CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College/Professor Bernstein
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — SJanoff

Become a Sponge

(this post was in my drafts, I had never published it. oops!)

Since moving to the Lower East Side around three months ago, part of me has come to think of the area as my own. The mismatched graffiti, musty vintage clothing stores, and quaint cafes are a part of my everyday. I was wary, then, to hear someone else speak of the area as if it was theirs.

When Richard Price first stepped onto the podium and began speaking, I must admit that I judged him immediately. His yellow polo shirt and thick New York accent made me think he was a stereotypical rich Jewish New Yorker, the kind who thinks he or she knows lower Manhattan because they go to Chinatown to bargain for scarves, or transfer trains at Delancey and Essex without actually leaving the station.

I am pleased to say that I was wrong. Although Richard Price may dress the part of a yuppie, he certainly does not play it. He grew up in a housing project. He knows cops. He knows criminals. Richard Price is real. He cut to the chase with everything he said. He has strong opinions, and evidence to back them up. He knows what he is talking about. He knows the Lower East Side. His ability to observe is almost eerie. It is almost too good. He soaks up everything, every little detail, and is able to morph these tiny visions into words, both out loud and on paper, that truly capture an audience’s attention.

December 10, 2010   No Comments

Scottsboro Boys

Innocent men await their deaths in jail, tortured by their traditional white Southern guard, with absolutely no escape. In the meantime, let’s do the cakewalk! Scottsboro Boys was a musical unlike any I had ever seen. First of all, it was the first I have seen that could be placed in the historical genre and showed factual events of America after the Civil War. Of course, because it is a play and therefore must be entertaining, details were warped and embellished, however the main idea of the play was rooted in harsh reality.

Eight black men and one black boy who are simply trying to change their lives and escape to better things are all illegally riding a cargo train. Two young white women are riding this train as well, and, when the police find them, they decide that if they pretend these men raped them, the officer will completely forget about the fact that they should not have been on the train in the first place.

This lie, which seemed small and insignificant to the racist white women, got these nine men thrown into jail and ultimately destroyed their lives. How could these be turned into entertainment, one might ask. Through the addition of catchy songs and dances, with great caricatures of all the typical figures found in Southern tales such as these, such as the white minister who attempts to present himself as pure and holy yet is still just as racist as the other Southern white men. The caricatures were honestly the greatest I have ever seen. Never did I imagine that I would see an African American man playing a white Jewish lawyer so convincingly. I found myself often forgetting that there was only one Caucasian male in the show, who acted as the emcee and interrupted the story to bring humor into it when it seemed to becoming too realistic and therefore too dark.

Because of these inserts, one almost forgets that the play they are watching is ultimately a tragedy revealing the horrific effects of racism on the lives of nine innocent men. By inserting song and dance into the story, the true implications of the tale hit hard when, at the end of the play, the fates of all nine men are announced. During this scene, aside from a solitary monotone voice, there is absolute silence. When this occurs, the humor and entertainment from the musical vanishes completely, and I left the theater with a sad sense of realization about the horrific events found in American history.

December 9, 2010   No Comments

Syd Miori Gion: ikaika

Syd Miori Gion was born March 3rd, 1991 in Honolulu, Hawaii. As a child, she always loved when her birthday rolled around, because March 3rd is what is known as “hinamatsuri”, or “Girl’s Day” in Japan. The Japanese influence in Hawaii is huge, so every year on her birthday, the boys in her class had to give chocolates or other sweets to the girls. She supposes it is akin to being born on Valentine’s Day. Japanese culture has always been a large part of Syd’s life. Her mother was born in Okinawa, Japan, and moved to Hawaii in the 1980s. She grew up eating many Japanese foods and speaking a strange mix of Japanese and Hawaiian, which escaped her as she grew older and started to attend a private school that focused on English. Her father’s ethnic background is massive; he is Irish, French, Chinese, Cherokee, and Filipino. Everyone in Hawaii is happa, or “half”, usually Japanese and something else. Looking at Syd, it is absolutely impossible to commit her to one single ethnicity, and she is proud of this fact.

Syd loves the lack of distinction about race that exists in Hawaii, and the deep bond the people share from the unique culture. She notes that because it is impossible to know what exactly people are, it is impossible to discriminate against them. That equality, which she did not notice until she came to New York, is one thing she greatly values about her culture. Another thing she loves about her culture is the large sense of family. The Disney movie, Lilo and Stitch, about a Hawaiian girl and her alien friend, greatly emphasizes the importance of family. This emphasis is completely accurate, according to Syd. One of the hardest things about leaving Hawaii for Syd was leaving her family. Before she left, she got her brother’s name tattooed across on her chest, where her heart is. She understands that many people find this strange, but she does not mind. Without her younger brother, Syd has no idea where she would be. He is her rock, the boat in a large, dark sea.

She misses the warmth that comes from everyone in Hawaii, but she feels that she had to leave. There was simply too much familiarity for her. Days blurred into weeks and weeks blurred into years. There is only a certain amount of beach and beauty and nature a person can take, she thought. She needed a change. And coming to New York City was certainly a huge change for her. She found herself thrown into a concrete jungle, where she felt everyone was more well-read, well-listened, and overall more intelligent than her. She felt inferior. It took her a while to realize that, while she may not understand discussions about the stock market or have anything to contribute to a discussion about the latest Broadway attraction, she was more empathetic, perceptive, and unique than most. Because everyone in Hawaii must be nice, less a bad rumor starts and quickly spreads around the island, Syd is like a sponge that can soak up bad energy and turn any situation around. She has an excellent talent at reading people and making them happy.

She plans to use this natural talent in her career, and is studying psychology at the New School. Although she knows that the New School has a reputation of being “a fake college”, she does not let this bother her. She attends her classes earnestly while balancing her part time job at Sunrise Mart. Syd is always trying new things, going through one phase after another, but never truly losing her sense of self. Syd is incredibly confident, but not cocky. She simply understands what she is and what she is not. And she understands well what other people are and what they are not, and accepts them for it, whole-heartedly. Syd does everything whole-heartedly. She always wants to push her boundaries, and dives into things headfirst. She has been vegan for the past six months, just to see if she can. She loves to test herself, and never minds when she fails. She understands that she is simply incapable of some things, and moves on to find something else she can accomplish.

Syd believes that growing up in Hawaii has made her less intellectual than the everyday New Yorker, but she has a large knowledge of philosophy, history of many cultures, and literature. She has the amusing talent of being able to memorize a song when she hears it only once, and she sings and dances always. There is always music in her head, she says. She loves music, and musical theater. Her dream in life is to have everyone around her suddenly break out into song, performing a dance number in the streets like in a musical. If that happens, she says, her life would be complete; she could leave the earth then, as there would be nothing else to live for. Until then, however, she will keep living on, with her Hawaiian culture in her heart and the dizzying New York City life on her mind, putting her soul into everything.

December 7, 2010   1 Comment


Sometimes, it is difficult for me to relate to the students at Baruch College. Most of them commute from home, and those that do not usually come from no further than one hundred miles away. Most were born and raised in New York City; it is their home by nature rather than by choice.

I have lived in New York City for a little over three months now. Yet it feels like I have been here forever. It feels like I am home.

Home is where the heart is. This is something I believe unconditionally. I have consciously chosen my home, something very few people at Baruch have yet to do. People are often put off by the lack of regard I seem to have for the people and places I left behind in Miami. “Don’t you miss them?” they ask me, “Don’t you want to go back home to visit them?” Yes I miss them; however, going back to visit them does not equal going back home. I am home in New York City. I knew this from the second I stepped off the plane, throwing my one-way ticket in the trash. New York City is my chosen home. And it feels more like a home than Miami ever did.

I had originally planned to do my collage project on Japan, but that idea, like life itself, changed without any warning. Looking through my photographs, listening to the song in my video, I was suddenly filled with a sense of warmth. A sense of belonging. A sense of being home. And because I have chosen this home, I can accept and reject the parts of it that I wish to. Through my camera lens, and my own eyes, I can choose to see only the parts that fill me with a sense of happiness.

In Miami, everything I liked and did not like was already out in the open, shoved down my throat before I could protect myself from it. I know the city too well, one could say, and because of this I know that it is not the right home for me. There is no other place like New York City, and there is nowhere else that feels more right as my chosen home.

My photographs are not special. They show people and places that I see almost every day. Yet that in itself makes them special to me, because they are photographs of my home. I am showing you my home. Although we all live in New York City, my home is not the same as your home. Home is a subjective place, an imagined existence which can be built just as easily as it can crumble. Here is my home. Call it Manhattan, call it the Lower East Side, call it New York City, call it the East Village. Call it what you wish. It has no proper name; it is a feeling. A feeling of acceptance and belonging. A feeling of always knowing who I am and where I am going. A feeling of familiarity and love. A feeling that I am never alone.

The song playing in the background of my video is one that I have known for a long time. It is in Japanese, and I do not understand all of the lyrics. When I listen to music, I do not listen to the words. I listen to the intonation of the vocals, the notes themselves. I listen to the feeling. The feeling of this song is, to me, incredibly uplifting. It is inspiring and soothing at the same time. It provides the same feeling as my home. It is the song of my home. My reality. The final lyric of the song is “subete wa honmono da”. Everything is real. New York City is my real life. I am finally living. Everything before this feels like a dream world. A dream. I was comatose, unmoving, stuck in a life I had not chosen for myself. Three months ago, I began living. Once I found a home of my own.

collage project photo link:
collage project video link:

November 23, 2010   No Comments

Stop whining and drink up.

Because there are no classes on Fridays, it has become somewhat of a tradition for my coworker and I to go out to dinner after we close up the store. Being located in the East Village, we never have to worry about restaurants being closed. The city is very much alive with a vast array of people. The East Village is, in my opinion, one of the most cultural diverse spots in New York City.  Dallas BBQ, a Ukrainian restaurant, a pizza place, and a Japanese bar stand side by side along second avenue.

As I am from Florida and my coworker is from Hawaii, the diversity and wild nature of New York City at night is still relatively new to us, and we look forward to our every Thursday adventure. Last Thursday, we decided to take a bit of a walk and try out a Spanish restaurant she heard was relaxing, cheap, and open late.  We end work at eleven, and often find that our conversation is only beginning to wind down as the clock approaches two, so we are always eager to find restaurants that will not kick us out as midnight strikes.

The restaurant was cozy, with an extremely authentic atmosphere. Spanish music floated lightly through the speakers, and each table was decorated with a quirky ceramic flower vase. The authenticity of the restaurant made us very excited and eager to try out the food.

Before we could even open the menus, a waiter came and plopped a huge pitcher of Sangria on our table and briskly walked away. We were at a loss for words. We had no idea what to do.

“Maybe it’s just grape juice?” I asked.

We leaned in to sniff the red liquid, and pulled back quickly. It was not grape juice. We shrugged and ordered our food when the waiter came back. The food arrived and we were about to dig in, when the waiter, a fat, jolly man, asked up why we were not partaking in the Sangria with our food. Glancing at each other, we began attempting to stutter out a reply.

He was having none of it, however, and poured the Sangria into our glasses for us. He would not leave the table until we each had sips, and he then proceeded to rave about the Sangria (which they make in the restaurant, fresh, every night!) for ten minutes. My coworker and I listened politely, trying not to laugh at the ridiculous situation we had gotten ourselves into. Apparently, the legal drinking age in Spain is 18, and the restaurant is so authentic that it decided to adopt Spanish laws on drinking as well. Only in the East Village.

November 18, 2010   No Comments

New York City becomes Japan Town


Because I use film rather than digital photography, and because I am lazy, it often takes me a very long time to schlep myself to the drugstore so that I can develop my film and actually see the photos I take. Although it is somewhat annoying that I cannot just plug my camera into my computer and see the photos instantly, this is also one of the reasons why I love film photography. Each photograph is a surprise, the rebirth of a forgotten memory.

I had originally planned on doing my street photography project on the interesting buildings, people, and events I pass on my walk to work. I snapped over sixty exposures while I dawdled down the sidewalk. When I developed all the film I had accumulated since August, however, I found those photographs did not really have any substance or presence for me. I probably thought too much about the image, trying to imagine what would look most aesthetically pleasing for my assignment. Because of this, the photographs came out with a total lack of authenticity. They had no feelings or emotions put into them.

The photographs that seemed most genuine, and also held the fondest memories, were those I had taken during my visit to Japantown’s Soul Food Festival in September. Previously known as the NYC Japan Street Fair, this festival displayed a huge array of Japanese food, art, and traditional wares. Looking at my photographs, I remember the positive energy that resonated through those two closed off blocks of Lexington Avenue. There was a large sense of unity and pride in the air that I could feel as I snapped each photograph.

Japan is a country that prides itself on its culture; its tradition; its history. Some people may be turned off by the somewhat nationalistic opinions that Japanese people seem to hold, but I am intensely drawn to it. Growing up with hardly any cultural traditions or values taught to me, I am incredibly fascinated by the deepness in which Japanese people pride themselves on the values of their society, even while they are not living in Japan. While Western society usually promotes individuality, Japanese society is based highly on collectivism. Many people do not find collectivism appealing. They believe it stunts personal growth. I found myself, however, filled with admiration for the all-encompassing unity that surrounded the street fair.

The pride that Japanese people take in their culture, and their desire to share it with those who will listen, is what I feel my photographs have captured. At the time I took them, I was simply trying to capture scenes that appealed to me. I realized only after looking at them almost two months later, that the scenes were appealing because of the feelings of my subjects. Everyone always happily agreed to my request for a photograph; I thought nothing of it at the time. I feel now, however, that maybe the reason they were so willing, and the reason the photographs came out so well, was because of my subjects’ strong desire to show how proud they are of their country and culture, and their desire to send that message through my lens.

November 18, 2010   No Comments

A New Tradition

It was a Friday night and I was returning home from my weekly model UN meeting with my friend Kevin. As we boarded the 6 train, he turned to me and asked if I knew how to play Mahjong. I had seen relatives playing Jewish Mahjong, and I had seen yakuza play it in old Japanese mafia films, but I had a feeling that wasn’t going to cut it, so I told him that I didn’t really know, but that I would love to learn.

We got back to the dorm, and two of our friends were sitting in the community room, eyes glazing over as they stared at their laptop screens. They were more than willing to play with us.

The game started off a little rocky. Each of us knew a different version of Mahjong; Jewish/Japanese, Shanghainese, Hong Kong, and a Toisan/Canton mixture. By the end of the fifth round, however, everyone started to get into their own groove. We were able to mix and match our different Mahjong styles and it made for quite an interesting game.

“Rokuman!” I cried out, putting down the tile with the Chinese characters for “six” and “ten thousand” on them.




Because we could all read the Chinese characters and recognize the pictures, we could cry out the name of the tile in whatever language we so pleased. As the game progressed, five languages (Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, and English) were being combined, giving way to quite an amusing game and learning experience.

The game lasted from 8:30 PM until 3:00 AM, us laughing and shouting the whole time. The later it got, the more ridiculous our combinations became, until no one could understand what anyone was saying, nut we didn’t need to. We all found ourselves on the same page, connected through our extremely fun multi-cultural game of Mahjong.

Although I lost all of my chips and ended up owing some to everyone, I won a few games and greatly broadened my cultural horizons while deepening my friendships. I cannot wait to play again.

October 26, 2010   1 Comment

cloudy with a chance of pumpkins


don’t forget your (steel covered) umbrella!

October 24, 2010   No Comments


Opera has never amused me. For one thing, Italian is not a language which I particularly enjoy listening to.  Two, the overdose of dramatic irony always greatly irritates me. Thirdly, the three operas I had seen were in uncomfortable theaters with sound systems that were less than adequate for the deep, full-bodied voices of opera singers.

I walked into the Metropolitan Opera House with the same low expectations I had for the other operas I had seen. When the orchestra began warming up, I sighed, wishing I was at the New York Philharmonic instead, so I could hear the music without the distraction of loud, non-rhyming singing. I braced myself for three hours of frustration.

When the curtains opened, and with the first line of lyric, I thought that maybe, just maybe, this opera could be different from the others that I had seen. The set was breathtakingly realistic, with a sky that seemed to go on endlessly. The costumes were bright with richly colored fabrics, but managed to stay away from the gaudiness that many opera costumes have. Everyone’s voices were unified and, lo and behold, the singing actually added to the orchestra, rather than distracting me from it.

I would have completely changed my opinion of opera, had it not been for the usual  ironic ending. When shows, plays, operas, anything have endings like the one Rigoletto has, I cannot help but feel like my time was wasted. After such passion between the duke and Rigoletto’s daughter, after Rigoletto goes through so much to protect her, his efforts are all in vain. I cannot understand the point of watching something which ends in tragedy. Even though the music was much more beautiful than any I had heard at an opera before; even though I could appreciate the huge amount of talent the opera singers had as their crystal clear voices rang out in soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, I still left with the same overall opinion of opera. It does not amuse me.

October 19, 2010   No Comments

money troubles

On Thursday morning, I was hired at Sunrise Mart and went in for my first day of training that night. Sunrise Mart is a quaint, authentic Japanese market nestled on the second story of an old building in St. Mark’s Place that I had been frequenting since I discovered it some weeks before.

My first day of work was nerve wracking, but incredibly fun. I enjoyed ringing up groceries and politely conversing with customers in both English and Japanese. One thing I noticed was that, more often than not, the customers wanted to give exact change. Rather than hurrying to pay for their groceries, it seemed much more important to get rid of those pesky coins weighing down pockets and purses. I remembered that this had been the trend in Japan as well and coin purses of every style imaginable could be found.

I remember having a huge amount of trouble giving exact change in Japan. It is so easy for me to add up our quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies into correct amounts so that I get nothing but nice crisp bills in return. In Japan, I just couldn’t do it. Something that seems almost second nature to me in the United States was quite a time-consuming task in Japan. At some stores, my friend would simply lose patience and take my coin purse from me, putting the accurate coins down, while I stood by blushing. On the other hand, when I had a Japanese foreign exchange student live with me, she ended up with almost fifteen dollars in coins because she did not want to embarrass herself by taking so long to count out change in stores.

At one point, one of my Japanese customers was fishing through his coin purse for coins. After fussing with the coins for about a minute, he thrust his wallet into my hand and said, “you do it”. I could not help laughing as I began counting out his coins, saying, “it’s okay, in Japan, I had the same problem”. Feeling less embarrassed, he smiled and remarked “no matter where you are, money is hard, isn’t it?”

Isn’t that the truth?

October 11, 2010   3 Comments