Aug 20, 2014

Top Five Māori and Pacific Island books from New Zeland

In recent years my home country of New Zealand has become increasingly well known for its world class cinema, but what most people don't know is that many of our smash hit films are based on equally good but lesser known books. In high school we never studied any New Zealand writers so I was pleasantly surprised to be exposed to so many excellent novels and collections of poetry during my undergraduate Literature studies at Victoria University in Wellington. I am a real book lover, and my real passion is for post-colonial literature especially that of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, which is why you will only ever hear me enthusing about Māori and Pacific Island writers. I reckon some of these amazing writers deserve your attention so to that end here is my definitive list of 'New Zealand' literature by Māori and Pacific Island writers you must read. 

1. 'Baby No Eyes' by Patricia Grace. 
Patricia Grace was one of the very first indigenous women of New Zealand to become well known for her published books, perhaps because she initially stuck to the relatively non-threatening world of children's lit. However, she has also produced a startling collection of adult novels which shine a much needed light on the post-colonial legacy of poverty and racism in New Zealand. 
'Baby No Eyes' is a book that explores the exploitative interaction between western medical science and indigenous bodies and genetics. The theft of baby's eyes launches us head first into indigenous conceptualisations of time, where people of the past, present and future can exist in one space, separated by increasingly permeable barriers as the novel heads to its climax. 
The genius of Patricia Grace is in her ability to weave ever so simple stories together into intricate and layered narratives making 'Baby No Eyes' at once instantly accessible and one heck of a muddle. Not a novel for the faint hearted, spooky, heart breaking, and unforgettable. 

  
2. 'The Bone People' by Keri Hulme. 
This novel, originally written in the early eighties by an indigenous woman, was turned down by every publisher in New Zealand. Eventually Hulme's book was picked up by a small and underfunded feminist publisher in 1983 who very quickly reaped the rewards of their work when 'The Bone People' won both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Literature just two years later. 
My enduring memory of this book is one of trauma, after starting this book, finishing it became a compulsion but not because this is a good book. This is a horrifying book. I was reading it in a lecture one day when it all got a little bit too real. The violence, the pain, the suffering, it felt as if the words were bleeding through the pages, up my arms and into my body. I had cold sweats, my heart was racing, I felt sick. All I wanted to do was throw the book down and run far away. Unfortunately I was hemmed in on either side by my classmates and the class wouldn't end for at least another hour. So I kept reading, as will you. 
The book is about three people, a woman, a man, and a child. The three toughest and most resilient people imaginable and how they were all broken, how they took their brokenness out on each other, and how in the end they couldn't survive without each other. This is a heart wrenching book with a happy ending that you will never forget. 


3. 'Bulibasha' by Witi Ihimaera. 
Just go read this right now. Its funny, its tough, its entertaining and utterly engrossing. A coming of age tale in the classic sense, set in a short, sad and magical time in New Zealand's history. The blurred lines between Māori and settler, old ways, new ways, pig headed hilarious children and their pig headed hilarious grand parents. You can't go wrong with this book, less hard work than 'Baby No Eyes' and 'The Bone People' but equally engrossing.



4. 'Frangipani Perfume' by Makerita Urale.
This play has the enviable title of being the first pacific play written by a woman for an all female cast. I have read this play many times and seen it performed. It is unstoppably good, charismatic, colourful, and uncompromising, it documents the journey made by so many Samoan, migration to New Zealand for a 'better life' which then becomes a miserable existence of underpaid menial labour.


5. 'Waiora' by Hone Kouka. 
Another play, this time by a Māori writer, exploring the geographical movement of Māori families their traditional tribal areas to mostly white suburbs in search of work and financial prosperity. A policy started in the 1960's called 'pepper potting', Māori families often find themselves hemmed in on all sides by white families, creating a tense environment of assimilation. This is the social backdrop for Kouka's emotional roller coaster. For anyone that still believe in the myth of New Zealand as the land of racial harmony, this book may shatter a few illusions. 

Aug 4, 2014

How A 'Rational' Person Ended Up Believing in God.

On my Facebook feed this morning, one of my friends wrote 'I just don't understand HOW anyone can believe in God'. I understand the sentiment, its one I used to share. Believing in God is just so ridiculous right? Well there was a time not so long ago when I would've agreed, but not anymore. 

"Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience" 


One day I was feeling particularly contrary and I decided to challenge my beliefs, my 'faith' in science and technology which was based on a 'reasonable belief' that what people told me was true. I can't even do long division so if a scientist told me XYZ I would believe it. I realised that in my case, this was the kind of blind faith I criticised in religious people. I decided to nosey around this religion thing and test myself. 


I was so anti-religion that I never expected to convince myself of anything other than religion was a bunch of hocus pocus for people that needed comfort and that I am just terrible at maths. 


In the end I had earth shatteringly spiritual experiences that shredded my atheistic beliefs, of course I didn't reject 'rational thought' and modern science (I still can't do maths) but I realised that there was so much more to the world, so much more connecting us to each other and to the earth and that went beyond numbers. 


I used to scorn those door knocking Christians when they said 'it can't be explained, its just faith' as the stupidest thing you could ever say but actually, when I feel it, when i touch that spiritual experience, it cannot be explained, it just is, and that's HOW I can believe in God (not the bearded guy in the clouds mind you).


So that's HOW I do it. I was stupid enough to pull the rug from under my own feet.  I suppose what I was trying to say with the maths metaphor was, if someone does something crazy with Maths that is just way beyond your comprehension, you don't immediately think 'oh they must've made that shit up because I don't understand it and I have no point of reference to know if its true' which is what I did with religion. Once I started learning about the reference points, I started to get it. 


A question I always like to discuss with groups I'm teaching and studying with is the classic Jewish question: Does faith inspire (religious) practice, or does (religious) practice inspire faith? In my case I went though the practice as a non believer and came out the other side unexpectedly changed.


Anyway, here's a brief answer to a question you probably weren't really asking but its the truth as I know it and as I feel it. 


Aug 3, 2014

Gender Nightmares at the Job Centre

I have read recently that a trans person brought a discrimination case against the Job Centre for the same issues that have plagued me for years. I am currently homeless and without benefits because of the constant bullying from Job Centre staff. I have a medical condition that entitles me to ESA and PIP (disability benefits) but the time from application to payment is currently at about six months. It has gotten so bad that my friends have been financially and emotionally supporting me through my illness because I am not getting any assistance. You can find out more about helping by clicking here

I decided to share my story of gender based discrimination at the Job Centre in case there are others who are also suffering and to explain what it is really like. Just to give context, I am legally entitled to privacy around my gender change and 'sensitive access' is applied to all kinds of people who for whatever reason who need previous identities protected (think witness relocation, women with protection orders etc...).

I first signed on about five years ago, when I was at the beginning of my transition. I found it very difficult to get my case worker to use my preferred name even though I had legally changed it to Max. I would be waiting in the Job Centre for my appointment and the case worker would call me up by the wrong name and consistently use the wrong pronouns for me even though I would correct them every time. The Job Centre can be a pretty hostile and aggressive place and I felt increasingly scared, especially when my case worker would encourage other clients to snicker and laugh when I was called up.
 After several months of back and forth with the case worker and continually being humiliated  I lost my temper, started crying and the manager came. The manager told me that there was a 'blocking system' that would make my name and gender change invisible. At the time it seemed like the perfect solution. 

Unfortunately this 'blocking system' has caused me no end of troubles. As a free lancer I need to sign on and off quite regularly, but it has become so consistently traumatic that mostly I have given up trying to access benefits. This has caused me to become itinerantly homeless and associate a great deal of pain and depression with the Job Centre, as a knock on effect it has negatively impacted my ability to get work. 

I have applied for Job Seekers on multiple occasions over the last five years, each time it has ended with me deciding that it would be better to not have benefits at all than go through the traumatic process. The illustrate what that process is like I will describe my most recent experience at Finchley Job Centre in North London. 

I applied for Job Seekers online at the beginning of March, I was homeless and penniless at the time and very desperate for assistance. The staff at the Job Centre told me I could apply for a 'Benefit Advance payment' if I was in extreme need and I attempted to do so. I rang the number and the very helpful person on the phone told me that because my files were sealed 'sensitive access' they could not help me within the usual time frame, but he promised he would get back to me as soon as possible. Five days later it was decided I was not eligible for an emergency benefit advance because there was no one at that call centre with the clearance necessary to access my file. During that five days I was rough sleeping/sofa surfing, and had to rely on food parcels from Housing Action Barnet to feed myself.      

When I eventually got my appointment to sign on my case worker A***** was unable to access my file. She questioned me thoroughly about why my files were blocked 'sensitive access', this made me very uncomfortable and because I wouldn't tell her she became very combative with me. I did not want to tell her why it was there so said things like 'someone put it there, after I had problems with my previous case worker' which was true, kinda. I was absolutely desperate for money, still rough sleeping/sofa surfing and had no access to funds. However, I did not get my benefits on time because of the 'sensitive access'. Every week for several weeks my benefits were delayed and I had to ring/email A**** every time. I could see that it caused her extra work and extra bother which in time made her very frustrated with me. 

At one of our meetings, after becoming particularly exasperated, she pressured me over the 'sensitive access' issue. She said "I can see it causes you a lot of bother, and you say you don't know why it's there, do you want me to get rid of it?" I responded noncommittally. The next week, after my benefits had been withheld again, she was even more exasperated, as if it was my fault that this restriction was causing her extra bother. She said 'I can't remove it unless you tell me why it's there, so here's a list of the reasons it might be there, which one is it?' She moved her computer screen towards me and showed me the list. I didn't say anything, I felt very upset and embarrassed. She prompted me some more, scrolling the list up and down and saying impatiently 'is it one of these?' Eventually, without saying anything, I pointed to the section of the screen that said 'Gender Change.' This was extremely humiliating! especially since she acted as if it was a 'silly' reason to have a restricted file. 

She said 'So shall we take this off and save ourselves all the bother then?' I asked her to give me more information, and suggested maybe she print off the page for me to look at as I didn't want to make any decisions without being fully informed. She refused and said it was an internal page and that she wasn't allowed to give me access to an internal page, A***** quickly took the page off of the screen so I couldn't see it. I said I wasn't sure I wanted the restriction taken off until I knew more about the process, especially since I didn't want everyone to see my previous gender. Taking into account what happened five years earlier I am very wary of Job Centre staff knowing about my gender and using it against me. A***** got very angry with me, said I was wasting her time and that she had done all this research for me and that I said I wanted it lifted etc... I got very frustrated with her, I was so humiliated and I felt very trapped. I was still homeless, still broke and my JSA was the only money I had access to, I felt like I had to put up with A***** harassment if I wanted any money. I became extremely distressed and left the building. Later her manager called me and really laid into me, said A***** had done nothing wrong and that I needed to adjust my attitude. She agreed to give me a new case worker. 

The next week I went to see the new case worker. As soon as I sat down she patronisingly reassured me that A***** had filled her in completely, that she knew all about the 'sensitive access' issue and my 'gender change' and I had nothing to worry about because she 'was very open minded'. I felt very hurt and embarrassed, and spent a lot of time looking at my feet while the new case worker demanded I 'look her in the eye like a man'. After that meeting I never returned to the Job Centre, my benefits were stopped and I am still homeless and without income. 

Call centre staff have informed me that I can expect my Disability benefits (ESA and PIP) to start roughly 7 months after the date of application. So helpful. 




Jun 22, 2014

EuroPride Opening Ceremony 2014


I'm lying in bed in my lovely hotel room, I'm full of pastries and toast and cups of tea and I can say without hesitation that this is a very nice way to spend a Sunday morning! It's been a hectic weekend here in Oslo and I figure I've earnt a nice rest. Friday night was the night of the Grand Opening Ceremony of Euro Pride 2014 which I was, apparently, the headline act. It was such a long day, we had to be at the airport for 4am which means neither I, nor my trusty sidekick, got any sleep. Once we arrived in Oslo we were whisked straight out for a fancy Thai lunch which was lovely but also daunting since neither of us had eaten breakfast yet! I spent the afternoon attempting to do some music practice which was hindered by my throats seeming desire to take a holiday. When I finally stepped up onto the stage I genuinely had no idea whether I would have any voice left. 

The evening was pretty heavy, there were protesters and police at the venue, which made for an unpleasant atmosphere. The stupid racist minister for equality was a massive tool, and everyone boo'd her when she stood up to talk. I'm glad they did but it also made it all the more intimidating for me, when it was my turn. I decided on a light comedy set in the end and it am so glad that I did. I was the final person to take the stage and by the time I got up there everyone was very bored, fidgety, and a little bit depressed. It was a total win for me that many of the protesters seated in the audience with large banners, were also friends I have made on my previous trips to Oslo. I didn't have to work very hard at all to win them over and we were soon doing silly dance moves and singing along together, and all the unpleasantness of the horrid minister was, if not forgotten, at least put down for a few minutes, so we could all be together and celebrate being together for the first day of Pride.

I'm really proud of what I achieved, I went on stage and performed, I made it very clear that I didn't agree with the current government's racist policies, but I also had a good time and I hope, enabled people to have a good time as well. It was super nice to get back on stage after a few months off, especially to what turned out to be a very appreciative audience! I even got the biggest bouquet of flowers ever! 


Jun 21, 2014

Controversial Performance in Oslo

Right now I'm on my way to Oslo in Norway for the grand opening of Euro Pride 2014. I was super excited to be invited by the Pride committee to come and be part of the opening ceremony, last time I was in Oslo I had the best time so I was very keen to repeat the experience. Sadly some of the shine has been worn off by controversy surrounding the ceremony. 

I didn't know anything controversial was happening, all I knew was that I'd been invited to come and sing a few songs. I was in Italy, sunning myself on the balcony, while a storm was brewing. The first thing I knew I got a tag on Facebook: 'Maxwell Zachs is appearing alongside a fascist politician in controversial opening ceremony to Euro Pride.' I have to admit I was pretty mortified, no one had told me there was going to be political messages delivered during the ceremony. It got even worse when other people started tagging me in comments like 'you are opening Pride with a fascist politician, do you like that?' Somehow suggesting that I would be ever so pleased to be linked with a party that is currently promoting the mass deportation of every Roma person in the country, AS IF.

Within a few hours people were pressuring me to cancel my appearance. I'll admit the thought crossed my mind, if just to save myself the trouble and stress of having my name dragged through the mud. I don't know that much about Norwegian politics, does anyone outside of Scandanavia!?
After much thought and some very painful hours reading long articles in Norwegian (instant headache) I decided that I would still perform at the opening ceremony. Not out of any agreement with the political party that is currently in power, because quite frankly they seem to me, from the research I have done, to be absolutely horrid racists, but out of a feeling of responsibility. 

I have travelled to and performed in Israel, a country I feel emotionally and religiously close to and a country which I also often feel politically and morally outraged by. Each time I have been in Israel I have attempted to use my voice to challenge racism, and pink-washing. The sad truth is that there are lots of things I love about Israel and lots of things that make me feel completely outraged. 

That's kinda how I feel about the situation in Norway. Its a country I feel very closely linked to, I am the Jewish grandchild of a Norwegian grandmother who was fortunate enough to be on the other side of the world when Norway's Jews were rounded up and sent to their deaths at the hands of Nazis. It doesn't feel right to just cancel my performance and ignore the controversy, in fact that feels like something I would be ashamed of. 

I fully intend to participate in the Grand Opening of Euro Pride 2014, as a Transperson and as a Jew, as a human being and as a dedicated and active anti-racist. Unlike countless others who have perished or been silenced, I have the privilege of a voice and my conscience demands that I use it.  

Feb 20, 2014

A Musical e-zine 'The most beautiful girl in Stockholm and other songs written in Sweden by Max Zachs'

J

These are just three of the many songs I wrote whilst living for 18months in Stockholm, Sweden. If you like them feel free to listen as many times as you like! If you really like them please consider 'paying for them' using the magical paypal button to the right of your screen (or just below this post for mobile version). You can pay as little or as much as you can and it helps me to keep making music. 

Feb 10, 2014

A hiatus.

I haven't been feeling very well lately and although I envisage a return to top form in the not so distant future I just thought I'd let you know I'm gonna be away for awhile, that I'm okay, and just taking it easy. Hope you're all good and will forgive me this absence. I promise exciting things to come, including a European tour, an EP and many scathing attacks on the Patriarchy. I know you'd expect nothing less. 



Dec 8, 2013

Stuck in bed with a head cold and a cold head...


I have been in bed for two days and I am so over it. I feel too sick to go out and do things but not half as sick as I would need to feel to appreciate being cooped up in my bed all day, so I am stuck here watching made for TV movies and drinking orange juice as my will to live slowly trickles away. 
Tomorrow, I have decided, I will feel better or at least better enough to get out of the house. 
There's a place I have been wanting to go back to for a long time, its a place that feels pretty special to me, and now that we have finally had the first snow of the winter I think its time. Its a huge beautiful lake where I used to go with someone I was very close to and although they are no longer in my life I hope I will be able to go there and enjoy its beauty and solitude. I'm going to wrap up really warm and take the train out there to see the water and the trees. 
Last winter we walked across the lake from end to end when it was completely frozen over, it was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done, then this summer we swam in it in full sunshine at ten o'clock at night- it was magnificent. Living this far north has its own unique challenges and landscape, just like when I lived so far south in New Zealand -the land has its own flavour. This winter I will walk around the lake on my own, I hope it will still seem as beautiful as it did before. I don't know why but this place seems like its my friend. 

Next week I will be leaving my quiet Swedish life for the hustle bustle chaos of London, part of me is excited and part of me is dreading it. Last time I was in London I had an awful time, I was freezing cold, stressed, lonely and missing my sweetheart. Hopefully this time it will be different, for a start I am only going for six days as opposed to three weeks so even if its a bit of a let down its such a short period of time I won't have to stick it out for too long. I also organised myself differently so I will be staying in a different place almost every night- I figure that way I wont feel like a burden on whoever is hosting me by overstaying my welcome. Then of course there's the fact that there's no one missing me and no one for me to miss (except my fabulous friends of course!). 

I am really looking forward to spending some time with my wonderful Nan, I love her so much and she takes such good care of me. It has totally changed my life to have her in it, she hasn't tried to fix me or solve my problems, she just lets me be weird and reminds me that she loves me, I feel totally blessed that I have someone in my life who cares about me unconditionally, I feel totally blessed that I finally know what unconditional means. I also feel totally blessed that I have someone in my life who owns a chip machine and makes me chip butties at 11 o'clock at night because quite frankly if that isn't love then what is?

I hope this blog post doesn't come off as overly depressing, Im not sad at all just pensive and a little bittersweet. The snow is so beautiful and everything feels symbolic and adventurous. Perhaps I have had too much cough medicine... 

Nov 24, 2013

How to get to Arlanda Airport for free

I fly internationally at least three or four times a year, this year was a quiet year I managed four return international flights, last year was a busy year, I made seven, including one long haul. With the rise of the budget airline we're all going more places than ever before for less money than we could've imagined just a few years ago. Still there are the hidden costs, those last minute things that you don't factor into your budget that always make a dent in your spending money. 
I have noticed the cost of city to airport transfers steadily rise over the last few years to the point where the cost of getting to your airport is often as expensive if not more than the flight itself, especially since these budget flights that we all love so much will be leaving from from that lesser airport way out in the country side. 

Nov 23, 2013

Simple rules for how to behave at a TDoR event.

As trans people we desperately lack spaces in which we can perform, speak, or just be visible where we can expect affirmation and support from the audience. Usually when we step outside of our homes, step on stage or into the public sphere we do so with some amount of trepidation as to the reception we will receive. 
That's why Transgender Day of Remembrance can be so exciting for us, we forget the real reason we are there and can focus solely on the fact we have a captive audience who will most likely respect our gender presentation, use correct pronouns, tell us we're wonderful, and generally allow us to bask in all of our shiny transgendered glory. Except... Well... Not. 
As my good friend Jon said this week "you don't go to a funeral and talk about yourself while the other person is in a coffin behind you do you?" Well apparently you do if you're trans. This week has brought with it just as many complaints about poor behaviour at TDoR events as it has statements about the 238 (mostly trans women of colour) who have been reported as murdered in the last twelve months. Complaints that, just as much as the poor behaviour itself, detract from the real message of this day which is remembering. 
The complaints have centred mainly around one thing: grandstanding. It has to stop.

To that end I decided to make a short list of rules one might follow in the years to come, and there will unfortunately be many years to come where we have people to be remembered. So here goes:

How not to act like a fool on TDoR. 

1. Avoid Grandstanding. Grandstanding is when you seek to attract applause or favourable attention from spectators or the media.  

Check yourself: 
Are you just getting up on that stage because you want to perform so that people will see how awesome you are or do you have something relevant to share? Do you have a burning desire to speak or perform and think this is the perfect opportunity for that thing you've been working on? Does your material directly reference this day or someone who has lost their life due to violence and persecution?

Statements like "when I thought about what I could sing today" are a indicator you have everything ass backwards. If you have a song, poem, or performance that would be perfect for TDoR because it is relevant and communicates something then by all means go ahead. If you decided you wanted to be onstage just because you think people should see you and had to think up a performance for the occasion its very likely you're grandstanding. Stop. 

2. Capitalist Exploitation. This is when you attempt to make a profit or benefit from from something that you have no right to. Like the deaths of 238 mostly trans women of colour, this is extra bad if you are not a trans woman of colour. 

Check yourself: are you here today because you have a new book, CD, or product to sell? Are you a member of a political party? Are you from a media company that often publishes inaccurate, bigoted and misrepresentative stories about trans people?
Check yourself: are you bringing merchandise to a TDoR event? If so, don't. 
Will you benefit in any direct way from being at this event? But that I mean- are you getting paid or making any money?. 

Being on stage gives you a certain amount of exposure as an artist, politician, speaker etc... And there's not much you can do about that, some of the people who see you sing will probably want to buy your CD later and that's kinda cool. It becomes exploitative when you use your place on the stage to advertise yourself or your product, setting up a suitcase in the corner full of copies of your new book and attempting to entice people to buy them- is also not good thing. 
However, if you do benefit directly from a performance or appearance at at TDoR event think about how to share the benefits, donating to a trans charity is a really good way to do this. My band released a single especially for TDoR this year as a way of creating trans specific artistic content and raising money for our two favourite charities: Transgender Europe Murder Monitoring Project 
and Gendered Intelligence. 

Trans people should get paid for their work. No on should make money from the deaths of others. Strive to find the balance between these two things.

Getting back to work.


I have been in my new part time job for just over two months now, I am starting to get into the rhythm of it, I know my way around, I know my colleagues, and in a few days I will get my first full pay cheque (exciting!). To summarise it like that makes it sound like its all been straight forward but the truth is it hasn't, its been incredibly hard. What I have learnt about getting back to work makes me realise just how difficult it is for people who have been long term unemployed. 

Firstly I want to point out that I am at heart an anti-capitalist, I believe very strongly that if we rearranged our collective global resources we wouldn't have to work the way we do now. The idea that we should go to place for seven, eight, nine hours a day and labour at something we dislike and is probably entirely pointless sickens me. I have fought for my life every inch of the way: hand, tooth and nail, and I hate wasting it for somebody else's profit. I do my absolute best to live off grid as much as possible but the truth is: like it or not I need money for some things. It drives me crazy but there it is. This blog post is in no way an encouragement for people to work, it is simply a telling of my experience the last two months. 

For almost two years now I have been 'unemployed', I spent two summers writing books and music and generally being as productive as possible whilst making no money, and I spent ten months on a full scholarship. Before that I had a pointless job sitting at a desk which I was eventually fired from after losing all motivation and will to live- seriously eight hours a day in a smelly dark room on my own with nothing to do except 'look busy'- who wouldn't go mental? 

So as this summer came to an end and my resources started to dwindle I realised it was time for me to get a job. Since I am in Sweden and I don't speak Swedish my options were somewhat limited, in fact they were non-existent. I spent many hours stressing and panicking about my decision to stay in Sweden despite the fact I had no money, no employment options and no recourse to any benefits or assistance. I knew deep down that I had to go back to England but I just couldn't face it. It was after a pretty scathing 'pep talk' from someone that I remembered just how plucky I can be when I have to. 

Within a fortnight I had landed the holy grail of jobs- a queer cafe where I could speak english, be a total flamer, wear whatever I wanted and get free cake. Could it possibly be any better than that? As my first day loomed closer I started to get cold feet, because let's face it, despite the fact that I desperately need to work and am incredibly grateful to have some work that pays me, I am also a human being, a very lazy, very creative human being who doesn't like marching to anyone else's drum but their own. Could I really pull this off?

Well you already know the answer to that, so far so good, I still have the job. I have worked three or four days a week every week for the last eight weeks, I haven't missed a shift, I haven't been late, my colleagues seem to like me well enough, and as far as I know no customers have complained about me. But no one warned me how much it would hurt! After two years of books, libraries, parties, wine, essays, ukulele, gigs, shows, and waking up without an alarm- this was like military boot camp hell. The first month I worked the schedule was insane, I worked seven days on seven days off, I went from pampered masters student to standing for nine-ten hours a day in a roasting commercial kitchen while people yabbered at me in a language that sounded to me like baby babble and demanded that I produce not just edible but actually rather expensive delicious meals. My feet hurt, my back screamed, and I sweat more than I ever thought was humanly possible. 

Well like a white middle class cis gay man- things got better. Life at the cafe isn't so bad anymore, my feet have gotten used to the long hours standing up (mostly) and I no longer hyperventilate behind the dishwasher when people shout at me in Swedish. It's been a steep learning curve but at the same time I've done things that I didn't know I could do before. I've moved to a foreign non-English speaking country and am supporting myself- I think that's something to be proud of. It makes me wonder what else I can achieve if I am forced to push through the pain- it even makes me wonder if I should start getting fit again. The first two weeks on the job I didn't think I would be able to stick to it, now I take nine hour shifts in my stride- what else can I do?

Don't get me wrong, I would rather be at home being lazy but this isn't so bad after all. I admit its a little disheartening to be chef-ing at 28, I thought I would at least be a millionaire by now but at least I'm not back in london homeless, trying to claim benefits while David Cameron pillages the public sector for him and his mates. Seriously, it won't be long before the Tories start claiming brides on their wedding nights and putting peasants in the stocks for forgetting to doff their hats... 

So anyway this is the story of how the laziest most anti-work anarchist got a job. Please buy my book or my new single, they are really good and I would rather make money doing that than making hipster food for rich people. >>>>> 

Nov 20, 2013

Transgender Day of Remembrance. Live Web Feed

So you'll be able to join me in Stockholm for a live web feed of the Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial ceremony tonight, at 6pm UK time (7pm my time) so if you can't attend a memorial in person you can join in online.

Out of all the days in the year Transgender Day of the Remembrance is the day we must reach out and be together. It is the day when our grief and our hope is at its strongest- two things that ought to be shared. For fifteen years Trans people and their allies have spent a few hours together on this day to remember, to share, and to draw strength from each other in the face of often brutal and overwhelming violence and indifference.

Still we must recognise the privileges we have in being able to be together publicly, there are many who cannot do so, who must hide, who must be invisible in order to survive. Today we stand for them too. 

This year Rfsl Stockholm in conjunction with the 'Keeping You Alive' Project by musical duo Zachs and Krieg will broadcast their Memorial Ceremony live on the internet so that anyone with with access to the internet can join them as they both showcase Transgender performers and read the list of names belonging to the trans people who have been murdered in the previous twelve months, a list so long it takes half an hour to read.

The live web feed is available at: http://rfslstockholm.se/tdor/ 

It will start at 7pm(Swedish time/UTC/GMT +1 hour) and can be replayed later. 

'Keeping You Alive' is available to watch here: http://youtu.be/vk70jwgBr-Q 

And available to buy (including charitable donation to two Transgender charities) here: 



Oct 24, 2013

A Video and an Interview!



Itunes: http://tinyurl.com/pj69mkv
Amazon Mp3: http://tinyurl.com/oe3hzg8



An Interview with Zachs & Krieg.

Why do we need a special song just for TDoR?
Josephine: There are so many reasons that I wanted to be a part of a song for TDoR. There are some experiences that are so difficult to express through language, that sometimes art, music and song, are the only ways to really get across what we mean. I am at a loss for words sometimes when I think of why TDoR is needed and what it stands for. I don't know how to express the feeling of fear and isolation one can experience from a culture that can be so hostile to trans people. Sometimes it is hard to reach out with the sense of hope that I really do have for our communities.

I want to express that, and I think this song does that. And more than that I think a song can sometimes reach out in ways that other mediums and media can't. My hope is that this song will be heard outside of our communities. Perhaps express our stories, our fears and our hopes to the rest of the world and help people understand what we are trying to do with TDoR.

Max: What better way for us to reach out to people all over the world? Music transcends borders and cultural barriers. It travels on the air, it can be hummed and passed between people, it can be played quietly on headphones or blasted from the roof.
One of the things you will notice when you attend a TDoR event is that when the victim's names are read aloud they represent every language, every continent. We want our message of survival and hope to be shared by every Trans* person wherever they may be and a good song can go anywhere!
For me it was also about Trans*people creating their own culture, if we're going to have a song played at a TDoR event then that song might as well be by a Trans* person.

What inspired you to write this song?
Josephine: Well my friend Max wrote the song. What inspired me to sing and play it with Max was that this story rings so true to me. It is a sadly all too common experience that is given form here. Event though this is Max's personal story, it could just as easily be mine. And I think it could be many trans people's stories. Something I share with Max's story is also a sense of hope, and care, and a desperate wish to help ourselves and other people understand and survive. If this song does anything, I hope it speaks to that.

Max: You have heard the saying 'Take it one day at a time.' It's a nice idea but when you are convinced you'd be better off dead and thats its only a matter of time before someone kills you or you kill yourself a day feels like a really long time. I got to a point where instead of one day at a time I was surviving minute by minute, I would say to myself "That's it I can't take anymore, even one more second is too much" and then I would fight back, I would count to sixty, I would survive another minute in spite of myself. Then I realised that if I put on a song I could get through several minutes. Your average song is around three minutes and that's where the idea came from "I'm going to keep you alive for the next three minutes" was my way of reaching out to people I had never met, people who I knew where out there somewhere, staring at their hands thinking "I can't take anymore." It was my way of saying me and you, were going to have this song and we're going to get through the next three minutes and if we can do that then perhaps we can do even more.

Oct 15, 2013

Releasing a Single!

I feel like I start all my blog posts with the same line but it has in fact been awhile since my last post and I am sorry, its just that life gets in the way! 

So what have I been up to? Well I have been working haphazardly on the sequel to 'The People's Republic of Nowhere' and am now about half way through, those of you who are waiting impatiently for the next book will have to suffer on a little longer but rest assured I have been at my keyboard with renewed vigour the last week or so, let's hope it wont be much longer! 

The reason I have been a little bit distracted from my book writing pursuits is because my 'side-project' has started to take over. Earlier this year my bestie Josephine and I decided to start a band you know just for fun. Then it just grew and grew and started to take up much more time and energy than we had ever intended. After playing a few gigs and spending many hours experimenting we decided to go into the studio. It was a very nerve racking experience, especially for me since I have never been in a professional studio before. Thankfully it ended up being excellent fun and we came out with a single that we are releasing to coincide with Transgender Day of Remembrance

Its a song that I wrote a while ago now, it's called 'Keeping You Alive' and it documents my own very personal struggle to stay alive in the face of great adversity whilst also attempting to love and support my trans friends who have the same struggle. Transgender Day of Remembrance is a really important day where we remember our trans friends and siblings who have been murdered or died due to violence and discrimination. It is also a day where we stand together, trans people and non-trans people, in solidarity against continuing violence and persecution. 

That's why the project has taken on such deep meaning to both of us. We are both transgender. It is a project that we enjoy as artists and its a project that is intimately linked with our ongoing happiness and survival. 

The single should be available in the next few days on all major music retailers including iTunes and Amazon Mp3 so watch this space! 

In the meantime you can follow us on facebook: facebook.com/ukulelepanda and twitter: twitter.com/qukelele or just admire this picture of us looking totally badass.

P.S. I forgot to mention that we'll be donating money from the single to Gendered Intelligence (trans youth charity) and the Transgender Murder Monitoring Project, but we have lots of ongoing production costs, especially the music video we are making this week and the cost of studio recording time, so if you'd like to help us out with a donation please use the PayPal Donate button>>>

Sep 22, 2013

A single for Transgender Day of Remembrance

PRESS RELEASE
For Immediate Release
Monday 23rd September 2013

Zachs & Krieg – “Keeping You Alive”: 
A song for Transgender Day of Remembrance 2013. 

 
On 1st November 2013, the band Zachs & Krieg will release “Keeping You Alive” a song and music video to mark International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR).

Since 1998, every 20th of November, TDoR marks and memorialises those trans* people who have been killed as a result of hatred and transphobia. The day also seeks to draw attention to the continued violence faced by trans* people every day, all over the world. TDoR continues to grow and spread and is now observed in more than 185 cities throughout the world.

This year, Zachs & Krieg, a musical duo made up of two transgender activists and artists, will release a single written and recorded specifically for TDoR. Their goal is simple: to shine a light on this special day and share the strength and resilience of trans people with the world. “Keeping You Alive” is a song that communicates trans* experience. It is a song of pain and loneliness of longing and despair, yet it ends with with a message of hope and survival. “Keeping You Alive” is a call to solidarity as much as it is an expression of mourning.

Help Us!

Here's some things you can do to help;

1. Please tell people about 'Keeping You Alive'. Use whatever means you have available to spread the news about this project, write an article, invite us for an interview, include it in your newsletter, even just tell your friends. Help spread the word about 'Keeping You Alive' and TDoR all over the world!
2. Become a partner. If you work for an organisation that works within a relevant field, contact us and become a partner of the 'Keeping You Alive' project.
3. Host an Event. Organise an event for your community to gather on November20th. Pandamonium will be giving a free live web feed on the day for TDoR events around the world.

The single will be available to download from iTunes on November 1st 2013.


Band: Zachs & Krieg
Single: Keeping You Alive
Release Date: 1st November 2013
Email:  zachsandkrieg@gmail.com
Transgender Day of Remembrance: 20th November
Distributor: Ditto Music 



 Zachs & Krieg
is a band comprised of two transgender artists: Maxwell Zachs and Josephine Krieg. On this page you will find out more about them and their work. 
  facebook.com/ukulelepanda




Maxwell Zachs
maxwellzachs.blogspot.com 

Well known for a television role on Channel 4's hit series 'My Transsexual Summer' Max has become one of the UK's most recognisable transgender people, and although currently living in Sweden, Max continues to work as a representative for several UK bases trans* charities including Gendered Intelligence and Rainbow Jews. 

Max has been playing and teaching ukulele for more than five years, singing and performing around the world.  Max caught the ukelele obsession when living in New Zealand and has simply been unable to put down the ukulele ever since. "Keeping You Alive" is a song Max wrote specifically as a response to the high levels of violence that the trans* community experiences and the terrifying number of trans* people who are driven to taking their own lives. 

Max will be donating a portion of the profits to Gendered Intelligence, a charity that supports transgender youth.
  


Josephine Krieg
www.josephineallison.com
 
For over a decade Josephine Krieg has been performing and producing stage shows internationally, has regularly lectured on trans and gender/sexualities, and been published both as a creative writer and an academic scholar. She has worked with activist organisations in all these capacities including Swedish based LGBTQ rights organisation RFSL, European based trans rights group TGEU, and the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA World). She also runs several grassroots initiatives to promote and mentor up and coming LGBTQ artists in Stockholm Sweden.
 
All her life Josephine was convinced she could never produce anything melodic, so she learned to play drums when she was a teenager. After transitioning, she was even more shy about music, especially when it came to singing. With support and encouragement from her friends and fellow artists, she finally started singing on stage in 2004. Recently she realised her dream of learning to play the ukulele, under the tutelage of Max Zachs.
 
Josephine Krieg will be donating a portion of the profits from "Keeping You Alive" to Transgender Europe and their Trans Murder Monitoring Project.

Sep 4, 2013

Can You Be A Jew Alone?

Today is Erev Rosh HaShana, that's New Years Eve in the Jewish world. Its a time when Jews as a community come together to do the things they do best: they celebrate with music and usually a bit of jolly dancing, they eat, they pray and maybe go to synagogue, they indulge in strange usually fun symbolic rituals like eating apples dipped in honey, and they generally make lots of noise hugging, kissing, arguing, shouting, laughing, gossiping, complaining and revelling in each others somewhat chaotic company. 
Sounds like good fun huh? Well it doesn't matter what your religious affiliation, the holiday season can be really stressful. I have devoutly atheist friends who turn into anxiety driven Christmas monsters as soon as the first of December rolls around and although Christmas for me is simply an excuse to eat Chinese food and watch Pretty Woman, I totally get the almost soul-crushing pressure of communal, family orientated activities. 

My friends explained to me that Christianity is built upon the individuals relationship to God, families and congregations are very important but when it comes down to it its about you and your personal feelings of faith. This is pretty much the opposite of Judaism which is, to its core, founded in the communal and collective experience and not just in the present, oh no no no: as a jew you are not only part of your present Jewish community, you are also a link in the chain that stretches all the way back to Bible times and all the way forward into the future. There's no getting out of it to be a Jew is to be forever plural and never singular. However, my question is: is it possible to be a Jew on your own? 

Ploughing through the books on my desk and a consensus seems to emerge and that consensus is a resounding 'No!". The opening chapters of the Bible are pretty clear on the matter when God says "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). If you feel that is somehow a little too open ended for you Rabbi Hillel, probably one of the most influential Jews ever, makes his position very clear with the statement "Do not separate yourself from the community..." (PA 2:5). So even from these two slices of ancient Jewish wisdom pie we can see a strong bias in favour of togetherness- but technically these aren't actually mitzvot (a mitzvah is a pretty complicated concept but in this context it is a law), they're just guidelines, albeit pretty important ones. So technically, and Judaism is about the technicalities, we'd be forgiven if we failed to adhere to the guidelines, or if we're being technical about it (which we are) there'd be nothing to forgive since we haven't broken any mitzvot right? Wrong. 

Just in case you thought we were going to get of lightly this time you can think again. Just because 'togetherness' itself isn't a mitzvah, without a whole bunch of Jews around you helping you out and being being helped by you in return, there are plenty of mitzvot that you wont be able to keep, thus putting you squarely in the dog box. 
Lets think if there are actually any mitzvot that can be completed alone. 

Eating- okay so I'm not a baby I can put food in my mouth without anyone to help me and I know how to keep kosher I read all about that in books, except technically I don't know how to perform a kosher slaughter and even if I did know how, its a legal requirement that someone knowledgable and trustworthy teaches me first, so no community no meat. I could become a vegetarian, there are plenty of vegetarian Jews, except even then, if I am any kind of strict kosher eater then I would need my food to be certified by a Rabbinic Authority which usually requires at least three other really smart educated Jews. 

Praying. Well you'd think this one I could at least do on my own, well not really. Some of Judaism's central prayers require a minyan- thats at least nine other Jews, and although there are individual prayers the Talmud has this to say about it "Even if a person's kavanah (concentration, intention) is imperfect, if he prays with a congregation, his prayers will be heard" (Taanit 9a). So basically, if you want your prayers to go anywhere or mean anything, then you need the giant speaker that is: other Jews. Oh and just in case, According to Karo (another awesome Jewish guy up there with Hilllel) the Bible even threatens you with death if you abandon a minyan so there you have it. 

Marriage. Well obviously you need another person to get married, not only that but Biblically, and in many Jewish communities world wide, the preference is that you marry another Jew. Lots of people in the Bible married non-Jews but typically it is frowned upon. Even in really really liberal communities if someone marries a non-Jew it is at least something that would be commented on. One of the dirtiest words you can use in Jewish circles is 'Shicksa' which basically means a slutty non-Jewish girl who steals nice Jewish boys away. But I digress. Technically, here we go with the technicalities again, Jewish marriage is a contract between two Jewish individuals, so surely the minimum you need to get married of you're a Jew is one other Jew. Except Jews don't grow on trees do they? To get a Jewish spouse that spouse would have had to have been made by other Jews. Either a Jewish parentage (at least a Jewish mother for most Jewish communities) or a Jewish conversion (requiring a sponsoring Rabbi, a course of instruction, a communal Jewish experience and a Rabbinic Court), and if thats not enough, a legal Jewish marriage require at least two witness that are not related to you or your new spouse. Do the math and a Jewish marriage needs at least three Jewish families to make it work, your family, your spouses family, and the family(ies) of your witnesses. 

Babies. A consequence of some marriages is the birth of a son, if you happen to have a son then you're biblically and legally required to have your son circumcised in a highly ritualised and very specific way. Just like the kosher thing- even if you do know how to do it yourself someone would have had to teach you. So thats you, your spouse, your two witnesses, your jewish child, and a mohel (thats the person that does the special slice). 

See how the even the most basic elements of being Jewish require gazillions of other Jews? 

But maybe if you're quite anti-social you could live really far away and just import some Jews whenever you need them right? Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it the seemingly all pervasive requirement for togetherness even dictates where Jews can live: 
"A talmid haham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a beit din (law court) that metes out punishments; a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; (some versions add: a butcher); and a teacher of children" (Sanhedrin 17b).
Thats right the Talmud (thats the Jewish book of everything) says we can't move to far away exotic locations unless it has other Jews, well established enough to have stuff like Jewish courts of law, a synagogue and welfare charities. That is unless you are already part of a thriving Jewish community that will move together and provide all of those things for itself- so yeah, not very solitary. If you do decide to go off adventuring, thats okay but don't expect that it will actually do your soul any good, oh no says Maimonides (a Jewish megastar so cool people call him RamBam for short) says "A man will not search for truth nor seek to do what is good when he goes off into exile or is hungry, or is fleeing from his enemies."

So basically what we have is a pretty persuasive Jewish discourse that tells us that to be a good Jew you have to live in community with other Jews. Well what if, just for arguments sake, I don't want to be a good Jew? 

Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta has something to say about that, Rabbi Yosi is probably not so well known as some of the other guys I have mentioned today but really he is also quite fly, he is the fifth most mentioned guy in the Mishna meaning he was pretty prolific, and although he is one of many Yosis in the Talmud he is the only one referred to simply as Rabbi Yosi- he's like the boss of all the other guys called Yosi who came later and were simply not as fully righteous. Rabbi Yosi tells a story about an old lady who was so old she was miserable, her extreme age had stripped away all the pleasure in life and quite frankly she was ready to die. She came to Rabbi Yosi for answers and he, who like a typical Jew, answered her question with a question. He asked her what mitzvah she did everyday and her response was that everyday, whether she wanted to or not, she would go to the synagogue for the (communal) morning prayers. Rabbi Yosi instructed her to stop going to synagogue and within three days she was dead- what we are supposed to learn from that, aside from the fact that being old sucks and being an awesome Rabbi is well awesome, is that community prayer is is a segulah (spiritually propitious act) that guarantees a long life.

So according to Rabbi Yosi you can be a good Jew or you can be a dead Jew, the choice is yours. I think its probably a good idea to point out at this stage that I don't necessarily believe that Jews who don't go to shacharit (morning prayer service) are going to die. My interpretation of this story is that by using the life and death symbolism Rabbi Yosi is telling us just how important a communal Jewish life is. If history has taught us anything its that being a Jew can sometimes be a pretty precarious position in the world so its not a total stretch of the imagination to see the whole 'safety in numbers thing'. 

So what have we covered so far? Firstly that the entire weight of Jewish tradition seems to prefer it if we hang around with other Jews as much as possible AND that the consequences of not doing so mean that we cant fulfil our legal obligations as Jews, our social ones nor our spiritual ones AND the consequences of not doing so can be dire (think dead granny). 

The answer to my question: 'can you be a Jew alone?' seems like it is given clearly and the answer is 'No'. However, in the tradition of Jewish scholarship, I chose to continue questioning with the very important words; What If? What if its not that you don't want to be part of communal Jewish life but simply that you can't? I don't mean Jews that have moved too far away from the community to participate (we have already established they will probably die), I mean Jews who literally cannot participate because of reasons beyond their control, for example; Jews who have disabilities and can't leave their homes, or Jews who for reasons of financial poverty can't afford access to a synagogue, OR jews like me who don't always feel comfortable accessing Jewish spaces that are by definition and by minchag (sort of like local custom) really exclusionary. Technically (there's that word again) Jewish communities are supposed to have charitable resources available (see that quote above about where Jews can live) for people in their community, those charities should certainly be geared towards people's spiritual welfare as well as their physical welfare. I know for example that my synagogue in London has a charitable fund where people who cannot afford synagogue membership can get it for free or sponsored anonymously by someone who can afford it. My synagogue also has a discretionary fund to help people out when they are in trouble or get sick. Still its an interesting question: what if the synagogue doesn't help people out so that they can attend, are those people to be held to blame for not being around?   

The question more relevant to me is: what if you can't attend because you are gay, or lesbian, or transgender, or any other 'undesirable minority'? I remember many years ago when I had green hair and some visible piercings, my similarly attired friend and I attempted to enter the synagogue in Wellington and were denied access because our appearance was not tznius (another complicated concept but basically it means modest). Is it my fault we two 'young women' were denied access to communal prayer because we were wearing trousers or were they in the wrong for preventing us from performing a mitzvah? 


If participating in communal experience is so fundamental to being a Jew how do we navigate our Judaism when we are denied a space in the community? And what if it's not so cut and dry, what if I had been allowed into that synagogue that time with my green hair and my trousers but everyone had been mean to me and made me feel unwanted and unsafe? What if, no one is mean to me, no one stares at me funny or makes me feel unwanted, but it just feels like a space where I feel disempowered, where I see no representation of myself or my people? The Jewish communities I have experienced, even those at the most liberal end of the spectrum, have been dominated by the nuclear family. When I go to synagogue I almost always sit on my own whilst everyone else sits with their parents, their heterosexual spouses, or their children. People often come over to me on my lonely little island and confusedly ask me "So what's your last name, what family are you from?" and "Did you convert? Where's your wife?". 
Like many queers, I no longer have an extensive family network to draw upon, to spend time with, I have no one to sit with in synagogue, I have no one to light candles with on shabbat and on Jewish New Year when everyone else is cooking, eating, dancing, singing and praying together, I am sitting here at my desk with a bag of apples and a jar of honey wondering what's the point?  

Talking to my friend last week she said to me "How to you expect to feel connected to the Jewish community if you purposefully disconnect yourself from it by not going to synagogue?". She makes a good point, technically I could be in synagogue right now (no one is stopping me), but I know from experience that I will sit there, on my own, surrounded by straight people all huddled together in their happy glowing family units looking forward to a delicious meal at home where they will all enjoy the fruits of a happy communal Jewish experience. Going to synagogue will not make me feel like I am part of anything, most likely it will make me feel even more lonely, so why should I go? Well, because God says so, thats why, and Hillel, and Rambam, and Rabbi Yosi, they all make it very clear that I should go to synagogue and be part of the community. The fact that it will make me feel sad is not the point. The fact that my Jewish family is made up of Hillel and RamBam and Rabbi Yosi all of whom are hanging out right now on my desk is apparently not the point. 

I don't know what the answer is right now. All I know is that I am quite tired of the High Holy Days already and they have barely started, I feel like I can't face going to the synagogue and feeling lonely and alone surrounded by happy straight people but that staying home and eating apples is not much better. I take much more succour from my books (even though my books tell me I'm in the wrong) than I do from people who look at me like I am some kind of odd social pariah because I don't have a wife and family and a BMW. Sorry to be such a misery guts on a day which is supposed to be about celebrating but I'm just not feeling it. Maybe that makes me a bad Jew but right now I'd rather be a bad Jew than a miserable one.

I'm going to let Rabbi Judah HaNassi have the final word, he was so cool he's called 'The Prince': 

Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.


If you enjoyed this blog post or any of the others on this website please consider making a small donation via the PayPal button to the side or bottom of your screen, every little bit helps keep me writing!

My second High Holy Days away from home...

Last year I left North London with its over abundance of Jewish communities of all kinds and moved to Stockholm where I was faced with a decision I hadn't thought I would ever be faced with: Orthodox, Chabad, or Masorti. It was a decision I was not equipped to make since hitherto I had only ever had to chose between Liberal, Reform, or dinner at the pub with the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group. It wasn't much of a decision, I went with the Masorti shul (after being assured by several people that they had adopted egalitarian policies). Upon entering the Stockholm Great Synagogue for the first time it was everything I had feared and hoped it would be- it was really really Jewish, it literally and metaphorically reeked of tradition. My first kabbalat shabbat there did not disappoint, I was shocked when the Rabbi stayed seated in the front row and a cantor lead the service, even more shocking was that he stood with his back to us! Having come from a shul where hoards of noisy children occupied the steps of the bimah, and the service was lead by the team of Rabbis who guided us through like pre-school children calling out the page numbers and arguing contentedly about which of the jolly melodies we would sing this week, the unsmiling formality of this new experience was more than a little lonely.   

As the weeks went by and I became more used to my new community, I started to enjoy the more traditional aspects of the services, I began to value the theatrical sense of drama, and the seriousness which people brought to their worship. I enjoyed having my own seat in the shul and the privacy it afforded me. With anticipation, and some trepidation, I turned my mind to the High Holy Days that loomed ever closer. The Rosh Hashana service was pure magic, surrounded by a sea of swaying tallitot I finally felt able to take myself seriously and as the sound of the giant shofar echoed off the cavernous walls all the way up to the abandoned women's gallery it felt like I had personally been called to stand present. Like I said it was pretty much pure magic. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, was more difficult. So I can hear you saying already that Yom Kippur is not supposed to be easy and I agree, but I would have at least liked to have a clue what was going on. Despite the differences in style and delivery the actual structure and content of the services I had attended in my new and more conservative community were mostly the same, even though the siddurim where translated into swedish it was all similar enough that I had been able to follow along with my mediocre hebrew. On YK, however, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, the service was radically different and I felt lost. The point at which people knelt down on the ground was the point at which I felt most like a fish out of water, longing for the High Holy Days back home where things made sense. All of a sudden the novelty of being in a space full of ritual and mystery had worn off. Kneeling it seems, was the final straw. 


For my own sake I decided to find out more about the traditional Avodah service which is so frequently different in the Reform and Liberal communities I call home, and to try and give it some personal meaning so that next year I didn't feel so cut off. 

The Avodah service represents the only time of the year during which the high priest would have entered the holy of holies. These days however, it is a central part of the Musaf service on Yom Kippur in which we (read:mostly orthodox and conservative communities) reenact this temple ritual as a means of fulfilling the commandment, even though technically the destruction of the temple precludes us from doing so. If you read Leviticus 16 in which this ritual is first described you will see its pretty dramatic, theres lots of 'lest you die' stuff going on and if thats not enough we are instructed that these laws apply 'for all time'- just in case we were wondering. The first verse contextualises the whole chapter in reference to 'the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord'. I think we can be pretty certain Moses was listening very carefully when God was laying out the rules. Mishna Yoma describes how the Kohen Gadol would even undertake a seven day preparation period before he attempted this ritual to make sure he got everything just right, and not just because of the 'lest you die' stuff either, his life counted on getting it right as did the confessions and absolution of the whole Israelite community: very important. After the ritual was complete the Kohen Gadol, probably quite relieved that he didn't get burnt to smithereens like Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, would throw a big party for his buddies to celebrate. Given the circumstances I am not surprised. 


I find myself quite carried away by the drama of this ancient ritual, observing the care and devotion we as modern Jews bestow on the 'temple compound' in Jerusalem it's not difficult to imagine the extreme reverence with which the ancient Israelites would have treated this place. The passion and fear I feel upon entering the Plaza, for very different reasons, is still enough to remind me of the power of this place. Whether or not you believe that God exists, God certainly exists in the pages of my tanakh, in the giant stones of the Kotel, and in our reenactment of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. This is what we're doing during the Musaf service, we're recognising the extreme power of God, the power to endure 'for all time', the power to bring us together, the power to absolve and forgive and even the power to burn us up into smithereens. Personal beliefs aside, there's something inherently valuable about being reminded that we are not the ultimate masters of our destiny, that by believing we are we run the risk of over stepping ourselves and replacing God with our egos. Is there anything more dangerous and annoying than self-worship? The Avodah service is a metaphor through which  we recognise our fallibility, submitting our fate to the abstract we acknowledge that we are not perfect and that like the Kohen Gadol, preparing for seven days to perform his sacred duty, we need to act in a measured and responsible way or pay the price. 

As my first year in this new community draws to a close and the High Holy Days approach once more, I look forward to the Avodah service in a way I assumed I wouldn't. I hope that through the study and reflection I have done during the year on this topic I will be able to participate in a meaningful experience. When you enter the Kotel there is a sign thats says "The Shekhinah has never left the Western Wall" and by reenacting this ancient temple ritual, this year for the second time, I hope to remember that the Shekhinah has never left us, regardless of where we are in the world and how we worship together and that by careful and truthful preparation of ourselves we can atone for our mistakes. 
 


If you enjoyed this blog post or any of the others on this website please consider making a small donation via the PayPal button to the side or bottom of your screen, every little bit helps keep me writing!

Aug 29, 2013

Where have I been?


So I haven't written a decent blog post in a while- a sure indication that my life is really boring or really busy or perhaps both, I haven't decided which one yet! I have been doing lots of things lately, interspersed with intense periods of lying in bed watching movies.

After I got back from camping in Nynashamn I dashed off to Norway for Oslo Queer Fest which was one heck of an adventure. They booked me to come and sing and I wasn't really sure what to expect but because my friend Naomi was supposed to be there I decided I would stay for the whole festival. I assumed it was some kind of Pride event- how wrong was I! When I arrived it turned out to be an awesome anarchist/queer festival held in Oslo's iconic and infamous anarchist stronghold called Blitz. It was great, the food was all vegan and totally amazing so I could eat the same as everyone else and not have to worry about sneaky bacon bits getting in my food, I made heaps of super queer-tastic friends, and my singing wasn't bad either! I also happened to meet some rather dreamy boys there but thats another story!

Then I got back and reality smacked me in the face. Norway is really really expensive and I managed to somehow blow almost an entire months money in less than a week despite not drinking any alcohol the whole time I was there, not eating out, and not buying anything. A packet of cigarettes cost me £11.25 compared to £5.60 here in Stockholm- totally heart breaking, I ended up refusing to buy another pack and not smoking once that pack ran out- the upside is that I haven't had a cigarette at all since I came back- thats 13 days smokefree. As I started to panic about money and realise I was going to start actually starving again some time in the next two weeks- I got a job interview at a local cafe. Now the truth of the matter is I already have a job- I am a writer, I write books, plays, poetry and music. Sadly this job doesn't pay me, well technically it does, this month I made 68pence in royalties... Anyway, since my savings disappeared long ago and my debts are mounting up higher and higher the decision was kinda made for me and now I am going back to work. The interview went fine and I start tomorrow. I am happy to have a cool job but what I really want is to win the lottery. I deserve that, don't ya think?

I also have a gazillion student enrolled in my Ukulele course right now which is totally awesome and incredibly time consuming- still I love teaching and am totally proud of my student and how well they pick things up!

So today is my last day of freedom and I am spending it writing to you, as well as working on my current writing projects because as of tomorrow- who knows when I will get to finish my next novel?

You can buy one or all of my books here- they are very good and not very expensive! OR you can donate to this blog using the payPal donate button to the side of your screen!


Aug 12, 2013

Getting away to Nynäshamn


I just came back from an amazing weekend mini-break in Nynäshamn and I feel all kinds of wonderful. Nynäshamn is a smallish town about an hours train ride from Stockholm city centre, its very easy to get to since the trains are new, modern and run on time. Even better is that you can use your regular SL Access metro card to get there and get about once you get there, so if like me you try and save money by buying a weekly or monthly metro pass then you can get all your travel at no extra cost!  

Nynäshamn is really quite beautiful, its a port town with a little harbour and lots of sailing boats moored up in its many many marinas. It also has some quite spectacular spas and hotels which exude an old worldly charm. Fortunately you don't need to be a millionaire yacht owner spa-goer to enjoy the beauty, in fact, for a town with a particularly high marina and spa to local resident ratio it is gloriously unpretentious. Probably this has something to do with the fact that most of the people who go to Nynäshamn are Swedish, the bossy German and screaming Spanish tourists are yet to find this jewel of a place.

Nynäshamn, like most of Greater Stockholm, has an excellent public transport network so if you're not sailing then you can easily rely on the buses to get you around. You can check bus timetables here or simply pop along to the tourist information located so close to the train station that even a blind fool like me couldn't miss it. Nynäshamn has retained its small town charm and you can expect a jolly conversation from the staff at the tourist office as well as excellent directions and recommendations. Of particular interest to the curious traveller are some of Nynäshamn's Rune Stones which sit very casually on the sides of roads and pathways as if they aren't 2000 year old artefacts of great importance.

My companions and I opted for a little adventure and decided to take our bikes with us. You can take bikes on the Pendletag (commuter trains) as long as its not during rush hour and as long as you get on at a station other than T-centralen.

In  Nynäshamn you can camp for up to three nights pretty much anywhere you like that isn't a public road or a private back garden so we loaded ourselves up with tents, sleeping bags, a camp stove and as many bars of chocolate as we could fit in our backpacks and set off into the great unknown... Well it would've been the great unknown if we didn't all have GPS maps and smart phones. What I liked best about our travel plans was that we didn't really have any, we opted to cycle south down the coast until we found a spot we liked and after about half an hour we decided we were thirsty (and I really needed a cigarette) so we stopped on a little jetty for a rest. While the others has a swim, I ventured off into the woods and found the secret spot. The secret spot is a private secluded stone beach protected on two sides by some small cliffs and surrounded by beautiful green forest and wild heather. Right now it is my favourite place in the whole world. Every now and then a person with a dog would pass by in the trees and at one point a fisherman came and stood on one of our cliffs for awhile but for the most part we were completely alone.

Swedish water is a little on the cold side for me, I'm used to the warmer waters of the pacific but I still managed to get a few good swims in, that is when I wasn't soaking up the incredible sun shine and afternoon heat in the late 20's (Celsius of course!). I even looked in the mirror this morning to observe some sun burn across the top of my head, I guess it will take me a while to get used to being a bald man.

So that was my weekend, sun, sea, and stones instead of sand. Its a little sad to be back inside but I cannot wait to get back to our secret beach and pick up where we left off!

I fully recommend this free brochure to anyone looking for a cheap/free holiday in Greater Stockholm