Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Dancing on a Powder Keg: The Intimate Voice of a Young Mother and Author, Her Letters Composed in The Lengthening Shadow of Hitler’s Third Reich, Her Poems from the Theresienstadt Ghetto” by Ilse Weber— Living in a Dangerous Time

Weber, Ilse. “Dancing on a Powder Keg: The Intimate Voice of a Young Mother and Author, Her Letters Composed in The Lengthening Shadow of Hitler’s Third Reich, Her Poems from the Theresienstadt Ghetto”, (translated by Michal Schwartz, Bunim and Bannigan Ltd., 2017.

Living in a Dangerous Time

Amos Lassen

Ilse Weber’s letters and poems that were written between 1933-1944, vividly give us a look into the lives of her small family during a time of increasing danger. Ilse wrote to her Swedish friend, Lillian, who lived in London, and from 1939, she also wrote to her older son whom the Webers sent to Lillian on a Kindertransport. In 1942, Ilse, her husband and younger son, were deported to the Thersienstadt ghetto. There Ilse worked in the children’s infirmary, helping to ease the daily suffering of her patients and fellow inmates with songs she wrote and set to music. Here we have more than 60 songs and poems that illuminate and trace Ilse’s last years. A lot of what she wrote has been performed by various artists and ensembles from around the world and have become symbols of ghetto life under Nazi occupation. He was able to stay alive unlike the rest of the family that met their ends in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Ilse’s husband, Will, buried her poems in Theresienstadt, thus saving them from the chaotic postwar destruction, and some were published without crediting Ilse. Her surviving son recognized one of these published poems years later, and this was how the author was matched to her life’s creative work.

The second half of the book is composed of the poems and bits of songs and lullabies Ilse wrote while in Theresienstadt. Even in translation, her words are simple but touching and we sense her sensitive soul. She shares what the Nazis tried so hard to keep from the rest of the world. The poems are haunting.

The letters tell of the life of a Jewish family before the occupation as well as how it became extremely difficult for them during the occupation and of there eventual transport to a ghetto. In the poems we read of the horror and despair that so many endured (or didn’t because they were immediately gassed).

 

“THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET”— An Odd Couple; A Gorgeous Movie

“The Shop on Main Street” (“Obchod na korze”)

An Odd Couple; A Gorgeous Movie

Amos Lassen

Set in Slovakia during World War II, “The Shop on Main Street” introduces us to two unforgettable characters. Tono (Josef Kroner) is a poor man who lives a poor life, but the authorities offer him to take over the Jewish widow Lautman’s little shop for sewing material. She is old and confused and thinks that he is only looking for employment and hires him. The odd couple begins to like each other. Some time later the authorities decide that the Jews must leave the city and Tono must decide what he should do about the old lady. When the film begins, we get a short announcement that it is 1942 in a small town somewhere in Slovakia.

Tono Brtko is a carpenter who has had a rough time because there simply isn’t enough work for people like him. His wife (Hana Slivkova) loves him but refuses to believe that he does everything he can to make their life easier. The two frequently argue, and it is Tono’s wife that usually has the last word. Tono finally gets a break when his brother-in-law (Markus Kolkocký), an ambitious fascist officer, offers him to become an Aryan controller. He explains to Tono that his new ‘job’ will be simple and easy. The town is slowly transformed by the fascist regime and as this happens, Tono will take over a small button store on the Main Street and continue to do what the current elderly Jewish owner, the widow Mrs. Lautman (Ida Kaminska), does.

However, when Tono meets the almost completely deaf Mrs. Lautman and attempts to explain to her the exact meaning of the text in his appointment letter, she assumes that he is looking for a job and promptly hires him to be her assistant. Then a local accountant, Imro Kuchar (Martin Hollý), casually reveals to Tono that Mrs. Lautman actually relies on donations from the local Jewish community to make ends meet.

Despite various minor setbacks Tono and Mrs. Lautman find a way to coexist, but their relationship is put to the test when the fascists round up the town’s Jewish citizens and announce that they will be transported to the concentration camps.

This is a film of very unusual contrasts. Indeed, a good portion of it plays out as a light comedy about a man who seems to have run out of luck and for various odd reasons keeps complicating his life. The rest of the film a neorealist drama. The town’s quiet but dangerous transformation is captured without melodrama. I see the film as a study of contrasts.

While Tono struggles to please his demanding wife and take over the shop, he begins to realize that he is slowly becoming a senseless brute like his brother-in-law. And the more uncomfortable he feels with his new role, the clearer it becomes that he actually isn’t the only one trying to come to terms with the new reality in town. On the opposite end is Mrs. Lautman, who does not read Tono’s reactions properly or understand what is happening around her. As a result, a strange vacuum emerges between the two, which is actually a mini replica of the dangerous atmosphere that made the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jewish communities across Europe possible.

The two leads are wonderful. Kroner really struggles with some powerful demon that is trying to force him to stop caring about the elderly woman. Kaminska is totally convincing as the lonely widow who cannot believe that pure evil has suddenly corrupted her hometown. I have not enough words to speak about Kaminska’s portrayal but I can say that I was under her spell from the moment she appeared on screen. We do not get performances like this every day. In fact, Kaminska was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her role in this film.

The plot is quite simple— Tono, an ordinary Slovak carpenter witnesses the profound transformation of his home town during the early 1940s and under the direction of Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos we feel the what the actors feel and that alone is beautiful; yet there is so much more. There are a lot of other films that have recreated this specific period in other countries across Europe, but very few are as sincere and genuinely moving as “The Shop on Main Street”. Second Run’s technical presentation is very good,

The creeping grip of fascism has been a regular source of inspiration for filmmakers for years (both in explicit reference to the Second World War and in more nuanced portrayals of corruptive ideology). We see here a world of condoned bigotry and the rise of right wing groups. Quiet acceptance ensnares Tóno and when the mass transport of the town’s Jewish community begins, Tóno finds himself trapped both morally and physically between the anti-Semitic officialdom outside the shop window and the safe, Jewish inclusion represented by the back room. Lautman, for her part, remains oblivious to what is happening in the wider world. HHHer failing eyesight, hearing and possibly mental faculties make it easy for her to retreat into her past.

Lautman never suspects Tono’s reel reason to be in the shop and her friendship with him grows. In his kindness he gives up trying to explain the situation to her, shielding her but also pocketing a salary paid for by the Jewish community. It’s not enough for his wife, though, who exemplifies simmering anti-Semitic resentment with her continued chiding that Tóno is yet to find Lautman’s hidden wealth. In reality, Tóno never seems especially interested in looking. The tragedy and the irresistible power come in minor moments and at every opportunity that Tóno has to stand up, instead of watching idly as a friend, Kuchár is beaten and paraded as a ‘Jew-lover’.

The banality of evil is echoed by the film’s relatively conventional style. The film won the 1965 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film and it was the first Czech film nominated for such an Oscar and signaled the beginning of a Czech renaissance in film. The film is told in an endearing comical way, but ends up being a very touching sentimental story that is both mesmerizing and heart breaking as it becomes more and more immersed in the evil events of its day. 

“FRANK VS. GOD”— Suing God

“Frank vs. God”

Suing God

Amos Lassen

When we meet David Frank, a once hotshot lawyer, we see that he is having a very rough time. He is shattered by the death of his wife, he spends days in his bathrobe with his only real companion, his beloved bulldog, Brutus. Then a tornado hits and he watches helplessly as house and Brutus are carried off in the funnel of destruction. As if that is not enough, his insurance company tells him they won’t pay because the damage falls under the ‘Act of God’ clause in his policy. David is enraged. But then he gets the bright idea to sue God and God’s representatives as co-defendants. After a series of depositions, the trial commences and it is fueled by a megalomaniac and opportunistic judge, a beautiful but damaged defense attorney, and David Frank’s own sharply honed legal gymnastics, the “God Trial” stirs up passions.

I must say right out that I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I can only remember one other film that I have seen in which God is put on trial and that once is quite serious. It is set in Auschwitz during the Holocaust so I found it a pleasure to be able to laugh at the premise in a comedy. The plot is believable, the acting is credible, and the humor is comically satiric with no blasphemy (and I do often love blasphemy). rather than salacious–all elements, which give the film a definite edge over other films, directed at the same demographic.

The plot follows the developments of a lawsuit brought to the Florida state court by renowned attorney David Frank (Henry Ian Cusick). As I mentioned earlier that his house is destroyed by an inexplicable tornado (while he visits his niece on her birthday).  Hearing the term “acts of God”, David almost loses it and this is what really pushed him over the edge. I wonder now how non-believers deal with insurance. Do not be misled—- this is not a crazy idea for a movie; in fact, I think it is quite clever. Consider some of the cases that get to court these days and you will see this case being no crazier than others. Everything looks as if research has been carefully done and from the little but I know about law, the depiction and portrayal of  legal proceedings inside the courtroom (even down to the politics involved in a judge’s preliminary decision to hear a case) are perfect.  It is this layer of realism that grounds a somewhat far-fetched plot, and keeps the film in the realm of satire rather than farce.

Writer-director, Stewart Schill very clearly did his research and even goes so far as to cite recent Supreme Court rulings in the screenplay.  The film is humorous, comical, and trusts our intelligence.  The film uses puns, innuendos, sarcasm, and various other rhetorical devices.  Frank’s lines are predominantly funny quips that are subtle in their humor.

Frank  posits the issue that “either God is merciless and cruel or doesn’t exist.” This certainly not a new question and goes back to St. Augustine who struggled to define and understand the nature of God just as he sought to discern the nature and origin of evil. Others see God as having a dualistic nature that is both good and bad.

David’s statement  assigns God the responsibility for all bad circumstances (accidents, diseases, deaths) that have endured throughout time.  Many feel it is dangerous to claiming God as the impetus behind calamities is a dangerous game to play.  What about God allows bad things to happen to good people? In this we make God responsible for such occurrences regardless but to do so makes us deal with the idea that evil comes from God and that humans do not have to take responsibility.  Indeed, we must understand and recognize that we have a hand in the happenings on earth. God cannot be used to evade moral accountability.

David Frank has become a curmudgeon who seems to have suffered more than most in his life, there are now only two things he really cares about. One is his niece, who happens to have leukemia. The other is his dog, who is then taken from him, along with his house, in a freak tornado. He is so embittered that he decides that God should pay for the damages and sues him in a court of law.

In order to have God answer for his actions, David gathers together representatives from a variety of different religions, including Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and others. Several of them speak at length about their faith and what “the plaintiff” means to them, and each one is portrayed both accurately and reverently.

Henry Ian Cusick gives quite a performance as Frank. He begins as a character who is totally unlikeable but yet manages to get us on his side. He’s a good man, and a principled man, who’s just been wrecked by tragedy. Rather than becoming a cliché, Cusick makes has character believable and identifiable, tapping into the emotions that we all feel from time to time. All of us have suffered senseless tragedy and dared to ask why. Another interesting aspect here is that the film is as philosophical as it is funny.

Director Stewart Schill gives us an empowering perspective of atheists, a historically disenfranchised group: people who don’t believe in god. We see the hypocrisy, corruption, destruction, and abuse of power that has become part of the institution of religion. The film provides a rather empathetic viewpoint of religion through the group of religious leaders taking the stand for God in court. It underscores the good intentions of religious corporate entities, ideologically, while giving a critique.

Frank feels that he has nothing left to lose, so he decides to confront God in a court of law. There is a clever back-story about the judge who is determined to using the case to elevate his own fame and strengthen his chances of becoming a congressman. In the process, by adding to the satirical tone, it also sheds light on the absurdity of the blurred lines between church and state. Separation of church and state has been a constitutional pillar of the First Amendment, yet religion and government have become increasingly codependent in this country.

The idea of god is not always as mystical to many who believe as is commonly perceived. Many devout religious and spiritual people interpret god as a verb, not a noun; an action, like loving, caring, or helping others.

The film raises many questions, makes solid arguments for and against the effectiveness of religion and the existence of we get no life-changing answers. What we do get is “a humanistic perspective on the nuances and sensitivity of interpersonal connection in an innately cruel and harsh world”.

“Theresienstadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Coerced Community” by H.G. Adler— A New Classic in English

Adler, H.G. “Theresienstadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Coerced Community”, Translated by Belinda Copper, Cambridge University Press and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017.

A New Classic

Amos Lassen

Originally published in German in 1955, and revised in 1960, H. G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941–1945” is considered a foundational work in Holocaust studies. It is the first scholarly monograph to describe the particulars of a single camp—the Jewish ghetto in city of Terezín and it is the single most detailed and comprehensive account of any concentration camp. H.G. Adler who is a Theresienstadt survivor, gives us a history of that ghetto, a detailed institutional and social analysis of the camp, and his personal psychological understanding of the perpetrators and the victims.

The book is divided into three sections: a history of the ghetto, a detailed institutional and social analysis of the camp and an attempt to understand the perpetrators and the victims psychologically. This new English edition is a collaborative effort between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Terezin Publishing Project and it is the authoritative text on Holocaust history in the English language and contains a new afterword by the author’s son Jeremy Adler.

Adler was imprisoned in Theresienstadt, Germany in 1942, and after even being transported to Auschwitz and a small labor camp in Niederorschel, he survived after the liberation by advancing Russians in early 1945.

Theresienstadt was set up by the Nazis as a “model” community but we see the truth to be far more complex. Everything we need to know about Theresienstadt is here from the average daily caloric intake for children to the names of the members of

the first council of elders at the ghetto’s founding in late 1941, including their individual character traits, and nationality. We read of the sham bank, sham café, sham post office, sham grocery and sham clothing store. There are also samples of poems written by inmates, the titles of hundreds of lectures delivered, descriptions of the many concerts given, and a detailed account of the efforts made to fool the International Red Cross when it inspected the ghetto in June 1944. We read about the deportations and the fate of the 140,000 prisoners who passed through Theresienstadt (only 15 percent of whom survived).

When originally published in November 1955, the book received glowing reviews from Europe, America, and Israel and was praised in letters from Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and German President Theodor Heuss. It took years as

British and American publishers struggled to know what to do with it. While it is encyclopedic in scope, it also a riveting narrative that is relentlessly objective and quantitative in its research and a moral indictment of the Nazi and Jewish leadership alike and in it Adler argues about the dangers of the modern bureaucratic state prophetically indicts the Nazis for the “the latest unfathomable calamity to befall the Jewish people.”

Some have found Adler’s condemnation of the Jewish administration to be unfair or have misinterpreted his criticism of certain individuals as aimed at whole groups whether Zionists or Communists. Benjamin Murmelstein who was the last head of the council of elders sued the publisher for 5,000 marks, demanding that Adler remove a sentence from the first edition that he felt implied he had organized the last transport to Auschwitz himself. Adler removed it in the second edition and even though the case was resolved without penalty, the text still maintains that “Murmelstein seemed well-armed against compassion.” Adler said that he issues, which he raised in all seriousness, “are not meant to incriminate or exonerate anyone; they are only intended to deepen insight into the tragedy that befell those who were in charge—a tragedy for which they remain blameless—and our understanding of their failures, for which they may be blamed.”

The reason we have not heard much about the book here is because it was never before translated into English and also because of what Theresienstadt was to represent to the outside world. It was not “a detention center free of peril, or the heroic valuation of culture upheld in the face of impending death”. The truth, is far more complex, far more heartbreaking and far more interesting than that.

When he was deported to Auschwitz on Oct. 12, 1944, Adler left behind a black leather attaché crammed with documents and literary writings. Returning after the war to retrieve it from Leo Baeck, the honorary head of the council of elders, he walked out of Theresienstadt with what would supply him for the next 40 years of his work as a scholar, poet, fiction writer, sociologist, religious thinker, and historian.

From the start Adler wanted his book to come out in English and in 1948, he had sent the manuscript to Hermann Broch, who in trying to find an American publisher for it, sent it on to Hannah Arendt and the editors at “Commentary”. When nothing came of such efforts, Adler was left to fend for himself. Arendt would later quote Adler’s text, as well as rely heavily, on its central observations in characterizing the culpability of the Jewish leadership of Theresienstadt in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and even Eichmann himself is said to have read the book while awaiting trial in Jerusalem in order to brush up on what he had done.

Below is the Table of Contents as I tried to cut and paste from the press release for the book:

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Contents
Acknowledgements
Foreword by Leo Baeck
Preface to the second edition by H.G. Adler
Preface to the first edition by H.G. Adler
Part I. History:
1. The Jews in the ‘Protectorate’, 1939–1941
2. Theresienstadt: history and establishment
3. Deportations to and from Theresienstadt
4. Closed camp: November 1941/July 1942
5. ‘Ghetto’: July 1942/summer 1943
6. ‘Jewish settlement area’: summer 1943/September 1944
7. Decline and dissolution
Part II. Sociology:
8. Administration
9. The transport
10. Population
11. Housing
12. Nutrition
13. Labor
14. Economy
15. Legal conditions
16. Health conditions
17. Welfare
18. Contact with the outside world
19. Cultural life
Part III. Psychology:
20. The psychological face of the coerced community.
Chronological summary
Sources and literature
Afterword by Jeremy Adler
Index

 

 

 

“Hirschfield: The Biography” by Ellen Stern— The Definitive Biography

Stern, Ellen. “Hirschfeld: The Biography”, Sarah Crichton, 2017)

The Definitive Biography

Amos Lassen

Al Hirschfeld was one of those people who seemed to know everyone. He actually also drew everyone in his famous caricatures that graced the pages of the New York Times. He began his career in the 1920s and continued drawing for seventy-five years. He was able to catch so much in caricatures that he drew of those in Hollywood, politics and his beloved Broadway Theater. This is the definitive biography of the man who lived in Paris, Moscow, and Bali, and in a pink New York townhouse and the names of his closest friends reads like a who’s who in the world of entertainment— S. J. Perelman, Brooks Atkinson, Carol Channing, Gloria Vanderbilt, Elia Kazan, William Saroyan and Marlene Dietrich. Hirschfeld played the piano, went to jazz clubs with Eugene O’Neill, and wrote a musical that bombed. He managed to drive until he was ninety-eight and always found a parking space. He was devoted to his craft and he worked every day, threw dinners twice a week, and hosted New Year’s Eve parties that became legendary. He had three wives, a formidable agent, and a daughter, Nina, the most famous little girl that no one knows (he planted her name in every picture he drew and finding it became a national pastime). He died in 2003 at ninety-nine and firmly believed that if one lived long enough, everything that could happen did. Ellen Stern has written a wonderful book that looks at the man and she bases what she says on interviews with the artist himself, his friends and wives, celebrity subjects, agent, daughter, and more. She was given access to personal correspondence, journals, home movies, and scrapbooks and has painted a picture of someone who was larger than life.

 

 

 

 

“Start Without Me: A Novel” by Joshua Max Feldman— Love and Choice, Disappointment and Hope

 

Feldman, Joshua Max. “Start Without Me: A Novel”, William Morrow, 2017.

Love and Choice, Disappointment and Hope

Amos Lassen

One of few classic American traditions that have not changed with all of the advances of technology in this country is Thanksgiving. For many, it reflects the concept of idealism that has been such an integral part of America’s history. Joshua Max Feldman takes us into the lives of two strangers who met by accident on Thanksgiving and through them we explore questions of love and choice and disappointment and hope over the course of one day.

Adam is a former musician and a recovering alcoholic who has come home for Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. Even though he is spending this time with family and loved ones, he has the feeling that regardless of what he does, he will always be the black sheep in the family; the one who never does anything right. Marissa is a flight attendant whose marriage is suffering because of tensions dealing with race, class, and ambition. She is going to spend the holiday with her husband’s family, where they will sit down to a beautiful meal that like the family, is close to perfection. She is anxious because she is pregnant and her husband is not the farther of the child that she is carrying. Her pregnancy is the result of an impulsive one-night stand.

Adam and Marissa meet in the airport restaurant on Thanksgiving morning and over the course of the day, they speak with emotion and expression as they form a surprising bond. They speak about everything, their families, their choices and their future hopes and desires. By using Thanksgiving as a backdrop, writer Feldman reflects on the American dream as seen by two people who struggle to learn about who they are.

 

 

 

 

“Letters to his Neighbor” by Marcel Proust— A Recent Discovery

Proust, Marcel. “Letters to His Neighbor”, translated by Lydia Davis, New Directions, 2017.

A Recent Discovery

Amos Lassen

Neighbors come in all types, sizes and nationalities and most of us have little if any choice as to whom they will be. Some of us never see our neighbors and have no contact whatsoever but this was not the case for French author, Marcel Proust who had the misfortune of having a very noisy neighbor. A trove of letters to his neighbor was recently found and we see Proust’s torment and humor in what he has to say (wonderfully translated by Lydia Davis).

If you have read Proust, you know that he has the ability to illuminate pain and we really see that in this collection of letters. He was already dealing with as much noise as he thought he could stand in his home when his neighbor, Dr. Williams married a widow with young children.

Proust wrote most of the letters to Mrs. Williams and they were always polite and often accompanied by flowers, compliments, and books, even pheasants. In actuality, the letters are very funny since Proust knew how to hide his ire by writing graciously.

Proust was famous for his digressions and here we see the true brilliance of that when speaking about neighbors. Proust says that there are only charming neighbors even though according to Montesquieu they are the most horrible nuisance of all.

Proust does make fine distinctions among the noises that bother him. “The valet de chambre makes noise and that doesn’t matter. But later he knocks with little tiny raps.  And that is worse.”

Lydia Davis in her translator’s note, traces much of what we can know about “Proust’s perpetually dark room; she details the furnishings as well as the life he lived there: burning his powders, talking with friends, hiring musicians, and, most of all, suffering”. Letters to His Neighbor is richly illustrated with facsimile letters and photographs— catnip for lovers of Proust”. The book also includes an Introduction by Jean-Yves Tadié.

Anyone who has ever had a noisy neighbor will immediately sympathize with Proust. Whenever I read something about or by Proust, I am taken back to the first time I managed to read all of him that I could. I remember and even relive some of the frustrations I felt then so I can just imagine how the recipient of these letters felt. Here is Proust at his most desperate yet charming to the extreme. I was charmed by both the letters and the translation. The language is pure Proust in its “winding and musing on everything from the properties of imagination.” You no longer have to wonder what Proust sounds like when he hears “the sounds of frolicking children on the other side of his bedroom wall”. He likes noise as much as we do thus making him more human than ever.

 

 

“The Exodus” by Richard Elliott Friedman”— Explaining the Exodus

Freidman, Richard Elliott. “The Exodus”, HarperOne, 2017.

Explaining the Exodus

Amos Lassen

The Exodus is a core tradition of Western civilization. It is part of the Judeo-Christian writings and we revisit it every year yet we have no proof that it ever happened. I believe that one of the reasons that so many are drawn to it is that we have not had any physical evidence to prove that it happened. Could it be that this is simply a story? If we learn that this is the case, what are the ramifications for organized religion? Just as those challenge the exodus there are those who defend by maintaining that the holy writings were written by God and if it is in the bible, then it must have occurred.

Now we have Richard Elliott Friedman who passes by the serious studies and the wild theories with some new findings. — merging new findings with new insight.  Examining many disciplines, using state-of-the-art archeological breakthroughs and fresh discoveries within scripture, he gives us evidence of a historical basis for the exodus. In other words, he gives us the history behind the event and maintains that the exodus is not myth or story but it might be an exaggeration.

He shares with us just how much the exodus matters as well as its implications. Friedman maintains that it was the exodus that began the idea of monotheism and this idea is the main basis of the Jewish religion, Islam and Christianity. He further states that the foundational idea of loving one’s neighbor and loving ourselves comes from the exodus. Friedman claims that “the actual exodus was the cradle of global values of compassion and equal rights today”.

The book comes just at the right time for me. Lately I have been thinking about the exodus a great deal after remembering a conversation with a rabbi I had in Little Rock, Arkansas a few years ago. He told me about a series of three sermons presented by Rabbi David Wolpe in California in which he questioned the exodus. I am not sure what that just set off in me but I found the sermons and have been going through them sentence by sentence. It was then that I heard of this new study and my mind has been working over time taking all of this in. Wolpe had examined current research about the exodus and came to the conclusion that the way the bible describes it is not the way it happened. He shocked many with this and arguments ensued everywhere and the rabbi made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Wolpe explained that his purpose was that there are many millions of Jews who doubt the veracity of what is in the stories from the bible and he simply wanted to show that even doubting Jews can remain faithful. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is sustaining faith by seeking the truth and the search for the truth is the highest form of Jewish learning.

In this book Friedman shines new light on old ideas and shows us that the exodus is not only an argument for the reality behind the Exodus story, but is itself a revelation. I believe that this book gives us the most compelling answer to questions about those forty years in the desert.

To me, it makes no difference whether there was an exodus or not. The importance is what is learned by the experience and not the experience itself.

 

 

 

“The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblatt— The First Planets

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve”, W.W. Norton, 2017.

The First Parents

Amos Lassen

The story of the creation and Adam and Eve is a puzzling narrative in the bible and in fact, it is so puzzling that it is told twice in two different versions. Stephen Greenblatt looks at the story as the tale of the first parents and we immediately see that although the original tale consists of only a few verses it has become a way that we look at

our fears and desires, as both a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness”. Greenblatt shares the theological, artistic, and cultural investment over centuries that made these fictional figures so profoundly resonant in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds and, finally, so very “real” to many even in the present. Greenblatt explores the intensely personal engagement of others such as Augustine, Dürer, and Milton as they tackle what he calls collective creation. We read of the diversity of the story’s offspring through allegory, misogyny, morality and some of the great works of art and literature.

We see that the story of our origins is “a model for what the humanities still have to offer: not the scientific nature of things, but rather a deep encounter with problems that have gripped our species for as long as we can recall and that continue to fascinate and trouble us today”.

Replete with 16 pages of color illustrations, this is a comprehensive picture of how a story that became foundational for European civilization developed. We go back to its origins in western Asia and read of its much-contested place in the post-Darwinian world. Reading about Adam and Eve engages our imaginations as well as our ideas about history and the coming together of faith, poetics, and philosophy. The story is presented to us in a new, fresh, and humane way and from it we can better understand why the myths of the past still matter even though we know that they are myths. We need just to look at the dichotomies of “bare then clothed, innocent then ashamed, blessed then cursed, sheltered then exiled” to understand the importance of the story. The first parents have taken important places in art, literature and philosophy as well as in the minds of those that follow biblical thought and theology. I find it very interesting that we have two new books on Adam and Eve in less than a year and each has something different to say about their roles in history.

 

“The Afterlife of Stars” by Joseph Kertes— Brotherly Love

Kertes, Joseph. “The Afterlife of Stars”, Little Brown, 2017.

Brotherly Love

Amos Lassen

Robert and Atilla Beck are brothers and in October, 1956 in Budapest, they watch as the Hungarian revolution in their country begins. Shots are heard and the soldiers come to the boys’ home forcing them, their parents and grandmother and two cousins know they must escape. Their destination is Paris and the home of Hermina, a great aunt who had once been a famous opera singer but now a recluse who attempts to maintain the dignity that was once hers.

As the boys make their way, they come into contact with fellow travelers, see a nation come apart and face loss and rivalry. Yet, Atilla and Robert never lose the ability to be happy and their love for each other. Robert who is the younger of the two worships his older brother who becomes angrier and angrier as the days past and this could put them in danger. They become exiles in Paris and look for adventure and soon the closest thing to home that they have is in the unfamiliar streets and the sewers beneath. When they discover a long-held family secret involving a double agent and a daring Holocaust rescue, a decision by Attila has consequences that will last a lifetime, and the bond that has proved unbreakable just might separate the brothers forever. “The Afterlife of Stars” is about a displaced family’s possibilities for salvation as well as a look at brotherhood, identity and love.

Robert narrates the story of three generations of the Beck family. The story spans only a month and that is a month that includes escaping Hungary, going to Paris and ultimately to Canada as the family transitions to statelessness and becoming hunted refugees. They went from a sense of predictability to facing tremendous loss. Before this Robert has been an innocent child who evolves into a philosopher who learns to deal with the human condition. He shares with us his experiences as the world of a nine year old is disappearing around him and this bewilders him. He asks difficult questions of his family and through the answers his world of normalcy evaporates. We get secrets exposed and learn what the family suffered as Jews and Robert had not been part of that since he was born after the rise of Germany and the Holocaust. Yet even without experiencing this directly, he was not sparred the trauma that his family suffered. He learns that he is not who he thought he was and through random revelations and his own searches, he feels that he has the right to demand to know who he is from those who have kept this from him. Ultimately, he is the one who must carry the family legacy. Having lived through the Holocaust, the Becks are haunted by it.

Robert leaves us to arrive at our own conclusions and impressions as he and his brother deal with questions about the history and current circumstances of their family. This is both the story of what happened to the world and what happened to the Beck family.

When you sit down to read this, make sure you have cleared the rest of the day because it is almost impossible to stop reading. Author Joseph Kertes’ story is one of love for the family and the trauma of a time now gone. Agony and humor, pain and release come together in beautiful prose and a wonderful story. The brothers Beck show us the horrors of the world in the way that only the young can (remember that Robert is just nine and Atilla is just thirteen). I doubt that I will ever forget the boys.