Category Archives: Editor’s Pick

In Praise of Cowardice

Emily Weinstein's ancestors

Emily Meg Weinstein | Longreads | December 2017 | 22 minutes (5,522 words)

For Ruth Weisenfeld Diamond (1921-2014) and Samuel Meyer Diamond (1919-2008)

I.

First, it came for my grandfather, then for my grandmother. Death comes for us all, but still Jews toast, l’chaim! To life!

When my mother and her brother cleaned out their dead parents’ apartment, they found their father’s Bronze Star from the war.

“Do you know what was in the box with the Bronze Star?” my mother asked me.

“A Nazi Iron Cross.”

“How did you know that?”

“Grandpa showed it to me a bunch of times.”

“Where did he get it?”

“Off a dead Nazi.”

That makes it sound like my grandfather killed the Nazi, but he didn’t. He never fired his gun, not once in the whole Allied advance.

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Server, Busser, Manager, Spy: Inside the High-Stakes World of Restaurant Oppo Research

With the rise of crowdsourced restaurant reviews on Yelp and its many peers, you’d think old-school, print-media critics would be a thing of the past by now. You’d think wrong: as Jessica Sidman shows in her Washingtonian story, restaurant owners go to incredible lengths to identify prominent critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, in the hopes of manufacturing a flawless, multiple-star-worthy experience. A lot of the energy is spent preemptively, creating and updating dossiers with blurred photos of critics and detailed notes about their culinary (and other) quirks. But there’s also a field-level aspect to these operations — the intricate choreography that kicks into gear as soon as Sietsema or another top critic enters the house.

To communicate about a critic, some restaurants have their own code words. One Italian joint called Sietsema “Neapolitan,” because it didn’t sound too weird to say out loud in the open kitchen. Others, including the kitchens of Fabio Trabocchi, refer to Sietsema as “Papa Bear.”

“I heard ‘Papa Bear in the house,’ and it’s like a fire drill,” says a sous chef for one of Ashok Bajaj’s restaurants, which include Rasika and Bibiana. The sous chef was in the middle of butchering 150 pounds of salmon for a large banquet that night, but when the alert came in, sous chefs kicked line cooks off their stations and began preparing Sietsema’s lunch themselves. (In other kitchens, the executive chef might take over complete prep of a dish. That way, only one person is to blame if the review is terrible.) “It is a huge wrench in the operation, because what you’re basically doing is interrupting the regular flow of service to stop and concentrate on one table and the other tables surrounding.”

With the executive chef orchestrating, the sous chefs prepared triplicates of every component of every dish. Nerves, as always, ran high. “I’ve burned more shit trying to cook something perfect for Tom Sietsema than I ever would have if I didn’t know that he was there,” the sous chef says.

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The Complicated Politics of Rescue and Recovery

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As traffic fled Houston before Hurricane Harvey, a line of trucks towing small, flat-bottomed boats made their way into the city. The Cajun Navy would save hundreds of lives from flooded neighborhoods, and instead of rejecting their help, the government embraced it, entrusting much of the evacuation to this rag-tag band of individuals, preferring them over the Red Cross, and in some cases, the National Guard.

Miriam Markowitz followed the Cajun Navy for GQ in the days after the hurricane, when it became clear that the resources needed simply weren’t adequate. The Navy itself is small but organized. Begun in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, it’s helped residents of Louisiana with almost yearly flooding, and travels to nearby states for help during big storms or hurricanes. It’s the kind of help that comes in the moment, and the Navy uses a walkie-talkie app to dispatch boats to specific locations. Even local Louisiana politicians are on board with the independent rescue squad:

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A Pact Between You, God, and the Dance Floor

Daniel Arnold / Topic

Bar and bat mitzvahs celebrate a time when Jewish boys and girls reach the age to observe Jewish law. These sacred celebrations can also be wildly expensive, even competitive, with families trying to make their kid’s event memorable enough to stand out during a season of bar/bat mitzvahs. Dancing is always part of the program, and getting people to dance, and dance wildly, can require some external direction. For Topic, Jen Doll spent a month attending bar and bat mitzvahs to examine the professionals who are called “party motivators.”

Doll attended celebrations with a few different motivators to see how they work across the range of Jewish denominations. Motivators are not only excellent dancers, they engage the audience and direct people to play games, and they keep the party going. Although some like Meir Kay are independent operators, some companies provide fancy sound systems and up to eight motivators. It’s a lucrative gig, but it’s not just a job any dancer can do. Motivating is a skill that requires natural charisma and energy, which you either have or you don’t.

I’m pulled into the circle and dance with them, my hair in my face, feeling sweaty and slightly silly but also exuberant and welcomed by the crowd of strangers. On the other side of the mechitza, Kay has fashioned a jump rope with black napkins and is using it as a dance prop. Leaving the circle, I hang out at the back of the room to watch him cycle through a range of moves, his feet in black Nike high tops, tirelessly moving to the beat as he makes his way around the men’s side of the party. He leads line dances and games like Coke and Pepsi, a bar mitzvah staple that involves running back and forth across the room depending on whether “Coke” or “Pepsi” is called. He passes out hats and sunglasses and glow sticks in neon colors, items he’s brought along to the event in a large box. Tzvi Hersh’s dad has put on a pair of hot pink sunglasses and is grooving to the music, a huge smile on his face. Men are being lifted onto other men’s shoulders; boys pose with Kay for photos to post on Instagram and ask for his autograph. He is a celebrity, the most popular person at the party—at least, if you don’t count the bar mitzvah boy. And maybe even if you do.

When we leave at around 10:30, Kay is still dancing wildly. “I hope I could always do this, even if I’m a bazillionaire,” he’d told me on the phone. “After every night I’m sweaty and exhausted. Once you get to the later years, can you keep up with the kids? I’m gonna ride the wave as long as I can.”

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Restoring Neon City

Photo by Philip Kromer CC-BY-SA 2.0

At Curbed, Stephie Grob Plante profiles the artists of Austin, Texas who create new neon signs and restore old signs to their former, glowing glory.

Sharon and Greg list signs of theirs that are gone like they’re listing names of the long dead. They’ve been making signs in Austin for three decades, and many of the businesses they’ve served have shuttered. South Congress Mexican restaurant Manuel’s was Sharon’s first neon sign, however, and it’s alive and kicking. “Same neon, still working, and it’s over 30 years old.”

The process of restoring the State Theater’s 1935 marquee blade was particularly intensive, say the Keshishians. For starters, the original neon letters were uranium, which isn’t made anymore for safety reasons. Greg and his team removed all remnants of the old neon; completely gutted the inside of the porcelain enamel sign, including the electrical wiring and neon transformers; shoved out 79 years’ worth of pigeon poop; replaced the electrical components; made the majority of the neon from scratch; and polished the porcelain enamel.

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Black Women’s Maternal Mortality Rates in the US are Staggeringly High

Pregnant African American mother holding her stomach

As part of ProPublica and NPR’s series on maternal care in the U.S., Nina Martin and Renee Montagne tell the devastating story of Shalon Irving, a vibrant 36-year-old epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who died three weeks after the birth of her daughter earlier this year. Irving was educated, insured, and well-supported by family and friends; still, she became a casualty of missed opportunities and neglect by healthcare providers. The story explores how a constellation of factors — not least of all bias in the healthcare system and the chronic stress of living with racism — combine so that black women are more than two times more likely than white women to die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

By April 2016, Shalon had given up. She had a new boyfriend and she was on her way to Puerto Rico to help with the CDC’S Zika response, working to prevent the spread of the virus to expectant mothers and their unborn babies. There she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by accident. Her excitement was tempered by fear that the baby might have contracted Zika, which can cause microcephaly and other birth defects. But a barrage of medical tests confirmed all was well.

More good news: A few weeks later Pryor [Shalon’s close friend] learned she was pregnant, too. “All right,” she told Shalon, “let’s finally go after our rainbows and unicorns! Because for so long it was just dark clouds and rain.”

In reality, Shalon’s many risk factors — including her clotting disorder, her fibroid surgery, the 36 years of wear and tear on her telomeres, her weight — boded a challenging nine months. She also had a history of high blood pressure, though it was now under control without medication. “If I was the doctor taking care of her, I’d be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one,’” her OB-GYN friend Raegan McDonald-Mosley said.

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The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy

(Arno Masse/Getty)

Melissa Chadburn | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (3,090 words)

Last year I worked undercover at a temp agency in Los Angeles. While I took the assignment for an article I was working on, I’d also been unemployed for over a year. It seemed I was in that middling space of over-qualified for entry-level jobs, under-qualified for the jobs I most desired, and aged out or irrelevant as a labor union organizer, where I’d gained the bulk of my work experience.

One altered resume later I joined a temp agency and became the biggest ghost of them all, a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi. I’d found my squad, a cadre of screw-ups, felons, floozies, single moms, the differently abled, students, immigrants, the homeless and hungry, the overqualified and under-qualified, all of us ghosted by the traditional marketplace.

***

There is a story about an invisible hand that guides the free market. There is a story about ghosts. There is a story about a ghost economy. The distance between the main employer, the company that hires the temp agency, and the worker who fulfills these gigs, allows for the same type of casual cruelty that is exchanged between people who meet on online dating apps.

***

Temp jobs began after the second world war, offering work at companies like Kelly Girl, a billion-dollar staffing company based in Michigan, on a short-term basis. Today, the temporary or “on-demand” industry employs over 2.9 million people, over 2 percent of America’s total workforce. As temping has grown, the quality of jobs has deteriorated, and temps now earn 20 to 25 percent less an hour than those who work as direct hires, according to government statistics.

I joined a temp agency and became a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi.

To think of The Ghosted is to think of injustice, a cataloging of fist-fights, tuberculosis, detention centers, scabies, crabs, lice, roaches, hot plates, Section 8 housing, laborers hiding under blankets in the backs of trucks, children lying stiff against the tops of trains, assembly lines in windowless heat-filled rooms — a type of economic violence many consumers try to close their minds to. We do not want to think of them because of what it says about us.

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The Fabric of History

rows of colorful shirts hanging in a closet. six leather handbags sit on a shelf above.
Photo by Annelyse.be via Flickr (CC BY-NC SA 2.0)

Novelist Kirsten Tranter is cleaning out her closet, and wrote about it for Avidly. But how does the Marie Kondo method work for a “depressive personality…for whom joy is often an elusive feeling”? Rather than joy, she finds herself drawn to clothing that sparks affect — clothing that reminds her of who she is, what she’s experienced, and that life will go on.

I have moved a lot, both within Sydney and then overseas, back and forth multiple times between Australia and the US as I travelled for graduate school and then for my husband’s fieldwork and then for jobs, and other jobs, and sabbaticals, and other jobs. Clothes are relatively easy to pack and transport, less breakable than other objects, and perhaps that is why I have held on to so many of them; they provide a line of continuity between these multiple places and selves. They remind me who I am, where I have come from, where I have been, for better or worse. On the days the black dog visits and brings down that transparent wall of grey between myself and the distant land of the living where people walk around feeling things, where things matter, these belongings with history — any kind of history — remind me that life has been lived and felt, that maybe it will be again.

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Finding My Identity By the Light of My Mother’s Menorah

motimeiri/Getty, Mahmoud Maghraby/EyeEm/Getty

Santi Elijah Holley | Longreads | December 2017 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)

 

Every year it was the same thing. My mother and brother and I would trim the Christmas tree, place our presents underneath, and then gather around the kitchen table to light the menorah. My mother was Jewish, but non-practicing and certainly not Orthodox. She didn’t care much for the faith, either as a religion or a culture, but she’d been raised by two Jewish parents and she wanted to instill in my brother and me some modicum of respect for the tradition. But she also didn’t want to deprive us of Christmas. My mother may not have believed in ancient scripture, but she did believe in family.

On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the three of us spun the dreidel and read stories recounting the triumph of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lights. We ate latkes and applesauce and gave each other chocolate gelt, while our Christmas tree blinked in the living room behind us.

Another tradition of ours — at least of mine and my brother’s — was making a mockery of the menorah-lighting blessing. Neither of us spoke Hebrew, but the lighting ceremony involves a nightly recitation of blessings and praise to the Lord. My mother would light the shamash candle, then begin to recite the Hebrew aloud, urging my brother and me to follow along. Rather than mimic these unfamiliar and strange words, we made up our own words, routinely replacing “kidshanu” with “kitty condo,” in tribute to the elaborate piece of furniture frequently occupied by our two cats. My mother glared at us every time and told us to knock it off, though she knew we would do the same thing the next night, and the night after that, and each and every one of the eight nights.

Our menorah was a cheap and simple one. It hadn’t been passed down through generations; it wasn’t forged by a Hasidic blacksmith, nor smuggled through continents and across oceans into the New World. It was plated a gold color, but it didn’t have the heft of solid gold. In all likelihood, my mother bought it at a discount at Kmart during the one and only week they sold Hanukkah items. After the holiday she would put the menorah back in storage, along with the dreidel and books, and we’d then direct our attention exclusively to Christmas. My brother and I knew ours was an atypical holiday tradition, but that knowledge only bound us closer as a family and provided a temporary adhesive to our otherwise fractured family.

My brother, Nathaniel, is eight years older and has a different father. His father is white; mine is black. That makes me two halves — a half-brother and half-black. Since my mother is Jewish, I’m a full-Jew, in accordance with the centuries-old law. (According to another old law, from 19th and early-20th century racial classifications, one drop of African blood makes me full-black, but I’ve never been able to discern which side — the black side or the Jew side — prevails.)

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Jay-Z Opens Up About Race in America, Therapy, and ‘4:44’

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 5: Musician Jay-Z performs at a Barack Obama campaign event at Schottenstein Center on on the eve of the 2012 election November 5, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Stephen Albanese/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the recent issue of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, hip-hop artist and mogul Jay-Z sat down with the newspaper’s executive editor Dean Baquet for a wide-ranging conversation about black identity and success, the state of leadership in America, and emotional healing and vulnerability. The artist’s latest album, 4:44, released last summer, gave listeners a raw and moody look into many of those themes, and bristled with discomfort and regret. It earned eight Grammy award nominations, the most of any artist this year.

BAQUET: This album [“4:44.”] sounds to me like a therapy session.

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah.

BAQUET:  Have you been in therapy?

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah.

BAQUET: First off, how does Jay-Z find a therapist? Not in the phone book, right?

JAY-Z: No, through great friends of mine. You know. Friends of mine who’ve been through a lot and, you know, come out on the other side as, like, whole individuals.

BAQUET: What was that like, being in therapy? What did you talk about that you had never acknowledged to yourself or talked about?

JAY-Z: I grew so much from the experience. But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a … you’re at such an advantage. You know, you realize that if someone’s racist toward you, it ain’t about you. It’s about their upbringing and what happened to them, and how that led them to this point. You know, most bullies bully. It just happen. Oh, you got bullied as a kid so you trying to bully me. I understand.

And once I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, “Aw, man, is you O.K.?” I was just saying there was a lot of fights in our neighborhood that started with “What you looking at? Why you looking at me? You looking at me?” And then you realize: “Oh, you think I see you. You’re in this space where you’re hurting, and you think I see you, so you don’t want me to look at you. And you don’t want me to see you.”

BAQUET: You think I see your pain.

JAY-Z: You don’t want me to see your pain. You don’t … So you put on this shell of this tough person that’s really willing to fight me and possibly kill me ’cause I looked at you. You know what I’m saying, like, so … Knowing that and understanding that changes life completely.

 

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