Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Jewish Joke: A Short History with Punchlines” by Devorah Baum— A Celebration

Baum, Devorah. “The Jewish Joke: A Short History with Punchlines”, Pegasus, 2018.

A Celebration

Amos Lassen

Devorah Baum’s “The Jewish Joke” is a fascinating and revealing celebration of the great Jewish Joke (excuse the redundancy). It includes stories from many comics and reveals the history, context and wider culture of Jewish joking. The joke has wandered with the Jewish people all over the world and it has been translated into many languages and finds a home in many different places yet it always remains a Jewish joke.

Have you ever thought about what makes a joke Jewish? I know that I had done so before I read this book. Jewish jokes have nothing to do with the liturgy or Jewish spirituality but it is always animated and it never seems to get old. This is one of the things Baum looks at here. We look at what sets Jewish jokes apart from other jokes, why they are important to Jewish identity and how they work. The nature of the Jewish joke ranges from self-deprecation to anti-Semitism, politics to sex, Devorah Baum looks at the history of Jewish joking and asks whether the Jewish joke has a future. 

She balances serious research with light-hearted humor and provides fascinating insight into this well-known and much loved cultural phenomenon. She looks at      the roles Jewish humor has played “as a response to oppression and as a way to mock hypocrisy about religious observance.” There is a lot of humor in the pages of this slim volume and I felt that I was smiling the entire time that I read.

This is not joke book but rather a psychological insight into Jewish life both in old Eastern Europe and Russia and life in any modern Jewish community in the United States. It is filled with genuinely very funny jokes as well as a look at what these jokes signify and how they are used. A sense of humor can be to confront what one finds offensive. including offensive jokes.

Baum attempts to get a hold on the slippery nature of the Jewish people and succeeds. As we read, we hear the jokes as if they are bring told to us. I love the Jewish slang that we have in the jokes and I especially enjoyed what she has to say about religion and that some Jews feel that God abandoned them ( historically) while others would like to measure a suit for God, at a very good price of course.

“The Jewish Joke” also celebrates the contribution of Jewish comedians to our world. We see how Jews make us laugh and we laugh as we read.

“The Israel Bible” by Tuly Weisz— Honoring Israel’s First Seventy Years

Weisz, Tuly. “The Israel Bible” (Hebrew and English Edition), Menorah, 2018

Honoring Israel’s First Seventy Years

Amos Lassen

The Israel Bible is the world’s first Bible that truly focuses on the Land of Israel, the People of Israel, and the relationship between them. It is non-sectarian in that it was designed for both Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. We get a new and unique commentary that explains why God was so focused on the Land of Israel. We have both the original Hebrew text and the New Jewish Publication Society translation. All 929 chapters of the Hebrew Bible highlight Israel and included are relevant quotes and perspectives from prime ministers, maps, charts and illustrations. With what is going on right now in Israel, it is important to know the background and here it is part of the commentary. As a way to understand the situation in Israel today, it is necessary to understand the background and this is what makes this bible so important (and such a pleasure).

Not only is “The Israel Bible” a wonderful translation but it contains beautiful illustrations and excellent study aids. There are charts, study notes and enlightening essays. I think that we often forget that the bible is the story of the connection of the Jewish people to the land that was promised to them by God thus making Israel the central focus and the object of forty years of wandering. Therefore it is important to have as much as possible about Israel in the commentaries and the notes.

Israel is the Torah’s main theme and we understand the major role that it plays by having a Bible that is all about the Land of Israel.

 

“Under My Window” by Michal Ronnen Safdie— Jerusalem From a Window

Safdie, Michal. “Under My Window”, with an introduction by Ari Shavit, Powerhouse Books, 2018.

Jerusalem From a Window

Amos Lassen

Jerusalem is a city where Jews, Muslims, Christians, believers, nonbelievers, residents, tourists, and so many others have come for millennia. It is one of the world’s greatest crossroads and is host to the diversity of humanity. Michal Ronnen Safdie’s home is on a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem, along the border between the Jewish and Muslim Quarters. To the East, it overlooks the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. To the north is the Muslim Quarter with Mount Scopus in the skyline and to the west is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Christian Quarter.

Directly under her window is a narrow alley that is a passageway for thousands of people every day. It is a passage for those entering the Old City through Dung Gate on the south side (mostly Palestinians who go to their workplaces, schools and markets. It is the route of Christians to the Holy Sepulcher and of Muslim pilgrims during Ramadan, and other holidays to the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount. It is also the path that Jews residing in the Jewish Quarter and in the western part of the city us to get to the Western Wall. Most of us can only dream about what she sees from her window everyday.

Safdie has two contrasting perspectives from that window. Across toward the Western Wall precinct are vast ceremonial spaces and the silhouette of the Old City quarters. Directly below the window in the alley and terraces are a great variety of people who seek both the sacred and the morning and evening cycles of life’s routines. Safdie’s photographs capture personal moments alongside large-scale public events in the city of Jerusalem, where belief and ritual come together and shape life.

Michal Ronnen Safdie was born in Jerusalem and studied sociology and anthropology. Her photographs have unusual range. There are subjects from the natural world and there is Jerusalem. I find it difficult to express the emotions that we feel as we look at the photographs in this book and therefore I am better not describing them at all. For me, viewing them is a highly personal experience as it will be for many of you.

“The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” by Jack Wertheimer— American Judaism Today

Wertheimer, Jack. “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

American Judaism Today

Amos Lassen

American Judaism has had to deal with what many other American religions have had to face of late— social upheavals, a decline in the number of participants over the past forty years, and many who remain active and struggle to find a way to reconcile their holy traditions with new perspectives. These include feminism and the LGBTQ movement to “do-it-yourself religion” and personally defined spirituality. I often find it interesting to take a look at American Judaism today with its many changes and some of the changes have come so fast that it is really difficult to get a total perspective. Jack Wertheimer is a leading authority on the new American Judaism and has set out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion today. He looks at which observances still resonate, and which ones have been given new meaning, what options are available for seekers or those dissatisfied with conventional forms of Judaism and how are synagogues responding. It is all the more interesting when we understand that there is no central body to go to with questions like these and that decisions are made by individuals. Yet there are answers and many of them are surprising.

Wertheimer uses a variety of sources—survey data, visits to countless synagogues, and interviews with more than two hundred rabbis and other informed observers. He finds that the majority of American Jews still identifies with their faith but often practice it on their own terms. Not surprisingly, gender barriers are loosening within religiously traditional communities, while some of the most progressive sectors are bringing back long-discarded practices. We now have “start-ups” led by charismatic young rabbis and the explosive growth of Orthodox “outreach,” and unconventional worship experiences that are geared toward millennials. I remember growing up and being told that we are not a proselytizing religion only to learn that this is not necessarily so today.

LIke I said, there are many surprises about when and how American Jews practice their religion and many possibilities for “significant renewal.” in American Judaism. Judaism is being creative reinvented due to religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation.

Wertheim gives us his findings descriptively, analytically, and futuristically. This is an important book for those of us who are interested in the future of the Jewish people. We get a lot to think about as we look at Judaism against the backdrop of American religious trends in this country. We have here broad patterns and many details about Judaism as it is today and we get a manifesto for a “powerful prescription for a flourishing, quotidian Judaism” and this should bring about important discussions not just about Judaism but also about religious life today.

 

“Jewish, Gay & Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany: Uncle Alfred Flechtheim’s Unexpected Legacies in Art, AIDS & Law” by Michael Hulton— A Look Back, A Look Forward

Hulton, Michael. “Jewish, Gay & Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany: Uncle Alfred Flechtheim’s Unexpected Legacies in Art, AIDS & Law”, Kieran Publishing, 2018.

A Look Back, A Look Forward

Amos Lassen

Michael Hulton brings together two fascinating eras and gives the reader a new perspective with which to address art and the law. As Hulton recounts the life of his great uncle and art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, a gay Jewish man in the decadent avant-garde movement during the Weimar Republic through to Nazi Germany, he gives us a look at homosexual history, how it was recognized in society from the end of the 19th century through its “coming out phase” in the 1960s.

He finds parallels between the denial of the holocaust and AIDS skepticism. Hulton is a medical doctor who was personally involved fighting for AIDS recognition and treatment. We also gain details about economic spoliation in Nazi Germany and his own pursuit of art restitution on behalf of his late uncle’s family. We get an unexpected legacy of law and art that gives Hulton the means to donate his share of his restitution inheritance to HIV research and Jewish organizations.

Hulton’s parents were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who met in wartime London. His father came from a well-off background. His aunt had married an eminent art-dealer, despite his homosexuality, which his father recalled with evident disapproval. Hulton became intrigued by this, and by his parents’ backgrounds. He graduated from Cambridge University as a doctor and settled down to a career in anesthesia in Toronto, until the eighties, when the AIDS epidemic surfaced. He found that the parallels with the Holocaust were overwhelming and began a part-time medical practice that led to AIDS activism and relocation to San Francisco. Unexpectedly, lawyers contacted him about his long dead great uncle, explaining the potential for restitution of his property lost in the Nazi persecution. Thus began a new career. The book traces the biography of his enigmatic flamboyant great uncle, and his own autobiography, with the amazing parallels of his own story and his newly discovered family history.

“Key to the Locked Garden: Learning to Enhance the Shabbat Experience” by Simcha H. Benyosef— Observing and Loving the Sabbath

Benyosef, Simcha H. “Key to the Locked Garden: Learning to Enhance the Shabbat Experience”, Menorah Books, 2018.

Observing and Loving the Sabbath

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Isaac Luria was known as the Ari and was a Chasidic master who had the ability to bring divine service to an experiential level. His descendant Rabbi Moses Luria also did the same and spent much of his life passing those teachings on. Simcha H. Benyosef requested permission  to make Luria’s teachings public and available in English because of the thirst for such knowledge and this book is the result of that request. We learn that Rabbi Luria once shared with Rabbi Yoel Benharrouche that he came to the world to transmit through his writings the teachings of the Inner Torah that the holy Ari could not do since his death deprived him on that. The Ari’s teachings originate in the Zohar and Rabbi Moses Luria’s explanations illuminate the complexity of those teachings as well as the Zohar and those of the Ari.

Luria, the younger, has added allegorical explanations that are based on human relationships that enable one to relate to these lofty concepts. Benyosef’s intention is to further amplify these teachings in order to make them available to Torah scholars who are able to understand the original writings, but to the community of Israel. This is quite a difficult task when we consider all of the various levels of the community regarding knowledge and insight. Benyosef so brilliantly brings the Kabbalistic concepts to life for both the layperson, that even for a Kabbalist who is familiar with them and there is a great deal of new information here.

Benyosef shares that the purpose in writing this book was to bring the reader that “spiritual darkness is an optical illusion and that all we need to do to dissolve it is to draw to ourselves the Shabbat consciousness.” When Shabbat is over, the consciousness of the day leaves as well and we see here in “Key to the Locked Garden” how to unlock our inner garden and keep Shabbat consciousness to ourselves during the weekdays. The book gives us the teachings and instructions for Shabbat observance that once were available only to an elite few.

The book’s chapter headings go with each part of the eve and Shabbat being with the idea that Shabbat gives us a taste of the world to come and illuminates the darkness that is such a part of so many lives. There are three appendices, one of which is a collection of mystical readings for the Shabbat table. I found myself experiencing Shabbat differently this week by concentrating on some of what’s here and it was quite a welcome from the rest of the week.

“The Emperor of Shoes” by Spence Wise— Jewish in China

Wise, Spence. “The Emperor of Shoes”, Hanover Square Press, 2018.

Jewish in China

Amos Lassen

Alex Cohen is a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian who is living in southern China where his father runs their family-owned shoe factory. Alex against his own best wishes takes over the company and soon realizes that his employees are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is involved in bribes to protect the business. When Alex discovers this, he understands that his father isn’t the man he thought he was. He becomes involved with Ivy, a worker who works his way into Alex’s heart and head.

The novel is written in the tradition of many other Jewish coming-of-age stories. Alex is placed on the fault line between his father, a not particularly scrupulous businessman, and Ivy, a factory worker who is both a love interest for Alex and a mouthpiece for the dissonant movement that upends his sense of morality. Alex is forced to question if one should “honor thy father” if he runs a sweatshop. We become very aware of the conflict between the individual and society. has the potential to heighten both. Alex’s feeling are out of place both physically and emotionally and he is forced to think about place from different angles than one otherwise might do. The setting the story is during a period of labor unrest and the book focuses on the relationship between politics and emotion. By juxtaposing this particularly Jewish coming-of-age story to China, Alex is forced to ask what it means to be Jewish while separated from his home and community in Boston. It is easy for a character like Alex who was raised in established Jewish American communities to lose sight of it. Alex tries to understand his Jewish identity at the same time he adapts to living in another country.

When Alex meets a seamstress named Ivy, his sympathies begin to shift. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow laborers. Alex must decide if he will remain loyal to his father and his heritage or join the revolution with Ivy.

We read about idealism, ambition, father-son rivalry and cultural revolution all set against the backdrop of social and technological change. We see not only the dangers and exploitations of his father’s system but as well as the hopes, dreams and delicate relationships that make it work and that must be risked if change is possible.

This is a funny and illuminating novel about an American father and son and a shoe factory in China. It is heartbreakingly personal, timely and political, written with unforgettable characters and dire circumstances.

“The Parting Gift” by Even Fallenberg— The Underside of Love

Fallenberg, Evan. “The Parting Gift”, Other Press, 2018.

The Underside of Love

Amos Lassen

There is something about a book by Evan Fallenberg that makes me realize what literature is all about. His two earlier books, “Light Fell” and “When We Danced on Water” mesmerized me and I knew that even before I opened the covers, the same would be true of “The Parting Gift”. I cleared my day, according to the advice of another reviewer and sat down and prepared to be lost in words and story and to be taken back to my second home in Israel.

“The Parting Gift” is an “erotic tale of jealousy, obsession, and revenge is suffused with the rich flavors and intoxicating scents of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.” The story is told by an unnamed narrator who writes to Adam, a friend from college. It so happens that Adam is sitting across the room from him as he writes. He has been staying at Adam’s since he abruptly came back to the States from Israel. He has decided that the time has come to move on and he shares with Adam how he came to get to him and that this was all the result of a coincidental encounter with Uzi, a spice merchant. His very first meeting with Uzi brought him to completely change his life and spend more time in the small village north of Tel Aviv. There was some kind of animal magnetism between the two men and as passion grew, the more the narrator became involved in not just Uzi’s life but also the life of Uzi’s ex-wife and children.

From his first meeting with Uzi, the narrator is overwhelmed by an animal attraction that will lead him to derail his life, withdraw from friends and extend his stay in a small town north of Tel Aviv. As he becomes increasingly entangled in Uzi’s life—and by extension the lives of Uzi’s ex-wife and children—his passion turns sinister, ultimately threatening all around him. 

Beneath the surface of the story, we explore how men assume or are forced to take on various roles and in this case we are speaking of the roles of lovers, fathers, Israelis, Palestinians. Just as these roles are often complex, so is our story. As we read, we look at ourselves and the roles we play and it should come as no surprise that there are roles that we would really rather not deal with but are forced into. Of course, there is lust and it should come as no surprise that the roles that sex and lust play in our daily lives is tremendous; they are both part of the human condition but it is man who decides how they are to be dealt with.

I cannot imagine how anyone can read this in pieces; it is a book that demands to be read straight through and then thought about afterwards. It is not enough that each page leads us to the next page but in Fallenberg’s gorgeous prose, each word leads us to the next word. I must admit that there were times when I almost shook from the profundity of what I read.

Here we find love’s underside to be brute sex between two men that makes us them and us to be selfless and selfish. Love can often be stubborn and even evil and while in love we often feel fear. Some may find this to be a new idea but I believe everyone ultimately will agree that this is true.

I see three distinct themes in “The Parting Gift”—sexuality, acceptance, and Middle Eastern culture. Everything seems to come out in the very long letter that the narrator writes. He explains what led up to his arrival. He had been visiting Tel Aviv with his friends when he met Uzi and was taken in immediately. He decides to leave his friends and stay with Uzi and the two become involved in an animalistic sexual relationship. Uzi invites the narrator into his home, to the surprise of his family, namely his ex-wife, who lives across nearby. But homosexuality is not important to Uzi’s family—their main concern is why this happened at the time it did. Uzi and the narrator lead a typical life and the narrator helps with the expansion of Uzi’s spice business. Everything goes well until Ibrahim, the son of a friend of Uzi, arrives to undertake an apprenticeship and brings jealousy, mistrust and resentment into the relationship of the two men. Feeling these, the narrator loses his mind. So perhaps the underside of love is heartbreak and not lust. The characters here have to deal with guilt and inadequacy and these feelings bring about their downfalls.

There is something naughty about reading someone else’s mail and this novel is written in the form of Adam’s letter and it punches us hard with the very first sentence. The story becomes complicated as we read about codes of honor and familial expectation as they hit business and acceptance, family and lovers, and self-realization head-on.

“The Imposter: A True Story” by Javier Cercas— An Infamous Fraud

Cercas, Javier. “The Impostor: A True Story”, translated by Frank Wynne, Knopf, 2018.

An Infamous Fraud

Amos Lassen

“The Imposter” is “a propulsive and riveting narrative investigation into an infamous fraud: a man who has been lying his entire life.”

Enric Marco is an elderly man in his nineties, living in Barcelona and claims to be a Holocaust survivor. He has given hundreds of speeches, granted dozens of interviews, received important national honors, and made government officials shed tears. But in May 2005, Marco was exposed as a fraud. It seems that he was never in a Nazi concentration camp. The story went global and Marco was transformed from hero to villain.

Marco also claimed to be a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a fighter against fascism, an impassioned campaigner for justice. “The Imposter” is part narrative, part history, part essay, part biography, part autobiography and it author Javier Cercas unravels the mystery of the man. He explores “the ambiguous aspects of what makes us human – our infinite capacity for self-deception, our need for conformity, our thirst for affection and our conflicting needs for fiction and for truth.” This is a “charged examination of a surpassingly strange matter and of the masks and fictions we construct.”

The analysis of post-Franco Spain is a wonderful way to understand this complex period. Did the climate of the country have anything top do with the methods of the deceiver and/or the willingness of the deceived to accept such untruths.

Cercas tells Marco’s story with great skill as seen in his impressive detective work and its ironic that it is sometimes amusing and sometimes appalling. In looking at Marco’s deception, we face the dilemma of the justifiable lie, and the collective lies Spain told itself as she moved from dictatorship to democracy.

 The book also looks at the nature of fiction and how it can infiltrate life and upset it. We read about a culture in which truth is less important than appearance and to perform is the best way of being and living. Cercas maintains that fiction has replaced reality in the world we live in and that we have no real interest in average people from the real world.

Marco’s story becomes the basis for a “penetrating meditation on truth and story-telling, identity and self-fashioning.”

Today, Marco is unrepentant about his fabricated stories and ‘The Imposter’ exposes his reasoning, and his claim that he is am imposter and not a fraud. While writing this book, Javier Cercas interviewed Marco and people who knew him to try and uncover the man behind the myth and he writes at length about the philosophical and moral issues that Marco’s situation raises and the line between fiction and truth, whether that is in attempting to understand Marco and the question about whether Marco’s constructed past had a positive effect in helping to keep the memories of those lost in the Holocaust alive.

The philosophical questions Cercas that raises about truth, identity and how we present ourselves in our own lives will keep you thinking.

“OPERATION FINALE”— Finding Eichmann

“Operation Finale”

Finding Eichmann

Amos Lassen

Fifteen years after World War II, a team of secret agents comes together to track down Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust. It was Eichmann who organized the transport of Jews from countries all over Europe to concentration camps where millions were murdered. After the war, he fled to his home country of Austria and then moved to Argentina. The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad uncovered the whereabouts of the infamous Nazi in 1960, and teams of Mossad and Shin Bet agents staged a raid to capture the war criminal and brought him to Israel to face crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. He was sentenced to hang and was executed in 1962 and remained unrepentant all the way to noose. This is the story of the manhunt for one of the most diabolical war criminals of the 20th century.

Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann and Oscar Isaac is Peter Malkin, the Mossad member and head of a group of Israeli spies who took him down. Eichmann had murdered Malkin’s sister and her children so he had his own personal interest in capturing the man. He was sentenced and executed by hanging. Writer, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal was instrumental in finding the location of Eichmann. The reaction of the world to the entire affair was as different as can be imagined and debates took place about Israel’s right to extradite and try the man for crimes against humanity. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and her theory of the banality of evil both hurt and helped her career as a political philosopher and perhaps even tarnished her reputation as one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century.

In the newly released trailer, we see Eichmann supervising the mass murder of hundreds of concentration camp prisoners, then defending his actions in a voiceover,  “You have no interest in what I have to say,” he says. “Unless it confirms what you think you already know. My job was simple: save the country I love from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

Chris Weitz directed the drama from Matthew Orton’s screenplay about the capture of Eichmann, who organized the transport of Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps, where an estimated 6 million people were killed.

In the same trailer, Isaac’s Peter Malkin is warned,” If you succeed, for the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner… If you fail, he escapes justice, perhaps forever. I beg of you, do not fail.”

The film also stars Lior Raz, Melanie Laurent, Nick Kroll, Joe Alwyn, Haley Lu Richardson, Michael Aronov, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Torben Liebrecht, Mike Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Pêpê Rapazote. “Operation Finale” opens in theaters on August 24, 2018.