over a ravine.

All hell breaks loose. The women in our group scream out in a sharp-edged French, thinking we’re done for; the boys are more subdued, but still freaked out. Should we get out to shift the weight back or simply trust my father-in-law? We’re in a 4×4 vehicle, he screams – it’s made for these conditions!

From the back seat, I’m tense as anything, but urging calm, evaluating options. Six years before this, almost to the day, I flipped over in a speeding car and rolled into a roadside gully with my mother at my side. Just chills.

The 4×4 roars backward and we’re back en route. Hell hath no fury like a Maghrebi woman’s scorn, husband included. Poor man barely escapes a coronary. A few days later, on a walk in Spain, I’m stung to bleeding by a stray rose thorn, just above my eye. The tzaddik’s soul is watching over me, my father-in-law tells me – watching over all of us.

Along the way, we pass La Gazelle d’Or, a five-star resort that, according to news reports, is hosting a declining Jacques Chirac. This is a godforsaken drive. We barely avoid three motorbikes, then bicycles and carts, and trucks with blinding lights.

At last, the sun comes up. Everyone’s on the way somewhere. Women in burqas, men in burnooses. Another town – Amskroud? Can’t help but make a tourist wonder: Am I screwed?

Six hours with a crying baby and 350 kilometers later, we edge with traffic into Casablanca for Shabbat, relieved. The bottleneck was to be expected; it is prayer time. Observant Muslims cover every surface of both street and sidewalk, near a mosque, prostrating themselves dutifully and in sync.

Back at our home in Casablanca, Wi-Fi comes on. The world has moved light-years ahead in the last three days. Yet, for once, we’re happy just to let it go. Our life in old New York can wait.
As if on cue, we notice that our Amazon account has been hacked. Some enterprising Englishman has purchased upwards of $1,000 in “gifts,” on us. We scramble to contain the damage. It’s a tense Shabbat.

In synagogue next morning, there’s a Madoff look-alike. I ask around – he’s a Moroccan living in New Jersey and a multimillionaire. Ironically, he’s lost $12 million in the latest scandal.

As we prepare to hear the Torah reading, a flute is being played outside. One neighbor says that it’s a wedding. Another says it’s just a pauper trying to make a few dirhams. The truth escapes us, either way. The mystery of the place remains. Behind the bimah in the synagogue, older guys are talking loudly, throwing around insults.

The morning of our flight back to New York, on the drive to the airport, we pass a minivan, filled to the brim, with five additional people riding on top! How could this madness be?

My father-in-law – ever the gracious guide – explains. It is a local prophet’s day. Police are taking the day off, along with all the rest of the country. Motorcycles, prohibted by law here, and a bunch of fools are out in force, heading north.

He shrugs. It’s a Moroccan job.

Yuri Kruman is a New York-based writer, blogger and entrepreneur. He has published two books, “Returns and Exchanges,” a novel (2013, Author House), and the novel “The Egypt In My Looking Glass” (2014, Author House).

Putin Through The Looking Glass – Thoughts on the Russia/Ukraine Situation

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Putin Through The Looking Glass
By Yuri Kruman

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“So, what do you think about Russia/Ukraine?” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that question in the last six months, I would buy an island nation and lord over it benevolently.

Being a Russian immigrant makes one an instant authority, you see. Naturally, in the Land of the Short Attention Span, the question demands a simple answer. Death to the dictator! Long live the people! Long live democracy! Americans love buzzwords.

What is it that you want to hear? Yes, Putin bad, but strong. Ukraine, yes, good. Western Ukrainians, yes, fascist thugs. Eastern Ukrainians – they’re really Russian, anyway. If only things were that straight forward or that simple. Not a chance.

And what’s my take, a Soviet product’s – and a Jew’s? Three of my four grandparents were Ukrainian by birth. And what does my American upbringing tell me?

First, some game theory. What’s the result when one side really knows the game and moves ten steps ahead? Game over. And when the other side’s caught napping, unprepared? Case closed. Presenting Anschluss 2, accomplished. Go sanction that, dear Mr. President!

Secondly, Putin. Yes, he’s a highly trained KGB colonel and strategic thinker extraordinaire. He’s managed over time to steal and stash away a cool 40-70 billion dollars from state-owned and other criminal enterprises. He waited out Iraq, Afghanistan, then waited for Obama to wind down, then for his own Olympics for prestige, carefully building credibility as global counterweight. He gave us hints; to him, the break-up of the Soviet Union was the worst disaster of last century. Solution? Build USSR version 2.0.

Is he a despot or a “sovereign democrat”? Can’t we just call a duck, a duck? He’s brought to heel the Russian media and Duma and judiciary system, plus all its oil and minerals, then broke the opposition’s back through every means available, holds no more barred. The czar is naked, walking not quite softly, carrying a big stick.

Heil Putin? Yes and no. Oddly enough, he’s been quite friendly to the Jews. Yet, all the while, on state TV, there’s rampant Holocaust denial and familiar trope. Conclusion: Jews are useful as a hammer on Ukraine’s far Right and to pull Western sympathy against Ukraine.

And in Ukraine? Aren’t they all just neo-Nazis, waiting to take over and kill Jews? Not quite. The current Prime Minister is Jewish. Several candidates for President are Jewish. The revolution in Maidan was started by an ethnic Afghan journalist, fought side-by-side by Israeli army veterans, Armenians, Belarussians and even Red Army veterans, along with far-Right Svoboda party members. Could ethnic cleansing happen there? If past is any indication, yes, but chances are remote.

And anyway, what is this episode about? Why should I care, here in New York?
Ukraine has been the target of great powers many times before. Stalin was keen to steal its wheat for Russia in the 30s, starving millions. Then Hitler tried the same, for Germany. Before that, it was Poland, Lithuania. The “breadbasket of Europe” is essential to the thing itself.

And what is Putin’s interest here? He sees himself as equal to America and keen to weaken us and strengthen Russia’s own profile. He’s leading Europe’s far-right fringe in trying to break up Europe by its ideologies. It starts with homophobia, dialed-up, anti-Americanism galore, then keeps on with attacks on liberalism and democracy. It ends inevitably in a cult of personality, a “strongman” come to save Great Rus from awful enemies without.

In economic terms, divided Europe is less likely to buy oil and gas from us Americans, keeping dependence on fair Russia. Ukraine is central to Vlad’s plans for economic union in the Russian sphere, along with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Quite logical when oil and gas are 70 percent of one’s economy. Let’s not forget, Crimea houses Russia’s only Black Sea port and fleet. Good luck, convincing him to part with that.

How has he done it so, without a drop of blood spilt by his men? Just as when Hitler entered Czech Republic to “protect” the Germans living there, Putin has done the same, claiming abuse of Russians and the need to shield them from all harm, plus history. Using this logic, he would take America to “save” its Russian Jews. No thanks, we’ll pass, wholeheartedly.

And was it justified? Have the US, EU and NATO not “encircled” Russia with their missile shield plans, economic unions? Well, yes, of course. Russians are skeptical – rightfully so – about American and European intentions. But does this justify invasion of another country’s sovereignty? We know the answer – clearly, no.

How could we let this happen, in plain sight? This isn’t even ancient history, just 25 years on from Soviet Union. Barely enough for babies to grow up and have their own. Truth far outpaces wisdom, in this case.

And so we have it, East against the West, again, Russia against U.S. Life imitates itself, just through the looking glass. 25 years ago, I was a 6 year-old living in Soviet Russia, none the wiser. Today, both hindsight and experience, just maybe hints of wisdom – make this story both predictable as rain and infinitely sad. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Great Mother Russia’s cursed – with minerals, ambition and great misery. Cue the eternal Russian Soul.

At least this time, we’re on the right side of the Iron Curtain.

On Receiving (and Asking) “Stupid” Questions of an Author

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Tim Parks in the NYRB on being asked (and inadvertently, asking) stupid questions of an author at a book festival.

IMHO, there are (almost) no stupid questions that seek to get at the connection between my “real life” and my fiction. There is indeed an absolute continuity between the two. All the same, neither tact nor common sense ever hurt the formulation of such a question. Enjoy!

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/may/01/stupid-questions/

Write THIS, Day Jobber! – or How To Achieve Work-Life Balance As a Writer

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Ah, smell that freshly roasted coffee in the morning. A new red Moleskin notebook and a Montblanc pen, ready for work. Just enough background noise to set the mood. All sorts of brilliant, gorgeous people milling in and out with joe. What stories they could tell! Camille Saint-Saens is ready on the iPhone. What a perfect day to write!

Dreams appear often in my work. Well, ditto here. Much like its correlate in love, great writing’s often brought off on the run. After the day job, during lunchtime – when your mind’s grating against boredom, mindless chatter, spreadsheet work – that is the time. The place can be the park, a bench – hell, just a chair away from others. You carry paper with you and a Bic. Your goal is paragraphs – you’ll take the one or two at lunchtime, then another page at six.

Survival, bills – Fuck Student Debt, responsibilities, The Works. You’re lucky that you have a mind to dream, to wander off at moment’s notice from inertial misery. You’ll take that sunlight between buildings, lovely silhouette, a robust gesture, clever formulation overheard. The key is all in fixing up your vessel for The Pour.

Charged by caffeine, familiar chords, your pregnant gaze bores holes no more. The tap is on. Out of the gates, the flow consumes. Details arise with dazzling clarity. Your phrases turn precisely through the winding scene. Your bullshit meter’s quiet. You are on and hooked. After a half an hour of controlling ADD, All Pistons Go!

Oh no! Your sorry hour’s gone, kaput. Well, damn it, why, just as the moment had arrived… Run to the subway, then back home. Your fingers twitch for ink. Your mind aches for the heightened state. World citizen, reduced to diaper duty. FML.

Well, that’s the rub. The contrast of two lives at once – three? four? how many characters you got? – it doesn’t kill you, it just saps your strength. Or is that Evil Inclination speaking, driving you away from duty? The answer, my friend…

The truth is always in the middle – you admit it now. Between the poles of madness and civility, frustration, triumph, focus and distraction, there is Essence. Epiphanies of youth ring hollow, now ill-fitting rags. The Hand of Providence has dealt you womps and wallops with the caviar.

Didn’t they suffer, all of them, you ask. Kafka and Proust and Hesse and Mann, all of the greats? We never hear of “petty” life with family, except for “nagging wife” and “muse.” Plain Livin’ just ain’t sexy for the headlines. But “Existence” is. Alas. The maxim – happy wife, to life! – holds true for writing, just as well.

After the years of failing improv with your time, you’ve found the cure. Scarcity, friend, does wonders. Yes – there, I’ve said it, Bless The Deadline. A stricter, harsher frenemy, you’ve never met. It trails you like a bloodhound through procrastination, angst, disgust with self, and finally the small successes, then big breakthroughs – even the weird calm long before you’re done. It sucks your life and pisses off your loved ones, but it works. An ultimatum sharpens swords and pens, no less one’s thoughts and formulations. The magic happens, only thus.

What makes you write, some ask. Read: what the F***’s the matter with you, brilliant weirdo? What is the secret juice or drug – elixir? LSD? – that feeds such thoughts and stories? Spill the beans! Not many of us writers would admit it willingly… STRAIGHT, UNADULTERATED FAILURE! That’s the stuff!

How else does one deal with frustration in this biz? Rejection is a right of passage! Don’t expect much dough! Survive by hook or crook! Please keep that day job, loser. Yeah… Lottery odds of getting published, hitting big. A shrinking industry and readership, dilution by the printing masses, then assholes with no talent, prized. And here you are, fresh-faced greenhorn, alone to hack it in the shark tank. Prepare for blows, young man or woman. They come fast and hard.

Now throw that in with struggling to survive, “finding” yourself, finding and keeping that elusive mate and job, working and paying bills, saving – your soul first – and the rest. Perfectionists, stay calm. There’s no perfection underneath the sun.

Writers are misfits, failures, ne’er-do-wells, grumps, drunks and dreamers. That’s why we write, quite frankly – ‘cuz we just can’t deal. Some days, it’s shit our parents yoked us with – the complexes; on others, it’s just getting out the door. On good days, when we make it to the pedestal, we freeze. Distractions, hunger, anger, sloth (or ADD) will never – always – slow us down. Alternative realities ferment inside, giving intoxicating powers to one’s words.

The day job? Banking, lawyering, neurotic science, business. Done them all. Have all the scars to prove it, with the wisdom. And how ‘bout getting fired on your last day? Priceless. Working at Goldman? Check (two months). Driving without a license for 5 years? Complete. Decapitating rats for research? Even that.

Hell, life’s a trip… and it’s a wreck. Had the near-death in Spain, bought our first car at nine, a house – fifteen. Gee whiz, kid, how’d ya deal? Necessity, the mother (f**ker), made me do it. The single parent trap and Coming to America, being found by Moses, selling door-to-door. A thousand crazy schemes to make a buck. Impressing girls with art and stories, cooking desert feasts. Exploring every block and neighborhood by foot and eye. From Proust to learning how to hustle, even loving it. Quitting the Academe, returning, then “real life.” If only brain case walls could talk… they’d crush your notions, scattered to the sea.

Thankfully, age is a relaxant – if you’re not a Jewish mother. The ferment, you can bottle. Anger – well, you can transform. The endless contemplation gets convicted, finally, and forms a crust. You drain the swamps of indecision, put down roots. You zone your life, triage the problems, set up shop and sell. And ever after, count your blessings, fool.

Fret not, my friend, from need or want – or fear of death. There’s diamonds always in the shit of life, so learn to dive. And that’s just how I learned to live and love the bomb.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day/Yom HaShoah

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The only consistent, meaningfully lasting way to remember and honor the 6 million Jews who perished in the Shoah is to live without fear a proudly Jewish life with Jewish traditions – yet better in Israel, if possible.

Each of us must do what s/he can to live fully as a Jew in this world, for ourselves as much as for each of the 6 million that never got the chance.

One day out of the year to remember the unspeakable atrocities and myriad lives cut short is a start, but by no means enough.

Museum visits and name readings are of course important, but become a once-yearly footnote without regular reminders from our liturgy and Torah.

We have won over all the empires and dictators and -isms that tried to annihilate us by choosing life. Let us not squander that privilege.