Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Tell Me How This Ends Well: A Novel” by David Samuel Levinson— Meet the Jacobsons

Levinson, David Samuel. “Tell Me How This Ends well” Hogarth, 2017.

Meet the Jacobsons

Amos Lassen

Set in the year 2022, “Tell Me How This Ends Well”, we see that American Jews are feeling a sense of anti-Semitism. When the Jacobson family, Julian and Roz and their three adult children Mo, Edith and Jacob comes together for the Passover Seder that year in Los Angeles, they speak of personal issues rather what is happening in America. Right away we notice that the three siblings claim that their lives were filled with mistreatment from Julian. It also seems to them that Julian is destroying their mother as well. Soon we hear resentment from every person as they argue why they all came to the Seder in the first place. We learn that the children have a plan to

end their father’s iron rule for good. The problem is they begin arguing with each other and we see that they do not really trust one another and therefore will not be able to put the plan into effect. can put their bickering, grudges, festering relationships, and distrust of one another aside long enough to act. For the reader however, we get a view through the eyes of the Jacobsons of where America is and where it is going. I am almost embarrassed to say that I saw several of my family’s Seders as I read.

Obviously this is a very troubled family and while some of what we read comes across as funny, it is actually very sad. One thing the family does have is a lot of life in it. Perhaps that is why I found it so unsettling. We see not only the intolerance of the outside threat of anti-Semitism but also the intolerance that members of the family hold for each other. It is as if we are going to watch them destroy each other. I must say that I am truly worried about the hatred for the Jews outside of the family and was reminded all too well of what happened in Germany just seventy years ago. As the novel moves forward, I realize that this threat is both possible and terrifying. When we read the dark truths that come out of the Jacobson family, we do not get a positive view of the future of the world and that is probably what writer David Samuel Levinson wants us to feel. Is it possible to bring order to the world when we can’t do so in our own families? I love dark humor and there is plenty of it here.

This is not just a book about a family and the landscape they live in—it is a book about everything. Next time you think about what the future will bring, take a look at this book. The way it is presented to us (with intelligence and humor) gives us a lot to consider.

 

 

 

 

“Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro— Marriage and Memory

Shapiro, Dani. “Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage”, Knopf , 2017

Marriage and Memory

Amos Lassen

Marriage like anything else that involves living beings changes over time. It is shaped not only by the married couple but also by outside forces and even by legislation as we have seen recently. We know that not all marriages are alike. Author Dani Shapiro invites us into her marriage as well as into her life and she shares how she sees it. As we get to know her, we see how she faces her lives. Now you may wonder why the word “lives” is in the plural and you will soon understand that she shares the life she dreamed of having and the life she actually has.

Do we ever really stop to think about what really affects the bonds we form with others and even more specifically about the bonds of marriage. We live in a world of shifting identities making it difficult to commit and this is just one of the variables that we face today. Writer Shapiro looks at literature, poetry, philosophy, and theology to gain knowledge about the challenges of matrimonial life as well as the joys and she shares what she learned with us. She writes thoughtfully, precisely and elegantly as she tells us of the young woman she used to be and the woman she became. As a young woman she has dreams, aspirations and expectations. She shares about her husband and the love they have for each other as well as their daily lives together. We see that marriage is not the glamorous life that many think that they will have. They have to deal with raising a child, paying bills and other mundane parts of life. We can only wonder if what was imagined before is still there.

“Shapiro writes of her love for her husband and for her son, alluding to the almost tragedy that happened in her son’s infancy. She writes of her parents’ relationship and her in-laws’ relationship. She writes of memories of her fateful meeting of her husband and even of her past loves. This is an open look at love and relationship between two people; not perfect but yet perfect for one another”.

As if we did not already know, we learn what it means to have a life and all that goes with it including responsibility, doubt, loss, love and disappointment.

Shapiro looks back and examines her own life, giving us examples of the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, what works and what doesn’t and how these influence the present and the future. So much of what she writes is common to many and at one point I found that even though I am male and single, she was writing about me. What is really interesting is that the book seems to be composed randomly yet reads smoothly. If you have ever played “what if” with yourself, then this is a book for you. In fact it is a book for everyone who has ever had strong feelings for someone else.

It is not easy to write about an intimate relationship while still being a part of it and the tact that courage that it took to write this is amazing. Shapiro and her husband have been married for eighteen years yet there are still vulnerabilities. To expose them poetically requires skill and this is what we see here above all else.

 

 

“The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir” by Ariel Levy— Reinventing Oneself

Levy, Ariel. “The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir”, Random House, 2017.

Reinventing Oneself

Amos Lassen

When thirty-eight-year-old New Yorker writer Ariel Levy left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012 when she was thirty-eight years old and pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful. Just one month later, none was this was true on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true. This is the story of how Levy built a life that she watched fall apart. She had been raised to question and to resist tradition regarding love, work and being a woman. She grew up wanting what all of us want— security with a partner and a lover, independence and intimacy and so much more. She gained some of this but then decides that she wants to be free to do whatever she wants to do. This is her story of resilience and a look at how culture changes.

Growing up, Levy thought that she could have everything. She believed in reason, her own worth, and that she had the ability to make her own rules. She traveled he world in search of adventure and then writing about her experiences. She wanted to to be a respected writer, independent and wealthy. She liked to go out and drink and she decided to put off motherhood because she thought that with the advances in science and fertility, she could become a mother whenever she was ready to do so  ready. She married and found comfort there but then realized that she really had no control of anything. This caused her to break out of the regular and take bold risks. Levy has decided to share her world with us.

In this new book she writes about “marriage, infidelity, alcoholism, pregnancy, loss, adventure, and gender. We are with her as she evolves into a new person. Her memoir chronicles her literary ambitions, lusts, and the loss of a child in a Mongolian hotel and it seems to me that she is looking for some way to deal with who she is. The one theme that continually pops up is freedom and holding onto some sense of self-control. She learns to deal with grief after losing a child and she shares that the idea of us having some kind of control is an illusion at best. We have no choice in what we lose (I certainly never expected to lose everything in Hurricane Katrina). Loss counterbalances control and we have certain limitations that we cannot rise above.

This is somewhat painful to read at times because there is so much truth here. We know that we can’t always have what we want and maturity comes out of what we cannot have. Levy writes personably and this is a book about how one woman goes through life with feminist options but without a clear path. We watch Levy grow without rationalizing why she does what she does. Her memoir is one of love and loss and then finding her way. She shares those deep feelings that we all have sometimes but never want to admit to. While we read about Levy’s life as well as parts of our own lives.

 

 

 

“AUSTERLITZ”— Dachau and Sachsenhausen

“Austerlitz”

Dachau and Sachsenhausen

Amos Lassen

Germany-based Ukrainian documentary director Sergei Loznitsa takes us into the former Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. The first word we can make out is “1945”, followed by a shot of the infamous Auschwitz gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei”, work sets you free. The scene is set. You may wonder anyone would want to visit concentration camps while on vacation but this is not something new. We have had several documentaries that focus on tourism and the Holocaust and there is something here that validates who we are and that we are alive while six million others are not.

Loznitsa indirectly follows some of the “Holocaust tourists” with very long shots from fixed camera angles and the framing shots through doors and windows while looking in not out give an intriguing perspective.

I understand that Loznitsa’s preoccupation with these tourists goes beyond the many people coming to the camps. Some are uncomfortable in the face of the camera.

But despite the carefully curated images, do we really understand what happened in the camps. We see people smiling and even eating as others are lost in reverie and holding tight to someone else. Some are totally disrespectful and disinterested.

Holocaust memorials have sprung up in cities around the world and they serve their purpose as a place where we can come and think about the horrors and the indignations that our people experienced at the hands of the Nazis. So then we want to know what is the real purpose of visiting the physical camps where genocide took place.

 

Loznitsa’s enigmatic and thought-provoking piece is in dialogue and concert with many of the ideas and facets of W.G. Sebald’s book of the same name, “Austerlitz”. The book brought fact and fiction together and told about the complexity of collectively remembering the past.

When Loznitsa visited Buchenwald concentration camp and realized that he was there as a tourist, something snapped within. Fifty years ago visiting these places was an act of remembrance but that is not what we see in opening monochrome shots of the film. We see tourists taking selfies against metal gates with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ wrought into them. From that point on the film is a procession of such shots, each lasting three or four minutes and unobtrusively observing the crowds walking through the death camps. There is no commentary thus the audience is challenged to engage with the images on the screen. Some of what we see is repulsive and we wonder where is the proper decorum for visiting these camps. There is an inherent conflict inherent in the idea of a memorial becoming an exhibit and, as Loznitsa reminds us, an educational tool.

We begin with the voices of individuals that have been kept to a murmur and we hear the clicking of cameras. – the throng and the incessant clicking of cameras is the aural subject. We begin to conversations and see jovial crowds and reflective individuals, and remember that for some the only way to understand such things is to be confronted by them in some way. At the same time, there are those who continue taking pictures of evil and its banalities. What Loznitsa’s observations show us is humanity in a place that furiously and famously denied it. Questions as to why it is necessary to remember come forward.

Cinematographer Jesse Mazuch carefully set up cameras in the most effective positions around a public space and let them run, not caring if they’re noticed. One of these places was Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp. The tourists are engaged in visiting a site of horror: important things happened there, and the desire to visit such horrific places seems to be ingrained in us. Camera positions are set at a respectful distance, and are not interested in the exhibits themselves (except, in one case, some incineration ovens), but in the behavior of the people visiting. Moral complexity emerges straightaway. As dozens of people move in and out of rooms and are glimpsed disappearing into and emerging out of darkness, we cannot help but imagine the prisoners that were tortured, punished and murdered here: political prisoners, Russian soldiers and German ‘traitors’, homosexuals and Jews.

As a viewer, we are quickly tempted to sit in judgment of individual behaviors amongst the crowds. When we see a beautiful young teenage girl gets her portrait taken in front of the iron gate that bears the infamous legend Arbeit Macht Frei at its centre, we are astounded at her lack of understanding and disrespect for where she is and what happened there, but coming to this conclusion, we are also grading the worthiness of human beings. The hundreds of tourists look bored and lost and sometimes inappropriately playful do at times and they invite contempt. We see the way they are dressed and wonder why anyone would come to such a place in a t-shirt and shorts.

As we eventually and gradually get to eavesdrop on the tour guides who fill in the historical background, we can see that the place does have a somber, sobering emotional effect on many. The sequences of images themselves keeps us wondering if any were set up: especially when you get very pretty people walking into a shot that seems so beautifully backlit.

What we get by the end of the documentary is a rounded look at humanity, and of hope, despite the horror of human crimes and the need to revisit them. There is the suggestion that people are not dealing with the real purpose of the memorials; he they statues, simply plaques or former death camps.

This film is presented as ninety minutes without commentary and consists of series of long, lingering shots of tourists walking around Dachau and Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp near Berlin. We see that most of the visitors seem as if they are walking in a shopping mall or perhaps an art museum. They look aimless, restless, tired and bored.

Despite its lack of narrative or plot, the film is oddly compelling. The disconnect between setting and character provokes a range of feelings. The sight of crowds pouring into a room is creepily reminiscent of Holocaust prisoners being shepherded into train cars or gas chambers. Footage of visitors trying to get their tour headphones to work is amusing but then it really is not. Some visitors joke around or act like they’d rather be anywhere else and this makes the viewer quite angry if not appalled.

We see that it is easy to be swallowed up by the tourist experience and to forget to engage with the significance of a place. None of the tourists captured here are blatantly disrespectful. Rather they are nonchalant and somewhat self-absorbed in the 21st-century way. There are plenty of selfies in “Austerlitz”. Loznitsa’s point is not about individual tourists — whether they choose to take a silly selfie or reflect deeply throughout their visit. The message, he has said, is that visiting a concentration camp should not be presented like any other mundane tourist experience. To me that message is brutally clear.

“The Patriots: A Novel” by Sana Krasikov— Idealism, Betrayal and Secrets Across Generations

Krasikov, Sana. “The Patriots: A Novel”, Spiegel and Grau , 2017

Idealism, Betrayal and Secrets Across Generations

Amos Lassen

With the Great Depression hitting Americans so hard, Florence Fein packs in her good job at Brooklyn College and heads for Moscow for a good job there. However, once there she becomes entangled in ways that she never expected and she was unable to get out. Years later, Florence’s son, Julian, goes to America and begins working in the oil industry in a job that requires frequent trips to Moscow. He learns that his mother’s KGB file has been opened and he arranges a business trip so he can go back and learn about her. His son, Lenny has been trying to make his first fortune in the new Russia and Julian wants to get him to move home to America. Julian is shocked by what he reads about Florence and we get a look at what happened to a generation of Americans abandoned by their country.

The story alternates between Florence’s and Julian’s perspective. It is the story of mother and son as well as of two countries. The history of a family moving back and forth over three generations shows the power of love and friendship as well as a look at the secrets parents and children keep from one another.

Here is a look at totalitarianism and asks what it means to be a hero, a patriot, a human being. Multiple narratives and time frames come together as writer Sana Krasikov shares the moral quandaries faced by the subjects of a totalitarian state.

Our time frame is from 1932 through 2008 in Cleveland, Washington D.C., New York, Moscow and several other Russian towns,. When looking at the past we get third person narration while the present is given in the first person. The different chapters show a “government” stamp that indicates the subject year and location.

Florence is a character that is not likely to be forgotten and as she is relentlessly interviewed by NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), we become acutely aware of her walking a fine line between betrayal of friends to satisfy the state police and her desire to stay free and even return to the United States. “The Patriots” is a work of fiction that looks at human life in all places and time. It is an historical epic and romance that is

multigenerational, multi-narrative and intercontinental. The characters are very real and we identify with them as we read. When Florence left this country in the 1930s for Moscow, she dreamt of finding freedom and independence, but instead she became trapped and enslaved in a system that placed no value on human life. What little independence she did manage to achieve came long after Stalin’s death and the elite’s sudden interest in the English language, which she of course spoke fluently, and could teach. For Julian, it was the discovery of secrets that had formed his life, his own courage, and his ability to repair a relationship with his own son. For the reader this is a story of about evil and tormented leaders and how a corrupt and malevolent socialist system almost destroyed everything and everyone in its path.

 

 

“What To Do About the Solomons” by Bethany Bell— A Multigenerational Family Saga

Ball, Bethany. “What To Do About The Solomons”, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

A Multigenerational Family Saga

Amos Lassen

Marc Solomon is an Israeli ex-Navy commando now living in L.A., who has been falsely accused of money laundering through his asset management firm. As the his Santa Monica home is raided, Marc’s American wife, Carolyn (who has her own dark past) tries to hold their family of five together. However news of the scandal makes it from America to the rest of Marc Solomon’s family clan a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. There we encounter various members of the family and the community that includes Marc’s snobby and self-absorbed movie actress sister, Shira, and her forgotten son Joseph, Marc’s rich and powerful construction magnate father, Yakov, his former star-crossed love, Maya; and his brother-in-law Guy Gever, a local ranger turned “artist.” The secrets and rumors of the kibbutz are revealed through various memories and tales as we witness the things that keep the family together, and those that don’t. This is a look at a family that had once been driven by pioneer spirit but now has to deal with a loss of direction and how to ensure its legacy.

We read of their screw-ups, their bad times, and their pasts catching up on them and their futures as we meet quite a cast of characters. We see the complexities of modern life in prose through wit and humor.

Beneath the outer layer of the family, we find a world of hurt. The scenes of the kibbutz seem very real and very similar to some of what I saw when I lived for many years on a kibbutz in the same Jordan Valley. The writing is sharp and filled with detail and I must say that I had a great time reading this. On the personal level it brought many memories of kibbutz life.

 

“The Fortunate Ones” by Ellen Umansk — Two Woman, Two Lives

Umansky, Ellen. “The Fortunate Ones: A Novel”, William Morrow, 2017.

Two Women, Two Lives

Amos Lassen

A painting by Chaim Soutine connects the lives and fates of two different women who are generations apart. In 1939 in Vienna, the specter of war hangs over Europe and Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. They are unable to get out of Austria but they do manage to secure passage for their young daughter on a kindertransport, and send her to live with strangers in England.

Six years later with the war finally over, a grief-stricken Rose tries to build a life for herself. She is alone in London and she is devastated but she searches for something from her childhood: the Chaim Soutine painting her mother had loved and cherished.

Many years later, the painting turns up in America. We move to contemporary Los Angeles and see that Lizzie Goldstein has returned home for her father’s funeral. She is once again single and unsure of her path and she carries a burden of guilt. Years ago, as a teenager, Lizzie gave a party at her father’s house that resulted in unexpected are far-reaching consequences. The Soutine painting that she loved and had provided lasting solace to her after her own mother had died was stolen, and has never been recovered. It is through that painting that

Lizzie and Rose meet and begin in an unexpected friendship that reveals long-held secrets and painful truths. “The Fortunate Ones” is an emotionally and historically complicated story about longing, devastation, and forgiveness. This is a work of historical fiction that feels incredibly timely in that it touches on the refugee experience.

 

“The Binding (Aqedah) and Its Transformations in Judaism and Islam: The Lambs of God” by Mishael Maasawri Caspi and Sascha Benjamin Cohen— Unbinding the Binding

Caspi, Mishael Masawri and Sascha Benjamin Cohen. “The Binding (Aqedah) and Its Transformations in Judaism and Islam: The Lambs of God”, (Mellen Biblical Press Series), Mellen Biblical Press, 1995.

Unbinding the Binding

Amos Lassen

The story of the Binding of Isaac (the Aqedah) has long mystified scholars. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers today still search for the most significant interpretations so that they can strengthen their unique theological perceptions of the tale. Christian scholars have often focused on parallels between the binding of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus and serious research has been undertaken to examine the story of the binding as it appears in Jewish and Islamic traditions to see if parallel components can be found in the binding of Isaac vis a vis the binding of Ishmael. The story in the Koran does not mention a name for the one who is bound, and Muslim scholars until the 12th century disputed the missing name, some suggesting that it was Isaac, others arguing that it was Ishmael. This book gives an examination of the two traditions and analyzes the oral tradition and how it became transformed into more rigid religious doctrine. We see here the interactions and transformations of the story as it grows within the constraints and across the bounds of these two differing traditions.

This close reading of the Genesis story and the Mishna about the sacrifice of Abraham of his only son has unique reverberations in the Islamic context. The retelling of the story by the Prophet Mohammed preserved in a hadith (a description of the words and actions of the prophet Mohammed).

The two authors of this book have translated primary documents about this story and explain that traditionally an animal is substituted for the human sacrifice/ substitution. There are great ambiguities, however, in the stark trial of a father willing to kill his only son in order to obey his God.

The first chapter of this book presents a translation of the biblical narrative, followed by a compendium of the Jewish oral traditions that developed over a period of more than fifteen centuries relating to and investigating the meaning of the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. The chapters that follow show the transition of the story from its Jewish roots into other religious thought. We look at the actual process of transition, drawing in materials related thematically across three traditions and more than five centuries. We then focus on the Islamic versions of the Binding and its narrative themes.

“Sweet is the Light” by Charles H. Freundlich— A Short Story Collection

Freundlich. Charles H. “Sweet is the Light”, Create Space, 2016.

A Short Story Collection

Amos Lassen

I love literature that teaches me something and that is exactly what this collection of short stories does. Each story has a Jewish theme and it seems to me that the overall theme of the collection is human nature and its reaction to events. These stories are based upon life experiences of Rabbi Charles H. Freundlich who with great insight and sensitivity writes about human nature and serious topics that address the challenges of leading an opinionated congregation, dispensing advice, and receiving criticism. We get a look at Jewish life in the Bronx, in a small New England town outside Boston and in Delray Beach, and in Newark. We read of some American Jews hold disdain for their immigrant brothers who escaped the Holocaust as well of the admiration felt for those who leave the comforts of America to make a new life in Israel. Freundlich’s characters struggle with the aftermath of the death of a close childhood friend, the complicated dating life of elderly widows in Florida, questions about religious observance, and the tensions between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities and beliefs.

We definitely feel the passion and sensitivity that our rabbi/writer has for his job and for his congregants. Through Freudlich, we also get an idea how other rabbis feel. We become aware of the different crosscurrents that exist in American Jewish life today and how the events of the Holocaust affect us. We see the importance of studying Talmud, Jewish sensibilities, the importance of the State of Israel and other opposing ideologies that run through Jewish even when we have freedom of choice. The stories give us provocative questions nestled into the fiction and in many cases these question remain unanswered from generation to generation. I had the feeling that the purpose of the stories is to leave behind passivity and face the issues that face us everyday.

“Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” by Ruth Gilligan— Three Voices and the Jews of Ireland

Gilligan, Ruth. “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan”, Tin House Books, 2017,

Three Voices and the Jews of Ireland

Amos Lassen

Ruth Gilligan gives us a look at the Jews of Ireland in the twentieth century and through three narrators we get a look at what it means to belong and how storytelling can be a redemptive force. As the twentieth century opens, we meet a young girl and her family who emigrated from Lithuania in search of a better life in America but landed in Ireland instead. In 1958, a mute Jewish boy is locked away in a mental institution outside of Dublin and there he becomes friendly with a man who is consumed by the story of the love he lost nearly two decades earlier. In present-day London, an Irish journalist is forced to deal with her conflicting notions of identity and family when her Jewish boyfriend asks her to make a true leap of faith. These are our three stories that not only cross generations but who come together to give us the story of Ireland’s Jewish community. As we read we wrestle with the question of just how far we will go to understand who we really are, and to feel at home in the world.

The novel is set in Ireland and London in three different time periods. In 1958, a mother and father have their son Shem admitted to a private asylum; he has become mute and is an embarrassment to his father. As the novel progresses, Shem’s much beloved mother visits and begs him to find his voice again. But there is more at work inside of him than she may realize, later Shem writes that he wanted to understand if a family could ever really exist without lies and secrets to keep it alive. The definition of love is the focus of the novel.

We move to modern-day London where Aisling, a young Irish-Catholic woman, thinks about religious conversion and wonders what it will do to her relationship with her family. We move again to meet Ruth, a newly immigrated Lithuanian girl who struggles to create a home with her family in Cork, Ireland. Her father embraces the culture, while her mother is bitter and hopes for a new life. Returning to Shem, we see that he has become friends with his roommate at the asylum and begins to examine his own long-held beliefs. What brings these stories together are the themes of family and belonging.

Ruth Gilligan writes expressively of the Jewish experience in Ireland while embracing the universal human need for community and belonging. Gilligan’s literary style is a bit difficult to follow at first but for readers who love metaphor, this book will be just the right thing. The novel moves between multiple cultures and across three different time periods to give a brilliantly cross-sectional account of community, belonging, and choice. Central to each of the three stories are themes of Jewish culture and teachings and the intersection of Jewish and Irish identity.