Monthly Archives: January 2016

“Peninei Halakha: Laws of Shabbat, Vol. 1 and Vol. II” by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed— Learning Why and Observing

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Melamed, Eliezer. “Peninei Halakha: Laws of Shabbat, Vol. 1 and Vol. II”, translated by Yocheved Cohen, Elli Fischer, series editor, Maggid Books, 2016.

Learning Why and Observing

Amos Lassen

“Peninei Halakha” is a comprehensive series of books on Jewish law applied to the world of today and published by Maggid Books. In this series, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s well organized, clear, and concise writing style takes us from principle to practical detail, to readers of all backgrounds. It is no wonder that this is such a popular series in Israel and now we are lucky enough to have the series translated into English. Some of you may remember the review that I recently did of “The Laws of Kashrut” another volume in the series.

I grew up in a world of Judaism where you did what you were told and you never asked why and I am sure that I am not alone in that. I am not sure what the reason is for never asking why and I still find it interesting to think that many Jews are not aware why our holidays begin the evening before or why we must have ten of a minyan and ever why we have two candles and two challot for Shabbat. Having been an academic for most of my life I have never been to shy to ask a question but that is not true of my Judaism. Perhaps it is because we do not want to feel stupid in front of others or quite simply perhaps we just did not care why. It looks like we may never have to ask again because this wonderful new series has the answers. I study Torah every day for at least an hour—the phone is turned along with everything else and I go into my own little world. I am quite sure that if I were to answer the door with my kippah on my head there would be strange reactions but so what—that is my time to spend with my faith. So here it is late Saturday evening and Shabbat is still another week away and I have just closed volume one of “Laws of Shabbat” in which all of my questions were answered. I am not strictly “Shomer Shabbat” but there are certain things that the atmosphere of Shabbat brings to me. I must admit that I look forward to it every week from the lighting of the candles (and yes I now know why there are two) to Havdalah and a return to routine. It certainly is harder to observe Shabbat here then it was when I lived in Israel but since I live in Brookline, Massachusetts with its large Jewish community, I can tell when Shabbat is nearing.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed tells us in the introduction that many who wish to keep Shabbat properly find themselves in a bind because of the many laws whose meaning is not understood. Then there are the laws that are in dispute. In that case, Shabbat instead of being a time of joy and pleasure becomes tense and this is because many do not know the foundations of the laws for Shabbat.

The rabbi here attempts to explain those laws and emphasize the underlying rules and principles of those laws. He also shows how the details of those laws relate to the spiritual. Volume one contains fourteen chapters, each on a specific topic. Volume two contains another fifteen chapters. At the beginning of each chapter, the reasons and principles of each topic is explained (something like a preview to a movie but much more detailed. This approach allows us to explore the Judaic principle of “Zachor”, the positive mitzvoth about sanctifying Shabbat and this leads us to the mitzvah of “Shamor” that deals with the negative commandments. For explanations the rabbi uses the Gamara, the Shulhan Arukh and Mishnah Torah of Rambam.

Alright—I hear saying but that is so complicated. It is not complicated in that the rabbi is leading through it all and it only becomes hard to understand if you chose for it to be thus. I remember my father’s words—explore Judaism as it is, looking for explanations will confuse you just listen and understand. I was raised in an Orthodox home but now belong to a reform congregation. I have a wonderful background of which I am very proud and love to study my religion. Some say I am an Orthodox Jew in a reform world and yes that may be true but above all else, I am a Jew and always proud to say so.

In these two volumes there is a lot to learn and Rabbi Melamed follows these accepted rules of halakhic decision making: “Halakha follows the majority with the majority referring to the opinions accepted by the majority and not the majority of available books, When a given law is disputed or in doubt, if there is a Torah law, we are stringent; it is rabbinic, we are lenient”.

Now in case you are curious what the chapters are I will name a few and let you know that each chapter has a major heading and then a series of subtopics. The Rabbi has done amazing work here and books are a pleasure. We have a chapter on food preparation, on personal grooming, on separating, on Havdalah, on lighting candles, on Torah study and prayer, on electricity and electrical appliances, on agriculture and animals, on children, on learning and on prohibition and these are only a few. The indices are complete to the latter and should you have a specific question, all you need do is flip pages.

I find myself just flicking through in a moment of leisure and having a wonderful reading experience. I do not just want to recommend these to you, I want you to run out and them now. You will be as enthused as I am.

 

 

“THE CLUB”— Separation from Mother Church

the club

“THE CLUB”

Separation

Amos Lassen

In a secluded house in La Boca, Chile a small seaside town, four unrelated men live together with the woman who tends to the house and their needs. The men are former priests who have been sent to quiet exile to purge the sins of their pasts. Separation from their communities is the worst form of punishment by the Church. The men keep to a strict daily schedule devoid of all temptation and spontaneity and each moment is a deliberate effort to atone for their wrongdoings.

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The fragile stability that the men have found there is disrupted by the arrival of an emissary from the Vatican who seeks to understand the effects of their isolation and he brings with him a newly disgraced housemate. Both bring with them the outside world from which the men have long been removed, and the secrets they had thought deeply buried. Director Pablo Larraín’s black comedy is commentary on individual responsibility, organized religion and the combustible combination of the two. In fact, thinking about it calling this film a black comedy is a bit too mild—perhaps better said is that this a macabre story about infringements within the Catholic Church. It is quite the bizarre tale about a cloister of ex-Catholic priests holed up within the confines of an isolated seaside monastery. Relocated out of circulation as punishment by the church, the disparate men have all the comforts of an unassuming retirement home community on the church’s dime.

The four men are Alfredo Castro, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic and Alejandro Sievekin and they are under the watch of the friendly Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers). Joining them is Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) but before Lazcano can even check into his room, introductions are interrupted by a stranger shouting obscenities about being molested by the Father. The new member of the club promptly commits suicide, instigating an investigation from Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), indicating the church may be looking for a reason to close down the convalescent home.

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Initially, all of these men appear quite normal, seen playing with the communal dog on the beach before gambling at the local racetrack. It is a surprise to learn they’re a criminals and their crimes range from baby snatchers to garden variety pedophiles that have been sent to isolation rather than relocated to another parish. If the men eventually seem a bit out of touch, Sister Monica is meant to watch over them and she is wonderfully nutty and does her best to distract the interrogations of Father Garcia, the church representative threatening to destroy their new home. The film, at times, descends into a surprising bout of madness, where innocent creatures take the brunt of punishment thanks to social transgressions.

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Alfredo Castro gives a stand out performance as an ex-pedophile, who matter-of-factly admits and asserts hid homosexuality in order to help broaden his sexual horizons to the grown victim of Father Lazcano’s, a man who keeps hanging around the priests’ sanctuary. The church’s handling of its own “lost boys” is pragmatic and we see that allowances are secretly and insidiously made for privileged insiders.

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Monica is an ex-nun and she cares for them without judgment and with affection. Some may find the movie to be verbally shocking, visually stark and deeply upsetting and I believe that was the director’s plan. When the four find themselves being investigated and questioned by another man of the cloth, the priests begin to feel both suffocated and exposed. Determined to make the men understand that they are in a house of repentance rather than in a comfortable retirement home, the new investigator brings chaos and conflict to the household which spirals out of control when past sins and crimes continue to haunt them. It is almost impossible to be unaffected by the film and because it is so dark, there is laughter during it.

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We hear sordid dialogue and vivid descriptions of child abuse, sexual abuse and perversion. We deal with questions about judgment, guilt and denial as the film struggles to get beneath the surface of its troubled characters. It seems as though Larrain forces to go inside the walls of the house and to feel that we are trapped there like the characters in the film. There is indeed a sense of claustrophobia and grim existence in this very slick movie. As it nears its end we have questions about redemption and resurrection but we do not get peace of any kind. This is not a film for the faint of heart. it certainly does not let you relax.

“THE SETTLERS”— The History & Consequences of Israeli Settlements

the settlers

“The Settlers”

The History & Consequences of Israeli Settlements

Amos Lassen

 

“The Settlers” is the first film of its kind to offer a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories of the West Bank. This is a historical overview, a geopolitical study and an intimate look at those people at the core of biggest challenges facing Israel and the international community today as the Palestinians and Israelis resume talks again. As Israel faces international condemnation over its plan to build 153 new settlement homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the watchdog group Peace Now reports Israel’s defense minister has approved the construction of the new Jewish-only homes last week. The plan sparked criticism from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called the settlements “an affront to the Palestinian people and to the international community.” In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Ban Ki-moon’s criticism gives “a tailwind to terrorism” and that the “U.N. lost its neutrality and moral force a long time ago.” This comes just as President Barack Obama spoke at the Israeli Embassy to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying, “We are all indeed Jews.” The film examines the history and consequences of decades of Israeli settlement construction on Palestinian lands and has just had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. For a topic that is such a heated and often discussed topic, little is known about it, and discussion is often misinformed. The film asks the question, ”What is a settler?” and it offers an answer almost immediately: “a religious fundamentalist driven by messianic ideology who believes Jews have the exclusive right to the West Bank and may use all manner of subterfuge, violence and lawbreaking to fulfill the divine imperative of settling the Holy Land”. While there is truth in this answer, it is not the whole truth.

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Most settlers, director Shimon Dotan says do not fit this description. They are “economic settlers” – Israelis who live in the West Bank because it’s cheaper than living in Israel proper. They are overwhelmingly law abiding, reside mostly within commuting distance of major Israeli cities and include secular Jews among their ranks. He goes on to say that 320,000 of the West Bank’s 400,000 settlers fall into this category. Only the remaining 80,000 are “ideological settlers,” who live there for reasons of religious or political principle. Of those, only a fraction are extremists.

That context is largely missing from his film, which focuses almost exclusively on the far-right religious extreme – the hilltop youth who illegally occupy remote outposts, the young Jews who perpetrate and celebrate violence against Palestinians, residents of the most fanatically anti-Arab communities in the West Bank. Dotan focuses on the fringe because it is the extremists who determine the course of the entire movement.

By failing to provide much context about mainstream settlers, the film conveys the message that the Jews of the West Bank are exclusively racist, murderous zealots and the only challenge to Israeli-Palestinian harmony. A newspaper columnist describes them in the film as “a monster of half a million people standing in the way of peace.”

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Though relatively small in number, these extremists wield outsize influence on the settlement enterprise, on Israeli-Palestinian relations and on Israeli policy. Increasingly, they are a focus of worldwide attention. The film forces us to deal with the ugliness in the settler movement and this is in such contrast with the beauty of the West Bank that we see in the wonderful photography here. The subjects include the settler from Tekoa who proudly declares himself a racist, the father who talks jovially to his young sons about beating up Arabs when they grow up, the settlers who want their enterprise eventually to swallow the Kingdom of Jordan and perhaps go all the way from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq.

Today, some 50 years after the first settler made his home in the West Bank, the settlement drive is a clear-cut success. The settlers see themselves as pioneers, the leaders of Israeli society. The question is: Where are they leading it?

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Dotan, approaches his subject chronologically. He starts with the leaders of Gush Emunim, the ideological movement that, influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, believed that the 1967 war heralded divine redemption and that settling the newly conquered territory would help usher in the messianic age.

The film intersperses interviews with the movement’s aging leaders with archival footage of those leaders as young men, leading demonstrations, establishing new West Bank outposts, celebrating with followers. Where there’s no footage, Dotan uses illustrations and voice-overs to tell crucial parts of the story. This is a fascinating look at how the settlements came into being, and the men and women on the movement’s fringe who continue to push its boundaries both ideologically and physically. “The Settlers” also documents how the Israeli government (sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly and often unwittingly and without foresight) helped build and reinforce the settlement enterprise.

In one scene, Sarah Nachshon, who played a very important role in establishing the Jewish settlement in Hebron, recalls how she forced the reopening of the old Jewish cemetery at a time when it wasn’t clear Israel would allow Jews to remain in the city. In was the mid-1970s, and her infant son had just died in his crib. She insisted on burying him in Hebron, even though no Jew had been buried there since before Israel’s establishment.

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When Israeli officials refused, Nachshon simply ignored their orders, marching past Israeli soldiers with her dead baby in her arms. Once the baby was interred, the cemetery became another site Israeli soldiers were compelled to patrol – another active Jewish outpost in the West Bank. The film features interviews with members of the Jewish Underground, who in the 1980s carried out bombing attacks against the Palestinian mayors of Nablus, Ramallah and El Bireh (two were maimed, one escaped unharmed), plotted to blow up the mosque at the Temple Mount and planted bombs on Arab buses. Israeli officials caught them and defused the bombs before they exploded. They show no remorse whatever.

We see undated scenes of Jews beating Arabs in their fields with crowbars, Jews beating Arabs in the streets of Hebron, a Jew explaining how in the Jewish tradition that revenge is an important thing.Palestinian violence against Israelis goes almost unmentioned, except for a few oblique references. In t his film, in fact, the only Palestinians we see are victims. That is because, as Dotan says, Palestinian violence is “irrelevant” to this story. The primary target for this film is Israelis, among whom he hopes the movie will spark conversation.

“A DOG NAMED GUCCI”— “Justice is a Dog’s Best Friend”

a dog named Gucci

“A Dog Named Gucci”

“Justice is a Dog’s Best Friend”

Amos Lassen

“A Dog Named Gucci” is the story of one dog that changed a law and proved justice is a dog’s best friend. Director Gorman Bechard looks at animal abuse laws in the United States. The film will be released on DVD and digital platforms on April 19th, just days after the release of the film’s closing credits song “One Song”, the film’s anthem that features the voices of Norah Jones, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, Lydia Loveless, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, and Queen’s Brian May.

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The film is a documentary about a 10-week old puppy that was doused with lighter fluid and set on fire. Hearing the puppy’s cries, college professor Doug James ran to help. After he chased away chasing away the abusers and at the request of Gucci’s young runaway owner, Doug took the puppy in as his own. Here began a 16-year odyssey of love, devotion, and perseverance. Together with legislators, Doug and Gucci worked to create what became known as the “Gucci Bill,” changing Alabama law, and making domestic animal abuse a felony. While the film is just one story, it is ultimately a positive and uplifting look at one victim who went on to become a hero. The story is one of triumph.

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We see three other dogs that have had an amazing impact on the laws that protect animals (of course with the help of their owners). We meet Louis Vuitton, from Montgomery, Alabama, the first dog to test the Gucci Law; Susie from North Carolina, who has a felony abuse law named in her honor and was the 2015 American Humane Association’s Hero Dog of the Year; and Nitro from Queens, New York whose ultimate sacrifice in an Ohio kennel led to the state’s first felony animal abuse laws. To give you an idea of how important laws protecting animals are the completely crowd-funded film has an extensive social media presence with 68,000 Facebook fans, and tons of followers on Twitter and KickStarter.

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Gucci was the face of animal cruelty in one Alabama town. And what happened to him saved the lives of countless others because he gave a voice to the voiceless.  This is a film that speaks to the man on the street and shows that if we care about animals then we need to bombard state legislatures and get the prosecutors to prosecute, and even more importantly get the judges to just not throw it out cases like this out. House Bill 2150, an animal cruelty bill, has advanced in the Senate. As it stands, the bill would exempt farm animals, including horses, from the anti-cruelty code and would place them in a separate statute. Critics argue the bill boasts separate but unequal treatment of farm animals and pets. This bill simply lessens the abuse laws to non-domesticated animals so it really does not do anything good. Whether it’s a cow, horse, or a dog named Gucci, animals can’t argue for themselves. The statistics speak for themselves. In spite of felony laws in all 50 states, over 1 million domestic animals are still abused every year. Less than 10 percent of those cases are reported. Less than a thousand are prosecuted,” it states in his film.

“The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book” by Jacinta Bunnell— An Activity Book

the big gay alphabet

Bunnell, Jacinta and Leela Corman. “The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book”, (Reach and Teach), PM Press, 2016.

An Activity Book

Amos Lassen

One of the new trends in publishing are adult coloring books and it is great that we have one about the LGBT community. “The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book” is an activity book for adults that highlights memorable victories and collective moments in our history. On each page is a

framed line drawing with beautiful typography that reminds us of those vintage children’s coloring books but there is something more— the book aims to bring greater understanding of gender fluidity, gender diversity, and sexual orientation. With over fifty different pages we get a look at history that makes it easy to remember those moments that are important to the LGBT community. We get both education and inspiration at the same time.

“SHEBA BABY”– A Chicago P.I.

sheba poster better

Sheba, Baby”

A Chicago P.I.

Amos Lassen

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Pam Grier is a Chicago private detective, Sheba Shayne. She goes home to Louisville, Kentucky when her father’s neighborhood loan operation is vandalized and the old man himself attacked by vicious thugs trying to run him out of business. They  work for a mid-level loan shark/all-around operator named Pilot (D’Urville Martin) who in turn works for a higher authority who goes by the name of Shark (Dick Merrifield) and is busily consolidating control of all the various rackets in the black neighborhoods around town. Honest businessmen like Sheba’s father and his partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker) haven’t got a chance when the crime lords decide that legit loan operations are standing in the way of the 20-30% they can charge desperate people who have no legit alternatives.  Sheba goes undercover and tries to lure the crime bosses in with her always-alluring feminine wiles and as she does, she has physical altercations with the thugs. However this film is light on the mayhem and violence front. The few murders that we see are bloodless.

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Grier is charismatic with a lot of sex appeal and that is all you really need for a film like this. She was one of the top three or four black movie stars in 1975 and an actress who was one of the two actresses (along with Barbra Streisand) whose name above the title could guarantee a profit on a film with the right budget. Pam Grier is strikingly beautiful and emits a kind of healthiness and a lot of stamina. This is her movie and although I would love to have it tightened, I am just glad I finally got to see it at all.

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Unfortunately, however, the film is routine in many aspects. The more outrageous characters are just too stereotypical to take seriously and the bad guy comes across as a wimp and does not seem threatening. Sheba is one-woman-war against organized crime to revenge the death of a family member. This time her father gets gunned down after refusing to sell his loan-company to some criminals. Then when her father is killed, everything seems to fall apart.

‘PRAY FOR DEATH”— One of the Last Ninja Movies

pray for death

“Pray for Death”

One of the Last Ninja Movies

Amos Lassen

Sho Kosugi became a star making Ninja movies during the 1980s. One of his films was “Pray for Death” directed by Gordon Hessler. The film begins in Japan where we’re introduced to the ‘Black Ninja’ . one of the true evils in society. He is involved in battle here or so we think until we realize that we are simply watching a TV program in which he stars. The show is being watched by two young Japanese kids, Takeshi Saito (Kane Kosugi) and his brother Tomoya Saito (Shane Kosugi) and they both agree that the Black Ninja looks like their dad, a peace-loving businessman named Akira Saito (Sho Kosugi). After discussing things with his lovely wife, Aiko (Donna K. Benz), they decide that it’s time for Akira to be his own boss and so the family soon moves to America where they buy a home in an awful neighborhood in Houston and almost instantly run into trouble with some local bad guys.

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Akira just wants to be left alone with his family to get his restaurant business on track but it turns out that a bunch of crooked cops are using the backroom of his place as a storeroom for stolen merchandise. One piece of the merchandise is the very valuable Van Atta Necklace which a local mobster wants to own. When one of the cops swipes the jewels, the mobsters figure it was Akira and so they take it out his wife and kids forcing him to put on his ninja suit and take deadly action against those who would harm his family. The fight scenes are quite violent and the film id basically a copy of ”Revenge of the Ninja”. There are two things that distinguish this film— it is Kosugi’s last role in a movie where he plays a ninja, and it is infamous for being his most violent and sadistic. Kosugi find’s himself going head to head with James Booth, who plays a gangster psychopath that enjoys beating old men to death, torturing Kosugi in front of his kid, and raping and killing Kosugi’s wife towards the end.

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Their final scene is memorable realistic and is grittier, rougher, and more barbaric than in other films. Sho actually intended to start a restaurant and bought an old place in a bad part of town. He was no aware that crooks were using the building to hide some stolen loot in and when it turns up missing, Sho’s family becomes a target. As the movie moves forward, dangers escalate and there is blood and violence.

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This is not my usual kind of movie but I must say that I was impressed by the special affects. Remember this was made in 1985 so there was not yet the technology that we have today.

“Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity” edited by Stuart W. Halpern, Meir Y. Soloveichik and Shlomo Zucker, editors— Deepening Our Education

torah and wester thought

Halpern, Stuart W., Meir Y. Soloveichik and Shlomo Zucker, editors. “Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity”, Maggid,2016.

Deepening Our Education

Amos Lassen

“Torah and Western Thought” comes to us via the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. It is the center’s mission to help develop Jewish thinkers and it does this by “exposing them to the richness of human knowledge and insight from across the ages, and by confronting them with the great moral, philosophical, and theological questions of our age”. That is a very impressive mission statement and really makes me wish that would be such a center where I live. I find that one of the greatest joys that I have now is the hour a day I devote to studying the great Jewish texts and while I truly enjoy that time, I am sure I would enjoy it that much more if I shared that time with other studiers.

During the twentieth century as much of the western world turned from faith, Orthodox Judaism had a very bright period because of the number of leaders and teachers who looked to how to bring together Torah and the world. These leaders came from academia were philosophers and literary scholars. Then there were others who worked to develop a perspective based on Torah that dealt with some of the new developments in western culture including

Zionism, democracy, or biotechnology. There were others who looked at the nature of religious knowledge. The Straus Center invited twenty-first century thinkers to give intellectual portraits of these leaders showing how each has brought the Torah and the West together.

Upon opening the book, we are given a timeline with the names and the dates of those figures that we read about in the book. I understand that the goal of this book is to inspire us to learn from those who came before and have influenced Torah through the ages. The people, the great thinkers, we read about include Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky. The essays are by contemporary scholars Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Rabbi Dr. Carmi Horowitz, Dr. Alan Jotkowitz, Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, Dr. Daniel Rynhold, Rabbi Dr. David Shatz, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik, Yael Unterman, Rabbi Dr. Itamar Warhaftig, Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, and Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier. Dare I mention that one of these thinkers is a woman? Professor Nechama Leibowitz has been on the respected Torah commentators of the modern age.

This is a volume that is filled with food for thought and is totally readable.

“Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities” by Jerome Pohlen— A Comprehensive History… For Kids

gay and lesbian history

Pohlen, Jerome. “Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities”, (For Kids series), Chicago Review Press, 2015.

A Comprehensive History

Amos Lassen

I am always a bit worried that the younger LGBT community is unaware of our history and the struggles and the heartache we went through to get to where we are these. Just as I have respected and honored those who came before us, I hope that the same will be true for future generations. I have much about our past history but there were some facts I never did see. This book gave me what I had missed. Some of the interesting tidbits to be found here include:

“Who transformed George Washington’s demoralized troops at Valley Forge into a fighting force that defeated an empire? Who successfully lobbied the US Congress to outlaw child labor? And who organized the 1963 March on Washington? These are just some of the things that our community has done in the past and in some cases have gone unheralded.

However there is something much more important here and that to some it might seem that  the campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality is a recent development when it fact it is the final act in a struggle that started more than a century ago. The history is told here through personal stories and firsthand accounts of the movement’s key events such as the “Lavender Scare” of the 50s, the Stonewall Inn uprising, and the AIDS crisis. Youngsters will learn about civil rights advocates like “Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the first gay rights organization; Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who turned the Daughters of Bilitis from a lesbian social club into a powerhouse for LGBT freedom; Christine Jorgensen, the nation’s first famous transgender; and Harvey Milk, the first out candidate to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors”.

We also read of the historic contributions of famous LGBT individuals, from General von Steuben and Alan Turing to Jane Addams and Bayard Rustin, among others. We have the latest information about the landmark Supreme Court decision-making marriage equality the law of the land. Included also are twenty-one activities that enliven the history and demonstrate the spirited ways the LGBT community has pushed for positive social change.

 The book looks at everything from Sappho, the Daughters of Bilitis, and the Lavender Menace to Dan Savage, Gladys Bentley, and Ellen DeGeneres and this is a very comprehensive history. We get a multifaceted perspective, emphasizing gay and lesbian figures’ places in history. We gain an understanding of the scope of LGBTQ erasure that has occurred from the way Jerome Pohlen discusses how in Emily Dickinson’s love poems the words were changed. Pohlen discusses two transgender individuals of color who were present at Stonewall (both were teens at the time), Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and he emphasizes that while the Stonewall Riots were an important turning point in American history, they were not the only time that the queer community has stood up for its rights.

The text is upbeat, conversational, and often humorous in tone. We also get biographical sidebars, and interactive activities. I know that the title is “for kids” but one thing I will never forget being told is one is never too old to learn. I am reminded of when I lived in Israel and saw all these speaking Hebrew as I was learning the language. We can hope that the same will be true for our community—that the kids know it better than those who lived through it.

Physically this is a gorgeous book with thick glossy pages that hold-up to frequent referrals during family discussions about gay and lesbian history.

“Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy” by Sergio Luzzatto— Levi as a Fighter with the Italian Resistance and the Secret that Haunted his Life

primo levi's resistence

Luzzatto, Sergio. “Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy”, (translated by Frederick Randall), Metropolitan Books, 2016.

Levi as a Fighter with the Italian Resistance and the Secret that Haunted his Life

Amos Lassen

Primo Levi has been the most “literarily powerful and historically influential” survivor of Auschwitz. What many do not know is that the beginning of World War II in the fall of 1943 and at the start of the Italian Resistance, he was a fighter and took part in the first attempts to launch guerrilla warfare against occupying Nazi forces. Historians have overlooked this and Levi, himself, did not mention this. In Levi’s “The Periodic Table” hints that his deportation to Auschwitz was linked directly to an incident from that time. It was this secret that made him give up the struggle, and his will to resist and even stay alive. Writer Sergio Luzzatto’s goes back to that time and reconstructs the events of 1943 in vivid detail. Just days before Levi was captured, Luzzatto shows, his group killed two teenagers who had sought to join the partisans, deciding the boys were reckless and couldn’t be trusted. Even though it was not spoken of, the repercussions were part of the shape Levi’s life. In this new study we see where Levi’s moral complexity that is so evident in all of his writing, began.

Luzzatto tells that Levi played only a supporting role in 1940s Italian civil war and its aftermath. What this book actually does is become a “meditation on the tensions between justice and revenge, the inevitability of historical revisionism and the unreliability of memory”. These are familiar themes that we have seen over and over again each time a country either confronts or denies something from its past.

Luzzatto shares his methodology (archival research, interviews with aging partisans and their descendants, and the Internet) but his narrative seems to lack direction and this makes it difficult to continue with his narrative because the plot and themes are often obscured. He starts the book with a childhood memory when he was read a series of letters that had been written by Italian partisans who were condemned to death and then shares that his curiosity about the resistance became a passion. His adoration of Levi and literature are what brought him to write this book. He tells (or reminds us) that in the stories in “The Periodic Table,” Levi writes of “an ugly secret” from his partisan days, a death sentence imposed in December 1943 that left him and his colleagues feeling “devastated, empty, wanting everything to finish and to be finished ourselves….” A few days later, Levi was captured, and thus began the journey that led to Auschwitz.

The two men shot by Levi’s group were teenagers at the time. It remains unclear who pulled the trigger and to what extent Levi was involved. Most of Luzzatto’s information comes from a report on the interrogation of the captured partisan Aldo Piacenza. who said that the young men were killed for stealing from villagers and threatening to kill or denounce other partisans.

While this is something of a small story it had great importance in that it “promised to illustrate the choices facing the young men of a floundering nation after the armistice” with the Allies and to also raise the question of when violence is morally justified.

Luzzatto also looks at the evil Fascist collaborator, Edilio Cagni who Levi described as “a spy who hurts, out of a kind of sporty sadism, as a hunter shoots.” Cagni, with two other spies, infiltrated a partisan band and then briefly became its leader. Soon afterward, he was involved in the interrogation and likely torture of captured partisans, one of who was Levi. He would later testify against others, helping to send them to their death a firing squad.

After the war, Cagni was repeatedly tried and sentenced (first to death, then prison) by various tribunals. Levi, returned from Auschwitz, testified against him but Cagni never served much time. He allied himself with the Italian intelligence services that were in pursuit of a Gestapo leader code-named Annabella and spying on neo-Fascist rallies for the American OSS. Luzzatto convincingly describes Cagni as a brilliant and duplicitous monster.

While Interviewing Piacenza, Luzzatto discovered that his account of a weapons expedition contradicts previous versions of the story. On the other hand some of the interviews were clear such as partisan Yves Franciscwa’s “excellent,” but still did not provide clear answers to Luzzatto’s questions about the shootings.

Luzzatto managed to track the elusive Cagni through the decades and numerous incarnations. But, in the end, he had to stop trying as all of his leads led to dead ends. Therefore the reader is left to give closure to the events written of here.