Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem” edited by Marie Luise Knott— Germany, Jewish Identity and the Holocaust

Knott, Marie Luise (editor). “The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem”, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Germany, Jewish Identity and the Holocaust

Amos Lassen

“Few people have thought as deeply or incisively about Germany, Jewish identity, and the Holocaust as Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem”. The letters included in this book (which I have been waiting for) shows that much of that thinking was developed in dialogue, through more than twenty years of correspondence.

Arendt and Scholem first met in 1932 in Berlin and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for and friendship with Walter Benjamin. They began exchanging letters in 1939 and their correspondence continued until 1963, when Scholem vehemently disagreed with Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the book that she wrote about it, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. Their disagreement continued until Arendt’s death a dozen years later. The years of their friendship were filled with a remarkably rich bounty of letters in which they try to come to terms with being both German and Jewish, the place and legacy of Germany before and after the Holocaust, the question of what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world, and more. Almost hovering above the correspondence was Walter Benjamin whose life and tragic death show the very questions that preoccupied the pair.

This are letters and while many are valuable to the world of academia, there are also lighter moments contained within them and these include travel accounts of travels, gossipy dinner parties, and the details that make up life even in the shadow of war and loss.

In today’s world where we continue to struggle with questions of nationalism, identity, and difference, Arendt and Scholem are still regarded as crucial thinkers and their give us a way to see them, and the development of their thought from a different perspective. The book is due out in October, 2017.

 

“The Holocaust: A New History”— History’s Greatest Crime

Rees, Laurence. “The Holocaust: A New History”, Public Affairs, 2016.

History’s Greatest Crime

Amos Lassen

Laurence Rees has spent twenty-five years meeting the survivors and perpetrators of the Third Reich and the Holocaust and has written this sweeping history that combines this testimony with the latest academic research to investigate how history’s greatest crime was possible. Rees maintains that while hatred of the Jews was at the epicenter of Nazi thinking, it is impossible to fully understand the Holocaust without considering Nazi plans to kill millions of non-Jews as well. He shows that there was no single overarching blueprint for the Holocaust but that rather a series of escalations compounded into the horror. “Though Hitler was most responsible for what happened, the blame is widespread, Rees reminds us, and the effects are enduring”.

Presented chronologically this is an authoritative account of that while being extremely readable. This was history’s darkest moment.

The Nazis ultimately wanted every Jew to die and they were a racist regime that believed that some human beings simply did not deserve to live–not because of what they had done, but because of who they were. I can hear some of you saying that what do we need another history of the Holocaust and I join you in that question. Rees show us why in his presentation that is built on new scholarship and interviews giving us a compelling, highly readable explanation of how and why the Holocaust happened, drawing on recent scholarship and impressively incorporating moving and harrowing interviews with victims as well as chilling accounts by the perpetrators. Rees wonderfully explains the origins and grotesque mentality of the Holocaust as how it developed.

Perhaps the most important achievement of Rees is his “relentless juxtaposing of the ostensibly civilized, educated, and self-avowed ethical men deciding what they deem best for their country with the ineffable suffering they inflict on those they perceive as their ideological and racial enemies”. I quickly discovered that this is not just another book about the Holocaust since it literally raises the dead historically. It the interviews of those who survived, we also hear the voices of those who did not and it is to them that the book is addressed. What we really see is the thin line between a civilized world and a genocidal one. In only five years, the Nazis went from some 3% percent electoral support to becoming Germany’s largest party. Rees shows that the logistics of murdering millions of innocent people were worked out by highly educated party officials in calm and amiable atmosphere over lunch and cognac. To me that makes it all the more horrible.

If we think about a Holocaust today and combine what was with destructive power nuclear weapons, “recrudescence of nativism, and proliferation of ‘alternative facts’ we [will] realize why “The Holocaust: A New History” is such an important and timely book”.

“THE WEDDING PLAN”— Marriage

“The Wedding Plan” (“Laavor et hakir”)

Marriage

Amos Lassen

In the Hasidic community, marriage is the most important thing in a woman’s life even though she has little to say about the man she marries. In fact, it seems that marriage is to provide social acceptance and companionship and it does not seem that love has anything to do with it. There are marriage brokers for those who need help in finding the right mate and director Rama Burshtein show us here what we need to know about marriage in an insular community.

Michal (Noa Koler) became religious over a decade ago and is about to get married in a month to Gidi (Erez Drigues). However, Gidi suddenly breaks it off sending Michal into an existential crisis. She is determined to get married and she even books Shimi’s (Amos Tamam) catering hall and this means that she has just twenty-two days to find a husband. Michal contacts a marriage broker and has many dates, but as the big day approaches she begins to doubt her faith. You see Hasidic Jews expect God to provide them with a spouse.

This is an Israeli romantic comedy that focuses on an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman’s search for love through her unwavering faith in God. Michal is a 30-something Hasidic Jew who is increasingly frustrated by the aspects of life that she feels excluded from without a husband. Her community pities women over twenty-years-old who are not married and within the Hasidic community there is great respect placed upon companionship, love, children.

When the film begins we Michal in conversation with Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon), a homeopathic practitioner who uses fish innards and bread dough to accent her consultations. Michal’s presence is immediately felt as we see her frustration of being single. Michal decides enough is enough and so she books a wedding hall for the eighth day of Chanukah and places her faith in God to send her a husband. Michal goes on comical dates with unsuitable bachelors, bares her soul to her sisters and then realizes that the man of her dreams was under her nose all along.

Michal’s character is genuine and engaging and Koler portrays her with wonderful conviction and tenacity. At first, we think that this is a film about societal values but it is also about faith and belief.

“MENASHE”— The Nature of Faith, The Price of Parenthood

“Menashe”

The Nature of Faith; The Price of Parenthood

Amos Lassen

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who’s trying to hold onto his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). Menashe, though, isn’t just trying to keep the boy out of the hands of his late wife’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus); he’s also trying to assert a level of individuality away from the rest of his Orthodox community. He’s been a widower for about a year and isn’t in a hurry to get married again anytime soon. This is the story of a man grappling with the possibility that the Hasidic tradition that requires his son to be raised in a household with both a mother and a father may not fit into the life he wishes to live. He shows his rebelliouness in his refusing to wear the hat and jacket required by his faith, but it is even more felt in that he does not wants to raise Rieven in an environment as loveless as the arranged marriage that led to the boy’s birth.

Director Joshua Z. Weinstein sees that Menashe is also to blame for his own troubles. He gets into arguments with his boss at the local supermarket at which he slaves away, he pleads with his landlord to give him more time to pay rent, and he generally acts in a hapless manner that implies he can barely take care of himself despite his prideful claims to the contrary. Menashe’s struggles are his own flailing attempts to live by himself for the first time in his life and he feels some guilt over his wife’s death, even if he didn’t truly love her.

Basically, Menashe is a man-child and this explains, why he relates to his son so easily. Rieven is also wise beyond his years. He’s able to accept his father’s flaws more easily than anyone else in their community, even after the boy acknowledges that everyone else is right about how his dead mother was so poorly treated by Menashe. We see the father-son relationship in offhand scenes of Menashe teaching Rieven the Torah in a playful manner in a library, and Rieven enjoying ice cream that his father bought him. Their love for each other lets us see that Menashe wants to do right by his son. loving rapport helps to establish the one thing that endears viewers to Menashe, for all his clumsiness: his attempts to do right by his son.

We see a subculture rarely seen on screen and we see it almost completely at face value without any needlessly elaboration upon the customs of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and there are no heavy theological inquiries. We find the common humanity in the characters, and in the sense that the film inspires of discovering something universal in a culturally specific environment. This makes us think about the story’s tradition-versus-modernity themes.

Menashe Lustig , by Daniel Bergeron. Indiewire. 2017. Must be licensed through Getty Contour. No PR/No Release on file

In one scene Eizik says that Gentiles have a more open attitude toward marriage and family and that broken homes are an extension of broken society. We see the very strong and rigid insularity of the Hasidic community in that line.

Menashe desires to stay in this community for the sake of family and we realize that we have been given a rare look into a relatively unexplored way of life through a complex character whose own struggles—to start over, to improve himself, to do right by others—come to be like our own, regardless of religious faith.

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There have been other films about the Hasidic community before but they frequently either over-romanticize the religion treat or see it as strange curiosity to be examined. This is a fresh and clear look at life in the ultra-Orthdox community in Brooklyn. We see what is happening without explanation. Weinstein simply lets us see Menashe as part of the natural fabric of his life. He does not avoid issues such as the mental “pressure” of having to remarry so soon after a spouse’s death or the position of women within the faith. He chooses to keep the father/son relationship up front and using a bit of humor to look at the deeper emotional issues. He also manages to make us feel considerable sympathy for Menashe by showing that juggling personal needs and desires within the framework of a strict religious environment is not easy. Rieven is also a strong character in his own right, as we see him grappling with the loss of one parent and the prospect of losing day-to-day contact with the other alongside the usual childhood frustrations with a dad who is less than perfect.

“What to Do About the Solomons” by Bethany Ball— An Extended Family

Ball, Bethany. “What to Do About the Solomons”, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

An Extended Family

Amos Lassen

At first Bethany Ball’s “What to Do About the Solomons,” seems to be a dark multigenerational story about the Israeli and American branches of an extended family. It covers from the early 1900s to today and from the suburban Los Angeles neighborhoods of greater Los Angeles to the confines of a gossip-soaked kibbutz. Ball sidesteps the Middle East’s many crises and instead puts the focus on individuals in the domestic world.

At the center is a financial scandal in California that threatens to take down Marc Solomon. We then begin to meet twisted characters and learn their association to each other.

Marc has a theory that no one loves anyone after a certain age. He believes that we are really incapable of that kind of love. Yet the novel is full of affection. In fact, the reader loves the Solomons.

The Solomons’ lives like a family who desperately need their secrets to be told. It is through gossip that they know about each other. The novel deals with sex, drugs, and family conflict and does so with candor. The family patriarch Yakov Solomon who is wealthy yet he complains to his Sabra peers that he is still supporting his adult children and their families. We learn that now he must deal with Guy Gever (Hebrew for male), his son-in-law and the only happy member of the family while others see him as loony. Yakov’s wife Vivienne thinks they should send Guy to America, where “there are more mental hospitals than regular ones.”

We soon see that each of the Solomons is unhappy in his or her own way. Marc who is a former Navy Seal and living the good life in California, is falsely accused of money laundering, arrested in his own offices, and led to jail in handcuffs. Meanwhile, his unsuspecting American wife Carolyn finds the LAPD at her home and go through something of a home invasion. This is a beautifully written look at family that is so well written that it is hard to believe that it is a first novel.

 

“Inspired by Art: A Peek at Bathsheba”, (The David Chronicles Book 7) by Uvi Poznansky— The Great Love Affair

Poznansky, Uvi. “Inspired by Art: A Peek at Bathsheba”, (The David Chronicles Book 7), ADS, 2017.

The Great Love Affair

Amos Lassen

Once again Uvi Poznansky gives us a look at art inspired by King David of the Hebrew Bible and once again it stuns both the eye and the mind. Here we have the art that represents one of the great love stories of all time and a torrid love affair between David, king of Israel and Bathsheba and the king’s attempts to cover it up.

We have a collection of sculptures, paintings, etchings, and manuscripts arranged in the order as they appear in the story and as seen by many different artists. They are not only exciting to look at but they give force to the story that they represent.

Artists included are Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Chagall, Picasso, and Jan Steen to name just several. The various works that we see come from varying historical time periods by artists are from 10 countries including France, America, Germany, Russia, Italy and Austria to name a few. The reader will be able to see Moreau, Rembrandt, Schwebel, Picasso, Raphael and Cezanne.

“FEVER AT DAWN”— A Different View of the Holocaust

“Fever at Dawn” (“Hajnali láz”)

A Different View of the Holocaust

Amos Lassen

“Fever at Dawn” is a true story set in 1945, after having been freed from a concentration camp, a 25-year-old Hungarian man, Miklós is being treated at a Swedish hospital. The doctors diagnose him with a severe lung disease and tell him that he has no more than six months to live. He refuses to give up and wants to find a wife with whom he can start a new life. He sends letters to 117 Hungarian girls who are also being treated in Sweden. One of the girls is 19-year-old Lili, who likes Miklós’s letter, and they start corresponding.

First and foremost this is a love story in which love is balanced by darker aftershocks of the Holocaust, yet young love prospers against all odds. Basically, the plot is that of a traditional love story with all the dreaming, yearning and heartfelt declarations that are usually associated with a traditionally prim and proper depiction of romance. The young lovers need to overcome obstacles big and small ranging from jealous friends to physical distance. The relative ease which the protagonists Lili (Emöke Piti) and Miklós (Milán Schruff) exhibit throughout the film is completely refreshing when considering their past ordeals. Pure love is the force that propels the story forward.

Yet there are stark dark undertones that appear now and then when the characters reveal grim snippets of their pasts. These create a harsh historical backdrop to the lovers. Even though they disrupt the general tone of the film, they feel organic and offer a well-needed dose of harsh reality. The matter-of-fact delivery of facts from their former lives creates a framework and adds to the plot but never takes over. The past is past and the present is not necessarily a continuation of what has gone before. These people are trying to live their new lives without delving too deep in the past. For a film about the Holocaust, which is usually defined through the past momentous event, this is a fresh approach.

When Hungarian filmmaker Péter Gárdos’ father died in 1998, his mother gave him a collection of letters written when the two Jewish Holocaust survivors were courting while recovering in Sweden. Gárdos made this film about their remarkable love story and also used the script as the basis for his first novel.

Lili responded to Miklos’ letter because of her feelings of both boredom and encouragement from some friends. The narrative follows the happenings in each characters’ lives tied together through their correspondences, which include both mundane reports on the state of the hospitals where they are living and increasingly fervent declarations of their growing feelings for each other.

Miklos is forced to recognize his own mortality and this makes Lili to be seen as pale character in comparison. Her own illness, which led her to replying to Miklos in the first place, is never really explained. Lili’s most interesting side plot is her decision to convert to Catholicism, but the culmination of that driven by Miklos rather than her own struggles with how to reconcile her faith and her suffering.

Lili and Miklos push their harrowing experiences to the background to get on with the business of living. One particular scene really hit me hard. Miklos struggles with how to tell a friend celebrating his wife’s survival that the woman actually died in a concentration camp. It is Gárdos’ intimate connection to the story that has been tempered by time makes this such a fine film.

“My Adventures with God” by Stephen Tobolowky— Love, Catastrophe and Triumph

Tobolowsky, Stephen. “My Adventures with God”, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Love, Catastrophe and Triumph

Amos Lassen

God is the greatest mystery we have today and so many of us have a hard time dealing with the concept of a supreme being that we know so little about and who controls our every move and utterance. Character actor shares that very problem with us and he also shares how he forged a relationship with his God. I used to think that it would be easy to be an atheist since by not believing, I can push aside the concept of belief. I now see that it is, as Stephen Tobolowsky says, more difficult to believe in nothing than it is to believe in something and whether we are ready to admit it or not, we all do believe in something. It is easy to say that I believe that I will have lunch at noon instead of I do not know if I will have lunch at all. The idea that I have set a time, allows me to believe that it will happen rather than leave the option open.

The fact that there is a greater power somewhere out there gives us a small sense of certainty and we regard that as invisible and unexplainable using faith to more or less define it.

Tobolowsky’s “My Adventures with God” is a collection of short stories that explore the idea that most people’s lives seem to fit into what we read in the Hebrew Bible. We all have our own myths including one about the creation and we all have stories about when we were children and waged battles that we either won or lost. These are the genesis of lives that lead us to our own exodus in which, like the children of Israel wandering in the desert, find our fears and our hopes for the future. We eventually find our sense of freedom thus allowing us to say who we are. We have our Leviticus moments during which we are able to reconcile who we thought we would become with who we indeed did become. Our book of Numbers leads us to consider mortality as we lose family and friends and then as in the book of Deuteronomy, we repeat the stories we have lived through. I love the way Tobolowsky has taken the Bible and made it significant to our lives.

Tobolowsky’s stories are about a boy growing up in the wilds of Texas, finding and losing love, losing and finding himself and they are told through looking at Torah and Talmud that are combined mixed with insights from science as seen through a child’s eyes. We not only learn about the life of one of Tobolowsky as an actor, he also gives us a structure to evaluate our own lives and relationship with God. His true stories look at how we and our lives are shaped by belief and they are funny and moving and very relatable.

 

“Ten Myths About Israel” by Ilan Pappe— According to Pappe

Pappe, Ilan. “Ten Myths About Israel”, Verso Books, 2017.

According to Pappe

Amos Lassen

While Ilan Pappe is considered to be a fine historian, he is also considered to be outspoken and radical. He has chosen to publish his thoughts about Israel on the fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation and here he examines the most contested ideas concerning the origins and identity of the contemporary state of Israel.

The “ten myths” of the title that Pappe explores have been repeated over and over in the media, enforced by the military and accepted without question by the world’s governments and they reinforce the regional status quo. He gives us a great deal to think about.

Pappe explores the claim that Palestine had been an empty land at the time of the Balfour Declaration, and the role Zionism and its role in the early years of the building of the nation. He wants to know and determine whether the Palestinians voluntarily left the area in 1948, and whether June 1967 was an inevitable war and that Israel has no choice but to go to war to defend herself. Pappe looks at the myths surrounding the failures of the Camp David Accords and the official reasons for the attacks on Gaza and then explains why, in his opinion; the two-state solution is no longer viable.

Pappe is an Israeli who considers himself to be living in exile. He claims to “write about the Palestinian side with real knowledge and empathy.” The important word here is “claims”. Pappe clearly sympathizes with the Palestinians and emphasizes what he claims are the atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinians in the development of the Israeli state. He hardly writes about the brutality committed against Israel by the radical terrorists. I am not sure that everything in this book is factual concerning the serious issues about the founding of Israel but I would hate for a professor to be guilty of providing facts that have no truth.

Pappe has divided his book into three parts and we begin with what he considers to be the fallacies of the past. Here he maintains that Palestine was an empty land and that the Jews were a people without land. Further he states that Zionism is Judaism and it is not colonialism and that the Palestinians voluntarily left their homeland in 1948, and the June 1967 war was a war of “no choice.” In part two, Pappe looks at the fallacies of the present) and discusses that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, the mythologies of Oslo and Gaza. The third part looks ahead and an explanation of the two-state solution as the only way forward. In his conclusion, Pappe focuses on the “settler colonial state of Israel” in today’s world.

I cannot help but hold suspicion for Pappe knowing that he is coming to the discussion as a socialist. I am forced to really question whether there will ever be true peace in the Middle East concerning Israel and the Palestinian issue.

Pappe maintains that the most notorious old myth is that Israel was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” He quotes the official website of the Israeli foreign ministry, which continues to have this view and then he delves into the historical demographics and thoroughly refutes the claim.

He sees as another myth that Israeli historians claim that Palestinians were told to leave their homes during the 1948 war, to make way for the advancing Arab armies. Pappe claims that was not so and it was from incidents like this that “fake news” got its start. Looking at Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza as a step toward peace. Pappe claims that the opposite is true and that this was, in effect, an inoculation against any possibility of withdrawal from the West Bank. The uproar in Israel about moving the settlers from Gaza was nothing compared to what would have happened if the West Bank settlements were touched.

Some of what Pappe has to say is overstated and overly dramatic. His view that Israel is not a democracy (based on the fact that the Arab citizens don’t have full rights) is way off base. He tells us early on in his book that this is not a balanced study and I am not sure why he felt he had to say that. Pappe says that his book is “an attempt to make redress for some of the things that are widely believed in the media about the country”.

Pappe maintains that the dominant narrative has been constructed by Israel and its powerful allies in the U.S. and Europe. He chooses to deconstruct these myths explaining why the two-state solution is a false choice that distracts us from the pressing need for socio-economic justice in the region.

He does humanize the struggle by showing “the consequences for ordinary people who have been fated to live under the auspices of late colonialism” (even when those colonials are terrorists and suicide bombers). Pappe tries very hard to get us to see his side but the way he does so is a bit demeaning to a thinking person. It is no wonder that he is in exile which, by the way, is his own choice. From the tone of his book, I do not think that he sees another side and his “balanced” study is totally unbalanced.

“Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence” by Paul Robert Magosi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern— Knowing Who We Are

Magocsi, Paul Robert and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence”, University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Knowing Who We Are

Amos Lassen

I had a great surprise when the mail came today and in it was a coffee table sized book, “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence” and I figured that perhaps some of the mysteries of my own family might be answered in it. For whatever reason there was no talk about my father’s early years as a Ukrainian Jew and I thought that even if I did not the answers to the questions I has, I would still learn something about the life that had been there and that was probably the reason that the family left. It seems that there is much that ordinary Ukrainians do not know about Jews and that ordinary Jews do not know about Ukrainians. Because of this, those Jews and Ukrainians who care about their respective ancestral heritages and who want to know more usually see each other through incorrect stereotypes, misperceptions, and biases. With this that stops and we learn about some of the controversial moments of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. What we learn is that that the historical experience in Ukraine both divided ethnic Ukrainians and Jews also brought them together.

Through twelve chapters, we get a look at various aspects of the Ukraine— the geography, history, economic life, traditional culture, religion, language and publications, literature and theater, architecture and art, music, the Diaspora, and the Ukraine as it is today. The volume includes 335 full-color illustrations, 29 maps, and several text inserts that explain specific phenomena or address controversial issues. There is a great deal of information here and I was soon turning pages as quickly as possible realizing that there was so much to learn. For me this was a key to my past and the more I read the more I saw what factors caused my family to relocate and why they chose to be silent about it. I do not believe that they did not speak because they did not want to remember but rather because they wanted to remember it as it had been and those good memories became my father’s and my grandparent’s secrets that were too precious to share. This was heightened by my learning that Jews and Ukrainians have had a common history for a thousand years. As I read I began to feel that I was holding in my hands a book that told me the history of my people and there it is very special.

I grew up in an observant Jewish family and always felt that there was something strange about this because religion was never spoken about, it just “was” and if I asked a question about it, the answer was simply “because”. I was totally surprised to discover here that the Ukraine was once home to rabbinic scholars as well as Hebrew and Yiddish writers and philosophers. I had always thought of it as an intellectual wilderness. Some of the ideas of these thinkers are the basis for some aspects of Jewish life and culture today. During the age of the Nazis over four million Ukrainians lost their lives, as did a million and a half military workers.

I learned here that Jews actually helped develop Ukrainian towns and these towns became cities that developed the market economy of the Ukraine this causing the area to be thought about not just as an agricultural region. Ultimately this has something to do with the Ukraine being so much in the news today.

Both Jews and Ukrainians were agents of the colonialism of someone else and were also victims of colonialism. They were often turned against each other and commissioned to produce hatred. Yet the cultural elites of both groups were able to build solid relations that challenged that hatred. While the two groups were different socially and economically, they shared commonalities in the arts, music and literature and were interested in each other’s works.

Everything about this book is beautiful and it is a welcome addition to any library and especially so for Jewish libraries. So often, we are Jews think of ourselves as a smaller group within a larger society and here we see ourselves on equal footing in many cases. For that alone this is a fine book but there is also so much more.