Monthly Archives: June 2017

“Chanting the Hebrew Bible, Second, Expanded Edition: The Art of Cantillation” by Dr. Joshua R. Jacobson— An Encyclopedic Book

Jacobson, Joshua R., Dr. “Chanting the Hebrew Bible, Second, Expanded Edition: The Art of Cantillation”, Jewish Publication Society, 2017.

An Encyclopedic Book

Amos Lassen

Joshua R. Jacobson has completely revised and updated his classic text on chanting the Hebrew Bible. He gives us the history of the ancient Jewish tradition of chanting the Bible and a comprehensive explanation of cantillation with all of its rules and regional variations. Jacobson takes us step-by-step as he analyzes how chanting dramatizes and interprets the meaning of the biblical text. He also gives us complete notation for the six musical systems of cantillation, a guide to Hebrew pronunciation and helpful hints for those who teach cantillation.

I have in the past chanted Torah and have always felt that it takes a lot of time and preparation to do so mainly because I have either never heard the reasons for a line to be chanted a certain way or just have not had the time to do so. My mind has been changed by this test since the former is so well explained and makes so much sense. We gain insight not only of the text but of the skills involved in chanting.

This is a text for everyone from beginning chanters to those who are advanced and chant all the time. It is the second edition of Dr. Jacobson’s classic text and it features a week-by-week guide to Torah, haftarah and megillot readings for Shabbat and holidays. It has useful new examples and exercises; a new comprehensive general subject index; a new, easy-to-read, clear Hebrew font; and a link to a new website with audio recordings and video lessons. Through cantillation we gain interpretation and understanding .


Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton” by Randy L/ Schmidt— Dolly in Her Own Words

Schmidt, Randy L. “Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton”.\, (Musicians in Their Own Word), Chicago Review Press, 2017.

Dolly in Her Own Words

Amos Lassen

Dolly Parton’s life is a rags-to-riches story that began in the Smoky Mountains where she was very dirt poor and moves forward to her being hailed as an international music superstar. She is, without question the “Queen of Country Music” and has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and has been a part of just about every aspect of the entertainment industry: music, film, television, publishing and theater. Dolly Parton arrived in Nashville with just her guitar and a dream over fifty years ago and while we have heard her story many times, this is actually the first time we hear it in her own words.

 “Dolly on Dolly” brings together a collection of interviews from celebrated publications including “Rolling Stone”, “Cosmopolitan”, “Playboy”, and “Interview” magazines along with interviews We become very aware of her humor and her friendliness as we read about her philosophy. She is a natural storyteller but then she has had incredible stories in her life. The book contains 23 print interviews taken from source magazine & newspaper interviews, two audio interviews transcribed, one from tape and one from radio. It is easy to see why she is so loved by her fans.

The interviews come to us in chronological order, from 1967 – 2014 and interspersed throughout are quotes taken from other interviews she’s given. Each article is introduced by the author setting the time and place of the interview in context. There is very little repetition and each interview is filled with her personal revelations. Now having been on stage for almost 50 years, Dolly is still writing and performing. She knows how to navigate reporters’ questions with humor and wit and she stays in control of each interview often guiding it to where she wants it to go.


“PRONOIA”— Stranded



Amos Lassen

When a man (Stelio Savante) and a woman (Hannah Jane McMurray) are suddenly stranded in a fancy hotel because a thunderstorm does not permit makes travel, they decide to have a drink together at the hotel bar. There are no other hotel guests around. What is interesting here is that the man and woman are total strangers and each has no idea how to know what the other is thinking. Things become even more interesting when they learn via the TV in the bar of the disappearance of a high-ranking Pentagon official (Marston Allen). Just as the two strangers cannot read each other, neither can we read them and we can only wonder if the disappearance is somehow related to what is happening between them. 

“Pronoia” is obviously a mystery but as I watched, I had no idea of where it is going. Written and directed by Nick Efteriades, we find ourselves waiting out the storm in the hotel bar with the two strangers. We sense that there is seduction going on and that the TV announcement will affect their evening but everything is very mysterious. I cannot help but wonder if I am being manipulated by the director or the characters and the sense of mystery heightens on a second viewing. There is a sense of beauty here and the atmosphere created seems to determine how we understand what is going on.

I realize that I am being as mysterious as the film but please understand, I am guessing. I have been thrust into a plot I do not understand and am enjoying every moment.I do not remember ever seeing the word “pronoia” before and I assumed that since it is the title of the film, its meaning would come to light and it does in its own way. I learned that it is defined as the state of mind that is the opposite of paranoia. It refers to the idea that there is a conspiracy that is beneficial to those involved and adheres to the philosophy that the world is set up to secretly benefit people. Could that be what is going on here?

I feel the tension between the man and the woman that their alienation brings about but that tension also brings them together. The man is a total mystery and the more we see of him, the less we learn. We want him to share something about himself. The woman seems somewhat alien but beautiful and we sense her vulnerability or so we think. And then, little by little, the story takes shape. You may ask if this is satisfying? I must say that it is but you must be prepared for what you will see on the screen and in your mind’s eye. David Lynch comes to mind as does the late and great Frederico Fellini. I remember when I was a college student and Fellini’s “8 ½” was the range. The critics and moviegoers loved it but when asked what it meant, there was silence in most cases.

I have the idea that the short is to be developed into a full feature film and we get an idea of what we might expect. Let me stress that what I am writing here are my own opinions. I do not know the director nor have I seen any of his work before this. I have the impression that this short film is something of a test by which he can see if he is able to use a concept that he wants to expand later. Undoubtedly he was influenced by something he had seen or heard and it stayed in his mind as an idea to be used sometime. There is something about conspiracy or pronoia here and clues that will be dealt with in the feature film when it is made. Would I want to see it then? My answer is without question since I do not think that what I saw in the short will leave me anytime soon. I might add that repeated viewings throw light on the plot and we do reach the “aha” moment but there is still more to know.

“Gay Zoo Day: Tales of Seeking and Discovery” by Mike McClelland— Looking for More

McClelland, Mike. “Gay Zoo Day: Tales of Seeking and Discovery”, Beautiful Dreamer, 2017.

Looking for More

Amos Lassen

I did not have a lot in common with my father but I do remember when he said to me that when I reach the point that there is nothing to look for, I could close it down and stop living. I believe that everyone has something to look and strive for and that is what Michael McClelland’s collection of stores, “Gay Zoo Day” gives us. Regardless of how we seek that elusive quality, the end is meant to make each of us into a more complete person. Then there are also those who claim to looking for something but I believe that is a cover-up. We have all heard that “the grass is always greener” in someone else’s yard and we all want to have the greenest grass. How we go about this differs with each person but the goal of further enrichment is universal. Whenever I review a book of stories, I face the decision of reviewing the book as a whole or reviewing each story separately and I really have a hard time trying to answer that question. There is always the risk of writing spoilers and I thinking doing so is fair. Let me just say that there is great variety and diversity here.

It is always fun for me to read a new writer—it is like making a new friend with the difference being that it is the writing that is the way to see someone’s personality. I can tell you that I gather that author McClelland has wonderful style and quite a way with words and that he is a detailed person. He manages to relay to us details that take us into his characters and plots while using diversity to give us a fantastic read.

When I review an anthology of stories, I face the debate of whether to look at each story and write about it or to just write about the book as a whole unit. I am still debating that as I write now and only by the time that this review is finished will I know what I ultimately decided to do, if then. If there is an overriding theme here it is humanity. The settings and the characters differ but there is a sense of humanity in each of the stories. There is also a sense of urgency and intimacy in each of the stories and we as readers are pulled in immediately. I have no idea about life in Africa yet I was there as I read “Sheffield Beach” or “Mombassa Vengeance”. I know the fear that is raised by AIDS in this country but not in other places yet I felt the fear in London in “Gay Zoo Day” and what I know about space is what I learned from TV and school yet I was off with “Yev”.

I do feel that I must mention that these are stories like we read everyday but here the characters happen to be gay. The characters are all on the path to self-discovery, they want to know how they became who they are. We have had so many stories about coming-out but we are missing stories of self-realization and this collection fills that gap. As many of you know, I have been reading and reviewing our literature for years now but what you may not know is that I do this because I believe in who we are in what we have to say. There have been many short stories with gay and lesbian characters and with gay and lesbian settings. What there has not been are literary LGBT short stories but there are now with this collection. In this one book, Mike McCllelland has raised the bar. His stories have depth and subtexts and are really like reading short novels. Our characters are developed and there is a sense of satisfaction that comes with reading their stories.



We are deeply disturbed by the exclusion of A Wider Bridge Midwest Manager Laurie Grauer and her friends from the Chicago Dyke March, an annual event attended by 1,500 queer women and allies in Chicago. Laurie was proud to carry a rainbow Jewish flag in the march, as has been tradition for her and her friends for a decade.

Organizers of the march identified the flag, confronted Laurie and her friends, and informed them the flag was “triggering marchers,” and demanded they fold up the flag and promptly leave the March, as the event was an “anti-Zionist, pro-Palestine event.”

The Chicago Dyke March’s Mission statement includes the following:

“[The Dyke March] is an anti-racist, anti-violent, volunteer-led, grassroots effort with a goal to bridge together communities across race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, size, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, culture, immigrant status, spirituality, and ability.”

The Dyke March has failed to live up to their goal of “bridging together communities.” That the organizers would choose to dismiss long-time community members for choosing to express their Jewish identity or spirituality runs counter to the very values the Dyke March claims to uphold, and veers down a dangerous path toward anti-semitism.

At A Wider Bridge, we believe in the intrinsic value of being in conversation, even in cases of disagreement; of sharing, empathy, building relationships, and finding common ground. Automatically dismissing Jews and any LGBTQ person or ally who cares about Israel out of hand only builds walls between members of our diverse community.

We call on the Dyke March to issue a full public apology for dismissing LGBTQ Jews from the March, and affirm the Dyke March hold to their own values as a safe place for all LGBTQ people, including the Jewish Community.

We also invite the leadership of the Dyke March to meet with A Wider Bridge to discuss the events that took place yesterday, and to have a constructive dialogue about how anti-Semitism and calls for the disappearance of the Jewish State are creating an unsafe environment for LGBTQ Jews and allies.

Finally, we call on all of our community partners and allies in the Jewish community and the LGBTQ community who care about the advancement human rights and inclusion to join us in condemning this act of hate.

Petition to the Chicago Dyke March
Call on the Chicago Dyke March for Full Apology and Affirmation of Inclusion
We, concerned LGBTQ people and allies, Jews and non-Jews, from Chicago and across the world, call on the Chicago Dyke March Collective:

1. To issue a written formal apology to:

Laurel Grauer, Midwest Manager of A Wider Bridge, and the LGBTQ Jewish marchers who were singled out and dismissed for carrying rainbow Jewish flags.
LGBTQ Jews and allies in Chicago and across the country who feel threatened and alienated by the Chicago Dyke March collective for their actions;
And the broader LGBTQ and Jewish communities for failing to live up to our shared values of diversity, inclusivity, and freedom of expression.

2. To issue a written statement affirming the inclusion of all LGBTQ Jews, without any pledge or loyalty oath to a political agenda related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or any other issues, in future Chicago Dyke Marches.

3. To make a commitment to meet with A Wider Bridge and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to learn about the ugly manifestations of anti-Semitism against the Jewish community; historically against global Jewry, and today inside the LGBTQ community and in broader 21st Century America and Europe.

For questions and media inquiries, please email us at


“The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home” by Sadia Shepard— Ancestors and History


Shepard, Sadia. “The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home” Penguin, 2008.

Ancestors and History

Amos Lassen

I don’t know how I missed this fascinating and intimate book and I am so happy that it was recommended to me otherwise I would never have known about it. It is the story of one woman’s search for ancient family secrets that leads to an adventure. Sadia Shepard is the daughter of a white Protestant from Colorado and a Muslim from Pakistan, who was shocked to learn that her grandmother was a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community shipwrecked in Konkan, India two thousand years ago. Shepard traveled to India to put the pieces of her family’s past together and while she is on her quest for identity, she experiences religious and cultural revelations that make up her memoir.

When she was 13-year-old, Shepard asks her Muslim grandmother Rahat Siddiqi about her past and learns about her ancestors. This sets her off to eventually take three voyages of discovery in motion and these include her grandmother’s history; the story of the Bene Israel and her own self-discovery. Shepard uses her year as a Fulbright scholar to investigate her grandmother’s family tree. She learns the mysteries of Nana’s past while visiting and photographing the grand and tiny synagogues in Bombay and on the Konkan Coast.

It was Shepard’s grandmother’s dying wish that she learn about her heritage. Her grandmother, she learned, grew up among the Bene Israel, a small Jewish community in India; when she married a Muslim, left Judaism and, later, India, and adopted the name Rahat Siddiqi.

I have loved reading about the Jewish community in India ever since I first learned of its existence when I was a kid. Shepard gives us wonderful descriptions and shows us what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. We ache for the mistakes Shepard makes as an American abroad. We also learn of her inner journey in which she questions her identity and her place in the world. She had always considered herself as half-half but she learns of other parts within her as well.

Using a gentle voice of reason, Shepard writes of the need for contemplation of such issues and that there is a need for cross-cultural understanding and acceptance of those who are different. We get a unique perspective from a Boston-born child of a Protestant American father and a Muslim mother from Pakistan. Shepard shares the fears and uncertainties she felt as she traveled to India and Pakistan and ultimately, her story brings together many strands: not only the historical and cultural details, but also her deep feelings for her grandmother, her sense of wonder as she travels in India and Pakistan, her feelings for a man who befriends her, and her search to understand the meaning of home”.


“Meg and Linus” by Hanna Nowinski— Best Friends

Nowinski, Hanna. “Meg & Linus”, Swoon Reads, 2017.

Best Friends

Amos Lassen

Meg and Linus are best friends who share a love of school, coffee and being queer. It’s hard to be the nerdy lesbian or gay kid in a suburban town but they have each other and are happy.

However, things start to change when Sophia, Meg’s longtime girlfriend, breaks up with Meg. At the same time, Linus starts tutoring the new kid, Danny and Meg thinks setting them up is a great chance to get her mind off of her own heartbreak. But, Linus isn’t so sure Danny even likes guys, and maybe Sophia isn’t quite as out of the picture as Meg thought she was. This is a story about two teens who must learn to get out of their comfort zones and take risks.

The story is told in alternating points of view and it is sweetly romantic. Meg and Linus have to deal with pain and uncertainties as the story goes forward.

We do not get many stories of a lesbian and a gay guy being best friends and that makes this a unique story. It is also a story of a very strong friendship of two people who are not romantically interested in each other but really care. Even with the pressures from others to conform, the two remain true to themselves throughout.

Meg and Sophia have been together since Meg was fifteen years old and Meg already dreams about getting married after college. Therefore she is shocked when Sophia breaks up with her at the end of the summer. Sophia is a year ahead of her and already in college and doesn’t want a long distance relationship. This devastates Meg is devastated but is determined to try new things. So she and Linus join the drama club. However, she has a motive and wants Linus to find a boyfriend so she is going to help him to get together with Danny but she isn’t even sure that Danny is gay.

When Linus begins hanging out with Danny,

their friendship starts to change. Linus does not know how to help Meg with her broken heart.

This is both a love story and a story about friendship as well as insecurities, happiness and change.

I love the ethnic diversity here— Danny is Indian and Sophia is African American.

Meg and Linus take risks and try new things as we watch them grow over the course of the book.

The characters are well drawn and give a feeling of validation for others who identify as geeky and queer. Meg and Linus are both comfortable with their sexuality and I found the focus on love to be well done and fun to read.

“Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years” by David Litt— A Different Kind of Memoir

Litt, David. “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years”, Ecco, 2017.

A Different Kind of Memoir

Amos Lassen

David Litt was a speechwriter for President Barack Obama and shares his experiences during that time. He was one of the youngest White House speechwriters in history. Along with remarks on issues like climate change and criminal justice reform and was responsible for some of President Obama’s most memorable moments. He takes us back to the eight years he spent working for the President in this political coming-of-age story.

Did you ever wonder about the bathrooms of the White House or what kind of social scene exists on Air Force One? You probably didn’t but now you will know anyway. Litt also looks at Obama’s legacy and future. It certainly seemed to be a saner time back then and we respected the office of the President unlike today when we have a President who probably does not even know the definition of the word.

Litt’s wit is razor sharp but never mean. It fact it is filled with wisdom, love and respect. In his writing we see that the fruit of Obama’s harvest is in the way he galvanized both his staff and his country. Obama was a president who really cared about others. Litt came into the White House in 2011 and for five years he was a special assistant to the president and senior presidential speechwriter. He was the lead writer on four White House Correspondents’ Dinner presentations and has contributed jokes to President Obama’s speeches since 2009. At age twenty-four, he became one of the youngest speechwriters in White House history, rising to President Obama’s senior staff by 2016. Not only did he write remarks on issues from immigration to criminal justice reform, Litt was the president’s special comedy writer and is responsible for some of President Obama’s most memorable comedic moments.

We read of the wonderful highs of the administration as well as of the demoralizing lows. Litt gives us some new information on some of Obama’s most historic events such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the Charleston shooting, and more. He helps us understand our broken politics with insight. He has seen some ludicrous moments and he has faced frustrations that he shares with us proving that the greatest calling is public service. As difficult it is to see, especially now, government can do some good for its constituents.

“SHAG”— A Summer Party


A Summer  Party

Amos Lassen

During the summer of 1963, Carson (Phoebe Cates) is getting married to her boyfriend so her friends Melaina (Bridget Fonda), Pudge (Annabeth Gish) and Luanne (Page Hannah) take her to Myrtle Beach for one last irresponsible weekend in Zelda Barron’s “Shag”.


Set in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we follow the adventures of four young women from Spartanburg who have been close friends through high school but who will be separated come fall by their different plans. Having told their parents they are on a tour of Confederate monuments, they secretly light out for the seaside resort of Myrtle Beach, where Luanne’s family has a summerhouse. By the end of their fling, half of Myrtle Beach has drunkenly trooped through the place, and almost everyone has been promisingly paired off.

The four teen-ager girls whose longing for adventure momentarily overcomes the caution instilled by sheltered upbringings. Luanne is a young woman who very reluctantly drops her defenses against the advances of Buzz (Robert Rusler), a charming lover boy. Melaina is intent on becoming a film star schemes to meet Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher), a dumb teen-age singing idol who just happens to be one of the Sun Queen contest in which she delivers a speech from ”Gone With the Wind.” Pudge is shy and is with an equally shy future naval cadet named Chip (Scott Coffey), enters a dance contest. “Shag” is a nostalgic comedy of manners that makes fun of its teen-age innocent characters who are yearning for sophistication. Trouble starts at a party and continues through the rest of the film.

It is not surprising that over the weekend, one of the girls will fall in love, one will decide to go for her dream, one will decide not to marry the loser and the other finds out that she isn’t plain after all.

The actors in “Shag” are some of the best of the younger generation in Hollywood when the movie was made, and they treat their material with the humor and delicacy it deserves. Because we know what is going to happen in the time that the movie takes place is what I think makes it such an endearing film. In 1963, our president was assassinated, there was a war in Vietnam and the 60s were a time when we lost our innocence. Even so, life seemed very innocent back then. At one part in the girls innocently talk about erections and it comes across sweet. The characters aren’t deep here and those of us who lived through the 60s knew girls like those in the movies.

“Angels In America”—Another Look Almost 25 Years Later

“Angels In America”

Another Look Almost 25 Years Later

Amos Lassen

“Angels in America” is almost 25 years old now and I thought it would be interesting to take another look at it to see how it fits into today’s world. It has just been revived al at London’s National Theater, and is due in American movie theaters this July. Undoubtedly, everyone notices the play’s apocalyptic aspects and how it lets us know that , catastrophe is on its way. The title of the first part of the two part “gay fantasia on national themes” is appropriately “Millennium Approaches.” The angel comes forth near the end of part one and tells us that in the 20th century the world has become very old.

Playwright Tony Kushner set his drama in the 1980s and sees the period from a few years later. America is dealing with the AIDS epidemic and the disease had the ability and the power to bring death to young people at the prime of their lives and to destroy what were once stable relationships. While we see the destruction of love, we also see so much more. We face anger as if we had never done so before and for the seven-and-a-half hour duration of the drama, we become very angry ourselves.


AIDS is just the beginning of disasters to come— the environment is being destroyed, the American people are moving to the right, racial politics reemerge, there is a split within the gay community both gender-wise and regarding race and nationality and we see the beginning of a revolution that is moving ahead very quickly. It is as if the sense of freedom that this country was built upon is lost.

Roy Cohen is the true embodiment of all that is evil and he stands at the center of American life as a symbol of the marginalization and demonization of gay men by the right and by himself, a totally conflicted gay male who was ashamed of who he was. He feels that labels have destroyed the individual since they tell us who a person is thought to be and not who he is. The labels determine where a person fits in the larger scheme. One is not identified by ideology or by sexual orientation but by clout, by the power he has to be where he is. Cohn goes on to say that gay men and not men who have sex with other men rather they are men who do not know anyone and whom no one knows. They have no clout and since he himself has clout he cannot fit into such a definition. I have thought about this for hours on end and remember that yet it was that way just twenty-five years ago but it changed when we stood up and were counted. Today, looking at America in the time of Trump, we have lost the ability to be counted and have reverted back to where we were when America was just finding her angels.

In trying to understand the plot of “Angels in America” we become as lost as those angels did in the early 90s. It is impossible to summarize the play because, in effect, there is no real plot. We have a little bit of everything as Christopher Hitchens wrote when the play opened on Broadway in 1993— “Mormon pioneers, Bolsheviks, Reagan-era mendacities and heavenly intercessions” and there are only in the first half of it.

Kushner examines human relationships when we see Louis dying from AIDS and his partner, Prior, walks out on him, we see the tension between Prior and his ex-lover Belize, we watch the marriage of Harper and Joe fall apart, we see Joe’s sexual adventures with Louis and we witness the father-son relationship between Joe, as a legal clerk, and Cohn, his mentor. It is these relationships that are the foundations and life of “Angels in America”. They all come to a climax at the end of Act 2 of “Millennium Approaches,” when Harper leaves Joe, and Louis abandons Prior to die in a hospital bed.

“Millennium Approaches” is about politics, faith and ideas and it is focused and human. In When the angels arrive in the second part, “Perestroika”, the human element becomes temporarily lost as if to abandon reality. As acclaimed as it is, there are problems in the play. In the characters of Harper and Prior we get the feeling that because they are sick, they are more lucid than the characters who are healthy. They seem to be closer to the truth. The ending almost seemed forced to me— the remaining characters address the audience.

.After sitting through two plays, six acts, and seven hours and 40 minutes of theater, which I didon one day when I saw the play on Broadway years ago, we wonder what are we left with? In Perestroika’s opening monologue, we are asked if we are doomed; even as things fall apart, all hope is not lost. “The world only spins forward,” Prior, living with AIDS for five years by the play’s end, tells us this directly, while Harper, on her night flight to San Francisco on a quest for a fresh beginning, tells us that “Nothing’s lost forever. We often longing for what we’ve left behind as we dream ahead.