Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“SHALOM TAIWAN”— Keeping the Temple Open

“SHALOM TAIWAN”

Keeping the Temple Open

Amos Lassen

Part traditional comedy, part tourist spot, Walter Tejblum’s Shalom Taiwan humorously portrays a rabbi’s efforts to keep his temple open even if he has to travel to the other side of the world. Rabbi Aaron (Fabian Rosenthal)  is an ambitious man with big dreams. He is willing to give up everything to grow the temple and the social work that surround it. His mentor left him some very big shoes to fill when he was in charge of leading his community and all that that Judaism represents.

So Rabbi Aaron embarked on a major project to renovate and expand the building but this is a dream that can only be attained only achievable by taking on a significant debt with a financier, who despite having promised to be flexible to renegotiate when the time comes, as the due date approaches, claims to collect the full amount without leaving room for delays, because the economic situation no longer the same as when they made the agreement.

Using the same financial crisis as an excuse, the regular donors have stopped contributing and the rabbi sees no way to prevent the temple building from being used as collateral for the debt. When he is already desperate and about to give up, a friend approaches him with a rather unlikely plan but this is the Rabbi’s last card to play. The idea is to connect with a Jewish community in Taiwan that according to plan is made up of very wealthy, people who would be able to help financially and quickly. Wasting no time, the rabbi embarks on a journey to the other side of the world, from where he is forced to put into perspective many of the actions that led him to that point, especially those that made him neglect his family.

Rosenthal carries all the dramatic weight of the film and he is indeed a  charismatic protagonist. As the rabbi, he portrays the optimism and passion that sustains a fairly simple plot that alternates between the family comedy and a Taiwanese tourist.

The film is funny in a quite tender and familiar way. It does at times feel fragmented but we can overlook that and just enjoy a film that requires no thought and provides entertainment.

 

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“Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress” by Leonard Greenspoon— Evaluating Translations

Greenspoon, Leonard. “Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress”, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

Evaluating Translations

Amos Lassen

Leonard Greenspoon’s “Jewish Bible Translations” is the first book to examine Jewish Bible translations from the third century BCE to our day. “It is an overdue corrective of an important story that has been regularly omitted or downgraded in other histories of Bible translation.”

Greenspoon examines a wide range of translations over twenty-four centuries through the historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious contexts of versions in eleven languages: Arabic, Aramaic, English, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish. He looks at many Jewish translators including Buber, Hirsch, Kaplan, Leeser, Luzzatto, Mendelssohn, Orlinsky, and Saadiah Gaon and shows their “their aspirations within the Jewish and larger milieus in which they worked.”

He examines principles, styles, and techniques and their choice to emphasize either literal reflections of the Hebrew or distinctive elements of the vernacular language and their underlying rationales. Here are new insights about their shared characteristics and the limits they faced and we see how Jewish translators and interpreters influenced the style and diction of the King James Bible.

Accessible and authoritative for all from beginners to scholars, Jewish Bible Translations enables readers to make their own informed evaluations of individual translations and to holistically assess Bible translation within Judaism.

“Esther in America” by Dr. Stuart Halpern— The Impact of the Scroll of Esther

Halpern, Dr. Stuart, editor.  “Esther in America”, Maggid, 2020.

The Impact of the Scroll of Esther

Amos Lassen

“The Scroll of Esther” or Megillat Esther has been an inspiration throughout history. It has had great impact on this country. Rabbis and ethicists, abolitionists and artists, preachers and presidents, have understood and used the text to speak to an issue that was taking place. “It has offered solace to immigrants, forged solidarity, impacted politics” and individuals have realized that deliverance and salvation comes from our own actions and how we relate to what is going on both personally and nationally. Today, once again, America finds itself having to deal with the limits of power, gender issues, bigotry and antisemitism and the implosion of our republic.  The scroll of Esther, shows us how to find the strength and the will to deal with such issues but it is up to us to open our eyes and our minds to it.

 “Esther in America” looks at the inspiration that has been gained from the scroll from as far back as the story of Sojourner Truth and Puritan society when women took the initiative to find a way from the problems that they were forced to deal with. We later see the Feminist Esther as we relook at the story of Vashti as a women who dared to say no to a man who was above her. Women in Persia were silenced until both Vashti and Esther exercised their mouths to stand up to the powers that were.

Moving to the Diaspora, we see the expansion of the role of women who dared, like Esther, and stand up for themselves. We look at pop culture and see how the example of a strong woman influenced women to be who they were. We see their roles in presidential politics as first ladies and influences on their husbands and male peers and we look at today’s morality and see how the classic story of Purim has influenced the world today. The Biblical text has become a way to look at courage and ingenuity as far back as the Revolutionary War and still serves as such today. What we really see is that we must use what we have for good and that we all have the ability to do as Esther did and speak out and act. The Megillah has left its impression on the history of this country.

 

“Loss & Legacy: The Half-Century Quest To Reclaim A Birthright Stolen By The Nazis” by Sam A. Gronner— Reclamation

Gronner, Sam A. “Loss & Legacy: The Half-Century Quest To Reclaim A Birthright Stolen By The Nazis”, Full Court Press, 2020.

Reclamation

Amos Lassen

Even though I have great interest in the philosophical aspects of the Holocaust, I must admit that I have a really hard time reading personal accounts of the way Jews were treated by Nazi Germany. Therefore I approached Sam Gronner’s “Loss and Legacy” with apprehension and was not prepared to be drawn in on the very first page. His story of his and his father’s journey to gain reparations for what was stolen from them by the Nazi regime is an amazing and spellbinding chronicle.

John Gronner was the son of the Jewish owners of a prominent clothing store in the small German town of Ilmenau. Gronner’s son spent his life seeking to get back the property and good name of his family after the Holocaust. The Gronner family was able to achieve financial success before the rise of Nazi power but were soon shunned by neighbors and subjected to economic boycott. Nazi laws forced them to give up their business and soon after they faced deportation and execution. The Nazis were determined to erase the Jewish family from history but through sheer determination of the surviving son, this became impossible. Gronner , the son, was set upon making right the grievous ways his family had been treated and in doing so he created his own legacy by becoming an advocate against bigotry and the silence of the ages.

We go back to Ilmenau, a small town in the German state of Thuringia where we meet Helene and Samuel Gronner who by 1929 had managed to achieve economic success and social prominence.  They had built two floors of showrooms of men’s and women’s fashions. Following years of inflation, they were able to bring to the local retail economy a new sense of success and optimism. But it did not last— within the next year, they were boycotted and shunned by the villagers around them. This was because the ideology of the Nazi Party rose with local elections and being Jewish in such an environment excluded the Gronners from all aspects of daily life and demanded that Jewish owned businesses be boycotted and that was just the beginning. Their son was soon the object of overt hatred at school and it got so bad that his parents decided to have him further pursue his education in Palestine where he would study for a degree in mechanical engineering. With the advent of World War II, the family lost communication with him and in 1942, the Gronners were deported from their home.

As we read, we face questions including the usual one of how this could have happened. Sam Gronner has done extensive research to bring his family’s story to us. He uses his own childhood memories as well as documents, photos and memorabilia as he writes of his father’s journey to reclaim the family’s inheritance stolen which had been stolen by the anti-Semitic laws. He wants to bring back the good reputation his family had back then in Ilmenau and to make sure that it was not erased by the Nazis who thought that by killing the family its name would be gone forever. It is, as if, we are on the journey with Gronner as we leave Germany for Palestine following his father’s service in the British army to fight the Nazis and the role he played as Israel fought for independence. Here is a look at the Holocaust through the eyes and emotions of a family directly affected by it. . Sam A. Gronner felt that he had to share this story so that we can better understand the plight of a Jewish family against insurmountable odds. It certainly affected him.

Because of its content, this is not an easy read but it is an important one. Written in a way that captures the reader, I had a hard time putting it down and in fact, I read it straight through in one reading. I am still thinking about what I experienced as I read.

“Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity” edited by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner and Sarah J. Ricklan— An Open Discussion of Orthodox Jewish Women and Sexuality

Cohen, Rivka, Sara Rozner and Sarah J. Ricklan (editors). “Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity”, Ben Yehudah Press, 2020.

An Open Discussion of Orthodox Jewish Women and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

“Monologues From the Makom” is “a collection of first-person poetry and prose designed to break the observant Jewish community’s taboo against open discussion of female sexuality” written by observant Jewish women. Wherever I turned, it seemed, women were testing the limits of what could be openly discussed and explored.

Some of the topics such as female same-sex attraction and masturbation are delicate and have their problems in the values of Orthodox Judaism and Jewish law. Most of the articles, however, are thoughtful and restrained reflections on periods, birth control, postpartum recovery, negiah (Jewish laws of touching), inclusion in ritualistic Jewish life, and consent.

The Internet, podcasts, and social media “influencers” have spoken openly and candidly on these topics and the proliferation of female Halachic advisers and more formalized sex education in yeshiva high schools heralded the publication of this book. These developments happened slowly carefully weigh of the value of speaking openly about issues in a community in modesty is a sacred value.

Of course, there are detractors of open dialogue and early education who feel that bringing these issues to light normalizes thus leading to less-than-ideal Halachic implications. However, anyone with experience parenting and educating young people knows how adults feel and children behave are rarely in-sync. At any age, there is often dissonance between religious and cultural norms and lived experiences.

This is an important book for Jewish feminism and a large step into a world where the voices and experiences of women must be heard and heeded. It explores the tensions between religious norms and the experiences of young Jewish women. Additionally, it should also be read by men.

“The Most Precious of Cargoes: A Novel” by Jean-Claude Grumberg— A Woodcutter and His Wife

Grumberg, Jean-Claude. “The Most Precious of Cargoes: A Tale”, Harper Via, 2020.

A Woodcutter and His Wife

Amos Lassen

Jean-Claude Grumberg’s “The Most Precious of Cargoes” is set during the height of World War II and is the powerful story about a woodcutter and his wife, who finds a mysterious parcel thrown from a passing train. The woodcutter is very poor and as war rages around him and his wife, he finds it difficult to put food on the table. Nonetheless, every night, his wife prays for a child.

A Jewish father rides on a train holding his twin babies. His wife  can no longer provide enough milk to feed both children. In hopes of saving them both, he wraps his daughter in a shawl and throws her into the forest.

While searching for food, the woodcutter’s wife finds a bundle, a baby girl wrapped in a shawl. Although she knows harboring this baby could bring death to her door, she takes the child home. This is a story about family and redemption which reminds us that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places. It is. Beautifully written novelette about what it means to love a child and how to sustain it.

There has been so much written about the Holocaust that it is very difficult to write something new to write about about yet writer Grumberg, through the use of a fable format, manages to do so. He deals with the horrors of the time at the same time he explores the love of a child.He also avoids any use of the word “Holocaust” but we are aware of its hovering above every sentence. The story is both heartbreaking and life-affirming and cements the importance of humanity above all else. What we read is out of the realm of our imaginations, or is it? There were certainly actual happenings like this that took place when desperation ruled. While we may not want to believe that a father would toss his child from a moving train, we can understand why he did so and we are pained by it. Likewise, we find joy when the child is found and rescued.

Here is a story of good and evil and light and darkness in which we recognize the great risk to the woodcutters wife and her husband when she decides to raise the baby as her own. The reader is left to think about the ending and with that I will stop except to say that this story is very different from anything that I’ve ever read. I attribute that to the lyrical prose. We are reminded that love and loss and pain and hope are emotions that are always within us.

 

“Places in the Parasha” by Professor Yoel Elitzur— Where the Bible Happened

Elitzur, Yoel . “Places in the Parasha”, Maggid, 2020.

Where the Bible Happened

Amos Lassen

When I first moved to Israel, one of the first things I did was to go to see the places that are mentioned in the Bible. Growing up in a Jewish household and a Zionist youth group, this was only natural. I just wish that, back then, I had been lucky enough to have Yoel Elitzur’s “Places in the Parasha”. It is wonderful way to remember what I had been taught and a fine way of knowing how to explore those places.

Professor Yoel Elitzur is a leading expert in the fields of Bible and Talmud, biblical and historical geography, and Hebrew and Semitic languages. In “Places in the Parasha”, he “analyzes archaeological and linguistic findings, peruses historical sources, and explores the derivation and meaning of names so as to give us geographic identifications and linguistic solutions to the mysteries of the Tanakh. We revisit the Garden of Eden and the Ai, Goren Ha-Atad and Mount Sinai, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal among others. All of this is presented in the order of the weekly Torah portions. All of the material is presented concisely and clearly, with maps and pictures and we experience “the insights and revelations in this impressive work, and strengthen their connection to the Land of Israel.”

“The Lost Shtetl” by Max Gross— A Small Jewish Village

Gross, Max. “The Lost Shtetl: A Novel, Harper Via, 2020.

A Small Jewish Village

Amos Lassen

In “The Lost Shtetl”, Max Gross takes us to a small Jewish village in the Polish forest that is so secluded no one knows it exists . . . until now.“ For decades, the tiny Jewish shtetl of Kreskol existed in happy isolation, virtually untouched and unchanged.” Kreskol had been spared by the Holocaust and the Cold War and those that lived there enjoyed remarkable peace. There were no cars, no electricity, no internet and no indoor plumbing. When a marriage dispute goes out of control, the whole town comes into the twenty-first century.

Pesha Lindauer, who has just gone through an ugly divorce, suddenly disappears. A day later, her husband goes looking for her and thus begins a panic among the town elders who send out an unprepared outcast named Yankel Lewinkopf into the wider world to alert the Polish authorities.

 As Yankel goes beyond the remote safety of Kreskol, Yankel faces the beauty and the dangers of the modern-day outside world> He begins to experience  disbelief, condescension, and unexpected kindness. When the truth finally comes out, his story and the existence of Kreskol hits headlines nationwide. 

The Polish government returns Yankel to Kreskol with plans to reintegrate the town to the modern world. As this begins to happen, the origins of its disappearance are discovered. What has become of the mystery of Pesha and her former husband? Kreskol is divided between those want change and those who want the shtetl to retain its old world ways. The people of Kreskol will have to find a way to come together or lose their village forever.

There is wonderful humor here but more than that there is in-depth insight into “human foolishness, resilience, and faith.” Here is a tale about “the costs of living in one’s own time as opposed to the benefits and disadvantages of living in a world that has been overlooked by the contemporary world.”

The characters become our friends as we follow then through the narrative. Through the coming together ofthe new world and the old one. We have the concept of being “other” and that anti-Semitism has always existed and what is means to be treated cruelly because of one’s religion.The older citizens of rural Poland are seen as very anti-Semitic. Yankel learns about the Holocaust but doesn’t believe it. He can’t understand the size of the tragedy and sees it as a story that is meant to trick him.

There is a lot to think about here especially about societal developments.  We read ofthe traditions and simple life of the isolated villagers and how modern life affects them economically, socially, and culturally.

Everything about the modern world passed Kreskol by, and the people live in isolation until Pesha and Ishmael Lindauer’s marriage explodes and, they end up separately leaving town. Yankel is sent to the nearest town to report the disappearance (and possible murder?) to the police.Once he reaches the outside world for the first time, things spin out of control, both for him and Kreskol, which is finally discovered. We see everything from the viewpoint of Yankel and other shtetl residents while, at the same time, we see the outside world’s reaction to the discovery of such a community.

Theunnamed narrator is a resident of Kreskol, who knows quite a bit of its history. He knows about the pogroms of the past and the Christian neighbors that led to Kreskol’s isolation and their voluntarily cutting themselves off completely from the outside world. He also knows about the residents of Kreskol and their foibles.

While the story is very funny it is also  heartbreakingly as we read about antisemitism, past and present.

“The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century” by Adam Kirsch— Seminal Jewish Texts of the 20th Century

Kirsch, Adam. “The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century”, W.W. Norton, 2020.

Seminal Jewish Texts of the 20thCentury

Amos Lassen

Literary critic Adam Kirsch gives us “an erudite and accessible survey of Jewish life and culture in the twentieth century, as reflected in seminal texts.” His previous book “The People and the Bookslooked at more than 2,500 years of Jewish cultural expression”. Now he looks modern Jewish literature from the emigration of Jews out of Eastern Europe to the Holocaust to the creation of Israel, and in the works he looks at here we see that the twentieth century transformed Jewish life through Jewish writing: “the novels, plays, poems, and memoirs of Jewish writers provided intimate access to new worlds of experience.”

Through four themes— Europe, America, Israel, and the endeavor to reimagine Judaism as a modern faith, he explores what has been written. He shares discussions of major books by over thirty writers from Franz Kafka to Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel to Tony Kushner, Hannah Arendt to Judith Plaskow and argues that literature offers a new way to think about what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. Kirsch draws interesting parallels between both familiar and less familiar writers sheds new light on the literature of the Holocaust through the work of Primo Levi. He explores the emergence of America as a Jewish home through the stories of Bernard Malamud, and shows how Yehuda Amichai captured what makes up the Jewish identity. I have read many of the writers he mentions here but never in such a fascinating way. The book is areflection on how writers in Europe, America, and Israel dealt with the twentieth century. Kirsch gives us an introduction to our modern literature by introducing us to those who made it happen.

“Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— Judaism and Ideas

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas”, Maggid, 2020.

 Judaism and Ideas

Amos Lassen

Renowned scholar, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his new book, “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas”, looks at major and important questions regarding the Jewish religion. “What is Judaism? A religion? A faith? A way of life? A set of beliefs? A collection of commands? A culture? A civilization?”. Rabbi Sacks maintains that Judaism is all these, but also something more. It is a way of thinking about life filled with many, many ideas. Many of these ideas that Judaism brought to the world have been lost over time and many were misunderstood. Rabbi Sacks brings these ideas back to us through examining a life changing idea  by looking at each of the weekly readings of the Torah.

Judaism gives us an original way of thinking about life. As a student of philosophy I often find myself dwelling in the world of ideas and often debating, with myself, where we get these ideas and why. What is the purpose of ideas and what do they to tell us? I realize that many of the ideas that Jews have brought to the world are transformative and that in most cases are based upon logic. The questions that we ask are eternal just as are our searches for answers. We are, after all, the nation of Israel and we struggle with God and we struggle with ideas. Rabbi Sacks looks at the ideas of one God, the Sabbath, freedom being different, life and these idea have kept us going now for three centuries and have, indeed, transformed the world and how we live in it.

Today, we face a different world than we have ever had to deal with. By respecting the ideas that Judaism has brought to the world, we are respected by others and it is so important to understand that while some of the ideas we have stem from the ancient world, they show us how to live never lives.

I found each of the commentaries included here share light on questions I have always asked. Interpreting the Torah through ideas is not new but the way it is done here certainly provides new ways of thinking and for this alone this is a notable read.