Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“LATTER DAY JEW”— A Conversion

“Latter Day Jew”

A Conversion

Amos Lassen

Conversion is no matter in Judaism yet as serious at it is, we can still laugh about it as we see here. Comedian H. Alan Scott shows us just that. You might have seen Scott on Ellen and The Jimmy Kimmel but here he gets personal. You see, Scott was raised Mormon and he decided to take a religious journey that ended in a bar mitzvah. Here is his very funny journey, front and center in this personal documentary that includes his standup and chats with prominent Jewish comedians as well as clips from famous onscreen conversions (“Sex and the City”, “Family Guy”) and even a trip to Israel for Tel Aviv Pride and blowing a shofar. It is hilarious to see him,  a 30-year-old man training for his bar mitzvah with a room of 12-year-olds and this is one of the best scenes of the film although all of the scenes that challenge his conversion are great.

We find ourselves with these questions: “What does it mean for his relationship with his Mormon family in Missouri? How did his scare with cancer impact his religious journey? How does his gay identity intersect with his religion and does the Mormon stance on LGBTQ issues impact others leaving the faith?”

 

We might not get the answers but we do get a fascinating film that is filled with great humor.

“This Tilting World” by Colette Fellous— The Jews of Tunisia

Fellous, Colette. “This Tilting World”, translated by Sophie Lewis, Two Lines Press, 2019.

The Jews of Tunisia

Amos Lassen

When I lived in Israel, I had several Tunisian friends and I alwys had questions about how they lived in Tunisia yet I also knew that we are not to ask questions of this kind because often Tunisian Jewry is very private. Now I no longer need to worry because Colette Fellous now shares her life with us.

“On the night following the terrorist attack that killed eighty-three tourists on the beach at Sousse, a woman sat facing the sea and writing a complicated love letter to her homeland, Tunisia, which she feels she must leave forever. She also writes of her personal tragedies―the deaths of her father, a quiet man, and of another lifelong friend, who just weeks ago died at sea, having forsaken the writing that had given his life meaning.” 

“This Tilting World” is one book of a trilogy on the history of Tunisia’s Jewish community and it is related with nods to Proust. It includes a multitude of colorful portraits, sweeping readers onto a lyrical journey from Tunisia to Paris to a Flaubertian village in Normandy where we hear the voices of loved ones now silent.

This is written in  gorgeous fragmentary texts and is a creative memoir that is at once a political and cultural portrait of a region that has sat at the center of world history for millennia, as well as a search into Fellous’s memory, emotions, and family history. The way she captures emotions is enchanting and you feel that she has opened the door to a past world.

 

 

“Textual Activism” by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz— Essays, Articles and Speeches

Moskowitz, Rabbi Mike. “Textual Activism”, Independently Published, 2019.

Essays, Articles and Speeches

Amos Lassen

I never thought I would see a book like this in my lifetime. I suppose that what makes life so beautiful is that there are surprises every day. “Textual Activism” is a collection of essays, articles, and speeches at the intersection of deeply traditional rabbinic texts and radically progressive Jewish values. Rabbi Moskowitz dares to go where few Orthodox rabbis venture. His essays are written with fine scholarship and a deep commitment to the way that faith informs our lives. Yet they are also written with humility, kindness, and a good deal of personal courage.

Rabbi Moskowitz shares his own story and many brilliant ideas, that serve as tools for bringing together the division that religion often places between us and each other, us and God, and even us and ourselves. I believe that one of the things that guides Rabbi Moskowitz is his desire that all of us have access to the creator of life, especially those who long for a life informed by authentic faith and meaningful activism as it involves including and celebrating the transgender community in religious spaces.

Rabbi Moskowitz has “taken the directive to pursue justice to heart. He utilizes his vast Yeshivah knowledge to uncover and expand our tradition’s wisdom and teachings” and what he has to say is groundbreaking. He covers gender and immigration and makes us aware of his deep commitment to seeing people as God has created us, in God’s own image.”

He explores issues of Jewish LGBTQ life from within the framework of Halachah/Orthodox Jewish law and thereby challenges our religious traditions by calling for them to expand and deepen for all Jews. There is a great deal to be learned here and what is here is but a beginning.

“BACK TO THE FATHERLAND”— The Past and the Present

“Back to the Fatherland”

The Past and the Present

Amos Lassen

Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon’s documentary, “Back to the Fatherland” looks sympathetically, though superficially, to the past and present of Jewish families’ relationships to Germany and Austria. The focus is on the internal family dynamics for the third generation from the Holocaust and their survivor grandparents.

While more than 10,000 Israelis are estimated to have settled in the German capital during the past decade and established Hebrew-speaking enclaves, the directors were interested in the specific personal ramifications of those who were also grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

In two families profiled, the grandparents were born into a German society that painfully turned on them, so they felt lucky to emigrate to Israel. Their Israeli grandchildren see a hopeful potential for work, art, and romance in these countries and have an affinity for a language they heard their grandparents speak at home, albeit they know they have the safety valve of returning to Israel if history repeats itself. Many on screen express unease with the rising anti-Semitism from the right and Muslim extremists.

Guy Shahar left Israel for a pragmatic reason, more job opportunities (like one of my young cousins), and he then fell in love with Austrian Katharina Maschek. They share an unresolved scene where they look up the regulations for civil marriage and changing names. In Israel, his grandfather Uri Ben Rehav has a large model train set that runs through a miniature Theresienstadt, the Nazi’s “model” concentration camp, where he was imprisoned for three years.

Dan Peled, a sculptor, moved to Berlin a few years ago for its lively arts scene, as did my theater artist cousin, and like her, he feels very uncomfortable with Israel’s position toward the Palestinians. He, too, has fallen in love with a local woman, Hannah Becker. Raised with divorced parents, he grew up very close to his painter grandmother Lea Ron Peled, and wants them to meet.

The most moving scenes are the Jewish grandparents’ return to their native lands and the interactions there with their grandchildren. With his grandfather’s interest in trains, Guy takes Uri on a tour of Vienna that includes a ride on a child-size train in a park where Jews were banned. This reminds the chuckling Uri of the time he removed his yellow star in order to see a public display of the German might that had just defeated France. While riding on a streetcar with his grandson, he recalls sitting across from a man who confronted him for being Jewish and wearing a plaid jacket that included the black, white, and red colors of the Nazi party that were forbidden to him. The man took out his Gestapo badge and arrested him. Uri covers his face and can’t speak.

Dan’s father, Gidi, is able to bring his 91-year-old mother to her former apartment in Vienna and the building that housed her school, where an anti-Semitic art teacher had challenged her talent. After her return to Israel, she doesn’t live to see her great-grandchild born in her home city.

It is confusing to keep straight the family relationships, interspersed is a discussion in a coffee shop among unidentified young adult Germans or Austrians and Israelis. It seems that enough time has gone by so that their grandparents’ experiences are too far in the past to influence the younger generations’ decisions. As one of my cousins said, “That was life in a different time zone.” As the directors fade out from that Nazi uniform in the attic, the Israelis want a break with the past that will lead to a different future.

What makes the movie special is not only the seeming absurdity of this plunge back into the darkness of history, but also because grandparents of the individuals were aghast at the decision of the young people, one saying “no way.” The young people determined to live in Germany and Austria are burdened with guilt for going against the wishes of their grandparents.

In the documentary’s opening lines, the theme is set with Gil Levanon ( the blond director, important because the story can get mighty confusing since three families’ lives are juxtaposed) tells Yochanan, her grandfather, that she intends to leave Israel for Germany. What could have sent the elderly man into cardiac arrest results only in shock, disbelief, and dismay. About the Germans, he states, “They were bad, they stayed bad, and they will always be bad.”

The question that is raised here is why would a young Israeli move to Germany or Austria? For their grandparents who experienced the atrocities of the Nazis first hand, the very idea is abhorrent. Not only did those countries give rise to Nazism, the people who lived there wholesale turned their backs on the Jewish community as they were being obliterated.

“SKIN”— There is a Heart

“SKIN”

There is a Heart

Amos Lassen

Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) is a real-life, now transformed, neo-Nazi who found himself taken in by a makeshift family of supremacists when all else was lost. He became a beast who led the charge of violent protests and hateful speech toward anyone without his views. We sense that there’s a heart deep down and see it begin to emerge when he meets single-mother Julie (Danielle Macdonald). Bryon eventually ditches the supremacist Viking club to shack up with her. This doesn’t sit well with Bryon’s adoptive family and they use threats and violence in an attempt to bring him back. Director Guy Nattiv employs cutaways every now and then to Byron on a hospital bed, lasers shocking his skin to remove the profusion of tattoos on every inch of his body.

Bryon is on that path between a life of violence that he knows through and through and one that offers hope, redemption and a real chance at a proper life. That dynamic is cleverly employed by Nattiv, and molded by Bell’s performance in which he presents inner turmoil and pain just by a mere glance.

All of the performances of re excellent. Macdonald as Julie is more than a stereotype, her own life damaged by the past – something that she refuses to let happen again, for the sake of herself and her children. Vera Farmiga as Ma, Bryon’s mother figure is perfect. The question mark surrounding her true feelings linger throughout the film, though there’s no mistaking her ruthlessly deceptive nature.

There are those viewers that will scoff at the quickness in which Bryon turns. In reality, it took years and this is difficult to capture on film without rushing through narrative or skipping ahead five, ten or even fifteen years. This is a powerful, harrowing and deeply disturbing drama that excels with Bell at its fore. His performance is the kind that comes along too rarely.

This true story is handled with surprising balance – which means not allowing the racists an ounce of sympathy. While viewers are closely attuned to Bryon’s viewpoint from his first appearance at a hate rally, his perspective is not granted justification until he begins to break from his family-run hate group – experiencing consequences from his present and his past.

There are only a few scenes that show him directly challenging (or refusing to challenge) his ideologies outside of his ‘family’ and this avoids violence that could push Skin towards torture porn and/or humanization of the alt-right. Bell’s transformation is understated. As Julie, Macdonald is the film’s moral compass but keeps her idealism grounded in her situation’s economic reality.

This is Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s first film made in the United States.

“GIVE ME LIBERTY”— Driving Around Milwaukee

“GIVE ME LIBERTY”

Driving Around Milwaukee

Amos Lassen

An aimless twenty-something named Vic (Chris Galust), works driving a medical transport van in Milwaukee. Every time Vic has to make a stop, it becomes a massive production, usually elongated by the too-free-spirited middle-aged man named Dima (Maksim Stoyanov). Family members are sincerely played like children who always have one problem to address. In “Give Me Liberty,” driving around Milwaukee becomes quite a task for Vic.

Director Kirill Mikhanovsky creates many odd, vivid details, playing with how he defines his characters within the stressful nature of his comedy. The finest example is Vic’s mother, introduced later in the movie. She has to play piano for a recital that night taking place in her apartment. Scenes later, a Steinway is in her one-bedroom, with a full audience seated. Why? How? As a flourish of chaos, especially for a movie where there is no space from family, it’s just one of Mikhanovsky’s many animated choices.

Mikhanovsky directs this movie as if this were his one and only shot to say his peace, which gives it a massive, undoubtedly passionate quality. He loves his many characters and their family spaces. There’s a warmth in the rambling movie’s monologues, like with a bedridden man who speaks clearly to Vic (and the viewer) in bookending speeches about love and those around you making the movie sound preachy. By the end of the “Give Me Liberty,” the words are contextualized from someone who is incredibly sincere, sharing every part of his soul with us.

This is a  kinetic, comedic journey taking place over a day that is potent in its exploration of shared cross-cultural experiences. Vic  takes care of his senile grandfather, who has a hazardous obsession with cooking chicken. On this particular day, not only does he need to get him out the door for his aunt’s funeral, but he also needs to make his regular stops to pick up his clients. To make matters more difficult, his many relatives (all living in the same apartment building) need a ride to the funeral. And to make matters even more complicated, there’s a protest against police brutality after a cop killed someone in the predominantly African American neighborhood that Vic must navigate through en route to his many destinations.

Along the way, he careens through streets as his relative spill their pills and smear lipstick. They sing the spiritual songs of Paul Robeson while one of his clients, a disabled woman, sings Elvis Presley’s Rock Around The Clock, blending into a cacophony of noise. Mikhanovsky often plays their obstacles for amusement, laughing along with the characters. There’s a jar-opening gag that would make Larry David proud and when our group (spoilers!) finally do arrive at the funeral, a bit of amusing confusion comes into play.

The film was directed with a kind of immediacy and naturalism with an added level of cultural specificity into this insular Russian community.

The film opens on August 30 in Los Angeles and on August 23 in NYC.

“Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism” edited by Alan Slomovitz and Alison Feit— Jewish Orthodoxy and the LGBTQ Community

Slomowitz, Alan and Alison Feit (editors). “Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism”, (Psychoanalysis in a New Key Book Series), Routledge, 2019.

Jewish Orthodoxy and the LGBTQ Community

Amos Lassen

I did not think that I ever would see a book like “Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism” that so  explores “the often incommensurable and irreconcilable beliefs and understandings of sexuality and gender in the Orthodox Jewish community from psychoanalytic, rabbinic, feminist, and queer perspectives.” But more than that, this book explores how seemingly irreconcilable differences might be resolved. 

The book is divided into two separate but related sections. The first section examines the divide between the psychoanalytic, academic, and traditional Orthodox Jewish perspectives on sexual identity and orientation, as well as the acute psychic and social challenges faced by Orthodox Jewish gay and lesbian members of the Orthodox world. We are asked to engage with them in a dialogue that allows for authentic conversation.

The second section looks at gender identity, especially as experienced by the Orthodox transgender members of the community as well as highlighting the divide between theories that see gender as fluid and traditional Judaism that sees gender as binary only. The contributors share their views and experiences from both sides. They also ask us to engage in true authentic dialogue about these complex and crucial emotional and religious challenges. 

I understand that this book is meant to be of great interest to psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists. As an active member of the Reform Jewish community and a gay male, I found it to be fascinating. I worked to make our religion more welcoming to LGBTQ people so while I did not really read anything new, I am so glad to have all if this information in one place and as a way to opening the conversation.

We have articles from psychoanalysts, feminists, rabbis, and a writers on queer life and theory. They have come together to provide  a crucial conversation with one another. The editors have brought together a group of writers who share their clinical, theoretical, and spiritual resources to bear on questions that have never before been seriously and simultaneously considered.

Here we have an ancient religious and hermeneutical tradition engaging with a very current situation that is changing traditional assumptions about identity.

 “Trying to pretend to be something I am not in front of you all is becoming more trying by the day as I’m not the heterosexual being I portray for you. I wish I could have told you guys everything and I know you would have understood, but deep down, I know our relationship would have changed.” These are the words of a South African teenager who committed suicide while on a trip to Israel with his friends. It is heartbreaking but it is also very real and frightening. It’s crucial that Jewish institutions and leaders give visibility to the conversation on LGBT identities in Judaism, rather than avoiding them. Only through open discussions on the matter will we be able to try to live in an environment in which no teenager will ever be so afraid to reveal their sexual identity that they prefer to death.

Some modern Orthodox communities are slowly starting conversations about “inclusiveness, plain ignorance about the way LGBTQ Jews are harassed or dismissed in communities seems to be one of the main obstacles that queer Orthodox Jews face. But as long as Orthodox leaders frame sexual orientation and gender identity as choices, it can be difficult to advance a discussion on the matter.”

“Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— The Final Volume

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant”, Maggid, 2019.

The Final Volume

Amos Lassen

“Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant” is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’  fifth collection of Torah commentaries and it completes that project. Rabbi Sacks brings together Jewish tradition, Western philosophy and literature and as he has done in the four previous volumes of “Covenant and Conversation”, he presents with “a highly developed understanding of the human condition under God’s sovereignty.” And like the other volumes,  this final volume of the series contains several concise essays for each parasha of Deuteronomy.

The Torah bridges “past and present, moment and eternity and this is the frame Jewish consciousness.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explores these intersections in regards to universal concerns of freedom, love, responsibility, identity, and destiny. If you have ever read or heard Rabbi Sacks, you know what I am speaking of and if you haven’t read him, it is never too late to have that wonderful experience.

Rabbi Sacks here writes: “With the book of Deuteronomy, the entire biblical project becomes lucid and reaches its culmination. Deuteronomy is the last act of the Jewish people’s drama before becoming a nation in its own land, and it forms the context of all that follows… [it] is in essence a programme for the creation of a moral society in which righteousness is the responsibility of all. The good society was to be, within the limits of the world as it was thirty-three centuries ago, an inclusive if not an entirely egalitarian one. Time and again we are told that social joy must embrace the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the Levite, people without independent status or means.  It is to be one nation under God.”

The entire “Covenant & Conversation” series consists of multiple essays on every Torah portion. The set has been described by critics as “profound,” “poetic,” “masterful,” “perfect reading for the lay person or scholar.”

Rabbi Sacks says, “I am delighted to have finished this work on the Covenant & Conversation series. I called this series Covenant & Conversation because this, for me, is the essence of what Torah learning is – throughout the ages, and for us, now. The text of Torah is our covenant with God, our written constitution as a nation under His sovereignty. The interpretation of this text has been the subject of an ongoing conversation that began at Sinai thirty-three centuries ago and has not ceased since. Every age has added its commentaries, and so must ours. I hope by reading this series, people are inspired to participate in that conversation, because that is a major part of what it is to be a Jew.”

I see two kinds of books in the world today—- those that you read and just enjoy and those that are total experiences and the latter is exactly what this is.

“The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel” by Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes— The Evils of Power

Halbertal, Moshe and Stephen Holmes. “The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel”, Princeton University Press, 2017.

The Evils of Power

Amos Lassen

The Book of Samuel is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements of biblical literature. The book’s anonymous author was more than an inspired storyteller; he was also an uncannily astute observer of political life and the moral compromises and contradictions that the struggle for power inevitably entails. Moshe Halbertal’s “The Beginning of Politics” looks the story of Israel’s first two kings in order to unearth a natural history of power thus giving the reader a forceful new understanding of what is arguably the first and greatest work of Western political thought.

Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes show how the narratives of Saul and David cut to the core of politics and explore themes that resonate wherever political power is at stake.  Saul’s madness, David’s murder of Uriah, the rape of Tamar, and the rebellion of Absalom are stories that deepen our understanding of the necessity of sovereign rule and its costs to the people it is intended to protect and to those who wield it. Coming out of these stories are themes of “the corrosive grip of power on those who hold and compete for power; the ways in which political violence unleashed by the sovereign on his own subjects is rooted in the paranoia of the isolated ruler and the deniability fostered by hierarchical action through proxies; and the intensity with which the tragic conflict between political loyalty and family loyalty explodes when the ruler’s bloodline is made into the guarantor of the all-important continuity of sovereign power.” Taken as a whole, “The Beginning of Politics” is an important and timely meditation on the dark side of sovereign power and the enduring dilemmas of statecraft.

The real value of “The Book of Samuel”  is that is gives us a first look into the dynamics of early politics. We read of Saul, sitting on the heights of power, holding the spear which he has twice used to try and kill David. The text goes on to provide a wide range of penetrating political insights. “Though the biblical narrative of Saul and David has been the subject of much literary analysis, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes examine  it in a fresh way through their focus on politics. They make a persuasive case that the biblical writer evinces probing insight into the consequences of the pursuit of power, insight that is still relevant to the political constellations of our own era. The new study
contributes to biblical scholarship as well as our understanding of politics in general. We see how the calculations of political rulers may be hurt by their attempts to hide their intentions and by chains of obedience and violence that escape the control of those

Before the monarchy, the tribes of Israel were unable to defend themselves against outsiders, and occasionally became involved in civil war. They called for a monarchy- a solution which created its own problems and it is here we begin with King Saul who is contrasted with his successor David. At first, Saul is uninterested in being king but his desire to maintain power for himself and his male descendants drives him first to manipulative behavior and then to paranoia and insanity. Ironically, Saul sacrifices his daughter to reach this goal- first by sending the man she loved (David) on what Saul thought would be a suicide mission against the Philistines, and later by directly trying to kill him. Later, Saul is manipulated by courtiers into massacring a village full of priests because one priest in the village helped David. On the other hand we have David who, at first, is always sane and in control even though his motivation is unclear (power vs. piety).

Eventually, David too behaves in unambiguously inappropriate ways. He has an affair with Bathsheba and has her husband killed to avoid detection. There are many battles beginning with heir apparent Amnon raping a half-sister and causing her brother Absalom to have him killed. David first expels Absalom, then allows him to come back to court, and then shuns him- causing Absalom to begin a violent rebellion and eventually be killed by David’s henchmen. At the end of David’s life, another son, Adonijah, proclaims himself king, and David stops this by proclaiming another son, Solomon, king. And after David dies, Solomon has Adonijah executed.

David’s family relationships were toxic and Halbertal suggests that these problems are likely to occur in a hereditary, patriarchal monarchy. A king is likely to indulge his sons as David did, because male heirs insure the dynasty as everlasting. The sons all want to be king and so are eager to fight each other.

If David was a man who followed after God’s heart, then Samuel’s narrative shows that covenant is more about God’s character and not us as the human agents who always imperfectly try to keep our side of the agreement.

What makes the Book of Samuel unique for its time is its unflattering description of its characters. Rather than presenting a monarch as a god/king as was common in ancient near east/neighboring accounts of tribal monarchs, the author of the Book of Samuel portrays its kings, Saul and David, as men who are subject to the influences and corruptions of power.

“The Fragility of Bones” by Sergio Olguin— Reopening a Cold Case

Olguin, Sergio. “The Fragility of Bodies”, translated by Miranda France, Bitter Lemon Press, 2019.

Reopening a Cold Case

Amos Lassen

I do not often get the chance to read and review books from Argentina so when the opportunity is there, I jump at it. For me, one of the main reasons I love about reading is learning about how others live.

Veronica Rosenthal, a journalist hears about the suicide of a Buenos Aires train driver who has left a note confessing to four mortal ‘accidents’ on the train tracks and she decides to investigate. The police see suicide as a closed case  but for Veronica this is the beginning of a journey that takes her into a world she is unfamiliar with, one of poverty, crime-infested neighborhoods, and train drivers on commuter lines who are haunted by the memory of bodies hit at speed by their locomotives in the middle of the night. Helping her is a train driver with whom she has an affair, a junkie in rehab and two street kids  who are willing to risk everything for a can of soda. Veronica  uncovers a group of men involved in betting on working-class youngsters convinced to play Russian roulette by standing in front of fast-coming trains to see who lasts the longest.

This becomes more than a simple investigation as we go deep into the psyche of the characters, and play with different points of view. Bodies give us a reflection of a society that is never certain of winning or losing.

Veronica Rosenthal is a journalist, an investigator and an anti-hero in an excellent addition to the Argentine noir tradition. She discovers much more than a web of corruption including her deep lust for Lucio the engine driver and her willingness to follow him into a carnal relationship, with unforeseeable consequences. This is a  powerful novel “that adroitly manipulates the fragility of its readers.”