Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“Accidental Step-Brothers” by D. Greg Denton— Tony and Ben

Denton, D. Greg. “” ADS 2016.

Tony and Ben

Amos Lassen

A word of warning: this is a novel with a lot of sex so be prepared.

Catholic Tony and Jewish Ben met on their college campus. Tony is Catholic and Ben is Jewish. What they do not know is that their parents also met on campus some twenty years earlier. Vera, Tony’s mother, and Jake, Ben’s father, however, could not make their romance work. Tony and Ben are going to try hard in hopes that their relationship will work. Tony fells hard and quick for Ben, hard. When they learn that their parents have reconnected, while the boys were away at school, and plan on getting married, Tony is shocked at the thought of being his lover Ben’s step-brother. They realize that they have to learn to get along and deal with this for their parents’ sake and they share a house while their folks are away on their honeymoon. At first things did not go well go well and Ben resents being there because he is in love with Tony. Tony resents Ben’s moving in and invading his space. To find out this strange story progresses, you just have to read this book.

“1937: A Tale of Hollywood’s Nastiest Scandals” by David Wallace— Hidden and Public Scandal

Wallace, David. “1937: A Tale of Hollywood’s Nastiest Scandals”, CreateSpace, 2016.

Hidden and Public Scandal

Amos Lassen

Just as it is today, in 1937 Hollywood was a town like no other in this country. Even though excitement fame and fortune were easily found there, so is/was scandal of all kinds. Oakley Webster, a gay private detective discovers a strange connection between some of Hollywood’s celebrity Jewish community and Nazi Germany, and to find the truth to his suspicions, he uses help from some of the biggest names in Hollywood back then.

It actually took World War II for the media to see and to reveal what was going on. For a place so well known because of its gossip mill, how is it that big names like Louella Parsons did not speak out about what they knew? There was a connection between studios that were owned by Jews and Nazi Germany and something was going on with William Haines, the first openly gay star in Hollywood, and the role of Louis B. Mayer, cofounder of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studios? What about other celebrities that seemed also to be involved? How does a big-screen face like Joan Crawford factor in? David Wallace has based his novel on fact and history and we see that Hollywood was not as golden as some wanted others to believe. During this age of glamour, not all was glamorous. Using what he discovered in books of history about Hollywood, Wallace uses fiction to tell the truth.

Webster knows the rich and famous and writes about the smear scandal of Haines. He basically came into the entire business via gossip columnist Louella Parsons and Joan Crawford and heard from other actors who were sympathetic to Haines and his long-term partner. As he worked his way into the gossip, he learned of deliberate manipulation of the motion picture industry by Nazis who insisted on eliminating references to Jews from films and on this way the studios could continue preserving the lucrative German market. Parsons told that one of the first things that is learned in Hollywood is that everyone is a potential enemy. This is the basis for the novel, a dark, detective story inspired by true Hollywood scandals. Webster tries to solve several mysteries but this is more than a detective story, it is a look into the Hollywood of 1937 as we meet real and fictional characters. You will be turning pages as quickly as possible.

“The Facts of Life: A Novel” by Patrick Gale— Three Generations

Gale, Patrick. “The Facts of Life: A Novel”, Harper Reissue 2009..

Three Generations

Amos Lassen

Edward Pepper and Sally Banks live in an odd, secluded, eight-sided house, “The Roundel” in the English countryside. They hope that hardships are now behind them., Edward met Sally when she as a doctor, treated him for tuberculosis after he escaped from Nazi Germany to England and they have raised a family together. Edward is a German-Jewish composer and Sally has supported his every move but then he becomes preoccupied with the temptations of the movie industry.

The two and their children and grandchildren know that lives will be mixtures of happiness and tragedy and that they live in a world filled with hard realities. As they years progress, the family is tested by “mistrust, tyranny, misunderstanding, and an AIDS diagnosis”.

“The Facts of Life” is the story of Edward Pepper, a German born Jew whose family sends him to an English boarding-school thus allowing him to miss the concentration camp in which is parents died Part I of this book is the story of their life together. In Part II which is somewhat predictable we learn about the rest of the family.

Patrick Gale is a wonderful storyteller and his descriptions of historical places and is only matched by the fine the characters he has drawn here. They are perfectly flawed and three dimensional and I felt that I knew them. There are laughs in this book, but there is also great sorrow, tough decisions.

The beginning of the novel sets things up introducing the reader to Edward and Sally, their courtship and marriage in post-WWII England. In the second part of the book, we have a modern-day gay romance novel which becomes a novel of issues with the introduction of AIDS. It is a powerful read and one that will be remembered for time to come.

 

 

“One Day in France: Tragedy and Betrayal in an Occupied Town” by Jean-Marie Borzeix — April 6, 1944

Borzeix, Jean-Marie . “One Day in France: Tragedy and Betrayal in an Occupied Town”, translated by Gay McAuley, I.B. Tauris, 2016.

April 6, 1944

Amos Lassen

On April 6, 1944, detachment of German soldiers arrived in a rural French town to hunt down resistance fighters, many of whom were hiding in the region. More than sixty years later, the villagers clearly remember the day when four peasants from a nearby village were taken hostage and shot as an example to others. However, it is questionable as to whether they remember the whole story. Jean-Marie Borzeix set out to investigate the events of Holy Thursday 1944, and to reveal the hidden truths of that fateful day. He uncovered that there was a mysterious ‘fifth man’ shot alongside the resisters and what the author unraveled led him to Paris, Israel and into the Holocaust in France. The events of that day in a small, entirely typical, town illuminate the true impact of World War II in France.

This is a study of the various happenings of April 6, 1944 in the village of Bugout, a small, mountainous community in Vichy-controlled France. Jean-Marie Borzeix begins this story attempting to run down the facts behind the Thursday before Easter 1944 and the murders of four men in his hometown.

He takes us through his research in the many data collections and libraries throughout Europe. We are with him when he finds and follows the trail of the fifth man murdered on that day and when he finds and follows the train carrying Jewish women and children away, eventually to Auschwitz. What he has found is true.

We get a look at memory and why we remember, what we remember, what we forget as well as a look into cause and effect of war crimes. Atrocities can only happen when it is possible for onlookers to separate themselves from the whole process and to justify the end results in their minds. We see here that it is often necessary to look at events in our current lives with a different focus.

“Bread, Salt and Wine” by Dev Bentham— Love and Healing

bread-salt-and-wine

Bentham, Dev. “Bread, Salt and Wine” (Tarnished Souls) (Volume 4), Love is a Light Press, 2013.

Love and Healing

Amos Lassen

George Zajac was raised in a religious family and at age thirty-eight, we see that he’s a troubled man. He had been a banker in New York and in order to escape that boring and miserable life, he moves across the country to start over again in Los Angeles as the catering chef for a prestigious French Restaurant. It is there that ne meets Kenny Marks, a writer working as a waiter. Kenny is everything has never been. He is flamboyant, proud and confident in his sexuality. Against his better judgment, George agrees to a date with Kenny and the attraction between the two men is electric. However, after the two become close, George is troubled by his sexual hang-ups and still haunted by his childhood. He stays deep in the closet and cannot commit to Kenny. George decides that all he really needs is someone with whom to have sex and George suggests that he be that person and Kenny agrees but then accuses George of being sick and needing to see a therapist. It actually takes some eight years before George can deal with a true love relationship with Kenny. He knew what he wanted but had no idea how to deal with it. While this is a short novel (coming in at less than 200 pages), it has a lot to say and does so in fine prose and character development.

“The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity” edited by Lawrence Silberstein and Robert L. Cohn— Defining Others and Ourselves

the-other

Silberstein, Lawrence J. and Robert L. Cohn, editors. “The Other in Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity”, (New Perspectives on Jewish Studies), NYU Press, 1994.

Defining Others and Ourselves

Amos Lassen

Granted this is not a new book but it is still relevant today due to the way it looks at cultural boundaries and group identity are often forged in relation to the Other. In every society there are conceptions of otherness and these often reflect a group’s fears and vulnerabilities and result in deep-rooted traditions of inclusion and exclusion that permeate the culture’s literature, religion, and politics. Here we see the ways that Jews have traditionally defined other groups and, in turn, themselves. The contributors are a distinguished international scholars who explore the discursive processes through which Jewish identity and culture have been constructed, disseminated, and perpetuated.

Some of the topics addressed are: Others in the biblical world; the construction of gender in Roman-period Judaism; the Other as woman in the Greco-Roman world; the gentile as Other in rabbinic law; the feminine as Other in kabbalah; the reproduction of the Other in the Passover Haggadah; the Palestinian Arab as Other in Israeli politics and literature; the Other in Levinas and Derrida; Blacks as Other in American Jewish literature; the Jewish body image as symbol of Otherness; and women as Other in Israeli cinema.

Contributors to this interdisciplinary volume are: Jonathan Boyarin (New School for Social Research), Robert L. Cohn (Lafayette College), Gerald Cromer (Bar-Ilan University), Trude Dothan (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Elizabeth Fifer (Lehigh University), Steven D. Fraade (Yale University), Sander L. Gilman (Cornell University), Hannan Hever (Tel Aviv University), Ross S. Kraemer (University of Pennsylvania), Orly Lubin (Tel Aviv University), Peter Machinist (Harvard University), Jacob Meskin (Williams College), Adi Ophir (Tel Aviv University), Ilan Peleg (Lafayette College), Miriam Peskowitz (University of Florida), Laurence J. Silberstein (Lehigh University), Naomi Sokoloff (University of Washington), and Elliot R. Wolfson (New York University).

“Queer Jewish Notions” by Amy Soule— Rereading the Hebrew Bible

queer Jewish notions

Soule, Amy. “Queer Jewish Notions”, iUniverse, 2016.

Rereading the Hebrew Bible

Amos Lassen

I probably would never have heard about Amy Soule’s “Queer Jewish Notions, had a friend not told me about it and now I want to take that a bit further and tell you about it. It is a small book but very large in scope. In the Jewish religion, every week we read a portion of the Torah that recounts the history of the Jewish people from the beginnings through the entry into the land of Israel after forty years in of wanderings. The texts are straightforward histories but they also leave room for interpretation and discussion. It is through interpretation that Amy Soule adds a queer eyes to the writings and in each of the portions, we get a new look at old texts. Her message here is “Contrary to anything you may have heard at synagogue or home, let alone through random encounters on the street, God loves you, no matter whom Ze created you to love. Hir love is apparent through every part of the Torah, from B’reishit to V’Zot HaBrachah and everything in between.” Notice the pronouns here.

By reading these stories with a gay gaze, see the familiar in a new way. I have always felt that exploring is not only an intellectual exercise but great fun and still to this day, I study for an hour each and every day and each time I do, I find something I had not seen before. There are so many aspects of reading the Torah, that it is always possible to miss something that might be very important personally to the reader. Soule offers us short interpretations that are both informative and have a lot to think about.

This is not a scholarly study—it was written by one of us and for me that makes it unique and fun to read. Many times we get verbose commentaries on the writings that for whatever reason do not knock us out. I cannot tell you how many times I have thought the rabbis who wrote commentaries to be stiff and focused only in one direction. Amy Soule changes that direction and does so beautifully.

Considering the Torah from a queer perspective, reveals it to be “a positive and supportive love letter from God for GLBT Jews”.

“After Sara’s Year” by Mark David Gerson— My Friends Are Back

after Sara's year

Gerson, Mark David. “After Sara’s Year”, (The Sara Stories), CreateSpace, 2016.

My Friends Are Back

Amos Lassen

About a year ago I raved about a new book, “Sara’s Year” by Mark David Gerson and remarked that once I finished it, I sat down to read it again. I was probably hoping to find something I missed the first time. I understand that others were drawn into the story as I was and so Gerson wrote a sequel which also proudly stands on its own.

Sadie Finkel has had quite a past and this is what makes her the woman that she is. We sense that there is something going on inside of her but for whatever reason, we do really want to know what it is. There is no doubt that her past has been traumatic. In a sense we are like her as each of us holds onto something that we do not want to share with others. But now the time has come for Sadie to face those issues and to try to understand whether she is the victim or the victimized… and as she does, so do the readers.

I understand that this is the second novel in the “The Sara Stories” about a Jewish family in Montreal and its dynamics. You might wonder why I used Jewish here and question whether Gerson has narrowed his audience by portraying a woman bound to her heritage. Let me assure that this is not the case at all. Judaism has a wonderful history and heritage and it is the perfect backdrop for the novel. Jewish readers will see it as more than just a backdrop and perhaps even as a character in itself. As in all literature our own backgrounds play into what we read and being Jewish myself made me read this perhaps differently than a non-Jew might.

I really love that we feel the author’s love for his characters. I could not help but think that Gerson based these characters on people that he has known; they are just that real. Our Sadie Finkel, for example, manages to win us over and put us off at the same time; she unsettles us and she is totally sympathetic and dear. But Sadie is not alone in being wonderfully depicted. We also learn about the lives of Bernie, Mac and Erik. It is Sadie’s story that is the spine of the book but she is not alone here. Everyone has a story and how we react to someone depends on how we perceive that person (based many times on their story). Gerson paints his characters with such color and humanity that we are quick to perceive who each character is. That does not mean that he gives us all likeable characters but he does shows us what brings each character to the point when we meet him/her. I found here that the more we got to now each character, our impressions changed. There are plenty of surprises here.

I want to stress that knowing about one’s past allows us to understand their present and this is where Mark David Gerson excels. We learn about family and familial relationships, about loves and losses and about passion which is the single word I would use if asked to say one word about “After Sara’s Year”. It is secrets that our characters together and endear them to us.

I found this to be quite an emotional read and I actually found my eyes welling up with tears several times. Holding onto the past can both be hurtful and rewarding and it is also a cleansing experience. I find there is no better feeling that being exhausted after a read yet even with that feeling that there is a sense of disappointment in that there are no more pages to turn.

I have deliberately stayed away from summarizing the pot because I want each and every reader to have the same wonderful experience I have had here. Gerson presents us with a woman that we feel nothing for at first and then grow to love. That’s all I can say but that is more than enough.

“Leaving Lucy Pear” by Anna Solomon— Women and Motherhood (and so much more)

leaving lucy pear

Solomon, Anna. “Leaving Lucy Pear”, Viking, 2016.

Women and Motherhood

Amos Lassen

Beatrice Haven is the daughter of very wealthy Jewish industrialists and she is a wonderful pianist headed to study at Radcliffe in 1917. However, Bea learns that she is pregnant from an affair she had with an aide to a Naval officer who was visiting nearby. Bea’s parents sent her to live with her uncle in Gloucester, Massachusetts and then plan to send the infant to an orphanage. Bea however has a different plan and she sneaks out of her uncle’s house with the baby that she leaves under a pear tree and watches as a woman claims the child. Bea knew that at night there are those who come into the garden to steal fruit and she felt certain that her baby would find a home. As it was, Emma Murphy, the wife of a poor fisherman, found the child and raised her as one of her many children.

Ten years flew by and the politics of Gloucester along with the commerce of the town brought the two families together. Prohibition was in full swing, and America after the war was xenophobic. Bea had not fulfilled the hopes she had for herself and because she was so unhappy she returned to Gloucester to her uncle’s home once again thinking it might help cure her unhappiness. But through the manager of the quarry, a rumrunner reunites her with Emma Bea also learns of Lucy Pear who is a cross-dresser and who has many secrets.  As Lucy tries to discover who she is, her two mothers become involved in her life.

The book is important to me as a new resident of New England and as I read I actually went to Gloucester to feel the atmosphere there (not that I needed it). Anna Solomon is a wonderful descriptive writer. She has also created characters that are unforgettable because they are so very real. And as is so true of New England, the characters are in bound to their social class as they are to the politics and economics of the time. Now you may wonder where the Jews fit into all of this. This was a time when Jews were able to begin businesses and build wealth as long as their named were anglicized and their backgrounds and religion were not mentioned. Anti-Semitism was not yet overt as it later came to be. This was a time of Sacco and Vanzetti and immigration to this country and what we see in the rum running that went on that New England had a shady side during prohibition. immigrants and the justice system also play out through the story. Cape Ann’s rum-running years show the dark side and dangers that prohibition brought to New England.

This is a character driven novel and we learn of the humanity and of the flaws of the characters. Their back-stories are necessary in order to fully understand them and writer Anna Solomon has carefully included these by weaving them into the overall narrative. Her descriptions of Cape Ann and Gloucester are right on the button from what I can tell from my own explorations. In the novel we confront issues of freedom and class as well as the meaning of family, both as a word and as a concept.

Solomon’s language is gorgeous and she brilliantly uses it to show how sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and class are seen by others and how they impact the way we live. There is something that keeps the characters set apart from each other and they cannot seem to breach the divide that separates them. We also read of child sexual abuse, and the effect of f child labor laws, about what is expected from women and motherhood, being unable to bear children and birth control and its availability during the time of the action. The politics of gender is important here especially when three strong women (two mothers and a daughter) come together. This is a totally fascinating picture of New England in the 1920s and one that you will remember long after you close the covers of the book.

“Curiosity” by Alberto Manguel— A Wandering Man

curiosity

Manguel, Alberto. “Curiosity”, Yale University Press, 2016.

A Wandering Man

Amos Lassen

Alberto Manguel was born in Argentina and has been a resident of Canada, lived in Tel Aviv and London and has widely traveled the globe as he pursued his question for knowledge. In “Curiosity”, see that his literary hero is Dante and in fact, he includes quotes from “The Divine Comedy” as chapter headers as well as with a personal reflection, but it is by way of the first person plural that he has written this novel. proceeds. He is concerned with “our” attitudes towards gender, money, art, and death and much else. While he draws on the Talmud, Aquinas and medieval Arab scholars, he also admits to having taken LSD in his youth, having experienced Auschwitz vicariously via Primo Levi and having recently suffered a stroke.

Life itself is a book and he tells that we are “alive” in assigned places in Hell, Purgatory or Heaven awaiting the Day of Judgment.

Curiosity is a meditation on what is important and it is best taken as if part of a long, fascinating conversation with an individual whose “erudition and humanity leave one largely content to listen while nursing one’s own, parallel apprehensions”.

Although the focus of “Curiosity” is Manguel’s interpretation of Dante’s :Divine Comedy”, the author ranges over a variety of wider topics which he eventually relates to Dante. He relates his life experience to those larger questions raised by Dante. He jumps from topic to topic, era to era, from ancient Greece to the renaissance to more recent literature making this a bit difficult to read but also so very rewarding.

Ostensibly about curiosity, Manguel uses this as a springboard for whatever he has to say. He becomes obsessed with various books at different points in his life, and discovering the riches of Dante later in life, he is currently immersed thinking through that great work, and by extension, we join him.

The reader travels along with Manguel on his intellectual and often literary explorations, sometimes leading to open vistas, sometimes to a dead end This is a frequently enlightening, usually entertaining journey, so long as there we are not in a hurry to get somewhere.