Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“THE LAST SUIT”— One Last Voyage

“The Last Suit” (“El último traje”)

One Last Voyage

Amos Lassen

“The Last Suit” is Pablo Solarz’s tale of an elderly Jew trying to get back to the home in Poland he fled seven decades ago. Argentine actor Miguel Angel Sola plays Buenos Aires oldster Abraham Bursztein, who is surrounded by loving family members (and one greedy granddaughter that he has to bribe to take a picture with him) on an occasion that proves less happy than it appears: His daughters are selling his house and forcing their father into a retirement home. Abraham convinces his family to let him spend one more night alone as a goodbye to his home of so many decades — then sneaks off as soon as they’re gone, looking for an after-hours travel agent and telling her that he needs to fly to Poland now. He has to settle for a roundabout itinerary with an initial layover in Spain. We see him board that long flight and use some reverse-psychology to get a whole row of seats to himself.

This is one of the many scenes requiring in which he uses use and frailty to his advantage. Through occasional flashbacks, we see both the Jewish social world Abraham enjoyed as a child as well as the horrors that World War II inflicted: near starvation after his time in Nazi camps, going back to the house he grew up in and being turned away, getting help only from one young acquaintance. That acquaintance is the man Abraham hopes to see now, before he dies.

The closer we get to Lodz, though, the more the film reminds us why Abraham dreads this trip so much. Solarz’s script occasionally throws dramatic momentum aside to remind us of what happened historically. Some of the psychological difficulties the old man encounters on the trip are well dramatized; others are maudlin or condescending to the viewer. By its third act, it’s clear that this film fits into a familiar happy-goodbye format.

Quite basically, this is the story of a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who travels from Buenos Aires to Lodz to fulfill a promise he made nearly 70 years earlier. This is a late-life road movie with plenty of poignant and humorous moments. Abraham has a bad right leg that he nicknames “tzuris” because of the aggravation it gives him. He is a stubborn, 88-year-old retired tailor who still has plenty of fight and flair left in him. Unfortunately, his family refuses to recognize it. Bursztein has already foolishly divided his property among his daughters, and the two older ones decide to dispatch him to a nursing home. After all, they say, he will soon need more care because the day is coming when his leg will require amputation.

Bursztein isn’t ready to give up his independence just yet. He has a mission to accomplish back in the old country, a place that for years he has refused to name. When ordering his travel tickets, he still won’t let the word pass his lips and instead writes “Polonia” on a slip of paper. The director is not shy about assorted Jewish stereotypes. As Abraham flies to Madrid, he overnights in a hostel and makes his way overland; we see that haggling and bickering are a funny, necessary part of the process.

The screenplay is in German and Polish with English subtitles and it gives us a fresh take on the horrors of growing old, the indignities and humiliations of a body that keeps letting you down as well as the memories that we cannot shake. What makes “The Last Suit” a hopeful film that is basically sweet at its core is the universal humor of a cranky old man on this one last quest.

“The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Terror” by Ken Krimstein— A Graphic Look at Hannah Arendt

Krimstein, Ken. “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth”, Bloomsbury, 2018.

A Graphic Look at Hannah Arendt

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century and a hero of political thought who was largely unsung and often misunderstood. She is best known for her landmark 1951 book on openness in political life, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” with its powerful and timely lessons that make it very relevant today.

Arendt led an extraordinary life. She endured Nazi persecution firsthand and survived harrowing “escapes” from country to country in Europe. She was a friend of such luminaries as Walter Benjamin and Mary McCarthy, Marc Chagall, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. She was a woman who finally had to give up her unique genius for philosophy, and her love of a very compromised man (the philosopher and Nazi-sympathizer Martin Heidegger) for what she referred to as “love of the world.”

New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s brings us a strikingly illustrated portrait of a complex, controversial and courageous woman whose intelligence led her to brilliant insights into the human condition.

I am a huge fan of Arendt and was so when it was not the best time to be one. To be in the same room with Arendt was to be in a room with greatness and the few times that I was able to do so gave my life a whole new meaning. Ken Krimstein brings us a deeply moving graphic memoir about the life and thoughts of Arendt. We see clearly hear that through her words, Arendt taught us about how to live in the world, the meaning of freedom, the perils of totalitarianism, and our power as human beings to think about things and not just act blindly. There is a lot to know about Arendt and Krimstein explains her ideas clearly and with humor and in doing so we see why they still resonate.

She was an émigré intellectual who lived through dark times, leading a life of the mind. Krimstein turns a wartime adventure tale into a coming-of-age story, a graphic novel of ideas, a political biography, and a meditation on the importance of truth.

To some it might seem counterintuitive that Hannah Arendt who was known for her fiercely independent and pioneering philosophical writings, should be the subject of a cartoon biography, but Ken Krimstein shows that it could be respectfully done. He sends “a fundamental, crucial message regarding Arendt’s thinking about the world and the possibility of a recurrence of the thoughtless, meaningless evil of destruction that appeared in 20th century totalitarian regimes”.

Basically, this is a biographical work that stresses Arendt’s lifelong search for a way to understand the world around her. We look at Arendt through three escapes. Before he does this, he looks at the social trials of Arendt’s childhood and youth, the beginning of her need and desire to understand, and her infamous relationship with her professor/philosopher Martin Heidegger. Arendt’s three escapes include one from Berlin in 1933 after being arrested for doing research for a Zionist organization. Her second escape was from France in 1941 after she was able to get away from an internment camp during Germany’s invasion. Her third escape came while Arendt lived and worked in New York.

It is clear that Krimstein admires Arendt very much and takes a particular line in presenting her life and character. Heidegger seems to occupy Arendt’s thoughts too much and too long after they lost contact. Krimstein uses Heidegger to illustrate arguments that Arendt has with herself in later years. She gave us the phrase “the banality of evil,” and this is a very true way to look at human drive.

Krimstein is faithful to the known facts of Arendt’s life and certainly gives her a long overdue placement in the world of 20th century philosophers. “If she had done nothing else but contribute the concept of “the banality of evil” to our discourse, Arendt would have earned her place in our thinking processes… and, yes, as the book makes clear, she did much more.” Arendt was a complicated person and a complicated Jew in life and thought. Told from the perspective of Arendt herself, the book is a probing look at the many dimensions of fidelity to truth that she sought to uncover in humanity. We gain insight into the Arendtian perspective as well as a sense of its relevance to today. We must be “cognizant to not let demagogues and opportunists co-opt the democratic values that are essential to maintaining civil liberties.”

“Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin” by Seyla Benhabib— Exile and Migration, A Philosophical Look

Benhabib, Seyla. “Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Exile and Migration,  A Philosophical Look

Amos Lassen

Seyla Benhabib examines the intertwined lives and writings of a group of prominent twentieth-century Jewish thinkers who experienced exile and migration. These include Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Hirschman, Judith Shklar, Hans Kelsen, Emmanuel Levinas, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Strauss. These philosophers and intellectuals who were informed

by their Jewish identity and experiences of being outsiders, taken as a whole produced one of the “most brilliant and effervescent intellectual movements of modernity.”  These thinkers faced migration, statelessness, and exile because of their Jewish origins, even if they did not take positions on specifically Jewish issues personally. The sense of belonging and not belonging, of being “eternally half-other,” led and caused them to confront essential questions: “What does it mean for the individual to be an equal citizen and to wish to retain one’s ethnic, cultural, and religious differences, or perhaps even to rid oneself of these differences altogether in modernity”? Benhabib concentrates on and isolates four themes in their works: dilemmas of belonging and difference; exile, political voice, and loyalty; legality and legitimacy; and pluralism and the problem of judgment. I have always found it interesting that Jews have been regarded as people with one voice and “that we all think alike”. We know that is far from the truth and we see this in our daily lives. We also see I here among the illustrious names that appear in this study. What I do love is that they influenced one another and they will be the first to say so. I find this even more interesting when we look at the names of our thinkers here and while they do not share the same thoughts, they do share that they think. When Benhabib shows us here is the valuable plurality of their Jewish voices, most of whom developed their universal insights in the face of the crises of this new century.

We look at key aspects of German-Jewish thought in the twentieth century and we see affinities and differences in the lives and work of intellectuals confronting the pressures of exile, statelessness, and migration. We understand that we must consider the political challenges of our time as real and viable. The intellectuals here were quite a force in the twentieth century. In most cases, they were Jewish refugees and exiles and who still speak eloquently to timely political and philosophical issues.

“In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times: Collected and Edited by David Stromberg”— Wise Yiddish Tales in English

Stromberg, David, editor. “In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times: Collected and Edited by David Stromberg”, Delacorte Press, 2018.

Wise Yiddish Tales in English

Amos Lassen

Everyone loves a folktale and some of the best are those that came out of the Yiddish language.

You don’t need to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread, nor do you need to read Yiddish to appreciate these wise tales. This engaging collection has been translated for the first time into English and the stories are wonderful for families as well as youngsters. An extra bonus is a comprehensive introduction on Yiddish culture, “What is Yiddish Anyway”? Also included is a glossary of words that are considered to be untranslatable.

Those of us who have been around for a while know that humor is a basic element of Yiddish and much of the Old World has become part of our modern culture. Many Yiddish words actually appear in English dictionaries are we hear them in conversation. Some of the past has survived also in stories like the ones we have here and these stories have morals that are noble s well as practical but I will let you find those out do for yourselves when you read this wonderful collection.

Editor David Stromberg has grouped the stories into four sections based on bravery, rebellion, justice and wonder, principles that have deep roots in the teachings of the Jewish religion (but you do have t be Jewish to enjoy the stories). Regardless of when a story was first told, stories are timeless and every generation can enjoy good stories.

These stories have been largely overlooked or forgotten and date back to the early and middle twentieth century by some of the most respected Yiddish writers of their time—Jacob Kreplak, Moyshe Nadir, Sonya Kantor, Jacob Reisfeder and Rachel Shabad and they still resonate with contemporary audiences. They can be scary, as wrongdoers often get what’s coming to them in unsuspected or even strange ways and the values that are sometimes thought to be simple and/or quaint make for a fascinating read.

 In the stories, we have, for example, a king who loves honey so much that instead of ruling over his people, he licks it all day. We learn that the moon longs for a playmate but children can’t play at night because they are asleep. We go to a forest in which the king of mushrooms and the queen of ants coexist but are threatened by the hands and feet of children at play.

I am an old man and I love every one of these stories and you will too. You will also be very proud of our Yiddish heritage.

“Does Judaism Condone Violence? Holiness and Ethics in the Jewish Tradition” by Alan L. Mittleman— Philosophically Speaking

Mittleman, Alan L. “Does Judaism Condone Violence?  Holiness and Ethics in the Jewish Tradition”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Philosophically Speaking

Amos Lassen

Alan L. Mittleman looks at Jewish violence philosophically in “Does Judaism Condone Violence?” Our modern age has been beset by religiously inspired violence and we hear such terms as “holy war” on a regular basis in the media. We must look to see if indeed there is a relationship between holiness and violence? Can acts such as murder ever truly be considered holy? Mittleman offers a searching philosophical investigation of such questions in the Jewish tradition. Jewish texts include instances of divinely inspired violence, and the position of the Jews as God’s chosen people has been called upon to justify violent acts today. We can only wonder if these justifications are valid or whether our understanding of the holy includes an ethic that argues against violence?

Mittleman reconstructs the concept of the holy through a philosophical examination of biblical texts and finds that the holy and the good are inextricably linked, and that our experience of holiness is authenticated through its moral consequences. We develop our understanding of the holy by reflecting on God’s creation of the natural world, and our values are based on our relations with that world. Mittleman concludes that religious justifications for violence cannot be sustained.

This is a powerful counterargument to those who claim that the holy is irrational and amoral. The philosophical implications fir this extend far beyond the Jewish tradition. Mittleman invalidates contemporary Jewish attempts to justify violence in the name of religion and redirects attention to the way that holiness in Judaism is an exceptional value that includes ethics.

Mittleman gives us a critique of religious violence and a philosophical and theological account of holiness. This book is necessary reading for anyone who is biblical morality troubling or is perplexed by religious violence. The writing is clear and fresh yet sophisticated.

“RED COW” (“PARA ADUMA”)— Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

“Red Cow” (“Para Aduma”)

Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

Amos Lassen

“Red Cow is a coming-of-age film that takes place in Israel during the days leading up to the assassination of Rabin. Benny is a 16-year-old girl who was orphaned from mother at birth. She is the only child of Yehoshua, a religious, right wing extremist and she is at that critical juncture when she is forming her sexual, religious and political awareness. The film is set on one of Israel’s orthodox Jewish settlement where Benny has sexual awakening and ideological unraveling. This is a sensitive and assured first feature from Tsivia Barkai Yacov who also wrote the screenplay. We see a community that is rarely explored on screen. The film shows the difficulties of being a young woman in a devout patriarchal system. We also are taken into the complexity of burgeoning female desire and a complicated queer romance.

I can assure you that based upon my own experiences as an orthodox gay Jew that the film is disarmingly authentic. We have a female-centric window into the Middle East filled with intimate insights into a girl defying societal expectations. Benny’s (Avigail Kovari) outsider status is sealed from the outset, her androgynous name and blazing red hair stand out in her settlement home of Silwan in East Jerusalem. An introduction explains the significance of the feature’s title and its links to the Torah, so that we are aware of the importance of Benny’s task of caring for a newborn pure-red calf. We see the potential parallels between the girl and the animal in her care. Although Benny and her extremist father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) might not realize it at first, both are beacons of change.

According to his beliefs, Yehoshua is convinced that salvation is now imminent. When Benny searches for her own faith beyond strict religious instructional classes with the community’s other women and generally assisting her father, she finds it in a burning desire for newcomer to the settlement, Yael (Moran Rosenblatt). A fast friendship soon becomes nervous clandestine flirting, and then passionate secret trysts. The forbidden tenor of their romance is omnipresent throughout. She tells Yael even before things become physical that she is surprised by the intensity of her feelings..

It’s with naturalism and nuance that director Yacov who herself is a native of an orthodox Jewish settlement herself, conveys the teen’s emotional state. She experiences deeply-felt urges that threaten to overtake her entire life while also clashing with the teachings she’s increasingly beginning to abandon thus placing her in a precarious position should the affair be discovered. Benny’s growing distance from Yehoshua and everything he represents is also handled with subtlety— as a relationship fracturing with each passing moment, but with slow and ragged cuts. The film moves between the use of walls, fences and shadows to stress the boundaries surrounding Benny and these mirror her restless fervor.

Kovari gives a performance of internalized turmoil, and uncontainable longing. Her chemistry with Toren is palpable, their glances say everything their characters can’t.

“Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law” by Chaim Saiman— Thinking Legalese

 

Saiman, Chaim. “Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Thinking Legalese

Amos Lassen

The rabbis of the Talmud transformed everything into a legal question and Jewish law into a way of thinking and talking about everything, Chaim Saiman shows us how they did this. The word “halakhah” is usually translated to mean Jewish law but in reality

It is not what is usually thought of as law. The rabbinic legal system has rarely used political power to enforce its many rules, nor has halakhah ever been the law of any state. Even more idiosyncratically, the Talmudic rabbis claim that the study of halakhah is a holy endeavor that brings a person closer to God and no country can say this about its law code.

Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts that began as Talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. In the world of halakhah “everything is law, law is also everything, and even laws that serve no practical purpose can, when properly studied, provide surprising insights into timeless questions about the very nature of human existence.”

We can question what it means for legal analysis to connect humans to God and wonder if spiritual teachings remain meaningful and at the same time rigidly codified. Is it possible for a modern state to be governed by such law? Saiman takes us across two millennia of perspectives showing how halakhah is not just “law” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

This is a fresh and original exposition of the unique nature of halakhah as a legal system that gives us both a larger picture of what halakhah is and readings of its diverse genres and periods. “The study of Jewish law is not only a guide to life but an ongoing encounter with the divine.” Chaim Saiman gives us a new understanding of halakhah that “takes as axiomatic its seamless integration of regulatory and expressive modalities into a discourse that not only conveys legal norms but also shapes thought, communicates social and religious values, and explores enduring human questions.”.

We start with a concise introduction that provokes the experienced halakhist to go into deep thought and self-reflection on the meaning and development of the halakhic system. Saiman gives us “an academically sophisticated introduction to Jewish law as a historical and lived practice and proposes an original and even surprising thesis about the nature of rabbinic legal discourse that it is less about governance of conduct and more about the exploration of religious values and ideals.”

This is both an introductory text and a collection of ideas, formulations, interpretations, and perspectives that stimulate and enrich Jewish scholars and lay people.

“A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav” by Howard Schwartz— A Visionary Storyteller

Schwartz, Howard. “A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav”, Oxford University Press, 2018.

A Visionary Storyteller

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) is considered to be one of the foremost visionary storytellers of the Hasidic movement. He was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. Rabbi Nachman came to be regarded as a great figure and leader in his own right and he guided his followers on a spiritual path inspired by the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. In the last four years of his life he turned to storytelling and shared highly imaginative, allegorical tales for his followers.

Howard Schwartz has compiled the most extensive collection of Nachman’s stories available in English for this volume. In addition to the well-known Thirteen Tales, including “The Lost Princess” and “The Seven Beggars,” Schwartz has included over one hundred narratives in the genres of fairy tales, fables, parables, dreams, and folktales. Many of these are previously unknown or believed lost. There are stories that were never intended to be written down and were only to be shared with those Bratslavers who could be trusted not to reveal them. Eventually Rabbi Nachman’s scribe wrote them yet they have maintained mythical status as a hidden.

Schwartz’s commentary guides the reader through the Rabbi’s spiritual mysticism and uniquely Kabbalistic approaches and we see that Rabbi Nachman is as much a “literary heavyweight” as Gogol and Kafka. Schwartz brings us the rabbi’s allegoric wisdom and insight in a clear, plain, English prose by bringing together intuition and scholarship, love and learning and “recreates the genius of this metaphysical master for the contemporary reader.”

This is the most complete and authentic collection of Rabbi Nachman’s stories. Schwartz’s retellings are more relevant than ever in today’s world. Reb Nachman’s tales were told orally in Yiddish, and now Schwartz has retold them as polished tales. They can be read as fairy tales or folktales but with Schwartz’s commentaries we see the extensive kabbalistic foundation the stories are built on.

“All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah” by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky— A Beautiful Look at Family

Jenkins, Emily. “All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah”, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, Schwartz & Wade, 2018).

A Beautiful Look at Family

Amos Lassen

Am I really reviewing a book about Hanukkah when it is not yet Rosh Hashanah but that is not the issue here. What is the issue is the wonderful new book for young children that wonderfully looks at family. We go back in time to 1912 to the East Side of New York City and meet a mother, a father, and five siblings, all girls. It is a “all-of-a-kind” family as the parents tell the children and from the moment we meet them we feel the love that they share. The girls are busy helping their mother prepare for their holiday feast. Problems begin when Gertie, the youngest is not allowed to help in the kitchen. Gertie is not happy about not being able to help and throws a tantrum at which point she is sent to the room that she shares with her sisters but she is still able to her the voices coming from the kitchen. Gertie really wanted to be a part of making latkes and becomes so upset that she climbs under the bed. When Papa comes home, he finds her and gives her the best job of all: to light the first candle on the menorah.

The characters here are based on the childrens’ books by Sydney Taylor and it is so good to have a new generation of all-of-a-kind family and even though I am not of the age to enjoy this book, I must say that I did (especially because I did not have to think). Now with all of the to do around immigration, it is time for us to look to the past and where we came from. The wonderful Zelinsky illustrations combined with Jenkins’s charming text gives us a winner.

“First published in 1951, Taylor’s chapter books have become time-honored favorites, selling over a million copies and touching generations of readers. In this time when immigrants often do not feel accepted, the All-of-a-Kind Family gives a heartwarming glimpse of a Jewish immigrant family and their customs that is as relevant–and necessary–today as when it was first written. Jenkins and Zelinsky’s charming compliment to Taylor’s series perfectly captures the warmth and family values that made the original titles classics.”

“The Commentators’ Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot” edited by Michael Carasik— In The Beginning

Carasik, Michael (editor). “The Commentators’ Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot”, Jewish Publication Society, 2018. 2018

In the Beginning

Amos Lassen

I absolutely love this series of Bible commentaries and now have all of them except Exodus and I am saving my money for that one. These commentaries known as Miqra’ot Gedolot have inspired and educated generations of Hebrew readers and in my case, reawakened my personal desire to intensely study the Five Books of Moses. I study everyday for an hour and now that I have this volume, it will be that much easier to do so because all the traditional commentaries are in one volume and in English. This was the final volume of the acclaimed JPS English edition of Miqra’ot Gedolot that includes the commentaries of the greats—-Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, Rashbam, Abarbanel, Kimhi, and others and their words come alive and give us a chance to compare and contrast commentaries. I had a good look through Genesis last night before I shelved the book for now because I want to use it as we move through the Torah. In just another couple of weeks, we will start reading the Torah all over again. The beauty of this commentary is that medieval Bible commentators come alive in a contemporary English translation annotated for lay readers.

Each page in The Commentators’ Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot contains from one to several verses from the book of Genesis, surrounded by both the 1917 and the 1985 JPS translations and by new contemporary English translations of the major commentators. Also included is a glossary of terms, a list of names used in the text, notes on source texts, a special topics list, and resources for further study. This is in large-format volume and is designed for easy navigation among the many elements on each page, including explanatory notes and selected additional comments from the works of Bekhor Shor, Sforno, Gersonides, and Hizkuni, among others.

I have found the “The JPS Commentators’ Bible” to be the most looked at book in my library and it is one of the most useful resources I have ever owned. I no longer have to run to the library to see if they have the commentary that I want to use, the one that “”opens the door to the wisdom of the classic commentators to Jewish students of all levels of Hebrew fluency. The translations are uniformly fluid and accessible, and this a wonderful invitation to join the traditional Torah commentary and interpretation. Each page is “set up as a conversation among the commentators, in which the reader is encouraged to join.”