Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“The Education of a Daffodil: Prose Poems” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— From the Heart to the Page

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “The Education of a Daffodil: Prose Poems”, Hadassa Word Press, 2017.

From the Heart to the Page

Amos Lassen

Every once in a while I come upon a writer whose words affect me and my life. Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is such a writer and as I write this I am trying to remember how I first came upon his writing. I can’t recall if someone else recommended it to me or whether I just found it through luck. It doesn’t matter really except for the fact that it has influenced how I look at the written word and especially how I regard poetry. His poems are those that I read with tears in my eyes because of the way he treats language. Now in “The Education of a Daffodil”, Taub reflects on violence and does so as an outsider; Taub is a poet who seeks connection with the world and is one who has lived life from the outside looking in. He is a gay Jew and a lover who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish world and who thinks of himself as a daffodil, a beautiful flower who has endured pain and rejection yet, in my mind, a writer who blooms all the more because of it. If I am ever asked who my favorite modern poet, the answer is clearly Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.

All of us have at some time felt that we have been outsiders causing us to be frustrated because we cannot find a connection, we feel like fragile daffodils as Taub says. Dealing with rejection and non-communication is painful and once have experienced this, we never want to do so again. However, that pain is necessary for us to better understand who we are and so Taub takes us back to the pain so that we can recover from it. In this our poet becomes more than a poet— he is also a storyteller and something of a dramatist by throwing us cues to which we react. He has divided his book into two sections. In “Brief Histories of Fear”, Taub looks at small scale violence with a series of prose poems that are not connected until taken as a whole. It is here that he builds his mise en scene by producing an atmosphere of danger and fear of what is to come. We strongly sense dislocation and violence and as we read, we become part of his writing. We see the dependence on those who are the opposite of the figures that bring this hate and violence into our lives. “if Aunt Lavinia were here… I would not be so afraid”.

The poems in this section paint portraits of both the poet and of the various anti-heroes in differing times of crisis and, as Taub states introspection. Too often we do not look into ourselves where the answer may be waiting. It is here that we meet those who have influenced his life as created the moods he has gone through and those that are yet to come. He takes us by the hand and guides us through his life as an underling and to the point that he can stand and say that he is proud of who he is. You may question my use of the word “underling” but you only need to read this collection to understand why I chose it.

The second section, “Life Studies in Yellow and Other Primary Colors,” we right away see the interconnection between the poems in which the poet moves from being unaware and unknowing through violence until he can reach a point where there is balance and he can find the equilibrium that he needs. If we take the collection as a whole, we see that he achieves some kind of spiritual education that enables him to continue forward. “The daffodil has turned in the tank… slender of stem and bright of bulb”. That daffodil has “ventured into worlds alternative…” He no longer meets with “pity or revulsion or distance”. We have been with him as he went from innocence to brutality to balance. We have read his stories of loss and trauma, of being displaced, of xenophobia and of dealing with his sexuality to find his place in this world of ours. His past is as important as his present and future for it is from there that he arrives at the others. If there is a message here and I believe that there is a strong one, it is that one who does not examine his life to learn who he is remains just that— unaware, unknowing and far from finished. As the poet is transformed, we are there watching— not as voyeurs but as friends in whom he has trust. He has such confidence in us that we he lets us see the cruelties that he experiences (and that we also experience) and we see his survival and hope that we can do the same. In fact, I would venture to say that the book, is an ode to survival.

In one of the blurbs of the book by others, I came across a Yiddish word that OI have not heard in years— “schlimazel” or one suffers but not by his own hand. Rather he is set apart by others and the result is not only that separation but separation from himself as well. It is possible to move from that as we see here and we become aware of what happens if one does not.

I have met Yermiyahu Ahron Taub and actually spent a weekend with him here in Boston when he came for a poetry festival a couple of years ago. I did not see the guy who appears in the earlier poems but rather the man who has found who he is and is confidant in that.

Stop to think for a moment how often you feel transformed after closing the covers of a book. It does not happen often but it will happen here and I promise you that. We must celebrate survival without ever forgetting how we got to it.

 

Six poems also have a Yiddish version.

 

“This Is How It Always Is: A Novel” by Laurie Frankel— A Secret

Frankel, Laurie. “This Is How It Always Is: A Novel”, Flatiron Books, 2017.

A Secret

Amos Lassen

Claude is five years old and the youngest of five brothers. He loves wearing dresses and he dreams of being a princess. He says he wants to be a girl when he grows up. Now go back and read what I just wrote. Do you think you would have read something like this say ten years ago in a book for the mass market?

Claude’s parents, Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be, however they’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Before long the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret and we all know about keeping secrets.

Laurie Frankel has written a novel about secrets and transformations and about family and revelations. We all know that change is hard, especially when it affect us directly. But change can also be redemption and salvation. Parents never know what their children will bring them and they sometimes have to just hope that all will be fine. Plans are broken as children grow and secrets never really last for long. Here we learn that the secret that the family was keeping actually keeps them.

Of late, there have been a number of memoirs from and stories by transgender recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of memoirs from transgender individuals. We have heard from parents who have done all that is possible to help their transgender children live happy and healthy lives in a society that sees gender based on genitals. Most of us think that our families will never have to face a situation like this— I know I did until my niece decided to become my nephew at 41 years old. Laurie Frankel takes those real-life experiences and gives us a story of family and secrets. Penn and Rosie are a loving couple, living in Madison, Wisconsin with their five boys. Soon they realized that their fifth son, their youngest, Claude, feels like he should have been born a girl. It is here that you should stop and check what your response to this might be. We then ask how do these strong, supportive parents go about helping their son live as the person he wants to be? The answer is here and it is fascinating. Being a parent is a difficult enough job anyway without adding something like this. We want to protect our children from hate and from being afraid and we want our children to be accepted. If a family holds a secret, it is not meant for anyone else to know. Sometimes secrets have a way of popping up suddenly and we see here just how far a family will go in order to keep a secret. How much can we, as parents and siblings, protect each other and what happens when secrets stop being secrets?

Rosie and Penn face that Claude is identifying more with girls, than boys. Rosie is an emergency-room physician and Penn is an author who, along with their children have to find a way to Adams – and his four older brothers work through to deal with “Claude” becoming “Poppy” and identifying as a little girl. Claude has grown up in the community as a boy, the change to girl causes strange looks and misunderstanding but it all seemed to be okay until…. the family had to deal with cruel bigotry. They responded by moving from Madison, Wisconsin to a more liberal place, Seattle which was said to be more accepting of difference. The move seemed to be okay and Poppy makes friends but Roo, the oldest son is a bit lost.

The parents have to decide how to go forward and what to say about Poppy and the child’s gender identification. They decide to share their secret with their neighbors and some people from school. Otherwise the secret is kept as a secret. During the five or so years that followed, Poppy becomes a real little girl as the family continues not telling anyone. What they did not consider were the changes to Poppy’s body and that physically she is male and developing as such.

I can see this as an excellent choice for a book club because of the questions that will arise from it. I love that writer Laurie Frankel brings in how the members of the family feel about having a transgender sibling. I know how I reacted when my sister told me that her daughter was becoming her son and how she supported it. We need more fine writing like this just as we need more understanding about gender.

 

 

“The Girls of Usually” by Lori Hotvitz— Becoming a Hippie Chick

Horvitz, Lori. “The Girls of Usually”, Truman State University Press  2015.

Becoming a Hippie Chick

Amos Lassen

Lori Horvitz grew in a family with up ashamed of her Eastern European Jewish roots and ashamed of them. She was confused about her sexuality and became a “hippie chick” who traveled all over the world in search for something that she was unsure of what it really was. In “The Girls of Usually”, she “chronicles each trip, each romance, each experiment in reinventing herself that draws her closer to discovering the secret door through which she can escape from deep-rooted patterns and accept her own cultural, ethnic, and sexual identity”. For those of us who knew we were gay as we grew up, this is a book that will remind you of what you went through and show you that you were really never alone. It is the honesty of the text that really hits home. Some of the tendencies we read about here are held by so many other people that at times you might feel that you are reading your own story. We especially see the role that internalized homophobia plays in our lives. This is a look at a young artist as she paints her self-portrait.

We also see New York in the 1980s with its hedonistic behavior and the shock that was felt when AIDS hit the city. The book is composed of short essays about Jewishness, about sexuality, subscribing to the mainstream and so much more.

Author Lori Horvitz has led an interesting life as she dealt with her lesbianism and her religion. What was missing for me was a look at the inside of her life so that I could better understand what down her to have so much sex with males and females and why she always seemed to feel the need to continue traveling. Obviously something drove her to run from commitment and from her family. If this was how she understood herself, I would have liked to know why. On the other hand, I see the book as a great place from which to discuss sexuality.

I see this as part memoir and part creative writing and while each essay stands on its own when take together they are autobiographical. We read of Horvitz’s family life, her mother, her mother’s death and how her relationship with her mother affected her life. The essays on AIDS are wonderfully written and we sense what it was to be in New York City in the 80s when everyone seemed to know someone with the disease.

 

“Magnified” by Mell Eight— Vampires and Werewolfes

Eight, Mell. “Magnified”, ADS, 2016.

Vampires and Werewolves

Amos Lassen

As he was dying, Yani’s great grandmother, Channa, reveals one last story from her past to tell. Yani’s great uncle Yakov helped her survive the Nazis with the help of vampires and werewolves and, of course, Yani finds this hard to believe. However with her death, Yani realizes the story is far from over.

We see that the world of vampires and werewolves isn’t a safe place for a human, even one with Yani’s unusual family history. With danger at his door, Yani knows that he should run but he has never been very good at running away and especially now with his loved ones and the whole world in danger.

It seems that Yakov had fallen in love with a vampire who helped the starving, half dead family to survive the Holocaust. For that alone, I question the sincerity of the book and the writer. The Holocaust was the darkest point in the history of the world and I see no reason to bring the supernatural vampire to make it sound like fiction. Perhaps the writing is good but the idea for the story is distasteful and just plain weird. I really see nothing here to recommend this book as it pushes the limits of the mind to enter a supernatural world while six million people needlessly lost their lives. I am also amazed that non traditional spelling was used for the names of the characters.

 

“Accidental Step-Brothers” by D. Greg Denton— Tony and Ben

Denton, D. Greg. “” ADS 2016.

Tony and Ben

Amos Lassen

A word of warning: this is a novel with a lot of sex so be prepared.

Catholic Tony and Jewish Ben met on their college campus. Tony is Catholic and Ben is Jewish. What they do not know is that their parents also met on campus some twenty years earlier. Vera, Tony’s mother, and Jake, Ben’s father, however, could not make their romance work. Tony and Ben are going to try hard in hopes that their relationship will work. Tony fells hard and quick for Ben, hard. When they learn that their parents have reconnected, while the boys were away at school, and plan on getting married, Tony is shocked at the thought of being his lover Ben’s step-brother. They realize that they have to learn to get along and deal with this for their parents’ sake and they share a house while their folks are away on their honeymoon. At first things did not go well go well and Ben resents being there because he is in love with Tony. Tony resents Ben’s moving in and invading his space. To find out this strange story progresses, you just have to read this book.

“1937: A Tale of Hollywood’s Nastiest Scandals” by David Wallace— Hidden and Public Scandal

Wallace, David. “1937: A Tale of Hollywood’s Nastiest Scandals”, CreateSpace, 2016.

Hidden and Public Scandal

Amos Lassen

Just as it is today, in 1937 Hollywood was a town like no other in this country. Even though excitement fame and fortune were easily found there, so is/was scandal of all kinds. Oakley Webster, a gay private detective discovers a strange connection between some of Hollywood’s celebrity Jewish community and Nazi Germany, and to find the truth to his suspicions, he uses help from some of the biggest names in Hollywood back then.

It actually took World War II for the media to see and to reveal what was going on. For a place so well known because of its gossip mill, how is it that big names like Louella Parsons did not speak out about what they knew? There was a connection between studios that were owned by Jews and Nazi Germany and something was going on with William Haines, the first openly gay star in Hollywood, and the role of Louis B. Mayer, cofounder of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studios? What about other celebrities that seemed also to be involved? How does a big-screen face like Joan Crawford factor in? David Wallace has based his novel on fact and history and we see that Hollywood was not as golden as some wanted others to believe. During this age of glamour, not all was glamorous. Using what he discovered in books of history about Hollywood, Wallace uses fiction to tell the truth.

Webster knows the rich and famous and writes about the smear scandal of Haines. He basically came into the entire business via gossip columnist Louella Parsons and Joan Crawford and heard from other actors who were sympathetic to Haines and his long-term partner. As he worked his way into the gossip, he learned of deliberate manipulation of the motion picture industry by Nazis who insisted on eliminating references to Jews from films and on this way the studios could continue preserving the lucrative German market. Parsons told that one of the first things that is learned in Hollywood is that everyone is a potential enemy. This is the basis for the novel, a dark, detective story inspired by true Hollywood scandals. Webster tries to solve several mysteries but this is more than a detective story, it is a look into the Hollywood of 1937 as we meet real and fictional characters. You will be turning pages as quickly as possible.

“The Facts of Life: A Novel” by Patrick Gale— Three Generations

Gale, Patrick. “The Facts of Life: A Novel”, Harper Reissue 2009..

Three Generations

Amos Lassen

Edward Pepper and Sally Banks live in an odd, secluded, eight-sided house, “The Roundel” in the English countryside. They hope that hardships are now behind them., Edward met Sally when she as a doctor, treated him for tuberculosis after he escaped from Nazi Germany to England and they have raised a family together. Edward is a German-Jewish composer and Sally has supported his every move but then he becomes preoccupied with the temptations of the movie industry.

The two and their children and grandchildren know that lives will be mixtures of happiness and tragedy and that they live in a world filled with hard realities. As they years progress, the family is tested by “mistrust, tyranny, misunderstanding, and an AIDS diagnosis”.

“The Facts of Life” is the story of Edward Pepper, a German born Jew whose family sends him to an English boarding-school thus allowing him to miss the concentration camp in which is parents died Part I of this book is the story of their life together. In Part II which is somewhat predictable we learn about the rest of the family.

Patrick Gale is a wonderful storyteller and his descriptions of historical places and is only matched by the fine the characters he has drawn here. They are perfectly flawed and three dimensional and I felt that I knew them. There are laughs in this book, but there is also great sorrow, tough decisions.

The beginning of the novel sets things up introducing the reader to Edward and Sally, their courtship and marriage in post-WWII England. In the second part of the book, we have a modern-day gay romance novel which becomes a novel of issues with the introduction of AIDS. It is a powerful read and one that will be remembered for time to come.

 

 

“One Day in France: Tragedy and Betrayal in an Occupied Town” by Jean-Marie Borzeix — April 6, 1944

Borzeix, Jean-Marie . “One Day in France: Tragedy and Betrayal in an Occupied Town”, translated by Gay McAuley, I.B. Tauris, 2016.

April 6, 1944

Amos Lassen

On April 6, 1944, detachment of German soldiers arrived in a rural French town to hunt down resistance fighters, many of whom were hiding in the region. More than sixty years later, the villagers clearly remember the day when four peasants from a nearby village were taken hostage and shot as an example to others. However, it is questionable as to whether they remember the whole story. Jean-Marie Borzeix set out to investigate the events of Holy Thursday 1944, and to reveal the hidden truths of that fateful day. He uncovered that there was a mysterious ‘fifth man’ shot alongside the resisters and what the author unraveled led him to Paris, Israel and into the Holocaust in France. The events of that day in a small, entirely typical, town illuminate the true impact of World War II in France.

This is a study of the various happenings of April 6, 1944 in the village of Bugout, a small, mountainous community in Vichy-controlled France. Jean-Marie Borzeix begins this story attempting to run down the facts behind the Thursday before Easter 1944 and the murders of four men in his hometown.

He takes us through his research in the many data collections and libraries throughout Europe. We are with him when he finds and follows the trail of the fifth man murdered on that day and when he finds and follows the train carrying Jewish women and children away, eventually to Auschwitz. What he has found is true.

We get a look at memory and why we remember, what we remember, what we forget as well as a look into cause and effect of war crimes. Atrocities can only happen when it is possible for onlookers to separate themselves from the whole process and to justify the end results in their minds. We see here that it is often necessary to look at events in our current lives with a different focus.

“Bread, Salt and Wine” by Dev Bentham— Love and Healing

bread-salt-and-wine

Bentham, Dev. “Bread, Salt and Wine” (Tarnished Souls) (Volume 4), Love is a Light Press, 2013.

Love and Healing

Amos Lassen

George Zajac was raised in a religious family and at age thirty-eight, we see that he’s a troubled man. He had been a banker in New York and in order to escape that boring and miserable life, he moves across the country to start over again in Los Angeles as the catering chef for a prestigious French Restaurant. It is there that ne meets Kenny Marks, a writer working as a waiter. Kenny is everything has never been. He is flamboyant, proud and confident in his sexuality. Against his better judgment, George agrees to a date with Kenny and the attraction between the two men is electric. However, after the two become close, George is troubled by his sexual hang-ups and still haunted by his childhood. He stays deep in the closet and cannot commit to Kenny. George decides that all he really needs is someone with whom to have sex and George suggests that he be that person and Kenny agrees but then accuses George of being sick and needing to see a therapist. It actually takes some eight years before George can deal with a true love relationship with Kenny. He knew what he wanted but had no idea how to deal with it. While this is a short novel (coming in at less than 200 pages), it has a lot to say and does so in fine prose and character development.

“The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity” edited by Lawrence Silberstein and Robert L. Cohn— Defining Others and Ourselves

the-other

Silberstein, Lawrence J. and Robert L. Cohn, editors. “The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity”, (New Perspectives on Jewish Studies), NYU Press, 1994.

Defining Others and Ourselves

Amos Lassen

Granted this is not a new book but it is still relevant today due to the way it looks at cultural boundaries and group identity are often forged in relation to the Other. In every society there are conceptions of otherness and these often reflect a group’s fears and vulnerabilities and result in deep-rooted traditions of inclusion and exclusion that permeate the culture’s literature, religion, and politics. Here we see the ways that Jews have traditionally defined other groups and, in turn, themselves. The contributors are a distinguished international scholars who explore the discursive processes through which Jewish identity and culture have been constructed, disseminated, and perpetuated.

Some of the topics addressed are: Others in the biblical world; the construction of gender in Roman-period Judaism; the Other as woman in the Greco-Roman world; the gentile as Other in rabbinic law; the feminine as Other in kabbalah; the reproduction of the Other in the Passover Haggadah; the Palestinian Arab as Other in Israeli politics and literature; the Other in Levinas and Derrida; Blacks as Other in American Jewish literature; the Jewish body image as symbol of Otherness; and women as Other in Israeli cinema.

Contributors to this interdisciplinary volume are: Jonathan Boyarin (New School for Social Research), Robert L. Cohn (Lafayette College), Gerald Cromer (Bar-Ilan University), Trude Dothan (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Elizabeth Fifer (Lehigh University), Steven D. Fraade (Yale University), Sander L. Gilman (Cornell University), Hannan Hever (Tel Aviv University), Ross S. Kraemer (University of Pennsylvania), Orly Lubin (Tel Aviv University), Peter Machinist (Harvard University), Jacob Meskin (Williams College), Adi Ophir (Tel Aviv University), Ilan Peleg (Lafayette College), Miriam Peskowitz (University of Florida), Laurence J. Silberstein (Lehigh University), Naomi Sokoloff (University of Washington), and Elliot R. Wolfson (New York University).