Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary” by Jonathan Lerner— A Contemplative Memoir

Lerner, Jonathan. “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary”, OR Books, 2017.

A Contemplative Memoir

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Lerner was a founding member of the militant Vietnam-Era group the Weathermen. Hid memoir is an important addition to literature about the New Left in the Sixties and Seventies and the famous Weather Underground as well as essential reading for progressives struggling with how to act and survive in the Age of Trump.

Lerner gives us a very powerful account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology but there is also something else her. Lerner is a gay man and Weather Underground. At this point you might ask how could Lerner have hidden his sexuality for so long?

Lerner is a brutally honest, worldly, self-reflective gay raconteur who had once been an officer in an underground guerrilla army that was dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. He has unbelievable true stories from the ‘revolution’ of fifty years ago. His short book chronicles the rise and fall of one of America’s most notorious radical groups of the Vietnam Era. Today, Lerner is a journalist specializing in environment and urbanism and chair of Hudson Valley’s Conservation Advisory Council but he had been the minister of propaganda for the Weather organization as well as the editor of its publication “Fire!”. He has changed and today he speaks out against the group’s misogyny and violence, but agrees with its rejection of the Vietnam War and endemic racism.

Today he lives a quiet, small-town life with his husband. He came to radicalism, like so many others of his generation as a result of the Vietnam War. In 1967 he was a student at Antioch University, a product of a liberal Jewish family. He fell in love with the shock tactics of guerrilla street theater but realizes that doing something like what he did is objectionable. The members of his underground went on to rob banks and bomb draft boards. He seems himself as a revolutionary “compromised by the desire to keep out of trouble”. He was once willing to endorse the most drastic actions but was not willing to dirty his hands.

As he gained awareness of himself as a gay man who had other battles to fight (“in those days admitting to being gay was an enormous humiliation” and in some cases illegal and considered a mental illness), Lerner distanced himself from the Weather movement that ultimately disintegrated in the mid-1970s.

Lerner’s dishes about now-well-known radicals and probes the impulses that led a small group of educated, privileged young Americans to turn to violence as a means of political change. He also tells the true story of “an intellectually adventurous but insecure gay man immersed in the macho, misogynistic and physically confrontational environment of the Weathermen”.

Sometimes known as the Weather Underground, the Weathermen, or Weatherman, the group unleashed a series of bombings across the United States, attacking the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the U.S. State Department, among many other places. At its height, the organization consisted of several hundred people, all committed to violent change and toe-to-toe battles with the police.

Lerner invented himself first as “minister of propaganda” for the movement and participated in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba and he saw the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee. He then became an expensive gay hustler (My mother have said, “What a tragedy for a Jewish guy”), and shares American journey from idealism to destruction and beyond. There have been other memoirs from Weatherpeople but this is the only one that explores the painful history of the group with such brutal honesty. This is “A powerfully written account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology” and it is “As emotionally bruising as it is beautiful.”

“The Worlds We Think We Knew: Stories” by Dalia Rosenfeld— The Reaches of Hearts and Minds

Rosenfeld, Dalia. “The Worlds We Think We Know: Stories”, Milkweed Editions, 2017.

The Reaches of Hearts and Minds

Amos Lassen

“The Worlds We Think We Know: Stories” is a collection of very funny and original stories takes readers that move from the United States to Israel and back again as they examine “the mystifying reaches of our own minds and hearts”. We meet characters who are “animated by forces at once passionate and perplexing. At a city zoo, a mismatched couple unite by releasing rare birds. After being mugged in the streets of New York, a professor must repeat the crime to recover his memory and his lost love. In Tel Aviv, a sandstorm rages to expose old sorrows and fears as far away as Ohio. And from an unnamed Eastern European country, a woman haunts the husband who left her behind for a new life in America”. The stories can be puzzling and unsettling as they deal with living in today’s world.

The characters share a collective past, but find it hard to feel rooted in the present. In referencing the Jewish past there is a sense of comfort and continuity. That collective past is Holocaust related with haunted echoes in the texts. The stories often feature a sense of displacement that is sometimes geographic such as Americans in Israel, Russians in America and cosmopolitans in small towns. These are uprooted characters whose actions come about as a result of an inner logic that they themselves are not aware of and is guided by a state of displacement that is sometimes forced and sometimes self-imposed. Boundaries fall away to give the characters a chance to redefine themselves but they often waste that opportunity by engaging in a series of mistakes and/or self-sabotage. Rosenfeld uses humor of which she says she was unaware of and this humor brings vulnerability to the fore with the comedy of human inscrutability coming to the reader.

Rosenfeld’s stories are wonderfully balanced and thus, the characters are unforgettable. She examines Jewish, Israeli, and American experiences by examining their intersections and divergences allowing us to see that the self is separate from culture.

 

 

“Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century” by Joachim Kalka— The 19th Century

Kalka, Joachim. “Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century”, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, New York Review Books; Main edition, 2017.

The 19th Century

Amos Lassen

Joachim Kalka in “Gaslight” explores the 19th century and ties the time period to our own through essays on a variety of topics in music, film, literature, and art. He looks at the fascination with its “auratic gaslight,” and its mingling of romanticism and modernity, enlightenment and darkness. Here are the roots of contemporary preoccupations with “gender roles and sexuality, terrorism and technology, mad scientists and serial killers, kitsch and commodification”. For example, Kalka gives us “the connections between Balzac and Billy Wilder, Mickey Mouse and the arms race, the cake fights of Laurel and Hardy and Madame Bovary’s wedding cake”. The nineteenth century comes to life and filled with contradictions, aspirations, and absurdities and as it does it invites the reader to reexamine that era and his/her own, and the stories that we tell ourselves about history.

 

“Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith” by Israel Drazin— Exploring Puzzlng Questions

Drazin, Israel. “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith”, Geffen, 2016.

Exploring Puzzling Questions

Amos Lassen

“Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith” is part of a larger series that explores questions that have puzzled readers of the Bible for centuries. Rabbi Israel looks at why Ruth and Esther were included in the Jewish Bible while the Book of Judith, which has a more openly religious character than either Ruth or Esther, was not and only appears in the Jewish apocrypha.

Drazin’s has divided is book into three units, one on each of the three books and then each unit is further divided into chapters that give an overview of each book and explore key themes in greater detail. Looking at the book of Ruth, for example, we read the textual evidence that suggests that Ruth did not convert to Judaism, despite Rabbinic interpretation which identifies her as an early convert. “The book of Ruth not only does not indicate that Ruth converted, it states seven times that she remained a Moabite—including twice in the final chapter. In fact. Boaz calls her a Moabite when he speaks about marrying her.”

In his analysis of the Book of Esther Drazin identifies several inconsistencies in the story and shows its pagan origins. For example, the primary practices of Purim (feasting, drinking, and sending gifts) mimic the practices of King Ahasuerus. Furthermore, the author notes that Esther is a reticent heroine and that Mordechai’s valor that is praised at the story’s conclusion and Esther’s. Nowhere does it say that there is a requirement to read the Book of Esther.

Judith is included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bible, while it is only included in the Protestant and Jewish apocrypha even though each of Judith’s sixteen chapters has references to God and prayer observances while Ruth and Esther, contain little or nothing about God or religion. Drazin gives us a review of the book’s plot and concludes by focusing on Judith’s heroism of Judith in defeating Holofernes and liberating the Judeans from foreign rule.

The rest of the book looks at why Judith was not included in the Jewish bible Drazin gives us several reasons that have been suggested in the past, many deal with Rabbinic Judaism’s discomfort with a strong female protagonist. However, he does not accept this and suggests that the real reason comes from Rabbinic Judaism’s dislike of a “proactive theology that denied a reliance on God”.

As a whole, we get new insights and a comparative analysis of three books with a female protagonist but I must say that I found what makes this book so interesting is that it introduces us to the Book of Judith.

“Once@9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires” by Ilan Stavans— Terror in Argentina

Stavans, Ilan. “Once@9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires”, Penn State University Press, 2016.

Terror in Argentina

Amos Lassen

March 17, 1992 was the date of the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that destroyed not only the embassy, but also a Catholic church and a nearby school. Twenty-five people were killed of which the vast majority were Argentine civilians—only four of the victims were Israelis and 242 people were injured. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history until two years later a similar attack on the AMIA, the Jewish Federation building, killed 85 and injured over 300 people.

The latter attack occurred in the neighborhood of Once at 9:53 AM (the title of this novella in photos or fotonovela, written by Ilan Stavans with photographs by Marcelo Brodsky). The Spanish term “fotonovela” describes a comic book with photographs instead of illustrations. In English, the it has a bit of a different meaning as you will see when you read this.

It is surprising that the Mexican-born academic Stavans and Argentine photographer and artist Brodsky use this format to tackle such a traumatic historical event such as the terrorist attack on the AMIA building but it works and works well. “Once@9:53am” is a fictionalized account of the hours prior to the bombing. It is an intimate homage to the Buenos Aires’ historic immigrant neighborhood which is something like New York’s Lower East Side, and its communities. The story we get here is a countdown to the moment when the catastrophe changed the face of the area forever.

The original Spanish edition of the book was published in Argentina in 2011. Penn State University Press now brings us this fascinating book. The expanded edition contains a new essay by Stavans that looks at not only Argentina’s complicated history of attempts at coming to terms with the terrorist attacks, but also puts the narrative in the wider context of Latin American Jewish identity. This essay alone makes it an excellent and important read. This is a must-read for those interested in the Jewish culture of Latin America and an excellent for those who just want to read a fascinating book.

“Concentration Camps: A Short History” by Dan Stone— A Global History

Stone, Dan. “Concentration Camps: A Short History”, Oxford University Press, 2017.

A Global History

Amos Lassen

Writer Dan Stone tells us that concentration camps are a somewhat new invention and a recurring feature of twentieth century warfare. As such, they are important to the modern global consciousness and identity. Although the most famous concentration camps are those built and used by Nazi Party, the use of concentration camps originated several decades before the Third Reich, in the Philippines and in the Boer War, and they were used in numerous locations and more recently during the genocides in Bosnia. Concentration camps have become defining symbols of humankind’s lowest point and basest and most horrible acts.

Dan Stone gives us a global history of concentration camps, and we see that it is not only “mad dictators” who set up camps, “but instead all varieties of states, including liberal democracies, that have made use of them”. If we set concentration camps against the longer history of incarceration, we see how the ability of the modern state to control populations led to their creation. Their emergence and that they are spread around the world, Stone maintains that concentration camps serve the purpose, from the point of view of the state in crisis, of removal of a “section of the population that is perceived to be threatening, traitorous, or diseased”. Stone draws his conclusions from contemporary accounts of camps, as well as from the philosophical literature surrounding them tell about the nature of the modern world as well as about specific regimes.

There is a lot of information spread out on 158 pages in this “comprehensive analytical survey that tracks the concentration camp brilliantly across the many diversities of time and place, without either flattening the concept or lessening its Third Reich connotations.”

“Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South” by Leonard Rogoff— Meet Gertrude Weill

Rogoff, Leonard. “Gertude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South”, University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Meet Gertrude Weill

Amos Lassen

Gertrude Weill (1879-1971) was a modest Jewish woman in North Carolina who felt that everyone must be treated equally… “it is the right thing to do”. Even though she was a private woman, her fights were public and passionate and she championed progressive causes during her life.

Weill was born into a prominent family in Goldsboro, North Carolina. She never married and in many ways she was a proper southern lady for almost a hundred years. She fought for women’s suffrage, founded her state’s League of Women Voters, pushed for labor reform and social welfare, and advocated for world peace.

In 1922, during an election, she spotted and ripped up a stack of illegally marked ballots as she was casting her vote and made the national news. She campaigned against lynching, convened a biracial council in her home, and in her eighties desegregated a swimming pool by diving in headfirst.

We also read of Weil’s place in the Jewish American experience. Weill worked hard to promote the causes of southern Jewry, save her European family members from the Holocaust and to support the creation of a Jewish state. She fought for systemic change yet she insisted that she had not done much beyond the ordinary duty of any citizen. Her life was one of “the intersectionality of social moment and movement her life offers”.

Writer Leonard Rogoff used historical archives and interviews with Weil’s family, neighbors, friends, and associates to give us an understanding of American life, southern life, Jewish history, women’s history, as well as the history of race relations and social justice in this country.

Weill was a New Woman before the term existed. By reading about Weill’s life. We also learn of the “power of localism, sisterhood across religious boundaries, and intellect, politics, and wealth used to advance and improve society”. Now all of us have the chance to read about how she became part of

the social, political, and moral advances of North Carolina’s workers, women, and children (black and white, Jews and Gentiles).

“That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority” by Leon Rosselson— A Personal Exploration of Judaism

Rosselson, Leon. “That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority”, PM Press, 2017. 

A Personal Exploration of Judaism

Amos Lassen

“That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority” is a moving, deeply personal exploration by Leon Rosselson, a brilliant poet and songwriter, of his Jewish heritage. There are no clichés or platitudes, just a look at himself and his faith with brutal honesty. In order to give credence to what he says, Rosselson digs deeply into his family’s history and his own emotional and artistic development. While short, there is a very powerful account.

Today we are born with our Jewish identity but we know that it was not always that way. There have been times in our history when being Jewish required time and work. Yes, I was born Jewish but I was not born a Zionist, for example and I was born to keep a kosher home. Becoming a Zionist came from being active in Zionist youth groups while keeping kosher was a decision I made for myself. I choose to be reminded every time I go grocery shopping or sit down to eat that I am a Jew.

Rosselson’s book is his search for answers. He is neither religious or a Zionist and we see that as he searches, he argues with himself. Like so many of those others who come from Jewish families, Leon Rosselson is descended from antecedents who fled pogroms in eastern Europe. He then questions what being a Jew means and asks if it is adherence to Judaism as a religion, an ethnicity, a citizen of Israel, or someone who eats chopped liver and “chicken soup with kneidlach”? He describes clearly and with historical insight how any concept of “Jewishness” can involve all of those things and more. He has decided to pick and choose from this tradition and history and build on what he considers to be the progressive, humane, and universalist values of that Jewish background.

Rosselson is a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, seeing in the victimization of Palestinians by the state of Israel parallels with historical Jewish persecution. Does that make him any the less Jewish? He tells us that he shares with the growing number of Jews in the Diaspora who place solidarity with the oppressed above demands of tribalism and with those in Israel who dare to stand against the powers that be. He shares a lot more here and I think many of you will feel that you are reading about yourselves as you read this. Whether or not I agree (or you) is insignificant— this is his journey and a powerful one it is.

 

“The Lost Letter: A Novel” by Jillian Cantor— Love and Survival

Cantor, Jillian. “The Lost Letter: A Novel, Riverhead Books, 2017.

Love and Survival

Amos Lassen

Jillian Cantor’s “The Lost Letter” is “a historical novel of love and survival inspired by real resistance workers during World War II Austria, and the mysterious love letter that connects generations of Jewish families”. The story opens in 1938 in Austria where  Kristoff is a young apprentice to a master Jewish stamp engraver. When his teacher disappears during Kristallnacht, Kristoff is forced to engrave stamps for the Germans, and simultaneously works alongside Elena, his teacher’s daughter as well as with the Austrian resistance to send underground messages and forge papers. He falls in love with for Elena, knowing that must find a way to save her, and himself.

The story shifts to Lost Angeles in 1989 where Katie Nelson is going through a divorce and while she is cleaning out her house and life in the aftermath, she comes across her father’s stamp collection. Her father recently went into a nursing home and Benjamin, an appraiser discovers an unusual World War II-era Austrian stamp placed on an old love letter as he goes through her dad’s collection. Together Katie and Benjamin embark on a journey together in which they find a story of passion and tragedy that spans years and locations.

We immediately see the importance of memories as we read about love, lost and found.The story alternates between the Nazi occupation of Austria and the fall of the Berlin wall, fifty years later. This is a love story and a mystery that has the reader turning pages as quickly as possible. Kristoff is welcomed into the Faber’s Jewish family where he falls in love with Elena.

Katie Nelson has had to put her father, Ted, into a nursing home because his memory is quickly leaving him and if that is not enough to deal with, her husband has recently left her. Ted asked Katie to find certain stamp in his stamp collection. It is that stamp that propels the novel forward and leads her to Benjamin and Kristoff and his love affair with Elena. This was before the modern age of technology so we see that Kate and Benjamin’s journey is hands-on.

The characters are well drawn and well developed as they deal with the tremendous sacrifices of Kristoff and Elena. The themes of love and reconciliation follow the story thorough to the fall of the Berlin wall. Here is a story of renewal after great adversity as Beth finds what was lost and probably never meant to be found.

 

 

“Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood” by Edgar Feuchtwanger— A Unique Perspective on a Neighbor

Feuchtwanger, Edgar. “Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1939”, (Translated by Adriana Hunter), Other Press, 2017.

A Unique Perspective on a Neighbor

Amos Lassen

Edgar Feuchtwanger is a historian who has quite a unique perspective on the Nazi rise to power. When he was a boy in Munich, his neighbor was Adolf Hitler. Feuchtwanger came from a prominent German-Jewish family. He was the only son of a respected editor and the nephew of a best-selling author, Lion Feuchtwanger (one of the intellectuals rescued by Varian Frye). He was a carefree five-year-old who pampered by his parents and his nanny, when Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, moved into the building opposite theirs in Munich. 

Until 1933, young Edgar lived an untroubled life but that was shattered when that year, Hitler was named chancellor. His parents had their rights as citizens taken from them yet they tried to protect their son from the reality of what was going on around him. When young Edgar went to school, his teacher made him draw swastikas, and his schoolmates joined the Hitler Youth. 

From his window, Edgar was able to watch events come into being and he was witness to Kristallnacht and the Anschluss. He saw being deported and his father was sent to Dachau. In 1939, on his own, Edgar went to England where he found a new life, had a family and tried to forget the past. However that past returned to him when at the age of eighty-eight, he decided to tell the story of his buried childhood and his infamous neighbor. Here it is right here and unlike anything you have ever read before.