Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“FALSETTOS”— Live from Lincoln Center

“Falsettos”

Live From Lincoln Center

Amos Lassen

William Finn’s “Falsettos” is the story of Marvin who leaves his wife and young son to be with another man named Whizzer. Marvin fantasized that they can all be one happy family but his dream is shattered when he is diagnosed with AIDS. Set in 1992, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence and it was a time when violence against gay men and lesbian women was rabid in certain precincts. This is a story that touches every one deeply and although it starts out on a happy note, it ends on a very sad one.

The musical was originally produced in separate installments which would eventually make up the first and second acts of the combined show: “March of the Falsettos” at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis when Marvin has left his wife, Trina, for a man, Whizzer. This left Jason, his son, confused and moody. The second act, “Falsettoland”, was originally produced in 1990, and the pall that AIDS had cast over the intervening decade in the background. The characters and their sense of family now face devastating reality.

We sense the weight of the history of the gay community, of New York City, of the American sense of family and individuality as the musical moves forward. The tragedies of the second act hit us hard since we had already fallen in love with the characters in Act 1. When we consider how selfish and neurotic and self-obsessed the characters are, we wonder where this love comes from. Yet there’s a charm to everyone from Trina holding onto her sanity to Marvin and Whizzer’s combative yet deeply sexy chemistry.

The original production won Finn two Tony Awards, for Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical. This production has a wonderful cast that includes two-time Tony winner Christian Borle as Marvin; Stephanie J. Block as Trina; Andrew Rannells as Whizzer; Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel, the shrink who Trina later marries. All four received Tony nominations. Yes, there are many clichés here but we still laugh and cry all the way through.

“SCAFFOLDING”— Torn Between Two Worlds

 

“Scaffolding”

Torn Between Two Worlds

Amos Lassen

17-year- old ASHER has always been an impulsive troublemaker. It’s hard for him to concentrate in class, and he is filled of rage and violence. He also has a lot of charm and street wisdom. His strict father sees him as a natural successor to the family’s scaffolding business but Asher finds a different masculine role model in his gentle literature teacher Rami and has a special connection with him. Asher is torn between the two worlds and looks for a chance for a new life and new identity. Then a sudden tragedy takes place and he has to take the ultimate test of maturity.

Director Matan Yair had once been a teacher who believed that he could inspire his pupils by letting them follow their own path of self-discovery. One of his students was Asher who was the inspiration for this film.

Asher (Asher Lax) doesn’t care much for education and makes little effort to prepare for his final exams. Besides being a student, he helps his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) with his scaffolding business. Since Milo thinks that his son will take over the company one day, Asher doesn’t believe that he has any options for a different life available. But everything changes when Rami (Ami Smolartchik), a literature teacher, becomes his mentor and a role model. He helps Asher with his studies, and shows Asher that he has other options in life aside from his father’s business. Although the teacher gives it his all, he himself is also lost. One day, Rami suddenly disappears from the students’ lives and leaves them with nothing but anger and sadness. Asher has to decide if he will continue with what he has already set out to do and if it will give him enough inner confidence to try to find happiness and fulfillment.

This is a sincere and compelling portrait of a young man’s self-discovery. It is also an allegory for Asher’s life. Asher Lax gives an incredible performance and this is first shot at acting. Ami Smolartchik’s Rami is an honest, heartening performance. This Israeli-Polish co-production is a finely woven production with a profound ending.

“THE BOY DOWNSTAIRS”— Young Love

 

“The Boy Downstairs”

Young Love

Amos Lassen

Diana is forced to reflect on her first relationship when she inadvertently moves into her ex boyfriend’s apartment building. She has just returned to New York after living in London for the last four years. Finding an apartment in the city can be a nightmare, so when Diana finds the seemingly perfect place, but unfortunately, after moving in, she discovers her ex boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear) is her downstairs neighbor. We see that the two still have feelings for one another making this an interesting living situation.

Diana is an aspiring writer who works in a bridal shop to pay the bills, and in her spare time, she helps out her landlord, a retired actress (Deirdre O’Connell). Although she tries to use all these things as distractions, she can’t help but think Ben, despite her constant denial regarding the feelings she has for him. Ben has attempted to move on with his life and is dating a bitchy realtor who quickly sees the attraction between Ben and Diana and does her best to stop a reconnection from happening. Throughout the film, Diana looks for sage advice from her best friend Gabby (Diana Irvine) who has relationship troubles of her own.

Writer/director Sophie Brooks gives us a light, enjoyable romantic comedy that is a well-scripted, well-performed film. We see the magic and awkwardness of New York love through a strong dry humor and quirkiness. The screenplay is sharp, gritty, and real.

The best thing about the film is that aside from being a cute and engaging love story, it is sympathetic to audiences. It’s difficult thing to revisit past feelings, and Diana and Ben have a vulnerability that is very relatable.

“The Story of the Jews Volume Two: Belonging: 1492-1900” by Simon Shama— An Epic History

Schama, Simon. “The Story of the Jews Volume Two: Belonging: 1492-1900”, Ecco Books, 2017.

An Epic History

Amos Lassen

This is Simon Schama’s second volume of his illustrated cultural history of the Jewish people. In the first volume, we realized that this is the story of endurance against destruction and it shows the

creativity of the Jews as they faced oppression and affirmed life even dealing with terrible issues. The story of the Jews spans and we read the

philosophical musings of Spinoza and poetry written on slips of paper in concentration camps. We go into detail about the Enlightenment and we see the Diaspora that transforms a country. We meet Freud and see his place in our history. a Viennese psychiatrist forever changes the conception of the human mind.

This is, however, not the story of a people apart but rather the story of a Jewish culture totally immersed in and imprinted by the peoples among whom they have lived making this the story of all of us.

Schama gives us 24 pages of color photos, numerous maps, and printed endpapers. We sense the author’s pride in his people. Schama gives us a new way of reading history and even though the book is quite thick (790 pages), it reads easily and quickly.

“The Book of Norman” by Allan Appel— Sibling Rivalry

Appel, Allan. “The Book of Norman, A Novel”, Mandal Vilar, 2017.

Sibling Rivalry

Amos Lassen

In Allan Appel’s “The Book of Norman”, a sibling rivalry begins when brothers Norman and Jon Gould compete for their dead father’s soul. Norman is a recent drop-out from the New York Jewish Seminary, who now wants to experience what he missed while being in the seminary and that is a lot since the novel is set during the Summer of Love when sex, love and rock and roll were happening right outside his window. up on his generation’s sex, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. His brother Jon gets short hair cut, sells his stash of grass and begins conversion to become a Mormon. Norman tries to pull his brother back to Judaism while Jon tries to prove to Norman that Mormonism is the true path. This is a fun and irreverent look at American religious difference.

Both sons struggle with sharing their new religious approaches to their Jewish mother, a recent widow who already has a boyfriend just ten months after the death of her husband and which Norman is none too happy about. The focus of the novel is Norman and Jon’s deceased father’s soul. They argue over whether their father should be converted to Mormonism after his death so that he can have a Mormon afterlife, which Jon prefers, or whether Norman should say Caddish to keep his father’s soul in a Jewish afterlife (even though he is leery about any type of afterlife). It seems that the status and location of a person’s soul has more significance in the Mormon faith than in Judaism says Jon and Mormon elders. Even though he has dropped out of rabbinical school Norman does not believe in souls in the first place but he becomes passionate about the state of his father’s soul and this changes his relationship with his brother forever. brother.

Norman and Jon come home for the summer to work at a Jewish day camp While at camp, they meet two beautiful Israeli female counselors and Norman becomes sexually obsessed with them. Jon goes in the opposite direction and does not look at the women who tend to des immodestly. Jon notices that there is something unusual about the women since they turn up at certain places and events that are important to Norman, including a Shabbat service and during a tense and strange basketball game between Mormons and Jews to determine the status of his father’s soul. Norman thinks that they must be angels and refers to them as angels throughout the book.

Writer Allan Appel takes us into the mind of Norman and we see that he is a confused, young man who is trying to find out just who he is. In leaving rabbinic Judaism, he becomes indulgent as he leaves the kosher laws behind but not to worry— Norman and Jon both realize that it is impossible to leave their Jewish roots and culture.

 

“The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Judaism” edited by David Biale and Jack Miles— An Intense Primer

Biale, David and Jack Miles (editors). “The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Judaism”, W.W Norton, 2015.

An Intense Primer

Amos Lassen

I have been as Jew my entire life and while this statement does not say much, I feel compelled to say that I never finish studying about my religion. When I saw that Norton had published this volume, I was anxious to see it.

“The Norton Anthology of Religion” is made up of six volumes about the six major, living, international world religions and are edited by scholars under the direction of Pulitzer Prize–winner Jack Miles.” They us a flexible library of more than 1,000 primary texts from the world’s major religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Taken together, the volumes unite foundational works of works such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Daode jing, the Bible, the Torah and the Qur’an with the writings of scholars, seekers, believers, and skeptics “whose voices have kept these religions vital for centuries”. The selections are supported by the meticulously prepared apparatus including introductions, explanatory annotations, bibliographies, maps, and glossaries.

“The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Judaism” brings together over 300 texts from pre-Israelite Mesopotamia to post-Holocaust Israel and America. Jack Miles’s general introduction of “How the West Learned to Compare Religions” is illuminating as is David Biale’s “Israel among the Nations,” a fascinating primer on Jewish history and the core teachings of Judaism.

“Jewish New York: The Remarkable Story of a City and a People”— The Definitive History of Jews in New York and How They Transformed the City

Various. “Jewish New York: The Remarkable Story of a City and a People”, NYU Press, 2017.

The Definitive History of Jews in New York and How They Transformed the City

Amos Lassen

“Jewish New York” shows us the multifaceted world of the city. Jews have been in New York for some 300 years and have become one of one of the city’s most important ethnic and religious groups. We follow them from the earliest arrival of Jews in New Amsterdam to the recent immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union.                         

Jewish immigrants have transformed New York and they continue to do so. They built its clothing industry and constructed blocks of apartment buildings. New York Jews have helped to make the city the center of the nation’s publishing industry and shaped popular culture in music, theater, and the arts. Their strong sense of social justice, dedication to civil rights and civil liberties, and a belief in the duty of government to provide social welfare for all its citizens, shows how the city’s Jews have influenced the city, state, and nation with social activism. 

This works both ways and we see here that New York “transformed Judaism and stimulated religious pluralism, Jewish denominationalism, and contemporary feminism. The city’s neighborhoods hosted unbelievably diverse types of Jews, from Communists to Hasidim.”   

We not only get a description of the many positive influences on New York, but we also get a look at how the Jews struggled with poverty and anti-Semitism.  Because of these injustices, Jews “reinforced an exemplary commitment to remaking New York into a model multiethnic, multiracial, and multi-religious world city.” 

Jews have been, and remain, central to the life of New York City. The book covers topics such as religion, politics, popular culture and gender. And gives us a clear understanding of Jewish experiences and the history of New York as it explores the streets, synagogues, politics, and organizations of the city.

“SURVIVING PEACE”— Achieving By Understanding

“SURVIVING PEACE”

Achieving By Understanding

Amos Lassen

History has taught us time and again that peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. In the situation between Israel and Palestine, this does not seem to be happening and it is probably because tempers are hot and what has happened in the past has not been forgotten. Personally, as an Israeli citizen, I do not see how it is possible to forget the tremendous number of soldiers that fell in Israel’s wars for peace.

“Surviving Peace” asks Israelis and Palestinians (extremely resourceful and innovative peoples in every other field of endeavor) why they suffer from dull and nonproductive thinking, lack of imagination and innovation when it comes to achieving peace with each other.

Director Josef Avesar draws on his own experiences as an Israeli-Jewish-Arab-American to nvestigate the controversy and suggest a way out. The film was shot in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and the United States and goes deeply into the core issues driving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and

proposes that the two sides, as well as the U.S. and the international community, cease from attempting to repeat formulas for peace that have already failed in the past and proposes the creation of a third independent government, a confederation for the people of Israel and Palestine, to solve problems together while each retains its own original government. It even proposes constitutional arrangements that will allow the two sides to cooperate without sacrificing core needs or their desire for national sovereignty. The documentary argues that the best way to resolve the conflict is to emphasize what the two sides have in common, instead of what sets them apart. The film challenges basic beliefs by revealing a path to a just and lasting peace.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is already over a century old and is one of the world’s major sources of instability. Attempts to make peace have perpetuated hatred and violence and the prevailing Two State formula has proven a failure. The “Peace Makers” seem to be moving in the wrong direction, thus causing scholars to question whether the Two-State formula is dead.

Israelis and Palestinians share similar cultural, historic and biblical roots, but remain distant. Yet even with the physical and emotional estrangement; the two maintain a fascination and mystical attraction to one another. Their conflict has gone on for so long that the world seems to accept it as permanent., Israelis and Palestinians are interwoven in their violence and animosity for each other

Surviving Peace features candid interviews with major Israeli and Palestinian leaders, along with government officials and thinkers; some of who make surprising admissions. “Israelis and the Palestinians are both extremely resourceful and innovative people in every other field of endeavor but when it comes to peace, they have to deal with “stagnated thinking and lack of innovation”. The film offers a solution and will change the way you think about the conflict.

We see and hear interviews with Uri Avneri, Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement; Muhammad al-Madani, head of the Palestinian ministry for ‘interaction with Israeli society,’ Israeli Statesman and scholar Dr. Yossi Beilin, and Palestinian diplomat Saeb Muhammad Salih Erekat who served as chief of the PLO Steering and Monitoring Committee until 2011 among others.

“PARADISE”— The Devastation of War

“PARADISE”

The Devastation of War

Amos Lassen

“Paradise” is the story of Olga, Jules and Helmut, whose paths cross during the time of war. Olga is a Russian aristocratic immigrant and member of the French Resistance who is arrested during a surprise raid by Nazi police for hiding Jewish children during a surprise raid. Sent to jail, she meets Jules, a French-Nazi collaborator who is assigned to investigate her case. As they meet, he grows fond of Olga and offers to go light on her punishment in exchange for sexual favors. Although Olga agrees, her hopes for freedom quickly fade when she is sent to a concentration camp. There she finds Helmut, a high-ranking German SS officer who once fell madly in love with her and still has feelings for her. They re-kindle their old flame and set out on a twisted and destructive relationship. Helmut resolves to rescue Olga and offers her an escape that she had already stopped thinking about as a possibility. However, as time passes, and the fate of Nazi defeat looms, Olga’s notion of paradise is changes once again.

One of the most terrifying moments of our generation’s history was the rise of the Nazi party and the extermination of millions of Jews and others who did not fit into the Nazi ideal of a ‘perfect’ German ‘paradise’. Nazi atrocities show us the depths of mankind’s capabilities for evil and although these events happened in the past, the same kind of radical and hateful thinking is apparent today and threatening the lives and safety of many. This film is a reflection on a twentieth century filled with great illusions that are buried in ruins and the dangers of hateful rhetoric and the need for mankind to use the power of love to triumph over evil. It is our duty to never forget the terrible and inconvenient truths of history so that we do not repeat them.

Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Paradise” (“Rai”) is a somber and ambitious tale of love and loss with strong performances and outstanding cinematography. Confinement is a constant leitmotif from the very first shot, as Russian noblewoman Olga (Julia Vysotskaya) is arrested and imprisoned in occupied France for helping to shelter a pair of Jewish children. The next day, she is politely quizzed by bourgeois mid-ranking police officer Jules (Christian Duquesne), a family man who makes no effort to hide his infatuation with her.

Sensing her opportunity, Olga sensually reciprocates but Jules is assassinated by Resistance fighters shortly before their planned tryst and she ends up in an unidentified concentration camp run by the bullying Krauss (Peter Kurth). However, her luck takes a turn when the camp’s shady financial operations are audited by Helmut (Christian Clauss), an aristocratic old flame. Their romance is rekindled but under very different circumstances. Sensing that the tide of war is quickly turning against the Nazis, they plot their escape to the colony of Nueva Germania in Paraguay.

As the war heads toward its ugly end, things do not go well for Helmut. There is an unforgettable shot of him smoking a cigar while the world explodes around him, Olga, however, pulls off a redemptive act of noble sacrifice that takes us to the film’s closing images.

The most inventive touch in the film is that the events seen are interspersed with first-person narrations by the three lead characters, each in what looks like prison uniforms and we realize that these narrations are actually given by the characters in some sort of afterlife, as alluded to in the title.

“Paradise” depicts events partly from the point of view of a charming fanatic of the Nazi cause, who nevertheless understands that the Hitler’s idea of utopia is a corrupt sham. The beautiful black and white cinematography of Alexander Simonov and the meticulousand careful framing of the shots make the film a visual feast as it permeates more than one metaphysical level.

“WINTERHUNT” (“WINTERJAGD”)— A Psycho Thriller

“Winter Hunt” (“Winterjagd)

A Psycho-thriller

Amos Lassen

One cold, wintry night, Lena (Carolyn Genzkow) shows up at the Rossberg family mansion. She claims her car has broken down, but her arrival is intentional. Lena is in pursuit of Anselm Rossberg (Michael Degen), an aged Auschwitz guard who lives with his daughter Maria (Elisabeth Degen). Anselm and Maria both deny Anselm’s past, but Lena is determined to get him to confess. At first Maria denies her father’s guilt. At the same time, the story of Anselm Rossberg is being dealt with in the media.

Maria tries to get rid Lena but Maria, who has been living in the shadow of her overpowering father and his controversial past for decades now wants to find the true motives of the young woman. And when Lena brings a horrendous charge against Rossberg at a relentless family court and Rossberg pleads for his life as his daughter faces a great moral decision.

The film by director Astrid Schult tells the story of three people and three generations.Anselm Rossberg is 90-years-old and at first Maria tries to defend him by saying that he is not at home. However, Lena finds him and threatens him at gunpoint. She accuses him boldly about his role at Auschwitz and we see that it is not only Maria who faces a moral dilemma but so do Lena and Rossberg.

The film is very tense and viewers sit on the edge of their seats as we too become part of the moral crisis.I find myself having great difficulty trying to assess the quality of the film since it affects us so deeply. This is not a film that is comfortable to watch but it is an important film as we realize that it is not always easy to understand another generation that was determined to see the end of the Jewish people.