Monthly Archives: January 2016

“Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life” by Sayed Kashua— A Palestinian Looks at the Contradictions of Israel

native

Kashua, Sayed. “Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life”, Grove Press, 2016.

A Palestinian Looks at the Contradictions of Israel

Amos Lassen

Sayed Kashua is an Arab-Israeli who has lived in Jerusalem for most of his life. He began writing with the hope of creating one story that both Palestinians and Israelis could relate to, rather than two that cannot coexist together. His writing is filled with subtle nuance as he writes about Arab and Israeli society in the Middle East. Kashua’s satirical weekly column that is published in “Haaretz” tells the Palestinian story and explores the contradictions of modern Israel and he wonderfully captures everyday family life in all its tenderness and chaos. His wit is very sharp and his stories are filled with apprehension. Kashua has been documenting his own life as well as that of society at large. He writes about his children’s upbringing and encounters with racism, about fatherhood and married life, the Jewish-Arab conflict, his professional ambitions, travels around the world as an author, and—more than anything—his love of books and literature. He looks at the social and cultural aspects of his life by presenting them as someone who has a leg in two cultures.

The selections here were between 2006 and 2014 and they are deeply personal and unrestrained. The use of powerful and precise metaphors on what seems to be innocent subjects tell of the racism that exists in his life and in others and he aspires to reconcile two different perspectives on the same subjects. The meanings of family and fatherhood and gives us unique insights into the complexities of the tragic conflict that he has lived with for a good deal of his life while he shows that it is impossible to liveas an Arab in the Jewish state. I felt that reading his work can make one stop believing that Palestine and Israel can co-exist yet through his humanity and humor is stunning.

“Sayed Kashua is a Palestinian Arab who lived in Jerusalem until July 2014; he now lives in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. He is the author of three novels: DANCING ARABS (2002), LET IT BE MORNING (2004) and SECOND PERSON SINGULAR (2010). Kashua publishes a weekly column in Haaretz newspaper and is the creator and scriptwriter of the critically acclaimed satiric television sitcom “Arab Labor.” The film, DANCING ARABS, based on that novel and in part, SECOND PERSON SINGULAR, opened the Jerusalem International Film Festival in July 2014.”.

“Love on the Jersey Shore” by Richard Natale— Searching for Love

love on the jersey shore

Natale, Richard. “Love on the Jersey Shore”, Bold Strokes Books, 2016.

Searching for Love

Amos Lassen

How many of us really stop to teach about exactly what we are looking for in a search for love? We hear the old standard answers like a guy who is honest, truthful, and intelligent and so on but we forget one of the important aspects— sexual compatibility. All the other factors might be there but if we do not enjoy each other in bed, what is the point?

Richard Natale introduces us to Anthony Ragucci who falls in love with his dream man, Hunter Reese, a handsome attorney. There is a bit of a problem and that comes in a good-looking Robert Burke who also has his eyes on Reese. Anthony’ cousin Frank enters the picture to help but soon realizes that he is attracted to Robert (who is attracted to Hunter).

Frank and Anthony are not only cousins but best friends who grew up together. The fact that they are both gay seals their friendship. The cousins go into business together and they have one very important rule—they are to never get involved with a client. Anthony manages to break that rule easily and he does so with Hunter. Frank is not crazy about this but he supports his cousin. He goes so far as to agree to meet Hunter’s friend, Robert, but learns quickly that sexually the two are just not compatible. We learn that Hunter and Robert are as close as Anthony and Frank and in each pair one feels protective over the other.

I have enjoyed the books by author Richard Natale and I include this book in that statement. What I particularly enjoyed here is the characters are developed. The book starts slowly and gradually introduces us to the players. In this way we can come to our own opinions about them. I did get the impression that we are to side with Antony and Frank though; they seem to paragons. It’s a clever maneuver that Natale uses since he cannot come out and say which characters are his favorites. (But then again, I could be wrong here and I like that as well because we have to think). This is the third book by Natale that I have read and reviewed and once again I am so glad that I had the chance to do so. When you read as much as I do you find that thee are very few surprises and when once comes along, you want to jump and say “finally!!!”. The best recommendation I can give is tell you to get a copy.

“RABIN: THE LAST DAY”— Another Look

rabin better poster

“Rabin, The Last Day”

Another Look

Amos Lassen

I have already reviewed this film but it has had such an affect on me that I decided that I should have another look. For many Israelis (of which I am one), the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 marked a grim turning point for their country. The commission set up to investigate the murder issued this statement, “Israeli society [would] never be the same again. As a democracy, political assassination was not part of our culture.” In the eyes of even more people, the murder ended all hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through the Oslo Accords and altered the course of history. But, as Amos Gitai sets out to prove in his brave and provocative new film, Rabin’s assassination was not just the act of one fanatic; it was the culmination of a hate campaign that emanated from the rabbis and public figures of Israel’s far right.

The film begins by interviewing Rabin’s comrade Shimon Peres regarding the vilification the two men suffered after Oslo: “Sedition was in the air,” Peres says. Following this is aerial footage of a nighttime rally restaged in Kings of Israel Square (now Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv. The sense of spooky foreboding established by Amit Poznansky’s tense, brooding score is clinched by the sound of three shots and the evocation of chaos that includes a recreation of Rabin bleeding to death as his car speeds toward a hospital that has not even been prepped to expect his arrival.

This becomes a political horror film. After that beginning we move to the investigation, Gitai has staged transcripts of the Shamgar Commission of Inquiry convened to trace the chain of events leading to the assassination and discover security lapses that facilitated Rabin’s death. Interviews have been recreated with witnesses and these are shared with TV reports of the shooting. The police interrogation of the assassin (played with scary conviction by Yogev Yefet) is crosscut with staged shots of the dying Rabin’s arrival at the hospital. To make this disorientation even more effective, Gitai introduces a flashback dramatization of the reading of the Pulsa Dinura (“lashes of fire” in Aramaic), a Haredi rabbinical curse amounting to a ritual fatwa, directed against Rabin.

The organizer of this ritual, apparently modeled on the Russian-born extreme rightwing nationalist Avigdor Eskin, explains that the death curse had only been employed once before and that was against Leon Trotsky (although there is evidence that it has also been applied [if not by Eskin] against archeologists, politicians, and gay activists). There is also a suggestion that the halakhic precept the right of self-defense (din rodef) was also used as a justification for assassinating Rabin.

More suspects appear. We see a group of settlers (all actors) are shown constructing a prefab home on a West Bank hilltop. Meanwhile the assassin gets a prompt at his yeshiva and begins preparations. We then move forward to a lecture, delivered by a Shamgar commission lawyer to one of the commission’s magistrates, on how the West Bank settlements were expanded and this segues into video footage of a mass anti-Rabin rally with the real Benyamin Netanyahu haranguing a crowd calling for “blood and fire” and chanting “death to Rabin.” A staged scene follows this and we see a self-identified psychologist diagnoses Rabin as “a schizophrenic Satanist for the edification (and pleasure) of a rabid rabbinical gathering”. We go back to the commission that is then probing security lapses. The staged transcript allows for a scene of finger pointing and incompetence, as well as the suggestion that the investigation was shut down. News footage of soldiers battling with settlers and the bulldozing of a prefab home sets up another interrogation of the smirking, exultant assassin Amir and the strong suggestion that Israel is on the brink of civil war. (There is a fascinating bit of news footage of an attacker leaping out of a crowd and being wrestled away from Rabin.)

A videotaped press conference allows Rabin to explain his opposition to unilateral withdrawal from Gaza as Netanyahu campaigns for election. In a final staged scene, one of the Shamgar Commission magistrates walks by posters of self-satisfied Bibi. Amos Gitai began making documentaries in the 1970s. He was raised in Haifa but now lives most of the time in Paris. He was an innovative and provocative documentarian in his early career and “Rabin, the Last Day” is chaotic and compelling and is probably the most important film of Gitai’s career.

The film is an experience— a mixture of helpless rage, mounting impatience, and ontological doubt. It is hard not to feel rage while watching this. Gitai does not exactly advance a conspiracy behind Rabin’s assassination but neither does he rule out the possibility of there. He e suggests that Rabin’s murder was overdetermined. Gitai takes a portion of Israeli society— the religious fanatics, the militant settlers, and the nation’s current Likud leadership and puts them on trial for complicity in Rabin’s murder. Everything that we see on the screen is based upon something that was written or said.

“The Photographer’s Wife” by Suzanne Joinson— Photos from Long Ago and Far Away

the photographer's wife

Joinson, Suzanne. “The Photographer’s Wife”, Bloomsbury, 2016.

Photos from Long Ago and Far Away

Amos Lassen

Eleven-year-old Prudence Ashton watches her father begin his plans to redesign Jerusalem by bringing in parks from England. It is 1920 and her father has hired William Harrington, a British pilot, to take aerial photographs of the city and she notices that something is going on between him and Eleanora, the young English wife of a famous Jerusalem photographer. At his time in history there was quite an interesting mix of people living in Jerusalem including British colonials, exiled Armenians, and Greek, Arab, and Jewish officials and they all were getting along even though they is a sense that trouble is on its way to the area. Harrington learns that Eleanora’s husband is part of an underground group intent on removing the British and quite a dangerous game begins.

Some seventeen years later Prudence has become an artist and lives near the sea. She suddenly has a surprise visit from Harrington and what he has to say, shakes her completely. Prud knows that she must try to find out what is going on and this means you must explore secrets that are still in Jerusalem.

This a novel about betrayal— betrayal between father and daughter, between husband and wife and between state and citizen during the period between World War I and World War II. The complexity of relationships reflect the social and political situations in Jerusalem. In the 1920s Jerusalem was a city of characters from all over the world trying to influence the city’s future and satisfy their own political desires. Writer Sandra Johnson wonderfully describes the resentment against the British who are there.

In 1937,we once again Prudence who is a single mother living a quiet life in Shoreham by the Sea, Sussex. She and her son have run away from pressures of the London art world and Prue is recovering from the end of her marriage. Lieutenant Harrington comes back into her life and this causes her to look back at her early life in Jerusalem. This is a book that keeps you guessing and makes you think.

“NOTHING LEFT UNSAID”— Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper

nothing left unsaid1

“Nothing Left Unsaid”

Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper

Amos Lassen

“Nothing Left Unsaid” is documentary about socialite and artist Gloria Vanderbilt  and her son CNN’s anchor the openly gay Anderson Cooper.  The 92 year-old Vanderbilt has quite a colorful past and in some very frank and open interviews with her son we learned a lot about her than her famous ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’ custody battle stories. Cooper who was visibly shocked to learn about some of his mother’s past boyfriends that he never knew about, such as 32 year old Errol Flynn who she had dated where she was just a mere 17 years old.

This is a fascinating profile of a person with an extra-ordinary privileged life. Cooper does not shy away from talking to his mother about extremely sensitive subjects such as his brother jumping off the terrace of her 17th Floor New York Apartment to take his own life.

nothing left unsaid

Mother and son are both extremely articulate and open with each other. We see that they have an undeniable close bond and are devoted to each other.  We see Cooper’s sheer disbelief that through his mother he is a part of one of what was once of the leading families in the country.

This HBO documentary is directed by Oscar nominee Liz Garbus and will be aired in the US and will be preceded by a book from the film.

“#ADULTING”— Episode 1— Growing Up

adulting poster

“#Adulting”

Episode 1 –Growing Up

Amos Lassen

Ben Baur from the popular web series “Hunting Season” is an “OUT” 100 Honoree. Now he has teamed up with friend Thandi Tolmay to co-create a new comedic series, “#Adulting”.

The series follows two best friends Max (Bauer) and Faye (Tolmay) as they navigate life and love while staring down the barrel of ‘30’. We see cheating boyfriends, rapidly slowing metabolisms and empty bank accounts and these are just the beginning.’ In the first episode we see that Max and Faye aren’t completely grown up (especially after they start talking about what would happen if Max was straight).

adulting

The idea for #Adulting came from the two who wanted to tell stories that were tragically relatable to this really odd time in life—that period when you are supposed to be grown up but really aren’t.

The series is directed by TJ Marchbank (Buzzfeed Motion Pictures). The three have been friends for going on 10 years after meeting at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy from where they all graduated together.

“An Improbable Friendship: The Remarkable Lives of Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil and Their Forty-Year Peace Mission” by Anthony David— Dear Friends

an improbable friendship

David, Anthony. “An Improbable Friendship: The Remarkable Lives of Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil and Their Forty-Year Peace Mission”, Arcade Publishing, 2015

Dear Friends

Amos Lassen

Raymonda Tawil and Ruth Dayan met in 1970. Dayan was the then-wife of Israeli war hero and Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, was visiting a hospital in the Palestinian city of Nablus to deliver dolls to children. Tawil, of Palestinian aristocracy and Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law, was there to watch this exercise in diplomacy. She was not impressed. Today, these elder stateswomen are dear friends. From Malta, where they most recently met up, they share the story of how they won each other over. Much of the book is based upon interviews, diaries and journals of both women.

Ruth lives today in Tel Aviv, Raymonda in Malta so they do not see each other a great deal but their story is inspiring and fascinating. It is a tale of reconciliation and hope in a climate of endless conflict. The women’s stories about their friendship began after the Six-Day War in 1967 and through them we learn the behind-the-scenes, undisclosed history of the Middle East’s most influential leaders from two prominent women on either side of the ongoing conflict.

The friendship between the two women was unexpected yet because of it, we learn their true feelings and their pasts. Both an Israeli and a Palestinian have voices and via their friendship we learn a bit more about the conflict in the Middle East and understand that both women have faith there will be peace there one day.

Raymonda Tawil is mother to Suha, the Catholic raised and educated daughter who married Yasser Arafat. Ruth was the wife of Israeli strongman, Moshe Dayan. Arafat swore to drive the invader from his native Palestine while Dayan was the ruthless hunter of those opposed to Jewish resettlement in the emerging Israel. We would think any friendship between these women must, indeed, be improbable. But that is not the case at all.

Ruth was born in Haifa in 1917 when what was known as Palestine then was under Turkish rule. She gave up a comfortable middle-class life to be the wife of a farmer. She married Moshe Dayan and lived in a leaking shack, sharing her life with a penniless and uneducated farmer but as we know that farmer became a military hero and a very important man in Israel.

Raymonda was born a generation later in 1940, in Acre, part of what was then the English Palestine Mandate, daughter of a wealthy and respected Christian family. When the Israelis captured Acre, they uprooted Palestinian families. That act of dispossession in Acre and in other places is still a major issue.– there and in other places – remains an issue to this day.

Moshe Dayan gained prominent in leading armed attacks against Palestinians and went on to gain fame in the 1967 Six Day War. It was from this and other, later, battles that he became known to the world. The paths of the two women crossed right after the Six Day War. Raymonda visited the hospital at Nablus, tending the displaced, the dying and the wounded. One day while at the hospital she learned that Ruth, wife of the man she considered the cause of the dreadful devastation, was about to arrive. The friendship did not start well because Raymonda went on the attack. However over time that, despite their obvious differences and points of view, originating from opposing sides of the same issue, they both wanted the same basic outcome, peace and stability for their people.

Anthony David interviewed the two women, researching background and history before writing this book that is also a brief history of the wars and the difficulties that accompanied the birth of a new country. However, his concentration is on the differences and the similarities of the book’s twin subjects. As I read, I thought that it is really very sad that we cannot see the issues as clearly as these two women do. Even today, at 98 and 75 years of age, they love a good argument! The improbable friends always seem to find a way to fine outcomes.

The book is a delightful read and it is filled withanecdote and wonderful detail. We see the creativity of the women as well as their conviction and courage., this book demonstrates Dayan’s and Tawil’s creativity, conviction, and courage. We are reminded of a time past when Palestinians and Israelis worked together for peace.

While this book is basically about and focused on the women, there are many powerful men here— Moshe Dayan, Yasser Arafat, Ezer Weizman, among others—and there is plenty of intrigue, violence, and danger. Ruth and Raymonda are brilliant, passionate and driven feminists whose unique friendship should serve as a model for international relations and people-to-people dialogue. What keeps their relationship going is their ability and to honor the dignity and aspirations of the other and their quest for peace. Another fascinating aspect of this is about their daughters, Yael Dayan and Suha Tawil. This is quite a read.

“PERSONA NON GRATA” (“ Sugihara Chiune”)— “The Schindler of Japan”

persona poster

“PERSONA NON GRATA” (“ Sugihara Chiune”)

“The Schindler of Japan”

Amos Lassen

Cellin Gluck’s World War II-era biopic “Persona Non Grata” introduces us to Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania who issued transit visas from July 18 to Aug. 28, 1940, that saved an estimated 6,000 Jewish lives. Sugihara in doing this defied instructions from his superiors and the foreign policy of the Japanese government which had allied itself with the Nazis. persona1IThis film which tries to explain the mystery of Sugihara (who went by the name “Senpo”) is something of a history lesson. He was posted to Harbin, Manchuria, in 1924 and there he fell in love with a Russian woman, Irina (Agnieszka Grochowska). He became a pawn in a scheme of the Japanese military to wrest control of a strategic railroad owned by the Soviets and he saw the death of innocent victims and his Russian girl friend blamed him for these even though he protested against the scheme to his superiors, Sugihara was labeled persona non grata by the Soviet government.

persona2

Assigned to the consulate in Kaunas in 1939, Sugihara hires a Polish intelligence officer, Pesh (Borys Szyc) as his driver and together they gather intelligence on the Nazis and Soviets. The Japanese Foreign Ministry needs to know the true intentions of both following the signing of the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. In the course of their work Pesh becomes Sugihara’s friend and confidant.

persona3

Then the Soviets announce their occupation of independent Lithuania and the country’s Jews were in danger of being given over to Hitler. When refugees gather by the hundreds at the consulate gate to beg for visas, Sugihara’s kind-hearted wife, Yukiko (Koyuki), urges him to do the right thing. Sugihara, already opposed to what he sees as Japan’s suicidal foreign policy, doesn’t require much persuading.

persona4

The film brings us not just the story of Sepno but it explores the process by which an ordinary individual, faced with a terrible dilemma, can come to a heroic decision. Director Gluck takes issue with the comparison to Oskar Schindler in that Schindler rescued people close to him while Senpo rescued thousands of people he didn’t even know.

persona6

Karasawa Toshiaki gives a powerful performance as Sugihara Chiune with the support of an outstanding Polish cast. Gluck shot the film with a mostly Polish crew and almost entirely in Poland.

 

 

“Utter Chaos” by Sammy Gronemann— A Baptized Jew

utter chaos

Gronemann, Sammy. “Utter Chaos”, translated by Penny Milbouer, (Jewish Literature and Culture), Indiana University Press, 2016.

A Baptized Jew

Amos Lassen

Originally published in Germany in 1920, “Utter Chaos” is a satirical novel set in 1903 at the time of the Sixth Zionist Congress. It follows the life of a baptized Jew, Heinz Lehnsen, as he negotiates legal entanglements, German culture, religious differences, and Zionist aspirations. Things become really complicated when Heinz has a chance encounter with a long-lost cousin from a shtetl in Russia. This meeting challenges  his notions of Jewish identity and their belief in the claims of the Zionist movement. Author Sammy Gronemann writes with humor and compassion as he exposes the foibles and contradictions of human behavior. We get a fascinating portrait of German Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century and learn about German society, German-Jewish culture, and anti-Semitism.“Utter Chaos” is an important literary and historical document of the Jewish experience in early twentieth-century Central and Eastern Europe.

 

“GAYCATION”— Around the Gay World with Ellen Page— A New Docu-series

GAYCATION

“Gaycation”

Around the Gay World with Ellen Page— A New Docu-series

Amos Lassen

Of late, stories and videos of actress Ellen Page have been making. We have seen her confronting notorious homophobes such as GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz. These videos are part of her new docu-series project, “Gaycation”, in which she travels to different parts of the world alongside best friend, Ian Daniel, to look at LGBT life in numerous different countries and to explore how those people are. These meetings, she says, have made her realize that she is a privileged gay person. The visits have helped her understand how vulnerable some gay people are.

There is a lot to be learned in the series and we get to see rare one-on-one interactions, the kind we do not have in everyday life. We really get to see sadness, frustration, confusion and how much people have to struggle.  For us in the United States who came out in the 60s and 70s will be reminded of how it once was in this country, for the younger people it will be hard and emotional to see why people are treated that way. We become humbled and inspired when we see the different ways that gay people are treated in other places. Having lived in Arkansas, I can tell you the LGBT community has had a terrible time in the past and demagogues like Mike Huckabee are trying to make sure that it stays that way.