Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

2019 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award Winners

2019 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award Winners

 

Jew­ish Book of the Year
Everett Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion Award

Win­ner:

Amer­i­ca’s Jew­ish Women: A His­to­ry from Colo­nial Times to Today
Pamela S. Nadell 
W. W. Nor­ton & Company

Life­time Achieve­ment Award

The Hebrew Bible: A Trans­la­tion with Com­men­tary  
Robert Alter
W. W. Nor­ton & Company

Men­tor­ship Award in Hon­or of Car­olyn Star­man Hessel

Dena W. Neusner

Dena Neusner is Exec­u­tive Edi­tor at Behrman House and its children’s book imprint, Apples & Hon­ey Press. She has been with Behrman House for eleven years, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a children’s book edi­tor at Puf­fin Books, Scholas­tic, and Para­chute Press. Dena has ded­i­cat­ed her career to sup­port­ing com­pelling children’s sto­ries that reflect Jew­ish expe­ri­ence and values.

Amer­i­can Jew­ish Studies

Cel­e­brate 350 Award

Win­ner: 

The Foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Liberalism
Ken­neth D. Wald
Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Antholo­gies and Collections

Win­ner:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (and What It Means to Amer­i­cans) 
Nao­mi B. Sokoloff, Nan­cy E. Berg, eds.
Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Press

Auto­bi­og­ra­phy and Memoir

The Krauss Fam­i­ly Award in Mem­o­ry of Simon & Shu­lamith (Sofi) Goldberg

Win­ner:

Inher­i­tance: A Mem­oir of Geneal­o­gy, Pater­ni­ty, and Love
Dani Shapiro
Alfred A. Knopf

Biog­ra­phy

In Mem­o­ry of Sara Beren­son Stone

Win­ner:

Touched with Fire: Mor­ris B. Abram and the Bat­tle against Racial and Reli­gious Dis­crim­i­na­tion 
David E. Lowe
Potomac Books

and Giroux

Book Club 
The Miller Fam­i­ly Award in Mem­o­ry of Helen Dunn Wein­stein and June Keit Miller 

Win­ner:

The World That We Knew  
Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster

Children’s Lit­er­a­ture

Win­ner:

Gittel’s Jour­ney: An Ellis Island Story
Lesléa New­man; Amy June Bates, illus.
Abrams Books for Young Read­ers, an imprint of ABRAMS

Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Life and Practice
Myra H. Kraft Memo­r­i­al Award

Win­ner: 

How to Fight Anti-Semi­tism  
Bari Weiss
Crown

Debut Fic­tion
Gold­berg Prize

Win­ner:

Naamah  
Sarah Blake
River­head Books

Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Identity
In Mem­o­ry of Dorothy Kripke

Win­ner: 

Anti­semitism: Here and Now
Deb­o­rah Lipstadt
Schocken

Library of Jew­ish Civilization

Fic­tion
JJ Green­berg Memo­r­i­al Award 

Win­ner:

Fly Already: Sto­ries  
Etgar Keret
River­head Books

Food Writ­ing & Cookbooks
Jane and Stu­art Weitz­man Fam­i­ly Award

Win­ner: 

Jew­ish Cui­sine in Hun­gary: A Cul­tur­al His­to­ry with 83 Authen­tic Recipes 
András Koerner
Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty Press

His­to­ry
Ger­rard and Ella Berman Memo­r­i­al Award

Win­ner:

The Guard­ed Gate: Big­otry, Eugen­ics and the Law That Kept Two Gen­er­a­tions of Jews, Ital­ians, and Oth­er Euro­pean Immi­grants Out of America
Daniel Okrent
Scribner

Holo­caust
In Mem­o­ry of Ernest W. Michel

Win­ner:

The Unwant­ed: Amer­i­ca, Auschwitz, and a Vil­lage Caught In Between
Michael Dobbs
Alfred A.Knopf in asso­ci­a­tion with the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum

Mod­ern Jew­ish Thought and Experience
Dorot Foun­da­tion Award in Mem­o­ry of Joy Unger­lei­der May­er­son 

Win­ner:

Lega­cy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Rit­u­al Mur­der in the Lands of the Soviets
Elis­sa Bemporad
Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Poet­ry
Berru Award in Mem­o­ry of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash

Win­ner:

Deaf Repub­lic 
Ilya Kaminsky
Gray­wolf Press

Schol­ar­ship
Nahum M. Sar­na Memo­r­i­al Award 

Win­ner: 

Rashi’s Com­men­tary on the Torah: Can­on­iza­tion and Resis­tance in the Recep­tion of a Jew­ish Classic
Eric Lawee
Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Sephardic Cul­ture
Mimi S. Frank Award
in Mem­o­ry of Becky Levy

Win­ner:

Lethal Provo­ca­tion: The Con­stan­tine Mur­ders and the Pol­i­tics of French Alge­ria  
Joshua Cole
Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Visu­al Arts

Win­ner:

Edith Halpert, the Down­town Gallery, and the Rise of Amer­i­can Art
Rebec­ca Shaykin
The Jew­ish Muse­um and Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Women Stud­ies
Bar­bara Dobkin Award

Win­ner:

Sarah Schenir­er and the Bais Yaakov Move­ment  
Nao­mi Seidman
The Littman Library of Jew­ish Civilization

Writ­ing Based on Archival Material
The JDC-Her­bert Katz­ki Award

Win­ner: 

A Mor­tu­ary of Books: The Res­cue of Jew­ish Cul­ture after the Holo­caust 
Elis­a­beth Gallas
New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Young Adult Literature

Win­ner:

Some­day We Will Fly  
Rachel DeWoskin
Viking, an imprint of Pen­guin Young Readers

“The Listener: In the Shadow of the ‘Holocaust” by Irene More— From Generation to Generation

Oore, Irene. “The Listener: In the Shadow of the ‘Holocaust”,  University of Regina Press, 2019.

From Generation to Generation

Amos Lassen

In “The Listener”, writer Irene Oore looks at trauma and how it is passed from generation to generation. She retells the stories that her mother, Stefa, began sharing with her when she was only four years old. The stories center on the years that Stefa spent on the run and in hiding as a Jewish woman during the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War.

Oore’s mother escaped the death camps by concealing her Jewish identity. She was constantly on the run and on the verge of starvation, struggling to keep herself and her family alive. The stories of fear, love, and constant hunger traumatized her as a child. Today, she shares these same stories with her own children hoping to keep the history alive.

Oore was born in Poland to a mother who looked Aryan and was considered attractive by those standards. She marrying a gentile officer yet was always aware of the unspeakable horrors that she had seen. She shared thee stories often to her daughter, beginning when she was 4 years old. Even though she initially felt incapable of understanding the stories and the reason for sharing them, she later felt unworthy of sharing them she had not suffered what her mother did. She discovered the value in sharing it with her own children. Today she feels that she has had a moral obligation to retell them.

She explores how her mother’s “deep dislike of Jews, her self-hatred, came as an additional ‘fringe benefit’ of the story and has accompanied me all my life.” Oore is older than her mother was when the storytelling began, and in sharing the story with her own adult children, she was able to find catharsis. Her mother told Irène about the struggle of securing food, shelter and safety for herself and her family. She told of the dangerous work to “pass” as a non-Jew), of being someone else, of discovering who could be trusted and of relying on others, of buying silence. 

These stories were Stefa’s lifelong nightmares. She preserved the reality of what she went through by telling them over and over again. Oore tells us that when her mother shared, she just sat there and listened and felt resentment about carrying her mother’s sadness, fear, disdain and trauma. She later learned that that these stories cannot be undone or forgotten. They can only be esteemed and honored. The book looks at important and personal questions—“What is the meaning of changing our names? What impact does keeping secrets have on who we are? How do we know and create our identity? How do we recover from fear and oppression? How do we honor and heal from our experiences?”

We are reminded of the experiences many have While this is a personal story, it helps is to create better lives for one another. This, too, is part of our culture. We are at that point in history that the Holocaust survivor population is dwindling and it is so important for us to pick up where they leave off and never forget.

The stories  are about misplaced confidence, self-loathing and guilt and the kinds of stories that children do not have to hear. Yet they are stories that Stefa felt compelled to share with her daughter. Oore grew up with her parents, aunt and uncle, all four of them Holocaust survivors.

They were haunted by their past, every moment of every day and every moment of every night and Oore was their proof that they actually survived. She was their link to their present and their future. It was only after years of resenting and hiding from the stories that Oore began to understand her mother’s need to tell them — and her own obligation, as her daughter, to share them with her own children.

By lovingly sharing her mother’s carefully chosen words and observations, Oore has a lot to say about trauma and the way in which it is unwittingly passed through the generations.

“AFTERWARD”— Confronting Demons

“AFTERWARD”

Confronting Demons

Amos Lassen

Jerusalem-born director and trauma expert Ofra Bloch forces herself to confront her demons in a journey that takes her to Germany, Israel and Palestine. Her documentary is set against the current wave of fascism and anti-Semitism that we are feeling globally today. “Afterward” explores the secret wounds carried by victims as well as victimizers through testimonies that are both horrifying and hopeful. We see Bloch as a victim in Germany and a perpetrator in Palestine. She faces those she was raised to hate and dismiss as “she searches to understand the identity-making narratives of the Holocaust and the Nakba, violent and non-violent resistance, and the possibility of forgiveness.”

The documentary deals with the lingering trauma that are suffered by Israelis, Palestinians and Germans as a result of such events as the Holocaust and the Nakba. The question we feel throughout is if it is possible to forgive.

This question is particularly relevant today in these politically charged times that are marked more than ever by hatred and resentments. We delve into the feelings of Germans, Israelis and Palestinians and the relevance will of this film will probably never abate.

We are made very aware of the continuing trauma of the Holocaust and the Nakba. The Nazi legacy is still deeply felt in Germany. Bloch interviews a former neo-Nazi who can’t quite believe he’s talking amiably to a Jew and the children of SS officers grappling with the horrors of their fathers’ pasts. She goes to an exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum that lives up to its provocative title “Jew in a Box.” Bloch was introduced to memories of the Holocaust at an early age since she grew up in Jerusalem across from the building where Adolf Eichmann was tried for war crimes.

The legacy of the Holocaust is also felt by Palestinians, many of whom resent Israelis who label themselves victims even while oppressing them.  A woman describes how she refuses to stand when a siren blares each year to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. She explains that not standing up represents a political statement on her part. We see harrowing footage of an Israeli soldier cold-bloodedly shooting a wounded Palestinian terrorist in the head as he lays wounded on the ground.

Bloch also interviews a Palestinian professor who took his students on a field trip to Auschwitz to educate them about the horrors of the Holocaust. He was later accused of being a traitor and removed from his position.

The interviewees include historians, therapists and activists who articulately describe how past and current events shape their personal lives and careers. Bloch injects herself frequently into the proceedings, as she explores her own complicated feelings of victimization and resentment. This is a personal journey that proves as therapeutic for the filmmaker as it does for her subjects.

At its most powerful, the film illustrates the many ways in which the past haunts the present and the healing power of communication. As Bloch filmed her conversations with descendants of Nazis, she realized  that as an Israeli, she had to talk to another community that she’d taught to stay away from. We see that trauma and the hate are passed down to both victims and perpetrators of violence. Sometimes the victim and the perpetrator are the same person. Bloch admits that she recognized her own role in all of this.

Whenever the Palestinians want to discuss their difficulties with occupation, the history of the Holocaust is brought up to silence them and to make them understand that there is nothing comparable to the Holocaust. The history of the Holocaust silences the world. The Holocaust is actually being lived on a daily basis in Israeli society with the help of cynical politicians. This creates an outlook that everybody is the enemy and an attitude that the Holocaust is around the corner and is going to be waged by the Palestinians next door. It prevents people from listening to the experience of another group of people.

The Nakba is what the Israelis call the War of Independence in 1948. It’s called the catastrophe by the Palestinians. They referred to basically the destruction of their country so the idea that Bloch would mention those two historical events in the same breath is shocking.

“Be, Become, Bless” by Rabbi Yakov Nagan— Spirituality and Meaning

Nagan, Yakov. “Be, Become, Bless”, The Toby Press, 2019.

Spirituality and Meaning

Amos Lassen

Today’s world seems to have a desire for spirituality and meaning. We sense the societal shift taking place and this shift puts emphasis on experience, feeling, and imagination. Yakov Nagan’s “Be, Become, Bless” gives us a Jewish approach to transforming the way we see and live our lives by using the weekly Torah portion as a way to converse with both Eastern spirituality and Western thinking this creating a synthesis that unifies being and doing. Nagan draws on wisdom from the Bible, Talmud, Kabbala, as well as philosophy, poetry, literature, music, and film. He gives us stories and insights from his own personal journey and guides us to discover their own path to fulfillment.

Rabbi Nagen gives us commentaries on the 54 biblical portions read in synagogues yearly, one every week. Each essay is about eight pages long. He uses the Jewish canon in its broadest sense: Bible and Talmud, Hasidim and Kabbala. He is mystically inclined and his goal is spirituality. He is convinced that “God is present in everything: in life, in humanity, and in humanity’s relationship with the world and all living creatures.” “We consider black and white to be opposites, but [since God is in everything] at their source they are one.” We need to realize that God is not standing by passively; “that our lives are guided by the Great Spirit.” This book summarizes his  insights about life and his perception of reality and an approach to it. He wants everyone to embrace his understanding of the world and life. He generally accepts midrashic elaborations of scripture as true facts.

Nagan believes in reincarnation, that by means of a levirate marriage, marrying a dead brother’s wife, the dead brother’s soul is reborn in the child he has with the deceased’s wife. He shows that the book of Genesis focuses on sibling relations and rivalry in order to teach us that the establishment of a nation results from familial interactions, not politics. Moses, he says, was raised by an Egyptian princess who saved him when she drew him from the Nile, copied her behavior by saving people. He quotes the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism, showing humans as an amalgam of divine and animal elements.
Even though he presents many mystical ideas, he also presents teachings rationalists can accept, likes emphasizing that “doing” and not just listening “underpins the entire relationship between the Jewish people and God.”

From The Little Prince, modern Israeli poets, and John Lennon, to the Gemara, The Zohar and other Jewish mystical sources. Nagen brings us to a new day of spiritual pursuit.  He acknowledges and addresses the widespread thirst for true spiritual growth. He has written a Torah book with content and meaning and a guide to spiritual living and how to find meaning in life.”

“BACK TO THE FATHERLAND”— From Israel to Germany and Austria

“BACK TO THE FATHERLAND”

From Israel to Germany and Austria

Amos Lassen

Gil Levanon is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He is an Israeli. Kat Rohrer is Austrian and her grandfather was a Nazi officer. They introduce us to other young men and women whose grandparents were persecuted and/or murdered during the Second World War or fled Germany and Austria. We meet people who have decided to move back to what is known as the Fatherland and their parents and grandparents are not in agreement with and do not understand why they made this decision to go back to. The land that destroyed so many members of their families. This documentary film looks at the challenges and chances for reconciliation and understanding between generations who stand on both sides of the Holocaust.

Hitler promised that Europe would be free of Jews, and in 1945 the only Jews that managed to remain in Germany were those who had managed to avoid being gassed, shot, worked to death, or were in hiding or passing for Christian. Most of us would think that the last people to a return to Germany or to Austria (which largely welcomed Nazi rule and murdered tens of thousands) would be Jews. The greater irony is that Israel was created to provide a safe homeland for the Jewish people, so why would some people born in Israel move to central Europe. They left relative safety and comfort in Israel and in the diaspora and become citizens of countries that still today are places with a rising renewal of antisemitism. This documentary narrows the statistics down to three families with individuals who left Israel for Germany and Austria.

The uniqueness of the film comes from the “seeming absurdity of this plunge back into the darkness of history, but also because grandparents of the individuals were aghast at the decision of the young people”. The young people that are determined to live in Germany and Austria are filled with guilt for going against the wishes of their grandparents.

Co-director Gil Levanon is an Israeli whose grandfather survived the Holocaust, and  co-director Kat Rohrer, who met Levanon while students at NYU, with a grandfather who was a Nazi officer and whose uniform has been kept in an attic for some seventy years. The film begins when Levanon tells her grandfather, Yochanan, that she intends to leave Israel for Germany. He is in shock, disbelief, and dismay. He tells her that the Germans, “were bad, they stayed bad, and they will always be bad.”

We the meet Dan, born in Israel but living in Berlin, where he intends to stay rather than return to Israel. He is politically to the left, having left Israel because of the government’s treatment of Palestinians, and considers Israel to be an apartheid state. He has taken a pregnant German wife who is about to give birth by the end of the movie. His Austrian grandmother, Lea, is an Israeli citizen and disappointed by her grandson’s warm feelings toward Vienna.

Guy Shahar is a man with his own philosophy toward Israel and Austria. He lives with an Austrian girlfriend and is not very excited about where he is. He says that if things get too hot in Central Europe, he will move back to Israel. Guy’s grandfather, Uri Ben Rehav, does not oppose Guy’s decision to remain in Austria. He has never forgotten that during the thirties in Germany he was arrested by the Gestapo for wearing his country’s colors. (This is interesting in that at first the Nazis said that Jews were not loyal to Germany; then they protested when a Jew proudly wore the colors of the flag).

This is a  fascinating film that could be  so much better if the directors had isolated each of the three stories, bringing everyone together at the end. The back-and-forth editing makes it a bit difficult to watch.

Not only did Austria and Germany give rise to Nazism, the people who lived there turned their backs on the Jewish community as they were being obliterated. The documentary is about conversations – some inter-generational with grandparents and their grandchildren, others are between the grandchildren. We get an interesting view of Israel that we in the States do not get. Some of the grandchildren lament the “culture of victimhood” that they see Israel has become. They feel that this culture, which relies on the concept that Jews are hated everywhere except in Israel has kept Israel from growing as a nation and made it impossible for them to move on. All of the conversations that we see and hear here are interesting. We get insight into how young Jews view modern Israel and the Holocaust.

More than 10,000 Israelis are estimated to have settled in Berlin during the last ten years and established Hebrew-speaking enclaves. The directors were interested in the specific personal ramifications of those who are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

The most moving scenes are the Jewish grandparents’ return to their native lands and the interactions there with their grandchildren. Guy takes his grandfather on a tour of Vienna that includes a ride on a child-size train in a park where Jews were banned. This reminds Uri of when he removed his yellow star in order to see a public display of the German might that had just defeated France. While riding on a streetcar with his grandson, he recalls sitting across from a man who confronted him for being Jewish and wearing a plaid jacket that included the black, white, and red colors of the Nazi party that were forbidden to him. The man took out his Gestapo badge and arrested him. Uri covers his face and can’t speak.

Dan’s father, Gidi, is able to bring his 91-year-old mother to her former apartment in Vienna and the building that housed her school, where an anti-Semitic art teacher challenged her talent. She steps onto the school auditorium stage and recites all 16 stanzas she learned there of “The Minstrel’s Curse” by the early 19th century poet Ludwig Uhland, about a musician’s revenge on a murderous king. Her memory shows the fondness German-speaking Jews have for their prewar culture.

“Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail” by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Susan Gal— A Young Boy and a Kitten

Newman, Leslea. “Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail”, Susan Gal, illustrator, Charlesbridge, 2020.

A Young Boy and a Kitten

Amos Lassen

As I was setting up my Chanukah menorah just two weeks ago, I was reminded that Passover is right around the corner, a mere 5 months away. My mother, the good Jewish woman that she was, would always say, as we lit the last Chanukah candle, that it was time to start thinking about this year’s Seder and I understood that I can become just like her— I only have a few months to update the Haggadah and begin planning for the big night.

Leslea Newman is quite the author and here she is the harbinger of how the rest of my year will play out with my focus bypassing several months so that I can concentrate on the coming of the eating of the matzoh. Leslea takes us into a special Seder where a boy and his family sit around the dinner table to embrace the many traditions of Passover. Little do they know that outside the house, is a hungry cat that is all alone. (At this point in our family Seder, my mother would send me outside to find people who were hungry and needed a place to be, “This is what we do at Passover, we welcome the stranger to share our meal— they may have no place to be”.  (It is possible to continue this story without my eyes filling with tears? I think not and I love Leslea for the memories). It is a symbolic Passover custom of opening the family’s front door at the Seder so that the prophet Elijah can come in and taste the wine and stay for a very short visit. When the door was opened here, both the boy and the cat found a remarkable surprise.

“Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail” written by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Susan Gal is an original, heartwarming Passover story. The rituals  that are used during the holiday are explained with an added story about a kitten. It is beautifully, simply and lyrically written for our young friends and it is easy for them to understand. It also gives the adults a new look at the holiday we have celebrated for thousands of years.

Gal’s artwork is wonderful and beautifully captures the ambience of the Seder. We read about (and see in the illustrations) how a contemporary Jewish family celebrates Passover at the Seder. We sense the light and laughter the family experiences and learn about filling the traditional cup of wine for the Prophet Elijah, the dipping of parsley in salt water to remember the tears of the Israelites, the breaking of the middle matzo and hiding it as we listen to the recounting of the story of the exodus from Egypt. All of this is built around the holiday meal. The surprise comes with a small, stray, hungry kitten waiting outside in the dark. When the time comes to open the door for Elijah, the kitten waits for an invitation to come in. The boy names the cat Elijah and the family gives him a home.

The illustrations show us the differences between the familial loving, holiday atmosphere inside the house and the darkness outside. Even before they meet, the boy and the cat seem to share something and I will not spoil the story by telling you what that is. This is a big family that crosses generations and races and reflect the true spirit of coming together to remember and reenact the history of the Jewish people as they fled oppression and headed to freedom.

Newman also adds a special note at the end with background information about the history and customs of Passover and shares some of the traditional rituals of the Passover Seder. The book is wonderful for Jewish families and for others who want to teach their children what the Jews believe. I remember when I lived in Arkansas before coming to Boston that everyone wanted to come to a Seder and my temple used the Seder as a way to bring all communities together— just as this book can do.

I have been reviewing Leslea’s books since I first started some 13 years ago and she never ceases to surprise me. I have many favorite Leslea Newman books and “Welcoming Elijah” has moved to the top of the list (even though it made me feel so “verklempt” but then I wear my emotions). We do not have many Passover books for young children and that this is so good makes it very, very special.

“THE SONG OF NAMES”— A Holocaust Drama

“THE SONG OF NAMES”

A Holocaust Drama

Amos Lassen

François Girard’s “The Song of Names” begins in London in 1951, where Polish-Jewish violin prodigy Dovidl fails to show up to his public debut. Dovidl’s musical education and career have been financed by music publisher Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend). Simmonds’ son, Martin (Misha Handley), watches helplessly as his father is forced to cancel the performance and thereby face major losses that eventually lead to his early death. Martin never sees nor hears from Dovidl again until the present day, when a series of coincidences take him on an extended journey through Europe and America to find him.

Martin’s journey begins a series of flashbacks that slowly reveals how and why Dovidl became part of the Simmonds household. During World War II, as Dovidl’s family, the Rapoports remain in Poland on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Nine-year-old Dovidl (Luke Doyle) decides to go by the name David and is given sanctuary and support by the wealthy Simmonds. The family immediately sees the child’s rnatural musical abilities, and while the same age as David, Martin is at first unsure of this intruder and is upset by his brashness. He is jealous of his family who showers special attention on him.

David’s  musical genius inflates his ego to the point of obnoxiousness, but we also see his vulnerability whenever he reacts to the tragic events taking place in Poland. His friendship with Martin is complex in that Martin envies David yet at the same time looks up to him because of his intellectual and emotional sophistication. We see the confused ideas and impulses that children face when confronted with real-life horror. David and Martin are able to show a wide spectrum of emotions.

Filmed in drab, muted colors making London of the 40s and 50s seem to have no character. Tim Roth as the present-day Martin mostly asks other characters about Dovidl’s post-1951 actions and this could have been depicted rather than merely spoken of. The reliance on the flashback is often clunky and Clive Owen as the older Dovidl hardly gets to explore the character’s rich contradictions and the subplot involving the men’s mutual love interest (Catherine McCormack) seems to be added for melodramatic purposes.

The material is powerful and conveys the tragedy of the Holocaust on both a personal and historical level and that tragedy is used to show Judaism almost exclusively with grief mourning. I really wanted to love this movie but too much emphasis is placed on a kind of collective martyrdom, especially when it suggests that the reason for Dovidl’s disappearance is his way of honoring the Shoah by renouncing the secular world. The film is built around Martin’s quest to understand what became of Dovidl but his character’s religious understanding of and response to tragedy is seen as a plot twist instead of the result of a spiritual journey.

Martin spends years searching for the man who was like a brother to him, hoping to find the closure he needs. He hopes for answers. Shortly before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, Simmonds’ father Gilbert took young  violin virtuoso Dovidl Rapaport into their home, promising to nurture his career from the presumed safety of London. Even though young Martin was jealous of Rapaport’s prodigious talents, he too took pride in protecting his surrogate brother. However, the uncertainty of his family’s fate back in Poland tormented Rapaport, causing anxiety that often manifested itself in boorish and anti-social ways. Nevertheless, his talent only grew. By the time he reached his early twenties, he recorded an album that electrified the critics. Everything was fine at the rehearsal and sound-checks, but when it was time for the uninsured concert to start, Rapaport was a no-show.

The betrayal of his family haunts Martin as he obsessively tracks leads that take him back to Communist era Poland, but to no avail. His wife Helen worries about the financial and emotional strain, but she still accepts his quest for the truth. Martin Simmonds is a character everyone will identify with and Tim Roth is excellent as Martin, humanizing his neuroses and making his obsessive behavior sympathetic.  In contrast, Clive Owen emphasizes all of grown-up Dovidl’s rough edges and standoffishness. The big revelation probably will not be all that surprising, but that is really not the point of the film. Rather, it clearly depicts the power of music to heal. This is the first feature film to receive permission to film on-site at the Treblinka memorial and we also see the half-dead shell of one of Rapaport’s former violinist rivals after decades imprisonment and dubious “treatment” in a Soviet-era sanitarium.

All is somewhat predictable, but the human messiness of the characters and their situations is much more important. It is sad that the narrative is lacking in clarity over timelines. The “Song of Names” is a reference to a l Jewish prayer, a days-long recitation of the names of the Holocaust victims set to music, and this sacred music is the film’s theme. 

“Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America” by Christian Smith, Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo— Passing Belief On

Smith, Christian, Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotollo. “Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Passing Belief On

Amos Lassen

“Religious Parenting” looks at how parents approach the task of passing on religious faith and practice to their children. We live at a time of overall decline of traditional religion and an increased interest in personal “spirituality” making it difficult for parents to transmit religious beliefs, values, and practices to their kids. We know that parents are the most important influence on their children’s religious lives, yet they have been almost totally ignored in previous studies of religious socialization. Christian Smith is a renowned religion scholar who, with his collaborators Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo, explores  American parents’ strategies, experiences, beliefs, and anxieties regarding religious transmission via hundreds of in-depth interviews about religious traditions, social classes, and family types all over this country.

We hear the voices of evangelical, Catholic, Mormon, mainline and black Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist parents and we learn  that, despite tremendous diversity, American parents share a nearly identical approach to socializing their children religiously. For almost all those interviewed,  religion is important for the foundation it provides for becoming one’s best self on life’s difficult journey. Religion is basically a resource for navigating the challenges of this life and not preparing for an afterlife. Parents see it as their job, not religious professionals’, to give their children the life-enhancing religious values that, in turn, provide resilience, morality, and a sense of purpose. Challenging longstanding sociological and anthropological assumptions about culture, the authors show that parents of highly dissimilar backgrounds share the same “cultural models” when passing on religion to their children. We read of parents’ real-life challenges while breaking innovative theoretical ground.

We are challenged here to reconsider the importance of beliefs and values in their understandings of culture.  The book “reveals American religious parents as valuing their children’s freedom and self-determination in relation to religion, while at the same time wanting their children to come to the same beliefs, values, and religious perspectives that they themselves hold. Religious Parenting is an important work in the study of family life and religion.

“Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil” by Susan Neiman— Confronting Past Evil

Neiman, Susan. “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Confronting Past Evil

Amos Lassen

Susan Neiman’s “Learning from the Germans” is  an urgently needed perspective on how a country can come to terms with its historical wrongdoings. Neiman, a white woman who came of age in the civil rights–era South and a Jewish woman who has spent much of her adult life in Berlin uses here unique perspective along with philosophical reflection, personal stories, and interviews with both Americans and Germans who are dealing with the evils of their own national histories.

Neiman tells the story of the long and difficult path Germans faced as they attempted to atone for the crimes of the Holocaust. In the United States, Neiman interviewed James Meredith about his battle for equality in Mississippi and Bryan Stevenson about his monument to the victims of lynching, as well as lesser-known social justice activists in the South in order to provide a “compelling picture of the work contemporary Americans to consider the nuanced forms that evil can assume, so that we can recognize and avoid them in the future.

Neiman relates hard truths that others avoid and leave unsaid. The book is disturbing yet hopeful and insightful as t looks at who we are as human beings and the values we have as a nation.

This is an insightful comparative analysis of post-WWII German sentiments about Nazi atrocities alongside southern American attitudes about the Civil War and slavery, suggesting how Americans might better come to terms with their country’s history. It is also a “pointed demonstration of how Germany offers lessons for attending to polarizing issues of the past and present and serves as an important lesson for those who seek to face up to the past wrongs in this country.”

What Nazis and Americans shared in common was the idea of the superiority of the white race. Nazism went after Jews and others as inferior to Aryans and themselves as “the Master Race.” The planter slave owners saw black people as inferior thus allowing white people to see themselves as superior.

Neiman counters the Nazis learning by examining common parallels and uncommon resolutions. Slavery and Nazism were vehicles which drove a racial superiority/inferiority hierarchy. Nazism crashed in WWII but the effects of slavery live on in American society and the  current administration is pushing to “ensure domestic tension” and succeeding at a very alarming rate. .

Nazism had a short life span (12 years) in which to sink deep roots. America began to set racism’s roots in 1619. While America is proud of its exceptionalism and with slavery, America has been exceptional in how long it has endured, and how pervasive racism still is. As Americans we are affected by a post traumatic syndrome.

Neiman explores the concept of “Vergangenheitsaufarbeiting – working-off-the-past, as practiced for the past nearly 75 years by Germany to come to realistic and accepting terms with the horrors of the Nazi regime. To understand why, how and where this was implemented to derive the present day re-unified Germany that can feel shame and regret for their past sins, while being ‘proud’ to have the Enlightenment values to do so.”  She explores whether the lessons of the German process since the Second World War might be a model for Americans to come to terms with our legacy of slavery and racism.

“Disengagement: Leaving Home, Finding Home & Encounters Along the Way” by Daniella Levy— Leaving Preconceptions Behind

Levy, Daniella. “Disengagement: Leaving Home, Finding Home & Encounters Along the Way”, Kasva Press, 2020.

Leaving Preconceptions Behind

Amos Lassen

How often do we ask ourselves if the place where we live is home? Can we really define “home” and do we know when we are there? Years ago I went “home” to Israel and was sure that I was indeed in the place where I was supposed to be? Is home a physical place or is it a state of mind? Daniella Levy faces these questions in “Disengagement” by having us step outside our regular lifestyle and listen to what others have to say. The Key word here is “other”. It is important for us to know and experience others in order to understand how we live today. Against the backdrop of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, we meet characters as they deal with each other and themselves.

In “Disengagement” we meet characters whose lives are changed when on August 18, 2005, the settlement of Neve Adva was evacuated by Israeli forces. This was a polarizing event and we see in it a microcosm of the politics of today. People were forced to leave the place that they considered to be their home. Among the characters that we meet here are a rabbi who searches how to understand his own sacrifices, a formerly religious soldier who is forced to evict the first girl he ever loved, a Holocaust survivor who can escape the memories of the past, a widow who is the process of moving her husband’s corpse to a new grave and a young Palestinian female who seeks hope and she deals with the destruction that surrounds her. Taken as a whole, we have a group of people who might never have met each other had times been different.

“They come from different corners of Israeli society, rooted in their own beliefs, busy with their own troubles. Farmers and fishermen, skeptics and believers, immigrants and natives, children and grandparents struggle with faith, loss, jealousy, hope—and the turmoil around them only deepens the rifts that divide them.” Some of them live in Neve Adva, the place whose destruction brought all their lives together and changed them forever. In reading about them, we have to leave our preconceptions behind and forget what we have thought about the “other”.

Neve Adva, while a fictional place, becomes very real as we realize the meaning of the word “disengagement” especially for those of us who have never been forced to disengage from something we love. Here this is not just physical disengagement; our characters disengage from their material surroundings but also from the people they know and love, from their opinions and from their beliefs.

I remember all too well watching on television in Israel when the first disengagement came after the visit of Sadat to Israel in 1977. We watched as Israelis at the settlement of Yamit in 1982 were forced out of their homes by other Israelis and their settlement leveled to the ground. It was a numbing and heartbreaking experience. With “Disengagement”, I was taken back to those memories.

This is a beautiful book and a wonderful read and it just might challenge you to see the “other” differently. I deliberately have not named the characters or go into much detail because I want you to have the same experience I had as I read. Each character (and poet Maayan Tzurim) opens new doors and new ways to think. Now it is up to you to open those doors and walk through. You just have to wait until March 23, 2020 to do so.