Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith” by Israel Drazin— Exploring Puzzlng Questions

Drazin, Israel. “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith”, Geffen, 2016.

Exploring Puzzling Questions

Amos Lassen

“Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith” is part of a larger series that explores questions that have puzzled readers of the Bible for centuries. Rabbi Israel looks at why Ruth and Esther were included in the Jewish Bible while the Book of Judith, which has a more openly religious character than either Ruth or Esther, was not and only appears in the Jewish apocrypha.

Drazin’s has divided is book into three units, one on each of the three books and then each unit is further divided into chapters that give an overview of each book and explore key themes in greater detail. Looking at the book of Ruth, for example, we read the textual evidence that suggests that Ruth did not convert to Judaism, despite Rabbinic interpretation which identifies her as an early convert. “The book of Ruth not only does not indicate that Ruth converted, it states seven times that she remained a Moabite—including twice in the final chapter. In fact. Boaz calls her a Moabite when he speaks about marrying her.”

In his analysis of the Book of Esther Drazin identifies several inconsistencies in the story and shows its pagan origins. For example, the primary practices of Purim (feasting, drinking, and sending gifts) mimic the practices of King Ahasuerus. Furthermore, the author notes that Esther is a reticent heroine and that Mordechai’s valor that is praised at the story’s conclusion and Esther’s. Nowhere does it say that there is a requirement to read the Book of Esther.

Judith is included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bible, while it is only included in the Protestant and Jewish apocrypha even though each of Judith’s sixteen chapters has references to God and prayer observances while Ruth and Esther, contain little or nothing about God or religion. Drazin gives us a review of the book’s plot and concludes by focusing on Judith’s heroism of Judith in defeating Holofernes and liberating the Judeans from foreign rule.

The rest of the book looks at why Judith was not included in the Jewish bible Drazin gives us several reasons that have been suggested in the past, many deal with Rabbinic Judaism’s discomfort with a strong female protagonist. However, he does not accept this and suggests that the real reason comes from Rabbinic Judaism’s dislike of a “proactive theology that denied a reliance on God”.

As a whole, we get new insights and a comparative analysis of three books with a female protagonist but I must say that I found what makes this book so interesting is that it introduces us to the Book of Judith.

“Once@9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires” by Ilan Stavans— Terror in Argentina

Stavans, Ilan. “Once@9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires”, Penn State University Press, 2016.

Terror in Argentina

Amos Lassen

March 17, 1992 was the date of the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that destroyed not only the embassy, but also a Catholic church and a nearby school. Twenty-five people were killed of which the vast majority were Argentine civilians—only four of the victims were Israelis and 242 people were injured. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history until two years later a similar attack on the AMIA, the Jewish Federation building, killed 85 and injured over 300 people.

The latter attack occurred in the neighborhood of Once at 9:53 AM (the title of this novella in photos or fotonovela, written by Ilan Stavans with photographs by Marcelo Brodsky). The Spanish term “fotonovela” describes a comic book with photographs instead of illustrations. In English, the it has a bit of a different meaning as you will see when you read this.

It is surprising that the Mexican-born academic Stavans and Argentine photographer and artist Brodsky use this format to tackle such a traumatic historical event such as the terrorist attack on the AMIA building but it works and works well. “Once@9:53am” is a fictionalized account of the hours prior to the bombing. It is an intimate homage to the Buenos Aires’ historic immigrant neighborhood which is something like New York’s Lower East Side, and its communities. The story we get here is a countdown to the moment when the catastrophe changed the face of the area forever.

The original Spanish edition of the book was published in Argentina in 2011. Penn State University Press now brings us this fascinating book. The expanded edition contains a new essay by Stavans that looks at not only Argentina’s complicated history of attempts at coming to terms with the terrorist attacks, but also puts the narrative in the wider context of Latin American Jewish identity. This essay alone makes it an excellent and important read. This is a must-read for those interested in the Jewish culture of Latin America and an excellent for those who just want to read a fascinating book.

“Concentration Camps: A Short History” by Dan Stone— A Global History

Stone, Dan. “Concentration Camps: A Short History”, Oxford University Press, 2017.

A Global History

Amos Lassen

Writer Dan Stone tells us that concentration camps are a somewhat new invention and a recurring feature of twentieth century warfare. As such, they are important to the modern global consciousness and identity. Although the most famous concentration camps are those built and used by Nazi Party, the use of concentration camps originated several decades before the Third Reich, in the Philippines and in the Boer War, and they were used in numerous locations and more recently during the genocides in Bosnia. Concentration camps have become defining symbols of humankind’s lowest point and basest and most horrible acts.

Dan Stone gives us a global history of concentration camps, and we see that it is not only “mad dictators” who set up camps, “but instead all varieties of states, including liberal democracies, that have made use of them”. If we set concentration camps against the longer history of incarceration, we see how the ability of the modern state to control populations led to their creation. Their emergence and that they are spread around the world, Stone maintains that concentration camps serve the purpose, from the point of view of the state in crisis, of removal of a “section of the population that is perceived to be threatening, traitorous, or diseased”. Stone draws his conclusions from contemporary accounts of camps, as well as from the philosophical literature surrounding them tell about the nature of the modern world as well as about specific regimes.

There is a lot of information spread out on 158 pages in this “comprehensive analytical survey that tracks the concentration camp brilliantly across the many diversities of time and place, without either flattening the concept or lessening its Third Reich connotations.”

“Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South” by Leonard Rogoff— Meet Gertrude Weill

Rogoff, Leonard. “Gertude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South”, University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Meet Gertrude Weill

Amos Lassen

Gertrude Weill (1879-1971) was a modest Jewish woman in North Carolina who felt that everyone must be treated equally… “it is the right thing to do”. Even though she was a private woman, her fights were public and passionate and she championed progressive causes during her life.

Weill was born into a prominent family in Goldsboro, North Carolina. She never married and in many ways she was a proper southern lady for almost a hundred years. She fought for women’s suffrage, founded her state’s League of Women Voters, pushed for labor reform and social welfare, and advocated for world peace.

In 1922, during an election, she spotted and ripped up a stack of illegally marked ballots as she was casting her vote and made the national news. She campaigned against lynching, convened a biracial council in her home, and in her eighties desegregated a swimming pool by diving in headfirst.

We also read of Weil’s place in the Jewish American experience. Weill worked hard to promote the causes of southern Jewry, save her European family members from the Holocaust and to support the creation of a Jewish state. She fought for systemic change yet she insisted that she had not done much beyond the ordinary duty of any citizen. Her life was one of “the intersectionality of social moment and movement her life offers”.

Writer Leonard Rogoff used historical archives and interviews with Weil’s family, neighbors, friends, and associates to give us an understanding of American life, southern life, Jewish history, women’s history, as well as the history of race relations and social justice in this country.

Weill was a New Woman before the term existed. By reading about Weill’s life. We also learn of the “power of localism, sisterhood across religious boundaries, and intellect, politics, and wealth used to advance and improve society”. Now all of us have the chance to read about how she became part of

the social, political, and moral advances of North Carolina’s workers, women, and children (black and white, Jews and Gentiles).

“That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority” by Leon Rosselson— A Personal Exploration of Judaism

Rosselson, Leon. “That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority”, PM Press, 2017. 

A Personal Exploration of Judaism

Amos Lassen

“That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority” is a moving, deeply personal exploration by Leon Rosselson, a brilliant poet and songwriter, of his Jewish heritage. There are no clichés or platitudes, just a look at himself and his faith with brutal honesty. In order to give credence to what he says, Rosselson digs deeply into his family’s history and his own emotional and artistic development. While short, there is a very powerful account.

Today we are born with our Jewish identity but we know that it was not always that way. There have been times in our history when being Jewish required time and work. Yes, I was born Jewish but I was not born a Zionist, for example and I was born to keep a kosher home. Becoming a Zionist came from being active in Zionist youth groups while keeping kosher was a decision I made for myself. I choose to be reminded every time I go grocery shopping or sit down to eat that I am a Jew.

Rosselson’s book is his search for answers. He is neither religious or a Zionist and we see that as he searches, he argues with himself. Like so many of those others who come from Jewish families, Leon Rosselson is descended from antecedents who fled pogroms in eastern Europe. He then questions what being a Jew means and asks if it is adherence to Judaism as a religion, an ethnicity, a citizen of Israel, or someone who eats chopped liver and “chicken soup with kneidlach”? He describes clearly and with historical insight how any concept of “Jewishness” can involve all of those things and more. He has decided to pick and choose from this tradition and history and build on what he considers to be the progressive, humane, and universalist values of that Jewish background.

Rosselson is a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, seeing in the victimization of Palestinians by the state of Israel parallels with historical Jewish persecution. Does that make him any the less Jewish? He tells us that he shares with the growing number of Jews in the Diaspora who place solidarity with the oppressed above demands of tribalism and with those in Israel who dare to stand against the powers that be. He shares a lot more here and I think many of you will feel that you are reading about yourselves as you read this. Whether or not I agree (or you) is insignificant— this is his journey and a powerful one it is.

 

“The Lost Letter: A Novel” by Jillian Cantor— Love and Survival

Cantor, Jillian. “The Lost Letter: A Novel, Riverhead Books, 2017.

Love and Survival

Amos Lassen

Jillian Cantor’s “The Lost Letter” is “a historical novel of love and survival inspired by real resistance workers during World War II Austria, and the mysterious love letter that connects generations of Jewish families”. The story opens in 1938 in Austria where  Kristoff is a young apprentice to a master Jewish stamp engraver. When his teacher disappears during Kristallnacht, Kristoff is forced to engrave stamps for the Germans, and simultaneously works alongside Elena, his teacher’s daughter as well as with the Austrian resistance to send underground messages and forge papers. He falls in love with for Elena, knowing that must find a way to save her, and himself.

The story shifts to Lost Angeles in 1989 where Katie Nelson is going through a divorce and while she is cleaning out her house and life in the aftermath, she comes across her father’s stamp collection. Her father recently went into a nursing home and Benjamin, an appraiser discovers an unusual World War II-era Austrian stamp placed on an old love letter as he goes through her dad’s collection. Together Katie and Benjamin embark on a journey together in which they find a story of passion and tragedy that spans years and locations.

We immediately see the importance of memories as we read about love, lost and found.The story alternates between the Nazi occupation of Austria and the fall of the Berlin wall, fifty years later. This is a love story and a mystery that has the reader turning pages as quickly as possible. Kristoff is welcomed into the Faber’s Jewish family where he falls in love with Elena.

Katie Nelson has had to put her father, Ted, into a nursing home because his memory is quickly leaving him and if that is not enough to deal with, her husband has recently left her. Ted asked Katie to find certain stamp in his stamp collection. It is that stamp that propels the novel forward and leads her to Benjamin and Kristoff and his love affair with Elena. This was before the modern age of technology so we see that Kate and Benjamin’s journey is hands-on.

The characters are well drawn and well developed as they deal with the tremendous sacrifices of Kristoff and Elena. The themes of love and reconciliation follow the story thorough to the fall of the Berlin wall. Here is a story of renewal after great adversity as Beth finds what was lost and probably never meant to be found.

 

 

“Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood” by Edgar Feuchtwanger— A Unique Perspective on a Neighbor

Feuchtwanger, Edgar. “Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1939”, (Translated by Adriana Hunter), Other Press, 2017.

A Unique Perspective on a Neighbor

Amos Lassen

Edgar Feuchtwanger is a historian who has quite a unique perspective on the Nazi rise to power. When he was a boy in Munich, his neighbor was Adolf Hitler. Feuchtwanger came from a prominent German-Jewish family. He was the only son of a respected editor and the nephew of a best-selling author, Lion Feuchtwanger (one of the intellectuals rescued by Varian Frye). He was a carefree five-year-old who pampered by his parents and his nanny, when Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, moved into the building opposite theirs in Munich. 

Until 1933, young Edgar lived an untroubled life but that was shattered when that year, Hitler was named chancellor. His parents had their rights as citizens taken from them yet they tried to protect their son from the reality of what was going on around him. When young Edgar went to school, his teacher made him draw swastikas, and his schoolmates joined the Hitler Youth. 

From his window, Edgar was able to watch events come into being and he was witness to Kristallnacht and the Anschluss. He saw being deported and his father was sent to Dachau. In 1939, on his own, Edgar went to England where he found a new life, had a family and tried to forget the past. However that past returned to him when at the age of eighty-eight, he decided to tell the story of his buried childhood and his infamous neighbor. Here it is right here and unlike anything you have ever read before.

“Covenant & Conversation Numbers: The Wilderness Years” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— The Fourth Volume of Torah Thought

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Covenant & Conversation Numbers: The Wilderness Years”, Maggid, 2017.

The Fourth Volume of Torah Thought

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tell us that the Book of Numbers is a key test to understand the forty years of the Children of Israel’s wandering in the desert as they make their way to the land of Israel. This narrative of “the long walk to freedom” shows that there is no quick way and no shortcut to freedom and one must pass certain tests in order to reach the goal. Numbers sets out warnings that are to be experienced before freedom can be achieved and therefore, even though we do not see much hope at first, we realize that this is indeed a book about hope. We are moving toward the end of the Torah just as the wanderers are moving closer to entering the land. They are no longer close to the narrow place and the oppression that they have left behind and must be prepared to enter the land while considering how it is to be governed.

If we look at a map we see that the distance but this time on the desert between Egypt and Israel is not great yet it is very important in that it gives the children of Israel time to forget the slavery and oppression of their former home. We begin to understand that this is why the journey takes so long. While the trek is arduous physically, this is also a psychological, moral, and spiritual journey Forty years is considered to be a generation during which people change. To achieve freedom after slavery requires adaptation and we see that we do not achieve freedom just by reaching it. Mindsets and habits must be changed and God wants us to be sure that we are ready for freedom and liberty. As the children of Israel become a nation, they have new responsibilities and these include dealing with self-restraint, courage, and patience. Without that, a journey of a few hundred miles can take forty years. We indeed understand that even as they enter the land, the journey is still at the beginning.

Like in his three other Torah commentaries, Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus, Rabbi Sacks provides several looks at each Torah portion and I feel that the has left no stone unturned. He provides us with a lot to think about and to me that is the beauty of the Five Books of Moses.

 

 

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“For Two Thousand Years” by Mihail Sebastian— Haunting

Sebastian, Mihail. “For Two Thousand Years”, Other Press, 2017.

Haunting

Amos Lassen

Mihail Sebastian’s haunting 1934 novel, “For Two Thousand Years” is the story of a young Jewish student in Romania who tries to make sense of a world that has decided he doesn’t belong. He spends his days walking the streets and his nights drinking and gambling, meeting revolutionaries, zealots, lovers and libertines. What is happening in Europe casts a darkness over everything. Sebastian wrote this amid the anti-Semitism which would end his career and turn his friends and colleagues against him. He writes of and he remembers the terrible atrocities of that historic period. We read the ideological debates of the interwar period through the young man’s and we see that he is caught between anti-Semitism and Zionism and he struggles with resilience and despair, resistance and acceptance.

Although he faces persistent threats just to attend lectures, he feels disconnected from his Jewish peers and questions whether their activism will be worth the cost and he strives to make peace with himself in an increasingly hostile world. As he struggles against the rise of fascism, we realize that this is more than a fascinating historical document, it is also a coherent and persuasive novel.

Here are the truths about life in anti-Semitic Romania. We see that even before Hitler initiated the slaughter of European Jews, Romania had begun murdering 300,000 of its own people. While this is a fictional memoir that recreates the student’s nightlife and love affairs, friendships and betrayals, it is a look at a world that was falling apart. We feel the tension and paranoia that preceded one of the bloodiest periods in the history of the 20th century, and what is so terrifying is that the same book could have been written today. Sebastian refused to compromise his duties as a civilized human being and even during this very dark time, his prose is filled with beauty and grace.

“For Two Thousand Years” is autobiographical that gives us a glimpse into Romanian life during the years between the world wars, when the Iron Guard and Romanian anti-Semitism were on the rise. Sebastian was a non-believing Jew who managed to survive World War II and the Holocaust while maintaining friendships or relationships with virulent anti-Semitic intellectuals. How he managed to do so is what we read here. The descriptions are wonderful (if I can use such a word when thinking about that period) but what is so striking is that many of the same problems exist today. The great irony that we find here is that after having survived this terrible time, Sebastian was accidently run over by a Red Army truck in 1945.

“Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy” By Charles Bronfman and Howard Green— Thoughts on a Family

Bronfman, Charles with Howard Green. “Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy”, HarperCollins, 2017.

Thoughts on a Family

Amos Lassen

Charles Bronfman shares his thoughts on his own life, family, career and his significant accomplishments in sport and philanthropy. He chronicles key events in his life never letting us forget that he is heir to one of Canada’s great fortunes. Charles was born in 1931 into the fabulously wealthy Bronfman family and grew up in a 20-room mansion with a large staff. Because of and by way of their control of the distilling giant Seagram, the Bronfman family dominated the liquor business with brands such as Crown Royal, V.O. and Chivas Regal. By the 1980s, Seagram was also the biggest shareholder of DuPont and by the 1990s, the family’s wealth was in the billions, but with the $35-billion sale of Seagram to France’s Vivendi, financial and family disaster followed. Here Charles looks at all of it–his relationship with his parents, his brother Edgar, working in the family business, landing Canada’s first big league baseball franchise living a philanthropic life by promoting Canadian identity through and supporting Israel through countless innovative initiatives including the universally respected Birthright Israel. We then see how the Bronfman family splintered over the sale of Seagram.

This is quite a magical and magnetic story of how one man dealt with business, philanthropy, education, and the public interest without ever losing his sense of compassion or balance. Charles Bronfman is a man of generosity and determination.

He was a great statesman and visionary who brought wisdom and integrity to sport and to life. While this is not yet public knowledge, the book was ghostwritten by Howard Green who is credited along with Bronfman as author. That is not a negative statement in light of the fact that everyone wants to write a book these days but not everyone has the ability to do so. I get books all the time that should never see the light of day and rather than criticize them openly, I ignore them by not posting a review. In the case of Charles Bronfman who had something to say, he wanted to make sure that it would be said in the most correct way.

There are poignant and candid stories here and we read a good deal about he Bronfman family. Charles says that his father never loved him and that his older brother Edgar was imperious and his two were querulous sisters. We read of the failed marriages and of his nephew, “swingin’” Edgar Jr., who took over the business and then quite skillfully destroyed it.

Bronfman writes candidly about the rumors that his father’s wealth began with bootlegging during Prohibition and he states that from a legal standpoint they paid their taxes to the Canadian government and how and where they shipped goods were unknown to him. He writes candidly about Edgar, his older brother who was chairman of the board of the company and we can only wonder if he would have written what he did if his brother was still alive.

As far as his nephew, Edgar Jr., he does not see him as a businessman but then we did lose the company. Today, Forbes Magazine says that the family is worth $2.3 billion and Bronfman says the important word is family.

In writing about Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Bronfman simply states that he does not see him as a favorite and never has seen him that way. Bronfman believes that a two-state solution for Israel is the only way to make sure that Israel has a future. He also feels that there won’t be a formal or even informal alliance of the so-called moderate states in the Middle East unless the Israelis and Palestinians make a deal. On the other hand, he states that Netanyahu has been, is, and will no doubt continue to be a real believer in Birthright and through this we see the government’s support of the project that reflects the outward reach that Israel now has to the Diaspora and it is very healthy.

Bronfman sees Trump as a very strange character who is different every day. Bronfman sees the story of Israel as incredible. It is, he says, the story of the only people in the world who had a religion and a peoplehood and “got beat up and kicked out and have remained on that land ever since”. He is sure that his father loved him even though he could not express that love but “he was who he was”. And yes, he misses his brother who is no longer alive. He regrets that they were never the partners that they should have been and admits that he was also at fault about this.