Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“PINSKY”— A Complicated Relationship

“Pinsky”

A Complicated Relationship

Amos Lassen

“Pinsky” focuses on a 26-year-old queer woman who is an aspiring stand up comic with a complicated relationship with her Jewish grandmother. Sophia Pinsky seems to be an adult with an adult life. She has a job, an apartment and a partner. But then, her grandfather died suddenly and her girlfriend left her. Marina, Sophia, Russian grandmother uses Sophia’s guilt and insecurities as a way to get her to move back home and live with the family. She begins trying to get her to marry a nice Jewish guy named Trevor but Sophia wants nothing to do with men and after a terrible date with him, Sophia goes to a comedy club where, with all of her personal problems, people find her to be quite funny and laugh at her jokes. She makes new friends with some of the club patrons and they all have the feeling of being outsiders everywhere but at the club.

Sophia’s relationship with her family comes to an explosion one Shabbat dinner and she now relies on her new family to be there for her as she learns to accept herself. At that same dinner, Sophia and Trevor try to humiliate Marina by pretending to have fallen for each other, not knowing that Marina has her own announcement— she is already dating her childhood rabbi and this puts Sophia and Maria at odds in attempting to define loyalty and love.

Rebecca Karpovsky and Amanda Lindquist are the brains behind this film and it is through them that we see and understand that family relationships are usually quite complicated. The film is not a criticism of the se relationships but rather a look at how complicated they can be.

“BIG SONIA”— A Diva

“Big Sonia”

A Diva

Amos Lassen

Sonia Warshawski who is over ninety-years-old is a Holocaust survivor and a diva that has just been served an eviction notice for her popular tailor shop in suburban Kansas City. Sonia’s trauma comes to the surface as she struggles with the concept of retirement. Sonia loves red lipsticks and clothing with animal prints and she is a vibrant force and a diligent worker who runs a six-day-a-week tailor shop by herself. For Sonia, the importance of keeping busy is no simple response to widowhood or means of fending off the loneliness of old age. A particular darkness has haunted her most of her life from her memories of the years she spent as a prisoner at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. As the only Holocaust survivor in the Kansas City area to speak publicly about her experiences, she has turned those memories into a form of action that is both enlightening and therapeutic.

Her granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, directed the documentary with Todd Soliday and their approach is clear-eyed and measured as they observe Sonia in at work and during her visits with students and prisoners as a motivational speaker. We get glimpses of the tattooed number on Sonia’s arm as she goes through her days.

Sonia acknowledges her emotional damage as well as her refusal to be bowed by it. At 13, in the Polish city of Miedzyrzec, she watched from an attic window as neighbors were rounded up for the camps. Soon her family would be found in their hiding places. She never again saw her father or brother. At 17, she witnessed her mother entering the gas chamber. Years later, she heard the history-erasing claims of Holocaust deniers and this galvanized her to counter their propaganda with her truth.

We see the effect of that truth on the faces of those listening to her quiet, impassioned words. In a program addressing bullying and aimed at reducing recidivism, incarcerated men appear shaken to the core when they hear what happened to her family.

But with her husband, who was also a Holocaust survivor, Sonia created a family. Warshawski’s access to Sonia’s children takes the film into the wartime experience as an emotional inheritance for the second generation. Sonia’s son, Morrie, recalls a sadness in the household and his awareness that he and his siblings weren’t as “natural and free” as other kids.

The filmmakers, like Sonia herself, acknowledge the ongoing struggle that’s essential to surviving such trauma. There’s hard-fought clarity when Sonia says that she leaves the matter of forgiveness to a higher power. Since we are losing the last of the Holocaust survivors, we see the urgency when Sonia insists on remembering.

“BYE BYE GERMANY”— Coming to America

“Bye Bye Germany” (“Es war einmal in Deutschland”)

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

The characters in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany”, live in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt in 1946. David (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a Jewish peddler who was a successful wheeler and dealer before and during his time at a concentration camp. While he’s grateful for his liberty, he would enjoy it more with a lot of cash, and so he begins a scheme where he and his friends sell linens to local Germans at an outrageous markup. It’s a simple scam without guilt, since these very people were the same ones who favored David and his friends’ journey to the gas chamber, or at least pretended to be about what was really going on in their own country.

Over the course of the film, the characters have to examine their own pasts, what has happened to them and to their country, and wonder whether Germany is even their country anymore.

David recruits the other characters to join him in his scheme. The idea, of course, is to make enough money to leave Germany and head for America. And so this likeable group, filled with energy and audacity starts churning out curtains that are “made in Paris” and selling them to their German customers using a series of cynically comical methods, and rather visionary ones too in terms of marketing. 

Alongside these comical incidents, there is another plotline that is more solemn. Over the course of a series of interrogations, a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 (Antje Traue), who has come back to Germany to join the post-war effort, tries to establish, on the orders of the allied forces, whether or not David collaborated or not from his concentration camp, to survive there. Each plotline leads to a big twist of fate, which could be seen as positive or tragic, before David concludes by sparing a thought for the Jews who, like him, made the inexplicable choice to stay behind.

“THE MIDNIGHT ORCHESTRA”— Going Home

“The Midnight Orchestra” (“L’orchestre de minuit”)

Going Home

Amos Lassen

After leaving Morocco during racial tensions brought on by Israel’s Yom Kippur war, Michael Abitbol (Avishay Benazra), the son of a once famous Jewish musician travels to his home country to bury his father. As he meets the members of the band, his life unexpectedly transforms.

Abitbol returns to his childhood home in Casablanca to be reunited with his elderly father: legendary bandleader and local hero Marcel Botbol, from whom he has been estranged. Botbol is returning there himself for the first time since leaving his native city and adoring fans for Israel in 1973. No sooner do they meet again when tragedy strikes and the son must engage with officials of the local Jewish community to bury his father. But first Michael must fulfill his father’s last wish— he must reunite the band and this becomes an overwhelming desire to do so for one last gig.

We see the power that Casablanca exerts on the imagination. Both Jews and Muslims have been shaped by the city’s magic. Michael left Israel for America and became a successful Wall Street speculator who hopes to repair the fractured relationship he has with his father, Marcel, a famous Moroccan Jewish musician, who has also returned to the city after many years abroad.

Their return home, their universal story of return and remembrance, is at the heart of the film. For 2,000 years Jews have gone to Morocco, first as refugees from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and later as victims of Christian and Muslim persecution. Life there was not always easy, and the relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors have had ups and downs. But by the 20th century Moroccan Jews had become an integral part of the culture of the country.

The funeral of Marcel helps bring together the members of his old band in “The Midnight Orchestra.” The quest to find the band members is both comical and suspenseful and for Michael a bittersweet nostalgia trip too. His childhood around the band and its members is beautifully evoked by sepia tinted footage of the musicians in their prime. Michael sees the little ghost of his younger self too, haunting the places where he played as a boy.

For the audience the film is a look into the past and present of a Jewish community little known outside Morocco and into the now cordial relationship it has with the country’s Muslim majority. This is a poignant about regret and relationships, memory and getting old.

“Music is what brings them together,” director Jerome Cohen-Olivar has said, “but that’s really just a metaphor for a people who have been deprived of so much.”

“A BAG OF MARBLES”— Two Young Brothers

 

“A Bag of Marbles” (“Un Sac de Billes”)

Two Young Brothers

Amos Lassen

Christian Duguay’s “A Bag of Marbles” looks at a difficult period in modern French history. Two young brothers are forced to fend for themselves when the German occupation of France and subsequent persecution of Jews puts their lives in danger.   Maurice (Batyste Fleurial) and Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) leave their parents Roman (Patrick Bruel) and Anna ( Elza Zylberstein) behind in Vichy France and travel to Nice in the free-zone to join their older siblings Henri (César Domboy) and Albert (Ilian Bergala).  The family is soon reunited, but once again the German occupation separates Maurice and Joseph from their parents and brothers.  The two face possible capture and deportation before the family can come back together.

 

Director Christian Duguay emphasizes the sense of loss on both sides as the children flee the Nazi occupation. The film is a remake of the same title and it is a beautiful film that is based on a true story.

Maurice and Joseph are devoted to themselves and show an incredible amount of malice, courage and ingenuity to escape the enemy invasion and try to get reunited their families again. The two brothers  who are now in their 80’s are still Paris with their families.

One of the most important messages comes early on when a Jewish barber, the father of the family, stands up to a German soldier and speaks out while he is still able to do so. Jo is the youngest son of that barber. Over the last years of the war, Jo’s family (including his three older brothers) are repeatedly separated and reunited as they try to evade Nazi capture. With his smarts, his sometimes heartbreaking emotional bravery and a bit of plain luck, Jo survives under numerous assumed identities across the south of France, sometimes with his family and sometimes on his own. It’s a coming of age amidst the most harrowing crucible imaginable.

Even though we know Germany will be defeated and France regains her freedom, we are as overcome with joy as the characters are when it finally happens. Duguay uses his most disturbing footage to depict how the French treated collaborators after the war ended.

A Jew in hiding during World War II is someone who has to spend years without the simple privilege of being able to say who he is. As Duguay shows us, Jo never let himself forget.

“COME WHAT MAY”— An Ideological Conflict

“Come What May (“En mai, fais ce qu’il te plait”)

An Ideological Conflict

Amos Lassen

Christian Carion set “Come What May” in 1939 just as the Germans are at the border of Arras. The French are distraught by their present circumstances and hope for a day when they can return to their regular lives. By 1940, they were fleeing their homes and farms as Nazi solders invaded the country. Hans (August Diehl) and his son Max (Joshio Marlon) leave their home in France and go to the plush rural area of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. But when they learn that the German soldiers are on their way, they and the townsfolk leave the area by foot and horse-drawn carriages. The mayor Paul (Olivier Gourmet) and schoolteacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz) are the leaders of this caravan of pilgrims trying to escape the invading Germans.

In the mass confusion of the exodus, Hans is separated from Max and teams up with Percy (Matthew Rhys), a Scottish soldier whose comrades were executed by the Germans. Hans desperately wants to reunite with his son while Percy hopes to connect with the retreating British army.

The film’s most dramatic moments come when German bombers fly over the town caravan and return again and again to mow down the French men, women, and children. There is little that their leader, the mayor, can do and Suzanne tries to look after the lost and lonely Max.

The film emphasizes the plights of Hans and his son Max as they struggle to survive without each other. We learn that over 90,000 children during this period were separated from their parents and forced to witness the brutality and constant bloodshed of war. The fate of refugees is much in the news these days, Suddenly the story of refugees attempting to flee danger for the supposedly safety of the United States had a whole new relevance. Something at least somewhat similar is at play in this film that  documents a different kind of Exodus. While it’s not generally known outside of France, a large migration of people traveled huge distances in an attempt to escape the invading Germans as spring gave way to summer in 1940, many of them leaving their villages in the north for supposedly safer climes in the south.

Hans and his son Max had already managed to escape from Germany, and just in the knick of time, since the film’s opening scene details the police coming to arrest Hans for his underground activities. Without much explanation, the film segues to France, where Hans and Max have found work while pretending to be Belgian. But even this brief moment of refuge comes to a terrible conclusion that to a new need to escape. I just wish that we could see a bit more humanity here. Unfortunately, we learn little about the characters.

The film’s narrative comes across as broken especially as it takes needless detours. There are some emotionally disturbing in the film (the deaths of both adults and children), and we get a bittersweet version of happily ever after.

 

Special Features and Extras include:  

 

  • Audio Commentary with Director Christian Carion has some of his family history that inspired the basic framework of this story.
  • Theatrical Trailer (1080p; 2:16)
  • The Making of Come What May (1080p; 22:21) has some good behind the scenes footage as well as more information about Carion’s family’s history, which inspired the film.
  • Behind the Scenes with Ennio Morricone (1080p; 28:54) is a worthwhile homage to the iconic composer. This starts with a kind of funny anecdote by Carion where Carion relates how offended Morricone was to be brought into the project so late in the production process.
  • Interview with Christian Carion and Richard Pena (1080p; 38:59) gets into some of the actual history involved as well as the film’s treatment of it.

“Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet” by Erica Brown— A Journey

Brown, Erica. “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet”, Maggid, 2017.

A Journey

Amos Lassen

Its that time of year again when we read the Jonah story as part of the High Holidays service and for most of us that is the only time we hear or read it. Jonah, is known as “the reluctant prophet” and he was recalcitrant to boot as we learn in Erica Brown’s new study. Brown brings together traditional commentaries, rabbinic literature, modern biblical scholarship, psychological sensitivity, and artistic imagination and then takes us through the four chapters that make up Jonah. While we learn about Jonah and his call to become a leader, we also learn abut God here through what God had planned for Jonah and we are with him as he tries to find whet God’s plan for him is. – in an effort to discover God’s ultimate lesson for him.

This is quite a different kind of God than the one we meet in the rest of the Hebrew bible. Here God is for all humankind and not just the children of Israel. Jonah is his foil and his personal theological crisis is where God models moral compassion by urging Jonah to become more godly and more like his creator. Here God is a parent, a friend, a teacher and a mentor for Jonah. God encourages Jonah to look within himself and at his disregard for the rest of the universe and not at just his own concerns.

The themes of rise and fall are here just as they are in so many stories in the bible. Jonah did not leave his world on his own; he was told to do so. His rise was meant to take him to Nineveh but he decided to go somewhere else and in doing so he found his fall. He did not take the path God has chosen for him and instead suffered his descent. However, God did not allow this to be the end of Jonah and rescued him. He was able then to move toward success by moving to the east reminding us that Cain was sent east of Eden. We can take east to mean away from “goodness and intimacy, from holiness and purposeful existence”. Jonah’s story then becomes a theological study between humans and the divine.

With Brown’s help the story of Jonah became almost new to me. I see why we read it on Yom Kippur (and frankly, I never really cared for it before). I have always wondered why we read it then but was too embarrassed to show that I did not know. I now realize that Jonah is a model for one who has returned, for one who has made t’shuvah. Jonah was kind of an everyman as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said. We all, at some time, have run from social justice and obligation. Jonah had to struggle with his own tormented soul as he faced a forgiving God. God was able to change Jonah’s plan just as it possible for God to do for any of us.

“BYE BYE GERMANY”— Coming to America

“Bye Bye Germany” (“Es war einmal in Deutschland”)

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

The characters in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany”, live in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt in 1946. David (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a Jewish peddler who was a successful wheeler and dealer before and during his time at a concentration camp. While he’s grateful for his liberty, he would enjoy it more with a lot of cash, and so he begins a scheme where he and his friends sell linens to local Germans at an outrageous markup. It’s a simple scam without guilt, since these very people were the same ones who favored David and his friends’ journey to the gas chamber, or at least pretended to be about what was really going on in their own country.

Over the course of the film, the characters have to examine their own pasts, what has happened to them and to their country, and wonder whether Germany is even their country anymore.

David recruits the other characters to join him in his scheme. The idea, of course, is to make enough money to leave Germany and head for America. And so this likeable group, filled with energy and audacity starts churning out curtains that are “made in Paris” and selling them to their German customers using a series of cynically comical methods, and rather visionary ones too in terms of marketing. 

Alongside these comical incidents, there is another plotline that is more solemn. Over the course of a series of interrogations, a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 (Antje Traue), who has come back to Germany to join the post-war effort, tries to establish, on the orders of the allied forces, whether or not David collaborated or not from his concentration camp, to survive there. Each plotline leads to a big twist of fate, which could be seen as positive or tragic, before David concludes by sparing a thought for the Jews who, like him, made the inexplicable choice to stay behind.

“BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY”— A Beauty with Skills

“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”

A Beauty With Skills

Amos Lassen

Hedy Lamarr was just 16 when she became a natural born star. She was the first woman who simulated an orgasm in cinema. “Ecstasy” introduced her to the world. But Lamarr wanted to be seen as a clever woman, so she devised a secret communication system to help the Allies beat the Nazis. In “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” we see that a person is not to be defined by labels.

After the success of her debut film, Lamarr realized it would be hard to continue living in Austria. In 1937, she transferred to London and found an American film agent who took her to Hollywood. There the US press allowed her to be beautiful. But in the US, she lived a tough life because was a slave to her looks. She had six husbands and an adopted son who she abandoned years later. Her dalliances included Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy. Hughes shared with her a love for science but according to her he was the worst lover she has ever had. Hughes represented all she could get in life. She had the benefit of beauty, she attracted wealthy and remarkable men but she would have to conceal that she was intelligent too.

“Bombshellis based on the tapes of an interview Lamarr gave to Forbes 25 years ago revealing how she became a Hollywood tragedy. By the age of 75, she had to cope with the consequences of several blotched plastic surgeries. She was retired and reclusive. She struggled hard to escape the Hollywood label by inventing a system of communication which became a constituent part of wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS technologies. She thought that the only possible way the Allies could send messages without been intercepted by the Germans was if they changed radio frequencies multiple times. Hedy worked with a pianist that helped her to build a box to communicate. She gave her patent to the United States Navy and received no credit for her invention. She lived in poverty in her final years.

Lamarr is the perfect example of how destructive ageism and strict beauty requirements can be. Her pictures as an old woman are quite terrifying.

Composer George Antheil worked together with Lamarr on some of the most disruptive technology of the last two centuries. As soon as Lamarr reached Hollywood, she ardently embraced anti-Nazi causes. However, when America, her beloved adopted nation, entered the war, Lamarr believed she had better ways to support the war effort than selling war bonds.

She had always had an inventor’s mind and thanks to her first of six husbands, she knew a little something about torpedoes. Decades ahead of her time, Lamarr developed a “frequency-hopping” method of guiding torpedoes through submerged waters and signal-jamming interference. Antheil helped her refine this into a deployable technology but the U.S. Navy just didn’t get it. As a result, they put the technology that would eventually become they cornerstone of wi-fi and Blue Tooth communications systems in storage.

 

Director and writer Alexandra Dean’s approach is straightforward all the way and the film, like Lamarr, is classy.

“KEEP THE CHANGE”— A Love Story

“Keep The Change”

A Love Story

Amos Lassen

Keep the Change”, directed and written by Rachel Israel is about the challenges a couple has with building face-to-face personal relationships in and out of their private worlds.

After being court-mandated punishment for making one of his trademark inappropriate jokes to a police officer, 30-year-old David (Brandon Polansky)is ordered to attend Connections, a New York City organization for autistic men and women. Wearing a blazer and dark sunglasses, David feels out of place in this community of strangers who he sees as “weirdos.” Yet we also see that David is tricking himself into believing he’s somehow superior. Things take an unexpected turn for David when he’s forced to work on a Brooklyn Bridge project with fellow Connections member Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who claims that she has autism and a “learning disability,” and who’s prone to expressing herself via streams of colloquialisms. David’s aggravation turns to love, however, after he and Sarah spend time together, and she confesses that she finds him “really smoking hot and so sexy.” Love soon blossoms via clumsy bear-hug kisses and bedroom sex. However, their budding relationship isn’t without its ups and downs.

The film follows David and Sarah’s affair with a sweetness while at the same time using comedy that comes out of their conditions and which often leads them to say inapt or peculiar things at random moments. The film doesn’t mock their idiosyncrasies; it celebrates them in all their forms. That extends to the raft of acquaintances David meets while at Connections, who in most cases are (like David and Sarah) are played by autistic amateur actors who are all the more charming for being so unaffected.

Uninhibited and yet often innocent and unaware, Elisofon is an endearingly, while Polansky captures a moving sense of David’s desire to be “normal” (something at least partially acquired from his parents) and his simultaneous yearning to be understood and accepted.

The film is a subtle political statement about autism but it is not a polemic statement. We see the bond that David and Sarah share as totally normal and perfectly weird.