The Arty Semite

When Getting Girl Means Pretending To Be Transgender

By Michael Kaminer

Photo: Chloe Aftel

Call it a boy-meets-girl-who-thinks-boy-was-born-a-girl story.

In “Adam,” the debut novel from cult graphic memoirist Ariel Schrag, an awkward California teenager named Adam Freedman parachutes into an alien landscape of subcultures and identities when he joins his lesbian sister in Brooklyn for the summer. (Full disclosure: Schrag was featured in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” a traveling exhibition which I co-curated and the Forward sponsored.)

Obsessed with scoring — with women, not sports — he finally meets the girl of his dreams. The fact that she thinks he’s transgender — a boy who was born a girl — becomes a temporary stumbling block once Adam realizes he’ll get much further by playing along.

Like her great graphic novels “Awkward,” “Definition,” “Potential,” and “Likewise,” “Adam” balances Schrag’s ruthless eye and scathing precision with beautifully humanistic and generous portrayals of complex, conflicted characters.

Schrag, who has also written for the Showtime series “The L Word” and HBO’s hit “How to Make It in America,” spoke to the Forward from her home in Brooklyn.

Michael Kaminer: Is it a stretch to draw a straight line between Adam’s predicament and the moments throughout history where Jews have had to hide their identities?

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David Bezmozgis Turning 'Natasha' Into Film

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: David Franco

A decade after its publication, Canadian author David Bezmozgis is turning his debut short story collection, “Natasha and Other Stories,” into a film. As with “Victoria Day,” his first cinematic endeavor in 2009, Bezmozgis, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, is both writing and directing the project.

The stories in the breakout “Natasha” chronicling the saga of the Bermans, a Russian-Jewish immigrant family to Toronto, were hailed by critics as “dazzling,” “scary good,” and “stunning.” The book was translated into 15 languages and won several prizes. Virtually unknown prior to the collection’s publication, the Riga-born Bezmozgis’s literary star rose with “Natasha.” His celebrated first novel, “The Free World,” was published in 2011, and will be followed this coming September by a second novel, “The Betrayers.”

The film version of “Natasha” will focus on the title story, which comes in the middle of the collection.

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Canadian Jewish Book Awards Present Diverse Honor Roll

By Michael Kaminer

A chronicle of Nazi persecution of gay people, a study of Jews and obscenity, and a haunting artistic collaboration are among the wide-ranging winners of this year’s Canadian Jewish Book Awards. After an announcement last week, the awards will be presented at a May 27 ceremony in Toronto.

With its other accolades for a Holocaust diary, a poetic history of Salonika’s Jews, and a novel about Jewish immigrants in South Africa, this year’s honor roll defies easy categorization. “It was an excellent year for Jewish books,” said Natalie Kertes, director of literary programs at Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts, which runs the awards.

The common thread binding 2014’s far-flung winners? “Superb writing,” said Kertes, who also oversees this month’s Toronto Jewish Literary Festival. “It’s often easy to conflate a great story or theme or strong research with really strong writing. It’s really exciting to be able to say that all of the winners this year are exceptionally written, in addition to having strong content.”

What the prize-winners don’t all share, however, is Jewishness. And Ken Setterington, author of “Branded by the Pink Triangle” (Second Story Press), said the award has even more meaning for him as a result.

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Granta Magazine Launches Israeli Edition

By Beth Kissileff

Israel is known for all kinds of things — a burgeoning local food scene, TV series like “Homeland” and “In Treatment,” and high tech companies like Waze. Now, with the launch of Granta Israel, a Hebrew edition of the prestigious magazine started by Cambridge University students in 1889, Israel is officially an international literary powerhouse.

According to the English press release for Granta Israel, set to launch at the International Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem, this literary magazine will “join the international Granta family which includes local versions of the magazine in Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Sweden, Norway and more. “

The magazine is published out of the unpretentious independent bookstore Sipur Pashut in the Neve Tzedek neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. It is the kind of place that editors and authors frequent, and which regularly hosts literary events.

Shira Levy one of the two editors of Granta Israel, with Mira Rashty, who does a regular segment on English language books on Tel Aviv 1 radio.

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The Joys of Amos Oz at 75

By Liam Hoare

In Amos Oz’s “Rhyming Life and Death” it’s a sticky night in Tel Aviv, and the Author is to give a reading. Surveying the room, he begins to fashion life stories for the people attending. He takes note of a boy of about 16, moving restlessly in his chair. “He looks unhappy,” the Author thinks. The torments of his age “have etched a tearful look on his face.” The Author imagines him as a budding poet named Yuval Dahan, “but when he timidly sends his first poems to a literary editor he will sign himself Yuval Dotan”:

Through his pebble lenses he loves this Author de profundis, secretly and passionately: my suffering is your suffering, your soul is my soul, you are the only one who can understand, for I am the soul that pines in solitude among the pages of your books.

This feeling Yuval Dahan has — that the Author is speaking directly to him, that he has him in mind — is an illusion and to that extent irrational. Yet it is a recognizable one. In the process of trying on various writers, for me Amos Oz — who turns 75 on May 4 — was the suit that fit. His narrative voice — in turns precise and lyrical, never wasteful, always insightful — remains the one that speaks back to me, that feels familiar, that feels right.

The first time I read a novel by Amos Oz, I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, one of a number of kibbutzim founded on the upland between Haifa and Hadera. The kibbutz had a library divided between Hebrew and English, with the English section open some afternoons, dependent upon the kibbutznik responsible turning up on her bicycle. Oftentimes, it would open and close without much notice.

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A Soviet Journey to Adulthood

By Anna Goldenberg

Ellen Litman dreamed of being a writer when she went to school in Moscow in the 1980s. There was only one problem: She was Jewish, and thus she was advised to focus on something more practical, since in the Soviet Union, Jews couldn’t be successful at writing.

Litman studied math and computer programming, and immigrated to Pittsburgh with her family in 1992. It took her several years to work up the courage to take a writing class; she worried that she couldn’t write in a language that was not her native one. It turned out she could: In 2004, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. In 2007, she published her first book, “The Last Chicken in America,” which deals with the experiences of a young woman from Russia trying to settle into Pittsburgh.

In March, Litman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches writing and English, released her second novel, “Mannequin Girl.” Set in a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis, it tells the story of a Jewish girl, Kat, and her journey into adulthood dealing with her parents, who teach at her school, as well as unrequited love and latent anti-Semitism.

Litman, 40, lives with her husband and two children in Mansfield, Conn. She spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about playing with autobiographical elements and why moving to the United States hasn’t changed her idea of Judaism.

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Rock Journalism and Mick Jagger's Shoes

By Michael Kaminer

When Lisa Robinson name-checks Elton, Mick and Iggy, it sounds completely natural. It should; through four decades, the legendary music journalist has been nearly as pivotal a pop figure as her subjects. Robinson famously introduced David Bowie to Iggy Pop, helped The Clash and Elvis Costello score record deals, and hung out with the Beatles. In great detail, she recounts these and other unbelievable-but-true anecdotes in “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll” (Riverhead Books), a vivid, richly detailed memoir that functions as a de facto history of rock — and of an edgier, bygone New York.

Robinson culled her copy from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews she’s collected since her first columns were published in the British music weekly Disc and Music Echo in 1969. Today, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she oversees music coverage and profiles pop royalty like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga — who ended up cooking Robinson pasta. The Forward caught up with Robinson by phone from Manhattan, where she lives with her husband of more than four decades, Richard Robinson, himself a onetime rock journalist who produced Lou Reed’s first solo album.

Michael Kaminer: “There Goes Gravity” offers all of these fascinating anecdotes about pop legends, but gives away very little about Lisa Robinson. Why did you leave out autobiographical details?

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Bosnia Through Muslim Eyes

By Dorri Olds

New York author Susan Shapiro and her Muslim physical therapist, Kenan Trebincevic, bonded, and together they wrote the recently published “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return” (Penguin Books). The book tells the story of the Bosnian War through Trebincevic’s eyes.

In 1992 he was 12 and living a normal, happy childhood, until his beloved karate coach arrived at the door one day with an AK-47 rifle and yelled, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” Christian Serb neighbors and classmates turned on him and his family. Their crime? They were Muslim. Trebincevic fled to America. Now, after two decades in the United States, Trebincevic is going back to visit his homeland to confront the neighbors who’d betrayed him and his family.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Shapiro for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: How did you come to co-write “The Bosnia List”?

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How Jews Became 'White' On Broadway

By Michael Kaminer

Even if you’re not a theater nerd, Warren Hoffman’s “The Great White Way” (Rutgers University Press) makes a fascinating read. The book’s subtitle, “Race and the Broadway Musical,” only hints at its breadth, and the depth of Hoffman’s laser-sharp analysis of an all-American art form. Billed as “the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years,” “The Great White Way” also delves into Jewish contributions to the musical stage, including a kind of myopia around race and ethnicity as Jews fought to fit in themselves. Hoffman, a playwright himself, works by day as associate director of community programming at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He spoke to the Forward from his Philly office.

MIchael Kaminer: It’s hard to believe that no one’s explored a topic this ripe. Why is that?

Warren Hoffman: Until recently, musical theater hasn’t been given real attention. People looked at it as a fluffy art form with nothing to say of real significance. “Oh race, that’s too serious, how can a musical be about that?” But it’s all over the place. Because you don’t see African Americans or Asian Americans when you look at show like “Hello Dolly,” people ask how it can be a show about race — there are no people of color present. But that’s almost a misstep. People have missed some of what’s actually in front of their faces.

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Reinventing Israel in Argentina

By Liam Hoare

Every year, of the 75,000 young Israelis who complete their military service, it is estimated that around one third leave everything behind to go backpacking. The nomadic ramble through Southeast Asia and South America in that indeterminate period between youth and adulthood is hardly unique to Israel, but it takes on its own characteristics at the end of mandatory service — a break from order and a getaway from the confines of a small state under siege.

While one can escape Israel, one cannot escape Israeliness. On the road, for linguistic, cultural and emotional reasons, Israeli backpackers have come to constitute their own community. Along the so-called “hummus trail,” as Dor Glick reported for Ha’aretz, there has built up “a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course.”

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The Author as Therapist for her Characters

By Liam Hoare

Literature is in Zeruya Shalev’s genes. Born in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1959 — a kibbutz by the shores of the Galilee where the songwriter Naomi Shemer was also born — Shalev grew up with a father who was a literary critic and an uncle who was a poet. Her cousin is the acclaimed novelist Meir Shalev, author of “The Blue Mountain” and “Four Meals.” Her husband, the writer Eyal Megged, is himself the scion of writers Eda Zoritte and Aharon Megged.

Writing, then, for Zeruya Shalev was practically predestined. “Encounters with pain and sorrow made me want to write. When I was 6, I was already writing sad poems about cats and dogs that had been killed and soldiers that were dying in war,” Shalev said at a recent event at London’s Jewish Book Week. “It’s in my DNA.” During the Six Day War, she composed poetry while cocooned in the bunker at Kvutzat Kinneret, verse that she still remembers to this day.

After failing in her training to be a therapist while conducting her military service, Shalev sees now that her career is to be “a therapist for literary figures. Normally the characters I create are busy in some sort of crisis and, as a literary therapist, it is my job to help them overcome it.”

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Did Dreyfus Affair Really Inspire Herzl?

By Liam Hoare

Wikimedia Commons

The idea that the trial of Alfred Dreyfus inspired Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” is “simply not true,” Shlomo Avineri declared in a pointed, fluent, and well-received lecture that opened the first full day of London’s Jewish Book Week on February 23.

Discussing his biography of the father of modern Zionism, “Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” Avineri asserted that through examining Herzl’s diaries and letters, he concluded that the Dreyfus affair did not preoccupy Herzl’s thoughts at that time. Only in hindsight would the fate of Alfred Dreyfus come to be seen as a pivotal moment both for European Jewry and the history of the Zionist movement.

Rather, the background to “The Jewish State” was the collapsing scenery of 19th-century Europe and specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had, up until that time, been “the best country for Jews in Europe” and had been referred to as the “goldene medine,” even before the United States. Emancipation began towards the end of the 18th century, while in the 19th century the Emperor Franz Joseph I obtained the moniker “Froyim Yossel” from his Jewish subjects who during his reign became more equal members of his multi-national, multi-ethnic empire.

During the 1890s, however, “nationalism threatened the unity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” while the advent of democracy resulted in the emergence of “racist, populist, and anti-Semitic candidates” for office. This affected Herzl’s city of Vienna, where Karl Lueger of the Christian Social Party won municipal elections in 1895 by decrying “corrupt liberalism” and charging that Jews controlled the Austrian economy and the press.

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Modern Love Illuminated

By Amy Klein

The sea of love can be a “dark and scary place — deep, cold, impenetrable, and populated by billions of freakish creatures lurking in the depths with their gnashing teeth and electrified appendages,” Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love essay column in The New York Times, writes in his new book, “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers),” (HarperCollins).

Jones should know: He receives about 100 submissions a week for the column, which he’s edited for the past nine years. Appearing in the Sunday Style section, Modern Love is one of the most-read columns in the world — by women, anyway. Columns have resulted in at least 37 different books, making the column one of the most sought-after reads by writers, as well.

You might expect Jones to know everything there is to know about love, but he denies being a guru. In “Love Illuminated,” he examines the trends he’s seen over the past decade, broken down by stages from “Pursuit” to “Connection” to “Monotony” to “Infidelity,” mixed with anecdotes from published essays, his own pre-Internet path to marriage and amusing questionnaires.

The Forward’s Amy Klein spoke to Jones, who has a Jewish grandfather and his wife is Jewish, about concepts like destiny, soul mates, the role religion plays in love and, of course, what type of stories pique his interest enough to be published in Modern Love.

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Gary Shteyngart Insults Canadian Authors

By Renee Ghert-Zand

There’s never been any kind of publicity author Gary Shteyngart hasn’t liked, but it seems the same cannot be said about Canadian fiction.

BRIGITTE LACOMBE

The Russian-American writer, currently making the rounds on a book tour for his new memoir, “Little Failure,” managed to dis the oeuvre of writers north of the border while being interviewed by Vulture in New York.

In response to a question about whether literary creativity should be financially subsidized, Shteyngart replied, “Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”

Canadians, earnest as they are, took this off-the-cuff insinuation that Canadian fiction is well, boring, far too much to heart. The National Post ran a piece on January 9 titled, “Canadian fiction dull? Blame government: Grants creating ‘a lack of funny in this country.’”

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Rolling Stone Writer Pens Lou Reed Biography

By Reuters

The life and times of the late rocker Lou Reed will be detailed in a biography that will be penned by Rolling Stone magazine writer Will Hermes, publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux said on Wednesday.

Getty Images

Reed, the frontman of the 1960s influential band The Velvet Underground, died of liver disease last October at the age of 71, months after receiving a liver transplant.

“Over six decades, the sound of Lou Reed’s voice defined everything that’s smart and streetwise about New York City, while his songs set the standard for what can happen when popular music takes artistic risks,” said Alex Star, senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“His influence is everywhere, but the full story of his life remains to be told,” he added in an email.

The book is tentatively titled “Lou: A New York Life.” No publication date has been set, but a spokesman said it is about two to three years away.

The Brooklyn-born Reed, whose solo songs include “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Perfect Day,” formed The Velvet Underground with musician John Cale as an experiment in avant-garde rock. The group was managed early on by pop artist Andy Warhol, who spotted them after they performed in New York clubs.

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5 Jewish Books To Read in 2014

By Erika Dreifus

At this time of year, I’m confronted with the many books published in 2013 that I haven’t yet managed to read. It seems that every day another “best-of” list materializes to remind me of the recurrent truth: There’s just never enough time to get to all of the books that I’d like to read, not even if I limited myself to books of Jewish interest, or to novels and short-story collections. And yet, as we approach the new year, publishers’ 2014 catalogs promise a new array of tempting titles. Here are just five of the notable “Jewish books” that I’m already anticipating.

“The UnAmericans”
By Molly Antopol

I’m not the only one with high expectations for this debut collection of short stories. Anointed by the National Book Foundation as one of its “5 Under 35” honorees, Antopol and her book (which W.W. Norton will release in February) have received plenty of pre-publication buzz. “My stories move from McCarthy-era Los Angeles to modern-day Jerusalem to communist Prague,” Antopol has said in an interview, adding that many of the stories were inspired by her family history.

“Falling Out of Time”
By David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen)

Anytime this acclaimed Israeli author publishes a book it’s newsworthy. Coming in March from Knopf, “Falling Out of Time” is being billed by its publisher as “a genre-defying drama—part play, part prose, pure poetry—to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children.” As was the case when Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” was published in the U.S. in 2010, it may be hard to separate the work from the author’s life: One of Grossman’s sons, Uri, was killed while in IDF service during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

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Francesca Segal, Fiction's Newest Star

By Anna Goldenberg

Set in one of northwest London’s tight-knit Jewish communities, Francesca Segal’s debut novel “The Innocents” tells a tale of family and love that includes all the ingredients of a widely read story: lust, betrayal, doubt and commitment. Adam and Rachel are in their late 20s and engaged to be married. Then Rachel’s free-spirited and vulnerable cousin Ellie enters the scene, causing uneasiness in the conservative community — and in Adam’s life.

Getty Images

First released in June 2012, the novel has won 33-year-old Segal six awards, including the 2013 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In early December, she was awarded the Harold U. Ribalow Prize for Jewish Fiction by Hadassah Magazine. The book has been translated into German, Italian and French, and Carnival Films, the company that produced “Downton Abbey,” has secured the film rights.

Segal, the daughter of late Erich Segal, the author of “Love Story,” is a journalist and writer who lives in London and New York. She has just started working on a new novel, and met with the Forward before the award ceremony for the Ribalow Prize in New York to talk about her self-identification as a female Jewish writer, her own experiences growing up in northwest London, and how Jews behave on the subway in the United States.

Anna Goldenberg: You studied experimental psychology at Oxford. How did you make the leap from that to writing?

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Poems of Heresy and Transformation

By Zackary Sholem Berger

If poetry requires disclosure, I’ll start with one: I am a friend of Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s, and a fellow Yiddish poet. He sent me his book with a kind dedication, and an additional inscription in his neat hand: bet-samekh-daled. That is, the author of this book entitled “Prayers of a Heretic” noted that his signature to me was written “besiyata-dishmaya,” with the aid of Heaven.

Such a juxtaposition is an illuminating introduction to the contradictions in Taub’s work. He left the ultra-Orthodox community, but that is not the subject of his poems any more than sex is the topic of Yona Wallach’s — that departure makes the poems possible, but the volume is not merely a translation of his personal story into poetic biography. Rather, this transformation gave him a set of tools. To become someone else is a lasting condition of every living person; Taub’s particular experience of that change makes him able to perceive it in others.

Taub’s poems are like short stories, or cleverly caught snapshots. His depiction of diverse personalities is sympathetic, sometimes even tender in its broadmindedness, and nearly unerring. Characters in a city crowded with people, abandoned and alone in their apartment, “snot pooling on [their] floorboards” (this from “The Woman Who Did Not Turn Her Sorrow Into Art” — itself a thought-provoking title); couples gay and straight, old and young, having sex in a real bed or in their imagination; cigarette smokers thrown into the world (“Temporary Outcasts”).

There are the eccentric denizens of the libraries which are their only refuge, and the quasi prophets caught in a dystopia they are powerless to prevent (these are some of Taub’s most strident, least nuanced, and thus least successful poems). Of course, as well, we meet those who have left the ultra-Orthodoxy of Taub’s youth.

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Anxieties of the Modern Old Age

By Tobias Carroll

Half the Kingdom
By Lore Segal
Melville House, 176 pages, $23.95

Since 2001, the already-abundant anxieties of living in New York City have been ratcheted up by an exponential factor. Abandoned bags have become potential tools of terror; mysterious smells could be toxic; the sounds of sirens or of helicopters overhead might signify an emergency unfolding close to home.

That unspoken anxiety has been captured in several notable fictional works: Jonathan Lethem’s “Chronic City” presented an altered Manhattan that nonetheless alluded to everything from middle-class displacement to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 in surreal, though no less wrenching, terms. Thomas Pynchon’s new “Bleeding Edge” is a more realistic account of several months of September 2001, albeit with Pynchon’s trademark mysterious and ominous portents looming in the background.

Lore Segal’s new novel “Half the Kingdom” taps into that same well of anxiety, and ups the ante by adding two more dimensions: the frustration of the unrecognized artist (which Segal’s 1976 novella “Lucinella” also ably channeled) and the terrors of growing old. “Having an Alzheimer’s epidemic?” asks Joe Bernstine, one of the book’s central characters, during a visit early in the novel to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. That chilling concept, with all it implies, pervades the actions that follow.

Joe, retired from a think tank and now at work on “The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios,” teams up with Dr. Miriam Haddad to investigate whether the onrush of dementia in Cedars of Lebanon is a coincidence, medical emergency, or terrorist attack. He enlists family and friends to take part in this investigation, and once this premise has been established, the course of action seems clear: we’re in caper territory. Right?

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Dealing With the Side Effects of Fiction

By Tobias Carroll

Happy Mutant Baby Pills
By Jerry Stahl
Harper Perennial, 272 pages, $14.99

The narrator of Jerry Stahl’s new novel “Happy Mutant Baby Pills,” has a serious case of unrest. Lloyd earns his living writing pharmaceutical copy — specifically, disclaimers for the side effects of various drugs. He’s also got a fairly severe heroin habit, and possesses a general sense of detachment from the world.

Lloyd is a particularly deadpan narrator. He’s bleakly funny, world-weary, and appropriately candid. Stahl (and, through him, Lloyd) is handy with a turn of phrase, as in a pastor who makes reference to the “withered as the dugs of Satan.” Late in the novel Lloyd notes that one character “looked exactly the same, except for missing an arm.” In the novel’s lengthy prologue, he says that years of drug use occasionally affect his sense of time, and warns the reader that “I used to write greeting cards. Sometimes I relapse.” Thankfully, those nods to cliché manifest themselves as the bleakest of comedy — something this satirical, occasionally transgressive novel has in abundance.

Lloyd is savvy enough to come up with the perfect reference for nearly every situation, from nods to Nick Tosches’s similarly harrowing body of work to Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” to Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love.” Curiously, there is one instance where Lloyd barely acknowledges a cultural reference point: the discovery of a character with a name echoing Fernando Pessoa, author of “The Book of Disquiet.” Is Stahl paralleling Pessoa’s account of one writer’s flights of fancy from his day job, and contrasting those idle thoughts with Lloyd’s journey from frustrated writer to outlaw?

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