Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism” by Laurence A. Hoffman— A Defining Rite?

Hoffman, Laurence A. “Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism”, (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism), University of Chicago Press, 1996.

A Defining Rite?

Amos Lassen

Circumcision is central to both biblical narrative and rabbinic commentary and it is a defining rite of Jewish identity; it is such a powerful symbol that to challenge it is considered to be taboo. In “Covenant of Blood”, Lawrence Hoffman looks at why circumcision holds such an important place in the Jewish psyche. He explores the symbolism of circumcision through Jewish history and examines its evolution as a symbol of the covenant in the post-exilic period of the Bible and its subsequent meaning in the formative era of Mishnah and Talmud.

I first heard about this book in a course on gender and sexuality in Judaism and realized how little I understood its importance as a symbol and as a rite.

Hoffman argues that in the rabbinic tradition and system, circumcision was not a birth ritual and neither was it the beginning of the human life cycle. It was a rite of covenantal initiation into a male “life line.” Even though the evolution circumcision was shaped by rabbinic debates with early Christianity, the Rabbis shared with the church the idea that blood provides salvation.

Hoffman examines the particular significance of circumcision blood, which, in addition to its role regarding salvation is contrasted with menstrual blood to symbolize the gender dichotomy within the rabbinic system. Analyzing the Rabbis’ views of circumcision and menstrual blood shows something about the marginalization of women in rabbinic law. Differentiating official mores about gender from actual practice, Hoffman gives us a survey of women’s spirituality within rabbinic society and examines the roles mothers played in their sons’ circumcisions until the medieval period when they were excluded from taking part.

By combining a close reading of rabbinic texts with an interdisciplinary method drawn from the human sciences, Hoffman makes an important contribution to Jewish studies and gender studies.

In “Covenant of Blood”, Hoffman shows his mastery of the subject and his fluency with traditional sources and scholars, and also has a solid grasp on related material from the whole non-Jewish and non-Judaist spectrum. Circumcision is an explosive topic and has been since Abraham and Hoffman really handles it well. He gives us what we  need to know about the key Biblical sacrament and how an inspired scholarly mind operates and explains.

I am fascinated by learning that circumcision became a part of Jewish history during and after the Babylonian Captivity (597-538 BCE) and only after the Persians allowed Cohanim to return to Palestine, where they imposed the ritual on their people. It was also during the Captivity that the entire story about the life of Abraham was inserted into the Biblical narrative. These facts make it possible to question the validity of every Biblical story as well as the entire historical basis for Judaism, as it now appears.

Hoffman begins by telling us: “If the physical act of circumcision is the cultural sign of Jewish existence, the cultural construction that it signifies is a covenant between the men being circumcised and God.” However, the cultural “sign” of Jewish existence is not the circumcision of men, but of infant boys— non-consenting boys, who are forced to endure the rite. This implies that the cultural sign of Jewish existence is the ritual mutilation by men of the genitals of someone who is too young to object in any way except by screaming, etc.

The claim is that circumcision was mandated by God, yet we learn here that is was the deliberate work of a few Jewish Priests and Scribes living in Babylon. Circumcision, Hoffman writes, has long been the sine qua non of Jewish identity. However, this simple statement is more complicated than it appears, both because obviously it does not speak to women’s Judaic status, and also because the state of one’s penis is technically irrelevant to one’s membership in the religion.

Hoffman, became so troubled by his findings that it took him eight years following his completion of his research to actually publish “Covenant of Blood”. His thesis is so profound and yet so simple that it is shocking that no one has spoken about it before he did: Circumcision symbolizes a covenant between the males being circumcised and God. The practice thereby expresses the truth that in traditional rabbinical thought, Judaism, despite its matrilineal passage of religious identity, equates “man” with “Jew,” allotting women in a second-thought role. Circumcision made possible and even embodied an analogy that Hoffman shows was implicit in Judaism: man was to woman as Jew was to non-Jew. A male Jew demonstrated that he belonged to Judaism and was part of the covenant by going under the knife.

There has been such a strong grasp on circumcision that opposition to it was considered heretical or a taboo. What is important is to realize that things were not this way from the beginning of Judaism. After examining confusing and sometimes conflicting ancient religious texts, Hoffman shows that circumcision has not always been considered an essential Jewish covenant, but rather was constructed as such a few centuries before the birth of Christ. This was at a time when animal sacrifice was on its way out as part of Judaism. The blood spilled during circumcision is essential to brit milah because it harks back to the brit’s ritual predecessor, animal sacrifice. At the same time, the blood represents the aspect of sacrifice that offers salvation. The penal foreskin is useless unless covered with circumcision blood causing to be redemptive. Menstrual blood, on the other hand, was considered a pollutant, demonstrating the exclusion and subordination of women. As part of this historical transition, women had to be displaced from the brit milah. In its original form, the ritual placed father, mother, and child at center stage. Later, the brit was reconceptualized to exclude all females including the mother and to emphasize its nature as “a male-only ritual, almost sacramental in both public and official meaning.”

In a fascinating three-way power struggle between the monarchy, the Jewish “priests” (as Hoffman names them), and the prophets, circumcision became a ritual of total importance. Hoffman shows that the redactor of the so-called “P text,” is the original promoter of the equation of Jewish identity and circumcision. This writer, it seems was obsessed by the need to ensure successful reproduction. He metaphorically associated this with images of horticulture, associated the need for circumcision as “pruning” to promote fertility. Circumcision came to be conceptualized as a ritual form of castration in which the elders’ power was publicly demonstrated and the son’s loyalty  was made clear by his submission to the circumciser’s knife.

Hoffman deconstructs the entire brit milah ritual in great detail, delving into the historical origins of each step, showing us how it developed through a combination of rabbinic authority and  popular interventions. The author convincingly demonstrates that the rite is “a ceremonial celebration of the obligation that binds men to each other in rabbinic culture.” Except for the mother, men alone are featured in all rabbinic stories about circumcision. Blood symbolizes the opposition between men and women; women are seen as dirty and as lacking control of their (menstrual) blood and thus of themselves, while men are portrayed as clean and as in control of their (circumcision) blood, thereby justifying their preferential entrustment with passing on religious doctrine.

The power of tradition, I understand,  almost stopped Hoffman from publishing his exploration of the role of circumcision in Judaism. He eventually, ten years later, felt that “it is better to come to terms with the crawly creatures in the basement than to pretend that they are not there.”

In tracing the rite of circumcision from its original textual origins in the story of Abraham, Hoffman combines close analysis of Jewish texts with anthropological theory (particularly the seminal and insightful writings of Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss) to demonstrate how circumcision evolved into a binary system that served to reinforce Jewish patriarchy while simultaneously marginalizing women. Hoffman demonstrates how the rabbinic system evolved in a manner that effectively excluded women from the religious culture of Judaism (while recognizing that the preserved rabbinic texts do not always reflect the reality of cultural practice). Hoffman summarizes why Jewish women were excluded from compliance with positive commandments dependent on time:

“[W]ith regard to gender, the rabbinic system presents a cultural diad of in control/out of control. Men are controlled, they learn the system of controls, and they exercise control to transform the environment; women are the opposite: they are out of control; they are nature; they are wild, loose, unable (by temperament) to master the application of those commandments that must be done precisely on time.' Therefore, the system necessarily exempts them from those commandments. In a word, men are nature transformed by culture; women are nature, dependent on culture, that is, on men. They enter men's domain at times like marriage (thus requiring one-sixth of the Mishnah to tell their men how to deal with them), but they are never fullyculturated.’ They do not learn Torah and are not obliged to affect Torah’s transformation of nature. Using Levi-Strauss’s celebrated categorization scheme loosely, we can say that men, as culture, are the cooked while women, as nature, are the raw.”

For those who see Judaism as revealed religion, and Torah and its Talmudic elaborations as revealed texts, “Covenant of Blood” will appear as heresy. Similarly, for those who unquestioningly accept Judaic tradition and practice without regard to its origins and effects, there will continue to be a cultural, if not religious, imperative for circumcision, “the sine qua non of Jewish identity throughout time.” But for those willing to examine the religious ritual of circumcision in the light of reason, Hoffman has written a text that should be carefully considered.

We are given an understanding of the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism from a temple/priest centered religion and  the gradual exclusion of women from the practice of religion in the synagogue which is linked to changes in the circumcision ritual. While the book is of great depth, it is easy to read. I do not know if I agree with all that is here but we cannot ignore what Hoffman has to say.

 

 

“INGE’S WAR: A German Woman’s Story of Family Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler” by Svenja O’Donnell— Caught in History

O’Donnell, Svenja. “INGE’S WAR: A German Woman’s Story of Family Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler”, Viking, 2020.

Caught in History

Amos Lassen

Svenja O’Donnell’s “Inge’s War” is about her grandmother’s experiences as a girl growing up in Königsberg during World War II. The prose is gorgeous and the research that went into this is stunning.

Inge’s family was German and non-Jewish family. It had neither backed Hitler’s regime nor stood publicly against it, yet the members had to face the consequences of the Nazi’s actions against Europe.

Some thirteen years ago, while working as a foreign correspondent in Russia, Svenja O’Donnell gave herself a special assignment to Kaliningrad to explore her own family history. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the small Baltic city (then called Königsberg and a part of Germany) had been her grandmother Inge’s childhood home. O’Donnell knew that Inge and her family had fled Königsberg to escape the Russian advance at the end of the war and they never returned. What she did not know and she could not have anticipated her distant, reserved grandmother’s reaction came when she called her and told her who she was.

Naturally this shook Inge and she cried telling her newly discovered granddaughter that she had so much to tell her and it is from this that O’Donnell reconstructs a family story that reveals  something most of us have known little if anything about—- there were bystanders I Germany Germany’s who neither supported the Nazi regime nor risked all to resist it.

O’Donnell based her book on more than ten years of conversations, archival research, travel that she used to tell the story of Inge’s life from the rise of the Nazis through the postwar period. We read of Inge’s falling in love in Berlin’s underground jazz clubs, and have a child out of wedlock after the father was sent to the Eastern Front. Inge organized and led her family’s escape as the Red Army closed in. We learn the terrible secret Inge had been keeping for more than half a century: the act of violence that finally separated her from the man she loved. This is both an intimate story and the story of a granddaughter breaking through the silence that was common to German-descended families around World War II. Inge confronted both her family’s suffering and its legacy of neutrality and inaction.

 “Inge’s War” is the story an ordinary woman who becomes caught in history; and the lies that are told in order to survival we tell to survive. It is the story of family trauma, the dangers of nationalism and anti-Semitism, and of refugees. It also is the story of a woman during war and, by and large, what we have known about the period of World War II has come to use through the narratives of men about men. The traumas and sacrifices of women  were of lesser importance than those of men and women often paid for a life of normality with their silence. O’Donnell never mentioned the war years, and she never thought to ask. It was by a chance conversation that led Inge to talk and for O’Donnell to listen to the story of a German woman surviving on the wrong side of war. She dealt with violence, displacement, and a trauma that changed her life. “Her silence was at first a refuge, then a habit, then a torment.” The decisions that she was forced to make were often tragic. By writing this book, O’Donnell wants to give her grandmother voice back to her.

“RESISTANCE”—A Tribute to Marcel Marceau

“RESISTANCE”

A Tribute to Marcel Marceau

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned story of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France. It features a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes and is focused on a Nazi-fighting mime, Marcel Mangel (who later changed his surname to Marceau). Marceau is the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. He tires of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop and prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life and the audiences he performs for are more interested in dancing girls.

This is a light family drama despite opening scene in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But these early scenes skillfully illustrate the melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning and also establish just how little the future superstar and his community understood the extent of the danger just a few miles away in Germany.

Marcel becomes involved with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. They were ransomed from the Nazis and the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Marceau was made to feel guilty by his brother Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez) and begins helping out. Through his cousin, Georges (Géza Röhrig), Marcel got the opportunity to assist Jewish children who have lost their parents, keeping them laughing through miming. He has his own motive— he is anxious to impress  a girl named Emma (Clemence Poesy) and uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.

The director’s determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clear once war begins and France is occupied and all Jews in the country become targets. Marcel becomes responsible for more orphans and with his compatriots relocates to Lyon and joins the resistance. The Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the empty pool of his fancy headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. Barbie is a sociopath who keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.

After the action shifts to Lyon, Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Eisenberg’s Marceau shows his skill for signaling vulnerability and resolve at the same time. His theatrical exaggeration of miming allows him to express physically. While Marcel mimes, we’re able to concentrate on his eyes and face, which give both a lightness and an emotionality to his movements while at the same time silent and focused.  Marcel’s life touched many, and everyone within this film becomes a bit insignificant in his shadow. The film totally belongs to Marceau.

There are moments of emotional authenticity that make Marceau convincing and riveting. We see him not as a superhero but as an “ordinary” human being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The fear, the confusion, the anxiety are all written on Eisenberg’s face as he feels his way into the new uncomfortable position of responsibility for others’ lives. So are the joy and the delight when his pantomime helps him chase away the ghosts that haunt him and his charges.

 

Jakubowicz sees these extraordinary circumstances that turned Marceau into the great artist he dreamed of being but feared the war would not let him become. It was the children that gave purpose to his art and taught him to use it to help those who needed it. The film is very close to Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan filmmaker of Polish Jewish descent, whose grandparents on both sides are Holocaust survivors,. He found the story of Marceau’s role in the French Jewish underground by accident. He didn’t even know Marceau was Jewish and became intrigued because it was a story of Jews rescuing Jews during the Holocaust—something only rarely seen on screen.

“House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” by Hadley Freeman— A Family’s History

Freeman, Hadley. “House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” ,  Simon & Schuster, 2020

A Family’s History

Amos Lassen

Hadley Freeman’s “House of Glass” is a story that spans a century, two World Wars and three generations. Freeman knew that her grandmother Sara lived in France just as Hitler began his rise power, but no one in her family spoke about it. After her grandmother’s death, she found a shoebox tucked in the closet with photographs of her grandmother and a mysterious stranger, a strange telegram from the Red Cross and a drawing signed by Picasso.

Her curiosity got the best of her and she began a ten year journey to try to found out what the contents of the shoebox meant. She went to the Picasso archives in Paris, to a secret room in a farmhouse in Auvergne, to Long Island and to Auschwitz piecing together family’s past and learning more about the lives of her grandmother and her three brothers, Jacques, Henri, and Alex. Their stories  were sometimes typical and sometimes surprising as they revealed the spectrum  of experiences of Eastern European Jews during Holocaust.

The stories were filled with twists and turns and fascinating characters that shed light on the Jewish experience during World War II. We read about assimilation, identity, and the meaning of home in a saga about the past that is still relevant today. We read about the experience of a Jewish family through a Polish shtetl, Parisian haute couture, the Résistance and Auschwitz. We examine the roots persistence of anti-Semitism. Freeman presents the many different responses of her family members to the anti-Semitism that sent many to their deaths yet spared others and we must consider them. Love and redemption are the themes of a book that will not be easily forgotten.

This is an intimate family history as well as the history of the world during the shocking period when ruled. It reads like a mystery, a memoir and a gripping history of the last century. Hadley Freeman reconstructs the story of a family that the Holocaust tried to destroy and she doesn’t hide anything.  She shows us the terrifying parallels to today’s anti-Semitism.  The story of the Glass family is a look at the Jewish experience. The research here is amazing and accompanied by a thoughtful analysis of what it means to be Jewish today. We see in the extremist politics of today in light of where they come out of the past.

Here is the author’s family, including the good, the bad, and the ugly and never-ending conflicts, some of which are never resolved. It tells the history of the times and locations in which the family lived. It tells of the successes in fashion, in engineering, in business and the failures and of those family members who survived the Holocaust and those who didn’t. which fell by the wayside and those which were regained. Secrets are revealed as her stories that took years to learn of.

“Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama” by Rabbi Dab Ornstein— We, the Jury

Ornstein, Dan Rabbi. “Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama”, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

We, the Jury

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Dan Ornstein gives us the chance to sit on the jury in  the trial of Cain v. Abel. The prosecution and defense attorneys (angels from Jewish legend) will call Cain, Abel, Sin, Adam, Eve, and God to the witness stand to present their perspectives on the world’s first murder.  We will also get testimony from great Jewish commentators throughout the ages  who will also offer contradictory testimony on Cain’s emotional, societal, and spiritual influences. As jurors, we must decide before meting out Cain’s punishment, if we have to consider his family history, psychological makeup, and the human impulse to sin.

I love this new approach to studying Torah mainly because it simply makes it relevant. Here we gain eclectic and gripping insights by Jewish commentators on the Cain and Abel story. The courtroom scenes are juxtaposed with the author’s commentary and this gives us new insights and introspection. By struggling with Cain’s actions, we also confront ourselves. We wonder if Cain is a symbol for all humanity what do we have to do so as not to become like him.

Rabbi Dan Ornstein includes a discussion and activity guide that promotes open dialogue “about human brokenness and healing, personal impulses, and societal responsibility.”
 Most of us know the story is written in bible so well that we can freely recite what it says. Yet rereading it here, it is very new and reads like it never has before. It comes to life by making it a human drama that we can each become a part of.  By bringing in the testimony and perspective of every participant, Rabbi Dan Ornstein gives us a new and riveting read and a chance to examine and expand our own humanity. The question of  “Am I my brother’s keeper?’” takes on new meaning and interpretations. Here is the chance for us to debatenthe human condition and how to think about “human agency and responsibility.

“Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought” by Aaron Koller— An Original Reading

Koller, Aaron. “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought”, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

An Original Reading

Amos Lassen

Those of you who know me also know that the story of the Akeda in the Hebrew Bible is one that has been both a source of concern and a fascination for me. I have written innumerable commentaries on it and have lists of thoughts about it running on my computer. I have presented my thoughts on it at least six times in public and each is different. I read whatever I can find about it and its mystery often haunts me. Naturally I was excited to learn of Aaron Koller’s “Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought” and anxious to get my hands on a copy.

Koller guides us on a journey of discovery for our times about the binding of Isaac story.  We look at Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s views of the story as “teaching suspension of ethics for the sake of faith”. From this, Jewish thinkers have developed this idea as a cornerstone of their religious worldview. Koller examines and critiques Kierkegaard’s perspective and later interpretations of it  textually, religiously and ethically.  We are all aware of the current criticism that has been levelled against Abraham as a man and as a father. Koller explores this in Jewish thought, from ancient poems and midrashim to contemporary Israel narratives, as well as Jewish responses to the Akedah over the generations.

He succeeds in bringing all of this together along with what we now know about human sacrifice in the Phoenician world and gives us an original reading of the Akedah. He maintains that the God of the bible would like to want child sacrifice because it is a remarkable display of devotion. However, God does not want child sacrifice because it would violate the child’s autonomy. The high point in the drama is not the binding of Isaac but the moment when Abraham is told to unbind him; release him. While the Torah does not allow child sacrifice, some of Israel’s neighbors saw it as a religiously inspiring act. What the lesson we get from the binding of Isaac is that an authentically religious act cannot be done through the harm of another human being.

Is this a new thought to me? I am not sure. Harming another has certainly been an important topic but I do not know that I take that as the ultimate lesson from the Akeda. It does seem to me, however, that we have looked at those twenty-something verses over and over again throughout history from every possible perspective and they remain puzzling to this day. I do not think it is possible to authoritatively say that we understand what they mean. I have spent hours looking at them and feeling exhausted afterwards.

Koller, with his knowledge of both biblical literature and the Jewish interpretive tradition is able to unbind the Akedah to show its philosophy and theology in their greatness. As he struggles to understand it, he manages to pull it out from the dominant and dangerous interpretation that faith justifies violence. He then gives us the message that echoes God’s words to Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy!”

It is Koller’s stance that “one person’s religious fulfillment cannot come through harm to another” and this is “rooted on the text as a morally compelling vision for sincere faith in a modern world that too often finds form in false fundamentalisms.” 

I am in awe of the amount of study that went into this book especially as I look at my bookshelf and see nine books on the binding and realize that there are nine different theories on the passage. The journey we take with Koller includes material from wide sources ranging from ancient, medieval, and modern sources both Jewish and Christian; Hasidic, Mitnagdic, and secular; scholarly, poetic and even archaeological yet the focus and clarity is never lost.

Koller guides us to learn from what these sources have to say and to critique them ethically and intellectually. He then presents his own interpretation of the text remaining respectful of what the bible says as he regards it with religious sensitivity. What Koller has to say is not only refreshing but brilliant and completely new.  He does not disregard what others have said and uses generations of scholarship in Bible, rabbinics, and Jewish thought. He interprets their voices as to the times in which they spoke and where and then presents us with a timely understanding of ancient lore. Koller critiques others’ interpretations and then maintains that what the binding of Isaac does is teach ethics as theology instead of submission.  

What is unique here is that Koller’s study combines all of the perspectives already mentioned and then presents them all together. By doing this, we see the Akedah in a new exciting way.  

 

 

Houdini: The Elusive American” by Adam Begley— The World’s Greatest Escape Artist

Begley, Adam. “Houdini: The Elusive American”,  (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2020

The World’s Greatest Escape Artist

Amos Lassen

Adam Begley’s “Houdini: The Elusive American” is the newest volume in Yale’s Jewish Lives Series and it is a fascinating read. Erik Weisz was born in Budapest in 1874 and became Harry Houdini. He grew up as an impoverished Jewish immigrant in the Midwest and became world-famous because of talent, industry, and ferocious determination. Begley asks and answers the question of what kind of man was this?

In 1916, the war was raging in Europe and prevented a tour abroad so Harry Houdini wrote a film treatment. The movie was never made but its title, “The Marvelous Adventures of Houdini: The Justly Celebrated Elusive American” is a short summary of its creator’s life.

Houdini hid the secrets of his sensational success as a matter of temperament and professional ethics. Nobody  has ever known how Houdini performed some of his death-defying tricks, and nobody knows why he felt he had to continually punish and imprison himself. Was it really necessary. Begley follows the restless Houdini’s exploits showing the man as not only central to the American experience, but also important to the fakery, fraudulence, and self-promotion that is happening even today.

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.

In 2014, the Jewish Book Council named Jewish Lives the winner of its Jewish Book of the Year Award, the first series ever to receive this award.

 

 “SAUL & RUBY’S HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR BAND”— An Inspirational Klezmer Band

 “SAUL & RUBY’S HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR BAND”

An Inspirational Klezmer Band

Amos Lassen

Emmy winning documentary filmmaker Tod Lending’s “Saul & Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band” is the chronicle of history unlike any we have seen before.

Like many survivors of the Holocaust, after World War II, Saul and Ruby moved to America, started families and careers, grew old, and retired to South Florida. For them, retirement could have been the last chapter in their story. But then they decided to start a klezmer band, named the Holocaust Survivor Band. 

The band brings back the bittersweet memories of childhood in Poland, but more than that, it is a celebration of life. In this utterly heart-affecting and enthralling film, we follow Saul and Ruby’s musical journey, which begins in total obscurity, playing in residential homes for the elderly and small Jewish community organizations, to being invited to perform at venues across the country, including a coveted performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. 

This unique and compelling story is about having the courage to live one’s dreams, finding purpose and meaning in life at any age, the transcendent power of music, and the importance of speaking out against anti-Semitism and bigotry.

“The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility” by Elliott Rabin— A New Approach to the Bible

Rabin, Elliott. “The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility”, The Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

A New Approach to Bible

Amos Lassen

Approaching the Bible in an original way—comparing biblical heroes to heroes in world literature—Elliott Rabin looks at a  core biblical question: What is the Bible telling us about what it means to be a hero? To attempt to answer that, he approaches the Bible by comparing biblical heroes to heroes in world literature and I find that fascinating.

Rabin focuses on six biblical characters— Moses, Samson, David, Esther, Abraham, and Jacob and he look at their resemblances to hero types found in (and perhaps drawn from) other literatures. He then looks at why the biblical depiction of its heroes is less glorious than the texts of other cultures. Note these bold differences:

 * Moses the founder of the nation of Israel is short-tempered and weak-armed.
* Samson is arrogant and unhinged and is able to kill a thousand enemies with his bare hands.
* David who establishes a centralized, unified government does so through pretense and self-deception.
* Esther saves her people but she marries a murderous, misogynist king.
* Abraham’s relationships are wracked with tension and his fathering skills leave much to be desired.
* Jacob who is the father of twelve tribes won his inheritance through deceit.
 
Then there is God, a real hero or too removed from human constraints to even be called a “hero”?
Rabin shows how the Bible’s perspective on heroism comes from our own need for human-scale heroes.

Biblical heroes are flawed as we see when we compare them to heroes in other places and we can only wonder why they have been embraced for so long by Jews. I am sure that others can add more information about the above heroes that makes them less than heroic. Yet we see them as contemporaries and as ways to look at “spiritual greatness”.

 Here are fresh looks at the six and I do not think that after reading this, we will ever again be able to see them as we did. The story that Rabi gives us is of “complex human characters who, in heroic fashion, struggle with our imperfections.”

This  is a brilliant study and it presents us with creative archetypes for understanding six of the most important and significant figures in both biblical history and Jewish life. We see the hero’s role in society at a time when we really need heroes. We all have different ideas of what being a hero means and here, author Rabin adds new dimensions to the way we think. This is an “examination of the intersection of power, influence, leadership, achievement, failure, and identity.” If you need something new to think about, here is the book for you.

“The Passover Haggadah: A Biography” by Vanessa L. Ochs— The Life and Times

Ochs, Vanessa L. “The Passover Haggadah: A Biography”,  (Lives of Great Religious Books), Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Life and Times

Amos Lassen

Passover is biting at our heels and as usual Jews all over the world are making preparations for our most unifying of holidays. I have always loved Passover for the simple reason that knowing when I sat down to Seder, Jews all over the world are doing the same. Years ago, after I returned from many years of living in Israel, Passover was the one time of year that had supreme importance for me even though my Israeli celebration of it was purely secular. I remember so well that after my kibbutz Seder, (celebrated without the traditional Haggadah), I would go back to my room and pull out my traditional Haggadah and reread the story of the exodus so that I could feel as one of universal Jewry. It was not so much about religious observance but about the traditions that my family had observed for seemingly forever. Of course, what I knew of the Haggadah came from what was written on the pages within and it was not until I moved to Boston and became really engaged in my religion that I wanted to know more. This year ,Vanessa Ochs helped me to do so.

The Passover Haggadah is the script for the Seder and it is a religious text unlike any other. It is the only sacred book that appears in many different versions and I say that as I look at the 42 different Haggadot sitting on the shelf in front of me. I still treasure my Maxwell House edition that is filled with wine stains , my beloved copy of Arthur Waskow’s countercultural “Freedom Seder” and my copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah.  The beauty of the Haggadah is that even those with limited knowledge of Jewish law and ritual are able to lead and conduct a  religious service that is, in itself, complex.

In “The Passover Haggadah: A Biography”, Jewish scholar, Vanessa Ochs shares the story of the Haggadah from its origin and emergence in antiquity as an oral practice to its many forms today. She provides the history of how the narrative of the Exodus is related as the story of liberation in the Haggadah and she tells us of the origins of the book in both biblical and rabbinic literature. We see how it became beautifully and lavishly illuminated during medieval times and how the printing press aided mass distribution. Ochs looks the kibbutz Haggadah that celebrate the coming of spring more than they do the exodus, Haggadot that reflect the Holocaust, the feminist Haggadah, the LGBYQ-themed Haggadot (which now number six or more) and she includes the Haggadah of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, the popular television series. Through this we see how this enduring work of liturgy was once and is still used to transmit Jewish identity in Jewish settings is being reinterpreted and reimagined to share the message of freedom and liberation for all. (More than once, I led Seders at a Baptist church in New Orleans where members of the Baptist clergy added their own interpretations).

Ochs shows that the writings in the Haggadah are core texts of Jewish life and they were products of the times in which we lived as well as plans for social action. This book is not a Haggadah but rather the biography of the book that has meant so much to so many people. It is both ancient and it is contemporary and every time I read it, it is new and vibrant.

We are all familiar with the question “Why is this night different from all others?” and, of course, there are many, many answers. Ochs asks, ‘Why is this Haggadah different from all others?’ The answer comes in her survey of the many editions of Haggadot that have been “invented, illustrated, and cherished across the ages”. The Haggadah has become a guide for us on how we lived, how we live and how we will live. As we read the Haggadah, we cannot help but see that it speaks to us individually and as a group. It does not have a fixed text and it is a source of history and comfort.

Going back to the sources in the book of Exodus where the story is described for the first time, Ochs shows us that the original text says that Passover will be a “ritual for all time,” forever and this was even before the children of Israel have even marked the holiday for the first time. Looking at the earliest rabbinic texts, Ochs shows that in the Mishnah and the Tosefta — which include the first descriptions of the Passover Seder (there was no Seder at all, for quite a long time after Passover was first marked. We see key differences between Passover’s “4 Questions” as described in the Mishnah, and those that we recite today at the Seder today. Ochs shows us  the ways in which these questions are “pedagogically, are a disaster.” She also explains that the Passover Seder is representative of a “diminished version” of what the people did for Passover as they were on their pilgrimage to the ancient temple.

Ochs looks the moods of Passover, which are not only joyous. She shows the differences between elements of liveliness and sadness. The Seder was once a time to argue and we see this in errors in the Passover Haggadah— its historic failure to actually tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is assumed that we already know the story.

We look at the traditional Haggadah and what it might mean today. Ochs tells us that there is importance in honoring and paying tribute to the ancient texts of the Haggadah as well as experimenting with contemporary haggadot and creative approaches to the Seder. Texts can set the ways in which wrestling with them can be a deep way of observing the holiday. Revising the Haggadah text can lead to a great deal of criticism and pushback. Jewish rituals, in many cases, have become fluid and can change quickly from a sense of tradition to the new and relevant.

After having read Vanessa Ochs, I find myself looking at both the Haggadah and the holiday of Passover anew and I am totally grateful for that