Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“REB ELIMELECH and the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood”— An Experience

“REB ELIMELECH and the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood”

An Experience

Amos Lassen

“Reb Elimelech” is a multi-media experience presenting and explaining the origins of the Chassidic movement and the transformation it rendered to Jewish life at the time. Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk was one of the Chassidic world’s most celebrated founders. His legacy of loving your fellow man, regardless of personal connection, affiliation or religiosity, has guided his followers ever since. 
The film has appearances by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Dayan C. Ehrentreu, Rabbi Berel Wein, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski and Rabbi Hanoch Teller and features music by Suki Berry and vocalists Avraham Fried and Abish Brodt.

Today there are over one million Chassidic around the world but mostly in the United States and Israel. Reb Elimelech’s yahrzeit brings tens of thousands of pilgrims to a remote corner of Poland every year. The film takes us into the closed and intriguing world the Chassidism and is a celebration of caring for and embracing our fellow man.

DVD BONUS: “The Making of” featurette, Trailer and “People Review”

“The work of Reb Elimelech continues through this inspiring film which has generated so much Ahavas Yisrael!” – Rabbi Moshe Weinberger

“(Hanoch Teller) The greatest, and certainly the most entertaining, storyteller!” – Dr. Mehmet Oz

“Profundity and musical accompaniment that pierce the heart!” – The Jerusalem Post

“Five stars and two thumbs up!” – The Jewish Press

“CHASING PORTRAITS” — An Emotional Quest

“CHASING PORTRAITS”

An Emotional Quest

Amos Lassen

Moshe Rynecki, like so many other Europeans, lost his life to the Nazis. He was an artist whose body of work was close to eight hundred paintings and sculptures before his tragic death. His great-granddaughter Elizabeth sought to rediscover his legacy and so she set out on a journey to seek out what had been lost but never forgotten

The everyday lives of the Polish-Jewish community depicted in Moshe Rynecki’s paintings simply blended into the background of Elizabeth Rynecki’s life when she was growing up. But the art transformed from familiar to extraordinary in her eyes after her grandfather, Moshe’s son George, left behind journals detailing the loss her ancestors had endured during World War II, including Moshe’s art. Knowing that her family had only found a small portion of Moshe’s art, and that many more pieces remained to be found, Elizabeth set out to find them.

Before Moshe was sent to the ghetto, he left his work to friends who would keep it safe. After he was killed at the Majdanek concentration camp, the art was dispersed all over the world. With the help of historians, curators, and admirers of Moshe’s work, Elizabeth began the incredible and difficult task of rebuilding his collection. This took place over 30 years and three generations of her family.

In her search for her great-grandfather’s paintings, Elizabeth becomes a genealogist, an art historian, a detective, a crusader for justice, and a time traveler. peering through windows and into paintings to unearth her family’s past.

Rynecki’s family warned him that if he continued with art that he was violating religious rules against creating graven images. To earn a living, he was set up in the art supplies business. His specialty was only painting Jewish folk scenes and he often depicted rituals at synagogues and religious classroom sessions. He portrayed factory workers, woodcarvers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, musicians and peddlers. He painted images of atrocities as well, including Cossacks raping Jewish women in pogroms.

In the 1920s and ’30s, a handful of his works were published in newspapers and magazines, and he had exhibitions at galleries and exposition halls in Warsaw and Brussels. He traveled through the countryside to find subject matter and he found one artists’ colony, on a riverbank near Lublin, that allowed Jews and Christians to paint side by side.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Rynecki removed his canvases from their wooden stretchers and rolled them into a half-dozen bundles to store at friends’ homes. After the war, Perla Rynecki retrieved one bundle from a Warsaw cellar. More of his artworks are said to have been found on Warsaw streets, stored in a barn and salvaged from a train that had been bombed.

The family owns about 100 of his artworks, a few of which have been donated to institutions. Many works had been creased and torn.  “Chasing Portraits” a documentary that centers on her quest as well as discusses a culture and community erased by the Holocaust.  Rynecki wants her legacy to be the sharing of her great-grandfather’s art with others.

“The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age” by Steven Weitzman— An Attempt at an Answer

Weitzman, Steven. “The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

An Attempt at an Answer

Amos Lassen

Steven Weitzman gives us the first major history of the scholarly quest to answer the question of Jewish origins. The Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? Many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. To believe the Bible as a place of origin is to believe the entire Bible as truth and this is surely not easy to do. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know (or think we know)- about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be.

There has been a great deal written on the topic and there are many explanations, theories, and historical reconstructions, but this is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question, including genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. We see that religious and political agendas have something to add to the question and that anti-Semitism has cast its long shadow over generations of learning. Recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to disentangle from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We get no neatly packaged conclusions and instead we go on an intellectual adventure that sheds new light on the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers “and the challenges that have made finding answers so elusive.” This is essential reading “for anyone who wonders or cares about what it really means to be a Jew.”  Until now, no one can say how and why being a Jew got started. Steven Weitzman makes a wonderful effort to survey some partial answers.

The long history of the Jews is paralleled by an almost equally long tradition of searching after roots. Weitzman, uses a rich array of disciplines ranging from biblical philology and archeology to psychoanalysis and genetic science. He argues compellingly and is very original. He approaches his material with honest academic caution and weighs different ideas considering their pros and cons and leaving most issues unresolved, rather than accept a theory that is speculative. He looks at genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology and genetics and gives each a chapter, presented in a roughly chronological order. Weitzman clearly presents contemporary ideas of postmodern thinkers like Deleuze and Foucault and nonlinear, non-developmental perspectives which can upset our conventional understanding. This contributes to his discussion of the uncertainty in all these discussions.

Weitzman’s honesty in describing the uncertainty in all these subjects is what has made me continue looking at this whole discussion and it does not look like we will be ending it anytime soon.

“A Year with the Sages: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer— How the Sages Saw the Torah

Hammer, Reuven. “A Year with the Sages: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion”,  (JPS Daily Inspiration) Jewish Publication Society, 2019.

How the Sages Saw the Torah

Amos Lassen

Every week, I go through the Torah portion for that week to see if there is something new and believe it or not, I usually find something that I had not thought of before. I then begin reading various commentaries to add knowledge or just for fun ad I am always amazed at how different ideas come together.

Reuven Hammer’s “A Year with the Sages” tells us how the Sages’ understood  each Torah portion as regards everyday life. The Sages lived from the fifth century BCE to the fifth century CE and saw themselves as having inherited the oral teachings God transmitted to Moses, along with the mandate to interpret them to each subsequent generation. Just as the Torah and the entire Hebrew Bible are the foundations of Judaism, so the Sages’ teachings give us the structures of Jewish belief and practice that are built on that foundation. Many of the teachings of the Sages deal with the core concepts of God’s justice, God’s love, Torah, Israel, humility, honesty, loving-kindness, reverence, prayer, and repentance. And what is so interesting with these commentaries is that there is always something new to find in them.

The sages here react to 54 weekly Torah portions and eleven holiday readings. Rabbi R Hammer presents a Torah commentary, selections from the Sages that chronicle their process of interpreting the text, a commentary that elucidates these concepts and their consequences, and a personal reflection that illumines the Sages’ enduring wisdom for our era. His writing is fresh and warm and is always food for thought and it is as if he is holding our hands and guiding us through the holy writings and we see ancient paths become new. His commentaries are in a tripartite fashion (explanation, exposition of Sages, and personal reflections) and they give us enlightenment and erudition. They are also learned, relevant, and eloquent  and above all, insightful.

 

“Jews in Medicine: Contributions to Health and Healing Through the Ages” by Dr. Ronald L. Eisenberg M.D.— Two Loves

Eisenberg M.D., Ronald L. “Jews in Medicine: Contributions to Health and Healing Through the Ages”, Urim, 2019.

Two Loves

Amos Lassen

Dr. Ronald Eisenberg brings two of his great loves, Judaism and Medicie together in “Jews in Medicine” in which he focuses on the contributions made by Jews over time to the medical profession. He shares the history of

More than 450 individual Jewish physicians who he divides by region and area of specialization, “all within a historical context—from Talmudic times to the modern era, from Islamic and Christian lands to the spread of Jewish communities in Europe after the Spanish Inquisition.” There is a large section devoted to the modern era that focuses on European and American physicians and includes Jewish Nobel Prize winners. Included is a description of physicians who were leaders in the Zionist movement and those who contributed to the development of medicine in the State of Israel.

I doubt that there are any American Jews who grew up at the same that I did who are not aware of the importance of the Jewish doctor. For Jewish parents, having a son or daughter who is a doctor is a sign of great achievement. We grew up hearing over and over again how important and pervasive the medical profession is within modern Jewish culture. (And that a PhD is not a real doctor).

Ronald Eisenberg is a medical doctor and Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and radiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has submerged himself into this  fascinating subject and he gives us details  about Jews and medicine. The book is encyclopedic in scope with profiles of over 400 Jewish physicians, psychologists, scientists and other medical professionals. We have short biographies of their life and information about their medical accomplishments. Dr. Eisenberg pays careful attention to history, both Jewish and secular since it is backdrop for the rise of medicine. We read that the end of the 18th-century, the age of specialization of clinical medicine started. Because science was advancing so rapidly alone with medical discoveries, a physician  was unable to take care of it all and medical specialization began.

Before this many physicians worked in all fields.  Men such as 15th-century Yuceff Faquin and Abraham Zacuto, whose work on cartography and astronomy revolutionized ocean navigation. With specialization, Jewish physicians, who were able to bypass the quota system, et al. and got into medical schools were still excluded from the mainstream areas of internal medicine and general surgery and so they went to the then less popular clinical specialties that did not attract their non-Jewish colleagues, such as ophthalmology, dermatology, neurology, and psychiatry.

In the Talmud, it says that The books quotes the well-known Talmudic staying that “the best of physicians are destined to go to hell”. There are many different takes on this and what it means. Dr. Eisenberg “quotes the most common explanation that it refers to physicians who place all of their healing powers solely within themselves, and don’t not acknowledge a higher power.”

Dr. Eisenberg includes wonderful little stories and anecdotes making this book both fun and educational and we never really lose sight at how Jews entering the profession were treated yet once they were accepted it was generally a good deal easier.

We read that entry into the medical profession was highly restricted to Jews. In Europe, almost all of those who wanted to attend medical school found that unless they renounced their faith and were baptized, they could not attend university. A number of those ultimately and sadly, placed professional aspirations before faith. Here in America, there were very limited quotas for Jews in medical schools and  these quotas led to the creation of Jewish hospitals. At its peak, there were about 113 Jewish hospitals in the United States. Today, there are about 22 that are still in operation and we understand that the decline in Jewish hospitals is a direct result of the quotas no longer being enforced.

Many doctors fled Germany and Europe during World War II because they were not allowed to work under Nazi rule. Many came to the United States, South America, England and Israel, where they flourished and  even made live-saving discoveries and inventions.
Among Jewish contributions to medicine, we have the discovery of aspirin, Novocain, stopping blindness in infants due to oxygen therapy, to discoveries of vaccinations for Polio and much more. Vaccinations are the greatest public health discovery in the history of science, and the Jewish contributions in that area are large.

The book is written for everyone from the lay person to the scholar and is not only a delightful read but one that is also full of surprises.

“FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES”—The Story of “Fiddler on the Roof”

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles”

The Story of “Fiddler on the Roof”

Amos Lassen

A new documentary by Max Lewkowicz looks at the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and how it succeeded beyond all expectations and continues to keep going strong today. This is the origin story of the creative roots in early 1960s New York of the show that is
one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, “when tradition was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving. We were no longer living in the America of “Oklahoma” and “Show Boat” but an America where some believed that God was dead and faith was shaken. Yet a Broadway show based on the Jews of Russia, singing and fighting for their very existence stole the hearts and minds of this country. You did not have to be Jewish to love this show and I remember when the Japanese production broke records, the Japanese diplomat said it was because “Fiddler” was so Japanese.

For the first time,  the documentary gives us intimate interviews with the show’s creators who reveal how the tremendous success and worldwide impact of Fiddler and its subsequent film adaptation is most appropriately viewed through the lens of the social upheaval and change in mid-20th century America. Yet, as the film shows, audiences world-wide and for the last half century claim the story as their own. 

The documentary explores a variety of international productions of the show and details how individuals of many cultures see themselves in the residents of Anatevka. The film includes major worldwide productions from  Canada, The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, as well as the last Broadway production revival with Danny Burstein and Jessica Hecht.  As I write this “Fiddler” is back on Broadway and playing, once again, to packed houses.

We have interviews with the show’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, producer Hal Prince as well as original cast members and there is rare archival footage of choreographer Jerome Robbins.

This is the first in-depth documentary film that chronicles the life and themes of this iconic offering of American culture. The goal of our documentary is to understand why the story of Tevye the milkman is reborn again and again as such beloved entertainment and as a cultural touchstone all over the world.

 “Fiddler on the Roof” opened in 1964 and held the record for the longest running musical for almost 10 years. It won nine Tony Awards, and spawned five Broadway revivals. The show is still performed more than any other show, from middle schools in inner cities to high schools in rural America, around the world from grand state theaters in Japan and Vienna to Johannesburg and Mexico City.

“Fiddler on The Roof” is an unlikely work to have captured the imagination of so many people. It was the first major musical on the American stage to feature not one American character, and it tells of the trials and tribulations of a venerated Jewish milkman named Tevye, trying to make a living in a small Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia.

Jerome Robbins originally wanted Marc Chagall, the great Jewish Russian painter, to design the sets for Fiddler. He did not have the time but his lush, impressionist paintings were the principle influence on the visual style of the show. Boris Aronson, the talented young scenic designer, took on the project and his miraculous Chagall-like drawings became the visual “bible” for the show. Aronson’s original sketches as well as the beautiful sketches of Patricia Zipprodt, the costume designer gave the viewer a sense of the granular details of the original show.

The documentary includes footage of the newest incarnation of the show now on Broadway and it highlights the athletic prowess of the dancers, the spare and haunting set, the movement of Tevye as he throws himself into the joy of music, and there is footage from a variety of Fiddler productions – a recent production in Thailand, a middle school in Brooklyn, the film “Fiddler on the Roof”among others.

Each of the themes of the show and all of the major songs from the show are illustrated with animation in the style of Marc Chagall and there is Chagall’s imagery throughout the film.

“The Inside Story – Volume III: Leviticus” by Rabbi Yanki Tauber— Looking at Inner Meanings

Tauber, Yanki. “The Inside Story – Volume III: Leviticus”, Meaningful Life Center, 2019.

Looking at Inner Meanings

Amos Lassen

Yanki Tauber’s third volume in his  series, “The Inside Story” is about the book of Leviticus and takes us into “the fascinating and empowering world of the Torah’s inner meanings.” We look at sacrifices, the dietary laws, the laws for ritual purity, festival and holiday observances, farming and business, employer and employee relations and what we see here is that the technical laws that are presented have their spiritual counterparts  and  deal with “the relationships between the selfish and altruistic aspects of our psyche, between our individual and social personas, between the objective and subjective truths in our lives, and between the positive and negative forces that hold the universe in equilibrium.” We have here forty-eight essays on Leviticus that are based on the Rabbi’s writings and talks and explore an event or law from one of the ten weekly Torah readings of the book of Leviticus. We also get an in-dept look at the inner content and see the  practical significance in ways we have not seen before.

Rabbi Tauber gives us the Chassidic perspective on biblical events, laws, and personalities in Leviticus.

It is the purpose of the projected five volume set (of which we now have three) to “offer a deeper, spiritual and psychological perspective on the Biblical narrative, which are both profound and personally relevant”.

 The timing for this volume is perfect since we are reading the book of Leviticus in temples and synagogues all over the world hits bookstores just as we begin reading this third book. Because of the wonderful to volumes that have already been published I have been waiting for this third volume. Rabbi Yanki Tauber  has looked through countless pages of Torah literature, as seen through the lens of Chassidic thought in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings and in this series he brings together what he has read and learned to give us  the definitive psycho/spiritual themes of each reading in the book of Leviticus. We see that each and every event in the Torah is never just a simple story, but rather a lesson that is as relevant today as it was 3,300 years ago. The volume brings forth and deciphers the inner meaning of Biblical events, from the most well-known to the most esoteric. I love discovering new ideas and relating to the depth of these events but above all else I really love making the Torah meaningful and relevant to us today.

*The Meaningful Life Center that publishes this book is built on the belief that life is precious, and that every individual has a unique and indispensable contribution to make, which affects everyone and everything, now and forever. For more information, visit our websitewww.meaningfullife.com.

“The World of Aufbau: Hitler’s Refugees in America” by Peter Schrag— A Publication for Germans in the United States

Schrag, Peter. “The World of Aufbau: Hitler’s Refugees in America”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2019.

A Publication for Germans in the United States

Amos Lassen

“Aufbau” was a German-language weekly that was published in New York and circulated nationwide. It  was one of the essential platforms for the generation of refugees from Hitler and the displaced people and concentration camp survivors who arrived in the United States after the war. It. linked thousands of readers who were looking for friends and loved ones in every part of the world. “Aufbau” focused on concerns that strongly impacted this community in the aftermath of World War II such as “anti-Semitism in the United States and in Europe, the ever-changing immigration and naturalization procedures, debates about the designation of Hitler refugees as enemy aliens, questions about punishment for the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes, the struggle for compensation and restitution, and the fight for a Jewish homeland.” Peter Schrag in this book examines the columns and advertisements that chronicled the social and cultural life of that generation and maintained a detailed account of German-speaking cultures in exile. Schrag is the first to present a definitive account of the influential publication that brought postwar refugees together and into the American mainstream.

Schrag looks the history of the publication, the central and major newspaper of German-speaking Jews, with the story of its readers, refugees from Hitler’s Europe. He examines the tensions between retaining their culture and Americanizing and gives us a look at a generation in transition. It was “Aufbau” that linked together  refugee communities of close to one hundred countries of exile. Schrag has captured the sense of urgency, depth, and importance that prevailed at that time and he shares it with us.

“Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?: And Other Essays” by Adam Kirsch— A Focus on Jewish Literature

Kirsch, Adam. “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?: And Other Essays”, Yale University Press,  2019.

A Focus on Jewish Literature

Amos Lassen

In his preface to “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer”, noted literary critic Adam Kirsch says  that being a Jewish writer involves a consciousness that religion and poetry have “inescapable social, historical and political dimensions” and is these themes that he looks for when he write about Jewish literature partly because of the nature of Jewish literature wrestling with belief and practice. It is no secret that today in America, many Jews are out of the mainstream  both politically and intellectually.

Most of Kirsch’s writings over the last decade look to understanding what a Jew is and what it means to be a Jewish writer. This collection brings together Kirsch’s essays on poetry, religion, and the intersections between them, with a particular focus on Jewish literature. He explores the definition of Jewish literature, the relationship between poetry and politics, and the future of literary reputation in the age of the internet. Several of the essays here look at the way Jewish writers such as Stefan Zweig and Isaac Deutscher, who coined the phrase “the non‑Jewish Jew,” have dealt with politics. Kirsch also explores questions of spirituality and morality in the writings of contemporary poets, (including Christian Wiman, Kay Ryan, and Seamus Heaney). He closes by asking why do we think  so many American Jewish writers have resisted the category of Jewish literature and asks us to think about if there is such a thing as Jewish literature?”

 

“Typically Jewish” by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell— What Does Typically Jewish Mean?


Maxwell, Nancy Kalikow. “Typically Jewish”, Jewish Publication Society, 2016.

What Does Typically Jewish Mean?

Amos Lassen

Looking at Judaism as a way of life, Nancy Kalikow Maxwell explores what it means to be Jewish and she does so by asking questions— many of which have several possible answers. The answers she manages to come up with are those from rabbis, researchers, and her assembled Jury on Jewishness (Jewish friends she dragged into conversation) and we learn a lot and have fun doing so. Ion eight chapters (see below), we get some kinds of answers and even though we may never know whether Jews prefer deity to deli (or vice versa), we have a lot of fun thinking about it. Even though Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz prohibited worry, we do tend to spend a great deal of time worrying. Right now I am worrying about what my next sentence will be.

Here are a few of my gleanings:

 “Kvell-worthy fact: About 75 percent of American Jews give to charity versus 63 percent of Americans as a whole.”

“Since reciting Kaddish brought secular Jews to synagogue, the rabbis, aware of their captive audience, moved the prayer to the end of the service.”

“Who’s Jewish? About a quarter of Nobel Prize winners, an estimated 80 percent of comedians at one point, and the winner of Nazi Germany’s Most Perfect Aryan Child Contest.”

We learn how answer questions Jewishly which could mean that we never get close to the question or that we start a rant about Rabbi so and so from Eastern Europe and listen to 25o of his cute little stories which have little or nothing to do with the story.

So we learn how Jews think (or don’t think) as well as how they feel, act, love, schmooze and live. They’ll also schmooze as they use the book’s “Typically Jewish, Atypically Fun” discussion guide.

The. Book is witty and wise as it examines members of the tribe. Over time and almost everywhere in the world, the globe, Jews have built a vast library of books about every topic of interest to the Jewish people. Here is another book to be added to those libraries. There is a bit of everyone in this book and I believe that each Jew will find himself somewhere in it.

The book is a  comprehensive explanation of the complexities and conundrums but note that it is not definitive since no topic has all the answers

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments    
Introduction: Why Is This Book Different from All Other Books?    
1. Worrying    
2. Kvelling    
3. Dying    
4. Noshing    
5. Laughing    
6. Detecting    
7. Dwelling    
8. Joining    
Conclusion: What It Means to Be Typically Jewish    
Appendix: Typically Jewish, Atypically Fun Discussion Guide    
Notes