Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Movies

“TIKKUN”— An Atmospheric Netherworld

“Tikkun”

“An Atmospheric Netherworld”

Amos Lassen

The Hebrew word “tikkun” has many definitions and connotations. Its main use seems to embody the idea of rectification and is usually used in reference to personal and spiritual improvement or the desire to want to fix the world. There is also a religious meaning— a book of text from the Torah used for learning Jewish scripture and recitation on certain holidays is also known as a tikkun and it contains the writings of the Five Books of Moses but with vowels (unlike the Torah scroll) and is a good practice text for those who chant Torah directly from the scroll itself.

Avishai Sivan’s movie “Tikkun” plays with all of the meanings of this fundamental Jewish concept. The film is a modern religious parable set that is set within Jerusalem’s Hasidic community. It probes the rituals and taboos of this and as it does, it explores the intersection of faith, filial duty, and civic responsibility in contemporary Israel.

We see that an ultra-orthodox scholar is revived after being dead for 40 minutes. After coming back to life, he suddenly feels a strange awakening in his body and suspects that God is testing him. This is the story of a young orthodox Jewish man, Haim-Aharon (Aharon Traitel) who slowly loses his faith after a near-death experience. Shot in pristine black and white and with impressionistic visuals, director Sivan gives us Jerusalem at nighttime (reminiscent of David Lynch) –as a netherworld, shrouded in fog, where past and present exist side by side. The becomes a hallucinatory tale of urban alienation much like the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.

Haim-Aaron is a devout Yeshiva student who we see praying and fasting in the beginning. He is a quiet type who keeps things to himself. His father (Kalifa Natour) is a hard working kosher butcher. Bad plumbing in their cramped apartment causes Haim-Aaron to fall and suffer cardiac arrest while taking a shower and touching himself. EMTs arrive but are unable to resuscitate him and he is pronounced dead 40 minutes later. His father, however, is unable to let his first son go, continues on the CPR, and to everyone’s surprise, revives him.

This near-death experience is a both a blessing and a curse for father and son. The father struggles with the guilt of undoing god’s will by reviving his son. He falls into deep self-doubt and is shunned by many of his ultra orthodox community members.

 

For Haim-Aaron, being undead affords him a freedom to venture out of his community and confront his earthly desires for the first time in his life.  Unable to sleep, hewanders the streets at night, hitching rides to anywhere that strangers will take him. Outside his immediate surroundings, he is in a completely different world: Jerusalem, a cosmopolitan city with just under a million inhabitants, is a wondrous and scary place for him and he meets many strange people and has a sexual encounter with a prostitute. These activities put a strain on his studies, family and community.

This is an unsettling film and this is accentuated by Haim-Aaron’s father’s recurring  nightmares ofevil crocodiles in the toilet, putting a knife to the back of his son and dumping the body in a monster-infested ravine. Urban alienation and repressed sexuality figure prominently in the film and it unveils the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which is seldom portrayed on film. This is not a flattering picture of a community that seems to be permanently stuck in the past.

Director Sivan and cinematographer Shai Goldman give us a Jerusalem that has the feel of a lonely, industrial town. With sparse dialog and strong visuals makes Tikkun an intense and moody film. The film feels like an ethnographic film movie shot by someone from the community it documents, managing simultaneously to keep a critical distance from the material while maintaining a certain credulity and wonder toward the proceedings. The world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox is portrayed with empathy and insight, but some of the community’s cultural practices are called into question.

“Tikkun” is in part a lucid account of the bewilderment that the absence of a candid sexual education for members of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. It captures the perverse fascination provoked in this community by this taboo as the camera lingers on both male and female genitalia in graphic, almost scientific detail. Haim-Aaron is perplexed by his own erect penis, which he inspects with curiosity right before his near-death experience. This explicit link between sexuality and death is reemphasized later when he studies the genitalia of a recently deceased young woman. In a literal sense, these scenes are a commentary on the awkwardness of puberty and pre-marital sexuality in this community. There is no discussion of the body or desires and sets limits between the sexes. Instead of simply condemning the social practices of this insular community, Sivan shows us how mysterious the world must appear to one of its members. Haim-Aaron’s explorations of the body inevitably result in calamity, as if God were punishing him for his sins. He endures his transgressions of the community’s taboos by self-castigation. Having so firmly internalized God’s laws and what he perceives to be His commands, Haim-Aaron subconsciously wills this punishment, thereby physically manifesting God’s presence in the world. We are never sure if Haim-Aaron is simply mental, a pious man or some combination of the two. It is this ambiguity that makes it difficult to characterize the film as just a secular critique of a religious mindset.

Sivan captures a world where the miraculous and the mundane are separated by a blurred edge. Haim-Aaron’s father is a kosher butcher, and we see him inspecting ritually slaughtered animals with the same solemn curiosity with which his son inspects human genitalia. The father kills in accordance with God’s commandments, humanely and forever on the lookout for God’s approval. Haim-Aaron’s siblings treat bugs with the same profane reverence, carefully observing them before squashing them. These ongoing scenes of commingled investigation and slaughter emphasize the fine line between life and death in this world and we see that God is always silently present in the guise of human action.

One could read “Tikkun” as a commentary on the price of culturally ordained sexual repression, an idea that several startling instances of full-frontal nudity make difficult to dismiss. But there is so much potent ambiguity that such a straightforward interpretation does not fully work. I have no doubt that there will be many who will not find themselves charmed by this film while others will feel that it is a total experience. The fact that it has been winning prizes attests to that.

“Poets of the Bible: From Solomon’s Song of Songs to John’s Revelation” by WillisBarnstone— Restoring Lyricism and Power

Barnstone, Willis (translator). “Poets of the Bible: From Solomon’s Song of Songs to John’s Revelation”, W.W. Norton, 2017.

Restoring Lyricism and Power

Amos Lassen

Every time I pick up my bible, I am astounded how it always reads differently and how I am transported to many places and events by its magical language. Because so much of the bible comes to us in prose form, we seem to forget that some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the holy writings. Willis Barnstone does not want to let that continue and he goes back to both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible and restores the lyricism that we lost in the prose translations thus showing us the power of poetry in the texts that are centuries old.

In the Hebrew Bible, we have new translations of Song of Songs, Psalms, Job and Isaiah. The Christian Bible’s poetry is in the speeches of Jesus speaks, Paul and John of Patmos. roars majestically in Revelation, the Bible’s epic poem. Barnstone’s book contains major biblical poem from Genesis and Adam and Eve in the Garden to the last pages of Alpha and Omega in Paradise.

While reading these passages in poetic form we discover new lyricism, clarity and even mystery. The sheer beauty of the word astounds the ear and the mind and I found that at times I was reading passages that were brand new and I love that.

Barnstone has brought scripture to new dimensions by taking away translations into prose and rendered them into poetic form in which humanity takes over. There is no more need for literalist translations.

These new translations from the Hebrew and the Greek bring new language and meanings to passages we have read since childhood. Additional Barnstone provides introductions to each poet that are also new in that the author’s research brought him to learn about those who wrote these passages initially.

“Willis Barnstone shows us the religion in poetry and the poetry in religion, and, best of all, how poetry flows from one religion to another.

”The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats” by Allen Ginsberg— The Creation of a Course

Ginsberg, Allen. ”The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats”, Grove Press, 2017.

The Creation of a Course

Amos Lassen

In 1977 some twenty years after he published his landmark poem “Howl,” and Jack Kerouac’s book “On the Road” hit the stores, Allen Ginsberg decided it was time to teach a course on the literary history of the Beat Generation. After creating the course, he taught it five times and through it he was given the chance to present the history of Beat Literature in his own way. Now compiled and edited by Beat scholar Bill Morgan, and with an introduction by Anne Waldman, “The Best Minds of My Generation” gives us edited lectures with their notes. We also get a look at the Beats as Ginsberg knew them as friends, confidantes, literary mentors, and fellow revolutionaries.

Ginsberg was responsible to the creation of a public perception of Beat writers and he knew all of the major figures personally. This made him uniquely qualified to be the historian of the movement. In this book, he shares stories of meeting Kerouac, Burroughs, and other writers for the first time and he explains his own way the importance of music to Beat writing. He discusses visual influences and the cut-up method, and introduces us to the group who led a literary revolution. This is a personal and critical look at one of the most important literary movements of the twentieth century.

Like many liberal arts courses getting to the end of the information that needs to be presented in the time allowed for the class rarely happens. The overwhelming amount of information is a limiting factor and different areas tend to be given more attention than others. By putting the course into book format, the information is preserved in detail and the reader is free to take in the information in any order..

Ginsberg insists that it was Kerouac who led the Beats and he is given the biggest section of the book. Ginsberg analyzes several books and gives first-hand information on Kerouac’s life and writing experience. Most of Kerouac’s books are at least semi-autobiographical and Ginsberg gives the behind scene look. William S. Burroughs is covered next and part of this section are Burroughs letters to Ginsberg while he was in South America. Ginsberg explains Burroughs cut-up style including the theory behind it. The idea is that we are presented with information in such a way to hide the real message. The cut-up reveals the true method. The idea was that you could take a speech, cut it up, rearrange the pieces, and find the true meaning.

William Carlos Williams had a great influence on Ginsberg and is praised throughout the book, Gregory Corso, Hubert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, Carl Solomon, Peter Orlovsky, and of course Neal Cassady all have small sections of the book. Ginsberg does include himself and it is informative and very humble. As the central figure and historian of Beats, Ginsberg plays the role of the narrator rather than a major player. The introduction is by Anne Waldman poet and a member of the Outrider experimental poetry community and she provides and excellent introduction. “The Best Minds of My Generation” provides a detailed examination of the beat movement and its members. Small chapters with descriptive titles let the reader pick and choose their interests if they do not want to read the book cover to cover.

It is fascinating to read Ginsberg explaining his own development as a writer. We so often read about his literary influences and it is here that he gives concrete examples of the importance of William Carlos Williams throughout the book, and later of Christopher Smart. His description of his own transition from polished poems in a classical style to “Howl” is wonderful. So many critics seem to think of the Beat writers as wild, unrestrained, or even untalented artists but what we see here is that their mastery is quite clear. Ginsberg chose to use a particular piece of work and take it apart to explain why it works. He picks works from across each writer’s career to show development and change, and he sets it all within the literary historical framework, showing where each piece of work originated. This is what makes the book more than not just a valuable reference book for scholars. It is, in fact, a very readable text.

“FAMILY COMMITMENTS”— A Comedy Farce

“Family Commitments” (“Familie verpflichtet”)

A Comedy Farce

Amos Lassen

David (Maximillian von Pufendorf) and Khaled (Omar El-Saeidi)are a happy gay couple who want to get married to each other in a public wedding ceremony. There are t problems— Aledressi (Ramin Yazdani), Khaled’s homophobic father and David’s pseudo orthodox Jewish acting mother Lea (Maren Kroyman) as well as a possible paternity and gallery insolvency.

While it may not yet sound like it, this is a classic comedy farce. The characters are totally exaggerated, everyone is lying to everyone else. David is flamboyant, obviously gay, and Jewish. Khaled isn’t flamboyant, isn’t obviously gay, and isn’t Jewish. He is a quiet gym teacher who has to pass his final exam in order to become certified. He loves David as much as David loves him, but he can’t come out because of his father.

While Aledressi may be homophobic, but he isn’t anti-Semitic. He reminds us that Jews have lived together peacefully with Muslims for centuries. David’s mother isn’t homophobic, but she’s prejudiced against Muslims.

There is a very large a huge supporting cast, including Khaled’s heterosexual female principal, Khaled’s hostile aunt, and a blocked artist living in the attic of David’s art gallery. There’s also Sarah (Franziska Brandmeier) a young Jewish art student who is pregnant with David’s child. This is a fun movie that requires nothing but a good mood—one you will surely have after the film is over.

“The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: A Novel” by Joseph Bacharach— A Fable for Our Times

Bacharach, Joseph. “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: A Novel”, Liveright, 2017.

A Fable for Our Times

Amos Lassen

I imagine that by now everyone understands that our Biblical ancestors were indeed members of dysfunctional families and in many cases they were the cause of the dysfunction. Abraham leads the pack as an unworthy and unacceptable father figure but he is really all we have (or at least know about). We ask questions abut the patriarchs and the matriarchs and their offspring knowing that these are existential questions that cannot be answered. Now imagine taking those stories and those characters and taking them out of their Biblical locations and contexts and moving them to modern day Manhattan. Joseph Bacharach takes those wonderful Bible stories and moves the ancestors into the modern world which is about as crazy as Canaan, Ur, etc. were.

Isabel Giordani (now that is a Jewish name for you) runs away from New York City and a failed relationship and goes to Pittsburgh to take a job at a nonprofit (that is not doing well) Future Cities Institute and she pushes herself into the aimless lives of Isaac Mayer and his father, Abbie, an architect turned crooked real estate developer. We understand that Abbie says that he has had a vision that was unexpected but that he decided to pursue. This very vision gets Abbie’s family involved in

the political and familial machinations of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It is through this that writer Bacharach looks at those regular and troublesome themes of the perpetually fraught themes of love, family, God, and real estate (This is obviously not about that real estate spoken of in the Bible and for which we are looking for the deed). Now most of you have probably been able to guess where I am going with this and that it is sure to be irreverent. What you do not expect is the tenderness we find here and it surprised me too when I actually wept instead of blaspheming. This is a profane yet wise, funny yet tragic, sacred yet unholy look at who we are (and I loved it).

I love that we get all kinds of Jews (both straight and gay and maybe others as well) here and we meet Pennsylvania thugs (mostly straight) as we read of the aforementioned themes. Now I had to wonder how and why Abbie left Manhattan for Pittsburgh. It seems to have had something to do with Abbie’s wide, Sarah (notice the names) learning that her husband’s girlfriend was pregnant with his child. Sarah thought it would be good to get Abbie out of the city and move to Pittsburg near where his sister, Veronica lives. Abbie gets into the construction business and is soon working with shady characters on corrupt deals.

It was not until some 30 years later that Isobel comes to the area and she decides to look for Abbie after having been doing her own personal research on him for years. She works her way into the family through Isaac and we become aware that both Sarah and Abbie have secrets. (Now I ask you, what kind of Jew has secrets?).

Some may think this book to be strange; I found it lovingly weird and most of you know that I love my Bible stories. I enjoy satire and sarcasm when done correctly and while it does not always work here, it does most of the time. If we can have a little fun at the expense of religion than it is all good. It should be tasteful which it is not here but a could read, and this is, I can overlook mistakes and failure (although those are not the correct words). It is the originality and prose of the author that drew me in and after having read just one of his books, I am a fan. He manages to combine intellectuality, wit, lyricism, sarcasm and satire with his knowledge of the Bible to give us this read. I have read a lot of Biblical satires and so far the only that comes close to Bacharach is Edward Falzon. I am not here to advertise him but feel read to read my review of his book here.

This is not a book that everyone will like—it helps that the reader is also a bit weird but if you can let yourself go and read just for pleasure, I think you will understand what I have been trying to say.

“THE KIND WORDS”— A NEW DRAMEDY FROM ISRAEL

the kind words

“The Kind Words”

A New “Dramedy” from Israel

Amos Lassen

When her mother (Levana Finklestein) is admitted into hospital for an operation in Tel Aviv, Dorona (Rotem Zisman-Cohen) and her two brothers rush to be with her. As they deal with their mother’s condition, the siblings put aside what is happening in their own lives. Dorona does not want to stay married to Ricki (Tsahi Halevy) her patient husband who has stayed by her after she has suffered several miscarriages. Netanel (Roy Assaf), her oldest brother has become very religious since marrying his Orthodox American wife. Then there is Shai (Assaf Ben Shimon). He is openly bisexual and dealing with the fact that his son is in Hungary and his brother’s disapproval of his lifestyle.

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But then the three learn that the man they that thought had been their father was not and this is only known to them after their mother dies. Three siblings discover a shocking truth about their parentage after their mother dies. in Israeli director Shemi Zarhin directed this comedy-drama in which secrets from the deep past come to light after a mother’s death and these cause tension as well as bring reconciliation to a family. Zarhin explores family dynamics with insight but unfortunately the film’s terms of reference are so insistently Israeli that many from outside the country might have a hard time with it.

It is basically a film about a sister and two brothers who are superficially very different from each other yet who pull together to solve a mystery and earn something about themselves in the process Homophobic Netanel can’t accept that his brother’s bisexuality but it isn’t a problem for their Algerian-born mother or their father (Sasson Gabai). As it happens, all three kids, especially Dorona, are too busy fuming about their dad having left their mother for a much younger woman to snipe at each other much.

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All that fussing and feuding between the siblings is put into perspective when the mother dies suddenly from cancer. Her three children come together to mourn but then the father drops a truth bomb on them: He’s just found out, because his new wife wants children, that he is totally infertile and never could have fathered the three of them. This sets them off on a quest that takes them first to Paris to see their aunt and then on to Marseilles in search of the man who may or may not be their biological father.

Ricki tags along too and this turns out to be quite an advantage  as his calm demeanor and logic often saves the day when the siblings anger manifests a bit too frequently.  Their father also turns up— he would like some answers also, but they are determined to shut him out and not allow him to be part of it. 

The actors are quite good. Zissman Cohen is excellent as she tries to cover up her heartbreak over her infertility and her mother’s death with a toughness she doesn’t really feel.

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Roy Assaf has a good comic turn as the religious Netanel. Levana Finkelstein, as the mother, is her usual excellent self. Tsahi Halevi as Dorona’s husband Ricki has little to do here but look good while Dorona pushes him away, and he manages very nicely. It is a bit hard to understand how Dorona could just toss him off when he is so kind and good-looking.

Unfortunately, once again, is the fact that there are no real surprises and we never really understand why the secret means so much to the three siblings.

“BLUSH”— Feeling the Pressure

blush

“Blush” (“Barash”)

Feeling the Pressure

Amos Lassen

Naama Barash (Sivan Noam Shimon) isn’t like other 17-year-old Israeli girls. She likes alcohol and uses drugs and hangs out with others who do the same. She does this to escape from her home where her parents constantly fight and her sister, who is in the Israeli Defense Forces, has disappeared. When, Dana Hershko (Jade Sakori), a new girl shows up at her school, Barash falls in love with her and the relationship is so intense that it confuses her but it also gives meaning to her life.

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The first feature-length film by Israeli director Michal Vinik is about Israel’s alienated youth. Barash feels the pressure of her sister’s disappearance and her parents’ fighting so she was ripe for a new person entering her life. At first this intensity confuses her.

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We follow Naama as she befriends Dana, who introduces her to recreational drug use, hitchhiking, Tel Aviv nightclubs and lesbian sex. Naama eagerly soaks up and enjoys these new experiences her school friend has to offer and not surprisingly falls head over heels for Dana, who, ends up dumping her after breaking her heart and triggering painful but necessary emotional growth, self-awareness, and the issues that are part of coming-of-age.

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The sex scene between Naama and Dana, stopping short of total explicitness, but probably as graphic as it gets for an Israeli film. It is an exploration of teenage desire that is tries very hard to convey the emotions of the two female characters.

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Clueless, prejudiced Gideon (Dvir Benedek) gives us a look at his paranoia and mistrust towards Arabs, and a hint of hope in the generational differences in Israel. In fact, Israeli-Palestinian tensions deepen and complicate the more familiar coming-out subject of the film.

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Naama’s early signs of non-conformity (like the serpentine tattoo on her shoulder ) are kept neatly concealed from authority figures at home and at her school, where students are ironically drilled to salute their country’s independence while being afforded none of their own. Naama’s infatuation may not be wholly reciprocated, but emerges as an expression of self. Naama did not dare to come out to her parents. There is also unexpected comedy in the film. This is basically a film about doing what you can, sometimes inelegantly, to make yourself heard.

“FAMILY COMMITMENTS”— A Happy Gay Couple/ A Mixed Marriage

family poster

“FAMILY COMMITMENTS”

A Happy Gay Couple/ A Mixed Marriage

Amos Lassen

Director Hanno Olderdissen brings us a new German comedy about a great taboo— mixed marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim. Happy gay couple gallery owner David (Max von Pufendorf ) and high school coach Khaled (Omar El – Saeidi) would love to marry publicly.

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However there is a problem– Khaled’s Arab family (especially his homophobic father Aledrissi [Ramin Yazdani]) and David’s pseudo orthodox Jewish acting mother Lea (Maren Kroymann). But that’s not all— suddenly the pregnant Sarah (Franziska Brandmeier) arrives on their doorstep claiming that her child was David’s, (the result of a night partying in Berlin) and everything goes out of control. Misunderstandings, outing fears, a possible paternity and a gallery insolvency drive these contradictory families into an emotional chaos and beyond their borders and we laugh all the way through.

“MX. ENIGMA”— Complex, Mysterious and Interesting

mr1

“Mx. Enigma”

Complex, Mysterious and Interesting

Amos Lassen

Director Je’Jae Daniels “Mx Enigma” explores the intersection between his Orthodox Jewish background and his gender identity, and how one suppresses the other in this documentary.

Daniels explains the title in this way— “Enigma means complex, mysterious, and interesting. Together I am embracing my identity and telling myself it’s ok to be certain with the uncertain, which became my artist name as well and a message to all people regardless of gender.”

‘Mx. Enigma’ is one of the films produced at the Reel Works Lab, an intensive 20-week, after-school workshop that matches teens one-on-one with professional filmmaker-mentors to create short documentaries about their lives and communities. Reel Works, production company partner of HBO, provides free filmmaking programs for NYC Youth. Je’Jae (Jay) Daniels’ uses the pronouns they/them to say that he has more than one identity. The short documentary about their gender identity will be broadcasted soon on HBO Live. It deals with the way

how gay men’s natural attractions to each other can be considered a sin by the community that one was born into. “I made it as part of my graduation project at The Met Film School,” Brenner explains. “I chose the topic because it is a subject very close to my heart and I wanted to investigate how people like me felt within our communities.” “I wanted to gain an insight into what people like me felt and also people that had a negative view on the way we were naturally born,” he adds.

Brenner interviews his own and asks her whether she always knew that he was gay. He also interviews other Jewish LGBT people who, like him, don’t want to give up either of the two worlds they belong to, worlds that some would say contradict each other.

“MARZIPAN FLOWERS”— Putting Life Together

marzipan poster

“Marzipan Flowers”

Putting Life Together

Amos Lassen

“Marzipan Flowers” is the story of Hadas Regal (Nuli Omer), a 48-year-old woman living in Israel. After her husband is killed in a freakish motorcycle accident, Regal finds herself under intense scrutiny from her fellow kibbutz members, who seem threatened by her new status as a widow who is a real beauty.

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Hadas is lost and vulnerable. She moves to Tel-Aviv where she picks up her life to where it was before she got married. She looks for the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a teen.

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With the unexpected help from her roommate Petel (Tal Kallai) a transgender woman with a mysterious and colorful past, Hadas finds the strength to put her life together. The three women find friendship and support and discover that they have more in common than they would have guessed.

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Winner of the Best Independent film at 2014 Jerusalem film festival and nominated for an Israeli Academy Award, “Marzipan Flowers” is a unique and highly original piece of film making. It is the a story of a strong trans woman and we see her in a positive light even when her behavior is less than admirable.