Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told” by Saul Sugarman— Welcome to a Different Kind of Passover

Sugarman, Saul. “Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told”, illustrated by Max Charmley, Self-published, 2019.

Welcome to a Different Kind of Passover

Amos Lassen

Passover is traditionally celebrated as a holiday of freedom and as members of the LGBTQ community, we know what it is to be without freedom. We have made great progress in the last few years and right now we are the freest that we have ever been. For that alone, this year should be special and I cannot imagine it being more special than having our own Haggadah. Saul Sugarman has taken care of that for us by writing an unconventional Haggadah and it begins with the premise that many gay people come from humble roots and move to big cities. While Egypt was not exactly home for the Israelites since they were living there as slaves, they left in search of greener pastures. Like the children of Israel, many of us discovered our identities during the journey from one place to another. Sugarman reimagines the Exodus to have been something like this.

And yes this is a Haggadah but one that is definitely unconventional. “Gay Passover” sees the Exodus as a comedy that features Neil Patrick Harris as Moses, Cher as God and Oprah as the Angel of Death. We do not moan bout being slaves and talk how everything would have been enough; instead we have a few laughs and raise a few cups and enjoy a variation of the original setting out from Egypt.

This story begins in a suburban Middle American town, where residents face their own plagues including having the plainest and most basic of hairdos while living in ugly homes with no fabulosity. But then the gays arrive and soon everything is very different, the neighborhoods are gentrified, parties became fabulous and there is none of that Manischewitz purple wine. The town mayor begins to worry the entire town will turn gay, and orders families to kill their gay babies  and there is always one—one mother couldn’t do it, though, and so one the child that was  spared became Neil Patrick Harris, the adoptive son of conservative senators. “The Burning Bush” is a lesbian bar in Kansas and the 10 plagues for suburban straight people include skinny jeans and glitter bombs. Cher is the self-declared job and she is still trying to turn back time and help with things that happened before she established herself as the deity, This book includes the story as well as a “gayder” (pronounced like seeder but with a “g”) plate with symbols reflective of the LGBTQ community and our shared experiences.- Songs and games like “Let My Gays Go” and “One Twink, One Twink”: a variation on Chad Gadya- “The four gays”: a variation on “The four children” and even recipes to throw a fabulous “Gay Passover” party.

 

 

 

“A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” by Noam Sienna— An Infinite Rainbow

Sienna, Noam. “A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969”, Print-O-Craft, 2019.

An Infinite Rainbow

Amos Lassen

I first heard of “A Rainbow Thread” via a friend who told me he had just ordered a copy and while my friend gave me no details aside from this book Jewish and gay, I went ahead and wrote to the publisher to get a review copy. When the book arrived I was first astounded by the 425 page length and then by the tremendous amount of research that it must have taken to compile such a book. Writer Noam Sienna tells us that the book maintains a balancing act between “LGBTQ Jewish history as an infinite rainbow, with no beginning or end, and with no clear boundaries between its different facets” (great analogy and the fact that there is “a thread: a continuity that links our lives, our joys, and our struggles today to an ancestral heritage in the past and to our inheritors in the future.” Sienna does not see history as a march toward a universal goal. Rather he sees it as processes that are made up of  connections, interruptions, and innovations. While we cannot push who we are on those who came before us but we also cannot ignore their history that has become some of our behaviors and shared practices; traditions  that take stories to other places and times, and that are often relevant in our lives today.

I can imagine Sienna going through the history of the Jews looking for examples to back his thesis and to find so much (that many of us never thought about— my adult life has been consumed by my wanting to find a way to preserve the LGBT Jewish literary canon so that the wealth of information it holds can be shared by everyone. Yet with all the work that I have done in the past, I did not come across many of the selections in this anthology.

Sienna explains how to encounter primary historical documents as a way of imagining new futures. He uses classical midrashim as two texts and lets us reread them through queer eyes thus expanding our ideas on what Jewishness is today. We see that Jewish sexuality and gender in practice was not as restricted by boundaries of gender, sex, nationality, or religion as we might have thought. Sienna is not pushing any kind of gay agenda but rather pointing out that we must rethink Judaism. In doing so, we question assumptions about how Jews have understood sexuality and gender throughout our long history as a people during which Jewish identity is often imagined as existing in spite of, or in opposition to,—the world of Jewish tradition. We are encouraged to read and reread, reimagine and revise what today’s Judaism can mean. process of constantly rereading, reimagining, and revising our understanding of what Judaism has meant, and what it can mean for us today.

What is contained in the book spans two millennia, five continents and translations from fifteen different languages. “A Rainbow Thread” is, in effect, queer Jewish history that includes poetry, drama, commentary, law and memoir. Like so many others, I have doubted that there is a place for me in Judaism and I thought I was forging a new path when I remain determined to be an active practicing Jew. I have since learned differently and now have a way to prove it— with this book. I am overwhelmed by the amount of information in “A Rainbow Thread” and I find myself lingering over each text included here and wondering why I had never read it before. We are done sitting on Judaism’s margins and we can now pitch our tents where we want. It may not be easy to do so but remember that it was once impossible to do so. I am in awe of what I see here and can’t wait to use it as a teaching tool.

“My Butch Career: A Memoir” by Esther Newton— A Life of Struggle

Newton, Esther. “My Butch Career: A Memoir”, Duke University Press, 2019.

A Life of Struggle

Amos Lassen

It does not happen often that I read a book that is filled with passages that remind me of similar events in my life. Esther Newton’s “My Butch Career” which is already a Lambda Literary nominee is such a book. I laughed, I cried, I thought heavily as I read and I am determined to meet Esther one day to discover that she is really my true sister or brother or whatever.

Esther Newton had a difficult childhood. She shares that she “became an anti-girl, a girl refusenik, caught between genders,” and that her “child body was a strong and capable instrument stuffed into the word ‘girl.’” Later, in early adulthood, when she was on her way to becoming a trailblazing figure in gay and lesbian studies, she “had already chosen higher education over the strongest passion in my life, my love for women, because the two seemed incompatible.”

She has quite a story to tell and I loved reading how she came to terms with the new identity that she chose as she struggled to be an academic at the same time that she searched for love. This was happening at a time of intense homophobic persecution; a time when acceptance was a rarity even in the academic community by people who knew better. To reach that point in her life. Newton went through dramas and conflicts and even sexual molestations and attempts to live what was thought to be a “normal” (whatever that means) life.

She was denied tenure at Queens College and at SUNY Purchase despite having written a highly influential book. Some of the important periods of her life include her father Saul’s strong masculinity and its influence on her, her introduction to middle-class gay life, and her love affairs (“including one with a well-known abstract painter and another with a French academic she met on a spur of the moment trip to Mexico and with whom she traveled throughout France and Switzerland”). By the time she was finally able to achieve personal and scholarly stability. This was “in the company of the first politicized generation of out lesbian and gay scholars with whom she helped create gender and sexuality studies.” I remember reading her “Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America” and being blown away by it. I had already left this country and was pursuing academic status in Israel where we were preparing to launch the first academic gay and lesbian studies program in 1980. I know that this book would somehow need to find its way into the curriculum.

I see Esther Newton as one of our first gender outlaws and her story is such an important look at the road to becoming a gay academic and how recently this happened. Here was Newton at a time when transgressing from one’s assumed gender was thought of as heresy and what an important story for those who will soon face this.

Newton shares how she developed her butch identity and that she prefers the words “dyke” and “butch” to lesbian. She also tells of the difficult time she had as an anthropology graduate student and professor because of her sexuality (and here is a place to weep openly as I did). 

Newton’s mother was unmarried when she was born, and it was a long time before Esther learned who her biological father was. The man who played the role of father in her life was a domineering yet charming leftist and  former Communist who achieved prominence in psychology. He had three other wives after he left her mother. Esther is part Jewish and identifies as  a secular Jew. She loved the Jewish and leftist feel of New York City, and was miserable when her mother moved to Palo Alto, California.

Newton went through years of anguish trying to work out her sexuality. While at the University of Chicago she was told that she had to wear skirts to be accepted as serious anthropologist. She did not realize that writing her dissertation on drag queens would restrict her choices for employment and, in fact, it led to her becoming involvedd in LGBT studies and in the gay liberation movement. Today, she strongly supports butch/femme identification. 

Newton says early on in her book that “Young people do not see being butch as ‘transgressive,’ but lesbians challenge the gender hierarchy just as much, or more, by staying women. I am opposed to pressure being put on masculine girls and women to ‘go all the way’ by transitioning.” I read quite an alarming rebuttal to this which showed me the person who wrote it, did so not really knowing what she was talking about and had misunderstood Newton.  

I especially love that Newton did not hide the personal from us and she shared the mistakes she had made in life as well as how her personality developed. She shares her failed relationships as well. By doing so, we never question her honesty—she is, at times, brutally honest.   After years of struggle, personally and professionally Newton finds a community in an evolved culture and “helps to create the academic study of gender and sexuality. This book is simultaneously a memoir and an exemplar of this important field.” Today at 78 years old, Newton re-examines her milieu and shares her story with us all and I feel great pride in having read what she has written. Esther Newton, although she might not like this title as a gender defying secular Jew, has become my Queen Esther.

 

“Esther Newton, one of the pioneers of gay and lesbian studies, is formerly Term Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and Professor of Anthropology at Purchase College, State University of New York. She is the author of several books, including Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas and Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town, both also published by Duke University Press, as well as the groundbreaking Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America.”

“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.