Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“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.



“Jews Queers Germans: A Novel/History” by Martin Duberman— The Historical and Political Influence of Gay Life

Duberman, Martin. “Jews Queers Germans: A Novel/History”, Seven Stories Press, 2017.

The Historical and Political Influence of Gay Life 

Amos Lassen

This time writing fiction, Martin Duberman, esteemed writer and professor gives us a look history and of gay men at a time when it was dangerous for many gay men, especially those in government and the upper classes to be open about their sexuality. We get an intimate look at Europe from 1907 through the 1930s when the world was simultaneously experiencing great destruction and suffering and t creativity and freedom.

We go back to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and a time of social upheaval when “the relics and artifices of the old world word still mattered, and yet when art and the social sciences were pirouetting with successive revolutions in thought and style”. There is no doubt that there were many men in the upper classes living closeted lives. Among these men were Prince Philipp von Eulenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s closest friend, who became the subject of an infamous and notorious 1907 trial for homosexuality; Magnus Hirschfeld, the noted, Jewish sexologist who testified at the trial; and Count Harry Kessler, a leading proponent of modernism who had a set of diaries in which were recorded the intimate details of the major social, artistic and political events of the day and that suggest that he was a homosexual. Kessler also was a patron of the arts and a collector. Walter Rathenau was the head of the AEG industrial powerhouse and one of the rare heterosexuals in the novel; Magnus Hirschfeld was a leader in the growing field of sexology and in efforts to kill Germany’s Paragraph 175 that made sex between men a criminal offense. Duberman traces the noblemen (who were gay) that surrounded Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then there is the “muckraking newsman” and the libel trials that caused so much moral outrage that was ignored by the Kaiser. He was much more interested in building ships and competing with the British in doing so.

Kessler is quite a man and he seems to know every major artist and most of writers in Europe. He collaborated with Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier”. He and Rathenau met at a Berlin salon and they continued to argue over politics and culture which Duberman uses to balance the heaviness of what else was going on. We learn that there was a time when gays were more tolerated than Jews (notice the word “tolerated” as opposed to “accepted”) in Germany there is more tolerance of gays than of Jews in Germany, although Rathenau was able to rise high because he knew how to use his industrial clout and diplomatic skills. With the brown shirts things began to change and there is a rise in violence against queers and Jews and other Germans (hence the title). With the assassination of Rathenau and the huge funeral that followed, there was a moment that we might have thought that Hitler would not gain power.

Using gay life of the upper class as his main and central theme, Duberman shows us that what was going on in Germany had an impact on political upheavals that would later shape the modern world forever after.

Concentrating on five major characters who were real men during this period, we learn about how they fit into the historical, social and political events of the time

This is quite a look at an important era in history, a period of influential German men who were responsible for social and political trends from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s.

This earnest historical novel traces an unusual nexus of influential German men behind social and political trends from the late 19th century to the early 1930s. What we see is what was going on and who was running it in the time before the rise of Hitler.

When I first saw the book, I was a bit put off by the title and as an American gay Jew, I did want to think of what it might actually mean. Duberman explains in the author’s note that this is not quite a historical novel and this made me wonder about what is “not”— is it not historical? Is it not novel? Is it not both? With these questions to challenge me, I sat down to read to discover that I would meet some very interesting characters whose lives come together. Personally I love this book and I see it as something of an expose of our collective history. We certainly learn about the underground thriving gay community before the Nazis came to power and we meet the five men men who were either Jewish, homosexual, German or all three and quite remarkable.

I suppose we can say that this is a novel that is based upon documented fact and it makes us aware of a time when anti-gay and anti-Semitic persecution replaced any kind of democracy. It is an especially timely read when we consider what could happen here with the new presidential administration.

“The Education of a Daffodil: Prose Poems” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— From the Heart to the Page

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “The Education of a Daffodil: Prose Poems”, Hadassa Word Press, 2017.

From the Heart to the Page

Amos Lassen

Every once in a while I come upon a writer whose words affect me and my life. Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is such a writer and as I write this I am trying to remember how I first came upon his writing. I can’t recall if someone else recommended it to me or whether I just found it through luck. It doesn’t matter really except for the fact that it has influenced how I look at the written word and especially how I regard poetry. His poems are those that I read with tears in my eyes because of the way he treats language. Now in “The Education of a Daffodil”, Taub reflects on violence and does so as an outsider; Taub is a poet who seeks connection with the world and is one who has lived life from the outside looking in. He is a gay Jew and a lover who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish world and who thinks of himself as a daffodil, a beautiful flower who has endured pain and rejection yet, in my mind, a writer who blooms all the more because of it. If I am ever asked who my favorite modern poet, the answer is clearly Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.

All of us have at some time felt that we have been outsiders causing us to be frustrated because we cannot find a connection, we feel like fragile daffodils as Taub says. Dealing with rejection and non-communication is painful and once have experienced this, we never want to do so again. However, that pain is necessary for us to better understand who we are and so Taub takes us back to the pain so that we can recover from it. In this our poet becomes more than a poet— he is also a storyteller and something of a dramatist by throwing us cues to which we react. He has divided his book into two sections. In “Brief Histories of Fear”, Taub looks at small scale violence with a series of prose poems that are not connected until taken as a whole. It is here that he builds his mise en scene by producing an atmosphere of danger and fear of what is to come. We strongly sense dislocation and violence and as we read, we become part of his writing. We see the dependence on those who are the opposite of the figures that bring this hate and violence into our lives. “if Aunt Lavinia were here… I would not be so afraid”.

The poems in this section paint portraits of both the poet and of the various anti-heroes in differing times of crisis and, as Taub states introspection. Too often we do not look into ourselves where the answer may be waiting. It is here that we meet those who have influenced his life as created the moods he has gone through and those that are yet to come. He takes us by the hand and guides us through his life as an underling and to the point that he can stand and say that he is proud of who he is. You may question my use of the word “underling” but you only need to read this collection to understand why I chose it.

The second section, “Life Studies in Yellow and Other Primary Colors,” we right away see the interconnection between the poems in which the poet moves from being unaware and unknowing through violence until he can reach a point where there is balance and he can find the equilibrium that he needs. If we take the collection as a whole, we see that he achieves some kind of spiritual education that enables him to continue forward. “The daffodil has turned in the tank… slender of stem and bright of bulb”. That daffodil has “ventured into worlds alternative…” He no longer meets with “pity or revulsion or distance”. We have been with him as he went from innocence to brutality to balance. We have read his stories of loss and trauma, of being displaced, of xenophobia and of dealing with his sexuality to find his place in this world of ours. His past is as important as his present and future for it is from there that he arrives at the others. If there is a message here and I believe that there is a strong one, it is that one who does not examine his life to learn who he is remains just that— unaware, unknowing and far from finished. As the poet is transformed, we are there watching— not as voyeurs but as friends in whom he has trust. He has such confidence in us that we he lets us see the cruelties that he experiences (and that we also experience) and we see his survival and hope that we can do the same. In fact, I would venture to say that the book, is an ode to survival.

In one of the blurbs of the book by others, I came across a Yiddish word that OI have not heard in years— “schlimazel” or one suffers but not by his own hand. Rather he is set apart by others and the result is not only that separation but separation from himself as well. It is possible to move from that as we see here and we become aware of what happens if one does not.

I have met Yermiyahu Ahron Taub and actually spent a weekend with him here in Boston when he came for a poetry festival a couple of years ago. I did not see the guy who appears in the earlier poems but rather the man who has found who he is and is confidant in that.

Stop to think for a moment how often you feel transformed after closing the covers of a book. It does not happen often but it will happen here and I promise you that. We must celebrate survival without ever forgetting how we got to it.


Six poems also have a Yiddish version.


“This Is How It Always Is: A Novel” by Laurie Frankel— A Secret

Frankel, Laurie. “This Is How It Always Is: A Novel”, Flatiron Books, 2017.

A Secret

Amos Lassen

Claude is five years old and the youngest of five brothers. He loves wearing dresses and he dreams of being a princess. He says he wants to be a girl when he grows up. Now go back and read what I just wrote. Do you think you would have read something like this say ten years ago in a book for the mass market?

Claude’s parents, Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be, however they’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Before long the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret and we all know about keeping secrets.

Laurie Frankel has written a novel about secrets and transformations and about family and revelations. We all know that change is hard, especially when it affect us directly. But change can also be redemption and salvation. Parents never know what their children will bring them and they sometimes have to just hope that all will be fine. Plans are broken as children grow and secrets never really last for long. Here we learn that the secret that the family was keeping actually keeps them.

Of late, there have been a number of memoirs from and stories by transgender recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of memoirs from transgender individuals. We have heard from parents who have done all that is possible to help their transgender children live happy and healthy lives in a society that sees gender based on genitals. Most of us think that our families will never have to face a situation like this— I know I did until my niece decided to become my nephew at 41 years old. Laurie Frankel takes those real-life experiences and gives us a story of family and secrets. Penn and Rosie are a loving couple, living in Madison, Wisconsin with their five boys. Soon they realized that their fifth son, their youngest, Claude, feels like he should have been born a girl. It is here that you should stop and check what your response to this might be. We then ask how do these strong, supportive parents go about helping their son live as the person he wants to be? The answer is here and it is fascinating. Being a parent is a difficult enough job anyway without adding something like this. We want to protect our children from hate and from being afraid and we want our children to be accepted. If a family holds a secret, it is not meant for anyone else to know. Sometimes secrets have a way of popping up suddenly and we see here just how far a family will go in order to keep a secret. How much can we, as parents and siblings, protect each other and what happens when secrets stop being secrets?

Rosie and Penn face that Claude is identifying more with girls, than boys. Rosie is an emergency-room physician and Penn is an author who, along with their children have to find a way to Adams – and his four older brothers work through to deal with “Claude” becoming “Poppy” and identifying as a little girl. Claude has grown up in the community as a boy, the change to girl causes strange looks and misunderstanding but it all seemed to be okay until…. the family had to deal with cruel bigotry. They responded by moving from Madison, Wisconsin to a more liberal place, Seattle which was said to be more accepting of difference. The move seemed to be okay and Poppy makes friends but Roo, the oldest son is a bit lost.

The parents have to decide how to go forward and what to say about Poppy and the child’s gender identification. They decide to share their secret with their neighbors and some people from school. Otherwise the secret is kept as a secret. During the five or so years that followed, Poppy becomes a real little girl as the family continues not telling anyone. What they did not consider were the changes to Poppy’s body and that physically she is male and developing as such.

I can see this as an excellent choice for a book club because of the questions that will arise from it. I love that writer Laurie Frankel brings in how the members of the family feel about having a transgender sibling. I know how I reacted when my sister told me that her daughter was becoming her son and how she supported it. We need more fine writing like this just as we need more understanding about gender.



“The Girls of Usually” by Lori Hotvitz— Becoming a Hippie Chick

Horvitz, Lori. “The Girls of Usually”, Truman State University Press  2015.

Becoming a Hippie Chick

Amos Lassen

Lori Horvitz grew in a family with up ashamed of her Eastern European Jewish roots and ashamed of them. She was confused about her sexuality and became a “hippie chick” who traveled all over the world in search for something that she was unsure of what it really was. In “The Girls of Usually”, she “chronicles each trip, each romance, each experiment in reinventing herself that draws her closer to discovering the secret door through which she can escape from deep-rooted patterns and accept her own cultural, ethnic, and sexual identity”. For those of us who knew we were gay as we grew up, this is a book that will remind you of what you went through and show you that you were really never alone. It is the honesty of the text that really hits home. Some of the tendencies we read about here are held by so many other people that at times you might feel that you are reading your own story. We especially see the role that internalized homophobia plays in our lives. This is a look at a young artist as she paints her self-portrait.

We also see New York in the 1980s with its hedonistic behavior and the shock that was felt when AIDS hit the city. The book is composed of short essays about Jewishness, about sexuality, subscribing to the mainstream and so much more.

Author Lori Horvitz has led an interesting life as she dealt with her lesbianism and her religion. What was missing for me was a look at the inside of her life so that I could better understand what down her to have so much sex with males and females and why she always seemed to feel the need to continue traveling. Obviously something drove her to run from commitment and from her family. If this was how she understood herself, I would have liked to know why. On the other hand, I see the book as a great place from which to discuss sexuality.

I see this as part memoir and part creative writing and while each essay stands on its own when take together they are autobiographical. We read of Horvitz’s family life, her mother, her mother’s death and how her relationship with her mother affected her life. The essays on AIDS are wonderfully written and we sense what it was to be in New York City in the 80s when everyone seemed to know someone with the disease.


“Magnified” by Mell Eight— Vampires and Werewolfes

Eight, Mell. “Magnified”, ADS, 2016.

Vampires and Werewolves

Amos Lassen

As he was dying, Yani’s great grandmother, Channa, reveals one last story from her past to tell. Yani’s great uncle Yakov helped her survive the Nazis with the help of vampires and werewolves and, of course, Yani finds this hard to believe. However with her death, Yani realizes the story is far from over.

We see that the world of vampires and werewolves isn’t a safe place for a human, even one with Yani’s unusual family history. With danger at his door, Yani knows that he should run but he has never been very good at running away and especially now with his loved ones and the whole world in danger.

It seems that Yakov had fallen in love with a vampire who helped the starving, half dead family to survive the Holocaust. For that alone, I question the sincerity of the book and the writer. The Holocaust was the darkest point in the history of the world and I see no reason to bring the supernatural vampire to make it sound like fiction. Perhaps the writing is good but the idea for the story is distasteful and just plain weird. I really see nothing here to recommend this book as it pushes the limits of the mind to enter a supernatural world while six million people needlessly lost their lives. I am also amazed that non traditional spelling was used for the names of the characters.


“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.