Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Movies

“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 

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 their newly acquired babies.  He becomes even more upset when he hears that his best gal pal Alma (Ruti Asarsai)  is also pregnant and people assume that he is the donor.

Yoav does not like children probably because of his own unhappy childhood. He will not go to visit his elderly father who is dying in nursing home.  Nothing usually bothers Yoav who sees himself as an alpha male and is used to controlling simply everything. When one of his major architect  projects gets in trouble. He is pushed over the edge.

Yoav’s partner Dan is a community lawyer has become used to walking around his partner 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 a gay couple in contemporary life. 

Each of the three actors gives a fine performance and this is probably because the script develops the characters so well.

“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.  

“LATTER DAY JEW”— A Conversion

“Latter Day Jew”

A Conversion

Amos Lassen

Conversion is no matter in Judaism yet as serious at it is, we can still laugh about it as we see here. Comedian H. Alan Scott shows us just that. You might have seen Scott on Ellen and The Jimmy Kimmel but here he gets personal. You see, Scott was raised Mormon and he decided to take a religious journey that ended in a bar mitzvah. Here is his very funny journey, front and center in this personal documentary that includes his standup and chats with prominent Jewish comedians as well as clips from famous onscreen conversions (“Sex and the City”, “Family Guy”) and even a trip to Israel for Tel Aviv Pride and blowing a shofar. It is hilarious to see him,  a 30-year-old man training for his bar mitzvah with a room of 12-year-olds and this is one of the best scenes of the film although all of the scenes that challenge his conversion are great.

We find ourselves with these questions: “What does it mean for his relationship with his Mormon family in Missouri? How did his scare with cancer impact his religious journey? How does his gay identity intersect with his religion and does the Mormon stance on LGBTQ issues impact others leaving the faith?”

 

We might not get the answers but we do get a fascinating film that is filled with great humor.

“BLACK HAT”— A Gay Double Life

 

“BLACK HAT”

A Gay Double Life

Amos Lassen

Here is a bit of news that I am anxious to share. Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, the new short LGBT film, “Black Hat” is a narrative drama about a seemingly pious Hasidic man who lives a secret double life. When he misplaces his black hat one night, his two separate lives to collide in a way he never imagined.  Shmuel (Adam Silver) leads a simple yet religious life. Every day he goes to pray at the synagogue before going to work as a dry cleaner. When his wife and daughters leave town for a few days, Shmuel enters the more complex world at night.

 

“Black Hat” explores religion and queer identity through the experiences of this closeted Orthodox Jewish man. We often see religion as the antithesis of LGBTQ identity. We have had any number of LGBTQ films about Christianity and the ways it affects the gay community but we have not had much about the Jews. The film beautifully captures Shmuel’s struggle between his devout faith and queer identity. For him, as for many with the same struggle, he can’t choose one over the other because they’re equally engrained into his identity. So, Shmuel which means that during the day he prays and works and at night he visits gay bars looking for someone to share his live with.

Writer, co-producer, and gay Jewish man Phillip Guttmann shares some of the challenges ultra-Orthodox Jews face. There are groups of Orthodox Jews who remain out of the public eye yet deal with real issues, like substance addiction, untreated mental health, living in the closet — issues that everyone around the world faces — but in these religious insular communities, talking about such issues publicly is forbidden. He hopes that this film can help start those conversations around the intersectionality of Judaism and queer identities and raise awareness of the often-forgotten community.

Let me share a few words about ultra-Orthodox Jews. In an effort to survive near extinction 75 years ago, ultra- religious Jews, in their many different sects, created and continue to create large families and strictly private communities as a means to rebuild. In these communities, they follow God’s commandments as spelled out in the Torah and Talmud. Close-knit families look inward and find meaning in their traditions. 

 But in the contemporary world of today, modern problems impact even these ultra-insular communities. Every day, ultra-religious Jews face the same issues as people from the outside world: drug abuse, mental illness, questions about gender and sexual orientation, strained marriages and much more. But in the Hasidic code, such problems are forbidden and any displays of these problems is even more taboo. In Los Angeles, New York, Jerusalem, and everywhere that exist Hasidic Jews, real people hiding these painful struggles under their black hats and wigs. 

Hasidic Jews are typically born into large, tight-knit families, just a few blocks away from the secular world, but a million miles away experientially. Children typically learn to speak Yiddish first and English second. Schools in these neighborhoods may provide some education but steer boys more towards the Talmud than mathematics or science. The bulk of these individuals’ entire worlds exist within a mile of their home.

​Every year many Hasidic Jews try to escape: some flee, some overdose, and some turn to suicide as their only way out. Breaking away means starting over, learning completely foreign customs and traditions, and often times means losing entire support systems. Many who are desperate to leave never do because they simply don’t know how.

​“Black Hat”  looks at one such story from this community. We follow twenty-four hours in the life Shmuel’s story and we learn that these often mysterious and misunderstood religious individuals are perhaps more complex than is commonly believed. 

​This is a story about loneliness and the feeling of being trapped between two worlds. The film ends on a hopeful note of understanding and connection when a Hasidic man who also harbors the same secret, returns Shmuel’s misplaced black hat. Ultimately, this is a character study of a man searching for his place in the world.

Below is a but of information about the ultra-religious Jews:

FAST FACTS:

  • Hasidism started in Galicia in the 18th century as a response to formal, stuffy Jewish liturgy of the time. 
  • Today it has faced near annihilation (mid 20th century) and fought to come back and survive with Hasidic families tending towards large families with an average of 8 children to re-grow. 
  • Over the years, Hasidism has split into dozens of sects that interpret the Torah and the Talmud differently and see issues like Israel’s existence or how to interact or not interact with non-Jewish communities, differently. Sects like the Satmer movement, believe that Israel cannot exist properly until the return of the Messiah and prefer as little contact with non-religious Jews as possible, while the Chabad movement recognizes Israel as the home of the Jewish nation and takes an outward approach, extending beyond their communities to spread the word of the Torah to non-believers.  
  • Hasidim, particularly Chabad, can be found in nearly every country and major city, though, tend towards smaller numbers. The largest communities of Hasidim can be found in Israel and New York City, and also have sizable communities in Paris, London, Montreal, Miami and Los Angeles. 
  • In 1933, the total world population of Jews was estimated at about 18 million. 85 years later in 2018, the total world population is estimated at about 15 million. That means that the deficit of 6 million Jews created by the Holocaust is beginning to regrow. This can be in part attributed to the Haredi movement. 
  • Most Haredi Jews live in Israel in Haredi neighborhoods. The current total population of Haredi Jews in Israel is over 1 million (out of over 6 million Jews in Israel). In New York, the estimated Haredi population is over 90,000. And in Los Angeles, where our story takes place, there are close to 15,000 Haredi Jews.

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”— An Angry and Impressive Look at an Angry and Unimpressive Man

 

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”

An Angry and Impressive Look at an Angry and Unimpressive Man

Amos Lassen

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” takes its title from a question that Donald Trump asked those around him when they failed to stop attorney general Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Then we take a trip back in time to Trump’s formative years followed by interviews and archival footage and we are off on a chronological tour of the critical events that followed. Director Matt Tyrnauer has a knack for pacing and gives us a documentary that gets more engrossing as it goes along; the most vital bits are reserved for the bitter end, when, even in death, Roy Cohn still refuses to admit defeat.

Roy Cohn was a corrupt lawyer, political dirty trickster, mafia associate and all around scumbag. He was a self-hating Jew who powered the engine of one of the worst anti-Semitic moments in American history, the demonization and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was a closeted man who refused to publicly identify as gay even as he was dying of AIDS. He was famous for being a mean bastard.

Cohn was born in New York in 1927 was heir to a number of fortunes on his mother’s side. She was said to be so ugly that she had trouble finding a husband. Cohn’s father agreed to an arranged marriage so long as her powerful family made him a judge. This blatant, unfeeling corruption came to be a hallmark of Cohn’s life. He graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and quickly found himself as one of the leading “red-baiters”, rooting out communists in government positions and the U.S. Army for the good of democracy. He worked with Senator Joseph McCarthy whose last name is a now a synonym for political witch-hunting.

McCarthy and Cohn’s harassment of presumed communists and sympathizers has overshadowed a subsequent “lavender scare” in which the pair harassed and exposed homosexuals. (It is rumored that McCarthy, like Cohn, was also secretly gay as was FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who encouraged these witch hunts.) A series of hearings in 1954 suggested that much of McCarthy’s pressure on the US army was led by Cohn’s desire to secure a better position for a man named G. David Schine, who was either Cohn’s boyfriend or someone he was infatuated with.

Cohn fueled himself off accusations and fighting. His strategy was always to deny then lie even louder. As a personal attorney he would win high-profile cases through the use of “deflection, misdirection and fear-mongering.” He had powerful friends and attracted wealthy clients in New York, most notably the heads of organized crime families and the young real estate mogul Donald J. Trump.

Tyrnauer’s film is a collection of talking heads (including and news clips. We see that despite a twenty year age difference between Trump and Cohn, Trump seems to have been nurtured by Cohn’s disgusting work, the two were close for many years. They first bonded over a shared love of denying African-Americans  their civil rights. This led to corruption and kickbacks during the erection of Trump Tower. Cohn loved to see his picture in the paper, and was known for his must-attend parties, so there are ample images in this documentary to make you sick.

This film is part of a forthcoming wave from film-makers who are trying to grapple with just how in the hell we got to where we are making this an important film. For many years, Donald Trump was a joke (and never a harmless one). The damage he’s currently doing makes us ashamed that we laughed at him especially as he strives to get the last laugh. “This film connects a direct line between Roy Cohn’s belligerent, boorish and obstructionist ways and our current, less eloquent nightmare.”  We now know “where’s my Roy Cohn?”— he is in the White House.

Tyrnauer exposes Cohn as a modern Machiavelli who influences our country today at the highest level. Cohn first came into the public eye as an assistant to J. Edgar Hoover and handled the prosecution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, a Jewish couple  who were arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spying for Russia and securing Manhattan Project documents for the Russian government. Cohn was then a twenty-three-year-old fast-rising attorney and he claimed to have not only persuaded the presiding judge, Irving Kaufman, to impose the death penalty but also to have had said Judge Irving assigned the case. Cohn’s reward for the Rosenberg execution was an appointment as special counsel to Joseph McCarthy.

Tyrnauer provides compelling evidence that Cohn was responsible for much of McCarthy’s demagoguery and rise to power. Soon, however, Cohn would cause his own and McCarthy’s fall from grace. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, direct questioning it was revealed that Cohn had a “special relationship” with G. David Schine and pressured the U.S. Army to give Schine preferential treatment. Cohn would resign after he was humiliated and pummeled with homophobic comments during the televised hearings. He, then, claimed that everybody wanted him to stay on. According to those who worked with Cohn, this was not the case.

Cohn came to be the personification of the dark arts of 20th-century American politics. Cohn became a mover and shaker of dubious and odious means. He fluffed his persona despite inflicting financial losses on his clients and family. Trynauer reveals how Cohn, a deeply troubled master manipulator, has shaped our current political world. He continually and persistently defended himself by attacking his adversaries and using the press to generate sensational public sympathy for his plight.

It appears that his political clout came from his wide social circle of wealthy, influential friends. Cohn was known for throwing lavish parties and hobnobbed with almost every imaginable socialite of the day including then artist, Andy Warhol. Cohn became a New York power broker, mafia consigliere, white-collar criminal, and he mentor of Donald J. Trump who began his flamboyant rise first on Cohn’s shoulders and then his back. Eventually, Trump became the master of personal attacks, hyperbole, sensationalism, and using the press to get out in front of the story.

As a closeted homosexual, Cohn was at the forefront of “The Lavender Scare,” and convinced Dwight D. Eisenhower to ban all gay men from working in the federal government; when dying from AIDS-related complications several decades later, he insisted that he was suffering from liver cancer, and used his celebrity to provoke contempt for other victims of the growing plague.

Cohn had an unparalleled talent for making the worst of every bad situation. He always attacked and he never surrendered. Cohn was a byproduct of trying to outwrestle his own insecurities and lack of self-worth.

Cohn might have been a footnote in American history until the 2016 election. It was then that he became seen as a modern Machiavelli. That this delayed emergence of him as a figure of immortal, worldwide political importance is fascinating and sickening at the same time.

The film is a Must-See, given the times we’re living in. It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump learned everything he knows from Cohn. Every time we see him lie outrageously, every time you see him respond to an attack by attacking back with twice the force, we see    Roy Cohn’s legacy at work. And when Trump finally finds himself in court, as he inevitably will, they will never get him on anything. He’ll just use Cohn’s tactics to bury everyone involved in counter-lawsuits.

“JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE”— Up Close and Personal with Gay Porn Star from Israel

“JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE” Up Close and Personal with Gay Porn Star from Israel Amos Lassen Jonathan Agassi is one of the world’s most successful gay porn stars who built his fame and success on a global taboo that pleases millions. ”Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” is an intimate look at the world of porn and escorting and at a unique relationship between a mother and son, who courageously redefine familiar family concepts. In essence, this is a film about a lonely person who seeks love and meaning, but is condemned to a destructive lifestyle, understanding that the extreme fantasies he chases are not necessarily his own.
Tomer Heymann who directed this new documentary says that the title says it all. Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” was eight years in the making. Tomer Heymann first discovered the titular Agassi by chance in Tel Aviv. Tomer was struck by his looks and charm but completely unaware  that he was a well-known individual. His friends told him that he was crazy because he didn’t know that Agassi was a hugely famous porn star.
Heymann set out to discover more about him with the idea  to turning his life story into a film. Agassi was living in Berlin and Heymann arranged to meet him in a hotel and it was strange because Agassi thought Heymann was trying to have sex with him. Agassi had seen a couple of the Heymann brothers’ films, but his initial reaction was that he had no interest in starring in his own, particularly for any monetary reasons.
He had received an offer of ils500,000 [$140,000] to be in the Israeli version of Big Brother [which he turned down], but he said he wasn’t interested in money. Heymann told him we wouldn’t pay him one shekel because it was our principal to never pay anything to documentary characters. Agassi struck a deal with the director that if he could convince his mother, who he insisted would never speak about Agassi’s life as an escort and porn star, to appear in the documentary, he would consent to the project. He gave Heymann his mother’s number and they met for a coffee. It took time to convince her she told him that she trusted him to do the film.
The director filmed across a period of eight years, following Agassi’s wild life as a global porn star. Jonathan Agassi is a symbol for this generation,” says Heymann. “He is young, gay and has the freedom and the luck to have any fantasies he wants without being in the closet.” As they worked, Heymann discovered the story of Agassi’s early life. “Jonathan Agassi was born with a very Hebrew name, Elkana Yonatan Langer, he was feminine and had a very tough childhood in one of the suburbs of Tel Aviv,” the filmmaker explains. “His father left him a year after he was born. He changed his name and built a strong character for himself. He met his father for the first time once he was living in Berlin as a porn star.”
The film is comprised entirely of original footage shot by Tomer and was funded by the Heymann brothers themselves with Israeli broadcaster Channel 8 (which will broadcast a four-part episodic version of the film), HOT, Makor Foundation and Mifal Hapais. The Heymann brothers have produced two versions of “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life”. One contains uncensored X-rated footage and one doesn’t.

“Holy Lands” by Amanda Sthers— To Love and Accept

Sthers, Amanda. “Holy Lands”, Bloomsbury, 2019. To Love and Accept Amos Lassen I am a very lucky guy in that there are publishers that know me so well, they know exactly what kind of books to send me. I used to laugh about how in Israel pigs are raised even though eating pork is a violation of Jewish dietary laws. What the pig farmers do is fix the stys on wooden platforms so that the pigs’ feet will not touch the holy ground. Now I am not exactly sure how to define the term holy ground because I am sure that in the centuries that the ground has existed, it has been touched by something that has violated the dietary laws. Anyway… this is “a witty, heartwarming, and heart-wrenching epistolary novel, soon to be a major motion picture starring James Caan, Rosanna Arquette, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.” It is about a dysfunctional family (led by a Jewish pig farmer in Israel)  that is struggling to love and accept each other. (Now throw in a gay Jewish character and you got me). What I find so amazing in this little book of just 160 pages is that it is both very moving and highly humorous at the same time. Basically we read about an estranged family of colorful eccentrics. There is the patriarch, Harry Rosenmerck, an aging Jewish cardiologist who has left his thriving medical practice in New York to raise pigs in Israel. His ex-wife, Monique dwells on their once happy marriage even as she is quietly at war with an aggressive illness. Their son, David is an earnest and successful playwright who has vowed to reconnect with his father since coming out. Annabelle, their daughter, finds herself in Paris with no direction as she deals with the aftermath of a breakup. Harry does not like technology and the only way the family communicates is via snail mail. Their correspondence is fun to read and we see them grappling with challenges as they really go at each other. The book wonderfully captures an a dult family in all og its poignancy and craziness. Here is a family that strives to be connected even though they all have different and radical perspectives on life. The dialogue and the jokes are caustic and gentle and deal with important topics such as Israel’s militarized security, Jewish identity, and the dysfunction of Harry’s family. Writer Sthers manages to keep it balanced between sensitivity and ribald humor. We are irreverently and endearingly reminded that “blood is thicker than water.” Those of you who are familiar with Jewish humor know that it is laced with “ironic taunts, familial reprimands, and cries from the heart”. Each of the letters we read in this novel has a new secret in it each of the letters that form this gripping novel reveals a new secret or asks a new question on the topics of sex, love, friendship, religion and/or connection. We also realize that conciliation is best when based on truth and that the letters we write are intense whether we mean for them to be so or not. Each character goes through life-altering experiences as they question crucial matters of religion, morality, inheritance, compassion, and love. “Holy Lands” is set in Nazereth, Israel (because today it is one of the few places in Israel where pigs can be raised) and New York City, Marrakesh and Paris. The characters move  between places but as individuals and not as  a family. They simply do not get along like many other many other families. The inability to communicate in modern terms is tearing the Rosenmerck family apart more than it is already. The parents are divorced parents and the two adult children are somewhat caricatures of today’s dysfunctional family members. David who is gay and brilliant has problems communicating with his father who has practically disowned him (I resemble that remark). Annabelle is the 30 year old “child”, who goes through life not wanting to settle down and become an adult. We see characters like these in almost every book about dysfunctional families but we have something a bit extra here and that is “being the child of a father-who-has-a-pig-farm-in-Israel can’t be too helpful to family dynamics…”
The novel is written in the form of letters and messages among family members and others. It is set in the spring of 200 and the  idea of a pig farm in the Holy Land, where many people won’t eat pork or ham sets the backdrop. Harry receives many letters from a local rabbi concerning the pigs, the morality of having the pig farm, and so on. Then there is Harry’s son David who is gay and there is some confusion, particularly on Harry’s part about accepting David as he is. This is a family that does nothing together and cannot seem to do anything together.