Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Hasidism: A New History” by David Baile, David Assaf and Benjamin Brown, et al.— A Comprehensive History

Biale, David, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellmab, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodainski. “Hasidism: A New History”, with an afterword by Arthur Green, Princeton University Press, 2017.

A Comprehensive History

Amos Lassen

I have always been fascinated by and curious about Hasidim. Being from New Orleans, I did not have much access to Hasidic Jews since back then there were none so I what I knew about them, I learned at weekly religious school and it was not until after I graduated from college and moved to Israel that I was able to know a Hasid on a one-to-one basis. Of course, I could not ask questions and so I began to read. Now, with the publication of “Hasidism: A New History”, I have everything I ever wanted to know.

Hasidism is a pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism and here we get a combination of intellectual, religious, and social history as well as perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers. We see that Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world.

Hasidism originated in southeastern Poland, in mystical circles that were centered on the figure of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, but it was only after his death in 1760 that it began to spread as a movement. Some have stated that Hasidism stop being a creative movement after the eighteenth century but we see here that the golden age of the movement was in the nineteenth century, when it conquered new territory, gained a mass following, and became a mainstay of Jewish Orthodoxy. Eastern European Hasidism was severely hurt by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust. Then following World War II, the movement entered a second golden age and really grew. Today, it is once again experiencing a renaissance in Israel, the United States, and other countries around the world. In this book we get the work of an international team of scholars with information for anyone seeking to understand the movement. This is a very readable comprehensive history that kept me mesmerized as I read.

We get a new understanding of many of the myths about Hasidism as well as new insights that place the movement at the center of European Jewish history and as a movement that shaped history and not just a marginal group of Jews. The collective wisdom we get here from eight of the modern sages of Judaism give us a complete portrait of Hasidism.

Because of their unique dress, Hasidic Jews are highly visible. They are also the fastest growing of all the world’s Jewish subcultures. Along with that they are also among the least understood and enigmatic of Jewish communities. We learn what brought the movement into being and how it survived. I decided that instead of reading it at first from cover to cover, I looked for the answers to the many questions that I had and they were all answered here.

This is the first real comprehensive history of Hasidism that spans the entire movement from its beginnings to the present. There are more than 800 pages and not one is wasted. What is interested is that the work is truly collaborative.

This will be a ready resource and primer for the next generation of pious and doubtful inquirers into the history of Hasidism, especially for outsiders. It is written with inclusivity and invites us to understand. I can imagine that the religious insider might find this to be too broad and too historical but then they are supposed to know all of this anyway. The purpose of the book or so it seems to me is to give a thorough and even-handed history of the movement.

“RAZZIA”— Five Separate Narratives That Become One

“Razzia”

Five Separate Narratives That Collide Into One

Amos Lassen

 

Director Nabil Ayouch in “Razzia” brings a potent and fascinating mosaic of a film about dreams, and the trials and struggles of everyday life in Morocco. The film opens with the Berber proverb, “Happy is he who can act according to his desires.” This can be interpreted as a perfect synthesis of the intentions of a filmmaker with a prodigious sensitivity to human nature. Five different stories span two time periods to show the unsettling and potentially explosive frustration experienced by those trying to make their own paths in a conservative society.

“Razzia” begins in 1982 in the Atlas mountains, in a tiny village where much-loved teacher Abdallah (Amine Ennaji) must obey the directives of the state and stop teaching in Berber, the only language that his pupils understand. Soon, defeated Abdallah leaves this place, and with it his romance with the widow Yto (Nezha Tebbaï). We then move forward to Casablanca in 2015 where the beautiful Salima (Maryam Touzani, who co-wrote the script alongside Ayouch), is dressed immodestly as she takes a dip in the ocean after running into a protest against the reform of inheritance laws. The demonstrators carried signs declaring “Sharia rules” or “men and women are not the same”. It is here that we see everyday scene with its deep contradictions.

While Salima might appear to be an independent woman, her husband is firmly established in the modernity that befits economic privilege. Salima is torn over whether or not to have an abortion, and seeks the advice of Yto (now played by Saâdia Ladib), whose house she goes to dance accompanied by Elyas, her son. Elyas (Abdellah Didane) works as a bartender for Joe (Arieh Worhalter), a Jew living an outwardly quiet life, soothed by his memories of the classic film “Casablanca” but he is realizing that his existence is becoming ever more circumscribed, particularly in matters of love, by religious barriers.

Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), on the other hand, faces different obstacles. His family and neighbors in the city’s working-class Medina district stand in the way of his dreams of becoming a rock star like Freddie Mercury. Meanwhile, the charmed life of well-off teenager Inès (Dounia Binebine) hides a profound loneliness, as she faces the confusion of growing up in an environment where TV images collide with the country’s traditions. All of these cases of individual psychological tension feed into a latent sense of rising pressure, while disturbances break out across the city in the middle of the night.

We see contemporary Morocco and the hubbub of Casablanca as both stinging and affectionate and in need of a reawakening, for perseverance and for renewal and a warning against the dangers posed by escalating conflict and contradiction.

Director Ayouch does an excellent job of immediately luring the viewer into the dense narrative, and it’s clear, too, that his initial emphasis on the timelines perpetuates the promising atmosphere with the scenes involving an ’80s school teacher standing as an early highlight. There are a few ongoing highlights throughout the running time that include a recurring subplot involving a gay aspiring musician with a Queen obsession. However, there are too many rushed storylines does not work as smoothly as it should.

“The Dry Bones Haggadah” by Yaakov Kirschen— Make the Seder Fun

Kirschen, Yaakov. “The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah”, Maggid, 2018.

Make the Seder Fun

Amos Lassen

 Yaakov Kirschen has published his Dry Bones cartoons in “The Jerusalem Post” for over forty years and he is syndicated in newspapers around the world. Now he takes the wit from his drawings and turns it into a Haggadah that features an engaging, user-friendly layout, contemporary design, and modern English translation.

Kirschen’s wit and artistry are on every page as is his love of Judaism and this is a wonderful way to brighten every Seder. He combines tradition with modernity. All of the original Hebrew text is present

alongside innovative cartoons. We read the Haggadah as a unifying experience and most of us look forward to doing so every year. This Haggadah is, in effect, the graphic history of the Jewish people. The story is presented in a light way but the original intention of reading the exodus is there in full. Because we live in such a diverse world today, we want everyone who comes to the Seder to feel included and that is exactly what this Haggadah does.

Each page contains Dry Bones cartoons, many featuring the beloved character of Uncle Shuldig. Kirschen tells us that the structure here is based on the Talmud with the main text appearing in the middle of the page and surrounded by commentary. However, with this Haggadah we get relevant and contemporary wit there is based on the 3000-year-old story of the Jews leaving Egypt. The layout is clear and easy to follow, even when sitting beside someone with a different Haggadah. The cartoons keep both youngsters kids and adults laughing and engaged throughout the night and we share and enjoy as one group. The size is perfect and it makes a wonderful gift as well.

“Out of Egypt” by Andre Aciman— Quite a Family

Aciman, Andre. “Out of Egypt: A Memoir”, Picador, 2007.

Quite a Family

Amos Lassen

“Out of Egypt” is the book that made me a Andre Aciman fan and I am so happy now that others have been introduced to him via the film adaptation of “Call Me By Your Name”. Now only does Aciman always have a good story to tell but he tells each of them in gorgeous prose. Perhaps his best story is that one his family that we meet in “Out of Egypt”. This is a memoir that looks at the Aciman clan from their arrival to Alexandria, Egypt to its defeated departure three generations later. We meet some wonderful characters— Uncle Vili, a proud daredevil, soldier, salesman, and spy; two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, who were able to gossip in six languages; Aunt Flora, the German refugee who warns that Jews lose everything “at least twice in their lives” to name a few as a start. We also meet Andre, a boy who, even as he longs for a wider world, does not want to be taken out of Egypt.

Andre was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt but considered his nationality to be French. His family were Sephardic Jews who had wandered from Italy to Turkey and then settled in Egypt. His father owned a woolen mill and his parents were very wealthy, as were the other members of the larger family who lived with them or gathered regularly for elegant meals and special occasions. They had no common language and only a few of them learned Arabic. They hid their Jewishness when Nasser was in power as this a time of high Arab nationalism, intense anti-Semitism and then war. Eventually they went to Paris, leaving behind much of their wealth but little of their culture. Aciman gives us a very rich and captivating portrait of a Jewish family that experienced many adventures and as many disappointments. Here Aciman redeems the social life, customs, and history of a community that barely exists today amid an inhospitable milieu, due to political turmoil in close and remote lands. While this is something of a nostalgic account of that family, it is also a look at a community that was but is no more. The Acimans came to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1905, long before young Andre‚ was born. There they lived in splendor as Aciman’s great-aunts and –uncles made and lost fortunes, despised the Arab natives, and survived two world wars. The family rose to, and fell from, the heights of government and European-Egyptian society, and by the late 1960s the entire clan had either died, emigrated, or been expelled from their adoptive home.

Aciman begins his memoir with a visit to Great-uncle Vili, the first of the family to emigrate. Vili was in his 80s then and had become a genteel and gentile Englishman: Because of his service to the British during WW II (even while remaining faithful to Italian Fascism), he was granted a country estate in Surrey, where he lived out his life as Dr. H.M. Spingarn. Vili’s sister Esther, Aciman’s grandmother and one of the last to leave Egypt and she was a European grande dame who dined at Alexandria’s Sporting Club, fingered produce in the market, and bargained mercilessly with the local merchants. She smuggled money out of Egypt for years before she was expelled along with her sister Elsa and Aciman and his parents. Aciman paints quite a portrait of a bygone time without idealizing his colorful ancestors. Much of their interest is, in fact, in their pettiness, spitefulness, and bigotry. “They were simultaneously assimilated, anti-Semitic, and practicing Jews; masters of their Egyptian servants and “Dogs of the Arabs.” Aciman’s father was an unrepentant philanderer and his deaf mother was a source of shame. We see Aciman, himself, as an as observer of the family’s deterioration.

I loved reading of a time when Jews lived in peace with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in Alexandria. Aciman does not mention anti-Jewish sentiments until after the Suez War. Aciman, like many “Egyptian” Jews preferred to hold European nationalities and in some cases some were French or Italian without ever having been in these countries. Europeans had their own courts in Egypt and did not fall under Egyptian Laws. For Aciman, life became unbearable after the waves of Nationalization in the early 60’s.

This is an Alexandria that no longer exists not just for Egyptian Jews. The population explosion in Egypt has transformed Alexandria beyond recognition but Aciman’s beautiful writing of Alexandria brings it back. Affluent Egyptian Jews who left Egypt in the fifties and sixties are not immediately thought of as refugees and there is little discussion on their issues of identity and affiliation in Egypt and elsewhere. Aciman shares some very funny moments and shows us that life can be amusing even with its dysfunction.

“The Orchard” by Yochi Brandes— The Beginnings of Judaism and Christianity

Brandes, Yochi. “The Orchard”, Gefen. 2018

The Beginnings of Judaism and Christianity

Amos Lassen

Yochi Brandes’ “The Orchard” looks at the beginnings of modern Judaism and Christianity (in the first and second centuries) and the historical circumstances and disputes that were part their births. The heroes of that generation (such as Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Ishmael, Rabban Gamaliel, Paul of Tarsus, and many others) are characters in this novel that brings biblical and Talmudic history together..

Rabbi Akiva and his wife Rachel are at the center of the story. There relationship was complicated and we learn that Rachel, who met Akiva when he was a forty-year-old illiterate shepherd. She married him against her father’s wishes, and compelled him to study the Torah until he became the greatest mind in ancient Israel. Akiva had a new and novel way of interpreting the holy writings but if that was not enough, he was part of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (the second rebellion against the Romans) that brought a terrible holocaust upon the nation of Israel that nearly caused its end. In the novel, we get a narrative solution to the riddle of the Bar Kokhba Revolt by tying the rebellion to the story of four sages who entered a metaphysical orchard: one died, one lost his mind, one became a hater of God, and one, Rabbi Akiva, made it out untouched or so we have been taught. The Sages become complex individuals that we actually get to know here.

Akiva has always been something of a mystery but there writer Brandes makes him human and one of us. She does so from the point of view of his wife, Rachel who pushed him to become a great Torah scholar and leader like those before him.

I felt that I personally met Rabbi Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabban Gamaliel, and other sages of the first centuries. We hear their debates, learn about their periods of uncertainty, their jealousies, their alliances and their mistakes, This was a time when the sages interacted both with the ruling Roman power and with the dawning Christian culture and its challenges.

At first the Sages were bewildered with Akiva who was just an illiterate shepherd who married far above his station and they watched as he became a great rabbi, thinker and their leader. While the novel comes from the imagination of Yochi Brandes, we gain a better understanding of how early modern Judaism and Christianity began. We read of the testing of laws that are affirmed and understood and we see the power of a woman long before their gender was emancipated in Jewish life. We read of men of God honoring and betraying one another and we gain a sharper understanding of Torah and Talmud as we wrestle with Rabbi Akiva’s radical method of scripture interpretation.

“PRAISE THE LARD”— Jews and Pork

“Praise the Lard”

Jews and Pork

Amos Lassen

There are many traditions in Judaism that outsiders can really never understand. Director Chen Shelach looks at how this topic is relevant to Israel today. The concentration is on eating pork and the issue isn’t about whether the decision is religious or otherwise justifiable, but what the decision really means. It used to defy repression by other cultures and religions but today the conflict is between the advocates and opponents of Israel that sees itself as a religious community and those that see it as primarily a state. Serious reflections and an ironic tone go hand in hand here on this idiosyncratic and unsettling topic.

Shelach alternates between historical opinions and current interviews. On the one hand, the issue deals with the topic of self-assertion and cultural identity but economic considerations also play an important role. There are no clear answers here, we just get a look at the topic.

“Praise the Lard” follows the Jewish ban on pork and shows it as a discussion influenced by many factors: religious, cultural, economic.

“MR. AND MRS. ADELMAN”— Love, Ambition, Betrayals and Secrets

“Mr. & Mrs. Adelman”

Love, Ambition, Betrayals and Secrets

Amos Lassen

For more than 45 years, Sarah and Victor have been together. The film is the odyssey of am extraordinary couple crossing with us small and great history of the last century.

The film retraces Sarah’s story, her life together with Victor, from their meeting at their last moment together through the birth of their children and we relive with each key moment of their lives passed together.

Director Nicolas Bedos skillfully traces Sarah’s life. We live the highs and lows of the couple against a moving and upsetting backdrop that focuses on existential topics, the couple, old age, infidelity and the place of women in the family and in society. We go through all the stages of the life of a couple without exaggeration. Carried by the perfect alchemy between Nicolas Bedos and Doria Tillier, “Mr. and Mrs. Adelman” is a concentrate of emotion that fascinates us and surprises from start to finish.

Beginning with the mournful chords of Mozart’s “Requiem”, the film is classic in both script and directing style. It does not waste time on long passages and fashionable contemplative strings – the story goes swiftly and absorbs in two hours of screen of the fifty years of life of two heroes: the famous writer Victor and his beloved wife Sarah. At the funeral of her husband Sarah tells the author of his future biography about their life together, during which Victor took the surname of his wife Adelman.

This is the story of a meeting in a Paris nightclub of a woman who fell in love at first sight, and a bohemian brawler-bon vivant, who seemed to be a god to her and their difficult rapprochement and happiness. We see how happiness was blurred by ambition, unsuccessful births, temptations, treachery, jealousy, a bourgeois routine and meaningless wealth. We see how the joint life turned into a continuous struggle for each other, and how love goes hand in hand with hatred.

“A History of Judaism: From Its Origins to the Present” by Martin Goodman— A Mighty Task

Goodman, Martin. “A History of Judaism: From Its Origins to the Present”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

A Mighty Task

Amos Lassen

In writing “A History of Judaism”, Martin Goodman took on a mighty task. Judaism is one of the oldest religions of the world spanning more than three millennia. Yet Judaism has preserved its distinctive identity despite the extraordinarily diverse forms and beliefs it has embodied. This is the first comprehensive look in one volume at how Judaism came to be, its evolution from one age to the next, and how its various strains, sects, and traditions relate to each other.

We begin by going back in time to Judaism’s origins in the polytheistic world of the second and first millennia BCE to the temple cult at the time of Jesus. Goodman shares the stories of the rabbis, mystics, and messiahs of the medieval and early modern periods and takes us through the many varieties of Judaism today. We travel the world from the Middle East, Europe, and America to North Africa, China, and India and learn of the institutions and ideas on which all forms of Judaism are based as well as explore the different threads of doctrinal and philosophical debate that exist throughout its history. We see Judaism as a vibrant and multifaceted religious tradition that has shaped the spiritual heritage of the world and humankind.

The book encapsulates most of Jewish thought over time into one very readable volume supported by footnotes and illustrated by maps. This is no easy task when we consider the twists and turns of history and of man. There is a great sense of authority here but more important is that the writing engages the reader throughout. I was mystified at ready our history in such a clear and precise manner. A special bonus is adding to the narrative, some of the great and most influential Jewish lives. Martin Goodman compresses the entire history of Judaism from Josephus to Jewish Renewal and pays special attention to Jewish diversity and upon up-to-date scholarship. We follow Judaism through its multiple manifestations through the ages as we gain a fresh perspective on how both past and present come together in Judaism.

We see Jewish communities in their many contexts and gain an analysis of religious and intellectual developments from antiquity to modern times. Here is the prefect example of what can do when bringing history together with excellent writing skills.

 

 

“In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea” by Michael Brenner— The Concept of a Jewish State

Brenner, Michael. “In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

The Concept of a Jewish State

Amos Lassen

It seems that I have spent most of my life trying to understand the idea of a Jewish state and that includes the many years that I lived in Israel. The early Zionists envisioned the creation of a nation that would be unlike all others. However, the state that came to be in 1948 was not what had been expected. It was born out of the dead of the Holocaust and of the many years of Jewish suffering yet it was a nation that was unique with a model society in the Middle East yet Israel was a paradox, The country was shaped by its struggle to define itself while securing a place among the other nations of the world.

At the first Zionist Congress in 1897 there was no single solution as to how the normalization of the Jewish people was to happen. Theodore Herzl, the founded of the Zionist movement thought that a secular-liberal “New Society” that would be home to Jews and non-Jews alike was the answer. East European Zionists, instead, advocated for the renewal of the Hebrew language and the creation of a distinct Jewish culture. Socialists saw a society of workers’ collectives and farm settlements. The Orthodox Jews wanted a society based on the laws of Jewish scripture. Immediately, the stage was set for a clash of Zionist dreams and Israeli realities that still continues today.

Now, seventy years after its founding, Israel has achieved a great deal, “but for a state widely viewed as either a paragon or a pariah”, writer Michael Brenner argues, “the goal of becoming a state like any other remains elusive. If the Jews were the archetypal “other” in history, ironically, Israel—which so much wanted to avoid the stamp of otherness—has become the Jew among the nations.” While he is unable to answer questions about modern Zionism, Brenner elucidates the concept of modern Israel. Personally, I find it fascinating that while I lived there I wanted Israel to be more secular and while living in the United States now, I find myself wanting just the opposite. The idea that Israel is to be “a light unto the nations” has yet to happen even with all that Israel has provided to the modern world.

What makes this book both fascinating and unique is that Brenner has managed to unite the history of Israel with the history of Zionism taking us back to Herzl’s original vision through the various forms that Zionism has taken to the present. It is no surprise that since the early days of political Zionism, the idea of Israel has clashed wit ideas of normalcy and uniqueness. This is a book that cries out to be read by those who care about Israel and what she will be.

Brenner explores the tensions “within the Zionist project between Israel’s strivings for normality and its ongoing sense of exceptionalism” and he does so with style and grace. The different visions for a homeland for the Jews are many and need to be understood in order to appreciate what we do have now. Brenner does a wonderful job of explaining these.

“Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic Era” by Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank— The Theological Foundations and Philosophies of Judaism

Wiederblank, Netanel. “Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic Era”, Maggid, 2018.

The Theological Foundations and Philosophies of Judaism

Amos Lassen

When I received my copy of “Illuminating Jewish Thought”, I was both filled with joy and apprehension. I was happy in that as a philosopher I was going to have many new ideas to think about. The apprehension had to do with the sheer size of the book with its 600 plus pages. Because I like to read each sentence several times, I imagined seeing myself sitting with this book for many Passovers and mulling over each philosophical statement. I am proud to say that I misjudged the book as it is totally readable that I sat glued to the chair as I read. Here in one volume are the theological foundations of the Jewish faith as well as answers to so many of the questions that I have pondered for years. Rabbi Wiederblank brings together Jewish texts ranging from philosophical to Kabbalistic, ancient to modern, in this easily accessible source book.

We investigate the Jewish scholastic tradition of three fundamental and esoteric topics: free will, the afterlife, and the messianic era. We look at primary sources translated into modern English from their original tongues. We are therefore able to read and analyze independent texts and to do so independently. Rabbi Wiederblank then illuminates and contextualizes these complex concepts. In effect, as we read we discover the very foundations of Jewish practice and belief. The concentration is on those theological principles of Judaism that have to do with eschatological thought. Using the three principles of redemption or divine justice, revelation and faith in God as the framework here, this volume centers on the concept of redemption with two more volumes to follow.

Having taken many graduate and undergraduate philosophy course, I remember all too well that the purpose of philosophical exploration is to deal with the questions that are always on our minds but are lodged in those recesses that are not always part of our awareness. However by studying these questions, we can rise to spiritual excellence. The topics that we examine here are those that we do not publicly look at and/or deal with. We study the concept of Jewish thought here and what this term means takes the entire first chapter of the book and I must say that this chapter really made me think.

I have always had questions about the Jewish definition of free will and how to use it as well as its scope. The works here really help to understand it. The world to come or the afterlife is another enigma in Judaism and the explanations here are eye opening. Then there is the concept of the Messiah of which I found the sources and explanations here to be exceptional in terms of gaining understanding. This is not just a book to be read but one to be cherished. My copy is on a very special place on my desk so that it is always close at hand.