Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Movies

“KISS ME KOSHER”— Unlikely Lesbian Lovers

“KISS ME KOSHER”

Unlikely Lesbian Lovers

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Shirel Peleg’s “Kiss Me Kosher” is a vey funny romantic comedy about unlikely lesbian lovers.  Maria (Luise Wolfram) is a reserved German botanist whose earnest parents are about peace and love and  angry about the Holocaust. Shira (Moran Rosenblatt) is an extrovert Israeli with a  supportive but opinionated large family. The film takes place over a week or so in Israel as Maria is introduced to her fiancee’s family. Her parents also arrive.

Both families are completely supportive of their daughters being gay and wanting to marry. The issues come from the prejudices they carry outside of homophobia – whether the Israeli grandma Holocaust survivor (Rivka Michaeli) who wants her daughter to marry an Israeli (while at the same time hides her relationship with an Arab man) or the American Jewish father (John Carroll Lynch) who has the zeal of the convert and wants Maria to convert to Judaism so his grandchild will be Jewish. The German parents are upset about the fact that their soon to be daughter-in-law’s little sister is in the Israeli army because they believe in peace and the two-state solution.

The film never avoids the real prejudices and obstacles facing a young couple who are deeply in love. The fact is that when you marry you also marry the family and no matter how far Shira tries to shelter Maria from the complications, they will always be there and are captured for posterity by her aspiring film-maker kid brother. The question is whether Maria is willing to accept it all even though they are meant for each other.

Shira’s Israeli parents are stereotypes – a mother and a right wing racist father. Her grandmother seems fine on race since she’s having a hidden relationship with a Palestinian doctor after all  but she draws the line of her precious granddaughter having anything to do with a German.

Shira’s younger sister wears an army uniform because it gets her discounts at most museums and her brother is a bit of a joker who follows the couple around with a camera for a film project for school. He is delighted to make a film about lesbians, Jews and the Holocaust.

Maria’s family is liberal, apologetic, and make the mistake of wanting to visit a refugee camp on the second day of their visit. When Maria is able to begin a friendship with a local Palestinian shepherd boy, her parents are able to bring forth the unthinkable.

“Kiss me Kosher” tries to combine comedy with serious discussion, but it often gets the tone wrong. The film is not offensive but it often makes the same mistake of trying to be light hearted where there’s not much to laugh at.

Not everyone is delighted that Shira and Maria are gay, but aside from an Orthodox Jew in an early scene, everyone accepts that this is just how they are. There is also some critique of Israeli settlers, although it does seem that mentioning a Two State Solution may be a little bit too radical.

There is a happy ending. Three couples end up pledging their love despite having shown differently suspicious feelings about marriage earlier in the film. What starts off as a depiction of how difficult families can be ends up seeing no alternative to happy families.

Perhaps the queer romance is meant to enhance the comedic conventions or subvert them, but instead we get an uneasy mix of awkward dialogue consequences that don’t really matter. The film is at its best when exploring how generational differences interfere with modern relationships.

“TAHARA” —Best Friends

“TAHARA”

Best Friends

Amos Lassen

Tahara” begins as a narrative of two best friends Carrie Lowstein (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah Rosen (Rachel Sennott) as they are in the midst of adolescent self-discovery. Director Olivia Peace explores the coming together of female friendships, sexual identity and rejection through the polarity of these two characters. “Tahara” looks at each defining moment through the demise of the girl’s friendship. Set over the course of one day and during a classmate’s funeral, what Carrie wanted to believe was a bond is turns out to be Hannah’s manipulation as a tool for her own gain.It takes place in the synagogue  during a funeral and grief class held after, the characters’ grief for the loss of Samantha Goldstein to suicide, the film examines the “real” issues in their life. The funeral is simply a location for the teenagers to carry out their sexual agendas and use the tragedy as a platform for their moral campaign. 

 

Carrie is frustrated with Hannah’s insistent pursuit of one out of the two guys in their grief class (the second guy being completely high on pot brownies the whole time) during what is supposed to be a time of reflection. Carrie and Hannah end up on a couch in the Synagogue’s bathroom where Hannah brags about her sexual resume and Carrie shares her minor experiences. So that she can validate her own skills, Hannah pressures Carrie into kissing her as “practice.” Hannah’s intention is self-serving, but the moment engulfs Carrie, and we learn that who was once her childhood friend is and has always been her quest through her as a black, Jewish and queer teen.

Hannah is quite sneaky when it comes to catching any and all opportunity to seduce her male suitor. When identifying Carrie’s feelings and her crush’s coincidental interest in Carrie, Hannah sets a trap in the Synagogue’s library to bring about a three-way. Hannah wields Carrie’s affection and loyalty to finally hook up with the mildly attractive dunce she had been after this whole time. This ended in a love triangle of rejection with each of them leaving hurt and confused but most of all, Carrie feels the consequences.

“Tahara” looks at the potential of toxicity in friendships that take place early in life and favors the idea of disconnecting from these bonds no matter the time invested in Carrie’s childhood. The film sheds light on the imbalanced sense of self-identity both teenagers and adults face, and the role that those closest to them have in changing things.

Coming of age so often feels inauthentic, especially when it’s stylized. Here, the teenagers talk like teenagers — they don’t always agree, they tease one another lovingly, and they examine their own insecurities. They complain about how their school tries to make them confront grief, and they lash out about their feelings. They’re young and they’re still finding out more about themselves, and Hannah doesn’t even want to approach how she feels, even if Carrie has confronted her.

Here is the queer Jewish experience boldly expressed at a young age. The film’s title refers to a Jewish ritual act of purifying the body after death. Not only is this discussed in a classroom scene, but the death of a classmate is what purifies the relationship to the simplest shared feelings for the two girls. “Tahara” is completely about the girls and not the power structures surrounding them. They question their faith and how it tells them to grieve, but as a setting and not as a conflict.

“Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor— A Portrait of  a Friendship and  Philip Roth

Taylor, Benjamin. “Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth”, Penguin Books, 2020.

A Portrait of  a Friendship and  Philip Roth

Amos Lassen

In “Here We Are, writer Benjamin Taylor shares about his long, intimate friendship with novelist Philip Roth (1933-2018). Roth was already considered as one of America’s most esteemed living novelists when Taylor, a founding faculty member of the New School’s Graduate School of Writing, met him in the mid-1990s. Roth’s past had already been through two miserable marriages, many past lovers, and debilitating health concerns. Roth was “irascible and mercurial” but he was also very real and very candid.

Taylor captures the essence of Roth’s charmingly enigmatic humor and complex behavior perfectly. He shares his memories of their friendship, writing about their quiet, often amusing moments together. Unfortunately, Taylor tells us that “A lot of conversation got squirreled away.” Taylor quotes Roth throughout and he was there for Roth throughout his declining years. This book is his poignant reflection on his experience with Roth and what their friendship has meant to them both. What is really fascinating is Taylor’s statement, “I can’t be the first gay man to have been an older straight man’s mainstay.” He goes on to say that Roth was searching for a “beautiful young woman to see to him as Jane Eyre looked after old Mr. Rochester.” Instead he got Taylor and they became very strongly attached to each other. They loved each other but they were not lovers.  Taylor describes their relationship as was “a conversation neither could have done without.”

As we have come to expect from Benjamin Taylor, this is a beautifully written book that is both a portrait of Roth and a meditation on friendship and loss. Philip Roth’s place in the canon is secure, but what is less clear is what the man himself was like. Through Benjamin Taylor’s memoir, we see Roth as a mortal man, experiencing the joys and sorrows of aging, reflecting on his own writing, and doing something we all love to do: passing the time in the company of his closest friend.  Taylor presents us with a glorious ode to friendship and shows how it can brighten everything we do.

Roth encouraged Taylor to write this book and gave him “explicit instructions not to sugarcoat anything and not to publish it until after his death.” Taylor’s memoir will be the definitive account of Philip Roth. It is almost as if Taylor has resurrected Roth ad I was shocked as my opinion of Roth that I had was very, very different from the Roth presented here. Yes, Roth was rancorous and tender, funny and sweet.

Like that friendship, this account is loyal and kind and very funny.  The laughter turns into tears as we near the end.  Taylor revives Roth’s presence while at the same time gives us a study of two very different men coming together because of a shared set of obsessions and mutual comforts. 

“M”— Overcoming Abuse in Israel

“M”

Overcoming Abuse in Israel

Amos Lassen

In Yolande Zauberman’s “M”, egregious abuse is exposed and explored. The film tells the harrowing story of Menahem Lang, a gregarious thirtysomething Israeli singer and actor who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, where he was raped systematically as a child by multiple religious elders. In his 20s, Lang confronted one of his abusers, and managed to secure an on-camera confession which was subsequently broadcast on national television. But he remained haunted by his past experiences, and convinced that sexual abuse in the community was still widespread. In the film he returns to Bnei Brak in search of further closure.

Shot almost entirely at night, a striking number of scenes take place inside cars, and it’s all set to a heavy, jazz-inflected score. As damaged as Lang clearly is, he’s motivated by a desire to heal his blighted, pathologically secretive community.

Many of the city’s older and more devout inhabitants would clearly like Lang to keep quiet or go away. Lang’s own parents prove completely inept at offering their son the support he so clearly needs. But other encounters take less predictable turns. During his time back home, Lang strikes up a friendship with a 19-year-old who was abused by his older brothers. After sharing their darkest secrets, the younger man feels he can open up about the fact that he believes he may be gay but is also completely clueless about sex. The subsequent exchange, in which Lang attempts to bring him up to speed, is both heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Director Zauberman strikes a clever balance here, giving us a formally inventive film which is angry but also empathetic, and which leaves the viewer with a sense that recovery from even the most appalling trauma is possible.

Zauberman sets out on a particularly dark journey to uncover a widespread, albeit absolutely unreported in the public, issue in the reticent community of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The documentary opens at night in Tel Aviv where Lang demonstrates why he has become a renowned performer of liturgical chants in a religious community. In the next scene we see Menahem discussing his preference for transsexuals with Miss Trans Israel, despite claiming to be of heterosexual orientation.

Lang left the Jewish religion, used his beautiful voice as an actor, and gained notoriety, as well as infamy in certain religious circles, for exposing his childhood abuser and getting his confession on camera. He was not the only rapist; Lang was not even eight years old at that time. And he was not the only victim.

In a rare glance behind the curtain of an enclosed religious community that shuns media attention, “M” uncovers shocking behavioral patterns that became normalized over the course of years. Several generations testify to the deeply-rooted sexual abuse in numerous distressing personal accounts and point towards intrinsic pathology.

Zauberman combines journalistic investigation and intriguing storytelling to give us a gripping exposé on rampant sexual abuse,  and the touching personal story of Menahem Lang and how childhood abuse changed his life and his stance toward religion and how he finds more uncomfortable answers.

This is disturbing to see but Lang’s candidness and bravery to speak out and lay bare his experiences, his struggles with his own demons and a lack of understanding among family members are amazing. His charisma and credibility draws other victims with similar stories into his orbit, uncovering identical patterns.

The power of the film is  in its accessibility. The perfectly-chosen protagonist’s willingness to be painfully frank about what happened to him and how it turned around his private life and his initial expression of attraction to transsexuals has a heartbreaking explanation.

Lang is completely charming. He is open and willing to probe the darker recesses of his soul by recalling the traumatizing experiences. He does not avoid less favorable and least expected circumstances as why he did not defend himself more furiously against the unwanted physical advances. His testimony and the circumstances he describes have great social relevance, although not exclusive to the community of Orthodox Jews. The catalysts have nothing to do with religion and Zauberman´s film brings forth eye-opening discoveries.

The director delivers wonderful storytelling. She manages to incorporate entertaining moments courtesy of Lang in carefully-timed, light flourishes of humor.

 

Lang becomes the confessor, the teacher and eventually the bearer of the light, even though he himself acknowledges the damage that cannot be undone. He remains dedicated to preventing the abuse and calling other victims out to not suffer in silence.

“15 YEARS”— Headed for Heartbreak

“15 YEARS”

Headed for Heartbreak

Amos Lassen

Israeli director Yuval Hadadi’s feature film debut “15 Years” is the compelling story of an outwardly successful gay couple in Tel Aviv who seem to have all that makes for a good life but who are nevertheless destined for heartbreak. Yet while the film is about a gay couple, it is actually about life— the choices and mistakes that we make, how we live and how we learn to either accept ourselves or not. 

Yoav  (Oded Leopold) and Dan (Udi Persi) are at home celebrating their 15th Anniversary with their closest friends.  Yoav seems disturbed when the conversation turns to swapping stories about other couples’ newly acquired babies.  He becomes even more upset when he learns that his best gal pal Alma (Ruti Asarsai)  is also pregnant and that people assume that he is the donor.

Yoav does not like children and this is probably because of his own unhappy childhood. He will not go to visit his elderly father who is dying in nursing home.   Yoav  sees himself as an alpha male and usually nothing bothers him. He  is used to controlling simply everything. When one of his major architect  projects gets in trouble along wth the failure of his relationship at home, he is pushed over the edge even though we see this coming.

Yoav’s partner Dan is a community lawyer who sees that Yoav is unravelling and wants no help. The film looks at the characters accepting their sexuality and is also about the difficulties of adjusting as  couple in contemporary life.  What the two men face is not unlike what many couples have to deal with and not just because they are a gay couple.

Each of the three actors gives a fine performance and this is probably because the script develops the characters so well. Yuval Hadadi has made a film of which he can be proud.

I lived in Israel for many years and those years were very crucial to the acceptance of the LGBTQ community there. Even though Yoav and Dan have to deal with important issues, I was fascinated to see how far the gay community has come. But then again, I would not say that this is a gay film—it is a human film and all of us will find something to identify with. While watching Yoav, Dan and Alma attempt to find ways to deal with what they were facing, I was reminded of my own relationship when I lived in Israel. While we did not have to deal with the idea of having children, the pressures of society did not help us to establish a firm basis for a “marriage”. Like Yoav and Dan, we, after many years, decided to go our separate ways. The love we shared is still there but we are just not able to share it in ways that we wanted to.

“MY BIG GAY JEWISH CONVERSION”— A Personal Journey

“MY BIG GAY JEWISH CONVERSION”

A Personal Journey

Amos Lassen

Simon is a gay Catholic man from the West of who has never truly felt accepted by his own church. This was a problem that Matthew, his Jewish boyfriend from North London, had never had to face. Simon considered converting to Judaism and he started with a trip to the local Rabbi where they talked about issues like circumcision, among other things. Simon wanted to get to Judaism’s homeland: Israel and so he jumped on a plane to Tel Aviv, ‘the gayest city on Earth’, where he met gay people from all walks of life, including gay soldiers in the IDF. Then he went to Jerusalem, where the story here was very different. Extreme views towards homosexuality are everywhere and Simon felt this at an uncomfortably close proximity. Then, he had to make a decision that would change his life forever.

Simon’s religion didn’t seem relevant to his lifestyle until he met his Jewish boyfriend Matthew, whose synagogue allows same-sex marriage. Simon therefore goes on a personal journey as a gay man to discover if he could convert to Judaism, and whether it was worth sacrificing his Catholic upbringing. He started by talking to a variety of people, including other gay Jewish men and a Rabbi, before going to Israel. (I find this extremely interesting in that so many gay people leave religion rather than embrace it).

As Simon delves deeper, he faces big doubts especially in Jerusalem where he is faced with more conservative and hostile views. Finally Simon visits one of the holiest sites in Christianity, where Jesus Christ was believed to have been resurrected and there he met a trainee Catholic Priest, to question his own faith. He realized that if he became Jewish, he would have to. give up the Catholic core belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and he wonders if he could do so.

While the title “My Big Gay Jewish Conversion” (produced by BBC One) sounds playful, we see the serious question of whether there is a place in modern mainstream religion for gay people.

Simon’s local rabbi in London was happy to marry Simon and Matthew and didn’t appeared too concerned about the explicit interdiction in Jewish sacred text against gay sex (which he more or less brushed off as the spiritual equivalent of a parking infraction). The main sticking point was that Simon would have to be circumcised.

In Jerusalem, Simon was confronted by hardliners who told him to his face that his orientation was an “abomination”. One scholar described homosexuality as a lifestyle choice and recommended that Simon have his doctor prescribe pills to fix the problem. He became so upset that he decided not to convert.

The documentary fails to adequately explore the Catholic faith in which Simon had been steeped growing up in Ireland. Had he always been religious? Was his moral code tested when he realized he was gay? I wanted the film to explore these issues. A little more background would have put his theological problems into context. Simon says he still looks back on his younger years “with fondness”, but became disillusioned when he realized being gay meant he could never marry in the eyes of God. This changed when he met Jewish boyfriend Matthew and found that Judaism offered an answer Catholicism could not, but that would mean becoming Jewish and renouncing his former beliefs including that Jesus is the son of God.

Simon’s aim in making the film is to help other gay people struggling to reconcile religion and sexuality. “They are afraid to be who they are because of their religious background and afraid they may be shunned from their communities if they act on their sexual impulses.”

We see that there is much to gain from converting to Judaism, including being allowed to marry in the eyes of God. But there are sections of the community that would never accept his lifestyle and he would have to turn his back on the core religious beliefs he has known all his life. We see that these sacrifices were simply too great for Atkins to take the next step.

 

“I WAS NOT BORN A MISTAKE”— Meet Yiscah Smith

“I WAS NOT BORN A MISTAKE”

Meet Yiscah Smith

Amos Lassen

·Yiscah Smith was living as an ultra-Orthodox married man with six children and deep ties in the community before coming out as a gay man and leaving Israel. Once she was back in the United States, Yiscah come out as trans, underwent gender transition and took her current name. It took twenty years for Yiscah to return to Israel, where she became a religious educator and spiritual mentor. The film shows her incredible journey to self-acceptance, compassion, and, finally, to her home in Israel. It alternates between past and present, where she helps clients on their own paths of awareness and self-discovery.

This is probably one of the most intriguing transition stories we have ever seen.  Born in a devout Observant Jewish family in Brooklyn as Yakov Smith, he was picked on and bullied for being effeminate.  As he grew into a teenager and young man, he became increasing desperate to fit in with society.

By the time the he was 24 in 1971, he was  totally immersed in the Chabad Hasidic movement in Brooklyn, and was then married an Orthodox woman. They had three sons and three daughters, and in 1985 they decided  to immigrate to Israel.

Where Smith taught at a synagogue in Jerusalem, he was considered a rising star and was made chairman in the Chabad house where he was in charge of Shabbat and entertained guests from around the globe. Everything seemed great on the outside but all the while, Smith did not questioning their own identity.  But after a Shabbat dinner, a guest drew Smith to aside and told him that he could see through his act.

This is what brought Smith to take s good look at life and he decided to come out as gay with the result that  his wife started divorce proceedings.  This also led to Smith being fired and shunned by his community. This eventually caused him to return to New York alone.

In New York, Smith  led a secular life and ending up in California, working at Starbucks and living with a boyfriend.  The relationship ended when the boyfriend said that Smith was too much like a woman. This was an important moment.

Becoming Yiscah Smith did not men just undergoing gender reassignment surgery but also finding her faith again and  coming back to Orthodox Judaism. After having a brief relationship with a man from Texas man and coming to terms with her estranged mother, Smith returned to re-settle in Israel and has been successful as an educator, spiritual advisor  and speaker in the “post-denominational Jewish experience.  She is confident and happy and even while knowing and reluctantly accepting that only 2 of her 6 children will speak with her and then, occasionally.  We see Smith as a woman who usually overthinks things and some of her decisions are still surprising.

She does not  accept that she is a trans woman and demands that she has always been a straight woman who is attracted to men.  She firmly believes this and when questioned about she is quick to dismisses her involvement with any transgender community. With Smith, the real transition is finding her way back to Judaism and her religion is the one and only identity that accepts her with unquestioning faith.

“I Was Not Born A Mistake” is the directorial debut of Israeli filmmakers Eyal Ben Moshe and Rachel Rusinek. I would have liked a few more interviews/comments from people who had shared parts of Smith’s life.  Nonetheless, this is an important film that makes valuable contributions to the dialogue about the transgender community.

“Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising” by Alexandra Richie— A Great Revolt Ending in a Great Crime

Richie, Alexandra. “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising”, Picador Paperback, 2019.

A Great Revolt Ending in A Great Crime

Amos Lassen

Alexandra Richie in “Warsaw 1994: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising shares the complete and untold story of how one of history’s bravest revolts ended in one of its greatest crimes. In 1943, the Nazis liquidated Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto.  Then just a year later, they threatened to complete the destruction of the city and the  deportation of its remaining residents. This was the end of a “sophisticated and cosmopolitan community a thousand years old was facing its final days”. But then opportunity struck. Soviet soldiers turned back the Nazi invasion of Russia and began pressing west and the underground Polish Home Army decided to act. Taking advantage of German unpreparedness and disarray because of the seeking to forestall the absorption of their country into the Soviet empire, they chose to liberate the city of Warsaw for themselves. 

For more than sixty days, the Polish fighters took over large parts of the city and held off the  most brutal German forces. But in the end, their efforts were doomed. Totally scorned by Stalin and unable to win significant support from the Western Allies, the Polish Home Army had to face the full fury of Hitler, Himmler, and the SS. What followed was one of the most brutal episodes of history’s most brutal war. Richie gives us the tragedy in grear detail based upon primary sources. We read of the terrible experiences of those who fought and died in the uprising and perished in it. I was often moved to tears and unsettled by what I read and I have read a great deal about the War and the treatment of citizens.

Richie’s recounts many unpublished stories and the survivors’ testimonies included make this the definitive study of the uprising. For those who are well learned and interested in the subject of the Warsaw Uprising, this book provides a great deal of new information in English for the first time.

“DOUZE POINTS”— “Fiction Flirts With Reality”

“DOUZE POINTS”

“Fiction Flirts With Reality”

 In “Douze Points”, the Islamic State plans for a French contestant to carry  out a spectacular terror attack on the air.  Mossad agents do their best to foil it. This  is a crazy Israeli film on Eurovision in Israel.

Rasoul Abu-Marzuk and Tarik Jihad were childhood best friends who grew up together in the Muslim quarter of Paris until Tarik decided to come out of  the closet at the age of 15. It was at that moment that Rasoul turned his back on his best friend and Tarik was excommunicated from his community.

10 years later Tarik is now TJ, a proud, gay singer that has left his past behind and lives like there is no tomorrow, fulfilling his dream to represent France in Europe’s biggest song contest. Rasoul has taken a different path. He followed his extremist, Islamic father, Abbas, and is now part of an ISIS terror cell in Paris. ISIS decides that the 2019 Europe song contest, set to take place in Israel, is a great opportunity for their biggest terror attack ever!!! They plan to plant one of their operatives into the French delegation at the contest in order to set off an explosion under the stage during the final performance of the event.

 The ISIS cell will make sure that TJ represents France at the European song contest and that one of their members will be under-cover, acting as TJ’s boyfriend. What TJ doesn’t know is that ISIS is planning to carry out the lethal attack, and that his “boyfriend” is none other than Rasoul.

The Israeli Mossad does know about the planned attack and they put their toughest, most experienced team into the contest in order to prevent a major catastrophe.