Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities” by Mira Beth Wasserman— Operating Within the Larger Community

Wasserman, Mira Beth. “Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities”, University of Pennsylvania Press  2017.

 Operating  Within the Larger Community

Amos Lassen

Mira Beth Wasserman in “Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals” gives a close, contemporary reading of “Avoda Zara”, the Talmud’s tractate that explores how the Jewish community should operate within the larger, non-Jewish community. This tractate has brought intense controversy with the Christian Church because of its negative representation of non-Jews and this has often served as a basis for the Church’s censorship and persecution of Jewish communities during pre-modern times. Wasserman explores how the tractate might be best understood as part of a broader Jewish concern with how all humanity is interconnected.

Like the ancient text, Wasserman has divided her book into five chapters. Wasserman presents a rabbinic consideration of the differences between Jews and non-Jews, shared through a clarification of the laws that regulate financial exchanges between these communities. She goes on to suggest that the narrative portions of this chapter actually deal with sex, death, ritual, and aspirations for life beyond the grave as parts shared by all people. In this way, she undermines the prohibitions that are given as prohibitions against these interreligious business transactions.

Wasserman looks at the issue of libation wine. Here the Talmud is about how to deal with wine that has been owned or handled by non-Jews, and is thus unfit for Jewish use. She identifies a rabbinic unease with justifying a clear-cut division between these communities, as the editors of the Talmud “identify the laws governing the use of Gentile wine as a rabbinic innovation, instituted for the sake of imposing difference when none would otherwise exist.”

The tractate then moves from constructing boundaries between Jews and non-Jews to delineations between rabbis and other Jews. Wasserman deconstructs the Talmud’s values hierarchy and puts Torah scholarship at the height of rabbinic importance, over the distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This is not a book for everyone as it requires an understanding of rabbinic literature and an awareness of the language of the Talmud and literary theory as well as the ability.

“Avoda Zara” is one of the Talmud’s most difficult tractates because of its topic and Wasserman does an excellent job of uncovering what is there as well as presenting a new way of reading the Talmud that brings it into the humanities, including animal studies, materialism and critical theory. We see “Avoda Zara” as an attempt to reflect on what all people share in common, and how humans fit into a larger universe of animals and things. In the past, it has been seen as a guide to Jewish-Christian relations and because of this Christian authorities often censored it. Wasserman has developed a twenty-first-century reading of it that sees it as part of a broader quest to understand what connects human beings to each other and to the world.

Although the words “avodah zara” mean “strange worship”, the tractate hardly deals with idolatry. We get a redefinition of the word “goy” which once meant nations. Under the new definition, the ancient rabbis divided the world into Jews and gentiles and each law presented is based on “a binary opposition between Jews and all other people.” The tractate shows the differences between different categories of gentiles.

“The Most Dangerous Thing” by Leanne Lieberman— Dealing with Female Desire

Lieberman, Leanne. “The Most Dangerous Thing”, Orca Book Publishers, 2017.

Dealing with Female Desire

Amos Lassen

Sixteen-year-old Sydney is fighting a secret battle against depression, and she’s sure she’ll never have a boyfriend. She also hates to talk about sex. When Paul, one of her classmates starts texting and sending her nature photos, she is surprised by his interest. She starts to reexamine her relationship with her body and with Paul but her depression becomes worse and she is lucky to have friends and family to help her.

Sydney is very shy and has trouble with anxiety, so much so that she avoids eye contact with others and is uncomfortable being touched. She refers to her depression as “the fog” and develops ways to cope with her feelings shy high school student with anxiety attack issues, both physically and mentally. She is Jewish and visits her grandfather regularly and when she is with him she feels love. Her older sister, Amy is planning on staging “The Vagina Monologues” at school for the senior drama festival and Sydney is shocked by this. Paul, her lab partner, takes an interest in her and even though she is attracted by him, she has no idea what to do. Eventually she loses control over “the fog” and has a breakdown and with the help of medication and therapy she is able to break out.

Writer Leanne Lieberman looks at how mental illness and coming-of-age novel intersect here. Sydney is mystified by Paul’s sudden attention and she is overwhelmed by her home life and her mother’s decision to bring more Judaism into the family. Lieberman excels at bringing family, mental health, and sexual awakening together to give us a fascinating read. This is a wonderful book for adolescents dealing with these three issues.

“Imprint: Holocaust Trauma in the Third Generation” by Claire Sicherman— Breaking the Silence

Sicherman, Claire. “Imprint: Holocaust Trauma in the Third Generation”, Caitlin Press, 2017.

Breaking the Silence

Amos Lassen

I cannot imagine a bigger trauma than the Holocaust and it is just during the last few years that people have begun to speak openly about what they suffered during the darkest period in world history. It is hard for anyone who did not go through it to imagine what it was like and at this period in history, the last survivors are leaving the world. If we do not hear their stories now, they will be gone forever. “Imprint” is one such story. It is a deep and

courageous exploration of trauma, family, and the importance of breaking silence and telling stories. This is a fresh and startling combination of history and personal revelation. 

When her son almost died at birth and her grandmother passed away, something inside of Claire Sicherman changed. Her body, which had always felt weighed down by some unknown pain, began to suffer from chronic health conditions, and her heart broke. She was consumed by grief that seemed to encompass more than her own lifetime, and she became determined to find out why. 

Even though author Claire Sicherman grew up reading about Anne Frank and seeing the classic “Schindler’s List”, she had almost no knowledge of the Holocaust and its impact on her family. Though Most of her ancestors were murdered in the Holocaust, yet her grandparents didn’t talk about their trauma and her mother grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia never knowing that she was even Jewish. Through vignettes, epistolary style, and other unconventional forms, Sicherman explores the intergenerational transmission of trauma and that genes can be altered and carry memories, which are then passed down as a kind of genetic imprinting. Here her story that gives honor to her

ancestors and at the same time offers the truth to the next generation and her now nine-year-old son. This is a testimony of the connections between mind and body and the past and the present and is a love story as well as one of survival.

“Who Am I and Where Is Home?: An American Woman in 1931 Palestine” by Andrea Jackson— Letters Home

Jackson, Andrea. “Who Am I and Where Is Home?: An American Woman in 1931 Palestine”, Andrea Jackson, 2017.

Letters Home

Amos Lassen

Many of you know that I spent almost half of my life living in Israel and that I am always ready to read about the experience of others who lived there. Andrea Jackson was there some thirty years before I got to Israel and her story is fascinating. This is a biography/memoir that is written through letters to and from Jackson’s mother, Celia, during the year that she was in what was known then as Palestine during the American Depression. These letters were to and from her family and two of her “boyfriends”, one of whom was an ardent Zionist and the other who was a young attorney trying to support his parents and sisters. Celia was in Jerusalem where she was friendly with other Americans and where she taught English and later worked as secretary to a British engineer who was working on overhauling the Jerusalem sewer system (‘which had been constructed by the Romans some 2000 years before”).

While this is a biography, it is also the story of two women; Celia Antopolsky, the author’s mother, and her best friend Lillian Shapiro who went to Palestine in 1930-1931. They were both highly independent and loved new experiences, one of which was their desire to see Palestine and so they did, sailing on a cargo ship for a month crossing the ocean and even buying weapons for Jewish settlers who need self-protection and then smuggling them into Palestine.

The letters that the women wrote are filled with wonderful descriptions. donkeys, camels, and vibrant bazaars. Celia was a true romantic and her descriptions of Jerusalem make you feel like you are actually there. There is also a political side to the letters and we read about the relationship between America and Palestine, the White Paper that gave the rules and laws of British policy in Palestine that limited Jewish immigration and development. And the letters are personal in that we read about what happens when women choose to trade their independent beings to become wives and mothers.

When the two women went to Palestine, it was almost unheard of for them to do so. They knew very little about the country or the people and young women did not just pick up and travel to destinations so far from home.

Through the letters, we see Celia as a woman who was in love with life and who was totally charming to those she met. I found it very interesting that there was nothing about Nazi Germany and the future of European Jewry but then no one really could have thought about what the future would bring.

I could not stop reading once I began and I was constantly comparing my experiences in Israel (some thirty-five years later) and was amazed that we shared the same elements of surprise at seeing Jerusalem with all of its beauty, charms and wonders.

“Necessary Stories” by Haim Watzman— Twenty-four Stories

Watzman, Haim. “Necessary Stories”, West 26th Street Press, 2017.

Twenty-four Stories

Amos Lassen

“Necessary Stories” is a collection of twenty-four stories of Israeli and Jewish life, selected from the more than one hundred that Haim Watzman has written over the last nine years in his “Necessary Stories” column in the The Jerusalem Report.
The stories are about the lives of ordinary Israelis and current events. Even though these stories are written in English, if you know Hebrew you will notice the way that the English prose is constructed. We have stories about “a conversation in a cemetery with a long-dead Talmudic sage; Felix Mendelssohn’s great aunt scolding the young prodigy; four Jews on a plane discussing the Bible, the Zohar and Wuthering Heights—is a matter of life and death

Watzman excels at writing about the exact point in time that leaves an impression on the future. His stories are immediate, empathetic and attentive to the world. His ability for writing dialogue is amazing and the stories have layers of meaning and are totally diverse.

We see what it is to live in a country that is made up of so many diverse elements and where history, politics, and philosophy come together.

“Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” by Francine Klagsbrun— Mother, Grandmother, Prime Minister

Klagsbrun, Francine. “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel”, Schocken, 2017.

Mother, Grandmother, Prime Minister

Amos Lassen

I knew Golda Meir. When I lived in Tel Aviv her official residence was three doors down from me and I would see her shopping and walking down Ben Yehudah Street every once in a while. She always said hello as if we had known each other for years but my knowing Golda was just that— a hello and a smile.

Golda was a chain-smoking political operative, and a tea-and-cake kind of grandmother who became the fourth prime minister of Israel. She was unlike any other world figure unlike any other. She immigrated to America in 1906 from tsarist Russia and grew up in Milwaukee, where even in her early years she had a political consciousness and organizational skills that would eventually land her into the inner circles of Israel’s founders. She moved to mandatory Palestine in 1921 with her husband, joined a kibbutz but soon left and was hired at a public works office. A series of public service jobs brought her to the attention of David Ben-Gurion, and her political career took off very quickly. She went fund-raising in America in 1948, secretly met with King Abdullah in Amman. She was mobbed by thousands of Jews in a Moscow synagogue in 1948 as Israel’s first representative to the USSR, when she was Israel’s minister of labor and foreign minister in the 1950s and 1960s. Golda spoke with fire, made plainspoken appeals and she was a shrewd deal-maker. She dedicated her life to the welfare and security of the State of Israel and its inhabitants.

 As prime minister, Golda negotiated arms agreements with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and had had many clandestine meetings with Jordan’s King Hussein in the unsuccessful pursuit of a land-for-peace agreement with Israel’s neighbors. Her time in office ended tragically when Israel was caught off guard by Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973.

Through the use of newly available documents from Israeli government archives, writer Francine Klagsbrun looks at whether Golda could have prevented that war. She contemplated using nuclear force and resigned after the war spending her final years watching national affairs. We see Golda as compassionate, realistic, and capable of compromise. She was an immigrant (twice), a Zionist, a feminist, and a prime minister who had much more than just a woman’s share of history. Her story is of a tough, complicated and remarkable woman. We see her personal life against the backdrop Israel’s emergence of Israel on the world stage. Like everyone else, Golda had her failings and we read of those as well. She was tenacious and dedicated and even with those failings she remains relevant to history.

“My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg— A Novel as Memoir/ A Memoir as Novel

Hirshberg, David. “My Mother’s Son”, Fig Tree Books, 2018.

A Novel as Memoir/ A Memoir as Novel

Amos Lassen

“My Mother’s Son” is a novel that is written as the memoir of a radio raconteur. It uses inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in as a way to deal with major issues that affect Americans today including disease, war, politics, immigration and business. It is set in earlier times thus giving a sense of distance. This is the story of an extended Jewish family in Boston (a grandfather, his two daughters, their husbands, an uncle and two boys, Joel (the narrator) and Steven, his older brother, who are the sons of the older daughter). The story is both universal and personal and has something for everyone— “betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls and a dog.” We read about a family and the word it lived in and what made it even more special for me is that I m in Boston as I write about it.

I believe that most of us have shared the same mysteries of childhood. We know that there are things that our parents do not always tell us when we are kids. I remember my parents reverting to Yiddish when they had something to say that they did not want us to hear. Beginning in Boston in 1952, young Joel knows that there were truths that he did not know about. It wasn’t that his parents lied to him, it was that not everything was discussed with the children. In my house, for example, the Holocaust was a forbidden topic and I did not learn about it until I was in college. (My folks did not want to upset “der kinder”). In Joel’s family the mystery of girls was not a topic for discussion; death was only for the old.

Through flashbacks to the early 1900s, we learn about Joel’s grandfather’s immigrant beginnings and his wife who had been murdered and his aunt’s running from Germany (with her husband) on the morning following Kristallnacht, in November 1938. Joel continues to learn about his family and as he does, he discovers that a souvenir baseball bat caused the death of a cousin and a murder. As he began to put things together, he uncovered a family secret.

We move forward to 1952 and the Korean War, polio, Kennedy and baseball. We see that Hirshberg sees that year as when “societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration” were changed. This all sounds very serious but do not worry—there is also great humor here, great dialogue and wonderful descriptions of a time that was. There are also no stereotypes— these are replaced by the multi-ethnic (Irish, Italian and Jewish) cast of characters.

I have been writing about this family and this period as if it is all very real… but it is not. This is all fiction and it all comes from the mind of the author who has stated that it is not based on anything in his life.

In 1952 I was far from Boston, growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana yet the Boston we meet here is very alive and seems very real. We see it through 13-yer-old Joel and his thoughts. Even though I have been in Boston only six years, I have spent a lot of time visiting places and reading about the Boston that was, especially Jewish Boston. What I am trying to say is that even though I have been told that this is all fiction, it could very well have been. We might say that this is “a twenty-first century exploration of the formative American Jewish experiences of the twentieth century.” It speaks to the urgent concerns of today even when we are taken back to another time.

I believe that what David Hirshberg tells us here is that we remember the lies we heard and grew up with more than we remember the truths and while I can easily explain that here, I would rather have you discover what that means by reading this wonderful novel. This is a big book coming in at about 350 pages but during the first reading, it moves quickly. I found that after I read it that I wanted to immediately go back and read it again to see if I missed anything (but that is me; I do that a lot, especially if it is a book that I am reviewing).

I love this book and this is not something I say very often. I think that by reading it, I understand myself a bit more and I certainly think that I understand American Jewish culture a bit better.

“The Ruined House: A Novel” by Ruby Namdar— Merging the Real and Unreal

Namdar, Ruby. “The Ruined House: A Novel”, Harper, 2017.

Merging the Real and the Unreal

Amos Lassen

I seldom get emotional while reading but every once in a while I read a novel that shakes the core of my being. Ruby Namdar’s “The Ruined House” did just that. By the end of the first paragraph, I knew that I was in for a read that would affect me profoundly. As I read on, I realized that I was reading a very special book in which the real and reveal merge. No wonder this book won the Sapir Prize Israel’s highest literary award. It is as if writer Ruby Namdar chose every word specifically for this story about materialism, tradition, faith, and the search for meaning in contemporary American life.

Andrew P. Cohen is professor of comparative culture at New York University and his life is good. His students love him, his research and writing has been published in noted and prestigious literary magazines and he is about to receive a faculty promotion . He and his ex-wife Linda are on good terms and his two adult children are proud of and adore their father. His girlfriend, Ann Lee (a former student half his age) provides wonderful friendship and love and we soon see that Cohen is no ordinary man. However, all of this changes when he begins to have strange visions that have something to do with an ancient religious ritual that will change his comfortable life. In just one year, his life falls apart as Cohen questions what he believes. As this takes place, we get a meditation on the modern world and see someone who is alone even though his life is surrounded by millions of people. Cohen is experiencing a mid-life crisis.

“The Ruined House” is about one man’s life and how his world is influenced an ancient legacy “that has always rumbled beneath the surface of our superficial world”. With gorgeous prose we are taken into the life of a man who leads a secular life but who is also haunted by religious visions. To say that this book is about Cohen’s mid-life crisis is not enough because it is about so much more—-

American Jewry’s search for meaning, faith in the modern and contemporary world, the Messianic idea of Judaism, life in exile and the struggle for finding foundations when one is surrounded by a base that is fragile. Namdar confronts the questions that have bothered Jews throughout history.

Throughout the novel, we find pages from an ancient Talmudic text that take us back to the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Hidden in the small letters of this narrative is the key to understand Andrew Cohen. As his world falls apart, he questions his beliefs. As he does this, we see New York intellectual life in the first years of the twenty-first century.

It all starts when little things start going wrong such as his developing a tire around his waist, he has spats with his girlfriend, and he becomes ill. Then he begins having powerful visions that greatly bother him and he begins to understand that he is living only on the surface and that he is not really real with anyone or about anything. Cohen’s mystical visions seem to hint at his being a Cohen and his visions include a priest possibly making a terrible mistake during a ritual. Of course, he could just be having a nervous breakdown or a psychotic break. Whatever is happening, it takes a toll on him.

The story is divided into books and with each book are pages of so-called Talmudic text that describe rituals that correlate to how Cohen lives his life and we see that he thinks of himself as above others much as did ancient High Priests of the Hebrew Bible. We begin to notice that Cohen He doesn’t value his family enough to spend much time with them, his friendships are superficial, his wealth comes from an inheritance and he is an intellectual, cultural, and social snob.

The book was written in Hebrew and beautifully translated by Hillel Halkin.

“Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph “Tommy” Lapid” by Yair Lapid— A Father

Lapid, Yair. “Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph “Tommy” Lapid”, Thomas Dunne, 2017.

A Father

Amos Lassen

Last night I decided to begin reading Yair Lapid’s new book for about an hour before I went to sleep. Some six hours later, I was still reading and in fact, I never got to bed last night. I challenge anyone who reads the first chapter to be able to stop there. The prose is wonderful and Hillel Halkin’s translation is a work of art. Lapid paints a portrait of his father, Tommy, a man who had been a leading figure in the creation and the early days of the State of Israel.

Tommy was “a loved and controversial Israeli figure who saw the development of the country from all angles over its first sixty years.” He had already seen his father taken away to a concentration camp. He came to Israel at the birth of the country and he lived through every major Jewish incident for the next 60 years. He was a uniquely unorthodox man and his politics were neither left nor right, he was a secular Jew and he exposed many of the contradictions of life in Israel. He said exactly what he thought and never hid or changed his own truth. He was never too embarrassed to say that he regretted something and while many saw him s harsh, he was actually a very warm person filled with emotion.

This is a different kind of autobiography in that his son writes in his name. We do not have autobiographies in which the a son writes about his father in the first person. What makes this even more difficult is that the father is a large than life character. Lapid does this with the love that a son has for his father. Tommy Lapid survived the Holocaust, went to Israel from Yugoslavia as a Hungarian Jewish refugee and became a minister in the Knesset of his new country. We see the son’s love for his father in every line. I was familiar with the name Tommy Lapid but did not know much else about him. For his son to write this as if it is being dictated from the grave is very special. I laughed and I cried while I read and I do not regret losing a night’s sleep for a second. Here is the story of a man who was able to triumph over human tragedy. The book has just opened the door for me and now I am planning to do some more extensive reading of anything I can find about Tommy Lapid.

“Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World” by Hasia Diner— A Visionary

Diner, Hasia. “Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World”, Yale, 2017.

A Visionary

Amos Lassen

Julius Rosenwald was a” humble retail magnate whose visionary ideas about charitable giving transformed the practice of philanthropy in America and beyond”. I found this book particularly fascinating since his daughter, Mrs. Edgar B. Stern was a great patron of the city of New Orleans, my hometown, and we all grew up hearing about the wonderful things her family had done.

Julius Rosenwald (1862–1932) was born into a family of modest means. He was the son of a peddler yet he amassed great wealth as the man at the helm of Sears, Roebuck. His most important legacy, however, was not in the field of business but rather in the changes he introduced to the practice of philanthropy. He did this anonymously and refused to have his name attached to the buildings, projects, or endowments that he supported. Rosenwald’s most passionate support was for Jewish and African American causes continues to influence lives to this day.

Writer Hasia Diner looks at his attitudes toward his own wealth and his distinct ideas about philanthropy and in doing so, she posits an intimate connection between his Jewish consciousness and his involvement with African Americans. We read of his belief in the importance of giving in the present in order to impact the future, and how he encouraged beneficiaries to become partners in community institutions and projects. We see a truly compassionate man whose generosity and wisdom transformed the practice of philanthropy.

Rosenwald had three great missions: Jewish opportunity; African American progress; and advancement of the national ideal of exceptionalism. His story is one for the ages and Diner has given us a wonderful look at a man who did so much.