Lewis, Rachel Sharona. “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire”, Ladiesladies Press, 2021.
A New Kind of Rabbi
One of my favorite things about being a reviewer is reading new talent. Rachie Lewis is not new to me as a person but she is as a writer and I had no idea what to expect from her first outing into literature. I knew her as a social activist in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities Boston as an activist so I was not surprised to see that she included activism into her story but I was delightfully surprised by the quality of her writing— so much so, that I read “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” in one sitting. I read a lot of books with Jewish/LBGTQ themes and have noticed that they use this motif as happenstance whereas here it is an integral part of the test and it is extremely well done. I have lived through fascinating times as a member of this community and have watched it change and it is so good to have a book about a rabbi who is both a lesbian and Jewish. (I can just see myself explaining the premise of the book to my observant parents who would immediately have something negative to say).
Rabbi Vivian Green is the head of Congregation Beth Abraham in Providence where they feel that their new rabbi should “sing some songs and go to an environmental rally.” She, however, sees things differently and wants the membership to become involved with what is happening around them. This, to her, means getting involved in the special election for mayor of the city, to attend interfaith breakfasts with their city-special mayoral elections, interfaith breakfasts, fight for affordable housing and become people who really care and act on how they feel about the larger world in which they live. Then there is the rabbi’s social side when she “would like just one night off to go dancing in the leather boots that make her look like her finest gay self.” The new Judaism has arrived and for Beth Abraham it has done so with Rabbi Green.
Things do not go smoothly and the temple is set on fire bringing about that old division in the congregation. But then they learn that there were other fires in town as well. The rabbi is not willing to let go causing tensions to flair between her and her boss, the community and a mysterious person who wields a lot of power. The case becomes more than just knowing who committed the crime.
The idea of a rabbi who is also something of a detective is not new. In fact, I have read similar novels with some of the same trademarks of a mystery novel. What is new is the way writer Lewis handles her story. She writes from a different perspective as she attempts to solve the crime as she takes us behind the scenes of the temple’s inner workings.
Today’s issues of solidarity with communities of color, changing wealth from power and the rabbi who is new on the scene provides a fascinating read and also has us questioning ourselves as if we are actually part of the situation. I think the major plus of the book is its relevance to our lives in terms of modern Judaism— a move away from the old-fashioned emphasis on learning and the new emphasis on doing. We really see how much the religion has progressed. We do need read about study and intense prayer but rather about making a difference. The characters are Jews like us who care about community and justice in our world and not about a world that is far removed from us. I certainly hope that this is the beginning of a new series and that Lewis has plans to continue. She is off to a great start.
Rowley, Steven. “The Guncle”, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021.
Love, Patience and Family
Patrick is a gay uncle (GUP, for short) who loves his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. That is, he loves spending time with them when they come out to Palm Springs for weeklong visits, or when he goes home to Connecticut for the holidays. However, caretaking and relating to two children overwhelm him. When the kids lose their mother and their father becomes ill, Patrick facestaking on the role of primary guardian. Even though he has a set of “Guncle Rules” ready to go, Patrick really does not know what to expect. He had been preoccupied barely making it himself after he lost his own lover and his career as an actor stalled. He knows that the way he lives is not the best for a six- and a nine-year-old. It does not long for him to understand that becoming a parent is much more than fun and games. He now has a new sense of responsibility and the realizing that makes him see that he is, indeed, human.
Being a gay uncle myself (although not to the degree that Patrick has to undertake), I found so many relatable sections in “The Guncle”. I also found great humor and wonderful heart. Steven Rowley gives us a new kind of hero in this novel that gives us yet another definition of family. There is a sweetness and tenderness to this story that has us confront love and death and family. Patrick is a fabulous character who is not likely to become a parent or to help the children deal with grief yet he does so wonderfully. He is just what they need and they, in turn, help him deal with his own loss of love. Even with all of the humor here, Rowley deals with emotions beautifully.
Wecker, Helene. “The Hidden Palace”, Harper, 2021.
Chava and Ahmad Return
Helene Wecker’s new novel, “The Hidden Palace” is the sequel to “The Golem and the Jinni”, the story of theadventures of Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni), who meet in lower Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century.
Chava is a woman made of clay who can hear the thoughts and longings of the humans around her and she feels compelled to help them. Ahmad is a being made of fire who is perpetually restless and free-spirited. Chava was created as a companion to a man traveling to New York from Eastern Europe, but the man died at sea and she landed alone in New York. She needed to care for herself in the big city. Ahmad escaped an old flask that sat on a shelf in a coffee shop in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria which is now the home of the World Trade Center complex. Once released, he takes the shape of a man with a fiery disposition who uncomfortable in the world of humans. The two meet as unlikely immigrants and they spend their time off walking the streets of New York City and their lives become intertwined.
Facing the second World War, Chava and Ahmad have to decide how they really feel for each other while in the guise of humans and living in fear of being discovered
who they really are. We follow their lives and the lives of other characters as they come together and as they deal withimmigration, assimilation and their own personal struggles between individualism and community. To find their places in the worlds of humans or to be torn apart are what they really have to face.As we did in the first book, we have a world filled with craziness. Through the lives of the golem and the jinni, we learn about how we live and the force of the id, how to rise above it and how to become triumphant over it. Magic religion and history intertwine to show us something about faithfulness and loyalty.
This is a very different kind of book that takes us away from Covid and puts us in a world where daily life is not important. Bringing two supernatural creatures together gives us a story about what we carry from history and how identity is formed.
Mann, Randall. “A Better Life: Poems”, Persea, 2021.
A Look Within the Poet
Observing modern life, poet Randall Mann gives us an authentic look at gay life from the point of view of a multiracial person who explores how he has faced life. It is a haunting exploration of what makes a person who he is through satire and honest reflection. As we know, poetry plays on the emotions more than any other literary form. It draws us in, chews us up and then spits us out. It is often raw as we see in “A Better Life” and it uses words to express feelings that often are dormant in our daily lives. The choice of words is primary, the sound of words is what makes verse sing and the thoughts we gain from poetry make us think. Randall Mann shows us how he uses the three ideas. He does so by exploring the concept of time as he looks within himself. He is tender and nostalgic and not afraid to share the bad times alongside of the good times.
I find it especially interesting that the title of the collection, “A Better Life” is so fitting to how we are living through the virus that has affected us all so deeply. A better life is what we yearn for and this period has caused so many of us to introspect. Mann publicly introspects and we find that so many of us share his thoughts on what he has found. Our relationships have changed since the advent of Covid and what was before the pandemic seems to be now so far away. In becoming estranged from the past, we look within for signs of the future. Memory does strange things as we look back and for many of us, looking forward is very difficult.
To thumb through these poems, written a few years ago now, is to feel a kind of knowing estrangement, like a place imagined into existence through memory. The phrase “a better life” is used so casually, so obliquely, in the parlance, but it’s always seemed to me quite fraught: It’s aspirational, but there’s something slightly suspect, or hollow, in that aspiration—in all aspiration, really—which is part of, I hope, the complication, the “latent double,” to quote Stevens, in the word “better.” Better, indeed, than whom? Who is quantifying what? I love taking quotidian phrases, and idioms, and trying to breathe new life into them. Culture has changed and so have we. We have begun to wonder about things that we once looked at only on the surface.
Mann’s poems are extensions of his ideas and his obsessions. Being locked in has brought him to self- discussion about joy and sorrow, success and failure. As he writes about lust and love in queer life, corporate employment, remembering those who have preceded us, he examines his own past life and the obsessions that have brought him to where he is. Change is everywhere and makes me think of the first sentence of James Joyce’s short story “Eveline” that simply says, “Everything changes”. For so many life has become a reverie. We attempt to find ways to lose ourselves; Mann does so through his poems.
Each poem stands on its own with form and content of its own long conversation yet when taken together we become involved in an intense conversation through short powerful lines. In looking at queer culture, Mann reflects of the art of the poem through some of his favorite poets and how they look at sexuality. He shares with us the enormity and richness of the queer universe. That sense of community that we now share even when it is under threat as it has been recently. Poetry is a way to escape the mundanity of everyday life, a haven away from the threats around us. Politics has invaded our lives including the life of poetry and we really see that creating art is a political activity. Writing has always been a subversive activity, personal writing such as the poems of Randall Mann are subversive as they explore who we are. In the title poem, “A Better Life”, Mann writes,
“It’s silly to think
fourteen years ago
I turned thirty.
How I made it that far
I’ll never know.
In this city of hills,
if there was a hill
I was over it. Then.
(In queer years,
are more than.)
Soon it will be fifteen
since the day I turned thirty.
It’s so remote.
I didn’t think I’d make it
to fourteen years ago.
Fear lives in the chest
You say my gray, it makes
me look extinguished;
you make me cringe.
I haven’t cracked
the spines of certain paperbacks,
or learned a sense of direction,
even with a slick device.
But the spleen doesn’t ask twice,
and soon it will be fifteen years
since I turned thirty.
Which may not sound like a lot.
Which sounds like the hinge
of a better life:
It is, and it is not.
Reynolds, Sheri. “The Tender Grave”, Bywater Books, 2021.
A Search for Home and Healing
Two sisters, Dori 17 and Teresa, her older sibling have try to find the way to connect after being estranged. Dori has been involved in taking part in a hate crime against a gay student at her school and flees in order to not be prosecuted. She has had a lousy childhood as well and needs to get away. She has a half-sister but the two have never met even though Dori keeps her address with her. What she does not know is that her sister is married to another woman. In their confrontation, they must deal with the issues of understanding. They do not like each other yet they are tied to each other in ways they do not understand. They must find ways to overcome the differences that exist between them and they do manage to do so. As they work toward this, hey discover something about family and deep connections that seem to be contrary to who they are.
I found themes and ideas that are reminiscent of other Southern writers in “The Tender Grave”. Writer Sheri Reynolds gives us beautifully constructed characters through whom we learn about ourselves. The sisters have to deal with feelings of doubt they have been with them throughout their lives and the awful childhoods that they had to endure. That they are able to come together even with their differences has something to say about how we relate to those we do not really know as well as the importance of family, whatever that family may be.
The prose is gorgeous and the story flows as we explore the lives of the sisters from the South as they both search for “heart, home, and healing.” While circumstances definitely influence us, we see that they cannot determine what we need most in life— to be ourselves.
“MY BEST PART” (“Garçon chiffon”)
A Life Crumbling
Nicolas Maury stars in his own film, “My Best Part”, the story of a a Parisian actor whose professional and personal lives crumble, partly because of the decisions he has made.
Jeremie (Maury) is a working actor excited for an upcoming role in a film for the upcoming summer. However, he learns the director (Jean-Marc Barr) has recast the role with another actor who is better suited to the role. Jeremie is very upset and filled with negativity that he pushes into other aspects of his life especially toward the jealousy he harbors for his boyfriend, Albert (Arnaud Valois).
When Albert cancels plans to come over, Jeremie follows him to the lab where he works as a veterinarian and is upset to find his boyfriend spending time with his assistant at work. He insinuates that Albert is involved in an affair and this becomes the final straw for Arnaud, who says that they must break-up and is left with the only prospect of work for the summer is an audition for a part in a play he feels he isn’t entirely suited for, Jeremie rushes to Limosin to stay with his mother Bernadette (Nathalie Baye) where her new assistant, Kevin (Theo Christine) helps him through this awful time for him.
Jeremie has retreated within himself as he prepares for the possibility of the role that he loses. Baye is warm and supportive as his mother and is very aware of her son’s issues and somewhat at a loss as how to help him. Jeremie finds the help he needs in handsome Kevin, whose heterosexuality deters a romantic resolution for Jeremie.
“ANOTHER GAY MOVIE”
“The Gayest Movie Ever Made” Rereleased
There has been a lot of hype about “Another Gay Movie” (TLA Releasing) and it has all been favorable and deservedly so. It is not just “another” movie about gays, it is a movie in which we laugh at ourselves I have wanted to see this movie ever since the buzz about it started. I figured it would not make it to Arkansas and it hasn’t yet and won’t get to Little Rock until the second week of October. Market Street Cinema is going to show it then and this is one movie you do not want to miss. When my review copy came I could not wait to get through the day so I could relax and watch it and I have only good things to say about it.
When four high school friends make a pact to lose their anal virginity, the plot gets going. Directed by Todd Stevens, who also wrote the script, has assembled a cast who will keep you laughing for an hour and a half. The cameo roles alone make this movie worth seeing—Mink Stole (“Pink Flamingos”) as Sloppy Seconds, foul mouthed comedian Graham Norton as Mr. Puckov, Richard Hatch (incarcerated “Survivor” winner and naked here too) as Richard Hatch, Lypsinka as Mrs. Wilson, Scott Campbell (“Boys in the Hall”) as Mr. Wilson, James Getzlaff (from Bravo’s “Boy Meets Boy”) as Beau, and porn star Matthew Rush (who bares it all and is a dancing machine) as Ryder.
The four young leads of the film are wonderful as they pursue their goal to be anally used before college. Michael Carbonaro as Andy has an amazing scene which opens the movie. When his mother cannot find the ingredients she needs to make a salad, she bursts into his room to find him using all of the vegetables in a wild self abuse episode, His three best friends, also are anxious to use their rears for something other than sitting. Jarrod, the jock hunk played by Jonathan Chase, is dismayed about the size of his penis and his interaction with a penis pump will not be forgotten easily. Griff (Mitch Morris), horse hung and a nerd, has a scene at a gay bar that will have you holding your sides and Nico (Jonah Blechman) is the alternative club kid with multiple piercing, wild outfits and a serious problem with flatulence.
Many have compared this movie to the “There’s Something About Mary” and “American Pie” precursors. I supposed there is something in that as the plot does not ever get serious. Yet I think this movie is in a different class altogether. Most of us will identify to degree with one or more of the wacky happenings here. In effect, we are not only laughing at the movie but at ourselves as well. In fact the movie is an out and out satire on gay movies in general. There is a deeper message here as well. The friendship of the four main characters is beautiful to watch and the loss of innocence is ribald. The journey that spans from youth to adulthood is never been seen quite like this before and beneath the comedy is a wonderful story of growing up gay which shows four guys accepting their gayness openly and not having the hang-ups usually seen in movies that deal with the issue/ In “Another Gay Movie” being gay is depicted naturally and with great humor. Director Stephens says that he wanted to make “the gayest film ever made” and that is exactly what he has done.
From the moment the movie starts you know that this is a tres gay film. The garish colors, the wild credits where everything is in rainbow colors, the wonderful soundtrack all contribute to the vision of the director. This has got to be “the gayest story ever told.” When Nancy Sinatra sings “Another Gay Sunshine Day” you just want to get up and cheer.
All of the stereotypes are in the film—fat hairy bears, overly made up drag queens, muscular he men jock types, nerdy book worms, butch and lipstick lesbians, Abercrombie twinks, and rich grandpas. Stephens has done a great credit to the gay community by showing all of the elements that make it up and reemphasizing that we are, indeed, like the rainbow, coming in different colors with different goals. When taken together we are a community—something we see in the movie and do not always see in our day to day existence.
The high school, Sano Torum High, is one like we have never seen before. Being gay is quite acceptable there and evidently there has been some hanky panky going on at the school for quite a long times. At the graduation party at Muffler’s (Ashlie Atkinson) everyone is having sex with each other except for our four heroes. It is than that they make the pact to lose their virginity, to do the big “A” before the summer is over.
It is what happens along the way to that goal that keeps us laughing. I love this movie. *I love it all the more when I realize that it is a parody and a satirical look at the way we live. Sometimes we have a hard time laughing at ourselves but in this case it was a great release. Indeed there are parts of this movie that are exaggerated—the SM scene with Andy trying to get comfortable in a sling while Mr. Puckov enters the room wearing a most impressive strap on borders on absurdity and the scene when Jarrod prepares for his first anal encounter borders on the gross out, but, Hey, it is all meant in fun. Good taste does not have a lot to do with this movie. If you want to see good taste, watch a Merchant-Ivory production. For a good time, watch “Another Gay Movie”. And—remember this movie the next time you feel like ordering a Belgian waffle or decide that it is time to give yourself a good interior cleaning.
Medeiros, John. “Self, Divided”, Howling Bird Press, 2021.
In 1995 John Medeiros and his identical twin brother took part in a gene therapy study in which the HIV-positive twin was infused with billions of genes from the HIV-negative twin. In this memoir we gain a firsthand perspective of a time in history when the world had to deal with a virus that could not be defeated. We look at, in depth, “the dysfunctional yet enduring relationships that surround this pivotal moment in Medeiros’s life and family” and we see how we all are connected to those around us.
Beautifully written, this story of a man ‘s reconciliations with his identity that is totally connected to his twin and a terrible and threatening medical diagnosis.
We are reminded of when HIV AIDS was a death sentence. It was a time of dread and worry. We see what it was to be a young gay male dealing with his sexuality, his feelings of being an identical twin, and his growing up in a religion that sees him as an abomination.
Medeiros has lived a lifetime of contradictions, some of which began before he was born. We see him through the way that contradictions come together to form his identity in all of its complications.
Rosner, Shalom. “Shalom Rav”, Volume 1 and 2, Maggid, 2019, 2021.
A Two Volume Set
I never tire of reading commentaries on the Torah and look forward to every new one that is published. Rabbi Shalom Rosner’s two volume set, “Shalom Rav” contains inspirational chapters on Torah portions read in synagogues. Each contains not only his own understanding, but also the views of scholars and rabbis from a wide spectrum of thought, modern and ancient, mystical and rational including Hassidic Rebbes, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, Nechama Leibowitz, Ramban, Rambam, Rashi, and many others. In fact, there are so many that the bios of the many scholars, rabbis, and books mentioned in the chapters are also included with each entry only a paragraph long. Each article is short at just a few pages.
Many of the rabbi’s comments are new and interesting and give us more to think about. In the first volume in which we look at Genesis and Exodus, for example, Rabbi Rosner shows that while the Bible says that God felt all of creation was good, it wasn’t actually so good. We are taught a lesson so that we can prepare for failure and to have another plan in mind. There is also a fascinating look at the Ten Commandments.
Selected and adapted by Marc Lesnick from Rabbi Rosner’s popular parasha classes, there is a lot here. Drawing on an extraordinarily wide spectrum of sources, these essays offer relevant and refreshing insights for everyone.