Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“David and Jonathan: An M/M Romance from the Bible” by Neil S. Plakcy— Hearts Together

Plakcy. Neil S. “David and Jonathan: An M/M Romance from the Bible”, Samwise, 2019.

Hearts Together

Amos Lassen

For as long as I can remember we have used the Biblical story of Jonathan and David as a way to show that men who love men were around during the time of the Bible. We really have no idea if that is true or not since we accept the Bible on faith and on proof. Regardless it is a beautiful that has temped writers to expand on it throughout history. Neil Plakcy’s “David and Jonathan” is a new attempt. We are to understand from the Bible that the hearts of David and Jonathan “are knit together” as we read in the Book of Samuel we see it as one of the earliest same-sex romances in literature. However, the Bible “provides relatively little of the techniques we expect of fiction.” Character descriptions are skeletal and skimpy or non-existent and very little is written about the lives of the people and how they occupied their days aside from spending forty years wandering in the dessert. Plakcy tells us that he has used his research into history to add  details to make the story come alive.

I have spent a good part of my life studying the Bible and to this day, I still devote an hour a day to reading the Bible in its original language. We quickly realize the many faults in the stories from the Hebrew Bible or as it is commonly and incorrectly known as The Old Testament. So often the stories are incomplete and it is left to us to fill in the rest and this can be great fun. What we fill in with is known as midrash and it has been going on for as long as we have read the holy writings. In the story of David and Jonathan, things do not happen in order and the timeline is totally bewildering and names change. I really want to believe that David loved Jonathan more than he ever loved a woman but I cannot  figure out the timeline so I do not see when the two even had time to be lovers. David was way too busy with Jonathan’s sister, Michal and then Batsheva as well as all the other women in his life. Besides he was also busy writing poetry and uniting the people. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful story and one that I never tire of reading.

Plakcy’s story is beautiful but we must remember that it is a story and not history. He uses language from the Bible and it is based on something in history of which there was no happy ending. After David loses Jonathan he returns to be a warrior-king and a womanizer.

If you are familiar with the Biblical accounts of David and Jonathan, you’ll know what a mess they are—things happen out of order, without reference to previous events, and even the names of Jonathan’s brothers change from one account to another. When possible, I’ve incorporated actual quotes from various editions of the Bible—without footnotes, of course, because this is fiction, not an academic treatise.

And readers of MM romance should note—because this is based on a historical account, there is no HFN or HEA. After his romance with Jonathan ends at the conclusion of this account, David goes on to gore and glory with multiple women.

Plakcy’s Bible used the line, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1.). I have seen it in various other translations including David loved Jonathan more than he had ever loved a woman.

One of the problems with the David story is authorship and it is believed that it was written by several different authors. I understand that Neil Plakcy decided to use the basics of the story and build a romance on it. I believe that he has succeeded beautifully especially in his use of language. What he has added is the nature of the sexual relationship between the two men (of which nothing is written so these are his thoughts) and it works beautifully.

I feel confident in what I say as a reviewer of LGBT literature and as a person who is considered to be a Bible scholar. Every  year I teach a course on David and every year I learn a bit more. It’s good to have another David and Jonathan story to add to the mix.

“FELIX AND MEIRA”— Purpose and Restrictions

“Félix & Meira”

Purpose and Restrictions

Amos Lassen

Religion both restricts and gives purpose to the people we meet in “Félix & Meira”, an acutely observed and perfectly played slice of human drama. Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a young, married Hasidic mother who is first noticed by thirtysomething  Félix (Martin Dubreuil), while she’s waiting for her order at a corner store. He compliments her on the drawing  she’s making for her baby daughter. Later he sees her pushing a stroller on a cold Montreal day, and he jogs toward her and attempts to start a conversation. She looks away and admonishes him to not to speak to her.

This is  the story of their tentative attachment to each other, and the turmoil it potentially causes in the woman’s Orthodox community. Co-writer and director Maxime Giroux’s shows us the pain of the film’s love triangle. There’s a bit of wonderful irony when Meira and her husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), have their biggest fight at night while lying in their separate beds, never speaking louder than a whisper. A later scene between Félix and Shulem is noteworthy for how little is said, and how well both men contain their emotion. The connection between Félix and Meira builds with a similar restraint. There’s little laughter, little touching. They go out dancing, but Meira is shy, and one observer notes that Félix has no physical grace.

There is a bit of old fashioned romance here with the lengths Félix goes to just to get a glimpse of Meira’s back are hilarious and heartbreaking while at the same time, there’s no certainty that these two are really compatible. If Meira doesn’t know who she is, how can she know who she should be with? Félix, too, is unsure of himself: he holds onto grief that has left him aimless.

Shulem catches a case of identity crisis from the two protagonists. He begins as little more than a scold because  Meira fails to live up to what’s expected of her. Then he becomes more bewildered over the inability to connect with his wife, and his growing confusion humanizes him. Twersky’s performance gives an emotional anchor to the story: someone will get seriously hurt here.

Because Meira says so little, her dilemma or the source of her discontent is unclear. Is there something in her that uniquely rubs against the orthodoxy of her community, or are we supposed to trust that any creative, introspective woman would be driven to malaise by the religious lifestyle? Director Giroux doesn’t make such a statement and there  are other Hasidic women here who seem perfectly content. But the absence of depth in Meira, the character,  leaves little else to hold on to than such generalizations. Loneliness and alienation are universal, so Meira serves as a kind of outline, like the drawings she makes, of an outsider, which viewers can fill in as he or she likes.

In addition, the film makes great use of the song “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” by1960’s soul singer Wendy Rene. In one of the early scenes, Meira listens to it on the sly, taking the record from a hiding place beneath the couch. The music serves as a stand-in for her voice, speaking fluently in an emotional language that leaves its listener tongue tied.

In the beginning the film moves slowly, but it carefully lays the groundwork for a number of moving closing scenes. We see that religion both restricts and gives purpose to the people in the film which is an acutely observed and perfectly played looked at human drama set mostly in Montreal.

In the beginning, the story focuses on Malka whose light is definitely being hidden under a bushel, as well as a wig and frumpy dresses. Bookish husband Shulem has a big beard and he’s more into attending yeshiva than paying attention to his pretty wife. Still, he comes home occasionally to lay down the law. He hates that she listens to ’60s soul music; good thing he doesn’t know about the birth-control pills! Almost any way she attempts to express herself will bring shame on the community, according to him, but his extreme piety doesn’t bring much joy to anyone. Meaningfully, her main mode of resistance is to play dead while he berates her in Yiddish. It is important to know that in this world, marriages are arranged and often all a bride and groom have shared before their wedding is a cup of tea in a hotel lobby.

Around the corner from a nearby kosher deli lives Félix, an agnostic. He is charming and dissolute, the son of a rich but distant father (Benoît Girard) who’s busy dying when we meet him. Félix seems determined to fritter away his time and any eventual inheritance. His affectionate sister (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) chides him for self-absorption. (He doesn’t even remember the name of his sibling’s live-in boyfriend of seven years). However, his father’s  impending demise does present some kind of wake-up call.

Félix is drawn to Malka and her pink-clad baby girl. Despite social admonitions against talking to, or even looking at, nonfamilial men, she eventually responds to his persistence, and introduces herself, in English, as Meira—the Hebrew word for “light”. Soon a shared love of music and art leads to trouble. ,

This love story isn’t about religion — or its lack — but about the attraction of difference and the undeniable need to feel alive. That’s something that Meira clearly longs for; going against the restrictions imposed by her Orthodox community, and weary of being scolded by her bewildered husband. Meira is a time bomb in an unflattering wig and frumpy dresses, and when she meets Felix who has just lost his father, explosion seems inevitable.

 “Felix and Meira” presents the pair’s slow, circling courtship as a dance of incremental intimacy. Tiny advances in seduction — like a direct gaze, or the eventual removal of that wig  take on the power of full-on sexual collisions, and we see and feel Meira’s sensual deprivation. Felix’s f charisma brings color into her dull world, and it’s to the film’s credit that Shulem is not an unfeeling counterpoint but as a loving, observant husband who’s simply bemused by his wife’s small rebellions.

In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Shulem and Felix reach an uneasy détente, a foreshadowing of an ending. This is an unusual story of hesitation and self-expression with a sense of restraint, delivering characterization through looks instead of melodrama. This is a refreshing change of pace in a measured movie, with emotion pushing through silences as the plot seeks to understand personal need. 

Just before Feliz and Meira met, she was  beginning to regret her life choices, finding her marriage to Shulem suffocating with interest in art and music  that are taken from her by her husband who doesn’t understand her rejection of orthodox ways. Felix is smitten with Meira, pursuing her at a time of vulnerability for the both of them.  

The movie is observational, studying the characters as they cope with the current stasis in their lives. For Felix, confusion arrives with the death of his father, a cold man the son never received a chance to understand. They were distant, with family love gifted to Felix’s sister, who’s inherited the estate, sharing money with her brother as a peace offering of sorts. Living alone, Felix is beginning to understand his isolation; he finds the discovery of Meira to be enlivening. A loving mother of one, Meira has turned to secrecy to live her life in full, taking birth control and hiding drawings and music from Shulem, pulling out of an orthodox life where she has no friends or confidants, fearing she’s in too deep to even entertain the idea of change. Dutiful but pained, Meira finds Felix’s attention enticing. She’s not necessarily looking for love, but the intimate companionship he’s dying to provide gives her a sense of hope. 

The film explores individualism yet Meira’s fantasy isn’t sexually motivated, she merely wants to sample a forbidden world, with the very act of wearing pants supplying overwhelming liberation she can only share with Felix, who’s happy to encourage her interests. Their union is more about presence than romance, but tenderness is felt, only restrained by Meira’s guilt and confusion.  

 All of the performances are skillful, requiring a sense of stillness to communicate subtle offerings of endearment, and Twersky as Shulem is the man of the house driven by religious duty, and not just another monster waiting to discipline his wife. The humanity of these personalities is vividly detailed. Giroux finds an ideal way to capture the consequences of forbidden love, adding just the right amount of bittersweet to respect the moment.”

“Savage Fest” by Boris Fishman—Heartbreak and Huc

Fishman, Boris. “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (a Memoir with Recipes)”, HarperCollins,  2019

Heartbreak and Humor

Amos Lassen

Boris Fishman shares a family story in his recipe filled memoir “Savage Feast”. It is also an immigrant story, a love story, and a wonderful meal and it looks at the challenges of navigating two cultures from an unusual angle.  His personal story and his family’s memoir are relat3d to us via meals and recipes. It begins when Boris was a child in Soviet Belarus, a place where good food was as valuable as money.

We learn of the unlikely dish that brought his parents together and how being hungry in the Holocaust made his grandmother so obsessed with bread that she always kept five loaves on hand. His grandmother was quite a cook, his grandfather was a  master black marketer who supplied her, evading at least one firing squad on the way. Boris’ family is made up of Jews who lived under threats.

When Boris and his family comes to this country, food remains of major importance. But before coming here, the family spent time in Vienna and Rome. All the while they had to deal with staying connected to their roots and doing away with the trauma that traveled with them and was, indeed, a part of them.

Fishman goes to a farm in the Hudson River Valley,  to the kitchen of a Russian restaurant on the Lower East Side, to a Native American reservation in South Dakota, and back to Oksana’s kitchen in Brooklyn. His relationships with women are troubled and he finally finds an American soulmate.

For Fishman, food and sharing meals with his family is a way to maintain his roots even as he feels pulled towards his new American life. He turns to cooking and exploring in the kitchen as a way to work out his next step in his life. We are with Boris on his journeys of cooking in his grandfather’s Ukrainian home aid to the kitchen of Russian restaurant on the Lower East Side to a children’s camp on a Native American reservation in South Dakota.

Food is the grounding force of the memoir about   the author’s experiences as an immigrant to America with his family culture  still very much rooted in Russia. He faced a lot of familial pressure to live a certain way while also trying to follow his dreams of writing as well as making his new home in America. He uses cooking, eating, and obtaining food throughout the narrative.

Here is the memoir of a family that survives and is united by food. We are also very aware of the feelings of hunger that the family experienced and are reminded of dishes and recipes of traditional foods—potato latkes, stuffed cabbage, braised rabbit, liver pie, and scores more make the memoir a succulent treat… “This beautifully written memoir is a wonderful story about family, love, and connecting with your roots.”

“MINA’S RECIPE BOOK “ and “IMAGINARY FEASTS”— Food as a Metaphor— Two Films by Anne Georget


Food as a Metaphor— Two Films by Anne Georget

Amos Lassen

In looking at the titles of these two short films, I would never have thought that they were going to be about the Holocaust. The stories here and little known but need to be told to wider audiences. They are stories of imagination and resilience against the worst kind of deprivation the world has ever known.

“Imaginary Feasts” is an exploration of how in places such as Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags and Japanese prison camps, prisoners who are starving and near the ends of their lives manage to share talk about their favorite meals and recipes. Somehow this helped them to survive. Of course this is quite difficult to see at first glance and we must examine closely what was said  that these words became words of resistance. The prisoners and deportees wrote down cooking recipes. Hundreds of those recipes were then copied in small notebooks by starving human beings of all origins who took huge risks to write and keep them. What we see is that telling about these objects of survival, the film  then explores a phenomenon of incredible Resistance. Until now, no study or publication had ever been made on them.

The film explores notebooks filled with fantasy recipes that prisoners left behind under unimaginable circumstances as proof of a remarkable kind of quiet resistance.

“They feasted on words because they were dying of hunger,” said Andre Bessiere, who was interned at the Nazi camp Floeha in eastern Germany. The prisoners there met each week and exchanged hundreds of recipes they wrote in makeshift journals.

Georget discovered the precious relics, often made of scrap fabric or other found materials, after working on a previous documentary and book about the fantasy recipes of a woman imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

She received several letters recounting similar experiences in other Nazi camps, in Sheshe discovered that this surprising and, at first glance, paradoxical means of coping with hunger could be found at the Potma gulag, and in Japanese prisoner of war camps in Kawasaki during World War II. “The systems aren’t comparable and you must not compare them but the circumstances had the same cruelty in common — there is the same instinct to survive and maintain your humanity,” Georget said.. “The suffering and the pain are palpable,” master chef Olivier Roellinger tells Georget as he goes through copies of the notebooks.

The film is structured through a series of interviews, the documentary tells the bitter-sweet stories of the recipes that were written and bound in concentration camps across the first half of the Twentieth Century, from the Nazi concentration camps of Ravensbruck, Flöha and Leipzig – in Germany – and the Soviet Gulag of Potma, to the Japanese war camps of Kawasaki and Bilibid. Scratched in pencil and hand stitched together, these recipes form an oxymoronic artefact: through the richest resplendence of cuisine, they evoke the harshest deprivation and starvation conceivable.

“Imaginary Feasts” is a film built on contrasts – warmth and cold, hunger and satiation, fantasy and reality and of course, life and death.. Cold-toned shots of the now abandoned camps and snowy fields punctuate footage of warm kitchen-hearth sides and cozy book-lined rooms, as historians, psychoanalysists, philosophers, neurologists and writers leaf through the recipes. A woman’s voice whispers of ‘boeuf bourguignon’, ‘flan fromage’, ‘vanilla creme’, ‘cafe creme’, and ‘Petit Buerre’ as the camera pans pages-on-pages of aged paper, covered in neat, tight handwriting. The he film does not include a single shot of ‘real’ food (out of respect for the minds that imagined them?) allowing the dishes to remain alive only on the page. 

As director Anne Georget reveals, these recipes allowed a kind of collective remembering for prisoners, out of which came resistance in the form of solidarity, and brief moments of joy. Indeed, at the end of the film, Olivier Roellinger turns to his favorite page of the collection, 164, the last, blank one, which he describes as ‘pure potential’.


“Mina’s Recipe Book” follows the journey of one of these recipe books. Anny Stern’s mother, Mina. In the 1940s, Mina Pachter was sent to a Nazis concentration camp in Terezin where she died of starvation. She carefully recorded her favorite recipes, hoping they would somehow make it to her daughter, who had escaped to Palestine. Twenty years later, her daughter was given a handwritten book, covered in craft paper and held together by a simple piece of string. She opened it to read: ‘Cakes for new mothers, Baden Caramel sweets, Quetsch strudel, Linzertorte…’

Taken together, the two films are tributes and testaments to the strength of men and women who even in the darkest of times and under the worst circumstances were able to create a form of resistance.

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”— An Angry and Impressive Look at an Angry and Unimpressive Man



An Angry and Impressive Look at an Angry and Unimpressive Man

Amos Lassen

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” takes its title from a question that Donald Trump asked those around him when they failed to stop attorney general Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Then we take a trip back in time to Trump’s formative years followed by interviews and archival footage and we are off on a chronological tour of the critical events that followed. Director Matt Tyrnauer has a knack for pacing and gives us a documentary that gets more engrossing as it goes along; the most vital bits are reserved for the bitter end, when, even in death, Roy Cohn still refuses to admit defeat.

Roy Cohn was a corrupt lawyer, political dirty trickster, mafia associate and all around scumbag. He was a self-hating Jew who powered the engine of one of the worst anti-Semitic moments in American history, the demonization and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was a closeted man who refused to publicly identify as gay even as he was dying of AIDS. He was famous for being a mean bastard.

Cohn was born in New York in 1927 was heir to a number of fortunes on his mother’s side. She was said to be so ugly that she had trouble finding a husband. Cohn’s father agreed to an arranged marriage so long as her powerful family made him a judge. This blatant, unfeeling corruption came to be a hallmark of Cohn’s life. He graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and quickly found himself as one of the leading “red-baiters”, rooting out communists in government positions and the U.S. Army for the good of democracy. He worked with Senator Joseph McCarthy whose last name is a now a synonym for political witch-hunting.

McCarthy and Cohn’s harassment of presumed communists and sympathizers has overshadowed a subsequent “lavender scare” in which the pair harassed and exposed homosexuals. (It is rumored that McCarthy, like Cohn, was also secretly gay as was FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who encouraged these witch hunts.) A series of hearings in 1954 suggested that much of McCarthy’s pressure on the US army was led by Cohn’s desire to secure a better position for a man named G. David Schine, who was either Cohn’s boyfriend or someone he was infatuated with.

Cohn fueled himself off accusations and fighting. His strategy was always to deny then lie even louder. As a personal attorney he would win high-profile cases through the use of “deflection, misdirection and fear-mongering.” He had powerful friends and attracted wealthy clients in New York, most notably the heads of organized crime families and the young real estate mogul Donald J. Trump.

Tyrnauer’s film is a collection of talking heads (including and news clips. We see that despite a twenty year age difference between Trump and Cohn, Trump seems to have been nurtured by Cohn’s disgusting work, the two were close for many years. They first bonded over a shared love of denying African-Americans  their civil rights. This led to corruption and kickbacks during the erection of Trump Tower. Cohn loved to see his picture in the paper, and was known for his must-attend parties, so there are ample images in this documentary to make you sick.

This film is part of a forthcoming wave from film-makers who are trying to grapple with just how in the hell we got to where we are making this an important film. For many years, Donald Trump was a joke (and never a harmless one). The damage he’s currently doing makes us ashamed that we laughed at him especially as he strives to get the last laugh. “This film connects a direct line between Roy Cohn’s belligerent, boorish and obstructionist ways and our current, less eloquent nightmare.”  We now know “where’s my Roy Cohn?”— he is in the White House.

Tyrnauer exposes Cohn as a modern Machiavelli who influences our country today at the highest level. Cohn first came into the public eye as an assistant to J. Edgar Hoover and handled the prosecution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, a Jewish couple  who were arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spying for Russia and securing Manhattan Project documents for the Russian government. Cohn was then a twenty-three-year-old fast-rising attorney and he claimed to have not only persuaded the presiding judge, Irving Kaufman, to impose the death penalty but also to have had said Judge Irving assigned the case. Cohn’s reward for the Rosenberg execution was an appointment as special counsel to Joseph McCarthy.

Tyrnauer provides compelling evidence that Cohn was responsible for much of McCarthy’s demagoguery and rise to power. Soon, however, Cohn would cause his own and McCarthy’s fall from grace. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, direct questioning it was revealed that Cohn had a “special relationship” with G. David Schine and pressured the U.S. Army to give Schine preferential treatment. Cohn would resign after he was humiliated and pummeled with homophobic comments during the televised hearings. He, then, claimed that everybody wanted him to stay on. According to those who worked with Cohn, this was not the case.

Cohn came to be the personification of the dark arts of 20th-century American politics. Cohn became a mover and shaker of dubious and odious means. He fluffed his persona despite inflicting financial losses on his clients and family. Trynauer reveals how Cohn, a deeply troubled master manipulator, has shaped our current political world. He continually and persistently defended himself by attacking his adversaries and using the press to generate sensational public sympathy for his plight.

It appears that his political clout came from his wide social circle of wealthy, influential friends. Cohn was known for throwing lavish parties and hobnobbed with almost every imaginable socialite of the day including then artist, Andy Warhol. Cohn became a New York power broker, mafia consigliere, white-collar criminal, and he mentor of Donald J. Trump who began his flamboyant rise first on Cohn’s shoulders and then his back. Eventually, Trump became the master of personal attacks, hyperbole, sensationalism, and using the press to get out in front of the story.

As a closeted homosexual, Cohn was at the forefront of “The Lavender Scare,” and convinced Dwight D. Eisenhower to ban all gay men from working in the federal government; when dying from AIDS-related complications several decades later, he insisted that he was suffering from liver cancer, and used his celebrity to provoke contempt for other victims of the growing plague.

Cohn had an unparalleled talent for making the worst of every bad situation. He always attacked and he never surrendered. Cohn was a byproduct of trying to outwrestle his own insecurities and lack of self-worth.

Cohn might have been a footnote in American history until the 2016 election. It was then that he became seen as a modern Machiavelli. That this delayed emergence of him as a figure of immortal, worldwide political importance is fascinating and sickening at the same time.

The film is a Must-See, given the times we’re living in. It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump learned everything he knows from Cohn. Every time we see him lie outrageously, every time you see him respond to an attack by attacking back with twice the force, we see    Roy Cohn’s legacy at work. And when Trump finally finds himself in court, as he inevitably will, they will never get him on anything. He’ll just use Cohn’s tactics to bury everyone involved in counter-lawsuits.

“The Book of Exodus: A Biography”. by Joel S. Baden— The Life of a Biblical Book

Baden, Joel S. “The Book of Exodus: A Biography”,  (Lives of Great Religious Books), Princeton University Press, 2019.

The Life of a Biblical Book

Amos Lassen

Princeton University Press has a series of books entitled “Lives of the Great Religious Books”. “The Book of Exodus” by Joel Baden is the 19th book in the series and there are another 10 yet to be published. The series has published, to name a few, already the biographies of the Book of Revelation, The I Ching, The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Talmud which was my introduction to the series. It is important to note that what is important here

Exodus is the second book of the Hebrew Bible, but it probably ranks first in lasting cultural importance. Not only is it powerful and inspirational, it brings us the classic Biblical themes of  oppression and redemption, of human enslavement and divine salvation and the way that these are  brought to us is dramatic. Joel Baden traces how its famous account of the Israelites’ journey to the promised land has been adopted and adapted for millennia and often in unexpected ways. There is also the controversy that perhaps the exodus never really happened.

Baden draws a distinction between the Exodus story and the book itself, which is one of the most multifaceted in the Bible. It contains poems, law codes, rituals, and architectural plans. He shows how the book of Exodus  brings into unison many oral and written traditions from the ancient Middle East, and how the exodus, itself, came to be ritualized in the Passover Seder and the Eucharist. Baden highlights the remarkable resilience and flexibility of the book and sheds light on how the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai divided Jewish and Christian thinkers on the importance of Exodus during the Reformation and the American Revolution and on its uses in debates for and against slavery. Baden also traces how the defining narrative of ancient Israel helped to define Mormon social identity, the American civil rights movement, and liberation theology.

Even though the Exodus is three thousand years old, the Exodus―as history, as narrative, as metaphor, as model―continues to be vitally important for us today. This is the essential biography of a spiritual masterpiece.

We go beyond the familiar Exodus story to engage a diverse range of interpretations by individuals and communities. It will be a great resource for all who want a deeper understanding of Exodus and how it has been interpreted over the ages.

A note: These does not seem to be correct grammatical rules about capitalization of the Book of Exodus and the word, bible. I usually go with what sounds best to me and sometimes I do a few capitals and a few lower case first letters. I have always felt that literature about God should be capitalized but that is me. I have the same problem with a comma as the first item in a list of other items. I was taught never to use a comma with the first but I have since learned that there is no firm ruling.

“Carnal Israel” by Daniel Boyarin— Focusing on the Body

Boyarin, Daniel. “Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture”, University of California Press, 1993.

Focusing on the Body

Amos Lassen

Daniel Boyarin begins his study of a different kind of Judaism by endorsing the; relating it to the early Christian theologians (the patristics) who saw Judaism as a “carnal” religion. This is  in contrast to the spiritual vision of the Church. It is Boyarin’s view that rabbinic Judaism was based on a set of assumptions about the human body that were profoundly different from those of Christianity. The body could not be renounced, for the Rabbis believed as a religious principle in the generation of offspring and hence in intercourse sanctioned by marriage.

This belief bound men and women together and thus made ithe various modes of gender separation practiced by early Christians impossible. There was a commitment to coupling that did not imply a resolution of the unequal distribution of power that characterized relations between the sexes in all late societies.  Boyarin shows that male construction and treatment of women in rabbinic Judaism was not based` on a loathing of the female body. Talmudic texts include currents of sexual domination and Boyarin strongly maintains that that the rabbinic account of human sexuality is different from that of Hellenistic Judaism and Pauline Christianity and is important and empowering.  

Boyarin brings together Talmudic scholarship and postmodern literary theory in presenting his beliefs are arguing that they are recognized. We look at and examine rabbinic constructions of the body, gender, and sexuality and get “programmatically feminist readings of ancient rabbinic culture that, at the same time, is deeply learned in the sources and existentially committed to the traditions grounded in them.”

Boyarin has a deep understanding of cultural theory and argues for a number of exceptionally striking theses regarding the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem or Land of Israel Talmud) relationships to sexuality, gender, and embodiment.

This books openly approaches the issue of sex in the Talmud. We also explore one of the earliest expressions of feminism in Judaism. The central thesis here looks at how the Jewish/Christian way of thinking heavily borrowed ideas from the Greek, platonic tradition andbecame mind over body while the Rabbinical tradition of late antiquity, as both a philosophical and political move, maintained the importance of the body and sexuality.

Boyarin admits that the emphasis on carnality came out of tribal and even xenophobic reasons and formed an important point of difference and an implicit critique of the Christian view that became dominant. We look at how this focus on the body played out in questions of theology, sexuality, gender, and even the study of the Talmud (since the last was explicitly forbidden to women).

Boyarin’s  historical approach is well-balanced and precise. He is very precise and balanced in how he presents his topic by pointing out at various points the temptation to simplify into black and white discourses of “good” and “bad,” especially in line with modern political values about the body and feminism.

Boyarin points out that there is much good in the Rabbinic Tradition, that  Christians could and should benefit from. We see how to root ideas about sexuality in historical context, that are usually not thought about because they seem to be taken for granted (always difficult). This indeed helps Christians correct those notions that put celibacy over and against marriage and sex.

We clearly see that it is necessary for us to move past the dualist and allegorical readings of scripture. A key insight from reading Boyarin, is that we need to move beyond the dualist and allegorical reading of scripture. Christianity is in needs of a typological and liturgical approach to sexuality to avoid the twisted abstractness of “allegory”.  You will think about what you read long after the curtains are drawn so much and, in effect, isn’t that good writing is supposed to do?

“TO DUST”— Thoughtful and Sensitive

“To Dust”

Thoughtful and Sensitive

Amos Lassen

  Albert (Matthew Broderick) is an embittered community college professor gone to seed. Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) a Hasidic cantor, who doesn’t know the difference. He thinks that any participation in scientific inquiry is sinful, but the recent death of his wife leads to a desperate obsession with human decomposition. Shawn Snyder’s  “To Dust” is about these two men coming together.

Shmuel is very serious about Orthodox teaching especially the part about “dust to dust.” In fact, he becomes consumed with anxiety, worrying that his wife’s soul will be in torment until her body fully returns to the earth. At first, we might think that this is a film that pushes the line of good taste but it is actually very thoughtful and sensitive it the ways it addresses Orthodox Judaism. In actuality, this is a deeply mournful film that readily forgives its characters’ foibles and excesses. There are indeed some rather grisly images, including the archival footage from 1960 and some morbid nightmare sequences, but they are always counter-balanced by the human element.

Géza Röhrig is excellent as Shmuel. It is a quiet performance, but his anguish always feels very real. He and Matthew Broderick show real chemistry. “To Dust” leaves us with more questions than answers as it deals with issues of death and the afterlife. While the film seems to imply that the main character has achieved resolution and is able to move on, we are left with many unresolved feelings. I believe that this is what writer/director Shawn Snyder was striving for.

The film opens with the  death of Shmuel’s beloved wife, Rivkah. Shmuel immediately becomes troubled by questions surrounding the decomposition of her body and what happens to her until her physical being is returned to dust. Unable to find satisfying answers within his Hasidic community, he begins a scientific inquiry with the help of Albert, a community college biology professor (Matthew Broderick), who is really only one step ahead of Shmuel in researching the forensics. The two men embarks on a series of scientific experiments, both horrific and humorous, to try and approximate the disintegration of Rivkah’s body.

The film is also a very realistic depiction of bereavement and mourning and it is heartening to see a Hasidic man portrayed as so deeply loving his wife. In one scene, after being encouraged by his mother to begin to clean out Rivkah’s closet, Shmuel caresses Rivkah’s clothing and wig as if she is still alive. Shmuel is haunted by nightmares of Rivkah corpse decaying, but he is most troubled by thoughts that she is suffering as a “lost soul.”

The seriousness of loss is balanced by the antics of Shmuel and Albert. Each must learn a little about the other’s way of lifegiving us some very comedic interactions. They also clandestinely act as undertakers for a pig that they bury for comparison purposes. Broderick’s character is almost carried away in Shmuel’s quest, feeling compassion for his grief, while at a loss to really help him.

Shmuel’s two sons have to struggle to deal with their father’s consuming grief and inattentiveness and begin to believe, influenced by community rumors, that he has a dybbuk of Rivkah inside him. (A dybbuk is a malicious possessing spirit of the dislocated soul of a dead person), and the sons attempt an exorcism while Shmuel is sleeping, providing for some comedic relief.

The humor in “To Dust” serves to mark the true feelings of sorrow that surround the loss of a loved one. Director Snyder does a good job of walking the line between the two and leaving the audience just unsettled enough to have a fulfilling viewing experience. Geza Rohrig carries the film with an authentic, moving portrayal. We are immediately swept up alongside Albert in hoping Shmuel will find the answers he is searching for.

“The Dark Young Man” by Jacob Dinezon— A Historical Jewish Romance

Dinezon, Jacob. “The Dark Young Man”, translated by Tina Lunson and edited by Scott Hilton Davis, Jewish Storyteller Press   2019.

A Historical Jewish Romance

Amos Lassen

Jacob Dinezon’s historical Jewish romance is set in the Russian Empire in the 1840s and is the story of Yosef, a poor but brilliant yeshiva student, who falls in love with Roza, the beautiful and charming daughter of a rich merchant. The couple’s bright future is made cloudy by the ruthless actions of Roza’s brother-in-law, the Dark Young Man, who plots to protect his position in the family by destroying the young lovers. When first published in 1877, the book was a runaway best seller (and this was even before we had bestseller lists),

Originally written in Yiddish and translated for the first time in English by Tina Lunson, the plot delves deeply into the personalities and politics of Jewish middle-class urban society, and describes the growing opposition to arranged marriages, the disparities between rich and poor, and the effects of assimilation and modernity on traditional Jewish life. That may seem like a tall order, but the book does it all and does it well.

The novel is filled with all the intrigue and excitement of Jewish life, culture, and religion during the mid-nineteenth-century. It blends romance and realism while it launched the author’s career as a major voice in the Jewish literary world. Tina Lunson’s wonderful and first ever English translation captures mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe, showing us not only its particular culture but also its parallels to today’s Jewish experience.

When young Yosef leaves his parents’ home to work for a wealthy family, he is admired by the members of his new household but not by Meyshe, the husband of the family’s oldest daughter. He soon sees Yosef as a threat, someone who might replace him as the person with authority over the family and its fortunes. The overall mood of claustrophobic despair is seen in the personalities of the main characters whose lives are intermittently pierced by brief periods of hope except for  Meyshe Shneyur, the dark young man of the title. Meyshe who is the title character is far from the story’s hero. He is the villain, the destroyer of all hopes who finds joy in his destructive accomplishments and the suffering—and Dinezon’s novel is a treatise on this dark soul’s power and methods.

The time in which the novel is set in Eastern Europe is the period of Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, when long-observed Jewish traditions were being questioned and threatened. Those holding on to the old ways had no respect for new ideas and assimilationist tendencies, and the young moderns saw little value in traditional strictures that were not justified by new secular learning.

In this book,   the central tradition being questioned is the arranged marriage. Yosef and Roza, the woman of his dreams, are caught in the middle, but determined to live worthy lives according to Jewish religious law.

Yosef’s courting of Roza is subverted by the sinister operations of “The Dark One.” Meyshe and his cohorts make false claims about Yosef’s behavior to discredit him as an acceptable husband for Roza, and later, when the marriage is stopped and Roza is coerced into marrying a marriage broker’s selection, her younger sister wins Yosef’s heart. After Yosef moves to St. Petersburg, letters between the lovers are blocked and  many were replaced by forgeries that undermined the relationship. Moreover, Meyshe manages to have Yosef convicted of crimes and suffer a year’s imprisonment.

Dinezon’s themes and insights bring a complex era to life and we see that this is also  surprisingly relevant to today especially when considering the ongoing quest for female autonomy.

“TRACKING EDITH”— A Well Kept Secret

“Tracking Edith”

A Well Kept Secret

Amos Lassen

Filmmaker Peter Stephan Jungk knew that his great aunt, Edith Tudor-Hart, was a talented photographer But he did not know that she had also been a spy for the KGB. He learned this after she died.  By speaking with military historians, photo archivists, ex-KGB agents and family members, Jungk finds out that his aunt brokered the introduction between Kim Philby and Soviet agent Arnold Deutsch thus helping to bring about the espionage career of Britain’s most notorious double agent who had been the leader of the Cambridge Five spy ring.
Jungk takes us on a journey into his great aunt’s life. Spies are romantic figures to think and reads about and the stories never get old. Until fairly recently,  the world of spies had been a world dominated by men even though the most famous real secret agent is undoubtedly Mata Hari. Women have long been considered particularly gifted in the craft of spydom.

Edith Tudor-Hart (nee Suschitzky) was born in Austria in 1908. She studied photography in Germany and at the same time was  a Montessori teacher. It’s at work where her radical views came to fruition and she became active as an anti-fascist and communist. Photography was her way of disseminating her ideas, documenting poverty, social deprivation and the lives of the poor. Arnold Deutsch in Vienna recruited to work for the Soviets and through him that she became an integral part in Britain’s greatest spy scandal.

Peter Stephan Jungk’s “Tracking Edith” lifts the veil on a character who was instrumental in the establishment of the ‘Cambridge Five’, including turning Kim Philby. Combining interviews with family and friends,  animated reconstructions and researching the archives, Jungk brings us a fascinating story of a pivotal and shadowy figure. We learn not only about her involvement in the world of espionage but also about her life and art.

The clue to her secret life lies in the double meaning ‘dark rooms. Edith was born into a progressive Jewish family in Vienna 1908 – her father renounced Judaism and founded a bookshop and a publishing company. Edith Suschitzky was only sixteen when she went to London in 1925 to study with Maria Montessori, the famous Kindergarten pioneer. On her return she worked in Vienna’s branch of the Montessori School  and then her life changed when she met the academic Arnold Deutsch in 1926, who also worked as a recruiter for the KGB. Their relationship was significant for two reasons: he not only recruited her for the organization but also gave her a Rolleiflex camera, and she set out to picture the poorer districts in Vienna before she studied photography at the Bauhaus in Dessau under Kandinsky and Klee among others. 

Edith developed radical tendencies. Her photos were published by TASS and after the Austrian Nazi Party became more and more powerful in the mid 1930s Edith and her husband fled to the England where they renewed their acquaintance with the recently married Litzi Friedmann and Kim Philby, who had also had to leave Vienna for the UK after the Nazi Party had killed the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss. In 1934 Edith introduced Philby to Arnold Deutsch in Regents Park and the rest is, as they say,  history.


The documentary has interviews with family including Edith’s brother Wolf, and other witnesses of her life. Edith was an idealist who never saw the Soviet system but was faced, like all central Europeans, with the alternative of Hitler and Stalin. Above all she was a humanist who never received any money for her clandestine activities  and always lived modestly.

Edith had a tempestuous emotional life that involved an affair with Donald Winnicott, the distinguished pediatrician (who was treating her son for autism). Because she was a spy for the Soviet Union,  she has a real claim to having changed the course of history. She betrayed the country that took her in, though her rationale was always to promote the balance of nuclear power.