Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“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.


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.



“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.