Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Once More With Chutzpah” by Haley Nell— Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Nell, Haley. “Once More with Chutzpah”,Bloomsbury, 2022.

Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Haley Nell’s “Once More With Chutzpah” is a beautiful story about a young girl dealing with issues of  her Jewish identity, mental health struggles, and sexuality while on a trip to Israel. You would not think that a sentence such as this would awaken anti-Semites, homophobes and anti-Zionists to decry this book even before it’s official publication. I was shocked by what so many had to say about it even though they have yet to see a copy and to understand what it really has to say. I received my copy last week and after reading it went to look at the book’s page on Goodreads where I found excessive hate and complete misunderstanding of what this book is about. We immediately become aware of the lack of knowledge about the Middle East and the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict. Yet these people see fit to write about it as parts of book reviews of a something they have not even read. Politics witch once brought us together is now tearing us part and it is so sad that this is based on such ignorance and hate. Perhaps if these same “reviewers” read this with open hearts and minds, they would see how really wrong they are. It is even more astounding that Goodreads allowed these diatribes to be posted especially since they do not even reference the book. Do NOT let them deprive you of a wonderful reading experience

High school senior Tally and her twin brother Max embark upon an exchange trip to Israel during winter break. Tally hopes that the trip will be good for Max who is still struggling from a car crash that injured him and killed the driver. Tally always planned that they would go to college and begin good lives and is worried that her brother will change their plans.

As they and their group travel across Israel, Tally realizes her plan might not be working, and that Max is not the only one with a lot on his mind. When a new relationship gets complicated in the face of her own anxiety-about her future, her sexual and romantic identity, and her place within the Jewish diaspora, Tally struggles with both  the past, but also with what life will be like when they get back home. On the brink of adulthood, Max and Tally face the pressures of identity and we do so as well.

“The Soul of the Mishna” by Yakov Nagen— The Inner Spirit

Nagen, Yakov. “The Soul of the Mishna”, Maggid, 2021.

The Inner Spirit

Amos Lassen

The Mishna is the foundational text of the Oral Torah and is  used and analyzed to understand Jewish law and the halakhic system. It is also an inner spirit to the work that is often unnoticed that provides a profundity that allows us to understand important principles and insights for everyday life that deal with God’s presence in the world, relationships between parents and children and between husbands and wives, social justice, the Temple, the Land of Israel, and much more.

Yakov Nagenexplores over two hundred mishnayot. He gives us the literary devices of the Sages that reveal the deeper meaning of the text. Through his own personal reflections and interpretations, we gain a new perspective on the Mishna.

“Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood” by Mark Oppenheimer— An Antisemitic Attack

Oppenheimer, Mark. “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood”, Knopf, 2021.

An Antisemitic Attack

Amos Lassen

Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, is one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the country and it is known for its tight-knit community of multigenerational families. On October 27, 2018, a gunman killed eleven Jews who were worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue making this the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. Mark Oppenheimer gives us the story of the community at the center of the attack.  He details the dialogues that he shared with “residents and nonresidents, Jews and gentiles, survivors and witnesses, teenagers and seniors, activists and historians” and writes about the confrontations that Squirrel Hill had to deal with as it healed. The stories that we read here give us an account of collective grief, love, support, and revival. Squirrel Hill remained vibrant and supportive and that is what this book is about.  The book focuses on thehopes, fears, and tensions that we must deal with as we attempt to heal.

 Many neighborhoods would sink into despair and recrimination after something like this but not Squirrel Hill. We get a look at what happened after the event and seesocietal resilience and insight on gun violence. We also read about “the tragic superficiality of our supposed differences.”

A tragedy such as the Squirrel Hill massacre cannot destroy the heart of a community. Oppenheimer shows us a unique Jewish place that extends to Jewish life and community in present-day America. He faces the questions left behind of how to continue, how to remember and memorialize when the massacre makes no sense. Instead of writing about the gunman killer, he the experience of the victims, survivors, and community.

We better understand what it means to be a community in a time of tragedy and to find hope in a time of terrible trouble. While this is the story of the Squirrel Hill community, it is also the story of each Jewish American community in this country.

Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics” by Clare Carlisle— Rethinking Spinoza

Carlisle, Clare. “Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics”, Princeton University Press, 2021.

Rethinking Spinoza

Amos Lassen

Throughout history, Spinoza has been seen as either one who forsook God or one who was a pantheist. Claire Carlisle in “Spinoza’s Religion” presents him as neither. Looking at “Ethics”, she brings together Spinoza’s metaphysics and his ethics together through the concept of“being in God” and grounds it in a deep questioning of how to live a joyful, fully human life. We see Spinoza wrestling withreligion, looking critically and constructively in the broadly Christian context in which he lived and worked. For him, philosophy was a spiritual endeavor that showed his devotion to a truthful, virtuous way of life.

His ideas about eternal life and the intellectual love of God are problematic and Carlisle uncovers a Spinozist religion that unites “self-knowledge, desire, practice, and embodied ethical life to reach toward our ‘highest happiness’―to rest in God.” Reading this, we reconsider both Spinoza and religion. Focusing on the “Ethics”, we think again about Spinoza’s relationship to religion and to modernity and their meanings.

Carlisle’s makes a compelling case for the importance of religion for Spinoza’s vision of human self-fulfillment. We get a “nondualistic, nondogmatic, and life-affirming spiritual philosophy” that places Spinoza in a rich dialogue with Christian theology along with new approaches to ethics, freedom, transcendence, and participation in God. It will be impossible to consider Spinoza without reading this.

“Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union” by Pamela Braun Cohen— Lives that Matter

Cohen, Pamela Braun. “Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union”, Gefen Publishing House, 2021.

Lives that Matter

Amos Lassen

Covering thirty years, Pamela Braun Cohen’s “Hidden Heroes” takes us into the modern-day exodus of Soviet Jews from the Soviet Union, a period of Jewish history that has rarely been told and is in danger of being forgotten. We explore the grassroots Soviet Jewish emigration movement focusing on the actions of heroic refuseniks in the Soviet Union and the individuals in the West that Natan Sharansky  refers to as the “army of students and housewives” who waged the battle to free Soviet Jews. From Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania to the Central Asia, the stories of refuseniks come to life as we read about their identity and the work they did protesting on the streets, defending themselves in courtrooms, defying jailers in their prison cells, and struggling to survive in Siberian labor camps. This is the story of the resistance and moral courage of men and women inside the Soviet Union and of those in the West who worked for them. 

 Pamela Braun Cohen became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early 1970s. She inspired others, transformed herself, and most “changed the world” – sometimes over the objections of men much more famous than herself. The leadership of Cohen, Micah Naftalin, and a whole generation of mostly volunteers changed the world yet until now we have not known much about them.

This is not just a story about the Soviet Jewry movement. It is also untold story of the Jewish leaders inside the former Soviet Union who risked their own lives for the right to be free, and to be Jewish. Cohen was personally transformed to leadership and to observant because of her interactions with the “refuseniks”.

This is the story of courage and determination by the Russian Jews who defied a world power and the army of housewives and students all over the world who supported their struggles. Pamela Cohen led their efforts with dedication and bravery.

Each chapter is broken up into short sections that spotlight different people who were involved in the movement so that this becomes the story of individuals.

“Studies in Spirituality: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— The Final Book in the Covenant and Conversation Series

 

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Studies in Spirituality: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible”, Maggid, 2021.

The Final book in the Covenant & Conversation Series

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was an internationally respected religious leader, prolific writer, and the Emeritus Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. In his last work Rabbi Sacks reminds us that while there is an authoritative code of Jewish law, when it comes to the spiritual dimension, we each have our own path to God. He looks at the path of the priest and the way of the prophet, the path of the Levite and the way of the pilgrim farmer who brought his first fruits to the Temple. We meet poets, philosophers, rationalists, and mystics of Judaism.

Here is the biblical narrative read with sensitivity to the depths of the human condition. We are introduced to “models of courage, innovation, faith, fear, the challenges and beauty of family dynamics, healing, the art of listening, hope, personal transformation, and more.” Through Rabbi Sacks’ reflections on spirituality , we gain a sense of closeness with God like that of our ancestors; an intimacy that gave them a sense of hope and courage and singularity.

The essays are personal and thereby allow us to find our own way to the Divine Presence. The covenant between God and humanity  becomes closer to each of us.

“Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical” by Shaul Magid— Radicalism and Violence

Magid, Shaul. “Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical”, Princeton University Press, 2021.

Radicalism and Violence

Amos Lassen

Meir Kahane was an American Jewish activist who preached radical and violent means to Jewish survival. Now Shaul Magid brings us a biography of the man’sradical political views, critique of liberalism, and use of the “grammar of race” as a tool to promote Jewish pride.

Kahane’s coming-of-age was at a time of came of the radical politics of the counterculture. He a militant voice of protest against Jewish liberalism. In 1968,Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League, stating that Jews must protect themselves by any means necessary. In 1971, he moved to Israel and founded KACH, an ultranationalist and racist political party. In 1990, he was assassinated.  Magid gives us an in-depth look at the man and how the postwar American experience shaped his life and political thought. I personally remember Kahane’s tactics since I was living in Israel at the same time as his KACH party became part of the political landscape of the country.

Kahane used theory of violence as an instrument to assure Jewish safety. His Zionism came from his support of Israel evolving into a belief that the Zionist project had failed. We see how tradition and classical Jewish texts influenced Kahane later in life. His legacy is in “the challenge he posed to the liberalism and assimilatory project of the postwar American Jewish establishment.” He adopted the radicalism of the militant Left as a tenet of Jewish survival.

In order to understand Kahane, it is necessary to discern the difference between Kahane’s worldview and his tactics which were a product of his time. The late 60s brought about militancy and radicalism and the idea of Jewish violence or Jewish vigilantes made American Jews very nervous. Jews in this country were still attempting to become part of American society.

He was one of the first Jews on the right who was willing to openly say that Israel can either be a Jewish country or a democratic one but not both. There was a significant numbers of Jews who felt that Israel had to be a Jewish country, rather than a democracy. Along with this, Kahane criticized liberalism in the 1960s when the American Jewish establishment was totally committed to it. He believed that one could not defend liberalism and fight intermarriage at the same time. He argued that the anti-Semitism on the left is more dangerous than the anti-Semitism on the right and this came from his thoughts  that anti-Semitism from the left was motivated by political ideology and was racially motivated.

It is generally agree that Kahane was one of the most despicable characters of postwar Jewish life. Arising in the aftermath of the Holocaust. His racist ideology that has influenced Jewish politics in the United States and Israel and continues to do so. Magid brings us the man and his ideas that show this. Even though he has been by-and-large dismissed as an outlier in American Jewish history, we see that he is an “indicator of core trends and tensions that plague modern Jewish life.”

 

“The Prince and the Emperors: The Life and Times of Rabbi Judah the Prince” by Dov S. Zakheim— A Biography

Zakheim, Dov S. “The Prince and the Emperors: The Life and Times of Rabbi Judah the Prince”, Maggid, 2021.

A Biography

Amos Lassen

The life of Rabbi Judah the Prince is filled with hundreds of anecdotes about everything from his childhood to his education, his family life and household, his role of leader of the Jewish community, his numerous halakhic rulings and opinions, and his passing. Through them we get a look at his long and successful life. Bringing them together, Dov S. Zakheim has built a biography of the man. The focus is on the individual, as well as on many of his colleagues, students, and interlocutors have used elements of the debates and halakhic decisions that make up the core of the Talmud. We gain a holistic picture of Rabbi Judah the Prince as well as insight into the human and historical context that shaped the Mishna, and the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud, its primary interpretations.

Zakheim also looks at the careers of the two emperors who, he argues, were the models for the many stories of Rebbe and “Antoninus” that we see in rabbinic literature. An outline of their careers gives us a backdrop to several of the talmudic tales of Rebbe’s interaction with these men, who were a rabbinic vehicle for demonstrating that Rebbe was as important in the secular world as he was among the Jews of both Judaea and the Diaspora.

“AFTER: The Obligation of Beauty” by Mindy Weisel— The Search for Beauty

Weisel, Mindy. “AFTER: The Obligation of Beauty”, Whitefox, 2021.

The Search for Beauty

Amos Lassen

Mindy Weisel’s “After: The Obligation of Beauty” is one of the most visually beautiful books I have ever seen but that is only one reason to add it to your library. It is also a memoir of life and the search for beauty that began in the aftermath of World War II, at the Bergen-Belsen displaced person’s camp during one of the most terrible times in the history of the world. Weisel chronicles

her search to find beauty in her life. She was born in the Bergen-Belsen to parents who had survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. She has struggled to understand the world she was born into and we are with her as she is on her journey to becoming an artist with her own voice, and her “unshakable will” to live with beauty. Filled with her art, narrative, poetry and journals, we are taken into her life and work and her ability to see that beauty and love can overcome tragedy. As she examines her own paintings and glass works, she explores the subtleties of color as ways of expressing emotion. She not only had to deal with her parent’s tragedy but also with their feelings of guilt and despair. One way ease that pain was for her to create art and it became her duty in order to discover joy while experiencing the pain of history. Ultimately she was able to find a life that was endowed with accomplishment, meaning, love and fulfillment both personally and professionally. I believe that all of us seek beauty in her lives and in this is the relevance of Weisel’s gorgeous book.

So many of us struggle to find something positive that came out of the Holocaust and even if we do, it is often bittersweet. This is how I felt as I read “After”.

“Can you imagine

How much has

 to happen

for one single word

to form?”

The power of these words shook me and I stopped to think about how many times we do not consider what we say. Beauty is a creation even when it happens naturally and to be able to discern beauty is an art in in itself. While we see Weisel’s response to the Holocaust in her work, we also see the beauty she has struggled to find (and to share with us). That beauty is filled with soul and as she confronts the evil of the past, she find the beauty of the present. History is what makes us who we are so when that history begins in horror, it is not easy to understand it or to find the redemption of beauty in it— yet, here it is. Through what we read and see, we find humanity by confrontation and the articulation and illustration of what has happened to us and what we, as a people, have collectively lived through. It is possible to live a life in the face of evil and to make sure that it will not be allowed to happen again. We cannot deny the past and we surely cannot transform it but we can search for way to understand it.

To synthesize language and art, to gain an understanding of terror is not easy. This is not a guide book to that understanding but it can certainly become one. By not writing about the inhumanity of the times, Weisel looks for a purpose for living. By bringing together visual art and language, we venture beyond just words. Emotion and color come together to inspire us. The experience of this book is not just looking at a page but engaging in a conversation with the author and that chat we share is both verbal and non-verbal and sincere and very real. Not only have I become more aware of the beauty in the world today, I now have a place to go when I quickly want to add beauty to a mundane day. I can just open “After: The Obligation of Beauty” and find it on every page.

“The Koren Tanakh”— Worth the Wait

“THE KOREN TANAKH”, Koren Publishers, 2021.

Worth the Wait

Amos Lassen

Koren published its first edition of the Hebrew Tanakh in 1962, sixty years ago and it was widely loved as the first Hebrew Bible entirely produced by Jews in almost 500 years. Textual precision and beautiful typography were hailed by many including the State of Israel. Soon it was gifted to every soldier in the Israel Defense Forces and became the Bible on which the presidents of Israel took their oath. (I still have the copy I was given when I was inducted to the IDF).

Over the past ten years, the new Koren Tanakh was in production with close guidance from Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Weinreb and it sets new standards for excellent translation, eloquence, and faithfulness to the Hebrew Bible.

Judaism is a religion of memories and words.Language and the ability to remember the past and conceptualize a distant future is the core of the religion alongside the concept of  the image of God. God made the natural world by words and we make the human world by words. Words establish eternal covenant between heaven and earth, and become co-partners with God in the work of redemption.  We learn this in the prefect to the Koren Tanakh written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l.

Now we have the release of The Magerman Edition of the Koren Tanakhwhich features the masterful translations of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the Torah and Psalms and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb on portions of Prophets and Writings.

The Koren Tanakh presents the sacred majesty of the Hebrew in a readable and stylistically sound translation for the modern reader. We feel the beauty of the Hebrew original keeping the rhythmic beauty of its poetry and prose.

The Koren Tanakh respects the classical Jewish interpretive tradition, while staying aware of contemporary scholarship. It includes simple notes to aid comprehension of various words and names, and full color maps and charts. The edition also uses transliterated names (Moshe, not Moses; Ikhavod, not Ichabod) to help the reader understand the nuances of their meanings.

We experience fresh tellings of the timeless stories and wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures.