Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“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.

“Yeled Tov” by Daniel M. Jaffe— A Good Jewish Gay Boy

Jaffe, Daniel M. “Yeled Tov”, Lethe Press, 2018.

A Good Jewish Gay Boy

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to a new book by Daniel Jaffe and that is probably that is because he says what I think (and much better than I could day it). I have managed to get over the Jewish guilt I used to have about my religion and my sexuality and have learned to embrace them both knowing that these parts of my life have made me who I am. I always wanted to be a “yeled tov” or a good boy but it was difficult to do so before reconciling those two important aspects of my life and my being.

Jaffe takes us back to 1974 to meet Jake Stein who also wants to be a good Jewish boy but who finds himself struggling to reconcile his traditional beliefs and his strong faith in God with his growing attraction to other boys (now this sounds very familiar). At school he was in the school play, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and while he should be overjoyed to get cast, he is upset because he knows that he should be thinking about the terrible suffering that Jews went through but instead he is falling for the kid who’s playing Peter van Daan. Things get no better for him when he gets to college and meets his very handsome roommate who seldom wears clothing. Jaffe shares the story of a young boy and man who fights hard to find a middle ground between “desire and devotion”. He asks God for advice and what he hears back is what he imagines what God would say about doing the right thing. do the right thing (I am not sure that God knows how to answer questions about lust). Jake seems, on the other hand, to know a great deal about lust since he deals with it so often—he finds himself lusting after men at the synagogue;, he lusts after his best friend and he lusts after his college roommate, he lusts after schoolmates. He feels that God is not sympathetic with his plight and the more he lusts, the more he feels shut into himself and shut out of society. He sees only one way out and that is abhorrent to God.

I have read many gay coming-of-age stories and there are some that are very good and there are some that are the same old story with different names. Here we have something very different in that we are with Jake on his journey and we feel what he feels (due to the skill of writer Jaffe). Jake so wants to be slutty and promiscuous but he knows that is not the way good Jewish boys act (he obviously does not know the same Jewish boys that I do).

Now let me explain something here. Jewish boys have the same urges and lusts that everyone else does but there is a difference that is based on faith. Those who are raised in Orthodox homes have a great deal of trouble trying to understand how faith and sexuality can work together. It is indeed possible that they can but to make this happen it must come from within. Once you accept who you are it is a great deal easier. Sure, you might lose a seat at the family Sabbath dinner but there are other places that will welcome you quickly. Let me give you an example. When I decided that it was time to come out to my family, I sat down with my father and told him how I felt. To my surprise, he did not say “get out”. Rather, he stroked his beard and said, “I don’t like what you are but I would rather you find someone to love instead of never knowing what love us.” No one was more surprised than me and, in effect, my father saved my life. We later feel out over other things so it did not end well but a brief time, I was very proud of him.

We read the Torah incorrectly and we find admonitions that are not there like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not about homosexuality as so many claim but about the lack of hospitality. Misunderstandings can cause dire results. There were several times as I read that I wanted to call out to Jake and tell him to come and sit with me for a while but remember that the story is set in 1974. Things were very different then.

Basically, Jake is a “yeled tov” of the title. He lusts passively and we really never know if the reason he makes no moves on someone else has to do with his not wanting other people to know that he is gay or because he is afraid of rejection. When he was young his father told him that regardless of what he does, he is to never hurt the girl that he is with. Obviously Jake changed that to mean that if he can do this, he will always be a good boy, a yeled tov. However, he can only be a good boy when he himself realizes that he is.

There is so much to like in this book and first among those is the plot that shows Jaffe’s own familiarity with Judaism yet while this is a book about a Jewish guy there is no need to be Jewish to enjoy it. The Yiddish phrases used are all either defined or easily understood by their usage. Jaffe’s dialogue is excellent and is his character development. I just wonder if he anticipated what he was getting into with Jake who appears on almost every page. Jake’s conversations with God are amazing and as you near the end of the book, you should be prepared to shed a few tears. God tells Jake, “There are times when a man must make his own decisions. You’re a man now Jake. It’s time I let you decide for yourself how to live… Yes, being a man is scary, indeed. Give yourself time… I’m going to step aside now. But I’ll always be here. Make Me proud of the life I granted you. Be good to yourself”.

Let me close by saying the same thing to all of you, my friends and readers—  “Be good to yourselves”.

 

“Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement” by Joyce Antler— Influencing Each Other

Antler, Joyce. “Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement”, NYU Press, 2018.

Influencing Each Other

Amos Lassen

We are all aware of the influence of the women’s movement on the way we live and now we learn of the influence on how we believe. It has been some fifty years since the beginning of the women’s liberation movement and we can now finally read how the women’s movement and Judaism have influenced and impacted each other. We certainly can see that Jewish women were undeniably instrumental in shaping the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. What makes this interesting is that their contributions have been overlooked The natural reaction is to ask “why?”. Joyce Antler wrote this book to answer just that question. She has done amazing research and conducted many interviews with the pioneers of the movement to bring Jewish and feminist together, openly and proudly. She brings us biographical narratives that show both the struggles and achievements of Jewish radical feminists in Chicago, New York and Boston, as well as those who participated in the later— “the self-consciously identified Jewish feminist movement that fought gender inequities in Jewish religious and secular life.” Jewish women’s liberationists helped to provide theories and models for radical action that were used throughout the United States and abroad yet we may hear of the work but not of the women. Their articles and books became classics of the movement and brought about new initiatives in academia, politics, and grassroots organizing. There were also other Jewish-identified feminists who were able to bring the women’s movement to the Jewish mainstream and Jewish feminism to the Left. Antler tells us, and this is important, that for many of these women, feminism in fact served as a “portal” into Judaism.

It comes as no surprise that the role of women was regarded as a deeply hidden history since traditionally this has been the place of women (except in the more liberal congregations). Having grown up in an Orthodox congregation myself, women were severely separated from men during prayer and for many that remains true today. Antler reminds us that Jewish women’s activism at the center of feminist and Jewish narratives. She shares the stories of over forty women’s liberationists and identified Jewish feminists–from Shulamith Firestone and Susan Brownmiller to Rabbis Laura Geller and Rebecca Alpert and these show us how women’s liberation and Jewish feminism came together over the course of the lives of extraordinary women who had profound influence on the social, political, and religious revolutions of our era.

Now Second Wave Feminism is certainly one of the most important social movement of the last century and when we look at the stat of Judaism in the world today, we certainly see that this is true. Antler brings us revisionist history in which she measures how over-represented Jewish feminists were exactly and she groups together theologians, lesbians, secular liberals, Communists, and others, defining “radical” broadly. If these groups had not struggled, there would be no Second Wave.

Antler looks specifically at two groups: the mostly secular Jewish radical feminists of the late 1960s who did not share or speak about their Jewish pasts and those Jewish radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s for whom “feminism enabled” their Jewish identity. These woman wanted to reshape their Jewish identities through feminism.

What I really found in this book is that Antler puts many current disputes about gender and Jewish identity into perspective. Looking back at the 1960s, many Jewish leftist founders redefined themselves as Jewish universalist feminists who were dedicated to getting rid of racism and anti-Semitism. In the 1970s, Jewish feminists looked to either update Judaism or their private lives.

Antler states that to become a Jewish feminist cost—there would be opposition from the Jewish establishment who would think that this would bring about the destruction of the family and many of the men of the left refused to support these women who were tried to change Jewish ritual, change the family and challenge stereotypes. It is never easy to be radical.

Antler looks at Orthodox women like Blu Greenberg, the founder of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who challenged the patriarchy while still preserving some tradition and Arlene Agus, who was responsible a number of reforms to Judaism including some that helped women trapped by Orthodox divorce. Antler also examines Rabbi Laura Geller, the third reform female rabbi ordained, and the theologian Judith Plaskow. These are indeed JEWISH feminists as are others and we see that the unifying factor is “the struggle against anti-Semitism, the trauma of the Holocaust, and the feeling that no matter what Betty Friedan had written about housewives in 1963, it didn’t speak to their generation.” So these women founded their own organizations.

This is a provocative exploration of being Jewish and Feminist in the 1960s and 70s.  We read personal stories of leading activists and see how intertwined identities produced powerful political consequences.  This is a critical volume for feminist Jews to be able to understand the past as well as an excellent primary source for historians of feminism and Judaism. It is quite academic but with a little effort everyone can read and understand what Joyce Antler has to say.

“Prodigal Children in the House of G-d” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— A Personal Book, A Personal Review

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Prodigal Children in the House of G-d”, Austin Macauley Publishing, 2018.

A Personal Book, A Personal Review

Amos Lassen

Every few years, a book comes along that represents so much of my own personal feelings that it becomes one of those special volumes that sit on my desk so that I can refer to it often. This is such a book but it is even more than that—it is a symbol of friendship that grew out of my respect for Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s writing. First and foremost, Taub is a poet who I first met through his poetry as I slowly moved through his first four books. Then about four years ago he came to Boston for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and I not only had the chance to meet him and hear him read but he read at my Temple and wowed the congregants. Two more books of poetry came, one in Yiddish and then there was a translation of stories from Yiddish to English and now this collection of ten short stories.

“Prodigal Children in the House of G-d” is an exploration that takes us into the themes of family, community, and exile largely from ultra-Orthodox Jewish and/or queer perspectives (with that sentence, some of you already understand why this book is so important to me). There are no specific locations in the stories thus making them truly universal as they can be set anywhere. They are set in the present, or perhaps the past or the future—it does not matter. What does matter is how the characters deal with religious tradition as they take steps to reshape their lives and, in many cases, do so at great personal risk. We meet an elderly woman who lives alone and reflects on a love from long ago; we read of a trip that changes a mother and daughter forever and of a married Torah scholar who comes upon romance in an unexpected place.

As in traditional Orthodox Judaism the stories are separated by gender; there are five stories of daughters, five of sons yet they come together in amazing ways thus showing the oneness of both the Jewish and “other” communities. We sense the love with which Taub created his characters, they are part of the gentleness and sensitivity of the author himself and it would not surprise me to learn that the characters are different aspects of his own life. Like so many of us (and I do not mean just those who grew up in traditional Jewish homes), the characters question the lives they have inherited or chosen. Some have made good choices and others not so good. All of them are on journeys. 

With a background in poetry, it is no surprise that Taub’s prose is lyrical with each word carefully chosen. It is amazing to read what he is able to share in just a few words and/or sentences. 

In each story we have a look at a lonely soul dealing with the demands of ultra-Orthodox or other conservative tradition.  They are lesbians, heterosexuals, gay men and they struggle to live on their own terms. Taub uses a bit of psychological insight into the minds of his created characters and I was reminded of the way that Aviva Zornberg looks at Torah. There is always more than meets the eye. We are all aware of the gaps in the way parents see faith and in the way their children do but here it is sweet and tender. We see courage and we see love and respect but more than anything else we see the beauty of life and the beauty of words on a page. I debated with myself as I wrote this review whether or not to summarize each story but I realized that this would be a disservice to those who have yet to read them. Let me say that not only was I moved by what I read but I was also led to think about how others have dealt with the same issues that I dealt with and the place of religion, God and faith in my life. (A note on the spelling of the name G-d—many feel that we should only use the full name in prayer, hence the middle letter is deleted when not at prayer. I did this for many years but I no longer feel the need to do so since I have established my own relationship with the Divine).

Do not think that once you have finished reading the book that your relationship with the characters is over. They will stay with you. I read this over a month ago and I think about it every day. What I really found to be amazing is that everyone, regardless of religion and/or faith, will have something of him/herself here.

*A note on transliteration and pronunciation and a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms appear at the end of the book. The book includes two pairs of interlocking stories.

“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman— A Gay Icon

Faderman, Lillian. “Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death”, Yale University Press, 2018.

A Gay Icon

Amos Lassen

I did not know Harvey Milk (like everyone else claims— well, maybe not everybody, just those thousands who claim that they were at Stonewall and Woodstock, etc.). I was already living out of the country when he came to be known and he was gone before I returned to this country. What I do know about Milk comes from reading and the excellent films about him. I cannot think of anyone who I would rather have tell me the story of Harvey Milk than Lillian Faderman since I have enjoyed all of her books… and besides we are both Jewish and gay (but she is famous).

Harvey Milk was an elegant, eloquent and charismatic gentleman who had managed, practically on his own, to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Unfortunately for him and for us, he had not even been a full year in office when he was shot by a homophobic fellow supervisor. He was only 48-yeard-old and his death made him the most famous gay man of modern times. Milk was certainly influential and deeply loved and his loss of life was our loss of a very important friend. He had not set out to be a politician. He had been a teacher, a securities analyst, had worked on Broadway as a theater assistant and in politics for the election of Barry Goldwater.

Milk opened a camera store in San Francisco and soon became a leader in his community. He let go of organized religion and rejected Judaism yet remained “deeply influenced by the cultural values of his Jewish upbringing and his understanding of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust”. He decided to run for public office as a champion of the LGBT community, racial minorities, women, working people, the disabled and senior citizens— those who were marginalized in American life. He worked very hard to become a successful public figure with a distinct political voice.

This biography is part of the Yale “Jewish Lives” series and writer Faderman places emphasis on Milk’s Jewish cultural identity. He was twice an outsider— once for being gay and once for being Jewish. It is important to realize that his politics were influenced heavily by his family history and the basic tenets of Jewish liberalism just as they were by his sexual identity. Faderman did outstanding research to write this and then wrote the story in her beautiful prose, showing how his Jewish identity deeply informed his experiences and his politics.

Faderman introduces us to a Harvey Milk as part of the larger LGBT community so we actually get two histories here. We read of political contradictions, “human peculiarities” while gaining an analytic look at the LGBT movement overall thus making this a comprehensive history of gay rights.

“Of Men and Angels” by Michael Arditti— The Myth of Sodom

Arditti, Michael. “Of Men and Angels”, Arcadia, 2018.

The Myth of Sodom

Amos Lassen

The divine vengeance wreaked on the city of Sodom is one of the most enduring and influential myths of all time. Michael Arditti’s monumental work explores its creation, dissemination, and application in five key historical epochs. The characters that we meet here include exiled Jews, Babylonian temple prostitutes, a playwright, a Renaissance artist, a Bedouin escorting a Victorian canon and a Hollywood movie star with AIDS.

The novel extends over five historical periods, from the earliest days of the Hebrew Bible through to 1990s Los Angeles. Angels begin and end the book and these angels are guardians, messengers and intermediaries with distant deities and they hold the story together.

The story is centered the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone brought down by angels on God’s orders. Only Lot and his daughters are spared the destruction. This is a story we all know well.

Christianity argues that the fate of Sodom, and its neighboring city Gomorrah, was the result of its inhabitants “embracing” homosexuality. Thus the church condemns same-sex attraction is “the sin of Sodom”.

Arditti looks at how three millennia of homophobia has been based on how we read this text since the Bible tends to be unclear about what happened and its cause. The “sin of Sodom”, according to the words used in the Authorized Version of the Bible (authorized to whom?), is an absence of hospitality, over-attachment to other deities, or lack of trust in God. As A Jew, I have been taught that the sin of Sodom is the lack of hospitality and the fact that the stranger was not welcomed. There are strains of Judaism that focus on homosexuality as well. We also sometimes forget what happens after the destruction and I do not believe I have ever heard a sermon about Lot’s two daughters who fill their father with wine and sleep with him to propagate the race.

This is a novel about religious hypocrisy. Each of the five sections of the book tells the story of its victims. In the first section, we meet Jared, a young scribe who has been exiled with his fellow Jews to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. His job entails creating new written versions of the Genesis stories after the originals have been lost in the aftermath of battle. He really struggles to reconcile the teaching of Judaism on the sin of Sodom with his private exploration of a more tolerant attitude to human love in the city in which he is captive.

The second episode is set in mediaeval York where the Guild of Salters is acting out a Miracle Play telling about Lot’s wife who supposedly was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back on the destruction of Sodom. Simon Muskham whose faith leads him to take part enthusiastically in a re-enactment of Lot’s escape from Sodom as part of the city’s mystery plays, sees his same-sex attraction as a gift from God, an act of heresy that costs him at the hands of the church authorities.

The third section moves to the late 15th century in Florence where Sandro Botticelli paints the Destruction of Sodom, as the city is caught up in the religious fervor of Friar Savonorola’s revolutionary Puritanism, and the conflict between the Renaissance’s depiction of the human body and the strict sexual morality of Christian orthodoxy.

In the fourth section, we begin in Egypt with the story of an English Anglican priest who while visiting the Holy Land is determined to locate the ruins of Sodom. His narrow and very English self-assurance and self-righteousness is undermined by his companion, his nephew who has been in the employ of the East India Company. He witnessed the horrors of mutiny and has bitter and sad memories but what the hook is here is that he is an unrepentant “sodomite” and his stories easily disturb the parson’s narrow understanding.

The last section in set in Hollywood, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It begins with an entry from a mock-Wikipedia about the film “Flesh and Brimstone” that has been condemned by religious groups for its revisionist interpretation of the biblical stories of Abraham, Lot and Sodom. Nonetheless, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for actor Frank Archer in his last screen appearance. Archer had been a star for several decades and he was a closeted gay who could not be open about his sexuality and his relationship with his Russian-émigré lover Gene. Rumors that Frank is gay began to circulate after Gene’s death. Frank is HIV positive and his appearance in the film was courageous. This was at a time when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence.

One of the problems of writing about five different periods is that the story could feel “fragmented, repetitive, or didactic”, but Arditti is such a fine storyteller that this is a challenging and exciting read. Quite basically, “Of Men and Angels” is an unstinting look at the biblical roots of gay persecution but it is also so much more. We feel Arditti’s position, that those who have engaged and those that engage in gay sex have been subjected is revolting attitudes and punishments over time.

Arditti combines education and research with his art of storytelling to give us a walk through Judaeo-Christian and Islamic history. 
He maintains “that the rules and legends these traditions have bequeathed are tainted by falsification, intimidation or opportunistic lies.”


The angel Gabriel introduces each of the five episodes that question what actually happened at Sodom. 
What had the men of that town done to cause God to decree its destruction? Why were angels sent there and what was their essential identity? Why did Lot protect them to the extent of offering his daughters in their place to his menacing neighbors? What about the incest of Lot’s daughters’ with him after they have fled? Why does Lot’s wife look back at the town when she had been warned not to? These are not new questions and most of us have asked them many times.

The dilemmas of the five main characters are concerned with whether or not homosexuality is a sin, a crime, against nature, tolerated, celebrated or concealed. We are reminded of ideologies that have caused gay baiting, hating and martyrdom. Religion and its tales have been complicit in oppression, along with men’s paranoia and weakness. What Arditti depicts here are innocent expressions of natural urges, impetuous moments of pursuit of pleasure and/or compensation for what might otherwise be a “thankless and punishing existence.” We feel the author’s zeal in retelling history from a point of view that will comfort those who feel that they have been prey to unmerited criticism, or worse, for too long. Arditti’s intellectual understanding of his subject is sharp, disturbing yet satisfying. I am in total awe of the man and his novel.