Author Archives: Amos

“Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth” edited by Stuart W. Halpern— Inspired by the Book of Ruth

Halpern, Stuart W. “Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth”, Maggid, 2019.

Inspired by the Book of Ruth

Amos Lassen

At first look, the Book of Ruth seems to be a rather simple story about a family that struggles for survival. However, it is so much more than that. It is a wonderful example of a very ancient Jewish text can inspire, education and bring enlightenment to the reader and this book here is a good place to start. Through readings of Ruth, we gain insights into its themes and now with this volume, we get diverse readings from studies that have taken place. There is even more diversity as we look at the characters based upon one’s through the prisms of their respective academic interests and professional fields. The topics of these essays are wide-ranging both topic wise and stylistically. We have poetry and straight essays that are about social work, the Hebrew Bible, spirituality, immigration, conversion, elder care and so on.

The essays have been written by contemporary scholars, educators, community leaders and people like you and me. Thy give us insights into the story through the lens of their own particular interests. We, in turn see how our perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of our time and on the Book of Ruth can always have something new and vital to say. We see the synthesis of Torah wisdom and general wisdom come together.

The fact that Ruth is so connected to the holiday of Shavuot serves to remind us of the importance of the book and the importance of its celebration. It appears that it all came together because, as we read in Maccabees II, that the Hasmoneans decided to celebrate a delayed holiday on the 25th of Kislev because they had been unable to celebrate Sukkot because of their military struggle against the Seleucid Greeks. This was a celebration of the wanderings of the Jewish people during the Exodus. The story of Ruth is also the story of wandering but from Moab to the Land of Israel. At the end of the wanderings commemorated by the holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot, we find ourselves on the land, our land.

“Gleanings” is divided into five major sections— “Communities of Care”, “Love, Literature, and Interpretation”, “Conversion and Peoplehood”, “Immigration, Law and Identity” and “Biblical, Midrashic and Talmudic Meanings” so there is something for everyone. Taken as a whole, the book is a blessing for those of us who have struggled with the Book of Ruth. Now we can really sit back and take in all of its beauty on a deeper and more intense level.

“THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM”— Power and Privilege

“The Reports on Sarah and Saleem”

Power and Privilege

Amos Lassen

Muayad Alayan’s Palestinian drama “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” is, in his own words, about  “an extramarital affair in Jerusalem that ignites a dangerous game of deceit between those who hold power and those who don´t”).

Sarah (Sivane Kretchner) is a Jewish café owner in West Jerusalem and is married to David, a colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and have a young daughter.  She is known for  closing up her shop because of her husband´s relocations. Now David is waiting for a promotion and this means that they will be moving once it comes through.

Arab Saleem (Adeeb Safadi),  lives in East Jerusalem and works in West Jerusalem delivering bakeries. His low-paying job is a problem since his wife Bisan will soon give birth to their first child. Bisan´s brother is helping them make ends meet while Bisan hints she is studying. Saleem feels emasculated in  his conservatively-gender-stereotypical environment, and Sarah is frustrated with her distance husband and has too much work on her hands. These feelings from both of them lead them into the back of Saleem´s van for sessions of steamy sex at dusk. There are no deep emotions attached and the sex is purely therapeutic reasons. This sexual hook-up is supposed to be temporary and insignificant, and they develop a secure routine. Saleem’s attemps to raise more money leads him to accept his brother-in-law’s offer to smuggle items to Bethlehem late at night.

On one fateful night, Saleem cuts short the session with Sarah because of a delivery. Sarah decides to accompany him, and while being aware of the bad combination of Arab and Jew and Bethlehem, she tries to pose as a European tourist. A conflict with a local emerges after he adamantly hits on Sarah and Saleem loses his temper.

As soon as the secret affair crashes with the politics of the territory, the film becomes a political thriller and social drama about the history of the region and the current stereotypes controlling it, such as racism. A friend of Sarah´s, for example, does not care she is cheating on her husband, but on the fact she is cheating with an Arab.

Muayad and Rami Alayan are brothers who made the film. They unite  arthouse drama and a political thriller shrouded as an illicit affair. The dramatic plot, street action and a suspicion of treason included, builds up suspense and pulse-racing rhythm. Rami Alayan, who wrote the screenplay succeeds in weaving all the local particularities into the script without  trying to school the audience.

In the end, whatever the two of them may have felt, the weight of other people’s imagination is sufficient to do the damage. Because it’s not just about the fact that they’re married to other people – it’s about the fact that she’s Israeli and he’s Palestinian.

“STATE OF PRIDE”— The LGBTQ Movement and Pride

of Pride

“State of Pride”

The LGBTQ Movement and Pride

Amos Lassen

 Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary, “State of Pride”  looks at the LGBTQ movement and Pride celebrations as we stand ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising this summer.

Activist Raymond Braun tells the tales on camera including his his own emotional story with regards to his coming out. We feel empathy for his pain. To see how Pride has changed, we look at different communities (Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Salt Lake City, Utah and San Francisco, California and others. We get a diverse look at people from all walks of life who are members of the LGBTQ community. San Francisco celebrates Pride for an entire weekend— the Trans March is Friday, the Dyke March is on Saturday, and finally, the weekend wraps up with Pride on Sunday.  In the Deep South, there is Black Pride taking that also takes place.

We meet Jackie, a trans woman who is celebrating her first Trans Pride after coming out the previous August.  She realizes how lucky she is because of her relationship with her family and having the economic resources available to live as she does.  Thanks to Braun, she’s meest Our Lady J, who was  the SF Pride Celebrity Grand Marshall.

While speaking with Raymond Braun, Our Lady J Pride says “Trans Pride feels more like a protest than a celebration.  I think it’s because we still have so far to go.”  In response, Jackie says that she loves the protest part so much when it comes to Pride. 

“In many ways, we’re still fighting for our rights.  The transgender community alone deals with an unproportionate amount of violence.  We really see this with transgender people of color.  We don’t get much more than a glimpse at our community and realize how many members chose not to appear. This is where our work must focus next.

“ALL YOU EVER WISHED FOR”— A Romantic Comedy

“ALL YOU EVER WISHED FOR”

A Romantic Comedy

Amos Lassen

 Tyler Hutton (Darren Criss) is a young New York fashion executive whose business trip to Milan becomes very strange when he is kidnapped for ransom and taken to a remote Alpine village.  Neither he nor the men who kidnapped him know that the cottage where they spend the night is under a gypsy love spell.  Upon waking up the next morning and this meant that each of the men fall in love with the first living soul they see. Tyler becomes smitten by Rosalia (Madalina Ghenea), a beauty with a sharp tongue and reluctant heart.

Tyler Hutton came to Milan to manage a deal that can make him understand the importance and delicacy of the family business. Arriving in Italy, he is however abducted by 3 inept rogues who, in an attempt to obtain a huge sum as ransom, take him with them to a mountain refuge. The four end up in a small mountain community, where they suffer the effect of a mysterious spell, able to make the affected person fall in love with the first person that happens under the eyes. Thus Tyler ends up being enchanted by Rosalia (Madalina Ghenea), who runs a local inn.

This is essentially a fairy tale for children and is filled with childish humor. I doubt adults will enjoy this film. With a thin and linear plot and based on themes that have been used and reused over and over (the contrast between the rural environment and the city and/or love between people of the opposite social class), the film has not much going for it.

I really wanted to like this film but couldn’t because it is so weak. It just all seems so artificial with its embarrassing sketches and subplots.

“Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide” by Tony Horwitz— On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Horwitz, Tony. “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide”, Penguin Press, 2019.

On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Amos Lassen

In the 1850s, the young Frederick Law Olmsted was adrift. He was a restless farmer and dreamer in search of a mission that he found it during an extraordinary journey as an undercover correspondent in the South for the up-and-coming New York Times.
Olmsted was a  Connecticut Yankee with the pen name “Yeoman” and to whom the South was alien, often hostile territory. Nonetheless, he traveled it for 14 months, by horseback, steamboat, and stagecoach looking for dialogue and common ground. His dispatches about the lives and beliefs of Southerners were revelatory for readers of his day, and his remarkable journey  also reshaped the American landscape, as he sought to reform his own society by creating democratic spaces for all. The result was Central Park and Olmsted’s career as America’s first and foremost landscape architect.

Tony Horwitz rediscovers Yeoman Olmsted in the discord and polarization of our own time. He looks for an answer to “Is America still one country?” As he searches for  answers, he follows Olmsted’s tracks and often his mode of transport (including muleback): through Appalachia, down the Mississippi River, into bayou Louisiana, and across Texas to the contested Mexican borderland. on far off beaten paths. Horwitz “uncovers bracing vestiges and strange new mutations of the Cotton Kingdom.” His journey takes him through an outsized American landscape.

Horwitz is a fun guide, self-deprecating, smart, and adventurous. It is fascinating to see through him that two of the most politically divisive eras in the US occurred prior to the Presidential elections of 1860 and 2016. In each of these timeframes, the country was more or less divided (North versus South and Red versus Blue, respectively) and thought the other half was wrong. 

This is what  drives the Horwitz’s narrative as he follows the path Fred Olmstead took in the 1850s and describes his encounters with others below the Mason Dixon line. He meets a very colorful cast of characters and helps to understand the differences and common threads among all Americans. 

Horwitz combines historical text with historical narrative nonfiction giving us a memoir of one man’s present day journey into the South. Horwitz is a seasoned guide. He is inquisitive, open-minded, and prefers observation over judgment and he brings humor, curiosity, and care to the characters he meets. This is unique reportage from a region that tells us a whole lot more about the country than the country wants to admit to. We get views of the South unlike any others along with “an enduring American spirit of generosity, and commonweal, and curiosity.” 

 

“Saint Unshamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life: Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer” by Kerry Ashton— Becoming “Unshamed”

Ashton, Kerry. “Saint Unshamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life: Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer”, Lynn Wolf Enterprises, 2019.

Becoming “Unshamed”

Amos Lassen

In the first paragraph of Kerry Ashton’s memoir, we learn a great deal and therefore am quoting it directly.

“I told this story once as fiction in the 1980s, but this time I tell the truth. I even tell the truth, in #MeToo fashion, about being violently raped by another man when I was 18, with a knife held to my throat–a secret I kept from everyone, including myself, for over 40 years. The rape, like other experiences I endured while a student at Brigham Young University, where I came out in the early 1970s, had a profound impact on my later life. But this story is not so much about my rape or my coming of age at BYU, as it is about the lifelong effects of shame itself, not only about how I internalized and inherited a wounding shame from my Mormon upbringing, but also how I eventually unshamed myself. It is about a lifetime journey of spiritual growth, self-discovery and healing, including many miraculous events along the way that pushed me forward through the darkness toward the light.”

Lately we have seen a great deal written about gay shame and I have often wondered why it took so long for it to surface. Then I read this and totally understood. We have all, to some degree, felt it but few of us have ever verbalized it or even wanted to do so. Kerry Ashton shares his experiences during his four years at Brigham Young University including the rape, falling in love for the first time, police surveillance, harassment and arrest, and going through three years of conversion therapy that included two years of electroshock treatments. He also writes of growing up Mormon in Pocatello, Idaho, and stories from his adulthood. His stories are poignant, some are quite graphic, some are dramatic and some are very, very funny. I was mesmerized by them all and found myself falling in love with Kerry as I read his stories.

Ashton has had a professional career as an actor and writer, both in Los Angeles and New York City and he describes his personal encounters with stars like Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis and Julie Harris, while sharing his experiences with writers Tennessee Williams, James Leo Herlihy, and John Rechy and his affair with Steven Sondheim. It was a long and arduous road he traveled— years in therapy, a battle with cancer, kinky sex,  S&M, the leather scene and finally the loving monogamous relationship that he is part of today. He also shares the shame that he has had to deal with all along the way and how he was able to deal with it and  “find a way out of a culture that would silence him.”

Ashton sees shame as “an insidious disease that threads through the body and the psyche, slowly destroying and devaluing everything it touches.” It came to him early–from his parents, from his Mormon faith, from his burgeoning understanding of his own sexuality and we soon understand that we are not only reading  Ashton’s story, but also the stories of many gay men who struggled with their sexual identity and health during the end of the twentieth century. It took Ashton a while to  understand a lot of what he had been through and now can speak about what he  spent many years trying to achieve. This included being shamed by his family for being effeminate and the hell he went through at Brigham Young University and the electroshock therapy that forever damaged his nervous system and a disturbing and violent rape.

Ashton also writes about friends who lost their lives, including gay men to suicide, to HIV/AIDS or who lost themselves in heterosexual marriages. He shares his opinions on cruising for sex, rest stops and their necessities and dangers they represented. Ashton also writes of his religious and family life. Strict Mormon laws regarding sex, from masturbation to intercourse to anything in between were responsible for much of Ashton’s suffering, but if he were to deny his religion, he would have lost his family, his faith, and, in many ways, his identity as a young man. The book introduces us to a generation of Mormon men who were hurt and sometimes destroyed by the church’s positions on their sexuality and to a man who grew up gay and Mormon in a small Idaho town. 

Religion and sexuality crash into each other and the painful result comes to us through Ashton’s beautiful and painful prose. I cannot say enough about this book aside from it must be both read and experienced.

“As One Fire Consumes Another” by John Sibley Williams— A New Kind of Poetry

Williams, John Sibley. “As One Fire Consumes Another”, Orison Books , 2019.

A New Kind of Poetry

Amos Lassen

In “As One Fire Consumes Another”, John Sibley Williams creates a new kind of poetry that brings metaphysics and social critique together. It is extremely tense and filled with “transcendent vision and trenchant social”. Williams shows how we, as individuals, as fathers and as citizens see the violence that makes up a good part of the history of this country. We even venture a step further by  looking what is behind the violence that has become such a part of the way we live.

From the moment that I opened the book I felt transcendence and as if I walked into a cemetery and was surrounded by bodies of those who had given their lives for the sake of country. But this was no peaceful cemetery and the dead do not rest quietly. And so I began to read the poems that ranged from elegy to prayer with so many different  forms in between. The elegance of the language draws you in and then you are slapped with the reality of what you are reading.

Americans love to label, to put things together under one overall name and this is something I have not seen in other parts of this world where I have lived. The poems here fit into such categories but we understand here that the reason for the label is  way of escape. Having extensively studied philosophy, I understand that the human condition is the result of resistance and despair and that these are essentially important to define who we are. I love that poet Williams sees our experience as a series of mistakes and that we can never get it quite right.

I got the sense that desire is what we feel throughout the volume and desire is not always fulfilled yet always there. This is not  the desire of  to covet but rather the desire that develops with us as we pass through the various stages of life.

When I review poetry, I am often told that I am obtuse for not exploring the text as much as I do in prose. This is deliberate. Of all forms of literature, poetry is the most personal and t say too much deprives the reader of his chance to identify with the poet. I see my job as one of introduction to the texts and it is your job to take them for yourself. Grab this one as soon as you can.

“ALL IN”— A Crime Comedy from Israel

“ALL IN”

A Crime Comedy from Israel

Amos Lassen

Four guys, best friends from high school, meet 20 years later.  Morad , a powerful union leader at the Ashdod Port, divorced and with a broken heart; Tzofi, tall, blue-eyed and an AA; Benson, a bar owner with bleached blond hair; and our hero, Yaki who is handsome and sweet as chocolate.

 All four receive invitations to take part in a secret  but prestigious poker game in the south of Israel. The only problem is that the game is organized by Oren Kleers, the arch-enemy of the high school friends who embarrassed them in front of TV cameras when they  were children.  

They took revenge on him in high school and now, 20 years later, he is challenging them with a high-stake poker game. “All In” stars Tzahi Grad, Shlomi Koriat, Yael Bar Zohar, Tzachi Halevi (Fauda), Dina Sanderson,  Dana Frider, Maor Cohen…

“Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America ” by Martin Duberman— The Definitive Account

Duberman, Martin. “Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America ”,  Plume; Reprint edition , 2019.

The Definitive Account

Amos Lassen

It is the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall this year and as we might have expected, we have many new books published this year. We also have the reprinting of the definitive account of the Stonewall Riots, the first gay rights march, and the LGBTQ activists at the center of the movement by Martin Duberman. While all of the books about Stonewall are fascinating, this is the one that outshines them all. 
On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, was raided by police. But instead of responding with typical compliance that the NYPD expected, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that followed forever changed the face of gay and lesbian life.

Historian and activist Martin Duberman tells the full story of this l moment in history and he does so with “riveting narrative skill [as] he re-creates those revolutionary, sweltering nights in vivid detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for LGBTQ rights.” Together, these six stories come together to give us an unforgettable portrait of the repression that led up to the riots to the culmination when the LGBT community and these six individuals  triumphantly participated in the first gay rights march of 1970, the roots of today’s pride marches. 

What makes Duberman’s book so fascinating, I believe, is that we feel the human touch of those involved and we see how what they did  still profoundly affects life today. He shows that Stonewall marked a generational, organizational, and ideological shift that brought gay liberation into the world of social protest. He also
“chronicles how long and tortuous the road to Stonewall actually was.”

The six people that Duberman focuses on are Yvonne a black lesbian; Ray a transvestite; Foster a conservative upper-class man; Karla a militant lesbian; Jim an actor and Yippie leader and Craig a teenage radical. They share their insights about growing up gay in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. There were many gay organizations before Stonewall happened and the book chronicles every single one of them in detail. There are many characters and groups and Duberman shares them all with us. His writing about the actual riots is profound. great and spares no details. We read about what happened after Stonewall and where all the six characters are.

Duberman states that he wanted to place Stonewall along a timeline of events instead of the Stonewall Inn demonstrations being the launching point of gay civil rights history and he does all this within a narrative framework of “novelistic immediacy”. As the book heads into the 60’s, the emotions and political upheaval of the times arrives in the narrative and we begin to really feel the events that came together that set off the Stonewall riots

For those born after Stonewall, this is an important look at the beginnings of the gay civil rights movement and the people who helped ignite it. For those children of us who were alive in the 60’s and 70’s, Duberman brings back memories of a time in our lives where everything was possible and it all began to change.

“Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business” by Frank DeCaro— Celebrating Drag

DeCaro, Frank, “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business”, with a foreword by Bruce Vilanch, Rizzoli, 2019.

Celebrating Drag

Amos Lassen

Frank DeCaro’s “Drag” is a  celebration of the fabulous, current and historical influence of drag and its talented and inspiring performers. We cannot deny the influence that drag plays on our culture and it is fascinating that drag artists have managed to “snatch the crowns as the Queens of mainstream entertainment.”
This is an informative and witty collection of essays that chronicle over 100 years of drag and reading them is like going on a journey through our culture. readers will embark on a Priscilla-like journey through pop culture, “from television shows like “The Milton Berle Show”, “Bosom Buddies”, and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” films like “Some Like It Hot”, “To Wong Foo”…, and “Tootsie”, and Broadway shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “La Cage aux Folles”, and “Kinky Boots.”

“Drag includes contributions from today’s most groundbreaking and popular artists, including Bianca del Rio, Miss Coco Peru, Hedda Lettuce, Lypsinka, and Varla Jean Merman, as well as notable performers as Harvey Fierstein and Charles Busch. More than 100 photos–many from performers’ personal collections are included as well as a comprehensive timeline of drag “herstory.”

Frank DeCaro has been a fan of drag since he was three years old and his new book goes into the history of drag, profiling the big names and unsung legends alike who built drag into what it is today.

Modern drag as we know it – more or less – goes back at least to the early 20th Century. The performer, Julian Eltinge, the considered grandmother of drag, had a Broadway theater named after him in 1912. He was a star of high-profile stage shows, early Hollywood movies, and he even had his own lifestyle magazine for women. Then there was what they used to call “the smart set ”,  those who always sought out drag entertainment. “It wasn’t truly mainstream the way it is today, and yet, it kind of was. It was a way to take a walk on the wild side, but not too wild, and people did.”

This book was written for younger people and anyone who thinks drag began with season one of “Drag Race”. DeCaro says that he wanted these kids to “know how long the tradition of crossdressing in show business truly is. It’s very rich and so worth diving into. The genuinely brilliant queens of today – from Mama Ru on down – know the “herstory” of drag. They can quote Divine and Flip Wilson’s drag character, Geraldine, sing Sylvester songs, and dance the Time Warp like the best “Sweet Transvestite.” One of the reviews of the book said, “Drag” is a history lesson for some and a walk down memory lane for others.”

 An audio companion from Audible is coming in late May  and Lady Bunny co-narrates it with DeCaro.