Monthly Archives: January 2013

“CALIFORNIA SOLO”— Confronting the Past

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California Solo”

Confronting the Past

Amos Lassen

Before he moved to California, Lachlan MacAldonich (Robert Carlyle) had been a guitarist in an English band. Now he works on a farm during the day and maintains his own podcast that he records for every night. There he talks about the great musicians who have died too soon. He finds himself in a tough situation when he gets charged with DUI. He had already had a past when he was convicted of marijuana possession and he can very well be deported. He has had no luck raising money to cover his lawyer’s fees. The only way he can avoid deportation is pleading with the excuse that his return to England would prove very much of an ordeal for wife (now his ex-wife) is an American citizen. He was very surprised that Catherine (Kathleen Wilhoite) lets him come over since he has not seen her in years. He tells her about what has happened but does so even before he asks about their 13 year old daughter, Arianwen (Savannah Lathem).

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When a customer comes to the farm, to the fresh air market, Beau (Alexia Rasmussen), he begins flirting with her and this brings him a chance to begin his musical career again when the guy she is with offers him a few gigs.

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Marshall Lewy directs and he throws us early. In the beginning this looks like another romantic movie or a plot about a new lease on life yet it is neither. Rather, it is a character study. It is Carlyle as Lachlan who gives a beautiful and sincere performance and because of this, we pity him. Lachlan’s only connection to music is his podcast. He is like a child at times and he is a manipulative father. His fall is slow and painful, for him and for us and he errs we watch him flounder. Carlyle becomes the movie and he puts it in his pocket and walks away. His facial expressions that convey say everything. He cannot correct his faults and he is the “little man”. The film never rises to the position that Carlyle takes himself to even though it tries very hard. While this is not a perfect movie, there is a lot to appreciate and for that this is worth seeing.

“The Gatekeepers” (“Shomrei ha’saf”)— “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

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The Gatekeepers” (“Shomrei ha’saf”)

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Amos Lassen

The Oscar nominated documentary from Israel is a collection of interviews with all of the surviving heads of Shin Bet, the highly respected and well-known security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets.

The most recent history of the Israel/Palestine conflict is here related to us by some of its most prominent and important players. Documentarian Dror Moreh was granted an extraordinary level of access to six former heads of the Shin Bet counterterrorism agency in Israel. This is Moreh’s first documentary and with it he is able to provide a powerful and clear assessment of how violence sanctioned by the state of Israel, either pre-emptive or retaliatory, has cost an enormously high price and crippling moral toll on the region in the pursuit of peace.

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What I found particularly fascinating was that Moreh was able to not only get the former heads of Shin Bet on film but that he was able to get them to speak. I remember all too well my days in Israel and in the Israeli army that aside from the members of Shin Bet itself, we are not privy to any of this information and there were even cases that agents worked on cases without ever knowing who their superiors were. (Spielberg was able to show us that in his film “Munich”). The men that we meet here oversaw Israel’s internal intelligence-gathering operations at different times from 1980 until the present and they speak here with unprecedented candor about what their jobs entailed. Some of what they say may seem to avoid an issue but, by and large, what we hear seems to be a raw and confessional ruthlessness in their speech and one can surmise that these retired officers have some misgivings about acknowledging their miscalculations in a war where it is impossible to understand and to foresee the human toll. We still do not know what the consequences of their speaking out will be especially regarding selective assassinations.

Beginning with descriptions of the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967 (and my first real experience with the Israeli military), former agency heads Avraham Shalom (1980-86) and Avi Dichter (2000-06) tell us that Israel tried to establish military authority over some one million Palestinians and this almost failed. There existed mutual mistrust, hostilities and language barriers that set off attacks and counterattacks and here we get to see actual film footage of Israeli soldiers moving through Arab refugee camps. Yaakov Peri who was Shin Bet head from 1988-94 tells that the escalation of violence drastically hurt any possibility of peaceful solutions and there were numerous arrests and interrogations by Shin Bet.

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Shin Bet was a well-oiled intelligence machine yet everyone understood that gaining any kind of control over the frequency and intensity of terrorist activity did not solve the major problem of occupation. One of the former heads of Shin Bet blames several prime ministers from Golda to Begin and says that none of them bothered to even consider the Palestinian people. (Personally I am not surprised at that being said about either Golda or Begin and while Golda wanted to be the grandmother of the Jewish state, she seemed to have forgotten her adopted children. Begin, with his military knowledge from the War of Independence then assumed a messianic like prime ministry which did not include all of his constituents). Yet another head mentions the ineffectual nature of Shin Bet’s attempted crackdown with the first Intifada in 1987 when the old form of terrorism was replaced with that of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Others interviewed here mention the importance of cooperating with Palestinian intelligence. Regarding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, it is felt to be a direct undermining of the peace process even with the signing of the Oslo Accords there years earlier.

I believe that what makes this such a compelling film is that as I watched it, I felt a strong sense of moral ambiguity. The men interviewed here do not move away from the terrible implications of counterterrorism and they are straightforward in acknowledging the sense of power that goes along with the decision to take the lives of the enemy. To reinforce for the viewer, there are computer-generated simulations of Shin Bet bombing operations. There is a moral revulsion that I felt here and I find it strange that I would say that after myself having served in the Israel Defense Forces. I see the satisfaction on the faces of these “superior tacticians” who feel that their jobs have been well done. On the other hand I am reminded of the short (2 year) tenure of Carmi Gillon and his widely criticized interrogative techniques.

While the men are interviewed separately, their voices come together in despair when they speak of the futility of violence as a political imperative and of the cruelty and the corruption of Israel which has continued since the 1960’s. Victory does have to come with the suffering of others.

The subjects of “The Gatekeepers” clearly describe their respective ambivalence. We hear no ideology—they have seen and done too much to resort to that. Yuval Diskin who headed Shin Bet from 2005-2011 tells us that problems that come in binaries can be dealt with by the use of binary solutions but the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank which began in 1967 has produces unending problems in many different shades and in no way fit into binaries. Diskin was a youngster and idealist during the 67 war. He joined Shin Bet as a proud and gung-ho young man because he wanted to be part of the solution. We hear from him and his colleagues about the moral and political evolutions that they went through as occupiers and they did not evolve—they devolved and it is this devolution that they believe is what threatens Israel from within.

All of those interviewed are now retired but we do not feel any sense that it is any easier for them to question the leadership of the country. They all agree on and insist upon continuing talks with Palestine—it is the only option. Shalom says that they have become cruel to themselves just as they have become cruel to the occupation. The war on terror gives them an excuse for cruelty. What Israel has become is a divided country unto itself. This is not just a collection of horror stories, stories of spying on, tracking, arresting and often killing those their government has decreed are terrorists. It is not that they failed to anticipate the Intifada and deal with it. These men have some of the blood of Rabin on their hands and they tend to agree that they are an obstacle in the peace process and will remain so as long as there are the organizations of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Here we see the true cost of occupation—the scars, both psychic and moral that are still there.

I could continue but I just really realized that talking about this film to those who have not seen it is valueless. It must be seen by every thinking person and it will keep you thinking even more.

“FOUR”— Four on the Fourth

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Four”

Four on the Fourth

Amos Lassen

Joe (Wendell Pierce) is a black middle-aged married man, a college professor and he is out on an Internet date with June (Emory Cohen), a white teen male who is coming to terms with his sexuality. Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) is fifteen Joe’s daughter is out with Dexter (EJ Bonilla), an extroverted Latino. The four people will have their realities tested as they begin to intimately know each other in this story of awkwardness and indecision and the search for love.

The two couples seem to be mismatched but the search for love is something all four share even though each goes about it in a different way. We see the problems that they face—the inability to communicate, arrogance, self-loathing, vulnerability and timidity. Here are four very different people trying to understand sex, love, race and responsibility.

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Joe has been having a rough time. His wife is seriously ill and he needs some kind of relief. He knows he has feelings for other males but is having a difficult time dealing with them. Abigayle is supposed to be home taking care of her mother as Joe goes to a convention, (at least that he is the excuse he uses to get out of the house). She does not want to be at home and sneaks out with Dexter, her new boyfriend who pretends to be black.

We watch and listen as the characters talk about themselves and their desires and the more they talk the more we learn about what drives each person.

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Joe, as the elder partner, and June, as the young teen dealing with his preference for men seem to be the more compelling couple. Joe tries to help him understand himself but June is very nervous and they reach a point when neither man can move. They met online and arranged for a sexual rendezvous but we learn that in their online chat, they hid facts. Joe did not say that he was a married man and June did not tell Joe that gay sex was somewhat new to him. As they speak now, there is still deception since neither will say what he is really looking for.

Dexter is racially mixed and he and Abigayle go to school together. He pressured her to leave the house but she has the responsibility to be with her mother since her father is “at a convention in Boston” and she should be waiting for him to call her. Nonetheless, she agrees to meet Dexter.
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As the four pass the evening, they talk about ideas and wishes that could either change them or the evening could just turn out to be another night of desperate searching, something that each has become used to.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Emory Cohen as June is perfect as the high school misfit who is unable to understand the world or himself. Wendell Pierce has a role he can really sink his teeth into and his speech about AIDS is amazing. King is excellent is the sometimes coy, sometimes flirty daughter who really wants to take control of her life and Bonilla is perfect as the conceited hood rat who is in love with Abigayle and has to deal with her rejection at one point.

Yet something just does not gel here even with the fine performances. It seems to me that the pace is a bit slow and the themes are heavy and there is no resolution. I know that resolution is not always necessary but here we have issues that are left hanging and this modern melodrama ultimately says nothing. This could very well be the plan of writer/director Jordan Sanchez who does everything right but to give the film heart. Sanchez based his film on the award-winning off Broadway play of the same name by Christopher Shinn. The brooding atmosphere becomes pervasive as issues of race and sexuality are dealt with and it all becomes very intense.

The dialogue is blunt and we hear about realistic racial hang-ups. We feel the need for love as the characters feel their need for it. With all of the action taking place on a single day and just for a few hours, we feel the sense of self-containment. The meeting with Joe and June is presented less judgmentally than I would have expected because of the criminal nature of the meeting of the two. As they drive around and talk, Joe tries to counsel June about why he is so reluctant to come out to his parents
or to pursue relationships with his peers, and shares hard lessons from his own decades spent as a closeted gay man. I felt very nervous during the sex scene and I suppose that was because of the age differences and the circumstances of their meeting. I could not help but feel a sense of desolation during the entire film and that is a credit to Sanchez.

“The Bookstore Clerk” by Mykola Dementiuk— Love in a Bookstore

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Dementiuk, Mykola. The Bookstore Clerk, JMS Books, 2013.

Love in a Bookstore

Amos Lassen

Mykola Dementiuk writes of New York City in the 1960’s and I have become used to his gritty descriptions of the seedy area around Times Square so I was surprised when we moved (partially) up to Fifth Avenue to Doubleday Books. Young Billy, in his 20’a, has decided to leave his life on the streets and go to work in a better section of town. In fact, he does just fine and has actually been able to keep at his job for over a year. All was working out for him until he ran into his supervisor, Timmy, at a Times Square movie theater on a Friday afternoon and he begins wonder how Timmy will feel about him going to place this is known to many as a site to find easy sex. He did not have to wait long for an answer to that because Timmy seduced him and took him home. Billy soon finds himself in an interesting situation—Timmy wants to be his lover and have the two men live together but this could hurt his relationship with his friends in the stock room. This becomes really evident when Billy is quickly promoted to bookstore clerk. He now has to deal with the egos of readers and knowing what kind of people shop at Doubleday’s on Fifth, he suddenly finds himself in a world where he will have to work to feel at home.

Billy also has to understand that his sexuality is changing as well. He can no longer hustle at Times Square and he now has to admit to himself that he enjoys sex men not just for financial gain.

Just because we have moved uptown does not mean that Dementiuk’s grittiness is not still with us. As we read about Billy, we notice that he is happy at his job but he is still drawn to that life at Times Square where he receives instant sexual gratification. There was something about the place in all its sleaziness that drew him there. Sex is cheap with no permanency—pleasure was momentary and then on to the next guy.

His surprise at seeing his supervisor made him really understand the sleaziness of it all. Here was a man who commanded respect at work and who was now reduced to the same level as other denizens of the place. Dementiuk really capture the essence of the age and the activity. The sex is graphic and hot but more than that is the way he deals with the emotions of his characters. As always, he gives us yet another well written and sexy read.

 

“PETUNIA”— Avoiding Feelings

petunia

Petunia

Avoiding Feelings

Amos Lassen

Charlie Petunia (Tobias Segal) looks like the kind of guy that women swoon over—he’s seems suave and debonair but that is just appearance. He is the exact opposite of a woman-eater—in fact; he doesn’t like women sexually at all. When we first see him at his brother’s wedding we see him snapping a rubber band on his wrist every time he sees a handsome guy. There is something about his family and the inability to show feelings. His mother, Felicia Petunia (Christine Lahti) is a therapist in need of therapy; his father, Percy Petunia (David Rasche), suffers from erectile dysfunction and tries to hide under the personality that the does not have; his brothers Michael (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Adrian (Jimmy Heck) respectively suffer from infidelity and sex addiction. We see that our boy Petunia’s biggest problem is his family.

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Charlie has an agreement with himself not to have sex but then he meets and starts dating George McDougal (Michael Urie) and he feels he is ready to violate his agreement. However (there always seems to be a however) George has a secret—his wife—and when she returns unexpectedly from a long trip….

Petunia always seems to be a bundle of nerves but after all, he is the youngest and most conciliatory member of his family which mortifies him no end. The crass behavior and his psychotherapist parents give him no rest. Since they barely speak to each other, they speak through him. Because of what he seems in them, he has decided to remain celibate because sex just gets people in trouble. His oldest brother has just married his girlfriend Vivian (Thora Birch) but both bride and groom realize while they are riding in the limo from the reception to their hotel that marriage might have been a mistake. Viv is a party girl and when she discovers that she is pregnant, she sees that she has no maternal instincts. But to make matters worse, she is not sure if the father of the child is her husband, Michael or his brother, Adrian. Adrian has recently developed something called “Love’s Tourette” which causes him, while having anonymous sex, to scream out, “I Love You”.

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Charlie seems to have lost control of his better judgement and, becomes involved with Viv’s cousin, George, who lives a floor below him (which is convenient). What he did not know that George’s roommate is his wife, a woman who angers quickly and easily and with rage. She knows of her husband’s gay affairs and that he neglects her and so she resorts to anorexia and long distance jogging to punish him.

We quickly see that is some twisted business going on here but the cast pulls it off with style—if that is what you can what goes on in this family. As Charlie Petunia, Segal is close to perfection. There are parts of the film that feel contrived and derivative but there are plenty sharp one-liners and lots of laughs to be had.

 

Cholent— A Jewish staple and here are ways to cook it

Saved by Cholent

(so msny people have asked me about Cholent that when I saw this article at Tablet magazine, I decided I should add it to my site),

After the dish rescued my family from a robbery, I traveled the world searching for new ways to cook it

By Devorah Klein Lev-Tov|January 30, 2013 7:00 AM|1comment

 

(Photoillustration IvyTashlik; original photo Shutterstock. Recipe photo (below) Fülemüle.)

My mother’s family was one of the last Jewish households to leave Detroit for the suburbs in the white flight of the 1960s. One year on Sukkot, often a chilly holiday in Michigan, the family was huddled in the sukkah on a Friday night, eating bowls of warm cholent, a slow-simmering stew of meat, potatoes, and beans. Suddenly, two men with guns burst in demanding money, an increasingly common occurrence in Detroit at the time. My mother and her family, having no money with them because it was Shabbat and a chag, just stared at the men, unsure of what to do next. As the men stared back, one looked at his companion and said, “I don’t think these people have anything. They’re sitting in a hut eating beans! They’ve got less than we do!” And with that, they left, leaving my mother and her family stunned, grateful, and then laughing at how cholent had saved the day.

Cholent, simmered overnight and usually eaten on Shabbat day, has been a part of my family’s tradition for generations. My father’s great-grandmother owned a kosher bakery in the town of Ivenitz, Russia, in the early 1900s. Every Friday, her fellow shtetl-dwellers would arrive with their pots of cholent, ready to be put in the bakery’s oven and cooked over a low heat overnight. After synagogue on Shabbat morning, they would return to the bakery to retrieve their hot cholent to eat for lunch, something that wasn’t unusual in many shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Given my family’s long history with the dish, it’s not surprising that my love affair with cholent started at a young age. I grew up eating my mother’s cholent every Shabbat, even in the summer. I was a picky eater as a child, but cholent was one thing I always liked. When I was 5, having one of my first sleepovers at a friend’s, her mother called mine in a panic at dinnertime: “Devorah says she only wants to eat cholent. It’s Wednesday night; I don’t have any!”

As a child, I knew only the most traditional Ashkenazi version of the dish. But as an adult, my taste buds were turned on to a whole new range of possibilities when I tried a very different Moroccan recipe at my sister’s in-law’s in Israel. Since that moment, I’ve set out to sample cholents from around the world. And I’ve found a huge variety of flavors, each representative of its local cuisine but all connected as a quintessentially Jewish meal.

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The word cholent likely comes from the French chaud-lent, meaning “warm slowly.” Joan Nathan said the original dish probably started in ancient Israel as chamim, where it was cooked with lamb and chickpeas, and then migrated to France and the rest of Europe. “When the Jews left Spain [during the Inquisition] and went to Eastern Europe,” she told me, “this dish was changed from lamb and goat to beef and barley, and eventually potato replaced the chickpeas, and cholent as we know it was born.” Because my ancestors are from Eastern Europe, our family’s cholent, like many Ashkenazis’, consists of beans, barley, meat, and potatoes flavored with salt and pepper.

Cholent is one of a small number of dishes that are intrinsically Jewish. Because Jews have been scattered all over the world for generations, however, there is no single recipe: The flavors have been refined according to each region’s tastes, resulting in a large variety of cholents.

I never knew these other types of cholent existed when I was growing up (other than those who blasphemously added ketchup or barbecue sauce). I got my first taste of a non-Ashkenazic cholent when my sister married a Morcoccan-Israeli and our family went to his parents’ house in Yerucham, in the south of Israel, for Shabbat. We were served his grandmother’s Moroccan schena or sk’eena, a delicious cholent consisting of meat, chickpeas, beans, dates, and whole eggs, cooked with wheat berries and rice. My curiosity was piqued.

A couple years later, my husband and I moved to Mumbai, India, for several months. One Shabbat we went to the gigantic and beautiful Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue downtown. After davening, the small group of attendees was ushered into a separate room for Kiddush and a sit-down lunch, which featured Indian hamin, a cholent made with chicken instead of red meat and rice instead of barley. It was deliciously flavored with classic Indian spices like turmeric, cardamom, ginger, and cloves. (I later learned from my Iraqi-Israeli father-in-law that Iraqi hamin, or tebit—also a long-cooking stew typically served on Shabbat—is similarly made with chicken and rice.)

With my palette whetted, I began researching cholents and hamins from all over the world. They have a variety of names related to their country of provenance, but because of the fact that they are cooked overnight and eaten on Shabbat day they are all variations of cholent. Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America notes that Bukharian cholent is called bokla, which features eggs and potatoes cooked on top of beans, chickpeas, and lamb shanks, or osevo/osh savo, which it’s called when it’s made with rice and sometimes fruit, like prunes. Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food explores the history of adafina (in Arabic it means “buried/covered,” which refers to how the stew was kept warm—buried underground with hot rocks over it), a cholent originally made by Spanish Jews in the 15th century. Records from the Spanish Inquisition show that a Converso (a Jew who converted to Christianity under duress but still practiced Judaism in secret) could be discovered as continuing to keep Jewish laws by someone, often their maid, seeing them make adafina for Shabbat. The penalty? Death. Inquisition reports “list the ingredient for adafinas, including chickpeas, fava beans, fatty meat, onions, garlic, and cumin,” Marks writes. After the Jews were expelled, adafina resurfaced in Morocco (where the name changed to schena or sk’eena, as my brother in-law’s family calls it) and in Tunisia and Algeria, where it is known as tafina. Tunisians often add lamb’s feet and cardoons, a relative of the artichoke, to their tafina.

While Sephardic cuisine offers the most obvious differences from the cholent I grew up with, Hungary also has a special version all its own, called shalet. It’s similar to Eastern European cholents, but the additions of goose, and sometimes stuffed goosenecks, and of course, Hungarian paprika, make it unique. In fact, shalet is so delicious and special that it has become something of a national dish in Hungary, now widely available at many restaurants, although often not kosher. As Haim Shapiro wrote about shalet in the Jerusalem Post, “It was during a recent visit to Hungary that I found at least one country where Jewish cooking has very clearly influenced the local cuisine.”

In Budapest, the non-kosher restaurant Fülemüle has been serving Jewish classics for years, offering up six varieties of cholent, including one with foie gras and fried onions and another with goose leg, stuffed gooseneck, and the hickory-smoked meats former owner Andras Singer learned to make in Montreal. Singer passed away in July, and since then his son Viktor has taken the reins, making sure Hungarians continue to get their favorite dishes: “Our family [has] run the restaurant since 2000; my father [Andras], the founder, decided to serve my grandma’s cholent. Since then it became very popular. I would say the cholent is the flagship of Fülemüle.”

Although cholent is best when it’s homemade, in the last decade it’s become available in certain restaurants. In Manhattan, you can find traditional cholent at the 2nd Avenue Deli. Dovid’s Kosher, a little stand inside the lobby of 27 William Street/40 Exchange Place, sells Ashkenazi cholent on Fridays for lunch to the Wall Street crowd. In Brooklyn, many kosher restaurants in Orthodox neighborhoods sell traditional Ashkenazi cholent on Thursdays and Fridays, such as Gottlieb’s in South Williamsburg, Kold Kuts in Flatbush, and Deli 52 in Boro Park, which is often packed on Thursday nights. Westchester catering company Got Cholent/Gemstone Catering offers several varieties, including Polish, Moroccan, and Hungarian versions, as well as newer innovations like Texas Cholent, which has brisket, pastrami, assorted sausages, flanken, and kishka; and Mexican Encholente with chile con carne, Spanish rice, and poblano peppers in a tomatillo and chipotle sauce.

In Jerusalem, restaurants serving traditional Ashkenazi cholent abound in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah She’arim—just follow the yeshiva bokhurs on Thursday night. You can also find cholent on Thursday nights at Heimeshe Essen in Rechavia. Even Tel Aviv has its share of restaurants offering traditional cholent, including Keton and Café Batia, both on Dizengoff Street.

Many people have special associations with cholent. For me, cholent will always remind me of my family. And while I love learning about and tasting the many varieties of cholent, I know I will always go back to my mother’s simple version of barley, wheat berries, potatoes, onions, meat, and salt and pepper (we went bean-free several years ago). After it’s cooked for 18 hours, it still manages to be one of the tastiest combinations in the world.

 

“The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love” by Gilles Herrada— Is Homosexuality an Issue?

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Herrada, Gilles. “The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love”, Select Books, 2013.

Is Homosexuality an Issue?

Amos Lassen

How do we really feel about homosexuality? This is the question that Gilles Herrada deals with in his new book, “The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love”. He surveys history and science to discover what is the real meaning of homosexuality, why it has been so persecuted and yet accepted in Western societies. He then presents us with his interpretation and lets us decide how to react. We are not asked to agree but simply to learn—he has done the work for us by reading and assimilating the literature from the classics to modern genetic studies using trans-disciplinary scholarship. I was stunned at how much I do not know. Herrada returns humanity to homosexuals whose existence has been discounted and give us new ways to look at the origins and importance of same-sex relations and where they fit in the evolution of man.

The way that homosexuality has been looked at over time is the basic theme of the book as the author tries to find a new and authentic way of looking at it. As the LGBT community struggles and has struggled for equality, Herrada looks at the community as a whole and tells us not only what the community is today but he tells us what it might look like in a more enlightened future. He is well aware of what people consider to be the controversies of homosexual behavior, divides them into nine categories and tears them down, one by one. Looking at the argument that so many see as the main reason that homosexuality is unnatural—the controversial claim that it is aberrant behavior from the reproductive standpoint, he asks why then is homosexuality so widespread (and not just among humans)? It obviously has it place in the evolutionary scale. If it is a problem morally as religious beliefs say, why is it that there were more exterminations of homosexuals during secular reigns such as Communism and Nazism then there were during the Inquisition that came directly out of the Church? Has homosexuality always been paradoxical? Here are two very clear and simple points that we do not hear much about.

Herrada confronts the role of homosexuality and its place in evolution and its meaning in the way civilization had developed. These are fascinating questions: “What evolutionary edge same-sex relationships have given our species? What biological mechanisms generate the sexual diversity that we observe? What lead to homosexual behavior being prohibited worldwide? Why has homophobia persisted throughout history? Why–after millennia of oppression–did the homosexual community resurface in post-World War II America?” As these questions are answered we get a new vision of homosexuality which is an integration of biology, sociology, psychology, spirituality, culture and ethics. We see the historical connection between homosexuality as a social status and same-sex love and see how it has been depicted in popular cultures. The time has come, states Herrada, to create a new definition, a new mythos, if you will, which contains elements from all fields of knowledge that places emphasis on truth, beauty, goodness and same-sex love.

Herrada gives us what he considers to be nine controversial claims about homosexuality and shows what is wrong with each of them.

1.)      Biological and anthropological data do not support the existence of a “gay” gene but “are consistent with the existence of a complex biological mechanism (the “loose switch”) responsible for generating the spectrum of sexual preferences that we observe among people”.

2.)       We are aware of the “evolutionary advantage” provided by homosexual behavior as a reinforcement of social bonds that strengthen the coherence of the group.

3.)      There is inaccuracy in the claim that homosexuals can’t or don’t reproduce. Homosexuality historically was never considered to be incompatible with reproduction. It today’s society would let them invent a new kind of family not based on the heterosexual model, they would reproduce.

4.)      The only true indicator of whether homosexual relationships are integrated or not this is culture is the way the homosexual acts, loves and desires as seen in cultural myths.

5.)      Judeo-Christianity is singularized by the total lack of positive depiction of homosexual love and desire in its mythos.

6.)      Homosexual love still lacks a connection with and to the sacred.

7.)       Modern homosexuality is not the same as that of the ancient world. It has come into being because of the modern “Christian relational ideal”, something that the church and gay theorists do not acknowledge.

8.)      The strong homophobia of Judeo-Christian culture was responsible for the creation of the evolutionary context that has hindered and has brought us modern homosexuality.

9.)      Menopause and not homosexuality is the greatest evolutionary puzzle and most women past age 50 cannot reproduce.

Herrada uses a holistic, interdisciplinary approach that unites science, history and philosophy to gives new ideas about homosexuality and with the potential to give new strength to the field of LGBT studies and to bring about a new understanding of LGBT people. Herrada says that while modern homosexuality exists in both body and mind, it has no soul. It is from this point that he uses his approach to restore that soul. While it is necessary to agree with what he says totally, we cannot ignore his evidence as he discusses what it means today to be a homosexual in light of what he has found. Every sentence here is fascinating and food for thought.

“Looking for The Gulf Motel” by Richard Blanco— Family

looking for the gulf

Blanco, Richard.  “Looking for The Gulf Motel” (Pitt Poetry Series), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

Family

Amos Lassen

Richard Blanco is a poet who writes about family has shaped him and continues to do so. His symphonies of words are presented here in three movements—1) his exiled Cuban family and questions of cultural identity and displacement and the search for home, 2) gender and father/son relationship and cultural/sexual identity as a gay Cuban living in Maine, 3) his mother as an exile, his father’s and other relatives’ death and his place in the world. The overall theme is the search for the elusive beauty in country, family and love.

We soon realize that Blanco’s search is our search as well—he pulls us into his poems and as he searches for his home, we also search for ours. That love and desire for what his no longer here affects the reader as the poet tells us about it. His memories soon become our memories and we become one with him. Blanco is not subtle as his directness reminds us of each and every search that we have been a part of.

There were moments that I stopped to listen to the music that I felt should accompany the poems and such is the lyrical quality of the work. As James Joyce says in his short story “Eveline” from “The Dubliners”, “Everything changes”—lovers, language, etc. and loss is its own kind of exile. Therefore searching for what no longer is heals the soul and love is what matters.

 

 

“Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative” by Yael S. Feldman— Understanding Sacrifice

glory and agony

Feldman, Yael S. “Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative” (Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture), Stanford University Press, 2010.

Understanding Sacrifice

Amos Lassen

Attitudes are constantly in a state of flux and when we think about sacrifice, we become aware of the differences in attitude even more. Yael Feldman gives us the first history of shifting attitudes toward sacrifice in Hebrew culture and as I read, I remembered something I had once learned in my Hebrew Biblical Studies. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew, “korban”, comes from the verb which means to come closer to and this presents a whole new issue. We in the English speaking world understand sacrifice to mean giving something up for some reason. In Hebrew, however, the word means to become close so we can understand sacrifice as meaning becoming one with or nearing that possibility.

Feldman maintains that the point of departure of national sacrifice comes with Zionism’s preoccupation (or as she says, “obsessive preoccupation”) with the “primal scene” or the near-killing (sacrifice) of Isaac and how this act has been central in literature, art, psychology, philosophy and politics. If we add to this how sacrifice has been considered in the 20th century (violence and martyrdom), we get a very complex picture that gives us many insights (and sometimes contradictory) into the beginnings and gender of national sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Isaac was not the first sacrifice we learn of in scripture. For over 3000 years we have writings about sacrifice, both real and aborted, both voluntary and violent, both male and female (Isaac, Ishmael, Jephthah’s daughter, Iphigenia, Jesus and so on). Feldman maintains that sacrifice as a concept came into being out of what was left of religious martyrdom and it shows us that there was a “sacred underside” to Western secularism in Israel and in other places as well.

Feldman shows us howwriters, poets, dramatis, critics, some scholars, and a few visual artists in the State of Israel during the last century have dealt with sacrifice and how it has affected what they do. In using the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac as a jumping off point, we are given insight into the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary investigations into the nature of the issue.

I suppose we can label Feldman’s work as something of historiography of Hebrew national culture and we see how there has been some kind of preoccupation with Genesis 22. It is through this that we understand the significance of Modern Hebrew culture. Personally whenever I think of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah and the knife held high above the patriarch’s head, I imagine myself hearing a cry that was heard around the world. There are not many scenes as dramatic as this. By using the Akedah, Yael Feldman shows us a way to investigate Biblical tropes in modern literature and we see the binding of Isaac as more of a literary trope than anything else. By showing us how the Akedah is used in modern Israeli literature, we become aware of the various and changing ways a father’s obedience to God by being ready to willingly sacrifice his son has assumed a secular metaphor for self-sacrifice in the military and heroic death in battle.

For me, this book is a special treat as the Akedah story has always fascinated me and has been one of my greatest fields of confusion. The binding of Isaac is not a tradition that is uniform or that is limited just to Genesis 22. In the Hebrew Bible, Isaac is saved at the last minute yet there are rabbinic traditions that say that he was indeed killed on the mountain. How we see Isaac is also not a uniform depiction. Some see him as a young child who is innocent and knows nothing of his father’s plans; others see him as being not only in on the plan but as a willing accomplice who voluntarily goes to his death. Feldman’s take is consistent with 20th century Jewish thought and Israeli literature. What Feldman really gives us is an exploration of the conscious and intentional use of the Biblical text for a later writer. She even goes so far as to show us how a certain Israeli author came to understand his specific interpretation of the Akedah or some other later Jewish or Christian reading tradition.

Feldman looks at the story of Abraham and Isaac and shows how their story has been interpreted to portray an intergenerational conflict. Using this psycho-analytical theory she uses Freudian understandings of the characters. She says that the relationship between father, Abraham and son, Isaac is based on positives and negatives with Isaac’s act of self-immolation as positive while Isaac as a passive and submissive victim is negative.

In her introduction, Feldman looks at sacrifice as a concept and she emphasizes the lack of distinction in Hebrew for the difference between the words “victim” and “sacrifice” and claims that this is probably due to the many traditions that existed and the general ambivalence toward the Akedah story. We ask if Isaac was the victim of Abraham’s plan (thus God’s plan as well) or did he knowingly choose to sacrifice himself. If we look at the larger of Jewish history, do we find Isaac as a fitting symbol of those who perished during the pogroms and the Holocaust, or has he become the symbol for those who heroically offer themselves up for the sake of his people and the land? Further, we can ask if a victim of persecution who dies in a passive manner can be a hero and a martyr.

In the early writings from Israel before statehood, the ideas of heroism and sacrifice loomed large and the idea of “Kiddush hashem” or martyrdom was new. Looking at the Hebrew Bible we come to Judges 11: 29-40 and the story of Jephthah and his daughter, a story that is tense as it deals with male activity and female passivity and it has come to represent the change from traditional Jewish passivity to religious heroism and them onto Jewish nationalism which hoped to contain an active political and secular heroism of those who were willing to die for the land.

Before the First World War, the Akedah returned to importance with the vision of Isaac as a military hero who proudly and gladly goes to his acts of sacrifice. This continued after the war and the idea of dying for one’s country represents great sacrifice. The son must decide if he is going to give his life even though he may ask for his father’s blessing. It is at this point that some Christian writers try to connect the binding of Isaac with the crucified Jesus who gave up his life for others.

With the Second World War and Israel’s War of Independence, the Akedah was again rewritten. There was a new relationship between fathers and sons and the Abrahams of that generation were the Isaacs of the preceding generation. Writers began to question the nature of the responsibilities of fathers. Now, does that make Abraham attain heroic status because he gives up his son or is he evil because he encourages his son to give himself up? And then there was the greatest sacrifice of all—the Holocaust—in which some 6,000,000 Jews were sacrificed. Here we see the difference between willing sacrifice (as in the State of Israel) and a tragic victim (as in the Holocaust) and this created great tension as writers dealt with the Akedah.

With the modern state of Israel, the whole issue of sacrifice and martyrdom was questioned. That glorious sacrifice of dying for one’s country died with the Sinai campaign in 1956 when young Israelis expressed their fear of war. This basically continued until 1967 and the Six Day War and then onto 1973 and the Yom Kippur War. Writers began seeing Isaac as an unwilling sacrifice and as a dead victim. We asked, “What kind of father would kill his son”? “What kind of right did that father have”? Some female writers began to look at the Akedah as “private sacrifice”—a woman who surrendered to her husband desires. Others looked to Ishmael, the banished brother of Isaac and soon the Akedah began to take on the meaning of two brothers as a way to write about the violence between Muslims and Jews, between Israelis and Palestinians. Then there were others who highlighted Sarah and her silence about what her husband was going to do.

There is so much here in this book and because of that it is a bit difficult at times to follow Feldman. Add to that the fact that literary development and ideological development are not linear. Trying to divide time periods is also difficult but with patience and will this can be the most enlightening book about one of the most problematic texts in religious writing.

“OUT THE GATE”— Leaving Home

out the gate

Out the Gate”

Leaving Home

Amos Lassen

After several events in Jamaica, Everton (E-Dee) decides that the time has come to leave the island and go to America to try his luck at making it big in the music industry. He soon learns that he Hollywood that he sees in not the Hollywood of his dreams. He does, however, manage to find some success but it is threatened by Don (Paul Campbell) who wants him to pay is dues. To get to Hollywood was a job in itself. He has led a rough life growing up in rural Jamaica where violence seems to be everywhere and he has seen too much tragedy. His Uncle Willy (Oliver Samuels) offers him a one-way ticket to the United States so that he can get his career in music started and off the goes. When he arrives in Los Angeles, he becomes friends with Father Times (Dwight Benjamin) who is a dancehall artist; exactly the profession that Everton is looking to have.

Things did not work out as planned and Everton becomes homeless. He supports himself by selling CDs and DVDs from Jamaica and then he finally gets the break, as does Father Times that he has been waiting for. He finds a producer that wants to work with him and Father Times finds a sponsor named Badz (Paul Campbell) who invests in him. Everton’s career is soon doing very well and he even falls in love. Little does he know that Badz has threatened to destroy him, his relationship with his girlfriend and Father Times just because things have not worked out.

out1

The film is based upon the life of Jamaican singer E-Dee and includes some wonderful photography of the Caribbean community in Los Angeles and of Jamaica. While this is not really my kind of movie, I must say that the acting is quite good. The script, however, is weak. It does not concentrate as much on the lead character and seems to want to boost the supporting players. What goes on in E-Dee’s life falls to the sidelines or is simply glossed over. I was not familiar with the term “dancehall music” before watching this and did find that aspect interesting. I suppose that aficionados of it will totally enjoy what they see here but I think I missed the point.