Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“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.

“Jewboy of the South” by Don Koplen— A Mess

Koplen, Don. “Jewboy of the South”, CreateSpace, 2017.

A Mess

Amos Lassen

Because I am a gay Jew who was raised in the South, I looked forward to reading this. Not only was I astounded by the book’s inaccuracies, I was ashamed of the stereotypes here. The story goes something like this— Donny is a Jewish high school student in a small town in the Southern United States. We meet him as he is dealing with his religion, sex-life and the southern justice system’s false imprisonment of his black carpenter/philosopher hero. By accident, he learns that his girlfriend’s father, a prominent Klan minister, is having an affair with the Orthodox rabbi. Our characters here include Donny, his black prostitute friend, her war hero minister lover, and others who come together to free Donny’s hero.

This is not a book about being Jewish in the South, but an overlong look at self-obsession, raunchy vulgarity, and how many feel towards Southerners, blacks, and Jews. The characters and experiences they have are inauthentic. The sex scenes are pornographic and without feeling. The dialog is extremely vulgar and the prose is awful. Racist stereotypes are offensive. The Jewish characters are seen as liars, nasty and sex-starved. The rabbi comes is an ignoramus and unlike any rabbi that I have ever known. As for Jewishness what we do have, we see through Jewish caricatures. I have never read a book that is so self-indulgent. Overall, it is an “outrageous amalgam of Jews, Rednecks and African Americans”.

 

“Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound” by Judith Katz— The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Special Edition

Katz, Judith. “Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound”, Bywater Books, 2017.

The 25th Anniversary Special Edition

Amos Lassen

Judith Katz takes a look at a Jewish family with three daughters. Nadine’s (née Morningstar) leaves the family home and moves escapes from her incendiary Jewish family into the lesbian town of New Chelm. She sees this not so much as a move but rather as an escape. Originally published in 1992, the book won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction.

Most of the plot is about two of the sisters. Nadine is a troubled violin player, who has been estranged from her family since the Friday evening she set her hair on fire; and Jane, who is thought to be the good daughter”. Jane, however, does not see herself as such and issues are raised as she gets ready to be the maid of honor in the wedding of the third sister, Electa. Both Nadine Jane’s now live in New Chelm, the lesbian Jewish community. After accidentally running into each other, they face several events that take them back to the family. The girls’ mother shares that preparations for her daughter’s wedding remind her of her childhood dream of becoming a rabbi.

Succinctly said the plot goes like this: “Nadine Pagan’s dyke sister Jane wants to find her. Her lover Rose wants to marry her. And her mother Fay wants to forget her. All Nadine wants is to stop the buzzing in her head.”

The story centers on the experiences of Nadine and Jane Morningstar and the themes of alienation, familial dysfunction, coming-of-age, identity formation, drug addiction, and obsessive romance. The novel is character-driven and author Katz has indeed created unforgettable characters and we not only see but also understand and experience their struggles. While this is on the surface a book about lesbians and Jews, it is so much more than that as it examines the human condition in modern society.

The magical realism of the plot reminded me of writings by Isaac Bashevis Singer and it is fascinating to see how Katz took her world and made it contemporary. Others have mentioned that they did not care for this but I, personally, loved it.

“Gone to Soldiers” by Marge Piercy—Conflicts

Piercy, Marge. “Gone to Soldiers”, Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Conflicts

Amos Lassen

“Gone to Soldiers” is an epic novel about World War II that takes us from the United States to Europe, from the North African campaign to New Zealand, from Japan to Palestine and recreates the atmosphere of the wartime capitals with their sexual abandon, luxury and deprivation and terror and excitement. We get an interweaving of the stories of ten remarkable characters: a New York divorcee and writer of romances-turned-war correspondent whose ex-husband David is involved in intelligence to crack the Japanese codes, Bernice Coates, who escapes life to fly fighters as a Woman’s Airforce Service Pilot, a painter who parachutes into Nazi-occupied France to fight with the Resistance, Zachary Barrington Taylor, for whom war is the most exciting game, Jacqueline Levy-Monot, who leads Jewish children over the Pyrenees to safety, her sister, Naomi, a troubled adolescent and their cousin, Ruthie Siegal, a touching young woman who tries to keep alive her love for her boyfriend, while working on an assembly line in Detroit.

We meet six women and four men, who fought and died, worked and worried, and moved through the dizzying days of the war on this chronicle of humans in conflict with inhuman events. survival of the human spirit. The characters are well developed unusual regular people caught up in WWII.

This is a large book, 770 pages in which Marge Piercy takes us into the horror and heroism of 1939-1945. We see that good guys are not all good and that bad guys are not all bad. Women here are enjoy the new freedom of working and independence, but feel guilty about it. The emphasis really is on the women characters but this is not “chick lit.” There is a strong emphasis on following the evolution and maturation of the women cast of characters, more so than the men. Many of the characters are American Jews and we gain insight into their motivations, feelings, and actions.

There is also a lesbian subplot. I found myself really caring about the characters and I am sure they will stay with me for quite a while.

 

 

 

“Gravity” by Leana Lieberman— Veys Mir, an Orthodox Jewish Lesbian

Lieberman, Leana. “Gravity”, Orca Books, 2008.

Veys Mir, An Orthodox Jewish Lesbian

Amos Lassen

Fifteen-year-old Ellie Gold is an orthodox Jewish teenager living in Toronto in the late eighties. Ellie has no doubts about her strict religious upbringing but then she falls in love with another girl at her grandmother’s cottage. She is very aware that homosexuality clashes with Jewish observance, and so she feels forced to either alter her sexuality or leave her community. Meanwhile, Ellie’s mother, Chana, becomes convinced she has a messianic role to play, and her sister, Neshama, is rebelling against the restrictions of her faith. Ellie is afraid there is no way to be both gay and Jewish, but her mother and sister offer alternative concepts of God that help Ellie find a place for herself as a queer Jew.

Ellie’s conflict comes from the angst she feels when she reminds herself that Judaism says that she is an abomination, yet God and His commandments are supposed to be good. Neshama says God is just an idea made up by stupid men who say women can’t love other women. And we get to the question of God. When Ellie meets Lindsay, she is faced with denying her sexuality or abandoning her community. While she looks for help from others, her decisions are all her own.

Ellie is terrified of being caught due to the mixed messages her religion sends about homosexuality. In her family the Torah is everything, so there’s no way she can talk to her parents about what’s going with her. Neshama, her older sister, however is sick of the sexism and restrictions placed on them by their faith and is letting it go. Ellie doesn’t want to stop being religious, she just wants to figure out how to make it work for her without being like those hypocrites who pick and choose which scriptures should be followed literally and which are out of date.

Her attraction to Lindsay comes from the fact that Lindsay is how Ellie wants to be. Ellie actually stalks Lindsay for several weeks before making contact. It was weird to see Ellie, a religious girl, behaving in such a way. I had the feeling that Lindsay was using Ellie so that she would feel loved and wanted because she did not get that at home but we come to see that genuine feelings are shared by the two girls. Lieberman does an excellent job writing about Orthodox Judaism.

This is a book about both coming out and coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation while trying to find one’s identity in a closed community. Ellie has to learn that she has the power to make her own decisions and choices and that there isn’t always some authority to tell her what the right thing to do is.

Lieberman shows that there is a place for all kinds and types of people including Ellie, in society and religion.

 

“Never Mind the Goldbergs” by Matthue Roth— A Punk-Rock Orthodox Jew

Roth, Matthue. “Never Mind The Goldbergs”, Push, 2006.

A Punk-Rock Orthodox Jew

Amos Lassen

Hava is a seventeen-year-old Orthodox Jew who has opinions about everything around her and who is very unorthodox in that she has spiked hair, loves punk culture, and punctuates her colorful, rebellious language with four-letter words (though she is reverently careful to refer to the Supreme Being as “G-d”). Her best friends are her confidant Ian, who is gay and not Jewish, and her platonic soul mate Moishe, who makes offbeat films and practices a kind of countercultural Orthodox Judaism. After a successful stint in a play, Hava is offered a lead role in a Hollywood sitcom about a caricatured American modern Orthodox Jewish family. She is immediately taken into a world of make-believe and pretense, and spends the summer trying to sort out what is real and what isn’t and what her religion means to her. Frequent visits from Ian and Moishe help to ground her, but most of her time is spent in states of boredom, confusion, alienation, and often pointless rebellion. Hava shares her story in a vivid, funny, and distinguishable voice. Writer Matthue Roth gives his readers an irreverent, insider look into two cultures and at a character trying to define herself.

Roth also gives honest insights into religion as he meticulously details Orthodox Jewish rituals and life. For those of us who have lived like this, the book is totally relatable, and for those who come from a very different background will find it to be a fascinating glimpse into a culture they previously knew little about. Roth looks at religion that is humorous, reverent, irreverent and deeply sincere all at the same time. We see Hollywood life through the eyes of a devout Jewish girl raised in New York in an almost satirical fashion, yet it is right on and makes everything even funnier and keeps the pages turning quickly.

Hava attempts to find a balance between her religion and her work and tries to make good choices for herself. She never does something just to stand out and get attention, nor does she try to fit in and conform. She simply is who she is. She is a flawed, realistic character, and that’s what makes this book work.

“Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary” by Jonathan Lerner— A Contemplative Memoir

Lerner, Jonathan. “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary”, OR Books, 2017.

A Contemplative Memoir

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Lerner was a founding member of the militant Vietnam-Era group the Weathermen. Hid memoir is an important addition to literature about the New Left in the Sixties and Seventies and the famous Weather Underground as well as essential reading for progressives struggling with how to act and survive in the Age of Trump.

Lerner gives us a very powerful account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology but there is also something else her. Lerner is a gay man and Weather Underground. At this point you might ask how could Lerner have hidden his sexuality for so long?

Lerner is a brutally honest, worldly, self-reflective gay raconteur who had once been an officer in an underground guerrilla army that was dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. He has unbelievable true stories from the ‘revolution’ of fifty years ago. His short book chronicles the rise and fall of one of America’s most notorious radical groups of the Vietnam Era. Today, Lerner is a journalist specializing in environment and urbanism and chair of Hudson Valley’s Conservation Advisory Council but he had been the minister of propaganda for the Weather organization as well as the editor of its publication “Fire!”. He has changed and today he speaks out against the group’s misogyny and violence, but agrees with its rejection of the Vietnam War and endemic racism.

Today he lives a quiet, small-town life with his husband. He came to radicalism, like so many others of his generation as a result of the Vietnam War. In 1967 he was a student at Antioch University, a product of a liberal Jewish family. He fell in love with the shock tactics of guerrilla street theater but realizes that doing something like what he did is objectionable. The members of his underground went on to rob banks and bomb draft boards. He seems himself as a revolutionary “compromised by the desire to keep out of trouble”. He was once willing to endorse the most drastic actions but was not willing to dirty his hands.

As he gained awareness of himself as a gay man who had other battles to fight (“in those days admitting to being gay was an enormous humiliation” and in some cases illegal and considered a mental illness), Lerner distanced himself from the Weather movement that ultimately disintegrated in the mid-1970s.

Lerner’s dishes about now-well-known radicals and probes the impulses that led a small group of educated, privileged young Americans to turn to violence as a means of political change. He also tells the true story of “an intellectually adventurous but insecure gay man immersed in the macho, misogynistic and physically confrontational environment of the Weathermen”.

Sometimes known as the Weather Underground, the Weathermen, or Weatherman, the group unleashed a series of bombings across the United States, attacking the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the U.S. State Department, among many other places. At its height, the organization consisted of several hundred people, all committed to violent change and toe-to-toe battles with the police.

Lerner invented himself first as “minister of propaganda” for the movement and participated in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba and he saw the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee. He then became an expensive gay hustler (My mother have said, “What a tragedy for a Jewish guy”), and shares American journey from idealism to destruction and beyond. There have been other memoirs from Weatherpeople but this is the only one that explores the painful history of the group with such brutal honesty. This is “A powerfully written account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology” and it is “As emotionally bruising as it is beautiful.”

“Where He Lay Down” by Anthony Ramirez— An Unwavering Sense of Self

Ramirez, Anthony. “Where He Lay Down”, Black Magic Media, 2017.

An Unwavering Sense of Self

Amos Lassen

Grayson has always known exactly who he is. He is “intelligent, witty, often drunk, Jewish, and deaf”. He cannot deny any of these traits. When he was just four-years-old and heard his mother says his name for the first time and until he received his master’s degree and became a physician assistant, his strong sense of self has been with him. However, when Grayson moved to Willsboro to begin his career and then met Aidan who was a nerdy engineer and friend of his roommate’s, things changed. Suddenly everything Grayson thought he knew about himself is questionable. He suddenly found himself unable to concentrate on his work and every time Aiden came near him, he had a strange feeling. Grayson then began to struggle to understand why life would not stop throwing problems at him. Remembering that he is deaf is important here and we see that it was years before he was able to hear for the first time, and years after that before he could speak like everyone else around him. He certainly never expected to have feelings for another boy, and unlike his deafness, there’s nothing he can do to translate his feelings into something he could understand.

It took some help from his best friends Max and Will, and his roommate Amelia before Grayson was able to go on a journey of self-discovery to answer the question he wasn’t even sure he could bring himself to ask about whether he was gay or not.

What a beautiful read this is and for anyone who has ever wondered about who he or she is, this is a must read. It is a book filled with drama, humor, compassion, and love and Anthony Ramirez is a wonderful storyteller. We are all aware of how difficult it is to find someone to share our love but we often forget how difficult it is to love ourselves.

Because of being born deaf, Grayson had an extra problem but he later found himself among the hearing thanks to a cochlear implant. This he can turn off or on as sees fit and it allows him to move “from an internal space of intense silence to the disorienting chaos of the noisy world of the hearing”. As far as he knew, he had always been straight and then to his surprise, he fell for a man. He had been rooted to one city, but then found in a different place with different thoughts about the future. His journey is one to a life beyond categories.

I love finding new authors who thrill me with their prose especially being as old and jaded as I am. Ramirez has given a shot of adrenalin to gay literature and those of you who are writing now are going to find it difficult to reach his standards; the standards he sets with this book. This book is not just beautiful, it is a gem to be cherished.