Monthly Archives: November 2016

“My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew” by Abigail Pogrebin— A Spiritual Journey into Judaism

my-jewish-year

Pogrebin, Abigail. “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew”, Fig Tree Books, 2016.

A Spiritual Journey into Judaism

Amos Lassen

Like many others, I was born and raised Jewish but I rarely questioned certain aspects about the religion. I followed what was expected of us an Orthodox Jews but then I went to live in Israel and found a different kind of Judaism that seemed to be based more on not doing what Judaism expected of us simply because the religion encompassed every activity of every day and we did not have to seek it out. I realized that the need of a Jewish community that was so strong here in American was non-existent in Israel because everyone was part of that Jewish community there. Coming back to the states meant finding a community where I could be comfortable and I find that comfort today in observing as much as I can.

Abigail Pogrebin has had a similar journey and she shares it with us. She grew up following some holiday rituals but she realized how little she knew about their foundational purpose and relevance in today’s world. She felt that she needed to understand why holidays which were obviously important to our ancestors are still being observed today and have been so for thousands of years. We no longer harvest our own crops so we do not need harvest holidays and we stopped living in huts and eating manna centuries ago. Why is it important to not only remember these days but also reenact them? Pogrebin took a year off to do intensive research and to write about the holidays and festivals that make up our Jewish calendar. I love this book because Abigail Pogrebin asks the questions that so many have and do not dare to ask. In my home we were told to not ask and just do what our rabbis, teachers and parents tells us to do and I still do not have a concrete answer as to why a minyan must be made up of ten men.

With the publication of the Pew Research study in 2013, it was found that most American Jews find their “Jewishness” in tradition, ancestry and culture. Religion seems to be somewhat coincidental. I, like Pogrebin, think that the reason for this is because few of us examine Judaism to see what it is all about.

As A. J. Jacobs tells us in the introduction, there is information from 51 rabbis (who actually knows 51 rabbis aside from other rabbis? Most of us tend to believe what our rabbi says and we do not need a second opinion). In her search for a way to look at Jewish life, Pogrebin uses humor as she investigates the holidays of the Jewish year and she shares the prayers and the fasts of her journey. She does the hard work for us and we reap the benefits that she provides in a very entertaining manner. She provides a great deal of information as she looks at the “wandering―and wondering―Jew”. For those who think they have all they need to know about Judaism, there are several surprises. She has the ability to make many of the holidays relevant for today by adding information about contemporary society and how it fits into the celebration of holidays that we have observed for thousands of years. For example, in looking at Purim, she reminds us that we are told to drink to excess and she sees that drinking Scotch is an innovative and novel way to end the Fast of Esther and she sees Sukkot not so much as Harvest holiday but a way to enjoy life in the open air.

There is just so much to enjoy in this book and I have now added it to the books that sit on my desk (next to the Oxford English Dictionary [abridged] my Hebrew/English dictionary) and just a few fingers away from consultation. There is a wonderful glossary, a well useful bibliography, a separate appendix on interviews and weblinks. She, unlike Hillel, cannot answer everything standing on one foot but manages to do so (almost— no one can do it all) in one book.

“Questioning Return” by Beth Kissileff— The Return to Israel and Observance

questioning-return

Kissileff, Beth. “Questioning Return”, Mandel Vilar, 2016.

The Return to Israel and to Observance

Amos Lassen

Almost 700,000 Americans visit Israel every year. Of those numbers there are those that return to the land and those that return to traditional Judaism. Beth Kissileff’s novel “Questioning Return” is the story of graduate student Wendy Goldberg who spends a year in Jerusalem and questions the lives of American Jews who “return” both to the land of Israel and to traditional religious practices. She explores the questions of whether they have changed themselves at all and if they are sincere and happy with their choice. Wendy’s own experiences that year included a bus bombing, a funeral, an unexpected suicide, a love affair, and a law suit and these lead her to reconsider her own Jewish identity and values. In the return to Israel and Judaism, Wendy also has questions and they are about her identity and her faith. So much of what I read here reflects my own life and personal experiences. Most of us who go on aliyah to Israel are unaware of many aspects on the country and of Judaism, the religion and as we discover these, our lives change.

As Wendy becomes part of Israeli life, her sense of distance lessens and her ability to be an observer ends. Israel does that—the country pulls people into the daily life (which is quite different from American daily life). With Wendy, the catalyst for that was when a student committed a horrible act immediately after his interview with her. Wendy questions if she is implicated in his action and she soon finds that she is on a journey. She needs to find answers as to who she is and how she feels about Israel and herself.

The people that Wendy interviews are those Americans who are known as “baalei teshuvah”, Jews who have come home to a tradition that has been lost to them. During the interviews, Wendy finds herself on an intellectual, spiritual, and romantic question challenges not only her but also the readers of the book as to what “belonging” really means. The novel not only looks at the changes made but how and why these changes come about. Writer Kissileff explores the “possibilities of transformative faith, and the mysterious nature of holiness in a place that itself seems a living thing to those who have eyes for it.” The characters are richly drawn and we often see ourselves in them. We are made aware of the tension between academic study and traditional Jewish learning.

Wendy questions her motives and sincerity of her work as she talks to those who take religious life and Torah seriously. In fact. We can see that the Torah, itself, emerges as a character in the novel. Be prepared to face some very serious questions.

“Going Sane in San Francisco” by Roger Silver— Based on a True Story?

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Silver, Roger. “Going Sane in San Francisco”, CreateSpace , 2015.

Based on a True Story?

Amos Lassen

“Going Sane in San Francisco is based on a true story about two brothers from a San Francisco entertainment family”. Steve Silver, a gay man married a woman months before dying of AIDS to bury the truth about his sexuality. He had become very, very wealthy by creating “Beach Blanket Babylon” which, at that time, was the longest running stage show in America. Roger, Steve’s brother, grew up being hated by the his and Steve’s social-climbing mother and Steve ceased to recognize him as a brother. The book looks at “greed, manipulation, deceit, control, the music and theater businesses, drugs and drug smuggling, the Grand Jury, family betrayal, San Francisco society, the city of San Francisco, the blackest of black widows, fame, death, a murder in Mexico, love, sex, emotional survival, and redemption”. You might think that is a tremendous amount to read but it all moves quickly.

Roger Silver is obviously the bitter bad boy of the Silver family and since he wrote the book, he relies on the sympathy of the reader but instead you find a brother bitter over the success of his brother. He gives no insight into the development, creative process of “Beach Blanket Babylon” which became a San Francisco Institution. There should be good story in there somewhere but it is not in this book. In fact, Steve Silver is merely a vague character here.

Names and named and we are to believe that truths told. The family was composed of the two sons and Louie, the loving and hard-working father and Claire the mother who denied loving her son Roger. “Beach Blanket Babylon” was a family business torn away from them by the self indulgent ego of Steve and others that he allowed to rob the family of it.

Throughout the story Roger listens to his father and takes his advice who felt “family always comes first” and he forgives those complicit in this tangled true tale of San Francisco society, show business and the struggles of Roger Silver to cope with it.

There are many plots occurring simultaneously and a fascinating read even though its truth is questionable. This is also a heartbreaking family drama along with a look at the rich and famous.

Roger Silver brings together an autobiographical account, that is funny and dark. The book is anexpose on the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s— a look into the free days of sex, drugs and rock and roll. This is thestory of family dysfunction at it’s highest level. Roger shares his family life, his personal life, his adventures and his grief. (However, all we get is Roger’s perspective).

His resentment towards his mother, wife and sister-in-tales up a lot of the book and often becomes boring. Even today, he sees himself as a victim without ever acknowledging that his own behavior and drug use played a part in the family problems. I personally found it impossible to commiserate with him since he never sees himself as part of the problem.

“The Next One Will Kill You: An Angus Green Novel” by Neil S. Plakcy— The Beginning of a New Series

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Plakcy, Neil S. “The Next One Will Kill You: An Angus Green Novel”, (Angus Green Series), Diversion Publishing, 2016.

The Beginning of a New Series

Amos Lassen

Angus Green has a graduate degree in accounting but decides that he wants a more exciting life than dealing with numbers and he joins the FBI. He is assigned to the Miami office with a caseload involving drugs and drug runners, smugglers and gangs but at first he does little more than sit at a desk wearing a badge and armed.

Angus has a little brother getting ready to go to college and he helps raise money for the tuition by entering a strip trivia contest at a local gay bar where he is caught, barely dressed, by fellow agents causing him to wonder if his sexuality and gay activities might end his career with the FBI. Therefore he was very surprised to be added to an anti-terrorism task force and directed to find a missing informant. This was Angus’ first case and he is anxious to catch the criminals who seemed to be involved in every kind of crime from fraud to theft.

Angus is Neil Plakcy’s newest character and we get to see him mature in this first book of a new series. I can tell you that Angus Green is a keeper and I have a strong feeling he will be joining the ranks of Plakcy’s notable characters like Kimo Kanapa’aka.

Early on, Angus discovers Paco has missed work and no one has seen him over the last few days and so he tries to find him. He is also to make sure that the security at upcoming jewelry show will be strong enough to deal with an attack of any kind. At just the same time, Angus comes upon information about a suspected pill mill operation and begins to see if there is a common link between the two activities. . As he interviews Paco’s friends and co-workers and he follows every lead and we see that he is indeed dedicated to his job. However, the hunt for Paco becomes dark making Angus want to quickly find out what is going on. Suddenly he comes upon another ongoing FBI investigation into a drug ring and wants to see if the two cases have anything in common.

We meet Tom who is in his sixties and a retired corporate executive and who has a significant role in Angus’s case. The interaction between Angus and Tom is lovely and it seems that he will be around in subsequent Angus Green sequels (or so I can hope). We also meet the Levy brothers, three Orthodox Jewish Mexican jewelry dealers and this is one of the fascinating subplots here.

Angus is determined to be the best FBI Agent that he can be and we soon realize that he has wonderful skills of investigation. He is young—26—and green but eager. I am looking forward to reading more books with him as the main character.

 

“Bread, Salt and Wine” by Dev Bentham— Love and Healing

bread-salt-and-wine

Bentham, Dev. “Bread, Salt and Wine” (Tarnished Souls) (Volume 4), Love is a Light Press, 2013.

Love and Healing

Amos Lassen

George Zajac was raised in a religious family and at age thirty-eight, we see that he’s a troubled man. He had been a banker in New York and in order to escape that boring and miserable life, he moves across the country to start over again in Los Angeles as the catering chef for a prestigious French Restaurant. It is there that ne meets Kenny Marks, a writer working as a waiter. Kenny is everything has never been. He is flamboyant, proud and confident in his sexuality. Against his better judgment, George agrees to a date with Kenny and the attraction between the two men is electric. However, after the two become close, George is troubled by his sexual hang-ups and still haunted by his childhood. He stays deep in the closet and cannot commit to Kenny. George decides that all he really needs is someone with whom to have sex and George suggests that he be that person and Kenny agrees but then accuses George of being sick and needing to see a therapist. It actually takes some eight years before George can deal with a true love relationship with Kenny. He knew what he wanted but had no idea how to deal with it. While this is a short novel (coming in at less than 200 pages), it has a lot to say and does so in fine prose and character development.

“Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain, and Post-Humanist” by Robert Reid-Pharr— Black and Anti-Fascist Intellectual Life

archives-of-flesh

Reid-Pharr, Robert F. “Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain, and Post-Humanist”, NYU Press, 2016.

Black and Anti-Fascist  Intellectual Life

Amos Lassen

Robert Reid-Pharr in “Archives of Flesh” looks at the history of intellectual engagement between African America and Spain.  We get a look at black and anti-Fascist intellectual life from 1898 through the mid-1950s and Reid-Pharr shows that key institutions of Western Humanism, including American colleges and universities, developed a close relationship with slavery, colonization, and white supremacy.  This was composed of “rigidly established philosophical and critical traditions” and brought about “the deep-seated hostility to black subjectivity underlying the humanist ideal of a transcendent manhood”.               

Reid-Pharr uses the principles of post-humanist critique to further investigate decades of intimate dialogues between African American and Spanish intellectuals (including Salaria Kea, Federico Garcia Lorca, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Lynn Nottage, and Pablo Picasso). He uses the “African American Spanish Archive” in order to avoid the anti-corporeal, anti-black, anti-human biases that stand at the heart of Western Humanism”. The work reflects today’s Black studies as well as the sociopolitical and geographical locations of Blackness that have been used in dominant discourses. By examining the “sacred cows” and rigid mythologies, we are taken into analytical practices. The book is “a bold indictment of the intellectual inflexibility that informs mainstream discourses on Blackness and the politics of difference” as it re-examines “the archives of black subjectivity and resistance.”

 

“Are Racists Crazy?: How Prejudice, Racism, and Anti-Semitism Became Markers of Insanity” by Sander L. Gilman and James M. Thomas— A Mental Illness?

are-racists-crazy

Gilman, Sander L. and James M. Thomas. “Are Racists Crazy?: How Prejudice, Racism, and Anti-Semitism Became Markers of Insanity”, NYU Press, 2016.

A Mental Illness?

Amos Lassen

Based on clinical experiments, a interdisciplinary team of doctors at the University of Oxford in 2012 announced that with the beta-blocker drug, Propranolol, they could reduce implicit racial bias. Time Magazine, shortly after this announcement asked the if racism was becoming a mental illness in an article about the study. Sander Gilman and James Thomas in “Art Racists Crazy?” chronicle the idea of race and racism as psychopathological categories (from mid-19th century Europe, to contemporary America, up to the clinical experiment at Oxford). They question that racism has become a mental illness and use historical, archival, and content analysis to attempt to find an answer. They show how the 19th century ‘Sciences of Man’ (anthropology, medicine, and biology) used race as a means of defining psychopathology and explain how assertions about race and madness have become part of the disciplines that deal with mental health and illness. The study connects past and present claims about race and racism, showing the dangerous implications of this specious line of thought for today and is a study of the history of the studies of racism, anti-Semitism, and psychopathology.

Gilman and Thomas give us a framework that helps us understand the science behind race and racism with evidence and persuasive arguments for why a it is not enough to treat racism and hate medically but we must understand how it is constructed in order to end it. There are no easy answers but there is a lot to think about here. We see how anti-Semitism played such “a powerful, even dominant role in the way scholars and researchers have approached the subject matter, whether in Europe, the United States, or South Africa”. 

This is a study of the deep structures of racism that provides us with the scientific frameworks that try to explain ‘otherness’ by “sometimes affirming it and sometimes denying it”. We also become very aware of the political connections between race and science.

“50 YEARS WITH PETER, PAUL AND MARY”— A Celebration

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“50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary”

A Celebration

Amos Lassen

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I am a tremendous Peter, Paul and Mary fan and when I heard that this DVD was coming out in early December, I immediately pre-ordered it. I guess I have already watched it ten times at least. The film is a celebration of the trio whose songs became part of America’s soundtrack for generations and in fact are still sung today.

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“50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary”  is a new documentary by four-time Emmy Award-winning producer/ director Jim Brown that focuses on portions of the trio’s career not included in previously aired PBS specials. There is rare and previously unseen television footage including a BBC program from the early 1960s that embodies many of the trio’s best performances and most popular songs. This is Peter Paul and Mary at the peak of their artistry, a time when this popular and influential trio dominated the Billboard music charts. 

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We see the trio from the time it began in Greenwich Village through the Civil Rights and Anti-War era of the 1960s and the decades of their later advocacy and music. We see part of Mary Travers’ moving memorial and come up to the present where the trio’s legacy continues to inform and inspire successive generations. This film is a deep and intimate exploration of the three artists and we see and feel the impact of their work and activism on their generation and the world. The footage from Mary Traver’s  memorial,  at Riverside Church in New York in September 2009 and attended by former Sen. George S. McGovern, singers Pete Seeger and Judy Collins, and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, among others; and addressed by then Sen. John Kerry is on a DVD for the first time.

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Peter Yarrow has said that the documentary is unlike other television programs the trio had done, since it is not a concert, though “there’s a lot of music in it.”. He adds that the   public “had never seen people talk about us, our children talk about us.”

The songs included are:

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

Five Hundred Miles

If I Had My Way

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

Early Mornin’ Rain

Puff, the Magic Dragon

If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song)

Blowin’ In The Wind

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Cruel War

If You Love Your Country

The Great Mandala

I Dig Rock and Roll Music

Hymn

There But For Fortune

Day Is Done

Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)

Stewball

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Sweet Survivor

Leaving On A Jet Plane

Don’t Laugh at Me

We Shall Not Be Moved

One Light Many Candles (One & Many – Reprise)

Tell It On The Mountain

“THE TROUBLE WITH UNCLE MAX”— Family Problems

the-trouble-with-uncle-max

“The Trouble with Uncle Max”

Family Problems

Amos Lassen

Rufus Chaffee’s “The Trouble with Uncle Max” is a very black comedy. It looks at family problems, greed and unreal expectations in just twenty minutes. Sonya (Arianna Danae) is Sonya, niece to Uncle Max (Bill Taylor) and lover of Joe (Nathaniel Sylva)  Sonya finds no joy in taking care of her uncle. Max is an unpleasant person who is too loud and demands too much. He has addictions to (of all things) screwdrivers, cheese curls and  television. We see that Sonya has had as much as she can take He is also unpleasant, loud and demanding. Sonya has clearly had enough and while she tries to forge Max’s signature on a blank check, Joe arrives. We immediately sense that these three characters dance to the music of a different drummer. Joe brings with him poison that is said to be unable to trace once in the body and he also seems to know what he is talking about.

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Sonya really need to get away from Max even though personality wise they are very much alike. Like Max, Sonya is contrary and seems to be an expert at manipulation. She is an open and active passively aggressive person but Sonya is also filled with contradictions. She sees Joe (and later Phil [Logan Lopez]) as ends to her means. Sonya as unpleasant as her uncle.

The film rests on the strong performance by Arianna Danae as Sonya. She convinces her boyfriend Joe to kill her abusive Uncle so they can disappear with his money and they think that they can actually commit the perfect crime but they learn quickly that nothing ever goes as planned. Max is disgustingly profane and lecherous and he drives Sonya into the wall. After the attempt at murdering Max (the first time), Joe and Sonya celebrate as they plotting to abscond with Max’s money. However, Max has the ability to avoid death regardless of the ways that Sonya and Joe try to bring it to him. Eventually Joe becomes bored with the entire mess and Sonya begins to notice her love-struck neighbor, Phil. Joe becomes so angry with Max not willing to die and Sonya’s lack of affection that there is a change in the course of activity.

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The short film is a wonderful illustration of what can happen when there is clear visual style, fine acting, and a well-thought out plot that is written to entertain. We have all had to deal with individuals who seem to do nothing in life but bother us and here is one solution of what to do (although it is surely not recommended). Because we are on familiar ground, we cannot help but laugh at what we see.

Danae as Sonya gives a wonderful performance of a woman on the edge of sanity. Her calculated maneuvering and manipulative use of Joe not only show us that things are not as they seem but also provide humor. It is both funny and sad to see how she manipulates Joe. As Uncle Max, an elderly disgruntled, bitter old man, Taylor turns in an excellent performance.

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As we near the end, we find Joe in a situation he didn’t want to be in and you must pay careful attention to the end of the film.

“Beijing Comrades” by Bei Tong— Gay Chinese Sexuality

beijing-comrades

Tong, Bei. “Beijing Comrades”, translated by Scott E. Myers, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016.

Gay Chinese Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Handong, a ruthless and wealthy Chinese businessman, is introduced to Lan Yu, a naïve, and working-class architectural student, there is an all consuming attraction. This is unsettling for Handong even though Lan Yu quietly submits. Here are two men with divergent lives who spend their nights together, and form a deep connection. However, when loyalties are tested, Handong questions his secrets, his choices, and his identity.

“Beijing Comrades” is the powerful story of a powerful and tumultuous love affair set against the sociopolitical unrest of late-eighties China. Because of its depiction of gay sexuality and its critique of the totalitarian government, it was originally published anonymously on an underground gay website within Mainland China. The novel circulated throughout China in 1998 and soon a cult following. Still today, it keeps its place as a central work of queer literature from the People’s Republic of China. This is its first English-language translation.

We are taken on a journey of emotions that looks at the important issues of love and happiness set against an important time in Chinese history. “Beijing Comrades” was banned in Mainland China for some years. It is both a gay love story and a political commentary. At the start, Handong is a businessman in his mid-twenties and a millionaire mostly because of his parents’ Communist connections. He is typical, selfish elitist who has night stands with both men and woman and is disgustingly misogynistic, nihilistic, cynical, and cold. He is incapable of a human relationship because he is unable to extricate his personal life from money. Handong makes promises to himself but these promises are forgotten with the changes in his life. Yan Lu and Handong break up and get back together again, over and over, and each time complicated layers are built upon one another as their intimate history becomes more tangled.

Handong might be gay or might be bi. But more than anything, he wants desperately what everyone wants: to be able to openly talk about his love for another person to the world and to his friends and family. The novel sets down some of the standard themes of gay life in China that continue to this day (the importance of class relations and the homophobia of family members). Aside from descriptions of gay life, the novel also captures the feeling of Beijing in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the economy started to take off.

One of the problems I found with the novel, however, are the repetitious descriptions of gay sex. The main theme of this story is the tortured relationship between the two protagonists, which is on again/off again. The issues that the lovers face are germane to all so in that aspect there is not a great deal new.

Scott Myers’s translation is very accessible and easy to read. It is basically a traditional story of forbidden in which we come to know the characters but we do not want to be them. The themes are universal and the plot moves easily from humor to passion and to sorrow just as life does.