Monthly Archives: November 2017

“Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities” by Mira Beth Wasserman— Operating Within the Larger Community

Wasserman, Mira Beth. “Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities”, University of Pennsylvania Press  2017.

 Operating  Within the Larger Community

Amos Lassen

Mira Beth Wasserman in “Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals” gives a close, contemporary reading of “Avoda Zara”, the Talmud’s tractate that explores how the Jewish community should operate within the larger, non-Jewish community. This tractate has brought intense controversy with the Christian Church because of its negative representation of non-Jews and this has often served as a basis for the Church’s censorship and persecution of Jewish communities during pre-modern times. Wasserman explores how the tractate might be best understood as part of a broader Jewish concern with how all humanity is interconnected.

Like the ancient text, Wasserman has divided her book into five chapters. Wasserman presents a rabbinic consideration of the differences between Jews and non-Jews, shared through a clarification of the laws that regulate financial exchanges between these communities. She goes on to suggest that the narrative portions of this chapter actually deal with sex, death, ritual, and aspirations for life beyond the grave as parts shared by all people. In this way, she undermines the prohibitions that are given as prohibitions against these interreligious business transactions.

Wasserman looks at the issue of libation wine. Here the Talmud is about how to deal with wine that has been owned or handled by non-Jews, and is thus unfit for Jewish use. She identifies a rabbinic unease with justifying a clear-cut division between these communities, as the editors of the Talmud “identify the laws governing the use of Gentile wine as a rabbinic innovation, instituted for the sake of imposing difference when none would otherwise exist.”

The tractate then moves from constructing boundaries between Jews and non-Jews to delineations between rabbis and other Jews. Wasserman deconstructs the Talmud’s values hierarchy and puts Torah scholarship at the height of rabbinic importance, over the distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This is not a book for everyone as it requires an understanding of rabbinic literature and an awareness of the language of the Talmud and literary theory as well as the ability.

“Avoda Zara” is one of the Talmud’s most difficult tractates because of its topic and Wasserman does an excellent job of uncovering what is there as well as presenting a new way of reading the Talmud that brings it into the humanities, including animal studies, materialism and critical theory. We see “Avoda Zara” as an attempt to reflect on what all people share in common, and how humans fit into a larger universe of animals and things. In the past, it has been seen as a guide to Jewish-Christian relations and because of this Christian authorities often censored it. Wasserman has developed a twenty-first-century reading of it that sees it as part of a broader quest to understand what connects human beings to each other and to the world.

Although the words “avodah zara” mean “strange worship”, the tractate hardly deals with idolatry. We get a redefinition of the word “goy” which once meant nations. Under the new definition, the ancient rabbis divided the world into Jews and gentiles and each law presented is based on “a binary opposition between Jews and all other people.” The tractate shows the differences between different categories of gentiles.

“ARCHITECTS OF DENIAL”— Listening to Silence


Listening to Silence

Amos Lassen

History is filled with brutal purges along ethnic, racial and religious lines (the Nazi “Final Solution” and latter-day genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, Cambodia and Guatemala). The least well known is the persecution and genocide of millions of Armenians since the early 1900s.  This documentary explores how the silence surrounding such tragedies and a lack of accountability could set the stage for more worldwide massacres in the future. We see a first person account of genocide through the eyes of survivors, and by way of interviews with Julian Assange, Sibel Edmonds (founder of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition), Genocide Watch founder Dr. Gregory Stanton, and Oscar-winning actor/director George Clooney, as well as experts who graphically illustrate the real connection between historical ‘denial’ with present day mass exterminations.  There are politicians who refuse, even today, to acknowledge the enormity of these mass crimes. The documentary provides the powerful and chilling message that genocide denied is genocide continued. If you don’t know about Armenian Genocide, this is a quick way to learn about it. If you know about it, and you know it happened, then this will just bring up some memories and if you know about it, but you think it had never happened, then you must watch this.

We are given here a collection of facts expressed by famous as well as ordinary people who witnessed or who heard the stories from witnesses. One cannot remain indifferent while watching this film and imagining what really happened, what can still happen.

Indeed there was an Armenian Genocide and it laid the groundwork for the Nazi holocaust, and now US politicians to cover it up and ignore it. Most of us have no idea about the extent of persistent hatred and persecution that Armenians had to deal with for the past 100 years. We see the despair on one side and anger on the other side as we share the grief of the unfortunate.

David Lee George’s documentary addresses the denial of Armenian Genocide through riveting narration, intense imagery, stories of survivors, and commentary from experts on the matter. It takes a long look at past aggressions and also discusses recent acts of genocide perpetrated against Armenians. After giving us the history of the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to the present as Armenians conflicts with Azerbaijan, the film ends with footage of US Senators refusing to comment on the Armenian genocide, fully illustrating the reach of genocide denial. The film brings together a diverse group of individuals to speak on the issue of genocide. Through multiple accounts of survival and struggle made by Armenian Genocide survivors, we become really aware of the emotional toll that this genocide has caused. There are interviews with a 108-year-old Armenian woman, a proud Armenian American, a prominent Armenian musician, and many more and they all share heartbreaking stories on family history and survival. Included with these personal accounts are commentary and insight from political officials. Another perspective on the controversy in the documentary is that of the academic community. Notable genocide scholars are interviewed and both emotional and logical perspectives of the documentary are easy to follow and allow for both members and nonmembers of the Armenian community to understand and connect to the subject matter. The film presents a refutation of claims made against the Armenian Genocide by commenting on statements made by the few scholars who deny the Armenian Genocide. These opposing viewpoints illustrate the diverse and wholesome representation of Armenian history portrayed in the documentary. In addition to honoring genocide history, the documentary shows the ease at which a genocide is denied and therefore continued. It was shocking to see how often genocide is denied by its perpetrators and disturbing to see the United States act as an unmoved bystander in the case of the Armenians. Several US officials were shown throughout the documentary avoiding inquiries on the Armenian Genocide. It is disappointing to see world leaders dismiss the Armenian Genocide because of relations with Turkey or some form of corruption. It is one thing to read about tragic events of the past but there is additional hurt to learn of Armenian persecution from just a few months ago. The film is bold, brave, and honest and addresses an issue that has the potential to start a war.

“ALIAS MARIA”— Child Soldiers


Child Soldiers

Amos Lassen

Colombian director José Luis Rugeles’ “Alias Maria” looks at child soldiers and child exploitation in a broader sense. Rugeles uses the inconvenient and human-rights-startling angle of motherhood of an underage guerrilla fighter bearing a child and a loaded gun while she is a child herself amidst the gunfire of war. 

Maria (Karen Torres), a 13-year old female child soldier in guerrilla squadrons buried deep in lush jungle. She sees a fellow fighter giving birth, a privilege reserved for just a few under these conditions. We learn that all women are expected to come forward and declare the pregnancy for an early termination and this is rigorously obeyed. Maria conceals the fact she is four months pregnant and no one knows including the child’s father who is her commanding officer. Maria finds her entrusted with guarding and transporting a newborn while she contemplates her next move. 

The ongoing Colombian conflict between leftist guerrillas and right-wing militia is the backdrop for the story. While the film has a fictional narrative, there is a lot of truth to be seen here. Ill-fitted combatants are treated as physical equals to their adult counterparts in highly demanding conditions. They are expected to follow the same orders, with no special regards taken considering their age and fragile bodies. The weakest member of the party, the little boy (Erik Ruiz), doesn’t enjoy much respect from his co-combatants that bully him during a dangerous mission. 

We see several close-ups of hardworking ants carrying leaves of much bigger weight than themselves and these are a constant remainder of the kids’ triumph and continual grasping beyond their limits, both physically and mentally. We do not learn how two kids ended up in such company or why they continue to put up with the coarse treatment although the penalty for desertion is likely to be the reason for this. The anonymity of the protagonist thrusts viewers into the position of keen observers trying to understand the circumstances and possible reasons why these children have been pulled from a safe family environment. No further allusions are given toward their parents. For a brief moment, Maria sees a group of peers upon and her gaze lingers bit too long in a mute indication of lost innocence.Both central figures, Maria and the little boy, separate the film’s theme into two subthemes. The prevailing one underlines the unethical and alarming status of child-soldiers an indictment of the amoral exploitation. Underage pregnant Maria shows female-child mishandling. She is driven to protect her unborn child at all costs. 

About two years ago, it was revealed that the average age of recruits was estimated at only 13 years in Colombia. Maria’s situation in life is violently replaced by her daily struggle to survive and to do so with bleak prospects for what is usually considered a normal life. We see the internal operations of guerilla warfare through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old female soldier as she’s charged with a mission concerning the transport of a leader’s newborn infant son. As intense as something like this may sound, director Rugeles makes this more of a character study. We briefly see the rituals of female soldiers being forced to undergo abortions should they become pregnant in the jungle. In all of its aspects this is quite a sobering film that is often hard to watch but important for just that reason.

“FOLLIES”— Direct from London



Direct from London

Amos Lassen

.The award-winning National Theatre’s all-etr case all-star production  of “Follies” is being broadcast live internationally to selected movie theaters. Set in New York in 1971, we find a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre and learn that on the following day, the iconic building will be demolished. Now some thirty years after their final performance, the Follies girls gather to have a few drinks, sing a few songs and lie about themselves.

With a cast that stars Imelda Staunton, director Dominic Cooke’s production is played on a bare stage against half-bulldozed brick walls half-bulldozed where the theatre’s ghosts mingle, we see a philosophical meditation on the passage of time and the agonies of aging.

Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical was, originally, a nostalgic fanfare for old Broadway as its glamour gave way to decay; yet today it resembles a lament for the whole nation. We are at a Broadway reunion (the “first and last” for Dimitri Weismann’s legendary vaudeville revue). The stars of the pre-war era revisit their old haunt. New York’s showgirls have aged. As they reminisce and repeat their old routines, their younger selves (wearing silvery, sequined ball gowns) stand on the edges of the ruined auditorium like ghosts in the wings. This is a showbiz séance of sorts that is filled with glitter and memories of the past.

At its center are two middle-aged couples, former showgirls and their men whose marriages have stalled in middle age. Sally Durrant (Staunton) is now a small-town mother of two, who is considering leaving her dull husband Buddy (Peter Forbes) to rekindle her feelings for her old flame Ben Stone (Philip Quast) who married her friend and fellow “Folly” Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee). Reunited for the first time in years, the past comes flooding back to them all. Their younger selves dance off with one another.

The show is filled with sadness and regret and an elegy for lost youth and missed chances. “The Road Not Taken,” as one song has it. While the two young showgirls (Zizi Strallen and Alex Young) in their matching dresses, are like peas in a pod. Staunton’s Sally has become a rattle of anxieties, breathless at a chance to turn back the clock, while Dee makes clear that Phyllis has constructed her classy exterior, teaching herself “the art of life.” Their husbands, meanwhile, have filled out for the good: Buddy is an oil executive with a 29-year-old mistress; Ben is a respected philanthropist and politician. It seems unfair that the men are no better off or happier with their lot. They’re no longer the handsome suitors waiting at stage door. Director Cooke catches the mood of a night of nostalgia.

FOLLIES by Sondheim ;
Directed by Dominic Cooke ;
Designed by Vicki Mortimer ;
at the National Theatre, London, UK ;
21 August 2017 ;
Credit : Johan Persson

Sondheim’s score combines affectionate vaudeville pastiches with heartfelt book numbers and expands the theme through other showgirl stories. “One delirious old couple are still dancing 50 years later; an old flirt is still flitting between gorgeous young men. Di Botcher belts “Broadway Baby” with an impish delight, luxuriating in her follow spot and reliving her youth for a moment while Tracie Bennett’s sings “I’m Still Here” like a survivor with shellshock.”

The Ensemble numbers give us the joyous spectacle of middle-aged women dancing toe-to-toe with their svelte young selves, matching them step-for-step. The production becomes a melancholy meditation on life and old times. Sondheim’s score sets memory to melody. The here-and-now might be humdrum, but the past shines and sings. Throughout the show Goldman and Sondheim bring the ideas of the past and performance together. Reunions are places we perform our identities and re-enact the past and so are memories. The theater, in “Follies,” is a place where people act out their fantasies and, indeed, their follies. Paradoxically, it’s also a place that gives us the truth.

“BAD LUCKY GOAT”— A Brother, A Sister and A Goat


A Brother, A Sister and A Goat

Amos Lassen

After accidentally killing a bearded goat with their father’s truck, two teenagers embark on a journey of reconciliation and comedic misadventure along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. With no money, Cornelius “Corn” Denton (Honlenny Huffington) and his older sister, Rita (Kiara Howard), have to find a way to get the damaged truck fixed in time to pick up the tourists that will be staying at their family’s hotel. As they struggle to conceal the accident, the two siblings visit a butcher, rastafari drum makers, a pawn shop and even a witch doctor during 24-hour odyssey around Port Paradise.    

Like any adolescent family members, brother and sister constantly bicker and can’t stand one another, but they have to work together or else they will have severe penalties from their parents for damaging their car. This is a typical coming of age comedy that beautifully the cultural atmosphere and folklore of its Columbian locale.

Director Samir Oliveros gives us a zany and quirky story in a deliberate and relaxed tone. Rita and Corn bounce from a collection of colorful encounters with various locals— witch doctors, bumbling cops, shady butchers, and pawn shop operators. These cause reality to be obscured.

Corn is a teen trying to earn money for his new band and he and his older sister Rita are to pick up some market items. Along the way they kill a goat. This is the premise of the film.

After the death of the innocent animal, Corn and Rita must figure out what to do. Later the truck is to be used to pick up tourists who will be staying at their family’s hotel and they know that this cannot be done in a truck with a busted fender. Neither has any money, so they must funds needed to repair the truck. As if that is not enough, they are forced to spend the day together under adverse conditions, Corn and Rita get to know each other as they never have before. The dialogue is witty and the young actors give authentic performances.

“Bad Lucky Goat” is lively, funny and thoughtful. I could not help but think about my own teen years with both regret and appreciation.

The film is unpredictable because it doesn’t seem to follow any known rules.The island backdrop is gorgeous, the weather is beautiful and the film is an unexpected surprise that is sporadic yet thoughtful.

There is a bonus on the DVD— a short film, “Miss World” about a young woman comes home to Taiwan, to say goodbye to her father before he goes to prison. 

“INNSAEI”— Science, Nature and Creativity


Science, Nature and Creativity

Amos Lassen

“Innsaei” is a story of soul searching, science, nature and creativity that takes us on a global journey to uncover how to connect within in today’s world of distraction and stress. Everyone is familiar with the term intuition but how many people really know what it is. We learn here that intuition is the sum of the experiences that one makes in the course of a life and the instinct that is innate to one. Two Icelandic women, Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir and Kristin Ólafsdóttir, interview people too see what they have to say about intuition.

There are research groups that measure intuition, but here we see Gunnsteinsdottir’s defining directional themes for her film: the discrepancy that is becoming more and more visible in individual human— looking at everyday experience between feeling and object, between human and measurement. The ability to look and the ability to trace sensitive perception is what the filmmakers want to show.

Our ability to perceive intuition implies a degree of empathy, not only for oneself, but for others as well. Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir was at the start of a promising career at the United Nations. She campaigned for women’s rights, helped traumatized women in Kosovo, and got a permanent position at the UN in Geneva. And then, at the age of 29, she felt burned out and resigned. With her friend, filmmaker Kristin Ólafsdottir, she embarks on a cinematic journey to academics, artists, spiritual teachers, and a school in England where children practice mindfulness. She examines what needs to be done so that people will not be cut off from their inner sources of power in the future.

The film explores the roots of the evil and the sources of a possible cure. Here she finds a key word in her own old Icelandic language: InnSæi. The word means the inner sea, the view inwards and the view from the inside to the outside. Being cut off from one’s own internal sources is the cause of personal suffering, but is also the root of far-reaching social ills. The film maintains that an inner compass has almost completely disappeared from the modern man.



A Girl Gang

Amos Lassen

“The Violent Years” was originally released in 1954 and is the sordid saga of Paula Parkins (Jean Moorhead), whose parents are too busy to realize that their daughter is the leader of a Gang of Four female delinquents responsible for a series of robberies in town. We see the gang in action as they hold up a gas station, then attack a couple on Lover’s Lane, making the girl strip down to her lingerie, tie her up, then take the young man into the woods and force him to have a gangbang. Paula and her pals fence their ill-gotten goods with Sheila, who hires them to trash their school.

The girls wreck a classroom but the noise has brought the cops and there is a shootout with the police. and Paula kills a cop! They head to Sheila’s place, and when Paula tells her they killed a cop, Sheila threatens to call the police herself. So Paula shoots Sheila.

But the cops are on Paula’s trail, and a chase ensues in which Paula crashes into a plate-glass window, killing her last remaining friend. She is caught and locked in the jail hospital ward. Paula is sentenced to life in prison.

The legendary Ed Wood wrote the screenplay about teenage girls who move from simple armed robbery to unlawful kidnapping and sexual assault. The film just gets wilder and wilder and, in fact, it gets so crazy that it is impossible to review this without giving something away.


“ALIVE”— Five HIV Positive Men


“ALIVE!” (“Vivant!”)

Five HIV Positive Men

Amos Lassen

“Alive” is about a week of training that five HIV+ go through before they experience their first solo parachute jump. We watch as unlikely friendships develop under strange conditions. and documents the development of unlikely friendships that develop between such a disparate group.

The focus is on the interpersonal relationships of the five men and the very intense training for the parachute jump. The training is both physically and mentally demanding and the men visibly struggle to assimilate all the need to Know in order to make a successful jump.

As jump day gets closer, the group witness a near-catastrophic problem in the air and they and the viewers understand the that they’re in a little more danger than they previously realized and this makes for compelling viewing. Slowly the documentary shifts to focus more on the friendships that are formed as the jump comes closer. As the relationships between the men evolve, some of the conversations are much more intimate and personal among this group of strangers.

The five men have very different viewpoints on the relationships they shares with significant others and sexual partners. We hear of their first loves, first kisses and some less-enjoyable situations they have found themselves in. Some of these stories can be quite emotional and difficult to listen to but they also make for a much deeper understanding of the situation these men deal with on a daily basis. We are doubly entertained here with the beauty of nature and the sky and with moments of introspection and intimacy. The stories tell of loneliness and fear of intimacy giving us insight into the men’s lives.


“Mykki Blanco Goes Out Of This World”

Rapper and Activist

Amos Lassen

American rapper and activist Mykki Blanco explores queer culture in Johannesburg.  Blanco seeks to breakdown barriers and share all her new experiences in this documentary. Blanco is a 31 years old, African American who visits for the first time.” 

She meets boundary pushing artists Umilio and FAKA, designer Rich Mnisi and Bradley and Nkulsey, a model and dancer and learns that they all use their platforms to give a voice to issues surrounding the politics of their sexuality, gender, identity and humanity in South Africa.  This fils is a special treat with this film.

“THE INVISIBLE WALLS OF OCCUPATION”— A Different Side of Palestinian Life

“The Invisible Walls of Occupation”

A Different Side Of Palestinian Life

Amos Lassen

In the Palestinian village of Burqah, 86% of men are employed, but 60% work unstable, part time jobs. Three-fourth of families here have five at or more members, and half of such families live beneath the poverty line of $530 per month. More than half the of residents express concerns about the Israeli military entering the village.

Is “The Invisible Walls of Occupation,” an interactive documentary produced by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories in collaboration with Montreal-based digital design firm Folklore. The documentary opens with an introductory text that states, “If you get to know Burqah and its residents, you’ll get a picture of what life is like in a village hemmed in by physical and developmental obstacles” and then we get just facts set against an ambient music score and field recordings.

As an interactive documentary it takes a multimedia approach, blending interviews with photo collages, text, maps, and more. We go on a tour of the town, with stops at the homes of a village elder and a farmer ,a girl’s high school, and the clinic.

We experience the day-to-day life that we do not see on media coverage. Many of the interviewees talk about how checkpoints and road closures impact their lives, and the influence of instability and a discriminatory legal system is felt everywhere. We meet a young boy who uses his camera to record the settlers who harass his family. His footage consists of a series of clips showing gangs of masked men throwing rocks at his home with rocks and we learn. That this kind of harassment takes place all year long.

We see that the occupation makes life worse through daily anxieties, lowered expectations, and a shared degradation. The documentary also represents a modest step towards an eventual escape from invisibility itself.

Residents think many times before they build, go on vacation, study, work, trade, or grow crops and not because of laziness, or inability. It’s because they are concern about the obstacles, the harassment and attacks by the Israeli military or by settlers. It’s as if they live in a big prison with invisible walls. Burqah, us an unremarkable village since it has never taken fought against the occupation, and has not been subjected to extreme punitive measures. Because of this Burqah was chosen as a precisely because it is unexceptional, as a case in point about life under the occupation is like for residents of Palestinian villages. It is a small, picturesque village, surrounded by fields. Like many other villages, it has severe travel restrictions which isolate it from its surroundings and is also subject to massive land-grabs and stifling planning. These have turned it into a derelict, crowded and backward village with half its population living at or below the poverty line.

The economic situation is grim and both men and women supplement their income by farming, shepherding, cheese making, working from home with sewing and embroidery. Travel issues also have a detrimental effect on education and health services are very limited. As a case in point, the village’s situation demonstrates the effects of the occupation, showing how the settlements and their interests play a central role in Israel’s policy planning in the West Bank even at the cost of grave harm to the Palestinian residents, and how a legal-administrative web harms life and development.