Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“David and Jonathan: An M/M Romance from the Bible” by Neil S. Plakcy— Hearts Together

Plakcy. Neil S. “David and Jonathan: An M/M Romance from the Bible”, Samwise, 2019.

Hearts Together

Amos Lassen

For as long as I can remember we have used the Biblical story of Jonathan and David as a way to show that men who love men were around during the time of the Bible. We really have no idea if that is true or not since we accept the Bible on faith and on proof. Regardless it is a beautiful that has temped writers to expand on it throughout history. Neil Plakcy’s “David and Jonathan” is a new attempt. We are to understand from the Bible that the hearts of David and Jonathan “are knit together” as we read in the Book of Samuel we see it as one of the earliest same-sex romances in literature. However, the Bible “provides relatively little of the techniques we expect of fiction.” Character descriptions are skeletal and skimpy or non-existent and very little is written about the lives of the people and how they occupied their days aside from spending forty years wandering in the dessert. Plakcy tells us that he has used his research into history to add  details to make the story come alive.

I have spent a good part of my life studying the Bible and to this day, I still devote an hour a day to reading the Bible in its original language. We quickly realize the many faults in the stories from the Hebrew Bible or as it is commonly and incorrectly known as The Old Testament. So often the stories are incomplete and it is left to us to fill in the rest and this can be great fun. What we fill in with is known as midrash and it has been going on for as long as we have read the holy writings. In the story of David and Jonathan, things do not happen in order and the timeline is totally bewildering and names change. I really want to believe that David loved Jonathan more than he ever loved a woman but I cannot  figure out the timeline so I do not see when the two even had time to be lovers. David was way too busy with Jonathan’s sister, Michal and then Batsheva as well as all the other women in his life. Besides he was also busy writing poetry and uniting the people. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful story and one that I never tire of reading.

Plakcy’s story is beautiful but we must remember that it is a story and not history. He uses language from the Bible and it is based on something in history of which there was no happy ending. After David loses Jonathan he returns to be a warrior-king and a womanizer.

If you are familiar with the Biblical accounts of David and Jonathan, you’ll know what a mess they are—things happen out of order, without reference to previous events, and even the names of Jonathan’s brothers change from one account to another. When possible, I’ve incorporated actual quotes from various editions of the Bible—without footnotes, of course, because this is fiction, not an academic treatise.

And readers of MM romance should note—because this is based on a historical account, there is no HFN or HEA. After his romance with Jonathan ends at the conclusion of this account, David goes on to gore and glory with multiple women.

Plakcy’s Bible used the line, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1.). I have seen it in various other translations including David loved Jonathan more than he had ever loved a woman.

One of the problems with the David story is authorship and it is believed that it was written by several different authors. I understand that Neil Plakcy decided to use the basics of the story and build a romance on it. I believe that he has succeeded beautifully especially in his use of language. What he has added is the nature of the sexual relationship between the two men (of which nothing is written so these are his thoughts) and it works beautifully.

I feel confident in what I say as a reviewer of LGBT literature and as a person who is considered to be a Bible scholar. Every  year I teach a course on David and every year I learn a bit more. It’s good to have another David and Jonathan story to add to the mix.

“Nirvana is Here: A Novel” by Aaron Hamburger— Back to the Present

Hamburger, Aaron. “Nirvana Is Here: A Novel”, Three Rooms Press, 2019.

Back to the Present

Amos Lassen

With social media today, it is possible to find old friends that perhaps we have not thought about for many years and I must admit I am guilty of doing just that. In Aaron Hamburger’s new book, “Nirvana is Here”, we meet Ari Silverman, a Medieval Historian who is able to reconnect with Justin Jackson, his high school obsession who is now married (to a woman) and the first African-American CEO of a successful dating website. Any kind of reconnection can be emotional and hard to deal with and it is a good idea for one to prepare himself first. As Ari gets ready to see Justin for the first time in twenty years, he begins to remember the relationship they shared in the suburbs of Detroit. What were secrets back then are not necessarily secrets today. Things were very different during the early 1990s and there are secrets that they still share. But Ari has something else on his mind as well— his ex-husband has been accused of sexually harassing a student. We suspect that these two issues will come together causing Ari to make a decision that can totally change him. As we meet the characters, writer Hamburger has us face issues of identity, race, sex, and family and as we deal with them, we learn something more about who we really are.

I became a fan of Aaron Hamburger with “The View From Stalin’s Head” and “Faith for Beginners” and for whatever reason, I felt that he was writing to and for me directly. Many of you know that I have spent a lot of time researching and understanding the Jewish LGBT community so when Hamburger told me about his new book, I jumped at the change to read it, include it in the canon and write about it and I was definitely not disappointed.

Ari has never let go of the past and now, removed from it by two decades, the trauma of an assault from when he was so much younger comes back to him and the only perspective he feels will help him  is to reconnect with Justin, the boy he had such a crush on. As he thinks about this, he remembers that there are still secrets they shared and still share.  It does not happen often but every once in a while, a book comes along that blows me away and “Nirvana Is Here” is one such book. It made me smile and it devastated me but more than anything else, it kept me reading… in fact, I devoured it in one sitting, reading all the way through the night. I saw so much of myself in Ari just as I am sure that other readers will find themselves in him as well. Quite simply, this is a coming of age story but it is also so much more; it is a story of recovery and dealing with both past and present as set against the band Nirvana. For me, this was a weak point since I had lived out of the country when Nirvana was at its height and all that I have ever know about the band is its name. Hamburger beautifully captures the decade of the 90s and his characters who come of age then.

From the moment I began to read, I had the strange feeling that Ari is not just a character in this novel but someone who I knew and was part of my present life. We see him as both a 41-year-old Medieval History professor and a traumatized high school student who is struggling. with his own sexual identity. It seems to me that the focus of the book is on Ari’s teenage years that so heavily impact his later life.

Most of the book is a reflection on the past with surprises. We learn why Ari transferred to a different high school, and we read how his friendship with Justin developed over the years.  I had better stop because I feel that I am getting very close to writing a spoiler and I do not want to do that because I want everyone to have the same beautiful experience reading this book that I had. I want to personally thank Aaron Hamburger for returning to our literature—it feels like it has been a long time since “Faith for Beginners” (2005). I do hope that he will pull up a chair and stay awhile.

“Hearts Alight” by Elliot Cooper— A Gay Chanukah

Cooper, Elliot. “Hearts Alight”,  Independently Published, 2018. A Gay Chanukah Amos Lassen Chanukah is this country. Has become verycommercialized and Dave Cunningham hates that it has. He changes his mind a bitwhen he realizes that he has a chance to bring a bit of a holiday happiness tohis long-time crush, Amit Cohen. Dave is determined to make the perfect giftand tries to get a few personal details out of Amit who will not compromise hisstoic nature. Dave  unintentionallylearns the Cohen family’s secret: Amit is a golem and Amit has a problem that isdeeper than his magical origin, and a Hanukkah miracle might be the only thingthat will keep the flame burning between the ton guys. Maybe I missed somethingbut I do not understand how David could fall in love with Amit and not knowthat he is a golem and therefore not human). But this is a story and Elliot Cooper is a good storyteller. Dave’s friend Jake is Amit’s nephew and so he has a bit of inside help in learningabout the man he has such a crush on. We see Amit through Dave’s eyes and asthe beautiful man that he is. However, when a jerk makes fun of Amit and Amittakes off, Dave goes after him and we learn a secret.  Jake tells Dave Amit can “recharge” his batteries when touchedby someone who cares. Romantic love could be what keeps Amit Earth bound, evenafter he’s fulfilled his spiritual obligation.

Dave understands and accepts Amit but there are the factsof his being non–human that could make things difficult.  Amit’s being a golem is a unique twist but it didn’t work for me. I suppose Iam too grounded in Judaism and the traditions and culture of the religion. We have had a hard time being accepted into theJewish religion as gay people so, for me, adding a gay Jewish golem to the mixwas a bit too much. However, if I simply would read this as a story, I would totallyenjoy it.Dave was frustrated becauseof the guilt he felt by not being able to get with with the gift-giving goingon around him. Finding a gift for a golem is a unique and challengingexperience. Dave’s friendship with Jake, and the hesitant beginnings of hisromance with Amit are very well written. And I really got into Dave’s feelingsabout the modernization of Hanukkah. Writer Cooper gives us quite a rainbow ofcharacters with Amit, a gay golem, Dave, a bisexual man and Jake, a trans maleand Dave’s best friend.

“The Rites of Passage” by Jonathan A. Taylor— A Different View of Coming of Age

Taylor, Jonathan A. “The Rites of Passage”,  (The Goldberg Variations), Arnoland Press, 2018.

A Different View of Coming of Age

Amos Lassen

“Most Coming of Age novels suggest this ‘coming of age’ is a defining moment in your life. The Rites of Passage takes a different view.” 

Jamie Goldberg, like so many others, faces the classical question “Who am I?” His search brings more questions than answers. We go with him on his journey of self-revelation as where he learns that we can remake and reinvent ourselves as opposed to only being able to betray the integrity of our soul. This is a story of compassion and the desire for the coming of age that never quite happens in real life while in effect it happens over and over again

“The Rites of Passage” brings together Jewish-ness, sex, moral panic, and maternal dominance and shows how this become part of coming of age. We follow Jamie Goldberg from elementary school to college, as he grows from an abused boy into a self- possessed young man. His life is one of pain, humor, filth, and beauty and he struggles to come to terms with his identity and his sexuality in homophobic America.

Jamie Goldberg suspects that he is gay at an early age and is able hide it from his homophobic Seventies Detroit community, his Jewish political activist parents, and even from himself until he is raped by a male prostitute, at the age of 16. He is deeply ashamed and hides in two different worlds— the intellectual world of music, art, theater, and literature and a darker world where sadomasochistic desires try to obliterate his sexuality.” His fantasies are too big for real life or his true affections, eve n though he constantly tries to suppress them. “When his carefully constructed imaginary world begins to crumble, Jamie must face his demons, both real and invented, then the emotional sparks fly.” 

Jamie’s pain is very real and he becomes increasingly isolated from family, school and college. He must first face his transgressive fantasies and find his authentic self.  This is to be the first in a series of novels told from Jamie’s perspective. It is a sensitive and intelligent account of a young boy’s confusion and doubt in as he becomes an adult.

“The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective ” by Joy Ladin— A Bible For All of Us

Ladin, Joy. “The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective “, (HBI Series on Jewish Women), Brandeis University Press, 2018.”

A Bible For All of Us

Amos Lassen

I wait patiently for each new publication from a select group of writers. I cannot call them favorites because favorites change; I prefer to call them special. One of those writers is Joy Ladin. She has wowed me with her poetry and she dared to reach out with her memoir. Joy and I share the fact that we are both serious about our religion, Judaism and the important place it holds in our lives. What I really love about Joy is that she dares… and she succeeds. Like her writing, she is lyrical and elegant and I am proud that I know her.

She has certainly dared with “The Soul of the Stranger” and I can picture the naysayers lining up. She gives us a very unconventional look at the Hebrew Bible and she is published by a very important press, that of Brandeis University. I love that the academic Joy Ladin is published by the academic Brandeis press. I heard over a year ago that this was a book that she was working on and as seriously as I wanted to know what she covered and how, I did not ask. I have always though of writing a book being akin to pregnancy. It’s a rough job that gets rougher when the outcome enters the world.

Ladin explores how the experiences of transgender people and other “hyper-minorities” – people who are different in ways that set them apart from most members of their communities – can help us understand the holy writings and the difficult relations between God and humanity that we read in a good deal of the Hebrew Bible. Joy has her personal experiences as an openly transgender person at Stern College of Yeshiva University where she is both a hyper-minority as the only openly transgender person at her Orthodox Jewish university – and as someone who lived for decades as a middle-class white male. She looks at how the ways we relate to those we see as strangers affects the way we relate to the ultimate stranger, God.

In order to explore basic and fundamental questions about religious texts, traditions and an understanding of God, Ladin returns to some of the best-known Torah stories and looks at them through a transgender perspective. We quickly see how the two can compliment each other. I devote an hour a day to studying Torah and it is during that hour that no outside forces are allowed to enter my world. I decided that I would try to use the hints I get here to read from a different perspective even though I am not transgender but feel comfortable in experimenting with new understandings.

By using her own experiences and her reading skills, Ladin looks at the texts that seem to assume that everyone is one gender or another, male or female. Here we notice that the texts speak to practical transgender concerns as well and these include marginalization, and the challenges of living without a body or social role that renders one intelligible to others. These are challenges that can help us understand a God who defies all human categories. We gain new understandings and old ideas are transformed by a new kind of reading and understanding of the text. After all, God was creative and since we were created in his image, we can be creative too. We gain a new understanding of the way God is portrayed in the Torah and we see the relationships between these understandings.

Joy Ladin writes from her heart and from the core of her being. In giving us new ways to see the holy texts, we see the Torah as a sensitive and dignified manuscript. I love that the journey we take here is both spiritual and intellectual. I found by following what is written here, my own relationships with others and God are changing. What we have is a two way street with the transgender experience shedding light on the Torah and the Torah shedding light on the transgender experience. Through this we see what it means to be a stranger and to see God as a stranger.

The book opens with a transgender reading of the Genesis creation story that pushes against notions of inherent gender. In the next chapter we look at other stories in the Torah in which individuals temporarily exceed or question their traditional gender roles. (“Jacob’s outmaneuvering of his second-born status, Sarah’s belated pregnancy, and Isaac’s painful support for the patriarchal system that nearly kills him”). Ladin also looks at the voluntary Nazarite vow in Numbers 6 and Passover’s concern with the errors of either-or thinking that can serve potentially as models for accepting those who transition. She ends with “a chapter that uses both W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of the hyper-minority and the Torah notion of stranger or resident alien to build persuasive ethical imperatives for both transgender and cisgender believers.” Ladin explores how her powerful connection with a God who is not intelligible in human terms helped her navigate her years of dysphoria and pain as she felt similarly unrecognizable to others. Now she introduces Jews and other readers of the Torah to new and sensitive approaches with room for broader human dignity.

In the Book of Numbers, Ladin argues that the recurring conflicts between the Israelites and the God enshrined at the center of their camp resemble those experienced by human hyper-minorities and their communities. Even with God’s centrality to the Israelites’ lives, God is always seen by the Israelite community, as different in ways that are difficult to accommodate or understand. Using this perspective, we see God’s insistence that the Israelites identify with “strangers” by remembering that they “know the soul of a stranger” and experienced estrangement in Egypt. This gives us a communal spiritual practice that helps us to make a place, in our communities and in our lives, for God who is always the ultimate stranger.

Here is the Table of Contents:

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Shipwrecked with God
  • The Genesis of Gender
  • Trans Experience in the Torah
  • Close Encounters with an Incomprehensible God
  • Reading Between the Binaries
  • Knowing the Soul of the Stranger
  • Notes
  • Index

“Jewish, Gay & Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany: Uncle Alfred Flechtheim’s Unexpected Legacies in Art, AIDS & Law” by Michael Hulton— A Look Back, A Look Forward

Hulton, Michael. “Jewish, Gay & Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany: Uncle Alfred Flechtheim’s Unexpected Legacies in Art, AIDS & Law”, Kieran Publishing, 2018.

A Look Back, A Look Forward

Amos Lassen

Michael Hulton brings together two fascinating eras and gives the reader a new perspective with which to address art and the law. As Hulton recounts the life of his great uncle and art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, a gay Jewish man in the decadent avant-garde movement during the Weimar Republic through to Nazi Germany, he gives us a look at homosexual history, how it was recognized in society from the end of the 19th century through its “coming out phase” in the 1960s.

He finds parallels between the denial of the holocaust and AIDS skepticism. Hulton is a medical doctor who was personally involved fighting for AIDS recognition and treatment. We also gain details about economic spoliation in Nazi Germany and his own pursuit of art restitution on behalf of his late uncle’s family. We get an unexpected legacy of law and art that gives Hulton the means to donate his share of his restitution inheritance to HIV research and Jewish organizations.

Hulton’s parents were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who met in wartime London. His father came from a well-off background. His aunt had married an eminent art-dealer, despite his homosexuality, which his father recalled with evident disapproval. Hulton became intrigued by this, and by his parents’ backgrounds. He graduated from Cambridge University as a doctor and settled down to a career in anesthesia in Toronto, until the eighties, when the AIDS epidemic surfaced. He found that the parallels with the Holocaust were overwhelming and began a part-time medical practice that led to AIDS activism and relocation to San Francisco. Unexpectedly, lawyers contacted him about his long dead great uncle, explaining the potential for restitution of his property lost in the Nazi persecution. Thus began a new career. The book traces the biography of his enigmatic flamboyant great uncle, and his own autobiography, with the amazing parallels of his own story and his newly discovered family history.

“The Parting Gift” by Even Fallenberg— The Underside of Love

Fallenberg, Evan. “The Parting Gift”, Other Press, 2018.

The Underside of Love

Amos Lassen

There is something about a book by Evan Fallenberg that makes me realize what literature is all about. His two earlier books, “Light Fell” and “When We Danced on Water” mesmerized me and I knew that even before I opened the covers, the same would be true of “The Parting Gift”. I cleared my day, according to the advice of another reviewer and sat down and prepared to be lost in words and story and to be taken back to my second home in Israel.

“The Parting Gift” is an “erotic tale of jealousy, obsession, and revenge is suffused with the rich flavors and intoxicating scents of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.” The story is told by an unnamed narrator who writes to Adam, a friend from college. It so happens that Adam is sitting across the room from him as he writes. He has been staying at Adam’s since he abruptly came back to the States from Israel. He has decided that the time has come to move on and he shares with Adam how he came to get to him and that this was all the result of a coincidental encounter with Uzi, a spice merchant. His very first meeting with Uzi brought him to completely change his life and spend more time in the small village north of Tel Aviv. There was some kind of animal magnetism between the two men and as passion grew, the more the narrator became involved in not just Uzi’s life but also the life of Uzi’s ex-wife and children.

From his first meeting with Uzi, the narrator is overwhelmed by an animal attraction that will lead him to derail his life, withdraw from friends and extend his stay in a small town north of Tel Aviv. As he becomes increasingly entangled in Uzi’s life—and by extension the lives of Uzi’s ex-wife and children—his passion turns sinister, ultimately threatening all around him. 

Beneath the surface of the story, we explore how men assume or are forced to take on various roles and in this case we are speaking of the roles of lovers, fathers, Israelis, Palestinians. Just as these roles are often complex, so is our story. As we read, we look at ourselves and the roles we play and it should come as no surprise that there are roles that we would really rather not deal with but are forced into. Of course, there is lust and it should come as no surprise that the roles that sex and lust play in our daily lives is tremendous; they are both part of the human condition but it is man who decides how they are to be dealt with.

I cannot imagine how anyone can read this in pieces; it is a book that demands to be read straight through and then thought about afterwards. It is not enough that each page leads us to the next page but in Fallenberg’s gorgeous prose, each word leads us to the next word. I must admit that there were times when I almost shook from the profundity of what I read.

Here we find love’s underside to be brute sex between two men that makes us them and us to be selfless and selfish. Love can often be stubborn and even evil and while in love we often feel fear. Some may find this to be a new idea but I believe everyone ultimately will agree that this is true.

I see three distinct themes in “The Parting Gift”—sexuality, acceptance, and Middle Eastern culture. Everything seems to come out in the very long letter that the narrator writes. He explains what led up to his arrival. He had been visiting Tel Aviv with his friends when he met Uzi and was taken in immediately. He decides to leave his friends and stay with Uzi and the two become involved in an animalistic sexual relationship. Uzi invites the narrator into his home, to the surprise of his family, namely his ex-wife, who lives across nearby. But homosexuality is not important to Uzi’s family—their main concern is why this happened at the time it did. Uzi and the narrator lead a typical life and the narrator helps with the expansion of Uzi’s spice business. Everything goes well until Ibrahim, the son of a friend of Uzi, arrives to undertake an apprenticeship and brings jealousy, mistrust and resentment into the relationship of the two men. Feeling these, the narrator loses his mind. So perhaps the underside of love is heartbreak and not lust. The characters here have to deal with guilt and inadequacy and these feelings bring about their downfalls.

There is something naughty about reading someone else’s mail and this novel is written in the form of Adam’s letter and it punches us hard with the very first sentence. The story becomes complicated as we read about codes of honor and familial expectation as they hit business and acceptance, family and lovers, and self-realization head-on.

“A Queer Way Out: The Politics of Queer Emigration from Israel” by Hila Amit— Queer Resistance to Zionism

Amit, Hila. “A Queer Way Out: The Politics of Queer Emigration from Israel”, SUNY Press, 2018.

Queer Resistance to Zionism

Amos Lassen

Hila Amit’s “A Queer Way Out” greatly interests me in that I am one of those who left Israel but I do not fit her formula that “queer Israeli emigrants interact in a intentionally unheroic type of resistance to Zionism.” I do not believe that leaving Israel is an abandonment of Zionist ideas. According to Amit, “

the very language of Zionism prizes the idea that of immigration to Israel (aliyah, actually ascending) whereas stigmatizing emigration from Israel (yerida, descending).” There is no question about Zionism favoring immigration to Israel but I am just not sure that leaving the country is regarded so negatively, although I do remember a time when emigration was a “dirty” word.

Hila Amit explores the stories of queer Israeli emigrants. She looks at the reasons for leaving Israel as well as the feelings of those who left and who are no longer a part of Israel. She shows that both sexual orientation and left-wing political association play important roles in determining to leave the country but I must say that sexual orientation as a reason by itself is not nearly the reason that it once was before the year 2000. Today there s a large and vibrant LGBT community in the country but basically centered in Tel Aviv. We especially saw the power of the community when it led a countrywide strike as a protest to the country’s new surrogacy law. It is estimated that 100,000 people participated in the strike.

Amit attempts to show that emigration itself is not just a political act but one that “pioneers a intentionally unheroic type of resistance to Zionist ideology.” The study “explores the activities of (as well as the discourse used by) queer Israeli emigrants, before, during, and after departure.” The research here investigates the connections between the Israeli collective and its outcasts, and between social exclusion and departure. Amit argues that queer Israeli emigrants, in their decision to depart, undermine Zionist ideology, and therefore change the obvious paths of resistance to Zionism. By being away from the physical territory of Israel, “they avoid the Zionist demand to perform as strong, masculine Sabras.” She goes on to add that

“emigration is subversive in that it symbolizes a refusal to answer Zionism in the currency of heroism and active resistance.” Amit claims that the decision to leave comes from one acknowledging his own vulnerability and “the recognition that they can no longer tolerate the hardship of life offered to them in Israel.” By one’s announcing of personal vulnerability the system is weakened. “In their passivity and unheroic behavior, emigrants threaten to undermine the entire Zionist project.”

It all sounds very nice and Amit has indeed done excellent research.. However, I agree with very little here and I am sure that my group of Israeli gay friends living in America will have a greet deal to say about what is written here. Yes perhaps my American Zionism is different than what my Israeli Zionism would be (and still is) but even living somewhere else, my Zionist feelings are very, very strong. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating read.

“On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” by Charlie Harmon— Day-to-Day with Lenny

Harmon, Charlie. “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius”, Imagine Books, 2018.

Day-to-Day with Lenny

Amos Lassen

With this year being what would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein we have had a large number of books about him being published although every year there seems to be a new “definitive” biography of the maestro. In “On the Road…”, Charlie Harmon makes no such claim as this is not a biography but rather a fascinating look at a fascinating man and it is a fun read. There is also a bonus foreword by Broadway legend Harold Prince.

I met Lenny several times while I was living in Israel and sure enough Harmon captured him beautifully and brought back memories of the penthouse at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Harmon’s job was twofold— he was hired to manage the day-to-day activities of Bernstein’s life and to make sure Bernstein met the deadline for an opera commission. That deadline was consistently being disturbed by things kept getting in the way such as “the centenary of Igor Stravinsky, intestinal parasites picked up in Mexico, teaching all summer in Los Angeles, a baker’s dozen of young men, plus depression, exhaustion, insomnia, and cut-throat games of anagrams.” That sentence alone should give you an idea of what this book is all about. It is very obviously not a doctoral dissertation but then dissertations are rarely fun to read.

Harmon saw Bernstein everyday for four years and during that time he was Bernstein’s social director, gatekeeper, valet, music copyist, and itinerant orchestra librarian. He was an active participant in his boss’s life and did everything from packing and unpacking suitcases to making sure Bernstein got to concerts on time, made plane connections and knew how to speak to luminaries. There was always music as well (as if that is not the main reason for the adoration of Bernstein).

You are probably wondering whether this book is gossip and I must say that it is, indeed. However, it is not malicious and harmful gossip, rather it is a series of anecdotes that come together to give us a great musician. Now I love gossip as much as the next person and I have my own Bernstein stories that I will never share so I must read other’s stories instead and what I find amazing is that they all sound pretty-much alike.

But it is not all gossip. Bernstein was a superstar and so we have to expect some gossip and of course, we have expected someone to tell these stories. I am glad that it is Harmon that does because his writing is so clear He was just 30 when he got the job after a three hour interview and was not sure that he was not sure he could handle the job. He felt sure he could deal with handling phone calls, mail, and appointments but the packing and unpacking many suitcases for every trip; taking notes during rehearsals and performances; and making sure that Bernstein did not generate negative publicity might have been beyond him. Nonetheless, reservations and all, in 1982, Harmon set off with Bernstein and his entourage to Indiana University for a six-week residency, during which his boss began work on an opera. This was just four years after the death of LB’s wife, Felicia, and he was demanding, impatient, and given to “bouts of fury and bratty behavior.” Harmon figured that Bernstein was still grieving over his wife’s death. Then there was also the Bernstein entourage that included a large and sometimes-divisive cast of characters. Harmon shares that LB was a cruel bully and he drove Harmon to seek help. Yet, on the other hand, Harmon admits that his intimacy with LB’s musicianship gave him “a remarkable education.” So what we have here is salacious gossip about and insight into Leonard Bernstein’s later-life artistry. Be prepared for the name-dropping.

Most of us do not realize what being Leonard Bernstein meant. His schedule was unbelievable and when Harmon was with him, LB was already in his 60s. With all that went on between the two men, Harmon held and still holds great respect and love for Bernstein. You will not find a narrative or a plot here since this book is primarily a collection of stories, I must also compliment Harmon for not mentioning the negatives he had to deal with. He really does not criticize and he had many reasons to do so. He does write about several drunken episodes and other inappropriate behavior but I had the feeling that he knew so much more and just looked the other way. As far as Bernstein’s sexual relationships with other men, there were no real secrets. As far as the Dexedrine use getting out of control, Harmon says that it seemed “like a sensible way to get everything done.” Bernstein’s affairs with various men were never serious and actually took place as “passing asides.” In the epilogue, Harmon says people have asked him if LB was gay and she says he answered ambiguously because it is a non-issue. (Do not share that with the boys in the park in Tel Aviv. I can remember all too well often hearing “Lenny’s back, you know what to do”.

Harmon gives us a man who loved music and loved teaching. He gave of himself to students and if one thing stands out about him it is that he cared. Ultimately, Harmon resigned as personal assistant yet he continued to work for Bernstein as his archivist and editing Bernstein’s scores after his death.

“Jerusalem Ablaze: Stories of Love and Other Obsessions” by Orlando Ortega-Medina— Thirteen Stories

Ortega-Medina, Orlando. “Jerusalem Ablaze: Stories of Love and Other Obsessions”, Cloud Lodge, 2017.

Thirteen Stories

Amos Lassen

Orlando Ortega-Medina’s “Jerusalem Ablaze” is a collection of thirteen short stories are about sexuality, death, obsession, and religion. Each story contains characters who are flawed individuals trying their best to make sense of their lives. Ortega-Medina says that, “the stories in the book come from below my consciousness. They are to entertain and not leave any kind of message. I think the interesting thing is how people read the stories and what they take away tells a lot about the people reading them. I don’t mind what people come up with as long as they were moved by the story.”

The darkly humorous stories are occasionally violent, often uncomfortable, and always populated with characters on a quest to find their place in the world. They were inspired by four periods of travel in his life: California, Quebec, Israel and Japan. Ortega-Medina said the Israel stories are the most biographical of the whole collection and are firmly rooted in his experiences and the time he spent searching for himself there.

“An Israel State of Mind” is perhaps the most biographical story in the collection. A recent high school graduate from Southern California arrives in Israel to spend a year working on a kibbutz. He hopes to rid himself of his desires; instead he is reunited with the man he loves.

The stories are not for everyone but there is a quality of writing here that is enticing and darkness. For example, the first story “Torture of Roses” is about a reviled aesthete who enjoys skewering his skin. He feels it is time to choose a young man to be his heir and servant. The two have a convoluted relationship and when the man is dying, his heir, has little pity left.

The stories explore the deep corners of the mind and the soul and are filled with hidden feelings and desires. These are stories of people looking for themselves are of those who have found it yet re afraid to show it to the world. It is as if we are looking at ourselves as we read.

The stories in “Jerusalem Ablaze” explore life’s imperfections and the fragility of the world. Each story introduces us to ordinary human beings who deal with compulsions or external influences. Styles of writing shift from sadness to creepy to affection to the macabre.

Because these are stories, characters had to be developed quickly but that does not mean that thy re not fully developed. In fact, I found some of the characters addictive and this led me to read the book in one sitting. The themes of sexuality, death, religion are present in almost all of them, albeit in different forms and different settings and we read the characters’ inner thoughts and desires which are much more important than the plot. In other words, these are characters that we care about.

I debated with myself as to whether summarize each story or just look at the book as a whole. I realized that it would be difficult to do each story without a spoiler so I generalize here. This is a fascinating read written in gorgeous prose that has something for almost everyone who enjoys dark literature.