Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life” by Mark Gerson— A New Look at Passover

Gerson, Mark. “The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life”, St. Martin’s, 2021.

A New Look at Passover

Amos Lassen

Passover is the holiday that most of us love and remember. It is an experience that brings family and friends together and it is more than just the Seder, the Haggadah and matzoh. Mark Gerson shows us just what that is in “The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life”.

That extra something can hold the secrets to living the life of joy and meaning that we were intended to do. We seehere “how to make the Seder the most engaging, inspiring, and important night of the Jewish year.” He shows us how to lead the Seder with wisdom, confidence and fun making it a truly enjoyable experience by making the Haggadah come alive by giving us insights for our opportunities, questions and challenges. He explains how to show Gentile friends the richness of the Jewish tradition and instills a love for Judaism in our youth while bringing the family closer to each other and to God.
We see the Haggadah as the “greatest hits of Jewish thought”.

By understanding this we become enabled to give our families and guests an entertaining and helpful Seder filled with  teachings and lessons that will continue throughout the year  and our lives. We ask questions at the Seder and the answers that Gerson gives us
define what constitutes a meaningful life. He shows how the Haggadah makes it easier for readers to look at and use ancient Jewish wisdom to help answer contemporary questions. His answers are filled with passion and knowledge allowing us to see why the Haggadah has lasted through time and has remained relevant. As I read “The Telling”, I soon began to think differently about the Haggadah and what it has traditionally said to me. As Gerson explores the meaning behind the Seder and the Haggadah, he brings new relevance to what it says. He looks at the wealth of the Exodus story from the ten plagues to the first Passover while sharing many traditions, stories and principles that we celebrate at Passover.

Gerson shows how the Seder and the Haggadah have evolved over thousands of years as a way of bringing together the core lessons of Judaism for each generation to pass on to the next. It is not necessary to “believe” in order to find the relevance here. We learn so much more that the customs of Passover and see the themes of

loving the stranger, the sources of antisemitism, the secret to happiness and goodness, how to become a better person, and when bad things happen to good people giving us new insights on Judaism and life.

“From Left to Right: Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als, and the Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish History” by Nancy Sinkoff— The First Comprehensive Biography of Lucy Dawidowicz

Sinkoff, Nancy. “From Left to Right: Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als, and the Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish History”, Wayne State University Press, 2021.

The First Comprehensive Biography of Lucy Dawidowicz

Amos Lassen

Nancy Sinkoff’s “From Left to Right: Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als, and the Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish History” is the first comprehensive biography of Lucy Dawidowicz (1915-1990). After World War II, Dawidowicz was a household both because of her scholarship and her political views. Dawidowicz, like many other New York intellectuals, had been a youthful communist, became an FDR democrat and then later championed neoconservatism. Sinkoff argues that Dawidowicz’s rightward shift came from having lived  in prewar Poland, then seeing the Holocaust take place but from from New York City and working with displaced persons in postwar Germany. Sinkoff bases her work on over forty-five archival collections and she chronicles Dawidowicz’s life as a look at the major events and issues of twentieth-century Jewish life.

The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 is the story of Dawidowicz’s childhood, adolescence, and college years when she was an immigrant daughter living in New York City. Part 2 is about Dawidowicz’s formative European years in Poland, New York City and Germany. Part 3 tells how Dawidowicz became an American while Polish Jewish civilization was still deep in her heart. It also explores when and how Dawidowicz became the voice of East European Jewry for the American Jews. In  Part 4, we see the division between Dawidowicz’s European-inflected diaspora nationalist modern Jewish identity and the changing definition of American liberalism from the late 1960s onward and the emergence of neoconservatism. There is also an interpretation of Dawidowicz’s memoir “From that Place and Time” and an appendix of thirty-one previously unpublished letters that show the reach of her work and person. 

Because of Dawidowicz’s right-wing politics, sex, and commitment to Jewish particularism in an East European Jewish key have caused her to be neglected by scholars. She stood out among the Jew­ish New York intel­lec­tu­als of the last cen­tu­ry declaring that a ​“sense of Jew­ish his­to­ry and des­tiny is what every Jew who cares about the sur­vival of his peo­ple feels in his bones.” She cared deeply about the future of Jew­ish life, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the wake of the destruc­tion of Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion in Europe. She f chal­lenged the argu­ments of Han­nah Arendt and sev­er­al his­to­ri­ans and rejected con­tentions that the Holo­caust was what she called The War Against the Jews.

Because of fate, Daw­id­ow­icz was a wit­ness to the last days of Yid­dish cul­ture in East­ern Europe. She spent a year in her ear­ly twen­ties as a researcher and trans­la­tor at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research in Vil­na — a year that end­ed just as the Nazis invad­ed Poland. Her life’s work was shaped by her immer­sion in the reli­gion, cul­ture, and thought of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish civilization.

In “The Golden Tradition”, her first book, she wrote a col­lec­tion of source mate­ri­als exem­pli­fy­ing the ideas, pol­i­tics, intel­lec­tu­al cur­rents, and every­day life in that van­ished Jewish world. She chal­lenged the view that Yid­dish cul­ture could sur­vive as a sec­u­lar move­ment out­side the cul­tur­al enve­lope of East­ern Europe and she was deter­mined to pre­serve its lega­cy. She spent a year in Europe after the war, help­ing sal­vage thou­sands of Jew­ish books which oth­er­wise would like­ly have been lost.

In the decades when she worked for the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, it believed that human-rights leg­is­la­tion was the best way to pro­tect the inter­ests of Jews. Daw­id­ow­icz dis­agreed and urged advo­ca­cy for the spe­cif­ic inter­ests of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty as well. When the AJC favored a Holo­caust memo­r­i­al that would recall ​“out­rages against human­i­ty,” she argued that it should record ​“the dec­i­ma­tion of Jews.” “Only the parochial Jews wor­ried about what Hit­lerism meant for Jew­ish sur­vival. The uni­ver­sal­ists regard­ed Hitler as the last stage of impe­ri­al­ist capitalism.”

This book shows her intel­lec­tu­al path as a jour­ney to neo­con­ser­vatism but it risks dimin­ish­ing her forth­right inde­pen­dence as a thinker. Unlike many neoconservative intellectuals, how­ev­er, her val­ues were came out of the Jew­ish cul­ture of pre­war Vil­na, and the dev­as­ta­tion of that cul­ture by the Nazi Party.

Sinkoff gives profound insight into the American Jewish psyche by chronicling its diverse cultural proclivities and political sensibilities. She uses Dawidowicz to tell a larger story: the rise of Jewish political conservatism as a powerful force in American life from its roots in Yiddish progressive circles in New York.  Sinkoff shows how American Jewish politics came to be bound by memory and trauma of the gone world of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe.

Dawidowicz’s life and career is a capsule of much of the Jewish experience since the time of World War II. She has angered the American Jewish community over the past seventy years. Often ignored by historians because she was a woman, Dawidowicz regains her rightful place in American Jewish history with this book. We see her as a study of contradictions— a bold female voice who rejected the “special pleading” of second-wave feminism, a dedicatee to Yiddish but rejected it as a basis for Jewish life. She was a frustrating, consternating political thinker who moved from far left in the 1930s to neoconservative in the 1980s.

Nancy Sinkoff ‘s biography. is well written and an information-filled look at t an important person and her growth and development and place in Jewish letters.

“Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah” by Rabbi Hara Person and edited by Jessica Greenbaum— A New and Timely Haggadah

Person, Rabbi Hara. “Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah”, edited by Jessica Greenblatt,  CCAR Press, 2021.

A New and Timely Haggadah

Amos Lassen

Every year at Passover, many new Haggadot are published making it difficult for me to decide which to add to my library— I buy a new one each year. This year I decided on “Mishkan HaSeder” published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I was already familiar with the other books in their “Mishkan” series. “Mishkan HaSeder” combines age-old texts, fresh insights, inspiring poetry, new translations, and beautiful art and is a welcome addition to my collection. It is a new standard in Passover Haggadot. There are new translations by Rabbis Janet and Sheldon Marder and an extraordinary collection of poetry from a diverse array of poets. The commentary by Rabbis Oren Hayon, Seth Limmer, and Amy Scheinerman runs throughout the book and gives us the historic background of Seder rituals, builds on the social justice issues of our day, and presents contemporary connections to Passover. The full-color art is  from artist Tobi Kahn and it is gorgeous.

The poetry is by Yehuda Amichai, Ellen Bass, Lucille Clifton, Edward Hirsch, Ross Gay, Emma Lazarus, Denise Levertov, Ada Limon, Grace Paley, Dan Pagis, Adrienne Rich, and many others. I love that the Haggadah can be used both at home and for community Seders. It is filled with depth yet the explanations are easy to understand and stimulating.  

“It is “creative, serious, egalitarian, poetic, and inspiring” with many layers of meaning and beauty and has something for everyone— skeptics, seekers, and scholars. We have powerful feminist commentary that illuminates the moral and ethical underpinnings of the Passover Seder and presents new ways of understanding.
It includes the wisdom of the Talmud and what  contemporary Jewish teachers see whether it be ancient practice or a  call for justice.

Every Haggadah “is a reflection of its time.” It makes no assumptions about the level of knowledge anyone at the Seder brings to it yet remains challenging and thoughtful as it invites participants to take the Seder seriously and to bring their full selves to the experience.

The commentary is a reflection of the world, making connections between the text and the challenges of life today, reminding us that the themes of the Seder – like caring for the stranger and the search for justice are relevant today as always.

 One of the major themes running is the “journey” – that as a people, we have always been on a journey, both physical in the sense of moving from place to place, and also spiritually. We make choices about how we live our lives in relationship to other people and these have a lot to do with where we are on that journey. We reflect on how we treat others and we read that our redemption is bound up with those of others. We decide what we do with the call to action is in our hands.

 This Haggadah raises the experience of the Seder and allows people to enjoy the beauty of the experience, in the journey toward freedom, and the lessons we learn along the way. We also become aware of the power of our personal experiences to poet, that they’re ours to have individually. We write ourselves into the story through the power of our imagination.

“The Official Jewfro Genius Haggadah Shel Pesach” by Joshua Marcus— It’s That Time of Year Again

Marcus, Joshua. “The Official Jewfro Genius Haggadah Shel Pesach”, Independently Published, 2021.

It’s That Time of Year Again

Amos Lassen

TheJewish festival of Pesach traditionally celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and it is a time when families participate in a Seder together. This somewhat formal meal has two main requirements: speak about the Exodus from Egypt and ask questions. There is usually tension between the questions the characters were supposed to ask and the questions that are asked as we answer those who are often considered to be outsiders.  The story of the Exodus, as well as the way it is recounted in the Haggadah sets out a vision for what the God of Orthodox Judaism wants both from and for His people. When you’re gay or queer or simply questioning the meaning of your own life, this vision does not work. This Haggadah is Joshua Marcus’s own and  follows the fourteen stages of the traditional Seder. It consists mainly of stories about certain characters that relate to each stage, exploring the concepts of freedom, liberation, and purpose. For those with Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, it is extremely relevant as the themes are universal. “We were all raised in one system or another, into which some people seem to fit naturally while others are forced to either compromise or find a safe way out”. Even if you have never had to struggle with your identity in this system, no person is born with ready-made beliefs or practices and each of us has questioned this. The contents of this Haggadah challenges traditional Jewish and religious thought, but it is not meant to be an academic or intellectual document. It is all story that reflects on characters and experiences that are real, resonate regardless of where we stand in relation to religion.

 

 

 

“The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” by Rachel Sharona Lewis— A New Kind of Rabbi

Lewis, Rachel Sharona. “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire”, Ladiesladies Press, 2021.

A New Kind of Rabbi

Amos Lassen

One of my favorite things about being a reviewer is reading new talent. Rachie Lewis is not new to me as a person but she is as a writer and I had no idea what to expect from her first outing into literature. I knew her as a social activist in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities Boston as an activist so I was not surprised to see that she included activism into her story but I was delightfully surprised by the quality of her writing— so much so, that I read “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” in one sitting. I read a lot of books with Jewish/LBGTQ themes and have noticed that they use this motif as happenstance whereas here it is an integral part of the test and it is extremely well done. I have lived through fascinating times as a member of this community and have watched it change and it is so good to have a book about a rabbi who is both a lesbian and Jewish. (I can just see myself explaining the premise of the book to my observant parents who would immediately have something negative to say).

Rabbi Vivian Green is the head of Congregation Beth Abraham in Providence where they feel that their new rabbi should “sing some songs and go to an environmental rally.” She, however, sees things differently  and wants the membership to become involved with what is happening around them. This, to her, means getting involved in the special election for mayor of the city, to attend interfaith breakfasts with their city-special mayoral elections, interfaith breakfasts, fight for affordable housing and become people who really care and act on how they feel about the larger world in which they live. Then there is the rabbi’s social side when she “would like just one night off to go dancing in the leather boots that make her look like her finest gay self.” The new Judaism has arrived and for Beth Abraham it has done so with Rabbi Green.

Things do not go smoothly and the temple is set on fire bringing about that old division in the congregation. But then they learn that there were other fires in town as well. The rabbi is not willing to let go causing tensions to flair between  her and her boss, the community and a mysterious person who wields a lot of power. The case becomes more than just knowing who committed the crime.

The idea of a rabbi who is also something of a detective is not new. In fact, I have read similar novels with some of the same trademarks of a mystery novel. What is new is the way writer Lewis handles her story. She writes from a different perspective as she attempts to solve the crime as she takes us behind the scenes of the temple’s inner workings.

Today’s issues of solidarity with communities of color, changing wealth from power and the rabbi who is new on the scene provides a fascinating read and also has us questioning ourselves as if we are actually part of the situation. I think the major plus of the book is its relevance to our lives in terms of modern Judaism— a move away from the old-fashioned emphasis on learning and the new emphasis on doing. We really see how much the religion has progressed.  We do need read about study and intense prayer but rather about making a difference. The characters are Jews like us who care about community and justice in our world and not about a world that is far removed from us. I certainly hope that this is the beginning of a new series and that Lewis has plans to continue. She is off to a great start.

“The Hidden Palace” by Helene Wecker— Chava and Ahmad Return

Wecker, Helene. “The Hidden Palace”, Harper, 2021.

Chava and Ahmad Return

Amos Lassen

Helene Wecker’s new novel, “The Hidden Palace” is the sequel to “The Golem and the Jinni”, the story of theadventures of Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni), who meet in lower Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century.

Chava is a woman made of clay who can hear the thoughts and longings of the humans around her and she feels compelled to help them. Ahmad is a being made of fire who is perpetually restless and free-spirited. Chava was created as a companion to a man traveling to New York from Eastern Europe, but the man died at sea and she landed alone in New York. She needed to care for herself in the big city. Ahmad escaped an old flask that sat on a shelf in a coffee shop in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria which is now the home of the World Trade Center complex. Once released, he takes the shape of a man with a fiery disposition who uncomfortable in the world of humans. The two meet as unlikely immigrants and they spend their time off walking the streets of New York City and their lives become intertwined. 

Facing the second World War, Chava and Ahmad have to decide how they really feel for each other while in the guise of humans and living in fear of being discovered

who they really are. We follow their lives and  the lives of other characters as they come together  and as they deal withimmigration, assimilation and their own personal struggles between individualism and community. To find their places in the worlds of humans or to be torn apart are what they really have to face.As we did in the first book, we have a world filled with craziness. Through the lives of the golem and the jinni, we learn about how we live and the force of the id, how to rise above it and how to become triumphant over it. Magic religion and history intertwine to show us something about faithfulness and loyalty.

This is a very different kind of book that takes us away from Covid and puts us in a world where daily life is not important. Bringing two supernatural creatures together gives us a story about what we carry from history and how identity is formed.

 

“Shalom Rav: Insights on the Weekly Parasha” by Rabbi Shalom Rosner—A 2 Volume Set

Rosner, Shalom. “Shalom Rav”, Volume 1 and 2, Maggid, 2019, 2021.

A Two Volume Set

Amos Lassen

I never tire of reading commentaries on the Torah and look forward to every new one that is published. Rabbi Shalom Rosner’s two volume set, “Shalom Rav” contains inspirational chapters on Torah portions read in synagogues. Each contains not only his own understanding, but also the views of scholars and rabbis from a wide spectrum of thought, modern and ancient, mystical and rational including Hassidic Rebbes, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, Nechama Leibowitz, Ramban, Rambam, Rashi, and many others. In fact, there are so many that the bios of the many scholars, rabbis, and books mentioned in the chapters are also included with each entry only a paragraph long. Each article is  short at just a few pages.

Many of the rabbi’s comments are new and interesting and give us more to think about. In the first volume in which we look at Genesis and Exodus, for example, Rabbi Rosner shows that while the Bible says that God felt all of creation was good, it  wasn’t actually so good. We are taught a lesson so that we can prepare for failure and to have another plan in mind. There is also a fascinating look at the Ten Commandments.

Selected and adapted by Marc Lesnick from Rabbi Rosner’s popular parasha classes, there is a lot here. Drawing on an extraordinarily wide spectrum of sources, these essays offer relevant and refreshing insights for everyone. 

“THE GOOD TRAITOR”— A New Film from Israel

The true story of Henrik Kauffmann – Denmark’s Ambassador to the USA who in WW2 refused to take orders from the Danish government that surrendered to Germany, and declared himself to be the only true representative of a free Denmark in opposition to the Nazis
The Good Traitor - Trailer
The Good Traitor – Trailer

                         *****

April 9, 1940: Denmark is invaded by Nazi Germany with demands for immediate and unconditional surrender. The government surrenders after a few hours and begins cooperating with the Nazis.

On the other side of the Atlantic is Denmark’s ambassador to the United States of America, a daredevil and a man of the world – Henrik Kauffmann, who is willing to put everything on the line. He refuses to follow the German directives and engineers a rebellious plan to defeat Hitler and give the Danish people their freedom back.

“Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People” by Ben M. Freeman— Building Pride

Freeman Ben M. “Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People”, No Pasaran Media, 2021.

Rebuilding Pride

Amos Lassen

In “Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People”, Ben M. Freeman educates, inspires and empowers Jewish people “to reject the shame of antisemitism imposed on Jews by the non-Jewish world as well as non-Jewish perceptions of what it means to be a Jew.” He shows us the process of defining our own identities as proud Jews through Jewish experience, Jewish history and Jewish values. Freeman takes his inspiration from his own experiences with LGBTQ+ issues.

Freeman was born and raised in Glasgow in a small traditional community and went to the only Jewish school in the area. The reason he wrote this book come from his own experiences with pride having found his own sense of gay pride  and his taking part in the fight against Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing Labor antisemitism in which he saw “that Jewish people wanted to speak out, wanted to be proud, but they were suffering the hangover of the ‘keep your head down’ policy.”

Freeman feels that many young Jews on the left tend to avoid the subject for fear of being labelled as being on the wrong side of history and the Jewish community is of utmost importance. The idea of this ‘community of the good’ has always existed, it just changes depending on what periods we look at. Today, the community of the good is the Left — to be Left, to be progressive means that one is good. Regarding Zionism, he maintains that there have always been those who are against the concept of the Jewish state, but the ‘Zionism’ that they base basing their hatred on is not Zionism, “it’s not a movement of self-determination — it’s white supremacy, it’s colonization and that’s not what Zionism is.”

Freeman’s father instilled in him this idea that Jews will always be hated and Freeman says that this is still the case today. That hatred comes from the non-Jewish world where  Antisemitism is embedded in the non-Jewish world in the culture and society we live in, and it is antisemitic just as it is homophobic, misogynistic and in many ways anti-black. Having lived through homophobia, Freeman went through shame even though he shared his sexuality with his family and they were accepting of it. However to reject his own shame was arduous and often painful. Some may same to be accepting on the surface yet we know that is not always the case. With his own self-acceptance, he realized that there indeed others who accepted him. The Left, however, accepted his homosexuality but rejected him as a Zionist. He was left to struggle with two identities. As with most of us, his situation with Judaism became secondary to his finding himself as gay.

Freeman says that just because we are Jewish does not mean that we necessarily understand or know aspects of our experience as a people. We’re taught about the Shoah and pogroms but there’s also a lot about our experiences that people aren’t aware of. We need to  explore our history as a people.

“THE AUSCHWITZ REPORT”‘— Two Slovak Jews Escape Auschwitz

Slovakia’s official entry to the 2021 Oscars: when two Slovak Jews finally manage to escape the Auschwitz concentration camp, they find themselves up against allies that don’t believe the truth. A true story. 
The Auschwitz Report - Trailer
The Auschwitz Report – Trailer
                         *****                          
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
     San Francisco JFF                      Atlanta JFF             *****
This is the true story of Freddy and Walter – two young Slovak Jews, who were deported to Auschwitz in 1942. On April 10th 1944, after meticulous planning and with the help and the resilience of their inmates, they manage to escape.
While the inmates, they had left behind, courageously stand their ground against the Nazi officers, the two men are driven on by the hope that their evidence could save lives. Emaciated and hurt, they make their way through the mountains back to Slovakia. With the help of chance encounters, they finally manage to cross the border and meet the resistance and The Red Cross. 
They compile a detailed report about the systematic genocide at the camp. However, with Nazi propaganda and international liaisons still in place, their account seems to be too harrowing to believe.
The Auschwitz Report is Slovakia’s submission to the 93rd Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.