Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Spotless Memories of a New York Childhood” by Sherman Yellen— Behind the Scenes with Yellen

Yellen, Sherman. “Spotless Memories of a New York Childhood”, Moreclacke Publishing, 2017.

Behind the Scenes with Sherman Yellen

Amos Lassen

Sherman Yellen is a playwright, librettist, Tony nominee, and two-time Emmy Award-winning writer. In his autobiography, he shares the world of his impoverished forebears before World War I; writes about “his troubled, prosperous, mendacious father” and his beautiful, fashion-model mother and he tells us about his own New York childhood in the 1930s and 40s. Here we read about the lost world of a New York Jewish-American family during the Great Depression and World War II with candor and love.

Yellen grew up in New York under FDR, and he has watched with great sadness the rise in bigotry and the dismantling of social programs and social progress in this country. He is appalled by the heartlessness and greed that now passes for government policy and he believes it is the obligation of artists to speak out against the erosion of our democracy during these troubling times. Not only is this story it is also the story of New York City of the early 20th century and it is fascinating.

Yellen wonderfully recreates the Jewish-American immigrant experience and it is that much more interesting since he has written it with his trademark wit. He tells it like was and this is not always pretty but we need to know the reality of how things once were. Personally, I am in awe of how things have changed and I often think about that when I was growing up, there were not many people around who were my age today. There were even fewer college graduates. For me looking back is not so terrible but for others who lived poor lives it can be difficult to think about. Some may find Yellen’s depictions to be cruel but I find them to be honest. There is a theme here about compassion for the human condition and if that is all we have learned from the past, we can be satisfied. Because there is so much more here, it is that much more satisfying.

“The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer” by Bonnie S. Anderson— “The Queen of the Platform”

Anderson, Bonnie S. “The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer”, Oxford University Press, 2017.

“The Queen of the Platform

Amos Lassen

Ernestine Rose who was “known as the queen of the platform” was an outstanding orator for feminism, free thought, and anti-slavery. Yet, she would gradually be erased from history for being too much of an outsider because she was an immigrant, a radical, and an atheist.

Rose was the only child of a Polish rabbi but she rejected religion at an early age, successfully sued for the return of her dowry after rejecting an arranged betrothal, and left her family, Judaism, and Poland forever. She went to London and became a follower of socialist Robert Owen and met her future husband, William Rose. Together they moved to New York in 1836. In the United States, Ernestine Rose rapidly became a leader in movements against slavery, religion, and women’s oppression. She was a regular on the lecture circuit, speaking in twenty-three of the then thirty-one states. She challenged the radical Christianity that inspired many nineteenth-century women reformers and even though she rejected Judaism, she was both a victim and critic of anti-Semitism. After the Civil War, she and her husband returned to England, where she continued her work for radical causes. By the time women achieved the vote, for which she had tirelessly worked so hard for, her pioneering contributions to women’s rights had already been forgotten.

Rose was active in the religiously-motivated abolitionist movement and free thought and worked tirelessly to see that ALL people are created equal. What is so interesting is that Ernestine Rose’s commitment to equality and justice is almost virtually unknown. This book changes that and I must admit that before this I had never heard of her before and author Anderson brings the past to us and in doing so gives new perspectives on the present. Rose’s activism came at a time when it was rare for women to speak out on political issues, and certainly not about on their own rights.

She was “a woman of fierce intellect and uncompromising convictions”. Bonnie Anderson makes sure that Rose’s legacy will both inform and inspire those who are still fighting for equal rights.

 

 

“The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages” edited by Andrew Blauner— How Writers See the Bible

Blauner, Andrew (editor). “The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages”, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

How Writers See the Bible

Amos Lassen

What a fascinating idea—- letting us see how thirty-two of today’s most prominent writers reflect on Bible and the passages that are most meaningful to them. While the contributors are not primarily known as religious thinkers, they write intelligently and movingly about specific passages in the Bible that influence the way they live, think about past experiences, and see society today. There are a variety of the biblical readings— some are about specific passages and some are anecdotes from everyday life depending how the writer interprets his favorite, they can inspire, provoke, or illuminate.

We are also not confined to one Bible; we have passages from both the Hebrew and Christian bibles and we from Genesis through Revelation. This is a wonderful book for both secular and religious people.

This is the kind that can be used for reference and/or pleasure and it brings out the richness and diversity of biblical texts and we see how these texts apply to how we live. Those that we read here include “literary fiction writers (Colm Tóibín, Edwidge Danticat, Tobias Wolff, Rick Moody); bestselling nonfiction writers (A.J. Jacobs, Ian Frazier, Thomas Lynch); notable figures in the media (Charles McGrath, Cokie Roberts, Steven V. Roberts); and social activists (Al Sharpton, Kerry Kennedy)”.

The contributors demonstrate that the bible is not only “a source of spiritual guidance, a work of literature or history or an anchor for memory”, we immediately see that what is written within is “both inexhaustible and infinitely challenging.”

Editor Blauner who is an anthropologist has selected wonderful commentators who give mainly insightful and often very personal thoughts about their favorite Biblical passages. I was enjoying every word until Al Sharpton once again plays up the racial aspect of the bible and he throws a blanked over what could otherwise have been in which every page could be fascination. Sharpton, it is really time to give it a rest. His selection and commentary almost ruined the entire read.

 

“For This We Left Egypt?: A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them” by Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mensbach— A Passover Parody

Barry, Dave, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach. “For This We Left Egypt?: A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them”, Flatiron Books, 2017.

A Passover Parody

Amos Lassen

It’s that time again— Passover is biting at our heels, Jewish grocery stores are raising their prices, housewives are in a fury about cleaning the house as we get ready for one of the longest dining adventures known to humankind. Personally I have been hard at work writing sections for the community Seder at my temple. As I was checking out the new Haggadot at my local bookstore, I cane across “For This We Left Egypt?”. The title alone is brilliant as is the idea behind the book. If you have ever been to a Passover Seder, you know that it is all about rereading the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years that the children of Egypt wandered around the desert before coming to the land of Israel. Sometime the Seder seems to last as long as the forty years and the eternal question of “When do we eat?” is heard several times during the evening. Between washing our hands, drinking sweet thick purple wine, blessing this and that every few minutes and eating matzo this can be quite an evening yet Jews all over the world look forward to it— not just once a year but on two consecutive nights.

I try to write something new every year to incorporate into the story and to make it relevant to today and am constantly on the lookout for what others have written. With this Haggadah, we get an entertaining parody that makes the Seder a lot of fun. Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel, and Adam Mansbach take you through every step of the Seder, from getting rid of all the “chametz in the home “by setting it on fire with a kosher blowtorch to a retelling of the Passover story starring Pharaoh Schmuck and a burning bush that sounds kind of like Morgan Freeman, set against the backdrop of the Promised Land, which turned out not to be a land of milk and honey but rather one of rocks and venomous scorpions the size of Yorkshire terriers”. Using this Haggadah keeps you laughing. It even seems to even help Elijah to find your house quicker.

In reality, this is not a Haggadah; it is a commentary on the Exodus story and a retelling of what the ancient sages (specifically five rabbis) spoke about during one long night as they discussed the wandering in the desert. (without the wine stains and advertisements for the perfect cup of coffee on the pages. This is not to be compared to the standard retellings that we read but rather a fun way to laugh at ourselves for a few minutes.

It is a very witty, thought provoking look at the story which will make any Seder a laugh fest. It keeps all of the rituals and traditions that have passed down forever and lets us really appreciate the deeper meanings of the Haggadah and the exodus., its authors have combined their comedic talents to give both Jews and gentiles alike a new appreciation for the deeper meanings behind the Passover story. The more traditional Jews might not like this but I feel sure that those who do read it will enjoy the way it makes us think about who we really are. At first it appears to shock but as we go on, we cannot help but laugh.

I opened a study group I am in with reading the new “Chad Gadya” that starts with the buying of the kid for just two zuzim but it really cost three. Because the father in the song is a regular goat buyer, he naturally got a discount. The authors tell us that this is a traditional song for Passover that last about four hours. This version is a good deal shorter and ends with the Holy One symbolizing the Holy One and who slew the angel of death and “a partridge in a pear tree”. (Don’t ask— I did not write it but I am copying it).

There are six sections of discussion questions that are sure to get people talking. Among the questions here are how did they build the calf as we are not told that they carried tools with them in the desert. I mean if they left Egypt so quickly that there was no time for bread to rise, where did they have time to look for tools to schlep with them. And then of course, my favorite question— why a calf and not say, a golden brisket? In the section on questions about the Passover story there is the question of storing grain and whether it is better to store in a bathroom or not.

Looking at the plagues brings up the idea as to whether or not Mainschewitz wine should be added to the list of plagues or not. I do not believe that I have read an order of the Seder quite like this. Everything is wonderfully explained in parody and how the charoset must be prepared so that at least a third of those at the table will remark that it is delicious and then promise to make it long after the holiday is over (fat chance). As for the Bitter Herb, it is remarked that it makes for an ideal pen name.

I could go on and on but I hope I have made you curious enough to go out and get a copy. I love that we are able to laugh at ourselves as we see here. This is no ordinary Haggadah. In fact it is not a Hagaddah at all.

“What Language Do I Dream In?: A Memoir” by Elena Lappin— A Memoir of Language

Lappin, Elena. “What Language Do I Dream In?: A Memoir”, Counterpoint, 2017.

A Memoir of Language

Amos Lassen

Because I am completely bilingual (Hebrew and English), I am often asked the somewhat silly question about which language I dream in and this is a question that many who speak more than one language must become used to. The same question is the title of Elena Lappin’s new book that is so much more than a, memoir. She shows how

how language runs throughout memory and family history to form identity. Lappin is a “multiple émigré” who speaks ’s Russian, Czech, German, Hebrew, and English and each language is a link to a different part of her life and her family. She demonstrates her struggle to find a voice in a language not one’s own. Her family experienced some of the political upheavals that mark the twentieth century and she tells the stories that red like fiction yet are all very true.

Lappin’s identity becomes complicated when she learns that her biological father was an American living in Russia. Learning this she could not help but wonder about her birth and makes her realize that English was her mother tongue and was probably the language she was the closet too when she was born. However she tells us that English was not her mother tongue but rather a language that she chose and she considers herself lucky because of that. She has had a fascinating life and we really see this in the stories of love, home, family and memory. When these aspects come together, they form identity. Lappin is not alone as one whose live is marked by different nations, languages and cultures and it is often difficult for her, as well as others like her, to find herself somewhere between the past and the present and between rival identities. With elegant prose, she gives us an exploration into what it means to be

European in the 21st century. As we accompany her on her personal journey, she learns of painful family secrets that are set against politics yet she is optimistic about who she is. The smaller our world becomes, the chances for others to experience what she has experienced become great. Lappin’s need for communication and her humanity will be talked and read about for a long time as we see her as a spokesman for herself and for those like her. I deliberately have not used examples because to do so would take away from a wonderful reading experience.

 

“Redemption, Then and Now: Pesah Haggadah with Essays and Commentary” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech— Insights Into the Seder

Blech, Benjamin Rabbi. “Redemption, Then and Now: Pesah Haggadah with Essays and Commentary” , Menorah, 2017.

Insights into the Seder

Amos Lassen

One of my biggest pleasures around the time of the holiday of Passover is to survey the new Haggadot that are published. This is a lean year in that I have only found two really new books, one of which is pure comedy and it reviewed elsewhere on this website. The other is Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s very serious look at redemption as the major theme of the story of the Exodus that we read at the traditional Passover meal.

This haggadah edition is double-sided: the Hebrew side comprises the Koren Haggadah and translation, accompanied by the author’s commentary. On the English side we have 23 short essays on the themes of Pesah, the Seder and its rituals. They are easily accessible and include Blech’s love for gematria and word play and these are featured throughout.

The commentary is insightful, comprehensive, and informative and it explains a great deal including why Jewish tradition includes a unique blessing to be said over wine, the symbolism of the wine, why the middle matzo is broken in half during the Seder and the bigger half (itself a question since if it is broken in half, the two halves should be equal) is saved to be eaten at the end of the Seder, why are four questions asked at the Seder and why the youngest child does the asking, what is the significance of mentioning four types of sons, why were the Israelites not in Egypt for 400 years despite a prophecy that this would occur, the meaning of the secret of Jewish survival and the meaning of the plagues in Egypt and these are just a taste of the topics.

Have you ever wondered what are the five most important things about Passover, about the meaning of the fifteen parts of the Seder, the miracles of Jewish history, why does Jacob become Israel, the meaning of Shabbat HaGadol: history and destiny, why is bread burned before Passover begins, and more? You get the answers to those questions here and this gives us so much that we can impart to others thus making the Seder even more meaningful.

Passover is also known as the holiday of freedom and with this Haggadah we can free ourselves from so much that we do not know and never asked about. I find that the more I study topics about the Jewish religion, the more questions I have and with this new look at the Seder I get the answers to questions I was always either afraid to ask or told not to ask.

“You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn” by Wendy Lesser— The Life and Work of an American Architect

Lesser, Wendy. “You Say To Brick: The Life Of Louis Kahn”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

The Life and Work of an American Architect

Amos Lassen

Louis Kahn was born to a Jewish family in Estonia in 1901 and was brought to America in 1906 where he grew up in poverty in Philadelphia. By the time he died in 1974, he was widely recognized as one of the greatest architects of his time and this reputation was based on only a handful of masterpieces that were all built during the last fifteen years of his life.

In Wendy Lesser’s “You Say to Brick”, we get a look into Kahn’s life and work and meet the man who was considered to be a “public” architect who focused on medical and educational research facilities, government centers, museums, libraries, parks, religious buildings, and other structures that were used for the public good. Kahn was a man beloved by students and admired by colleagues and he was also a secretive and mysterious character hiding behind a series of masks. Lesser reconstructed Kahn’s life through extensive original research; lengthy interviews with his children, his colleagues, and his students; and she traveled to the sites of his career-defining buildings. We get to see the mind behind some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated architecture. Still today, Kahn remains a strong presence in his adopted city of Philadelphia.

Kahn’s complicated private life involved overlapping love affairs and children with two women, neither to whom he was married. He was married to Esther Kahn with whom he had a daughter, Sue Ann Kahn. The book’s title comes from a mystical Kahn remark on the relationship between materials and architectural form: “You say to brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch….’”

Lesser puts attention on Kahn’s architecture and she intersperses her narrative with chapters detailing her personal responses to his best buildings. We are reminded that an architect is constrained by a building’s site, budget and program unlike a writer or visual artist.

This is the story of a poor Jewish immigrant boy (born Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky) who, becomes a pre-eminent architect while having a scandalous personal life. He was inept and a businessman and depended on his wife’s income as a medical technician. When he died, he was almost a half-million dollars in debt.

Kahn’s first loyalty was to his work whose major romances involved fellow architects. Anne Tyng was a key contributor to his early projects, including both the Yale University Art Gallery and Trenton Bath House. Harriet Pattison developed landscape designs for the Kimbell Art Museum and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, on Roosevelt Island, New York . A third lover, Marie Kuo, also worked for a time as an associate in Kahn’s office.

We also get a revelation that Esther Kahn herself had a long-term love affair with a married man, a scientist at Penn (who is not named in the book). This was not revenge for her husband’s infidelities but he probably did not know about it. It probably helped Esther deal with Kahn’s betrayals and absences.

Esther was aware of his other families but never entirely reconciled to them. By contrast, Tyng and Pattison did become friendly, largely through their children even though Pattison had displaced Tyng as the primary object of Kahn’s extramarital affections. The book fills in some fascinating details about Kahn’s death. He suffered a heart attack in New York City’s Penn Station on his way back from a trip to India. Lesser explains the long time in reporting the death as a byproduct of a police cable being sent on a weekend to Kahn’s office address rather than to his home.

Lesser traces his career chronologically. We learn of the fire that scarred Kahn and that helped shape both his personality and his buildings. We also learn that when Kahn died there several potentially exciting projects that were abandoned. Kahn was a man of many achievements and this is a beautiful way to remember him.

 

 

“The Invention of Judaism” by John J. Collins— The Role of Torah in Ancient Judaism

Collins, John J. “The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul”, University of California Press, 2017.

The Role of Torah in Ancient Judaism

Amos Lassen

Many assume that Judaism is the Torah and the Torah is Judaism. However, in “The Invention of Judaism”, John J. Collins persuasively argues this was not always the case. The Torah became the touchstone for most of Judaism’s adherents only in the hands of the rabbis of late antiquity. For 600 years before this, from the Babylonian Exile to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, there were enormous variations and diversity in the way the Torah was understood. Collins gives us a comprehensive account of the role of the Torah in ancient Judaism by exploring key moments in its history, beginning with the formation of Deuteronomy and continuing through the Maccabean revolt and the rise of Jewish sectarianism and early Christianity.

John J. Collins is considered to be an influential scholar of the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Here he surveys an enormous amount of literature, both primary and secondary, summarizes it masterfully, and then makes that his thesis. This is a wise and mature look at the place of Torah and it is beautiful to see Collins looking at alternatives proposed by others, both radicals and conservatives, and then taking the position best supported by the evidence and not leaning to either of these predetermined options. Writing about Torah is always important and what we get here is important to the history of the Jewish religion and affects both thought and practice.

 

“Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace” edited by Yechiel Frish and Yedidya Hacohen— An Intriguing Life

Frish, Yechiel and Hacohen, Yedidya (editors). “Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace”, (Modern Jewish Lives), translated by Irene Lancaster, Urim Publications, 2017.

An Intriguing Life

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen is primarily known as the man who was the chief rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen. He was born in the year 1927 and his life is what epic movies are made of. He was an influential voice in the creation of the State of Israel. His father was Rabbi David Cohen, a famous Nazirite (religiously speaking a Nazirite is a man who is consecrated or separate and who has special responsibilities) and the younger Rabbi Cohen of Jerusalem grew up in the company of great Rabbis knowing that he, like his father, was destined to become a Nazirite. He studied under the influence of Rav Kook. During the 1948 War of Independence, Rabbi Cohen fought to defend the Old City of Jerusalem, until he was severely wounded and taken to Jordan as a prisoner of war.

He later became the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Air Force, and then governed as the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem with Teddy Kollek. Rabbi Cohen served as the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and President of their rabbinical courts for 36 years. He was important in many aspects of Judaism and the State of Israel and I feel sure that even those who knew him well will find many surprises in this wonderful biography that is almost a chronicle of Israel. Yet today, he is still thought of as the principle spiritual leader of Haifa.

The book gives special emphasis to Jerusalem as a spiritual city and to Haifa as a secular city (yet that began moving more toward spiritually when Rabbi Cohen was there).

In Rabbi Cohen’s diary is the record of the first Hallel prayer (song of praise) recited in the city of Jerusalem at the moment that Israel became a nation and for this alone, the book is worth a read… but there is so much more. The information we have here includes interviews with the rabbi himself and with members of his family and friends and excerpts from his diary that include vivid details of the battles he fought in and his imprisonment in Jordan. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Saks tells us that Rabbi Cohen was a man who was open-minded and had a great generosity of spirit. He was one of the guiding influences and founder of the Ariel Institute that came into being as a multi-faced institute of higher learning that trains rabbis and rabbinical barristers.

“Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics” by Jeremiah Unterman— Changing the Course of Ethical Thought

Unterman, Jeremiah. “Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics”, (JPS Essential Judaism), Jewish Publication Society, 2017.

Changing the Course of Ethical Thought

Amos Lassen

In “Justice for All”, Jeremiah Unterman shows that the Jewish Bible had tremendous influence on not only the Jews but also as the basis for Christian ethics and the broader development of modern Western civilization. The ethics of the Jewish Bible presents significant moral advances over

Ancient Near East cultures. We read how the Bible’s unique concept of ethical monotheism, innovative understanding of covenantal law, and messages from the prophets are the foundation of many Western civilization ideals. Unterman brings together biblical texts and the themes of what is going on today (immigration policy, forgiveness and reconciliation, care for the less privileged, and attaining hope for the future despite destruction and exile in this world). The goal of the Bible is to create holy and moral people and we see time and again that the Bible is a statement of intent and not just a collection of stories with ethical value.

Unterman has organized his book topically making it easy to find what we might look for.