Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age” by Steven Weitzman— The Question of Jewish Origins

Weitzman, Steven. “The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age”, Princeton  University Press, 2017.

The Question of Jewish Origins

Amos Lassen

The Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of people in the world today but we know very little about where they came from. Many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible while others look to archaeology or genetics for clues. Some have even considered debunking the idea that the Jews have a common origin. Steven Weitzman looks at what we know about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be.

There have been hundreds of books written on the topic and as many if not more explanations, theories, and historical reconstructions. This, however, I understand, is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question including theories in the following disciplines genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. Weitzman shows us how the search for answers has had to deal with religious and political agendas, how anti-Semitism has affected generations of learning, and how recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to decipher and pull out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He doesn’t give us conclusions and instead he challenges his readers to join him on the quest. He does give us some new information about the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers and explains the challenges that have made finding answers so difficult.

Weitzman makes points that are complex more understandable and synthesizes a wide range of research and prior analyses. make this an invaluable resource for both novice and scholar. We look at the different accounts of Jewish origins in different disciplines thus giving us, the readers, and a chance to reach our own conclusions. It seems that for as long as the Jews have been on the earth, they have looked for their roots and now we join them in the search. Here is a book that is a history of a history, a bit of a rarity these days. We learn how the Jews and others have thought about the origins of the Jews.

I found the summaries of the theories of Wellhausen and his Documentary Hypothesis; of the crucial importance of the Babylonian Exile, of Persia and Ezra and Nehemiah; of the Hellenistic age, as well as Shlomo Sand’s modern theories to be fascinating reads.

As a teen and college student and a young Zionist, I was exposed also to the theories of Mordecai Kaplan and Jacob Neusner but for whatever reason they did not make it into the book here while the ideas of postmodern philosophers did. I was very glad to see that my mentor, Michel Foucault is included as is Gilles Deleuze.

 

“Tongue of Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and the Sex Question” by Donna M. Kowel—“The Most Dangerous Woman in the World”

Kowal, Donna M. “Tongue of Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and the Sex Question”, State University of New York Press, 2016.

“The Most Dangerous Woman in the World”

Amos Lassen

Author Donna M. Kowal looks at the speeches and writings of the Emma Goldman who was once known as the “Most Dangerous Woman in the World”. She examines Goldman’s writings looking for shifting gender roles in early twentieth-century America. Goldman was the leader of the American anarchist movement and made newspaper headlines across the country as “she urged audiences to reject authority and aspire for individual autonomy”. She was a public woman at a time when to be public and a woman was considered a paradox. She dared to speak openly and wrote about matters that were thought to be private. These included sexuality, free love, and birth control. She saw the importance of women’s bodies as a site of struggle for autonomy and created a space for women to engage in the public sphere and act as sexual agents. Her ideas contributed to the rise of a feminist consciousness recognizing the personal as political and the rejection of dualistic notions of gender and sex. It is in this study that we see Goldman as one responsible for bringing sex into the public sphere thus making her a feminist icon.

 

“Heretics: A Novel” by Leonardo Padura— Art Theft, Anti-Semitism, Cuba and Crime

Padura, Leonardo. “Heretics: A Novel”, translated by Anna Kushner, Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2017.

Art Theft, Anti-Semitism, Cuba and Crime

Amos Lassen

In 1939, the Saint Louis sailed from Hamburg into the port of Havana with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. Docks. Nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watched as the passengers (including his mother, father, and sister) became embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. The Kaminskys had a treasure that they hoped would save them: a small Rembrandt portrait of Christ. However, six days later the vessel was forced to leave the harbor with the family, and this time the Saint Louis was bound Europe and the horrors there. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappeared.

Almost seventy years later, the Rembrandt reappeared in an auction house in London and this caused Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of his family’s lost masterpiece. He hired private detective Mario Conde, and together they navigated a web of deception and violence in Havana.

“Heretics” brings Jewish, Cuban, Dutch, and Polish history together. Young Daniel Kaminsky, had been sent to Havana ahead of his parents and sister from Germany, and stayed with his uncle, a master leather worker. His family, however, was sent back to Europe and died in the Holocaust. Using the small Rembrandt to bargain with did not work and the painting stayed in Havana as the ship returned to Europe and was later found for sale in a London auction house. Daniel Kaminsky who had grown up in Havana had ditched his religious beliefs, converted to Catholicism, and married a Catholic woman. Later they moved to Miami, where they had a son, Elias who became a painter and as he grew older, he wondered about his parents’ past in Havana and, curiously, about the lost Rembrandt. During a visit to Cuba in 20067, he contacted Mario Conde, a retired policeman to help him find out what happened to the painting. Mario Conde, has his own story.

The story moves back and forth between Cuba and Holland, between the 1600’s of Rembrandt and the 20th century. The book’s title, “Heretics” describes several characters. Author Leonard Padura brings the history of Jews in Cuba, Florida, Poland and the Netherlands together through a fascinating story of lost art.

The first forty pages are a difficult and heartbreaking read as they relate Daniel Kaminsky’s optimism. He was waiting in Havana to be reunited with his family who were aboard the Saint Louis hoping to escape the anti-Semitism and Nazism that was rapidly spreading in Europe. Along with nearly a thousand Jewish passengers, they wait in Havana harbor for days before the decision ( which was undercut by corruption and politics) was made to turn them away, first to the U.S., where they are turned away for a second time, and finally back to Europe. When Daniel learned this, he decided that he would no longer be a Jew. He becomes one of the many heretics in the novel. In the rest of the 400 page novel, we look at questions of free will and the condition of being Jewish.

Elias Kaminsky decided to solve the mystery of the painting that is believed to be Jesus depicted as a Sephardic Jew and had been missing for seventy years. It was now up for auction with a price tag of over a million dollars.

Conde, the private eye, is a man who has seen everything, read everything, and still understands nothing. He takes us through the moral and formal complexities of this long, complicated story. The plot contains several generations of the Kaminsky family, a history of Jewish persecution, mysticism and fanaticism, a portrait of Rembrandt in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, an investigation into the power of art, a nostalgic picture of 1950s Havana and its Jewish population, and a new Cuba full of people who believe in nothing.

Padura gives us wonderful characters of painters, messiahs, punks, and detectives, heretics in their own ways, as they against the limits of the lives, traditions, religions, and revolution. As they search for meaning in their lives, so do we.

 

“The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016” edited by Menachem Rosensaft— Efforts and Achievements

Rosensaft, Menachem (editor). “”, WJC, 2017.

Efforts and Achievements

Amos Lassen

“The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016” gives us the details of the dramatic diplomatic efforts and achievements of the organization, from its founding in Geneva 80 years ago through the present. We are not only reminded of what the WJC accomplished in the past but also why we still need it and will probably need it more than ever before as we move into the future. Each of the chapters in the book deals with a major issue and these include

WJC’s role in crafting a new Catholic-Jewish relationship; diplomatic negotiations on behalf of Jews from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s; the exposure of Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past; leadership of the international efforts to force Swiss banks to disgorge more than one billion dollars they had wrongfully withheld from Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs; the critical role in fighting the U.N.’s resolution that equated Zionism and racism; preserving the historical integrity of the site of the Auschwitz death camp; efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry; bringing the perpetrators of terrorist bombings in Buenos Aires to justice. In the book’s concluding chapters, WJC CEO Robert R. Singer details the activities of the World Jewish Congress today, and WJC President Ronald S. Lauder gives its vision of the Jewish future.

“Minefields and Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk” by Ruth Broyde Sharone— A Memoir

Sharone, Ruth Broyde. “Minefields and Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk”, Book Baby, 2013.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

“Minefields and Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk” is both a memoir and an overview of the interfaith movement. I also see it as a way to promote mutual respect among people of differing beliefs. Ruth Broyde Sharone uses interfaith engagement as her personal and global mission. She finds great strength in her own Jewish faith but she also has a need to se the other faiths as both friends and as a fellow travelers. She thus began to try to understand the concepts of the other and the stranger.

As I read this, I realized that I was in the process of finding a new definition for faith and I mention this because it seems to me that we are still using a definition that has been around as long as we had the ability to think. I realize now that faith is a bridge between and among differing religions but it is a bridge that must be built by the person who wants to use it. Unlike a fence, a bridge is a connector and not a barrier.

When Ruth Sharone’s was 21 and in Latin America, she realized that the travel by was biting her severely and it was on that trip came her decision to see the rest of the world. As a journalist and as a documentary filmmaker, Ruth has traveled in Europe and spent some 10 years making films in Israel. It was in Israel that she became fully aware of the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

After 9/11, she screened her film, “God and Allah Need to Talk” in Barcelona, Spain where she got her “first taste of ‘interfaith paradise’” and she inspired to intensify her interfaith activities universally. In this book she shares her photographs of her journeys and also includes some historical photos of the remarkable individuals from around the world who participated in the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. 

Today Ruth travels and speaks extensively in churches, mosques, synagogues and universities. This book is a global interfaith adventure that is as entertaining as it is a serious memoir. Its appeal is for those who want to explore beyond the boundaries of their native belief systems and thus develop a sincere appreciation for other points of view without necessarily abandoning their own.

The book is written in a conversational tone so that the reader feels that Ruth is right beside him/her. The stories are fascinating and the author’s passion is contagious. She documents her travels and encounters and we realize that God and Allah are just different names for the One True God .Here is the perfect way to begin discussing this.

“Stainer: A Novel of the ‘Me Decade” by Iolanthe Woulff— It’s All About Me

Woulff, Iolanthe. “Stainer: A Novel of the ‘Me Decade”, CreateSpace, 2017.

It’s All About Me

Amos Lassen

I first came to know Iolante Woulff through her first book, “She’s My Dad” several years ago when she dared to write a novel with a transgender hero at a time that this was a topic barely spoken of except within the trans community. I loved that book and an online friendship with the writer developed out of that even though I have not heard from her for quite a while. Since we are both Jewish we shared that in common and she remembered when she finished her next book, “Stainer” with its very Jewish theme.

“Stainer” is set in 1975 in New York (or as some refer to it as the Tel Aviv of America). It was very different back then especially regarding the attitudes of society and the drug subculture flourished. It was a time of hedonism when the individual was the center of his/her world.

We meet Ben Steiner, a spoiled Jewish kid (isn’t that something of an oxymoron?) who grew up on Fifth Avenue. Ben is what we call a nice kid; there is nothing special about him aside from his desire to be one of the cool kids. He was determined, however, ready to improve his current life and that meant finding a girlfriend and losing his virginity. At a party the night he turned twenty-one, Ben met two people who affect his life profoundly. He had completed three years at Columbia and lived in a Jewish communal residence on campus.

Ben thinks that Rebecca Glaser is everything he could possibly want in a girl while P.T. Deighland is a wiseass from Princeton whose irreverence defines him. Yet Ben is taken in by him and this indeed can threaten what he hopes to be his relationship with Rebecca. This is just one of the poor choices that he makes. Then there is Anthea Montague (obviously a “shiksa” who is as ruthless as she is beautiful.

As I began to read, I found myself pulled into the plot by the characters and as much as I hate to admit it, I somewhat identified with Ben. Had the story taken place just ten years earlier, I would have been Ben and while some of my choices were not so terrible, my life would have been so much different had I not made them.

It is through Ben that we see his problems as universal and the scene where Ben becomes sexually aware is brilliant. Ben is conflicted by Judaism, which he sees as an ancient religion that does not have much a place in the modern world of the 1970s. I can only imagine how he would have felt had he lived through this period. He found it to be constraining yet he had a difficult time letting it go. In a coming-of-age novel the things that our protagonists have to deal with are what develops character. I see Ben right up there with the other literary characters whose lives have formed the genre of coming-of-age novels. He is most certainly one that I will never forget.

Woulff is quite a writer and reading her preface on how the book came to me is as beautiful to read as the book itself. Undoubtedly her transition from male to female has played a tremendous role in her life and I love that she has dared to be so open about it.

 

 

“The Book of Blessings” by Marcia Falk— Blessings, Poems and Meditations

 

Falk, Marcia. “The Book of Blessings”, RJP, CCAR Press, 2017, 20th Anniversary Edition.

Blessings, Poems and Meditations

Amos Lassen

I received a beautiful surprise in today’s mail, Marcia Falk’s “The Book of the Blessings”. I have loved that book for some time and had once had a copy of it that ended up floating away with Hurricane Katrina. Not only was it good to have it back, but this was the 20th Anniversary Edition with a new preface by Falk herself and new afterwords by four rabbis. The book is subtitled, “New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival”. As I thumbed through it before going page by page, I saw that Jews seem to have a blessing for everything and it is so nice to have them all in one place. What Marcia Falk has done here is to poetically re-create Jewish prayer by giving us new blessings, poems, and meditations for the holidays, Shabbat and daily observance. I was still living in Israel when the original was published twenty years ago but I remember the controversy that came with the book. Here God is gender-neutral and if that was not enough, Falk implied that God was not a transcendent power but was everywhere and that includes our daily lives.

Prayers that are included here and offered both in English and Hebrew from a feminist perspective. I suppose we can call it a collection of alternative prayers for those who felt marginalized in Judaism twenty years ago. In Reform and Conservative Judaism so much has changed since then and I firmly believe that this book played a role in those changes. I do not mean to say that Marcia Falk is Harriet Beecher Stowe but I do feel that role is felt here. Each of the Reform and Conservative moments have new prayer books and in them is the gender neutrality of God.

This new edition has twenty-five pages of new material; essays written by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Naamah Kelman and Rabbi Dahlia Marx especially for this special edition.

Rereading this now, I still marvel at the way the sacred is portrayed to us. There are still questions to be answered, of course; questions of theology, gender, our relationship to the Divine and language. (I wondered to myself if there will ever come a time when God, the word and name will ever be written with a small “g” for example.).

Not all of us are comfortable with the traditional liturgy and while it can be beautiful it is not inclusive. Some of us want a more contemporary, egalitarian approach to that traditional liturgy. Having been born and raised an Orthodox Jew, I fell away from religion when I moved to live in Israel. I did not need prayer because the Divine was everywhere and we felt that by living in the country that God gave to us was enough acknowledgement. In Israel, I was an American/Israeli and it was understood that I came from a Jewish background otherwise my move there was suspect. In the beginning (and I was there for many years), I saw and participated in a secular Jewish society that had no need for houses of worship. Coming back to the States was difficult because I was then an Israeli/American and for those of you know other Israeli/Americans you know that there are those who do not know much about Judaism. To be part of a Jewish community like the one I left thirty-five years earlier meant a return to what I had shed when living in Israel and I was surprised to see how much it had changed. I am not religious or even observant but I love my faith and my life revolves around it now. I am sure that Marcia Falk’s writings has had something to do with that. In fact, I cannot imagine myself missing a service on Sabbath and holidays and that is because the changes in the religion have made me feel at home.

“Marcia Falk’s Hebrew blessings are beautiful and innovative” and we realize we want to use them. She has managed to keep the regality of tradition and unite that with the contemporary. There is a poet’s passion here and I love it. I am not new to Falk, I depend upon her collection for the High Holidays to get me through a difficult period for many Jews and I loved her work on “The Song of Songs”.

In the preface to the first edition (which is here as well), Falk explains how her original prayers, and her translations into English of poems written by Jewish women in Hebrew and Yiddish, are intended as alternatives to the patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish prayers. She has arranged the blessings into three sections, each with its own introduction and suggestions for prayer services. The Daily Cycle includes blessings for such activities as awakening and meals, as well as psalms for daily reflection; the Weekly Cycle offers prayers for havdalah, the ritual separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week; and the Monthly Cycle focuses on liturgies for Rosh Hodesh, the festival of the New Moon. There is also a section of commentary that explains each prayer’s relationship to the traditional liturgy.

The blessings come from a Jewish spirit at its most welcoming and its most tentative. I say tentative because one can only say what can be backed up by experience and since none of us can say that we have experienced the Divine, we must accept the tentative. Personally I cannot imagine anything much better than poetry and spirituality tied together as it is here.

“Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary” by Jonathan Lerner— A Contemplative Memoir

Lerner, Jonathan. “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary”, OR Books, 2017.

A Contemplative Memoir

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Lerner was a founding member of the militant Vietnam-Era group the Weathermen. Hid memoir is an important addition to literature about the New Left in the Sixties and Seventies and the famous Weather Underground as well as essential reading for progressives struggling with how to act and survive in the Age of Trump.

Lerner gives us a very powerful account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology but there is also something else her. Lerner is a gay man and Weather Underground. At this point you might ask how could Lerner have hidden his sexuality for so long?

Lerner is a brutally honest, worldly, self-reflective gay raconteur who had once been an officer in an underground guerrilla army that was dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. He has unbelievable true stories from the ‘revolution’ of fifty years ago. His short book chronicles the rise and fall of one of America’s most notorious radical groups of the Vietnam Era. Today, Lerner is a journalist specializing in environment and urbanism and chair of Hudson Valley’s Conservation Advisory Council but he had been the minister of propaganda for the Weather organization as well as the editor of its publication “Fire!”. He has changed and today he speaks out against the group’s misogyny and violence, but agrees with its rejection of the Vietnam War and endemic racism.

Today he lives a quiet, small-town life with his husband. He came to radicalism, like so many others of his generation as a result of the Vietnam War. In 1967 he was a student at Antioch University, a product of a liberal Jewish family. He fell in love with the shock tactics of guerrilla street theater but realizes that doing something like what he did is objectionable. The members of his underground went on to rob banks and bomb draft boards. He seems himself as a revolutionary “compromised by the desire to keep out of trouble”. He was once willing to endorse the most drastic actions but was not willing to dirty his hands.

As he gained awareness of himself as a gay man who had other battles to fight (“in those days admitting to being gay was an enormous humiliation” and in some cases illegal and considered a mental illness), Lerner distanced himself from the Weather movement that ultimately disintegrated in the mid-1970s.

Lerner’s dishes about now-well-known radicals and probes the impulses that led a small group of educated, privileged young Americans to turn to violence as a means of political change. He also tells the true story of “an intellectually adventurous but insecure gay man immersed in the macho, misogynistic and physically confrontational environment of the Weathermen”.

Sometimes known as the Weather Underground, the Weathermen, or Weatherman, the group unleashed a series of bombings across the United States, attacking the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the U.S. State Department, among many other places. At its height, the organization consisted of several hundred people, all committed to violent change and toe-to-toe battles with the police.

Lerner invented himself first as “minister of propaganda” for the movement and participated in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba and he saw the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee. He then became an expensive gay hustler (My mother have said, “What a tragedy for a Jewish guy”), and shares American journey from idealism to destruction and beyond. There have been other memoirs from Weatherpeople but this is the only one that explores the painful history of the group with such brutal honesty. This is “A powerfully written account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology” and it is “As emotionally bruising as it is beautiful.”

“The Worlds We Think We Knew: Stories” by Dalia Rosenfeld— The Reaches of Hearts and Minds

Rosenfeld, Dalia. “The Worlds We Think We Know: Stories”, Milkweed Editions, 2017.

The Reaches of Hearts and Minds

Amos Lassen

“The Worlds We Think We Know: Stories” is a collection of very funny and original stories takes readers that move from the United States to Israel and back again as they examine “the mystifying reaches of our own minds and hearts”. We meet characters who are “animated by forces at once passionate and perplexing. At a city zoo, a mismatched couple unite by releasing rare birds. After being mugged in the streets of New York, a professor must repeat the crime to recover his memory and his lost love. In Tel Aviv, a sandstorm rages to expose old sorrows and fears as far away as Ohio. And from an unnamed Eastern European country, a woman haunts the husband who left her behind for a new life in America”. The stories can be puzzling and unsettling as they deal with living in today’s world.

The characters share a collective past, but find it hard to feel rooted in the present. In referencing the Jewish past there is a sense of comfort and continuity. That collective past is Holocaust related with haunted echoes in the texts. The stories often feature a sense of displacement that is sometimes geographic such as Americans in Israel, Russians in America and cosmopolitans in small towns. These are uprooted characters whose actions come about as a result of an inner logic that they themselves are not aware of and is guided by a state of displacement that is sometimes forced and sometimes self-imposed. Boundaries fall away to give the characters a chance to redefine themselves but they often waste that opportunity by engaging in a series of mistakes and/or self-sabotage. Rosenfeld uses humor of which she says she was unaware of and this humor brings vulnerability to the fore with the comedy of human inscrutability coming to the reader.

Rosenfeld’s stories are wonderfully balanced and thus, the characters are unforgettable. She examines Jewish, Israeli, and American experiences by examining their intersections and divergences allowing us to see that the self is separate from culture.

 

 

“Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century” by Joachim Kalka— The 19th Century

Kalka, Joachim. “Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century”, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, New York Review Books; Main edition, 2017.

The 19th Century

Amos Lassen

Joachim Kalka in “Gaslight” explores the 19th century and ties the time period to our own through essays on a variety of topics in music, film, literature, and art. He looks at the fascination with its “auratic gaslight,” and its mingling of romanticism and modernity, enlightenment and darkness. Here are the roots of contemporary preoccupations with “gender roles and sexuality, terrorism and technology, mad scientists and serial killers, kitsch and commodification”. For example, Kalka gives us “the connections between Balzac and Billy Wilder, Mickey Mouse and the arms race, the cake fights of Laurel and Hardy and Madame Bovary’s wedding cake”. The nineteenth century comes to life and filled with contradictions, aspirations, and absurdities and as it does it invites the reader to reexamine that era and his/her own, and the stories that we tell ourselves about history.