Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Jew­ish Intel­lec­tu­al Tra­di­tion: A His­to­ry of Learn­ing and Achievement” by Alan Kadish, Michael A. Shmidman and Simcha Fishbane— A Survey of the Jewish Intellectual Mind

Kadish, Alan, Michael A. Shmidman and Simcha Fishbane. “The Jew­ish Intel­lec­tu­al Tra­di­tion: A His­to­ry of Learn­ing and Achievement”, Academic Studies Press, 2020.

A Survey of the Jewish Intellectual Mind

Amos Lassen

The history of the Jews is also the history of the Jewish intellectual tradition with its long and complex history that has brought significant and influential works of scholarship to the world. Alan Kadish, Michael A. Shmidman and Simcha Fishbane, our authors here suggest that there is a series of common principles that can be extracted from the Jewish intellectual tradition and these principles have life-changing, implications for individual and societal achievement. “Respect for tradition while encouraging independent, often disruptive thinking; a precise system of logical reasoning in pursuit of the truth; universal education continuing through adulthood; and living a purposeful life” and discussed her and seen as these principles. We understand the historical development of them and to are shown that applying them judiciously can lead to greater intellectual productivity, an existence that is more fulfilling and a society that is more advanced. 

Jews have excelled in all kinds of schol­ar­ship and we are reminded of that here. Kadish, Shmid­man, and Fish­bane claim that the Jew­ish com­mit­ment to intel­lec­tu­al­ism is part of our his­to­ry and crit­i­cal to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. The book is divided into two dis­tinct sec­tions; chart the his­to­ry of Jew­ish thought from its ear­li­er iter­a­tions until mod­ern day and an analysis of the com­mon themes found in Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al history.

Focus is six key time peri­ods , from medieval Spain to the con­tem­po­rary peri­od, and we  explore the sig­nif­i­cance and impact that the par­tic­u­lar books might have had on read­ers. The authors con­dens­e many top­icsincludingthe impact of Mai­monides and the birth of mod­ern Ortho­doxy into just a few pages. Infor­ma­tion is thought­ful­ly presented and it allows us to fill our personal libraries with important works. build­ing a robust book­shelf before their read­ers’ eyes. Through short­ened expla­na­tions of mys­ti­cal texts, and ear­ly mod­ern trends, there is a lot here. This is a help­ful intro­duc­tion to Jew­ish thought, Jew­ish his­to­ry and literature. We cover the world and time to see why Jews have been so suc­cess­ful in intellectual life through balancing “prece­dence and inde­pen­dent think­ing, the use of log­ic to get to a greater truth, the impor­tance of edu­ca­tion, and the use of knowl­edge and learn­ing for a high­er purpose.”

Throughout history,  secular and religious Jews have ben­e­fit­ed from the cul­ture that holds esteem for these val­ues. The two sections of the book depend upon each other and while they can be read separately, they really go together. The first por­tion is a wonderful resource and pro­vides the nec­es­sary back­ground to under­stand the authors’ lat­er analysis. This is an “impor­tant new way to look at Jew­ish his­to­ry and help us under­stand exact­ly what comes out of being the ​“peo­ple of the book.”

 

 

 

“The Book of Anna” by Joy Ladin— Empathy, Trauma and God

 

Ladin, Joy. “The Book of Anna”, EOAGH Books, 2020.

Empathy, Trauma and God

Amos Lassen

Joy Ladin writes in the voice of Anna Ach Asher, a fictional Czech-German Jew who spent her teen years in a concentration camp and now lives in 1950s Prague. She answers phones for the secret police.

In “The Book of Anna”,  she writes about her present and past, living under a totalitarianism and having experiences the horrors of a concentration camp. She deals with the issues of empathy and suffering, trauma and God.  These are the same issues  that many of us face today especially because we never thought that they would be part of our present lives.  She keeps a prose diary in which she writes autobiographical poems that examine her present state and how she has to deal with it. She shares her process of writing as well as details about her life including sharing thoughts about how she interacts with neighbors, her obsessive sexual behavior, her smoking, and how she explores Jewish tradition.  We read about her attempts to deal with horror, survival, and what comes afterwards.

She reflects onher pre-war love of a Heidegger-reading yeshiva student, on the women who saved her life in Barracks 10 and on the Biblical “song made of songs” where she finds the absence of God yet where the rabbis see God everywhere. She attempts to find a reason to live after having experienced the horrible fates that she dealt with and says that the reason that she has written these poems to rise above having had her poetry rejected for publication. “I can’t blame him for finding my lyrics unattractive… My muse is rage, not beauty”. We are punched in the gut with that very first diary entry.

I am totally in love with the way that Ladin uses the language and imagery of sacred Jewish texts including the Biblical story of Tamar, Talmudic disputation, the imagery of the Song of Songs, mystical texts about golems and psalms that we use for the celebration of Sabbath.

While Anna experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust, this is about so much more and is really about what it takes to survive after one has lost all; every shred of faith and humanity. Naturally we feel the bitterness in Anna’s voice but we also sense the brutal honesty with which she writes. She deals with an omnipotent, omniscient God who seems not to understand the creation and yet who accepts prayer of praise and lament.

This is the second edition of a book that has become one of theclassic texts of trans literature and it has a new afterword by the author in which Ladin looks at her reflecting on this book’s importance for her own development of poetics and identity. And as Anna reflects on her life so does the reader reflect. Memory after memory came rushing back to me as I read and I was both shattered and uplifted at the same time. Anna is an unforgettable person yet she adds so much to how we value the poetry of Jewish America.

Ladin follows Anna’s as she tries to find something  that will let her continue to live. She ultimately does but only after a heart-wrenching journey that lets her become whole. What you might not expect is that this is a love story in which Anna learns to live. We are all so lucky to have had the chance to travel with her. She responded to the Jewish ideal of “CHOOSE LIFE”. I understand that Joy Ladin wrote “The Book of Anna” during her gender transition and faced the same questions that she did and herein is the book’s total relevance for today.

“Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures” by Moshe Koppel— Explaining Traditional Judaism

Koppel, Moshe. “Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures”, Maggid, 2020.

Explaining Traditional Judaism

Amos Lassen

Moshe Koppel’s “Judaism Straight Up” explores the central differences between traditional societies, including traditional Judaism, and contemporary cosmopolitan ones. We get an explanation of traditional Jewish morality, tradition and belief and understand how these surpassed cosmopolitanism by advancing cooperation, fairness, and freedom. For those of us who wrestle with Judaism and our commitment to it while still living a modern life, there is a lot to be learned here. As we well know, reconciliation between the two can be difficult because of  certain norms and belief that are part of both. While the main focus is on tradition, other topics are also considered through witty prose and the author’s scientific sensibility.

Koppel maintains “that Torah living fits universal and western values far better than much that is associated with modern, secular, “liberal,” politically correct lifestyles.”  He takes is back to the sources — both Jewish and general and we get an enjoyable read in just 195 pages. Here is a study of religious life in a society that is fragmented and his defense of Judaism is very real and very well thought out.

 

“FRAU STERN”— Ending It All

“FRAU STERN”

Ending It All

Amos Lassen

Frau Stern is almost 90 years old and she still has all her faculties. However, she wants to die. She’s been through the holocaust, and even though she’s not really tired of life, she’s done everything she needs to. The film “Frau Stern” is about her search through Berlin for a way to kill herself or so we think.  While this is a semi-documentary, we also see that there was a lot of improvisation going on. Anatol Schuster directed the recently deceased Ahuva Sommerfield as Stern who brings us quite a performance.

 “I want to die” are the first words we hear Stern tell her doctor who assures her that she is vital. He replies by telling her that living until 90 is a gift and she should enjoy it. Mrs. Stern takes out cigarettes and replies, “If you don’t help me, I’ll help myself!”. Many more memorable one-liners will follow, always wavering between sarcasm and wisdom. We see a harmonious mix of closeness to reality, black humor and absurdity. Ms. Stern is not only an exceptional character piece, but also a study of the environment. The neighborhood pictures that Schuster and his cameraman Adrian Campean capture are both style-conscious and undisguised; the boundaries between fiction and documentary film appear fluid. As Ms. Stern sits in her smoke-filled local pub or in her apartment or walks through the streets, we see some of the most sincere scenes of Berlin. The sincerity of how the film deals with the death wish is amazing. Stern was the only member of her family who survived the Holocaust and she has also lost her beloved husband. The humor in connection with the serious subject of the film arises rather from the lacony of Ms. Stern who lets those around her know that she would like to acquire a gun to shoot herself with. But nobody wants to sell her a gun. When she lies down on the tracks in a remote location and waits for a train, “unfortunately” a friendly dog ​​owner is quickly on the spot to help her up.

Ms. Stern talks about the desire for self-determination; she deals with trauma and grief, shows family conflicts and lived life. We sense that Sommerfeld also incorporated her own biography into her interpretation, and we see the admiration that Schuster shows her as a screenwriter and director. The film is free from bitterness and full of moments in which Ms. Stern interacts with her fellow human beings and builds closeness in her very own, rough way. There are also vocal interludes, seemingly surreal passages – nothing follows a formula. “Ms. Stern” is a courageous, very lively piece of cinema.

“The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God” by Rabbi Mark Sameth— A New Look at God

Sameth, Mark. “The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God”, Wipf and Stock, 2020.

A New Look at God

Amos Lassen

Until quite recently the God of Israel had been referred to in the masculine. Rabbi Mark Sameth shows us that the God of ancient Israelwas understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered, male-female deity. Today about 50% of the people in this world are followers of one of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and each of these has roots in the ancient cult that worshiped this God whose Hebrew name, YHWH, has not been said aloud in public for over two thousand years. Rabbi Sameth traces the name to the late Bronze Age and argues that it was expressed “Hu-Hi” which isHebrew for “He-She.” For Jewish mystics, this has long been an open secret. 

Reading “The Name” is akin to reading a mystery novel. It is filled with twists and turns as we venture into the idea of faith. We have tradition, revolution, history, philosophy, myth, rationality and irrationality all in one book and it is an exciting read that will have you questioning some of the ideas that you have always believed. It is not often that I read an entire book in one sitting but I did so with “The Name”.

We read about the nature of sexuality and the Divine and as we do webetter understand the Jewish concept of God. We follow the existence of the Jewish people through its history beginning with Abraham and Moses, the Priestly caste in the Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. While the Jews were in the Diaspora that followed, the rabbis wrestled with the language of the Torah and God’s gender. It appears that the Torah, at times, uses the masculine and at other times it refers to the feminine traits of God and God’s name. We approach the King James translation when God was given the “ineffable name”. of God.” We ultimately see the importance of gender in God’s eyes of the Divine and the surprise is that it was always there but we didn’t see it.

Written for everyone, in fast moving praise with a bit of humor,  Rabbi Sameth pulls us in and takes us on an unforgettable journey and we see the play with language in the Torah. We come to understand that our bible was written for a specialized group that could easily see the many word tricks in it including hidden references, allusion and coding. Here are the influences, secrets, and documents that until now have brought about our beliefs about the nature of God.

“SHALOM TAIWAN”— Keeping the Temple Open

“SHALOM TAIWAN”

Keeping the Temple Open

Amos Lassen

Part traditional comedy, part tourist spot, Walter Tejblum’s Shalom Taiwan humorously portrays a rabbi’s efforts to keep his temple open even if he has to travel to the other side of the world. Rabbi Aaron (Fabian Rosenthal)  is an ambitious man with big dreams. He is willing to give up everything to grow the temple and the social work that surround it. His mentor left him some very big shoes to fill when he was in charge of leading his community and all that that Judaism represents.

So Rabbi Aaron embarked on a major project to renovate and expand the building but this is a dream that can only be attained only achievable by taking on a significant debt with a financier, who despite having promised to be flexible to renegotiate when the time comes, as the due date approaches, claims to collect the full amount without leaving room for delays, because the economic situation no longer the same as when they made the agreement.

Using the same financial crisis as an excuse, the regular donors have stopped contributing and the rabbi sees no way to prevent the temple building from being used as collateral for the debt. When he is already desperate and about to give up, a friend approaches him with a rather unlikely plan but this is the Rabbi’s last card to play. The idea is to connect with a Jewish community in Taiwan that according to plan is made up of very wealthy, people who would be able to help financially and quickly. Wasting no time, the rabbi embarks on a journey to the other side of the world, from where he is forced to put into perspective many of the actions that led him to that point, especially those that made him neglect his family.

Rosenthal carries all the dramatic weight of the film and he is indeed a  charismatic protagonist. As the rabbi, he portrays the optimism and passion that sustains a fairly simple plot that alternates between the family comedy and a Taiwanese tourist.

The film is funny in a quite tender and familiar way. It does at times feel fragmented but we can overlook that and just enjoy a film that requires no thought and provides entertainment.

 

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“Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress” by Leonard Greenspoon— Evaluating Translations

Greenspoon, Leonard. “Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress”, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

Evaluating Translations

Amos Lassen

Leonard Greenspoon’s “Jewish Bible Translations” is the first book to examine Jewish Bible translations from the third century BCE to our day. “It is an overdue corrective of an important story that has been regularly omitted or downgraded in other histories of Bible translation.”

Greenspoon examines a wide range of translations over twenty-four centuries through the historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious contexts of versions in eleven languages: Arabic, Aramaic, English, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish. He looks at many Jewish translators including Buber, Hirsch, Kaplan, Leeser, Luzzatto, Mendelssohn, Orlinsky, and Saadiah Gaon and shows their “their aspirations within the Jewish and larger milieus in which they worked.”

He examines principles, styles, and techniques and their choice to emphasize either literal reflections of the Hebrew or distinctive elements of the vernacular language and their underlying rationales. Here are new insights about their shared characteristics and the limits they faced and we see how Jewish translators and interpreters influenced the style and diction of the King James Bible.

Accessible and authoritative for all from beginners to scholars, Jewish Bible Translations enables readers to make their own informed evaluations of individual translations and to holistically assess Bible translation within Judaism.

“Esther in America” by Dr. Stuart Halpern— The Impact of the Scroll of Esther

Halpern, Dr. Stuart, editor.  “Esther in America”, Maggid, 2020.

The Impact of the Scroll of Esther

Amos Lassen

“The Scroll of Esther” or Megillat Esther has been an inspiration throughout history. It has had great impact on this country. Rabbis and ethicists, abolitionists and artists, preachers and presidents, have understood and used the text to speak to an issue that was taking place. “It has offered solace to immigrants, forged solidarity, impacted politics” and individuals have realized that deliverance and salvation comes from our own actions and how we relate to what is going on both personally and nationally. Today, once again, America finds itself having to deal with the limits of power, gender issues, bigotry and antisemitism and the implosion of our republic.  The scroll of Esther, shows us how to find the strength and the will to deal with such issues but it is up to us to open our eyes and our minds to it.

 “Esther in America” looks at the inspiration that has been gained from the scroll from as far back as the story of Sojourner Truth and Puritan society when women took the initiative to find a way from the problems that they were forced to deal with. We later see the Feminist Esther as we relook at the story of Vashti as a women who dared to say no to a man who was above her. Women in Persia were silenced until both Vashti and Esther exercised their mouths to stand up to the powers that were.

Moving to the Diaspora, we see the expansion of the role of women who dared, like Esther, and stand up for themselves. We look at pop culture and see how the example of a strong woman influenced women to be who they were. We see their roles in presidential politics as first ladies and influences on their husbands and male peers and we look at today’s morality and see how the classic story of Purim has influenced the world today. The Biblical text has become a way to look at courage and ingenuity as far back as the Revolutionary War and still serves as such today. What we really see is that we must use what we have for good and that we all have the ability to do as Esther did and speak out and act. The Megillah has left its impression on the history of this country.

 

“Loss & Legacy: The Half-Century Quest To Reclaim A Birthright Stolen By The Nazis” by Sam A. Gronner— Reclamation

Gronner, Sam A. “Loss & Legacy: The Half-Century Quest To Reclaim A Birthright Stolen By The Nazis”, Full Court Press, 2020.

Reclamation

Amos Lassen

Even though I have great interest in the philosophical aspects of the Holocaust, I must admit that I have a really hard time reading personal accounts of the way Jews were treated by Nazi Germany. Therefore I approached Sam Gronner’s “Loss and Legacy” with apprehension and was not prepared to be drawn in on the very first page. His story of his and his father’s journey to gain reparations for what was stolen from them by the Nazi regime is an amazing and spellbinding chronicle.

John Gronner was the son of the Jewish owners of a prominent clothing store in the small German town of Ilmenau. Gronner’s son spent his life seeking to get back the property and good name of his family after the Holocaust. The Gronner family was able to achieve financial success before the rise of Nazi power but were soon shunned by neighbors and subjected to economic boycott. Nazi laws forced them to give up their business and soon after they faced deportation and execution. The Nazis were determined to erase the Jewish family from history but through sheer determination of the surviving son, this became impossible. Gronner , the son, was set upon making right the grievous ways his family had been treated and in doing so he created his own legacy by becoming an advocate against bigotry and the silence of the ages.

We go back to Ilmenau, a small town in the German state of Thuringia where we meet Helene and Samuel Gronner who by 1929 had managed to achieve economic success and social prominence.  They had built two floors of showrooms of men’s and women’s fashions. Following years of inflation, they were able to bring to the local retail economy a new sense of success and optimism. But it did not last— within the next year, they were boycotted and shunned by the villagers around them. This was because the ideology of the Nazi Party rose with local elections and being Jewish in such an environment excluded the Gronners from all aspects of daily life and demanded that Jewish owned businesses be boycotted and that was just the beginning. Their son was soon the object of overt hatred at school and it got so bad that his parents decided to have him further pursue his education in Palestine where he would study for a degree in mechanical engineering. With the advent of World War II, the family lost communication with him and in 1942, the Gronners were deported from their home.

As we read, we face questions including the usual one of how this could have happened. Sam Gronner has done extensive research to bring his family’s story to us. He uses his own childhood memories as well as documents, photos and memorabilia as he writes of his father’s journey to reclaim the family’s inheritance stolen which had been stolen by the anti-Semitic laws. He wants to bring back the good reputation his family had back then in Ilmenau and to make sure that it was not erased by the Nazis who thought that by killing the family its name would be gone forever. It is, as if, we are on the journey with Gronner as we leave Germany for Palestine following his father’s service in the British army to fight the Nazis and the role he played as Israel fought for independence. Here is a look at the Holocaust through the eyes and emotions of a family directly affected by it. . Sam A. Gronner felt that he had to share this story so that we can better understand the plight of a Jewish family against insurmountable odds. It certainly affected him.

Because of its content, this is not an easy read but it is an important one. Written in a way that captures the reader, I had a hard time putting it down and in fact, I read it straight through in one reading. I am still thinking about what I experienced as I read.

“Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity” edited by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner and Sarah J. Ricklan— An Open Discussion of Orthodox Jewish Women and Sexuality

Cohen, Rivka, Sara Rozner and Sarah J. Ricklan (editors). “Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity”, Ben Yehudah Press, 2020.

An Open Discussion of Orthodox Jewish Women and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

“Monologues From the Makom” is “a collection of first-person poetry and prose designed to break the observant Jewish community’s taboo against open discussion of female sexuality” written by observant Jewish women. Wherever I turned, it seemed, women were testing the limits of what could be openly discussed and explored.

Some of the topics such as female same-sex attraction and masturbation are delicate and have their problems in the values of Orthodox Judaism and Jewish law. Most of the articles, however, are thoughtful and restrained reflections on periods, birth control, postpartum recovery, negiah (Jewish laws of touching), inclusion in ritualistic Jewish life, and consent.

The Internet, podcasts, and social media “influencers” have spoken openly and candidly on these topics and the proliferation of female Halachic advisers and more formalized sex education in yeshiva high schools heralded the publication of this book. These developments happened slowly carefully weigh of the value of speaking openly about issues in a community in modesty is a sacred value.

Of course, there are detractors of open dialogue and early education who feel that bringing these issues to light normalizes thus leading to less-than-ideal Halachic implications. However, anyone with experience parenting and educating young people knows how adults feel and children behave are rarely in-sync. At any age, there is often dissonance between religious and cultural norms and lived experiences.

This is an important book for Jewish feminism and a large step into a world where the voices and experiences of women must be heard and heeded. It explores the tensions between religious norms and the experiences of young Jewish women. Additionally, it should also be read by men.