Category Archives: Essay

Memoir Intensive in NYC Oct. 21

 

By Eugenio Zampighi

Friends, I am teaching a one-day memoir writing intensive on Saturday, October 21 from 2-5 PM at the Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side in NYC!

The intensive is sponsored by the New York Writers Workshop.

Memoir Intensive: How to Write Truthfully about Your Life

The true stories of our lives are often messy and complex. In this three-hour intensive, we will learn to write about our lives using emotion, rich sensory description, critical thinking, lyricism, and the art of storytelling.

Goddard is located at 647 Columbus Avenue at 91st St. The course fee is $65.

To register, please click here.

I’m happy to answer any questions at growingupgolem AT Gmail. And here’s some info on my background: Donna Minkowitz has taught memoir writing since 1998, at many venues including the 92nd Street Y, the New York Writers Workshop, the Mt. Chocorua Writers Workshop, the JCC of the Upper West Side, and The Kitchen. Her recent memoir Growing Up Golem was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award and for the Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award, and she won a Lambda Literary Award for her first memoir, Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury. Minkowitz has also written for the New York Times Book Review, Slate, The Nation, New York magazine, and the Village Voice.

When A Holocaust Denier Asks for Help Promoting His Book


This appeared, in slightly different form, in The Forward on March, 30th, 2017.

The email was a blatant appeal to my ego. The subject line said “Speaking Engagement,” and the writer, who I didn’t know, was inviting me to speak about whatever I wanted to — wow! — on a New York City panel celebrating the release of a new book by “internationally acclaimed British jazz saxophonist, philosopher and author…Gilad Atzmon.” They were inviting me, Atzmon’s volunteer publicist said,” because of my “honest and thoughtful perspective” which would be “valuable” on the panel.

I hadn’t heard of Atzmon before, but the panel was scheduled at the hip Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village. The vague synopsis the publicist sent for his new book, Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto, simply suggested that “much of humanity has been reduced to serve the interests of big money and oligarchy” and claimed that “Left and Right have become indistinguishable and meaningless.”

But there it was, at the bottom, the following curious phrase: “a tale of the decisive victory of one elite.” Gilad Atzmon, said the press release, “has managed to dissect the ethos, strategy and culture that are driving this invincible elite.”

Googling, I discovered that Atzmon, born in Israel, identifies himself as “a proud self-hating Jew.” American white nationalist Greg Johnson, an admirer, calls him a “self-exterminating Jew.” Since 2000, Atzmon has been spewing out viciously anti-Semitic writings with statements like “we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously” and “with Fagan and Shylock in mind, Israeli barbarism and organ trafficking seem to be just other events in an endless hellish continuum.” Then there was this: “It took me years to accept that that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any sense… We should… ask why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did the European people stand up against their next-door neighbors?… What is the holocaust religion there to conceal?”

I can’t recall any other “offer” of a speaking engagement that has ever made me feel such an intense mix of emotions. I’m a Jewish writer, a lesbian, a progressive who has written for The Nation and used to be a Village Voice columnist. I knew that the racist right, both in this country and around the world, had become increasingly brazen. But had they become so brazen that they thought a Jewish lesbian leftist would rally to their side? Or were they just trying to dupe me? I felt horror, anger, disgust; and I felt queasy.

But I also felt an overwhelming anxiety about why Atzmon’s backers thought I in particular would speak on a panel promoting him. Did something in my writing make them think I’d be sympathetic? As a reporter, I’ve written about the antigay Christian right many times. And I have, in fact, tried to “understand” them. Why would anyone spend their time trying to take rights away from another group of people? I spent a good portion of my work life trying to find out. Did I go too far trying to “understand,” and was this why a man who’d said “the [Nazi] death marches were actually humane” thought I’d be on his panel?

I have wanted to understand what makes far-right bigots tick, but I never wanted to support their mission. I finally realized that the primary reason Atzmon’s backers had approached me was not because of anything I’d written, but because obfuscating, and deliberately obscuring hateful premises behind seemingly genuine critiques of real-world oppression, are a fundamental part of the white supremacist and anti-Semitic projects. Gilad Atzmon may have begun as a progressive critic of Israel, but he metamorphosed into a misogynist, antigay Jew-hater, and he has made a career out of confusing the two stances.

It is symptomatic of our weird political moment, when white nationalists and Sebastian Gorka hold power in the White House, that progressive Jewish writers should be approached to legitimize a man who said “the Jewish tribal mindset” “sets Jews aside of humanity.” When white nationalism and anti-Semitism are being discussed as mere “political ideologies” equivalent to any other, when millions voted for Trump because they believed his lie that he would fight the rich for them, we need renewed political clarity in our country more than we need air and water.

The dangers of such obfuscation are getting clearer by the moment. The “progressive” former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, whom the Green party ran for president in 2008, has written the introduction to Atzmon’s book, and radical Jewish lawyer Stanley Cohen has apparently agreed to be on his April 30 panel at Theater 80. In a sense, it’s of a piece with Atzmon’s perennial ability to get some on the left (Richard Falk, James Petras, the journal Counterpunch) to endorse or publish his work. But the willingness of some so-called progressives to support blatant anti-Semitism is oddly mirrored by the right’s increasingly successful use of the tropes of class oppression against Jews, African-Americans, and immigrants. When Atzmon argues that “the Jewish elite” are destroying “working people,” when Donald Trump complains that an elite has let “radical Islamic terrorists enter the country by the thousands” in order to “disenfranchise our working class,” it’s time for all of us to be utterly and completely clear about our politics, exactly what we’re saying and what it means.

In this time of great danger to the poor, to people of color, and to Jews, it is time to unite the entire country behind its real needs, and to revive the slogan of Occupy: We are the 99%. No population is the enemy; the problem is not a person or persons, not even the 1%. The problem is the exponential rate at which economic inequality is growing, and an overall system that is not meeting most of our needs. The more we identify the problem as systemic, and not caused by an amorphous “them” that is exploiting “us,” the more strength we will have to fight Gilad Atzmon, Donald Trump, and anti-Semites everywhere.

 

 

How to Cook A Trump: A Modest Proposal, with Recipes

Photo credit: Brains and Eggs.

I have to say, it’s hard to write about how good food tastes when Trump is compiling weekly lists of “crimes” by immigrants. I wanted to describe for you the precise degree of crispness and umami of the chicken thigh/fermented soybean/potato chip appetizer at the hot new restaurant Llama Inn, but it’s hard to stop thinking about him turning Syrian children back to die from bombing and starvation. I was tearing my hair out trying to figure out what to do about this when a good idea suddenly occurred to me: it would probably be possible to roast Trump like a turkey, trussing him with a little cooking twine and rubbing him all over with European butter, salt, and pepper.

With his new, yellower hair color and more deeply-bronzed skin, he looks like a roasted turkey already, so I thought this would be a good time to try out Tom Collicchio’s Thanksgiving recipe and stuff a thick handful of Kerrygold Irish Butter between his skin and his breast meat, mixed with sage, tarragon, thyme, and rosemary to take some of his funk away. He weighs about 12 times what an average Thanksgiving turkey does, so he could provide a dinner for approximately 20 Iraqi families fleeing rape and what the UN calls “staggering violence” ultimately caused by George Bush’s war.

I have a particular idea for the stuffing. I feel more personally threatened as a Jew than I ever have in 52 years, now that we have a Nazi on the National Security Council and a White House that denies that the Holocaust had any particular impact on Jews. So I thought it would be community-building and holistic to stuff Trump up the butthole with charoset. (If you haven’t heard of it, charoset is the mix of chopped fruits, nuts, and wine Jews eat on Passover to represent the bricks and mortar we were forced to make as slaves in Egypt.) There are dozens of different versions made by Jews from different cultures, but I love my own family’s version best, diced apples and walnuts mixed with sweet, deep purple Manischewitz. There are plenty of non-Passover recipes in which charoset is used as a stuffing, including a lovely one by Martha Stewart that goes up the butt of a Cornish game hen. According to the Talmud, there are also revolutionary sexual connotations to the lush, fruity, sometimes spicy dish: the apples, dates, figs, grapes, walnuts, pomegranates, and saffron used in various versions of charoset all appear as erotic symbols in the Song of Songs, the Hebrew Bible’s ode to carnal joy. (Bananas don’t appear in the Bible, but because they’re also pretty erotic, they’re used in versions from India, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Uganda.)

And the 2nd century sage Rabbi Akiva said — I am not making this up — that charoset particularly signifies the wild frolics that ancient Jewish slaves were able to have in the apple orchards when they snuck away from their overseers to defy Pharaoh’s edict against sex. Charoset for all these reasons is understood to bring a sweetness and hope into our memories of horrible slavery and oppression, and it can bring some sweetness even into Donald’s meat.

The president is known to subsist on a diet of Big Macs, buckets of KFC, and Lay’s potato chips, so it may take some doing to rinse the flavor of salmonella and excessive salt from his flesh. I suggest using the cleansing technique developed for beef kidneys: soak him for two hours in a large Dutch oven full of water mixed with a little white vinegar or lemon juice, then rinse him out three times with fresh water and drain him in a large colander.

Once you’ve cleaned the Donald, he’s perfect for the national dish of Somalia, baasto iyo sugo hilib shildan. In the years since Italy colonized Somalia starting in the late 19th century, Somalis transformed spaghetti Bolognese, the food of their occupiers, into a spicier dish with profoundly African flavors. (Mussolini tried to boost his popularity at home by intensifying the occupation in the ’30s, but you should read up on how that ultimately turned out for him, Mr. President!) One thing to note before I give the recipe: Somali cuisine is halal. Is the First Golfer? I’m not equipped to give a religious opinion.

(With apologies to Somali cooks everywhere.) To prepare, sauté a load of onions in a large skillet. Add cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, crushed green cardamom pods, fenugreek seeds, and fresh garlic and green pepper. Add fresh Donald, minced, till nicely browned. Add diced tomatoes and tomato paste, sauté until fully blended, about five minutes. Add a little chicken stock and some large-diced potatoes and carrots. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve over al dente pasta, topped with chopped cilantro. Eat a banana on the side. (Somalis like to have one with every entrée.)

The Somali civil war is one of the bloodiest going on right now, with the widespread kidnapping of children so they can be forced to be soldiers, and systemic sexual violence. All sides target civilians. The conflict, like most of the current wars in Africa, ultimately stems from the massive destabilization wrought by European colonization. Somali refugees could use a good meal like this: 2 million of them have been forced to flee the country, and only one hundredth of one percent of them — 299 people — were granted visas by the United States in the last fiscal year on record, 2015, according to Quartz.

A Desi chef who insisted on going nameless out of fear of being rounded up offered this recipe: “I just think that given our president’s unnatural tone and coloring, as a chef of Indian cuisine I think immediately of tandoori chicken, with that rridiculous, unnatural bright pink tone a lot of versions of it have.” (Much commercial tandoori chicken relies on food coloring,the chef notes; more holistic versions use a mixture of tomato paste and yogurt that turns the chicken reddish.) “But if you used the president, you wouldn’t even have to marinate him, he’s already that color. And given the sort of injustices he’s committing against humanity, he surely deserves” some time in “an 800° tandoori oven.”

For those of you who can’t bring themselves to bite into such meat and digest, here’s a vegetarian recipe from La Morada in the South Bronx, one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city:

La Morada’s Guacamole Recipe

1 whole avocado, hand-picked by undocumented immigrants in California

1 tablespoon of diced tomatoes cultivated by undocumented immigrants in Milwaukee, Florida

1 tablespoon of cilantro harvested by undocumented immigrants in California

1 tablespoon of onions gathered by undocumented immigrants in Washington

½ lime, hand-picked also by those whom you persecute.

1 pinch of salt.

First take the avocado and smash it with the same passion that activist smashed Richard Spencer’s face, [and activists have smashed] xenophobes, racists, homophobes, and other forms of injustice. Keep smashing the avocado until justice and equality reign. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well until it harmonizes the same way solidarity and intersectionality triumph together. Pair with your favorite Mexican food because you know America can’t survive without Mexicans. Enjoy. ”

Friends and FBI agents, this column is a satire. I don’t believe that any human being should be eaten, not even the president. I do believe his policies are immoral, and he should resign immediately in favor of Bernie Sanders, Angela Davis, or Jasilyn Charger.

Originally published in Gay City News, February 16, 2016.

Cooking Up Rebellion

In times of trouble, cooking makes me whole. I may be tired, irritable, I may have gotten home late, I may even be sick, but I stand at my fry pan tossing in onions, that base of almost every culture’s cooking. To me, it might as well be the base of life itself, as I stand there trying to make something tasty and satisfying and warming out of a few teensy bits of vegetables and some shreds of meat.

Cooking, which I came to only in my 40s and disabled, like someone clutching a lifeline, reminds me of the sacredness of the act of creation. It feels like making something out of nothing: whatever’s assembled on my cutting board – a little mess of garlic bits and bitter vegetables and cheese snips – always seems so poignantly small to me as the basis of a hot dinner that will somehow sustain two adults. The process that transforms these scraps into a whole always seems mystical to me: what god created this eggplant parmigiano pasta?

Certainly not me.

With cooking, as with writing, providence comes in and accomplishes what we ourselves, with our conscious minds, can barely accomplish. When I say providence, I don’t exactly mean God. Who made this dish? It was the fire (which reshapes molecules and “denatures” proteins and divinely caramelizes eggplants). It was the balsamic vinegar in all its oddness, sour, acid, musty, sweet, powerfully itself and shaped by hands and minds other than my own. It was the traditions of a million years of hominids cooking (while humans have only been around and making dinner for 200,000 years, our hominid ancestors have been cooking for even longer). It was my innumerable memories of meals out and Food Network snippets and half-remembered recipes, plus glimmering images in my brain (my mother’s ancient Italian friend’s fresh sausage and tomato sauce), and, maybe most of all, dumb luck and inspiration!

It was also me, yes, along with all of these. It was my own arm strength and my thinking mind, saying “Now! A dab more tomato paste!” and “Now! I want sesame oil and more parsley!” In point of fact, I feel really butch when I cook, much more butch than I do when writing, say, or making love. Turning the flame up and down, I am Hephaestus at the forge; I am Casey at the switch. I feel powerful, capable, gripping my 11-inch pan and smelting tomatoes, refining wine, building skyscrapers out of flour and beef. I am doing this for my family which consists of my partner and me, making things to keep us good and warm inside, and feeling loved. I am blending tahini in a machine noisy as a cement mixer, making a sauce so sumptuous it can make steamed zucchini taste good. I am butchering squashes and making rebellious Jewish bricks out of walnuts, apples and wine that will make our conquerors choke. I am constructing fantasy universes out of ground turkey and breadcrumbs and spices and egg. The turkey meatballs I make will make our hearts happy as we eat them in a radiant red sauce before going to the demonstration.

So, gentle reader who loves the taste of food, dear one who loves kimchi, posole, and democracy: go to the demonstration. There are a lot this week, and there will be more the week after, and the week after that. Keep going. Eat something hot before and after. Take care of yourself. Take care of other people, too. There is no contradiction between activism and compassion, no contradiction between activism and tenderness or sweetness: remember that. What I am trying to say is: everything we do, whether we are masters or novices, we do in the context of other people. I’m no great chef by any measure, but I learned to make a damn good dinner, and so can you. Individual writers don’t create literature, individual cooks don’t create the art of cooking, and individual actors don’t create entire movements. Everyone is needed, and everyone needs others.

Everyone is important in cooking up this struggle, even and especially you.

Originally published in Gay City News on January 19, 2017.

Caviar for the 99%

caviar-wikipediaThere is a dish you can eat in a cellar in Brooklyn that is a work of art, and also soulful. It costs $12, and will fill you up.

That dish is Mekelburg’s salt-baked potato with crème fraîche, black caviar, and smoked black cod.

You may think it’s not for you because caviar is a token of luxury, in a city where you finally understand you cannot afford luxury. You may assume the roe must be inferior and the dish somehow a sham, because the really good stuff wouldn’t cost $12, not even as a dollop on top of a potato. Ignore your thoughts, though, and just eat the thing: a huge potato completely covering a small plate, with unctuous, salty bits of smoked fish around it (and, you will discover, thoroughly veined in a little network inside it, like eggs or seeds).

That fish is smoked sable, what “black cod” is called when it’s at home. Ashkenazi Jews of a certain age know sable as the best thing to put on a bagel, so much better than lox it’s not funny. On top of the potato is a creamy mound of crème fraîche with a huge load of unusually buttery, unsalty, even fruity-tasting caviar on it. There is softened butter with dill (and more bits of sable) around the edges of the plate. Together, the potato and sable and only-slightly-sour cream and caviar make up a food that mixes Jewish and Gentile, the feeling of being cared for by one’s mother and the delights you can get when you go out on your own into the world. How that plate brought together salt, sweet, fat, sophisticated, homey almost made me cry.

It’s an odd time for eating out in New York. The places most likely to be reviewed by critics are restaurants where entrées cost $30 and tasting menus cost $100 and more. They are tiny food-temples and shiny mega-boîtes where most of us can’t go even if, by normal US standards, we are “upper income” — little palaces where, we, reader, certainly can’t eat if we are what the government calls either low income or middle-class. (Note that $55,575 is the median household income in the United States; median household income in the city is $67,201.) Reading the reviews has become an exercise in tantalized frustration: breathing in paragon writer Pete Wells’ description, in the New York Times, of the grated frozen foie gras appetizer at Momofuko Ko, you could be forgiven for feeling like the orphan cousin not invited to the party. “A cook behind the counter would rub a frozen cured brick of it across a Microplane held above a bowl with pine nut brittle, riesling jelly and lobes of lychee, showering them with falling pink flakes of airborne pleasure.” (The liver is part of the $195 tasting menu for lunch or dinner, the only way that you can eat at Ko.) The other spots in critics’ reviews – restaurants like Cosme and Blue Hill and even Contra and The Spotted Pig — are not for us, either, unless we’re in the top 5%, or interested in acquiring a load of debt that will cripple us.
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Getting Fancy

Bio-Revival's "Burst Active" fruit pearls. bio-revival.com

Bio-Revival’s “Burst Active” fruit pearls.

The words “fancy food” make my heart swell, for better or worse. In 1970, “fancy food” is what we called it when my father got a gift basket from his boss full of special jams and cheeses that weren’t Kraft Singles and chocolates that were not from Hershey. That basket thrilled me. (The cheeses were still processed ones, but it was 1970 and for them not to have been, we would have had to be Italian-American or a different income level.) The words artisanal and upscale, and that strange new term “noms,” had not yet been applied to food, but I would get a feeling of world-shaking satisfaction whenever I’d go to the Jewish “appetizing” store on Avenue J, where there were preternaturally bright dried fruits and smoked fish that magically smelled delightful, not offputting. Hence “fancy,” special. We seldom could buy anything there, but seeing it was enough. So it was with a sense of being in a childhood paradise that I found myself at the Summer Fancy Food Show last week, the national trade show for the Specialty Food Association, the 64-year-old association of producers and purveyors who sell “high perceived value” food to the American market. Continue reading

Pleasures That Cannot Be Bought

 

grapes creative Commons
One of the main things our movement is about is pleasure. The right to pleasure, and the goodness and innocence of all pleasure that hurts no one, is what we, more than anyone else in our time (and perhaps any time), assert and defend. In honor of Pride, this is a column full of pleasures that cannot be bought, as we ourselves cannot be bought and sold. Screw the corporatization of Pride, here is a list of stark raving pleasures you don’t have to go into debt for, not make rent for, or even post about so that some advertiser will reward you.

The play of air on your bare legs in shorts. Lips like roses, soft and with that rose-texture and even the smell of roses, overwhelming you with kisses. An entire mouth, open and trusting, on your nipples, exploring them around and around and through. (You might protest that you could buy this experience, but you cannot buy the specific pleasure of having this done to you by someone who is doing it for free, for no other reason than because they really, really wanted to.) You, going swimming in the ocean and letting the waves jump you. Someone’s vagina like a volcano in your fingers. Continue reading