Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century” by Sarah Abrevaya Cohen— Ties 

Stein, Abrevaya Sarah. “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century”,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux ,November 19, 2019.

Ties

Amos Lassen

In “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century”, Sarah Abrevaya Stein tells the true story of a frayed and diasporic Sephardic Jewish family preserved in thousands of letters.

For hundreds of years, the bustling port city of Salonica was home to the Levy family. They were leading publishers and editors who helped chronicle modernity as it was experienced by Sephardic Jews across the Ottoman Empire. However, the wars of the twentieth century, however, changed the borders around them and, in doing so, transformed the Levys from Ottomans to Greeks. Family members soon changed boundaries and hemispheres and the family became located in Greece, Western Europe, Israel, Brazil, and India. The Holocaust nearly ended them as it destroyed many members of the family. 

Sarah Abrevaya Stein uses the family’s correspondence to tell the story of their journey across the arc century and the globe. The letters share grief and reveal secrets, propose marriage and plan for divorce. They wrote letters to maintain connection; because they were family. Stein discovers that it was the letters that held them together. Through the Levys’ letters she shares the history of the Sephardic Jewish community

Stein “has produced a superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people.” Stein follows the Levy family over five generations through their. Letters, memoirs, and interviews and we read of love and hate, success and secrets. Sarah Abrevaya Stein is a historian and a master storyteller as we see in this intimate portrait of Sephardic Jews.

“Kid Number One: Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro” by G. Wayne Miller— “Heart, Soul and Business”

Miller, G. Wayne. “Kid Number One: Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro”,   Stillwater River Publications, 2019.

“Heart, Soul and Business”

Amos Lassen

Alan Hassenfeld’s grandfather and great-uncle escaped religious persecution in Eastern Europe and came to America in 1903. They had no money and began selling rags New York City streets but eventually built the  world’s largest toy company, Hasbro. Merrill, Alan’s father, Merrill, brought Mr. Potato Head and G.I. Joe to the world and his only brother, Stephen, was able to turn Hasbro into a Fortune 500 company and became Hollywood player. Alan, a free spirit, wanted to write novels, date beautiful women and travel. He had never wanted to steer the family business and no one ever thought that he could or even would. That all changed when Stephen died from AIDS making Alan to become  chairman and CEO. He surprised everyone by taking Hasbro to greater success but it was not all rosy. He almost lost the company due to several bad decisions. As a result, he gave his long-time lieutenant Al Verrecchia command and began a plan whereby he would leave his corporate position. Verrecchia was able to save the company, and and then retired, leaving Hasbro to the current CEO and chairman Brian Goldner, a highly esteemed and respected man.

Hassenfeld who became enormously wealthy went to work expanding the long family tradition of Tikkun Olam – “repairing the world”. This was a project begun by his grandfather and great-uncle who were so grateful to have survived, helped immigrants and needy American citizens.

Hassenfeld’s philanthropy has aided in the building of two children’s hospitals, established numerous educational and health programs, trained young doctors and scientists, resettled refugees, promoted peace in the Mideast and more. He has been a highly visible advocate for national political and ethics reform while dealing with personal threats and the anger of crooked politicians.

G. Wayne Miller has combined family and corporate history in his book and he shares the personal family story which is at the center of Hasbro’s corporate identity. Beginning with the massacre of Jews in 1903 Poland and moving forward to today, we learn what people of great wealth can do when they put self aside. Kid Number One is more than the history of a family; it is also a history of American toys. It is more than about the toys from Hasbro but also Mattel’s classic brands including Barbie and from lesser-known toys by companies. Miller had unprecedented access inside the $5-billion toy and family-entertainment company and one of America’s leading if largely unknown philanthropies.

Prepare to clear your day before you start reading this because it is difficult to stop. Luckily for me that I was snowed in and the day passed very quickly as I flipped pages.

This is a special treat for readers who like their hard-edged business yet with a bit of gossip about our favorite toys. It is personally meaningful for me because I am involved in Tikkun Olam work and it is something I always enjoying reading about.

“Fritz Bauer: The Jewish Prosecutor Who Brought Eichmann and Auschwitz to Trial”. by Ronen Steinke— Finally, A Book About Fritz Bauer

Steinke, Ronen. “Fritz Bauer: The Jewish Prosecutor Who Brought Eichmann and Auschwitz to Trial”,  (German Jewish Cultures), translated by Sinead Crowe,  Indiana University Press, 2020.

Finally, A Book About Bauer

Amos Lassen

This is a book I have been waiting to read for what seems like a very long time. It looks like I have to keep waiting though since it is not due out until April, 2020. I became interested in Fritz Bauer as I did research on my philosophical hero, Hannah Arendt. Bauer was the man who played a key role in the arrest of Adolf Eichmann; he learned the location of Eichmann in Buenos Aires and was responsible for the Mossad finding him there. Yet, there was much more to the man than that.

Bauer was a German Jewish judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer (1903–1968)  who played a key role both in the arrest of Adolf Eichmann and the initiation of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Author Ronen Steinke gives us this remarkable story and looks at the many contributions Bauer made to the postwar German justice system. We learn of Bauer’s Jewish identity and the role it played in these trials and his later career, and the book contributes to the larger story of Jewishness in postwar Germany. Steinke examines latent antisemitism during this period as well as Jewish responses to renewed German cultural identity and politics as well as explores Bauer’s personal and family life and private struggles, including his participation in debates against the criminalization of homosexuality, a fact that was only revealed after his death in 1968. This new biography reveals how one individual’s determination, religion, and dedication to the rule of law formed an important foundation for German post war society.

Bauer was born in Stuttgart  to Jewish parents. He later studied business and law at German universities. In 1928, after receiving his PhD in law (at 25, he was the youngest Doctor of Law  Germany), Bauer became an assessor judge in the Stuttgart local district court. By 1920, he already had joined the Social Democrtic Party . In the early 1930s, Bauer was one of the leaders of the SPD’s  defense league in Stuttgart. In May 1933, soon after the Nazi seizure of power, a plan to organize a general strike against the Nazis in the Stuttgart region failed, and he was arrested with others and taken to a concentration camp  but was released. A short time later Bauer, was dismissed from his civil service position because he was Jewish. 

In 1935, Bauer emigrated to Denmark and   then in 1943 to Sweden  after the Danish government resigned and the Nazis declared martial law which endangered the Jewish population in Denmark. The fact that Bauer was a homosexual – a fact that he was careful to keep to himself – placed him in even further danger should he remain in Germany or in Nazi-occupied Denmark. In Sweden Bauer along with Willy Brandt founded the periodical  Socialist Tribune. He returned to Germany in 1949, as the postwar  West Germany was being established. He once again entered the civil service in the justice system. At first he became director of the district courts. In 1956, he was appointed the district attorney in  and based in Frankfurt. He held this position until his death in 1968.

In 1957, Bauer relayed information about the whereabouts in Argentina of fugitive Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann  to Israeli Intelligence and this allowed Eichmann to be captured. Bauer thus was instrumental in bringing him to trial in Israel in 1960. Bauer also was active in the postwar efforts to obtain justice and compensation for victims of the Nazi regime.. 

In 1968, working with German journalist Gerhard Szczesny, Bauer founded the Humanist Union, a human-rights organization. Bauer’s work contributed to the creation of an independent, democratic justice system in West Germany, as well as to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and the reform of the criminal law and penal systems.

Within the postwar German justice system, Bauer was a controversial figure due to his political engagements. He once said, “In the justice system, I live as in exile.” Bauer died in  of heart failure when he was just 64. He was found drowned in his bathtub under mysterious circumstances.

“Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe” by Lauren Leff— Decisions and Scholars

Leff, Lauren. “Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe”, Yale University Press, 2019.

Decisions and Scholars

Amos Lassen

Lauren Leff’s “Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe”, is a disturbing and harrowing account of the consequential decisions American universities made about refugee scholars from Nazi-dominated Europe. While the role of the United States’ role in saving Europe’s intellectual elite from the Nazis is often related as a story of triumph, it is not always so. Notables such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Rudolf Carnap and Richard Courant and hundreds of other physicists, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, chemists, and linguists were welcomed and they transformed the American academy. However, for every scholar who survived and thrived there were many, many more who did not.

Those of us who have worked in academia are well aware of the difficulties to being hired to a university position and it was so much more so for refugees. A refugee scholar had to be world-class and well connected, not too old and not too young, not too right and not too left and, most important, not too Jewish. Those who were unable  to fill these requirements were left to face the Holocaust. Here, Laurel Leff rescues from obscurity scholars who were deemed “not worth saving” and introduces us to them. This is the  full story of the hiring decisions universities made during the Nazi era. What we really see is that the American academic world was not a refuge for many European scholars fleeing the Holocaust and it is enlightening to read. It is heartbreaking and it once again shows us that there is an exorbitant and terrible price attached to “nativism, antisemitism, narrow-mindedness, and bureaucratic inertia exacted on some of Europe’s most learned women and men.” We are all well aware of what we gained but we will never know what we lost.

Refugee scholars, their allies, and the obstacles they faced within American colleges and universities are explained here and this is so important for our understanding. Leff has written a balanced and eye-opening account of how this country and its academic community failed to aggressively respond to the plight of European Jewish scholars between the years of 1933 and 1942. For every Einstein and Arendt we saved, there were more like them who went to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. We get the names, the faces and the stories of those who were left behind. It is, as if, they have finally, in part, been rescued.

There were many professors and university administrators who, even while aware of the consequences, ignored European scholars who were desperate to escape from Europe and come here.  We must say Kaddish for them all every day that we teach and research.

“Franci’s War: A Woman’s Story of Survival” by Franci Rabinek Epstein— A Holocaust Memoir

Epstein, Franci Rabinek. “Franci’s War: A Woman’s Story of Survival”, Penguin, 2020.

A Holocaust Memoir

Amos Lassen

Franci Rabinek Epstein’s memoir is the story of a glamorous young fashion designer who survived World War ll, with an afterword by her daughter, Helen Epstein. Epstein who was 22 in 1942 was named as a Jew by the Nazi racial laws. She was sent to Terezin, a concentration camp and ghetto forty miles north of her home in Prague. This was the beginning of her three-year journey from Terezin to the Czech family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the slave labor camps in Hamburg, and Bergen Belsen. After being liberated by the British in April 1945, she finally returned to Prague.

She was known in her group as the Prague dress designer who lied to Dr. Mengele at an Auschwitz selection by saying she was an electrician, an occupation that both endangered and saved her life. She shares her intense, candid, and sometimes funny account of her years with the women prisoners in her tight-knit circle of friends. This is quite a powerful testimony of a strong woman who was able to endure the horrors of the Holocaust and survived. She lived through separation from her parents, her husband’s arrest, food shortages and disease as well as the deaths of many of her friends.

When she returned to Prague, she rebuilt her dress salon, married, had her first child Helen. When Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Communists in 1948, she, along with her family came to New York where she opened another fashion salon on the Upper west Side.

Epstein writes candidly about being a female during World War II. When she originally submitted her manuscript to publishers in 1975, it was rejected so she gave it to her daughter, Helen where it stayed until one day Helen decided to reread it and noticed the similarities to the political movements between the 30s and the 2010s and decided that this was a story that had to be told. And so here it is, a read that stays with you long after you close the covers.

 

Franci Rabinek Epstein was born into a privileged family in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1920 and educated at the Ecole Francaise, Lycee de Prague, and the Deutsches Staatsrealgymnasium before dropping out to apprentice in her mother’s haute-couture Salon. At 18, Franci became the owner of the Salon. In 1940 she married Joe Solar. She regarded the Nazi concentration camps as her university. After liberation, she returned to Prague and married Kurt Epstein in 1946. In 1948, after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, she emigrated to New York City and established a new fashion salon on the Upper West Side. She lectured at universities on her experience during the war before dying of a brain aneurysm in 1989. 

Helen Epstein is a veteran arts journalist and author or translator of ten books of non-fiction including the trilogy Children of the HolocaustWhere She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History; and The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma. Born in Prague, she grew up in New York City. Her reviews and articles have appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and websites.

“The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts” by Karen Armstrong— Scripture and Significance

Armstrong, Karen. “The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts”,  Knopf, 2019.

Scripture and Significance

Amos Lassen

“Today the Quran is used by some to justify war and acts of terrorism, the Torah to deny Palestinians the right to live in the Land of Israel, and the Bible to condemn homosexuality and contraception. The significance of scripture may not be immediately obvious in our secular world, but its misunderstanding is perhaps the root cause of many of today’s controversies.”
Today, the sacred texts have been taken over by fundamentalists, who demand that they must be taken literally, and by others who interpret scripture for their  own prejudices. While these texts are seen to prescribe ethical norms and codes of behavior that are divinely ordained: they are believed to contain eternal truths. However, Karen Armstrong shows in this look at the development and significance of major religions, such a narrow, peculiar reading of scripture is a relatively recent and modern phenomenon. For most of their history, the world’s religious traditions have regarded these texts as tools that allow the individual to connect with the divine, to experience a different level of consciousness, and to help them engage with the world in meaningful and compassionate ways.

Here we look at the world’s major religions to help us build bridges between faiths and rediscover a creative and spiritual engagement with holy texts. Both nonbelievers and believers will find that today most read scripture to confirm their own views, rather than to achieve transformation.

“Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader” by Derek Penslar— A New Biography

Penslar, Derek. “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader”, (Jewish Lives),  Yale University Press, 2020.

A New Biography

Amos Lassen

Derek Penslar’s “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader” could not have arrived at a more opportune time. I am busy preparing a course on philosophical approaches to Zionism and even though I am not using Herzl, his thoughts resound everywhere and with every word I read it seems. The five philosophers I am using are Arendt, Benjamin, Scholem, Buber and Chomsky might claim to be far and politically removed from Herzl but they cannot deny the influence that Herzl’s thoughts had on them.

Herzl’s life has always been something of an enigma and it takes Derek Penslar, an esteemed and eminent historian of Zionism to delve into the life of the man and give us some of the answers we seek. Herzl lived a short life (1860-1904) that was filled with mystery and puzzlement. Perhaps the most puzzling questions we have are how did a man who was so assimilated into his daily life become a founder of the Zionist movement and how was it that a man who had so much diplomacy, intellectualism and morality live with some of the dark passions that were part of his life?

Through exploring Herzl’s personal, literary, and political writings, Penslar shows that Herzl’s involvement with Zionism had as much to do with personal crises as it did with antisemitism. It took his devotion to a cause and in his case that cause was Zionism that caused him to become the great leader that he was. His leadership provided him with strong energy, organizational ability, and outstanding charisma. He quickly “became a screen onto which Jews of his era could project their deepest needs and longings.” Penslar probes the deep character of the man who was the catalyst of the Zionist movement even though it had actually begun to develop independently of him and continued long after his death.

Herzl was a paradox in every sense of the word. His complexities may never be solved by here is a window into the man who did so much in a very short period of time. The fact that Herzl was able to change the course of Zionism from an ideological movement into a political shows the tremendous influence he had on those who embraced him and followed him. He changed the course of history by redefining Zionism and launching it and setting it on a new course. There is a lot of new information here and it is eloquently stated and wonderfully readable— so much so, that I read it in one sitting and then went back and read it again. This will become an indispensable text to today’s Zionist movement and its thinkers.

“About Jewish Lives:

Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.”

 

“The Trap” by Ludovic Bruckstein— Two Novellas

Bruckstein, Ludovic. “The Trap”, Istros Books, 2019.

Two Novellas

Amos Lassen

Ludovic Bruckstein’s “The Trap” consists of two novellas, published for the first time in English that give us a fascinating look at rural life in the Carpathians around the period of the Second World War. We read of the fall  into disorder and fear of two c communities that were once havens of religious and racial acceptance but that were, in fact, constructed on foundations of prejudice and discrimination. Bruckstein gives us the effects of the Holocaust not only on the Jewish community, but also the wider Christian society. “The two novellas tell cautionary tales of how gradual changes that individually seem inconsequential can lead to catastrophic alterations in the very fabric of society which, by the time they are acknowledged, are irreversible.” These stories are a warning that passivity and political apathy can be just as harmful as actions.

In 1972 Bruckstein left Romania for Israel. While in Romania, he wrote plays and short stories, and taught at the University, but was never considered literarily. He published his writings in Israel until his death in 1988 and caught the attention of the local literary critics but remains largely unknown in Romania. Istros Books brought Bruckstein into the wider, English-speaking literary world, publishing two of his novellas, “The Trap” and “The Rag Doll.”

“The Trap” is set among  the humiliations Jews had to deal with daily in Bruckstein’s native Sighet. ‘How easily a man accustoms himself to everything! Even to his own humiliation’ says Ernst, the main character of the story remarks that man easily accustoms himself to everything including his own humility. Ernst returned home from his architecture studies in Vienna  which had become a prison with invisible walls, and he had to escape from those walls’. He survives the war and is deported by the Russians following something that was completely absurd. We see that most situations and characters are in fact hiding behind the friendly welcoming appearance of a darker side. “Ernst is the witness of the historical revelation of the beautiful appearances, of the human lows and weaknesses. It is the experience that people that went through the horrors of the Shoah – as Bruckstein himself – had to live with thereafter.” 

“The Rag Doll”  is about a mixed marriage when the Jewish spouse either gives up or hides his/her identity. The love affair between Theo and Hanna was able to survive the harassment against the Jews during the war but failed when Theo met a much younger colleague at work. Hanna gave up her Friday evening candle lightning as a ‘protection’ for her daughters. But every once in a while, she is unable to do nothing when “she hears the usual anti-Semitic references or longing for her family home and the life with her parents, murdered during Shoah that disowned her anyway after marrying a non-Jew.”

These two novellas are very important for the literary Jewish history in Romania. The English translation is very welcomed. 

“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.

“Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought” by David Bashevkin—“It is no more possible to think about religion without sin than it is to think about a garden without dirt.”

Bashevkin, David. “Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought”, Cherry Orchard Books, 2019.

“It is no more possible to think about religion without sin than it is to think about a garden without dirt.”

Amos Lassen

We have been taught to believe that we live in a world filled with sin and it is the nature of religion to deal with both sin and failure. The Jewish religion deals with sin both legally and philosophically in its own way.

The ideals of religion include sin and failure. Judaism has its own language and framework for sin that expresses themselves both legally and philosophically. Legal questions (“circumstances where sin is permissible or mandated, the role of intention and action”) and philosophical questions (“why sin occurs and how does Judaism react to religious crisis”) are examined by David Bashevkin here. This book presents the concepts of sin and failure in Jewish thought, bringing together biblical and rabbinic studies to give a holistic picture of the notion of sin and failure within Jewish thought.

The suffix “agogue” means to lead or grow. “Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought” gives readers frameworks and strategies to develop even while facing failure. The book provides

a series of powerful meditations on sin and failure in Jewish thought that are countered by the author ’s sense of humor. We get a guide to teshuvah that is useful and understandable. The prose is an entertaining, edifying, and eclectic survey of a sin and failure in Jewish thought. This is something all of us experience in life.

We sin and failure in contemporary life but through the lens of classical Jewish thought and contemporary Jewish thinkers. In doing so, we gain a better understanding of human nature, and the role that failure in our lives.

There is something about sin that causes us to not want to speak about it. After all, in order to recognize sin, one must judgmental and most of think that we are the opposite. We do not want to approach the subject. Here we are forced to look at sin. We all know that we sin and have an idea about ways to deal with it and overcome it. We definitely procrastinate in doing so. Rabbi Bashevkin unsettles us because he presents easy, sophisticated steps to self-recognition and correction. We are led to more knowledge and better deeds―and to a great deal of thought. 

Sin and failure are things we cannot escape in our daily lives. Through a variety of characters who are in dialogue with each other, we become part of a conversation that bring  sin and failure to life.

Through surveying the Jewish outlook on sin over the centuries,  we learn about the various Jewish movements arising from the enlightenment period and present-day Rabbis and thinkers. We read about why we sin, how we can atone and achieve penitence, how to react when we see the failings of our leaders and how we can live with our own failings.