Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Songs Ascending: A Fresh Take on the Book of Psalms, (Volumes 1 & 2)” by Rabbi Richard Levy— A New Translation

Levy, Rabbi Richard. “Songs Ascending: A Fresh Take on the Book of Psalms, (Volumes 1 & 2)”, CCAR Press, 2017.

A New Translation

Amos Lassen

“Songs Ascending: A Fresh Take on the Book of Psalms, (Volumes 1 & 2)” is a beautiful, poetic translation of the Book of Psalms that also includes textual commentary and insights into the translation process, illuminating the choices of the original composers and the choices facing us in the 21st century as we try to make each psalm our own. Rabi Levy shows us how to find answers to important questions—- “To what events, struggles, and triumphs in our lives might this psalm speak? How might this psalm articulate an aspect of our own sacred existence, or how might it help us celebrate a special day in our lives? How might it provide comfort when we are bereft and most in need of consolation, or how might it help us provide comfort for someone else?”

Levy sees that the force of the Psalms comes from their spiritual intentions; and he re-enforces and emphasizes this priority with rich commentary and postscripts that allow us to actually utilize the Psalms in ways that are meaningful. The translation is clear and engaging and the commentary is insightful and thought provoking.

“Songs Ascending” refers to the idea that prayer is ever upwards, from the human to the Divine and the Divine responds. Volume One includes Psalms 1-72 and Volume Two includes Psalms 73-150. Each chapter of the Psalms is treated separately, with the English translation to the right of the Hebrew text. Following the text and translation is a verse-by-verse commentary, after which comes a section titled “Spiritual Applications.”

“Songs Ascending” is different from traditional commentaries in two main ways. The “spiritual application” portion is not something found in most commentaries, much less in a Jewish commentary. This section reads almost like a daily devotional, something hat is foreign to most Jews because “devotionals have long been relegated to the realm of Christianity.” Rabbi Levy shows that not have to be the case because the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms especially offer much for those who yearn for spiritual growth. He proves that this does not need to be saved for the High Holidays. He suggests that such efforts should not be a once-a-year occasion.

Looking at the tradition of “P’sukei D’zimrah” (singing select psalms during the morning worship service), the inclusion of other psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service and yet another set in Hallel, Levy explains how the book of Psalms has much to offer us. This spiritual work is not for our own benefit alone, it can also bring us in sync with how we act as responsible humans and Jews in society.

Many commentaries focus on ancient Near Eastern texts as a means of understanding difficult passages. “For example, Psalm 29 (the psalm for Shabbat), is understood by traditional commentaries to be about the theatrics of the storm god Ba’al as he reveals himself to the world in a theophany of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes.” Rabbi Levy, instead, begins with the biblical text and then looks to Jewish tradition for illumination. He shows us how other biblical passages unlock the meaning of a Psalm, and concentrates on what the Hebrew means in context by paying attention to exploring the various verbal roots and what they mean and to the literary aspects of the poetry, such as alliteration, assonance, and parallelisms.

The insightful commentary provided along with thought provoking spiritual applications, we find something for everyone here from scholar to lay person from layperson.

“The Inside Story: A Chassidic Perspective on Biblical Events, Laws, and Personalities, Volume II: Exodus” by Rabbi Yanki Tauber— Why We Read Exodus

Tauber, Rabbi Yanki. “The Inside Story: A Chassidic Perspective on Biblical Events, Laws, and Personalities, Volume II: Exodus, Meaningful Life Center, 2018.

Why We Read “Exodus”

Amos Lassen

“The Inside Story” is a five-volume set that takes us on a journey into the world of the Torah’s inner meanings. The sixty-two essays in this volume each explore an event or insight from the book of Exodus to illuminate the big questions of life. The book is the result of extensive research and it gives us the theme of each week’s Torah reading. Rabbi Yanki Tauber gives us the definitive Chassidic themes of each weekly reading. Rabbi Tauber combed through hundreds of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s talks to unearth and consolidate the definitive Chassidic themes of each parsha in the book of Exodus. We become very aware of his “thoroughness and ability to present the complex and mystical teachings of Torah in a timeless and relevant way to wide and diverse audiences.”

Each essay explores an event or insight from the book of Exodus that illuminate the big questions of life as well as its most rudimentary concerns. We read why the Nile turned into blood and of the mysterious “cherubim” on top of the golden ark in the Tabernacle represent. These are just two examples that are based on the teachings of Chassidic thought and specifically of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and they demonstrate how each and every event in the second book of the Torah, Exodus, is never just a simple story, but rather an eternal lesson as relevant today as it was 3,300 years ago. We learn about the inner meaning of any event in the Torah, from the most well known to the most esoteric and can, therefore, relate to the depth of biblical events and gain realizations of how vital and meaningful the Torah is for our contemporary lives.

“Holy Ceremony” by Harri Nykanen— Jewish Themes and Nordic Crime

 

Nykanen, Harri. “Holy Ceremony”, translated by Kristian London, Bitter Lemon Books, 2018.

Jewish Themes and Nordic Crime

Amos Lassen

Ariel Kafka is a detective with quite a fascinating name and this is the third volume in the Ariel Kafka series. This is not regular detective fare— it is something special in how it brings together classic Jewish themes with the traditions of Nordic crime and we see professional responsibility and ethnic affiliation clash. You will probably be surprised to learn that there are two Jewish cops in Helsinki. Ariel Kafka is one of them. He is a lieutenant in the Violent Crime Unit and sees himself first as a policeman first, then as a Finn, and finally as a Jew. He is stubborn and dedicated policeman who is always willing to risk his career to get an answer.

Kafka’s latest case is that of a woman’s body with religious texts written on it. She was found in a Helsinki apartment but was not murdered there. It seems that her body was stolen from the morgue. Then the body was stolen a second time and is found and this time is part of a sacrifice in a funeral pyre in Helsinki’s Central Park. This leads Kafka to investigate a series of crimes that lead to the enigmatic Christian Brotherhood of the Holy Vault. Now if you want to know more about this organization, you will have to read the book because to say anymore about it would spoil the read.

What I can say is that what begins as an investigation of Christian religious lunatics becomes a hunt for a perpetrator who is mentally damaged and was the victim of pedophilia at a boarding school. The Brotherhood of the Holy Vault was founded at the school. Former members of the Brotherhood members have gone on to become Oxford professors and important CEOs and all are now hesitant and reluctant to recall their school days. But before Kafka can solve the puzzle, more than one person must pay for past sins with his life.  The final twist takes the investigation in a totally different direction and we see the ultimate motivation for the crimes is money and that the mentally unstable alleged perpetrator being is used as bait.

What began as an investigation of Christian religious lunatics becomes a hunt for a perpetrator. The book reads quickly and I found myself turning pages as quickly as possible and each time being caught up in twists and turns. There is dry humor here as well as suspense. I do not often say this because I do not always have the possibility to do so but I had a great time reading this.

“The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries, (1823-1969)” by Arlo Haskell— A Social History

Haskell, Arlo. “The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries, (1823-1969)”, Sand Paper Press, 2017.

A Social History

Amos Lassen

Arlo Haskell gives us a social history of the pioneering Jews who settled in Key West, Florida. Their fascinating story is skillfully told by Arlo Haskell. Their stories are colorful and filled with detail and Haskell has done his research well by going through bringing their accomplishments to life through personal letters, contemporaneous newspaper articles, and archival photos and drawings.

The first documented arrival of Jews in Key West was in 1823 with the entrance of Levi Charles Harby, a Jewish “sailing master,” as part of the West Indies Squadron under command of Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy. The squadron was there to look for and capture the pirates who were using Key West as one of their launching points to attack the very successful Caribbean trade routes. Key West was next to a shipping lane and was only 106 miles north of Havana, Cuba, a major port city. This trade was essential to the American economy and international trade, and so Key West soon became an important American naval base.

Key West became known as a place that was filled with mosquitoes; rowdy, hard drinking sailors; illegal slave traders and saloons. It had a political and economic life that was very different than the rest of Florida and the South. It had a “relatively progressive and tolerant climate…where nearly half of the white citizens were foreign born” and blacks were “twice as likely to be free” than in any other place in the United States. Key West was a “northern ally” of Lincoln during the Civil War.

Jewish merchants and peddlers from the North and the Southeast saw the economic opportunities the port offered despite the fact that Key West could only be reached by boat. Jewish business people reached out to the nearby Cuban Jewish community and the two Jewish communities drew upon their expertise and common interests and set up profitable cigar making businesses, dry goods shops, smuggling routes, and rum running operations. Key West became a center for making cigars.

Haskell follows the development of the Jewish community up until 1969 with the completion of the building of B’nai Zion Synagogue, marking 200 years of Jewish history in Key West. Throughout this period there were accomplishments that helped not only the Key West Jews but also the larger Jewish world. In the 1920s, European Jews fleeing persecution and prevented from legally entering the United States were secreted into Key West with the help of the Cuban Jewish community.

“Paper is White” by Hilary Zaid— The Pull of the Past

Zaid, Hilary. “Paper is White”, Bywater Books, 2018.

The Pull of the Past

Amos Lassen

Whether we realize it or not, the past is always with us and memory is one of the defining human characteristics. In “Paper is White”, writer Hilary Zaid takes us on an exploration of survival, secrets, memory and love through her very fresh and original characters. I was totally involved already by the second page and had to force myself to leave the book to get something to eat. It has been a long time since a book affected me so deeply.

Ellen Margolis is assistant curator at the Foundation for the Preservation of Memory in San Francisco and her job entails recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors before they are all gone forever. That time is coming on us very quickly and what happened during the Holocaust has become part of the psyche of many. Ellen understand about the Holocaust since her parents and grandmother survived that horrible period in human history and she considers herself able to hold her emotions in. However, when she and her girlfriend decide to marry, the ghost of the past decide to pay her a visit. As they move closer to enjoying the benefits of marriage equality, Ellen feels a need to look at the legacy of intergenerational silence and she is drawn into a clandestine entanglement with a woman who is a Holocaust survivor and who seems to have more to hide than to share. Ellen is soon involved in a search for buried history. She decides that if there is to be a wedding, she must realize how much she can share with the woman she loves.

Zaid’s novel is set in the 1990s in the San Francisco of the dot.com era and it looks at the pull of the past and how it affects the present and what we must do in order to feel whole and complete. Like many others, I have been inundated with writing about the Holocaust and had more or less pushed it to the side for the next few years. After all, how many times can we read the same thing over and over. In order to make a book about the Holocaust interesting reading, new approaches must be found in how to deal with it and that is what Hilary Zaid has done here. Her story is inventive and tender and that is just the first of many innovations here. She faces the silences of those who came before her and works her way through them and we are along for the ride. The stories we have heard in the past, haunt us in the present but we ca never allow us to forget about an entire group of people being forced off the face of the earth because of their beliefs. We see how silence can either be just that or a weapon. We also see the importance of love and that it is redemptive. Granted I have been tight-lipped about what happens here but that is deliberate for I do not want anyone to approach this book with ideas in their heads. In approaching the past, we are also approaching life and while the stories may haunt us forever, that is not a bad thing. I was in love with the beauty of the prose here and the freshness of the topic. This is a read that you do not want to miss … and there is wonderful humor here.

“Eternal Life” by Dara Horn— What Does It Mean to Live Forever?

Horn, Dara. “Eternal Life”, W.W. Norton, 2018.

What Does It Mean to Live Forever?

Amos Lassen

Rachel is a unique woman in that she is unable to die. As of late, however, she has been having a series of problems—she is a widow, her business is failing, her middle-aged son can’t find a job. Yet these are minor compared to what she has had to deal with her two-thousand years on earth. It was back then that she made a deal, a spiritual bargain, to save her first son’s life during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. There is only one other person who understand what Rachel is dealing with and that is a man she was once in love with who has been following her over the centuries with the feeling that the two of them belong together for all time.

Now with the early years of the twenty-first century, her children and grandchildren are dealing with immortality in their own ways and Rachel knows that she needs to find a way out. This is a book that is both a moving and a very funny read as it looks at the bonds between generations, the power of faith, the purpose of death, and the reasons for being alive.

Rachel was a contemporary of Hillel the Elder around the year 80 B.C.E. For that time, she was a well educated girl who worked with her father, a scribe. She was his messenger and went to from the Temple priests in Jerusalem. She was witty and a clever interpreter of Torah so much so that Elazar, son of the high priest took notice of her. Their subsequent love affair, that even continues after Rachel marries a scholar named Zakkai and has a son, who illness Rachel understands as a punishment for her relationship outside of marriage. To save his grandson’s life, the high priest, Elazar’s father conducts a ritual that condemns Elazar and Rachel to eternal life. The only way that can end their lived is through being offered as sacrifices.

Elazar and Rachel go through regeneration after regeneration, reborn again as 16-year-olds in a new part of the world. They try to avoid each other; they don’t reconnect, but are drawn together by passion and a need to speak about their shared curse.

In the 21st century, Rachel is incarnated as mother of two – a middle-aged good-for-nothing son and a brilliant biochemist daughter. Through a quirk of fate. Rachel’s daughter is researching longevity and believes she may have unlocked the secret to eternal life. Rachel sees the opposite possibility; if her daughter can prevent death, perhaps she can find the biological reason for her inability to die and help her finally to do so.

We get an intricate exploration of Rachel’s reasons for being alive. With each life, each marriage, and each child, she experiences a bit of hope for the future. She also experiences the mundane and boring aspects of life. as well as the mundane and repetitive aspects of life. She has lived over and over again through heartbreak with the repeated losses she goes through and the ennui of there being nothing new under the sun. She constantly repeats the cycle of attraction, marriage, reproduction and the death of loved ones, and she continues to create new life to influence the world through her heirs.

Rachel becomes a kind of “everywoman” who is able to deal with wherever she lives and during periods set apart by many years. During her early years she is totally and completely Jewish ands passionate about it. She loves God and also reflects on that. She is sure God exists since she is immortal and only God could have arranged something like that.

Horn’s universal protagonist can navigate ancient Judea, contemporary New York, and many eras and places in between. She’s progressive for her time, and, at least for the first few centuries, deeply and passionately Jewish. She reflects on how her love of God, whom she knows to exist as evidenced by her own immortality. She believed once in the commandment: “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” However, she often felt that this love was “sadomasochistic: seductive, cruel, and irresistible.”

Rachel is both worldly and world-weary and we see the humor in this while at the same realizing the emotional strain it puts on Rachel. The narrative moves from the present to past loves and losses and the reader experiences what Rachel experiences. We see her looking for solace in a human connection and this is what keeps her moving forward. All of us have experienced the miraculous and the mundane and in this we find reasons to continue on. Horn reminds us that it is through our actions and our progeny that we have the potential to repair our own lives and the world.

As a philosopher by profession I was immediately pulled into Dara Horn’s wonderful new book and so thankful that she has provided a topic that so badly needs to be spoken about.

By musing on sacredness, history, and purpose, Horn is able to give us a romantic, funny , witty and suspensful look at how we live. We, along with Rachel, meditate on the meaning of life while at the same time explore the future and memory. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

“The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East “ by Adam Valen Levinson— Exploring Muslim Lands

Levinson, Adam Valen. “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East “, W.W. Norton, 2017.

Exploring Muslim Lands

Amos Lassen

Adam Valen Levinson is a very brave young man. He has taken college courses in Arabic and is very curious so he decides to try to understand the world that we have grown to fear since 9/11. From a base in globalized and sterilized Abu Dhabi, he decides to have lunch in Taliban territory in Afghanistan. He travels under the eye of Syria’s secret police, risks shipwreck en route to Somalia, investigates Yazidi beliefs in a sacred cave, cliff dives in Oman, celebrates New Year’s Eve in Tahrir Square, and, at every turn, discovers places that do not match their reputations. He crosses borders while joking and seeks common interests with his “bros” everywhere. He finds that people who pray differently often laugh the same. He slowly learns how childish it is to live by decisions and distinctions born of fear.

His book is beautifully written and is funny and sad and analytical. The Middle East is a wonderful place—I lived there for many years—- but it is also supernatural and hard to describe to those who have not been there. Levinson, however, does so beautifully. He is able to bring together cultural immersion with personal reflection and makes this an entertaining true story. In effect, he gives us a primer about some of the darkest countries in the world. We see that there is little in the world today that is foreign. He brings the Middle East closer to us and as he does, he pushes away hatred and fear farther away by ignoring the clichés. What he finds is a humanity much deeper than expected. He shares aspects of his destinations’ histories with journalistic observations and personal thoughts and emotions . This is a well-written introspective look at Muslim countries that is filled with humanity and humor.

We do not often get the story of a young Jewish American man who throws himself in danger’s way as he explores the world of Islam. His experiences give insights into the reasons why the Middle East is so confusing to those of us in the western world.

“Tombstone: Not a Western” by Francis Levy— Spiritual Comedy or Comic Spirituality?

Levy, Francis, “Tombstone: Not a Western”, Black Rose Writing, 2018.

Spiritual Comedy or Comic Spirituality?

Amos Lassen

I must begin with a personal aside. I do not like books that tell me what they are in the title as if to get me ready for the read. With that said, let’s look at “Tombstone”, a very funny novel about the funeral business and it dares to go where few others will. Not since Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One” has death been dealt with so satirically as it is here. Let’s face it, death is really the last frontier and no one has been back to tell us what it is. It is and probably always will be a mystery and is not likely to be the topic for a comic novel. Writer Levy not only touches upon death but also upon success, marriage, spirituality and comforting the living after the death of a loved one. Levy decided to look at death through humor and its own absurdities and he well succeeds in doing so.

We meet Robert and Marsha Bernstein, a New York married couple as they make plans for leaving this world and check out the possibilities for how their deaths will be taken care so as not to bother their children with details (or costs). They look at cremation vs. burial (cremation is cheaper and does not require perpetual care). They go coffin shopping, talk with morticians, examine wills and trusts and even spend time at an Arizona resort that has funeral seminars and “death defying activities.” They want to make sure that their hearts and their finances are at the same places. We immediately see that humor enters the plot from all angles but we also sense the amount of thought it took to write a book like this. We must decide if Levy is making fun of one of the facts of life—death or is he just having fun. I found myself facing the question that we so many of us face after some one we care about dies and that is if it is indeed possible to find solace. The question of God also appears from time-to-time.

Levy looks at the reality of the funeral industry as well and we become really aware that dying is not a cheap activity. The funeral industry is a “rip-off” and there is no return on the money that changes hands. Once its gone, it is gone forever (but think what others would say about a cheap funeral). Besides that funerals disrupt regular days. Levy does give us some tongue-in-cheek ways of saving money and it is all so irreverent and fun. Comedy and spirituality join hands as the Bernsteins deal with their dead futures. as Robert and Marsha haplessly negotiate their way to the hereafter.

I suppose I have to excuse Levy for telling me this was not going to be a western before I read it but he must have known that I would laugh my way through the read.

“Alice in Shandehland” by Monda Halpern— Settling

Halpern, Monda. “Alice in Shandehland: Scandal and Scorn in the Edelson/Horwitz Murder Case”, McGill-Queen’s University Press , 2015.

Settling

Amos Lassen

In 1931, Ben and Alice Edelson had been married for twenty years and had seven children. Nonetheless, Alice had been having an affair with Jack Horwitz, a married man. On the night of November 24, Ben, Alice, and Jack met at Edelson Jewelers to “settle the thing.” Words were exchanged and a brawl erupted during which Jack was shot and killed. This brought about a sensational legal case that captured Ottawa headlines in which Edelson faced the death penalty. Through a detailed examination of newspaper coverage, interviews with family and community members, and evocative archival photographs, Monda Halpern has reconstructed a long-silenced murder case in Canada during the Depression. She contends that despite his crime, Ben Edelson was the object of far less contempt than his adulterous wife whose shame or disgrace (shandeh)-seemed indefensible.

Alice faced the censure of both the Jewish community and the courtroom while Ben’s middle-class respectability and the betrayal he suffered gained him favored standing and, ultimately, legal exoneration. The tensions around ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and class are looked at in detail here as the book explores the divergent reputations of Ben and Alice Edelson within the growing yet insular and tenuous Jewish community, and within a dominant culture that embraced male success and valor during the emasculating 1930s.

“Alice in Shandehland” is based on fine research and it is an excellently-written and illuminating portrait of Jewish life in Ottawa and the struggles toward a middle-class respectability. This is the story of the surprising investigation of a once-prominent scandal and the aftermath. It was a case, Halpern learned, that no one wanted to talk about and she had a difficult time interviewing surviving family members who were reluctant to talk. One of the surprises here is the extent of anti-Semitism in Ottawa at the time and it was shocking to read how the Jews were treated.

“Point… of the Pink Triangle” by David Edmonson— His Name Was 75224

Edmonson, David. “Point… of the Pink Triangle”, Beau to Beau Books, 2017.

His Name was 75224

Amos Lassen

The number 75224 that was to become his name was tattooed on his arm with a filthy needle and it would stay with him as a reminder of what he was forced to experience in the most infamous and notorious of Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz.

Pieter Belinsky was a handsome and spirited boy ho had grown up in a small village in Poland. He had no father and he was raised by a loving mother. They were forced into hiding and then transported where he was sexually and physically enslaved by a Block Commander at Auschwitz. His only chance of survival was by submission, chance and circumstance. He was forced to wear the pink triangle that labeled him as a homosexual. Homosexuals in the camps were considered to be inferior to everyone else. Those wearing the pink triangle were often given impossible work details, severely abused, beaten and tortured, and in some cases castrated.

When he was finally liberated and began a new life in Americas, Pieter became Peter Ballantine, star of the Broadway stage. When a chance encounter with his former Commandant in a hotel lobby in New York City gave him an opportunity for revenge made him wonder if that would avenge all that he had been through. It most certainly would not erase it.

He tells us of when the Lagerfhurer satisfied himself at the expense of a young and innocent Jew while he put thousands of others to death for social deviancy and for defiling the racial laws of the Nazi State.

 

Between the years of 1938-1944, 50,000 to 63,000 citizens of all nationalities were systematically rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Many were Jews, some were not, but all were further stigmatized and forced to wear the pink triangle that became known as the badge of shame. what became known as a badge of shame.