Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“Sadness is a White Bird” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher— A Coming-of-Age Love Triangle

 

Rothman-Zecher, Moriel. “Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel”, Atria Books, 2018.

A Coming-of-Age Love Triangle

Amos Lassen

Jonathan is a young man who is preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country. We begin in an Israeli military jail, where Jonathan remembers clearly the series of events that led him there. It all began two years earlier when after spending several years in Pennsylvania, Jonathan moves back to Israel and is ready “to fight to preserve and defend the Jewish state”. His grandfather was a Salonican Jew whose community was erased by the Nazis and he was one of the pioneers to help establish Israel. Jonathan is conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories and this becomes a very deep concern when he meets Nimreen and Laith, the twin daughter and son of his mother’s friend.

From that meeting, the three become inseparable as they wandered the streets on weekends, had new adventures and laughed together. They shared so much from joints on the beach, trading snippets of poems, intimate secrets and family histories, resentments, and dreams. In effect, they created their own family. With his draft date rapidly approaching, Jonathan wrestled with the question of what it means to be proud of your heritage and loyal to your people, while also loving those outside of your own biological and tribal family. Then the day that put Jonathan in prison came and his relationship with the twins was changed forever.

This novel looks at one guy as he tries to find his place in the world and who found, along the way, love. In the process, we gain a look at identity formation, both personal and collective. As I read, I was reminded of so many of my own life experiences. As young people we become very aware of the changes in the world that we want to make. We establish our own set of values and beauty and see what we want to see.

The story is told through letters written by Jonathan whose grandfather convinced him of the honor and duty that cones with the defense of Israel. Jonathan becomes devoted to his grandfather’s dreams of recapturing some of that which he lost when they were forced to leave Palestine. At the same time he is became friends with Palestinian Arabs, Laith and Nimreen.

Laith and his twin sister, Nimreen, became Jonathan’s voices of the other side of the political divide. Their relationship becomes strained because of ideologies and Jonathan is sure that he must follow what his grandfather told him to do. Laith and Nimreen feel that their view of the situation is right.

Jonathan tells the story through his letters, thoughts, journal entries that he writes to Laith, his friend he feels he’s lost along the way as he sits in an Iranian military jail cell. How he got there and everything else about his life is told in flashback.

This is so much more than a coming-of-age story— it also shows the dangers and ravages of war and this is also a love story of a kind. We sense Jonathan’s spirit, thoughts and feelings and the see the effect that the Israeli/Palestinian has on his relationship with Laith and Nimreen. Beautifully written and honest and sincere there is, of course, a message here.

“Candies from Heaven” by Gil Hovav— Stories to Eat By

Hovav, Gil. “Candies from Heaven”, translated by Ira Moskowitz, Toad Publishing, 2017.

Stories to Eat By

Amos Lassen

Gil Hovav is one of Israel’s natural cultural treasures. He is a wonderful storyteller. In “Candies from Heaven” we get a wonderful sampling of stories as well as recipes that help us enjoy the food for thought.

Hovav is not only a masterful storyteller he is a born raconteur. His family is unforgettable— colorful uncles, aunts, and other family members that we meet through the stories that use food as a lemotif. The stories are actually autobiographical accounts of growing up in Jerusalem in the 60s and 70s and they read like short stories in the great tradition of Sholem Aleichem—-they are related with “great wisdom, tenderness, insight, and wit as tart as a bowl of Yemenite pickles.” The recipes include sweet sour chorba tomato soup and his Aunt Levana’s eggplant and feta bourekas. It is great fun to read intimate details about someone else—- it is almost as if we are pulled into the family. We really see the diverse cultural mix that was the foundation of Israel.

 

“The Diamond Setter” by Moshe Sakal— Inspired by True Events

Sakal, Moshe. “The Diamond Setter”, translated by Jessica Cohen, Other Press, 2018.

Inspired by True Events

Amos Lassen

 “The Diamond Setter” traces a complex web of love triangles, homoerotic tensions, and family secrets across generations and locations. We get a new look at life in the Middle East as it really is. Written by Moshe Sakal this is his first novel to be translated into English. The story is related by characters whose lives intertwine and revolve around a rare diamond.

In his first novel to be translated into English, Israeli writer Sakal uses elements of his own biography and weaves them into a story that is part mystery, part family history, and part myth. Tom narrates the story that starts when he begins an apprenticeship in his uncle Menashe’s jewelry shop in Tel Aviv. A customer comes into the shop with what she claims belongs to Menashe: a long-lost blue diamond known as “Sabakh.” Tom and his boyfriend, Honi, become involved with a young man from Damascus named Fareed, who may be connected to the diamond in some way. From this point, the story moves backwards as the characters’ lives are traced back through their respective family trees and into the history of the Middle East. We learn about the mysterious diamond and the lives it’s touched as it is set against the backdrop of the founding of the State of Israel and the deepening conflict that developed at that time. Sakal plays with boundaries while reality and fiction come together when Tom discusses the book he’s writing (also called “The Diamond Setter”) as the story progresses.

As the mystery of the diamond unfolds, characters’ lives cross in unexpected ways and we are reminded that we are all connected to each other in some way.

There is a fascinating obsession with property here. The question of who will inherit Israel when the time comes is never answered. We never really understand the meaning of the word “inherit”. On opposing sides are Menashe Salomon, the moral jeweler with an intricate history of its own and Amiram Kadosh, Menashe’s scheming, money-driven landlord who plans to renovate the building where the jewelry shop is and turn it into a boutique hotel. Between the two is a large cast of characters that includes respective children, friends, intimates, confidents, and forbears, some of whom the two men actually have in common.

This story is about Israel today as she is in her most liberated and existence. complex, acculturated, even liberated format. This is about Israel without looking at war, religion, disagreement, etc and t is sort of like a state of little America where there is a constant flow of cultures and languages. Several of the men and women here are gay or bisexual, and little is made of it and even the older characters have no problem with sexuality. The past is constant throughout and it provides solace and grounding. and grudges and arguing. The symbol of the past is “Sabakh,” the blue diamond. It had once been given to Gracia, a beautiful, talented, great aunt of Menashe’s, by a Turkish sultan as a reward for her singing. The diamond’s journeys and the subsequent “curse” attached to it become a major theme in the novel. Eventually it comes to Fareed, a handsome young Syrian who met Rami on Grindr. Rami introduces Fareed to Honi, another young gay man whose father is Amiram Kadosh, and from there the story begins to move. Fareed will return the diamond to its rightful owner and we will learn about the intertwining destinies of almost all of the many characters.

What we really see is a portrait of modern Israel that is good and positive. We read about the movement to equalize wealth and opportunity, and that understands that Israel cannot exist without its Palestinians and their own history and culture. It is all about economic justice and this is quite a different Israel than the one I lived in.

Fareed came to Tel Aviv with the intention of returning the diamond to its rightful owner and is soon swept up in Tel Aviv’s vibrant gay scene, and a turbulent protest movement. He falls in love with both an Israeli soldier and his boyfriend and shares the story of his family’s past that turns out to be a tale of forbidden love beginning in the 1930s that connects Fareed and the jeweler.

Writer Sakal presents us with a wonderful mosaic of characters, locales, and cultures that allow us to look beyond the present military conflicts. This is a fascinating look at the Middle East through the intergenerational lives and loves of its characters.

“Paper is White” by Hilary Zaid— The Pull of the Past

Zaid, Hilary. “Paper is White”, Bywater Books, 2018.

The Pull of the Past

Amos Lassen

Whether we realize it or not, the past is always with us and memory is one of the defining human characteristics. In “Paper is White”, writer Hilary Zaid takes us on an exploration of survival, secrets, memory and love through her very fresh and original characters. I was totally involved already by the second page and had to force myself to leave the book to get something to eat. It has been a long time since a book affected me so deeply.

Ellen Margolis is assistant curator at the Foundation for the Preservation of Memory in San Francisco and her job entails recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors before they are all gone forever. That time is coming on us very quickly and what happened during the Holocaust has become part of the psyche of many. Ellen understand about the Holocaust since her parents and grandmother survived that horrible period in human history and she considers herself able to hold her emotions in. However, when she and her girlfriend decide to marry, the ghost of the past decide to pay her a visit. As they move closer to enjoying the benefits of marriage equality, Ellen feels a need to look at the legacy of intergenerational silence and she is drawn into a clandestine entanglement with a woman who is a Holocaust survivor and who seems to have more to hide than to share. Ellen is soon involved in a search for buried history. She decides that if there is to be a wedding, she must realize how much she can share with the woman she loves.

Zaid’s novel is set in the 1990s in the San Francisco of the dot.com era and it looks at the pull of the past and how it affects the present and what we must do in order to feel whole and complete. Like many others, I have been inundated with writing about the Holocaust and had more or less pushed it to the side for the next few years. After all, how many times can we read the same thing over and over. In order to make a book about the Holocaust interesting reading, new approaches must be found in how to deal with it and that is what Hilary Zaid has done here. Her story is inventive and tender and that is just the first of many innovations here. She faces the silences of those who came before her and works her way through them and we are along for the ride. The stories we have heard in the past, haunt us in the present but we ca never allow us to forget about an entire group of people being forced off the face of the earth because of their beliefs. We see how silence can either be just that or a weapon. We also see the importance of love and that it is redemptive. Granted I have been tight-lipped about what happens here but that is deliberate for I do not want anyone to approach this book with ideas in their heads. In approaching the past, we are also approaching life and while the stories may haunt us forever, that is not a bad thing. I was in love with the beauty of the prose here and the freshness of the topic. This is a read that you do not want to miss … and there is wonderful humor here.

“Point… of the Pink Triangle” by David Edmonson— His Name Was 75224

Edmonson, David. “Point… of the Pink Triangle”, Beau to Beau Books, 2017.

His Name was 75224

Amos Lassen

The number 75224 that was to become his name was tattooed on his arm with a filthy needle and it would stay with him as a reminder of what he was forced to experience in the most infamous and notorious of Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz.

Pieter Belinsky was a handsome and spirited boy ho had grown up in a small village in Poland. He had no father and he was raised by a loving mother. They were forced into hiding and then transported where he was sexually and physically enslaved by a Block Commander at Auschwitz. His only chance of survival was by submission, chance and circumstance. He was forced to wear the pink triangle that labeled him as a homosexual. Homosexuals in the camps were considered to be inferior to everyone else. Those wearing the pink triangle were often given impossible work details, severely abused, beaten and tortured, and in some cases castrated.

When he was finally liberated and began a new life in Americas, Pieter became Peter Ballantine, star of the Broadway stage. When a chance encounter with his former Commandant in a hotel lobby in New York City gave him an opportunity for revenge made him wonder if that would avenge all that he had been through. It most certainly would not erase it.

He tells us of when the Lagerfhurer satisfied himself at the expense of a young and innocent Jew while he put thousands of others to death for social deviancy and for defiling the racial laws of the Nazi State.

 

Between the years of 1938-1944, 50,000 to 63,000 citizens of all nationalities were systematically rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Many were Jews, some were not, but all were further stigmatized and forced to wear the pink triangle that became known as the badge of shame. what became known as a badge of shame.

“Terror Has No Diary: Annals of a Gay Jew and His Comrades Behind a Holy Wall in Nazi Europe” by Michael Melnick— Twelve Survivors

Melnick, Michael. “Terror Has No Diary: Annals of a Gay Jew and His Comrades Behind a Holy Wall in Nazi Europe”, Deer Mountain, 2013.

Twelve Survivors

Amos Lassen

Of the 7000 Jews who were living in the Baltic seaport of Libau (Liepaja), Latvia when the Germans invaded on June 21, 1941, only 200 remained alive when the city was liberated May 9,1945. Of these, maybe two dozen were hiding within Libau itself. This is about 12 of them. Eleven adults were in the care of Robert and Johanna Sedols who hid them in a cellar behind a false wall constructed with the bricks of the demolished Choral Synagogue. Then there was once child who was cared for by a widow, Otilija Schimelpfenig. She took him into the secure comfort of her home. For their courage and moral stature, the Sedols and Mrs. Schimelpfenig are memorialized as “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. How these twelve Jews arrived at their hiding places, and how they endured until liberation, is the remarkable story that is told here.

Because so little was known about those that perished, we often get stories of characters that are semi-drawn. That is not the case here. Writer Michael Melnick gives us a complex portrait of ordinary people in extreme circumstances in which we meet true heroes. We read of the e moral and emotional ambiguities of those hiding and those enabling them.

The diary of Kalman Linkimer is the compelling story of how 11 ordinary people survive the worst period in the history of the world by living in hiding in a cellar for 18 months.

“Nice Jewish Boys” by Sarah L. Young— A New Reality

Young, Sarah L. “Nice Jewish Boys”, Less Than Three Press, 2017.

A New Reality

Amos Lassen

At first, Avishai Miller seems to be a typical kid. However his mother is dead, he barely speaks to his father, and he’s secretly dating Noah, a male classmate at his Jewish private school. When their relationship is discovered, everything they know changes, and they struggle to find their place in a new, unwelcoming reality.

When I was a youngster, I thought that I was the only gay teen in the world but now I know I was not alone. Avishai was lucky to have Noah so they could navigate life together. Noah and Avishai are characters that we can relate to and it is quite easy to love them just as they love each other. However, of course this is no Utopia for the boys— they face challenges within their community and with their parents, but they work things out together. They have some serious issues that to face just as all LGBT youth do. I just wish there had been a book like this when I was growing up.

There are no great surprises or earth shattering revelations but that is just fine. We are empathetic to the boys who face very real challenges. I understand that the author wrote this when she was just 15 years old and for that alone she must be commended.

The development of the characters throughout the book portrays the reality of how people can grow. It is fascinating to read about being gay and Jewish in characters that are so young. We do not often get observant Jewish gay characters in gay literature

I really love how the boys deal with the consequences in a Jewish religious environment.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin— A Family Story

Benjamin, Chloe. “The Immortalists”, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.

A Family Story

Amos Lassen

If Chloe Benjamin’s “The Immortalists” had a subtitle it would be, “If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?” Here is a family saga that spans fifty years and begins in 1969 on New York City’s Lower East Side with the news that a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die has come to town. The Gold children, four adolescents sneak out to hear their fortunes. What they learns charts the next fifty years of their lives. “The Immortalists” is a novel that examines destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next in a powerful story about how and what we believe and family.

We begin when Varya is 13, Daniel is 11, Klara is 9 and Simon is 7. They come from a religious Jewish family and they are close to both mother and father. Anxious to hear the psychic, they each meet with her individually and she tells them each the day they will die. At first, we do not know whether or not they shared this information with each other. We know that some of the kids are upset, in particular young Simon, but even Klara and Daniel seem shaken. Varya, however, has been told she will have a very long life.

Each of four sections follows the life of one of the children. We learn what happens to each and whether or not the psychic was right about the date of their death. Gradually we learn what each of the children were told and how the prophecy affected their lives.

WE explore how the knowledge and/or the fear of one’s date of death can affect how one lives their life and whether this knowledge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or whether it can easily be changed by one’s own choices and free-will.

Each section poses different answers to the question of whether or not it’s better to know when our lives will end and just what consequences could follow. Be prepared to clear a large block of time because once you begin reading, you will not be able to stop.

I found myself recognizing parts of my own life in the lives of the siblings especially when we see that as they grow and mature, they decide to either stay close to New York and their Jewish roots or get as far away from home as quickly as they can. We find ourselves caring about the characters and writer Benjamin has the ability to bring places to life through her descriptions. Theirs is both sadness and love in “The Immortalists” just as there is in life. We see the opposing factors counterbalances by their opposites in the children’s mother Gertie who is both their strength and their nemesis in the same way their Jewish heritage comforts and repels them. The kids remain connected between when they seem to be hating and criticizing one another.

We all intellectually understand that that death is an inevitable fact of life but how does knowing the exact date death influence the way we make life choices? Is knowing when we die a blessing or a curse? Does it influence religious/spiritual beliefs? Does the date indicate predestination or a self-fulfilling prophecy? These questions are present throughout the read. The impact of this knowledge is seen as each sibling approaches the predicted date of death. With the exception of one of them, they never discuss this among themselves. In fact, they seem to grow more distant emotionally and physically with each passing year, yet they are all acutely aware of the prophecy that binds them together.

We read of the four lives from 1978 to 2010 during which various relevant social issues are introduced including the start of the AIDS epidemic, the war in Afghanistan and animal research. Even though the characters are not always admirable or likeable (who is?), they are always relatable.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Simon escapes to the West Coast and searches for love in ’80s San Francisco; Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician and is obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

There is suspense that comes from the characters as we examine issues of mortality and immortality, destiny and self-determination, magic and science, and the past and the future.

“SLIDE!” by Carl Wolfson— “The Baseball Tragicomedy That Defined Me, My Family, And the City of Philadelphia— And How It All Could Have Been Avoided Had Someone Just Listened to My Lesbian Great Aunt”

Wolfson, Carl. “SLIDE!”, Mascot Books, 2017.

“The Baseball Tragicomedy That Defined Me, My Family, And the City of Philadelphia— And How It All Could Have Been Avoided Had Someone Just Listened to My Lesbian Great Aunt”

Amos Lassen

“Slide!” is a very funny true story about the greatest collapse in baseball history as seen through the eyes of a boy who was there. In 1964, the Philadelphia Phillies began their bid for the pennant with an almost perfect run. With twelve games left to play, it seemed that they were a shoo-in. For 11-year-old Carl Wolfson, this was the happiest summer of his young life until the losses began and Phillies fans were thrown into despair and the dream of a World Series forced Carl to find refuge in comedy. He was lucky in that he was surrounded by comedy and it was funny even when his parents argued (about foolishness). Carl’s grandmother “(who was so stubbornly Republican that she refused to carry a Roosevelt dime)” and his great aunt who wrote protest letters to the Phillies front office that became legendary kept him distracted from the reality of a losing season for his favorite team..

Carl came of age against the backdrop the Kennedy assassination, the almost unbelievable Goldwater-Johnson campaign, the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s, and the Red Scare and we see what life was like when things were changing rapidly in this country. It was a “tumultuous time of national and international change.” This is a story of childhood, family, and baseball and is a fun read.

“Pnina, My Comrade in Arms” by Lucienne Marode Skopek— A Life

Skopek, Lucienne Marode. “Pnina, My Comrade in Arms”, Editions Allewil Verlag, 2017.

Å Life

Amos Lassen

Lucienne Marode Skopek has a PhD in sociolinguistics and lives between Washington and Geneva and is the author of various books. In this book, she pays tribute to a friend, a comrade in arms she met during her military service in Israel. The themes include friendship, the Holocaust, homosexuality, the passing of time and she deals with them with thoughtfulness and sensitivity about these episodes in Pnina’s life. Despite the tragic aspect of historic events that form the background of the book, Skopek is never accusative, moralizing or sentimental. she approaches her subject by bringing everything into clear focus even when some of the moments are for those with strong stomachs.