Monthly Archives: August 2016

“The English Teacher: A Novel” by Yiftach Reicher Atir— A Psychological Spy-Thriller

the english teacher

Atir, Yiftach Reicher. “The English Teacher: A Novel”, Penguin, 2016.

A Psychological Spy-Thriller

Amos Lassen

After going to her father’s funeral, former Mossad agent Rachel Goldschmitt draws her entire bank account and disappears. However, when she makes a cryptic phone call to her former handler, Ehud, the Mossad sends him to track her down. He has no leads, yet he must retrace her career as a spy to figure out why she abandoned Mossad before she can do any damage to Israel. He soon discovers that after living under cover for so long, an agent’s assumed identity and her real one can blur, catching loyalty, love, and truth between them. This causes Ehud to question whether he ever knew Rachel at all.

Writer Yiftach Atir based his novel on his own experience in the Israel intelligence corps. I find it especially interesting that when I lived in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces, we were not privy to stories like this. We certainty never knew who worked in the Mossad. Here we read of the isolation that pervades the life of the spy long after their active existence is over and we read of the sacrifices of living a double life. We see how it works at the foundations of existence and how there is some truth in lies. Atir looks at the Mossad and writes of secrets and national morality as well as the moral actions that operatives perform for their country and their own exploitation.

Rachel is at the center of the book and we become very aware of the loneliness she suffers especially when she becomes an English teacher in an Arab nation with a very big secret. It all begins with the death of her father in London. With that she no longer has family and her disappearance is worrisome to the Mossad because of all of the

state secrets she holds. Through Rachel, author Atir is able to transfer those feelings of loneliness and fear he felt during his own years of service. We read a great deal about the life of a spy and how it begins and perhaps how it might end. We see Rachel’s frustrations and distrust that builds between her and the agency and that she really needs some of the normality of life if she is to live as a real person and have a bit of happiness. We become truly aware of the toll of living a lie and see that even with the best intentions, those who are part of Rachel’s life have a difficult time. The sacrifices that the members of the Mossad make are tremendous.

With Rachel’s disappearance, everyone wants to know if she has become a traitor to Israel and sold secrets to the enemy. Most the story is told by Ehud but we also become aware of what is going on in Rachel’s mind and life.

The narrative is told primarily from Ehud’ point of view as he shares in great detail the four years that he spent serving as Rachel’s handler. He shares not only how he trained and prepared Rachel for her missions, but also the intimacy that developed between the two of them. We see early on that Ehud’s feelings for Rachel have gone beyond their relationship as handler/agent. As a spy, Rachel had to learn to not only adapt to adopting new identities, but also to repress her feelings and emotions and this is very difficult to do. We read a lot about theday-to-day operations of a spy’s life and the ways that they are trained.

The plotline is complicated because Ehud admits to being in love with his much younger operative, the spy posing as an English teacher. The reality we have here is that agents face their psyche and this can cause permanent damage. Once I began reading I realized that I was not going anywhere until I finished the book and even then what I had read stayed with me. Atir gives us a beautiful but heartbreaking story that really makes us think.


“THE HILLS HAVE EYES” A Masterpiece of Horror

the hills have eyes

A Masterpiece of Horror

Amos Lassen

Taking a detour whilst on route to Los Angeles, the Carter family meet trouble when their camper van breaks down in the middle of the desert. Now stranded, the family find themselves at the mercy of a group of monstrous cannibals living in the surrounding hills. With their lives under threat, the Carters are forced to fight back by any means necessary.  Now some 35 years after its debut, this movie remains a disorienting, blood-soaked affair. It creates a palpable sense of dread as we are led to believe that escalating acts of debauchery are everywhere.

the hills1

The Carter family is stranded at a place where there is no industry or residences anywhere close; these is just the faraway hills and a nuclear testing site. After filling up with gas, they try to take a shortcut and their car inevitably breaks down. Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and his son-in-law Doug (Martin Speer) decide to head in opposite directions to find some help leaving mother Ethel (Virginia Vincent), her daughter Brenda (Susan Lanier), son Bobby (Robert Houston) and oldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace) to stay with the car and tend to Lynne and Doug’s newborn baby.

the hills2

Deformed cannibals who live in a nearby cave begin playing mind games with their new visitors. There’s a lot of screaming, blood, near sexual attacks, gasoline and, yes, even some cannibalism. Craven somehow keeps the camera just out of reach from the most horrific scenes, sparing us the details of the grossness.

the hills3

One by one, the family members begin to fall, and it’s up to the survivors to protect the baby. A helpful German shepherd aids the victims in their crusade. Craven’s direction is the real reason to see this film. As a young filmmaker, he sets up unconventional shots and with what appears to be a shoestring budget. There’s one scene where the camera leaves a solitary figure in the darkness of the desert, only his silhouette is visible. The atmosphere and hysterics all add to the directing style and realism of this very unreal story.

the hills5

Over the years, “The Hills Have Eyes” has become a bona fide cult classic with a legion of dedicated fans even though it is not a good film but then it was not meant to be. Years later, the film looks like one of the great genre films of its time and succeeds in being exciting, funny and, sometimes, deeply unsettling.

the hills6

A group of cannibals led by the patriarch Jupiter is determined to add the intruders to their menu and they begin an onslaught that begins at sunset and lasts through a freezing desert night into the next morning. Only by throwing off the trappings of sophisticated civilization can the family, gradually being culled one by one, find a way to survive.

the hills7

Essentially, this is bloody and gruesome but no more so than most modern action movies. The cast is surprisingly good. One has to bear in mind the low budget nature of the film and the actors are more than adequate. The extras are amazing:

* Brand new 4K restoration of the film, supervised by producer Peter Locke and viewable with both original and alternate endings 

* High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation 

igh Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation 

* Original Uncompressed PCM Mono Audio

* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 

* 6 Postcards 

* Reversible Fold-out Poster 

* Limited Edition 40-page booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Brad Stevens and a consideration of the Hills franchise by disc producer Ewan Cant, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

* Brand new audio commentary with actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier and Martin Speer

* Brand new audio commentary by academic Mikel J. Koven 

* Audio commentary with Wes Craven and Peter Locke 

* Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes – making-of documentary featuring interviews with Wes Craven, Peter Locke, actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Robert Houston, Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace and director of photography Eric Saarinen

* Brand new interview with actor Martin Speer

* The Desert Sessions – brand new interview with composer Don Peake

* Never-before-seen Outtakes 

* Alternate Ending, in HD for the first time 

* Trailers and TV Spots 

* Image Gallery

* Original Screenplay (BD-ROM Content)

* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper

“MOON IN THE 12TH HO– — USE”—A Puzzle



A Puzzle

Amos Lassen


“Moon in the 12th House” “takes what seems like an ordinary story and transcends into a beautiful expression of pure cinema”. “Moon in the 12th House” is a film built as a puzzle.  It depicts the innermost realities in the lives of  two sisters, Mira and Lenny, who, due to tragic circumstances, were separated when they were children.  Now, as young women, they meet again and embark on a much-needed journey which allows them to overcome their sense of guilt and leads them to maturity.  Aesthetic images combined with  strong performances by the actors create an intense experience.


When a pair of estranged young sisters, Lenny who stayed at home to take care of their debilitated father, and Mira, who left for a new life in Tel Aviv, are reunited they must come to terms with the circumstances that tore them apart. Love and affection reunite the characters and lead them towards fragile redemption.


The film stars Yuval Scharf, Yaara Pelzig, Gefen Barkai, Gal Toren, Avram Horvitz) and was directed by Dorit Hakim.

“Cousin Joseph: A Graphic Novel” by Jules Feiffer— The Right Man on the Wrong Mission

Cousn Joseph

Feiffer, Jules. “Cousin Joseph: A Graphic Novel”, Liveright Publishing, 2016.

The Right Man on the Wrong Mission

Amos Lassen

Big Sam Hannigan is a tough and righteous man on a mission. The problem is the fact that it’s the wrong mission. Legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer began an epic saga of American noir fiction, he introduced us to cousin Joseph. Now we meet bare-knuckled Detective Sam Hannigan, head of the Bay City’s Red Squad and patriarch of the Hannigan family.

The story opens in Bay City in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. Big Sam sees himself as a righteous, truth-seeking patriot who is defending the American way against a rising tide of left-wing unionism, strikes, and disruption that fill his home town. At the same time he makes monthly, secret overnight trips on behalf of Cousin Joseph, a mysterious man on the phone he has never seen, to pay off Hollywood producers to ensure that they will film only upbeat films that idealize a mythic America with only happy endings.

Sam, himself, however, is not in for a happy ending, as step by step the secret of his unseen mentor is revealed to him. Fast-moving action, violence, and murder come together in this satiric, sociopolitical style to show the buried fear mongering of the past and expose how closely it matches what is happening in America today.

Created by one of America’s most gifted cartoonists and cultural commentators for whose work the words “sophisticated” and “satirical fit perfectly, “Cousin Joseph” is the second Jules Feiffer’s illustrated noir. It is a prequel to the first in this series of three and is set in 1931, in California. The historical framework includes the Great Depression and the successful rise of Jewish Hollywood moguls against an international backdrop of anti-Semitism. There is poverty, unionism spawned by the Russian Revolution, and, crime: some of it pays of which some of it costs, and all of it is observed by Big Sam Hannigan, a straight cop with one crooked secret. He is delivering messages in the form of cold hard cash to Hollywood producers, on behalf of a mysterious man with a touch of an accent known only as Cousin Joseph.

Sam takes no money for his errands; he does so for the sake of patriotism, believing that the money is a buy-off to prevent anti-American movies hitting the screens — movies that, Cousin Joseph insists, promote “the America invented by these people that no one could stand.” Sam is also on the frontlines of the battle against unions, siding with Mr. Knox, the bullying factory owner determined to break a planned strike by using all the forces at his command, including the conniving police and scapegoating of innocents. While roughing up an evil movie-maker at Cousin Joseph’s behest, Sam finds out what kind of film is really being made — an American epic that idealizes the great melting pot. He realizes that he doesn’t want to hurt its chances or harm its producer but now he wants to know whose side he should be on and who Cousin Joseph really is. Those are dangerous questions.

Feiffer who is now in his late 80s, still has the considerable skills required to weave together many plot threads and create some memorable minor characters: Cousin Joseph’s square-shouldered chauffeur, Gaffney, who knows more than he says; kingpin Knox’s daughter, who is filled with curiosity about Jewish men; the bartender Addie, who would do anything — anything — to own the place; and Neil, the defecting cop who has stopped drinking but remains with his cynicism. Feiffer explores anti-Semitism, union busting, Red baiting and dirty cops in a noir narrative with all the required extras like the ceiling fans, shadows, tough guys, a morally ambiguous protagonist and a femme fatale.

Sam has a chip on his shoulder, a fedora, a partner with one foot out the door, and a wife who gets too excited. He’s a true believer and a buzzkill and prefers to let others do the thinking for him, namely in the form of a mysterious mentor known as Cousin Joseph. (Cousin Joseph sees un-American influences brewing right in Bay City’s backyard).

As Sam deals with his various thug obligations, his job brings him into the lives of a dozen other characters, including Valerie, a teenage girl who pays Jewish boys a dollar to drop their pants (“Jesus, do I love that little thing!” ); Archie Goldman, a kid whose mother works at the local cannery that’s about to strike; Hardy Knox, the blustery fat-cat owner of said cannery as well as various union organizers, head honchos, dirty cops, bums and lackeys.

The book is subversive in a lot of ways but it embraces its popular culture influences without irony or apology. Feiffer’s fluid style works particularly well here with everyone looking rumpled and seemingly in motion. There are no captions in this book, and almost no thought bubbles. We are left to rely on dialogue to drive the story, like a film. The few exceptions are spare and smart. Sam is introduced in an introspective mood. Thought bubbles trail him as he stows his crucifix in the bedside table and puts on a weapon in the early morning silence of his apartment. He wonders, “Where did America go?” Feiffer doesn’t let us inside Sam’s head again until almost the end of the book. This is a smart, weird, political, engrossing read and exactly the kind of morally complex story Cousin Joseph would have hated. But Feiffer knows ­better.



scarred but smarter

“Scarred But Smarter: Life N Times Of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’”

Understanding the Band

Amos Lassen

Director Eric Von Haessler spent three years looking for reasons why his favorite band, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, hadn’t enjoyed more national success. With the help of fellow fans Peter Buck, Darius Rucker, Jason Isbell, David Lowery, Ed Roland, Ty Pennington, Blackberry Smoke, and others, he uncovers the fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of a band that has spent the last 30 years both creating great music and making questionable career moves. Along the way he finds that Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is a true rock & roll success.



This documentary film uses album tracks and videos, never before seen performances, interviews from the past and present, along with archival behind the scenes footage to tell the true story of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. It’s a raw and honest look behind the curtain, warts and all. 

s2The DVD includes extras with full length live performances, new music videos, and more. “Scarred But Smarter” features interviews and performances from Kevn Kinney, Tim Nielsen, Mac Carter, Dave V. Johnson, Paul Lenz, Jeff Sullivan, Buren Fowler, Sadler Vaden, Peter Buck, Jason Isbell, Darius Rucker, David Lowery, Ed Roland, Edwin McCain, Blackberry Smoke, Charlie Starr, Ty Pennington, Michelle Malone, T. Hardy Morris, and more!


bubba the redneck werewolf

“Bubba The Redneck Werewolf”

Are We Ready?

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many of us get the chance to see a totally “Low-brow, completely ridiculous [film] that is and packed to the gills with heart”. Here is your chance and I bet that you will love it as much as I do. “Bubba The Redneck Werewolf” is  based on the cult classic comic book series that was originally published in 1996 by Brass Ball Comics and later by Creature Entertainment and has become a favorite among collectors. Created by Mitch Hyman, who also serves as the film’s executive producer, the original idea of Bubba came from a Halloween costume. 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the comic book release and producers Will Phillips and Brendan Jackson Rogers feel that making the movie of “Bubba The Redneck Werewolf” was a great opportunity to bring such wacky characters to life!


The film follows Bubba (Fred Lass) who has had a run of bad luck. He works at an animal shelter where the cleans the mess out of the dog cages.  He loves his job and simple life but his ex- girlfriend wants a man that can take up for his self and has a four-slice toaster. Bubba does not meet that and leaves Bubba.  Bubba is heart broken and hits his favorite bar where he meets a guy dressed in red with horns who promises to make Bubba strong if he just signs a contract. Bubba agrees and Bubba gets tipsy.


The next morning Bubba awakens to find himself covered in fur and stronger than before.  He is now a werewolf and goes back to his bar to drink it up before getting back his girl.  However, he is unaware that the red man is running through town tricking people into signing contracts.  Now the townspeople want Bubba to take on the devil to get their contracts back.


With a big heart and a small brain, Bubba has lost the love of his life; Bobby Jo (Malone Thomas) who just wants him defend her honor, stand up for himself and buy a toaster. Bubba accidentally calls upon the devil to help him and sure enough, Old Scratch (Mitch Hyman) comes and offers Bubba everything his heart desires. Bubba will have to use his newfound power to save the simple folks of Cracker County and send the Devil packing…assuming that doesn’t get distracted by anything or everything else first. The film brings together horror, humor, and hubris to make this wing-eating, cigar-chomping, whiskey-swigging werewolf the hero whose theme song is addictive. Clever details and some good-natured ribbing toward small town life that many of us know, keep the story moving along. Every conceivable angle is played up, from Bubba first seeing himself in a bathroom mirror to watching the townsfolk being cheated by the Devil.


Unfortunately, the acting in this one is not consistent.  The film has two different Bubbas.  The first is Bubba pre-werewolf and is genuine and fun at times and an imbecile at others. The other Bubba, the werewolf, is very funny and never breaks character.  He juggles stupidity with raw power and is fun to watch.  


This is not a new story—the idea of the devil has been with us forever and it works great as a horror comedy.   We have two great performances from Malone Thomas as Bubba’s girlfriend and from Mitch Hyman who is a lot of fun as the devil and bringing charm and comic destruction with his performance. The film is filled with humor from its supporting cast as well. It includes bartender Jamie Sue (Sara Humbert), the Gypsy Fortune Teller (Gail Fleming), and Drunk Cletus (Gary Norris). I really like the fact that the citizens of Cracker County are so accepting of Bubba the Werewolf and barely flinch at his furry appearance regarding it as if it were something normal.


Yes the movie is a silly tongue-in-cheek comedy that constantly winks at its audience with its ridiculous and often funny premise and gags but it is just a lot of fun. The devil wreaks havoc across Cracker County with the clueless denizens giving up their soul for maligned desires that go terribly awry (the guy who wants to be Batman, but is instead left to live with a bat through his skull). There are enough comically bloody moments in the film as well, for those who love gore. The film was written by Stephen Biro and directed by Brendan Jackson Rogers and, of course, the comic was created by Mitchell Hyman, the creator of the original comic book. This is a very funny and bloody movie with some wonderful one-liners.

“HISSEIN HABRÉ”— A Chadian Tragedy

hassan poster


A Chadian Tragedy

Amos Lassen

 In the 1980s, brutal dictator Hissein Habré and his regime took the lives of over 40,000 Chadian citizens and tortured thousands more. The Habré administration and its horrific crimes were largely supported or ignored by the rest of the world.  Here, in this documentary, director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun brings testimony by some who survived  that regime; men and women who still bear the scars of the horrors they endured in their flesh and in their souls. Not only does the film bear witness to the atrocities endured by those in Chad, it also documents the way that, united as a group, they accomplished bringing an African dictator before an African court of law for the first time. 

“THE INNOCENTS”— Faith and Solidarity”

the innocents poster

“The Innocents”

Faith and Solidarity

Amos Lassen

French director Anne Fontaine takes us back to Warsaw in December, 1945 with the end of World War Two. French Red Cross doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage) is treating the last of her patients when suddenly a panicked Benedictine nun appears at the clinic begging Mathilde to follow her back to the convent. What she finds there is shocking: a holy sister about to give birth and several more in advanced stages of pregnancy. Mathilde is a non-believer, yet enters the sisters fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order and the strict Reverend Mother (Ida Agata Kulesza). The nuns fear the shame of exposure and the hostility of the occupying Soviet troops and local Polish communists. They are going through an unprecedented crisis of faith and increasingly turn to Mathilde as their beliefs and traditions clash with harsh realities.


This is a film that is all gloom and doom from beginning to end because of the scale of horror impinged upon an entire community. Seeing so many pregnant nuns could be comical if the pregnancies were the product of breaking their vows of celibacy. Here they are pregnant because of a series of gang rapes committed by occupying Russians. These terrible events lead some of the sisters to doubt their faith.

Some welcome Mathilde’s help, while others refuse it in the name of dogma, as being touched is a sin, even if it means letting syphilis go untreated. In one scene we see the severity of the convent’s repression as Mathilde gives a nun what seems to be her first medical examination; it may also be the first time that another adult has touched her body without violence. When Mathilde places her hand on the nun’s pregnant belly, the nun explodes in laughter, as if overwhelmed by the excitation but this is short-lived as the nun quickly recoils into muteness once she realizes another nun is watching her.


The problem I have with the film is that we never spend enough time with each character in order to care about them as individuals. At times it is even difficult at times to tell the nuns apart. This helps make the film something of an allegory for women’s condition in times of war or peace. We see that their kinship (the discovered link between the pious ones and the sexually liberated nurse) despite their different beliefs, behaviors, and customs is that they’re never safe.

We see this is a scene when a Soviet soldier attacks Mathilde while his colleagues egg him on and begin lining up to do the same. We are reminded that the making of a woman isn’t in the materiality of their bodies, but in the ways in which their bodies are repetitively made to not matter. Here, war seems to be something of an excuse for men to band together so they can all vow to annihilate the bodies of women as if to disavow the fact that their own will also annihilated sooner or later as well.


The Reverend Mother manages to persuade a very hesitant Mathilde, the only female doctor in the small Hospital to accompany  her back to the convent, to attend to the nun who is in urgent need of medical care, but first she swears her to total secrecy about the visit. The nun Mathilde goes to see is, in fact, not sick, but actually about to give birth. This is the result of some months back when the convent was overrun by the invading Russian Army who raped the nuns and took control of the region.

Seven of the nuns are pregnant and they fear that not only will the towns-people want to evict them, but also that they are destined to face damnation. Some of them will not  let Mathilde examine them as it is against Holy Orders to be touched or even be naked in front of anyone at all. The Mother Superior is loathed to let the doctor get involved at all, but when the babies literally starting dropping like flies, she realizes that she has no alternative.  The moment they are born she whisks them off to be discreetly adopted, and the first baby is actually taken to live with the nun’s aunt.


Things deteriorate further when the Mother Superior who was also raped, develops a bad case of syphilis and adamantly refuses to let Mathilde help her. Whilst she is laid up the Russian soldiers suddenly return to the Convent and it is only quick thinking by Mathilde who tells them that there had been an outbreak of typhoid and it is this that averts further sexual abuse.

The story  also has a subplot based  at the Red Cross Unit where Mathilde’s boss, a very insecure Jewish man puts the moves on her. The two have a real connection but they both know that it is simply a temporary pastime during war even though he would like it to continue. This film is actually based on a true story, and is essentially about various crises of faith that are tested by all the traumas and iniquities of wartime. 


The movie is shot in dark drab hues that convey a world ravaged by all the fighting and battles that damaged it almost beyond recognition and that needs to be rebuilt and re-born like the people who still live there. Viewers are left with a fresh understanding of man’s capacity to respond to suffering with good or evil and then to find new ways to define vocation and grace. We get a quite serious look at the struggle to hold on to faith in the most difficult of situations.

“Oy Oy Oy Gevalt!: Jews and Punk” by Michael Croland— “Whoda Thunk” It

oy oy oy gevalt

Croland, Michael. “Oy Oy Oy Gevalt!: Jews and Punk”, Praeger, 2016.

Judaism and Punk—“Whoda Thunk” It?

Amos Lassen

I am one hundred percent certain that there are very few, if any, who would think of punk and Judaism in the same sentence. At least so I thought until I read Michael Croland’s book. It seems that there is a fascinating world of Jews who relate to their “Jewishness” through the vehicle of punk and these include prominent figures in the history of punk to musicians who proudly put their Jewish identity “front and center”. We get a fascinating exploration of “alternative, against-the-grain expressions of Jewish identity” in today’s America and we see how this is reflected in music, documentaries, young adult novels, “zines” and more and the prominent role of Jewish individuals in the history of punk (the Ramones, the Dictators, the Clash, Bad Religion, and NOFX as well as Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols”). Punk, we also learn, has

Played an important role in shaping key contemporary Jewish music, including klezmer and Radical Jewish Culture. We see that the Jewish/punk crossover is broader and deeper than we might ever have expected. We meet the Jewish stalwarts in the punk world as well as the lesser known’s who play in such bands as Yidcore and Jewdriver, and in klezmer/punk explorations such as Golem. Writer Michael Croland shows that Jewish punk is not a footnote to Jewish or punk history, but a source of fruitful and playful provocations unto itself and in both worlds.

Croland explores ideas of identity through art that in many cases goes against conventional history. He presents us with the past, present, and future of Jews and the punk movement and provides a framework for understanding what happens when the esoteric becomes the mainstream. Of course, it is natural to wonder why punk as a subculture and music style characterized by a rejection of established norms would appeal to Jews? How did Jews who struggling with their Jewish identity find ways to express it through punk? By reading about the cultural connections between Jews and punk in music and beyond shows this involvement.

Croland begins by broadly defining what the terms “Jewish” and “punk” and follows this with an exploration of the various ways these seemingly incompatible identities come together. He looks at Jewish humor, New York City, the Holocaust, individualism, “tough Jews,” outsider identity, tikkun olam (“healing the world”), and radicalism. We read of prominent Jews in punk, punk rock bands that overtly put their Jewishness on display, and punk influences on other types of Jewish music (such as —klezmer and Hasidic celebration music). We also see the ways that Jewish and punk culture intersect beyond music.

I had no idea how many different bands and variations there are and I found it especially interesting to read about the backgrounds, motivations, and influences of the artists throughout the book.

“Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast” by Aaron W. Hughes— The Father of Modern Jewish Studies

jacob neusner

Hughes, Aaron W. “Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast”, NYU Press, 2016.

The Father of Modern Jewish Studies

Amos Lassen

This is the life story of the father of modern Jewish studies. Aaron W. Hughes explores the life of Jacob Neusner, a renowned scholar of Judaism and a controversial figure in the American academy. Neusner was born in 1932 to a Reform Jewish family in Connecticut and soon showed significant academic promise, which brought him to Harvard, to the Jewish Theological Seminary, to Oxford, and to Yale. We read of Neusner’s entry into post-biblical Jewish scholarship and learn that he was among the first to enter the field from a critical, secular standpoint as opposed to rabbinic or yeshiva routes. Because of this, Neusner had to struggle to be accepted and it was mainly due to him that the field of Judaic studies that exists today came into being. His career in academics took him to many varied universities and wherever he went he stirred things up with his groundbreaking views on Jewish studies and his own personality. Hughes describes him as “colorful, mercurial, controversial, [and] often bordering on the outrageous.” From the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Neusner moved to Dartmouth and then to Brown, where his interpersonal conflicts with administrators, faculty, and students reached a fevered pitch, thus causing him to retire early. He completed his career with appointments at the University of South Florida and Bard.

Neusner also made forays into conservative politics. It is sad that when Neusner is remembered,” says Hughes, “it is primarily because of his notoriously difficult personality, and not necessarily on account of his massively important contributions to the study of rabbinics and religion (this sounds a bit familiar to me). What we get from Hughes is a worthwhile study of Neusner’s life but little about the substance of his work.

Neusner was pivotal in transforming the study of Judaism from a subject that that had been conducted by—and of interest to—religious adherents to one which has become very successful in the secular setting of the university. Even those who disagree with Neusner’s academic approach to ancient rabbinic texts have to engage with his pioneering methods. 

Hughes shows Neusner to be much more than a scholar of rabbinics.  He is a social commentator, a post-Holocaust theologian, and was an outspoken political figure during the height of the cultural wars of the 1980s. Neusner’s life is a reflection of what happened as Jews moved to the suburbs in the late 1940s and began to imagine and plan new lives for themselves as they successfully integrated into the fabric of American society. His story is also the story of how American Jews tried to make sense of the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the subsequent creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and how they sought to define what it meant to be an American Jew.  

Unlike other great American Jewish thinkers, Neusner was born in the U.S., and his Judaism was informed by and based on an American ethos. He believed in open Judaism is open that is informed by and informs the world. This is an American Judaism, that has enabled American Jews to be fully American and fully Jewish. 

In a little over fifty years, Jacob Neusner published more than a thousand scholarly and popular books and countless essays, op-eds, and public and private letters, and was part of almost every significant American Jewish controversy since World War II. There is a sad irony here in that Jacob Neusner is one of the most influential voices in American Jewish intellectual life in the past half-century but outside of the academy, and more specifically outside the academic study of Judaism, few are actually familiar with his work. People are aware of his name but not what he did. Those who know of him know of “irascible, sometimes quite nasty, and often pugnacious personality, his famous excoriating reviews, sometimes book-length critiques, and his fallings-out with almost every institution he worked in, almost every teacher who taught him, many of his students—as well as the errors that scar his many translations and publications”. He went as far as to sue institutions he worked for and Nonetheless, Hughes shows that the importance of his contribution should not be underestimated.

Neusner had no formal Jewish education, and by the time he reached late adolescence he could not read Hebrew. He first really met Judaism with Professor Harry Wolfson during his first year as a Harvard undergraduate. Wolfson was committed to studying Judaism within the broader category of religious philosophy, an idea that Neusner adopted later.

Wolfson was an Old World Jew with a heavy Yiddish accent who really never was fully integrated into the culture at Harvard even though he was totally respected. He also felt that if one had not been reared within the walls of the Jewish study house, he could never seriously contribute to the academic study of Judaism. Wolfson, even with the acknowledgement of Neusner’s talent, discouraged him from the pursuit of an academic career in Judaism. Neusner rarely did as others told him and he felt that being raised in a house of Jewish learning

can stifle one’s ability to read and analyze in the creative ways that characterize the best scholarship. “I had the advantage of seeing everything fresh because I didn’t know anything.” In other words, freedom from tradition allowed Neusner to know it as an outsider, and then change it.

After graduating from Harvard and spending a year at Oxford, Neusner enrolled in Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At that time, he wrote, JTS would take anybody, even someone like Neusner, who was wholly unprepared for its course of study. It was there that Neusner discovered Talmud and this changed his life and the course of the study of rabbinics in America (although he was not aware of that).

In 1958 Neusner moved to Columbia University where he began his studies in religion and this marked a significant change in his outlook. It “marked the first time that I saw Judaism as not particular but exemplary, and Jews not as special but (merely) interesting.”

Aaron Hughes describes Neusner as he is and explains the ways in which he has made a significant difference to Jewish life in our time. I could continue summarizing his life but to do so would ruin a read for many who want to learn about him. Get the book, you will not be sorry.