Monthly Archives: December 2017

“The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary” by Steven and Sarah Levy— Commentary on Commentary

Levy, Steven and Sarah. “The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary”, Jewish Publication Society, 2017.

Commentary on Commentary

Amos Lassen

Shlomo Yitzchaki or Rashi (1040-1105) was a French medieval rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. His Torah commentary is regarded as the most authoritative of all Torah commentaries and he is considered the best. For over 900 years, his commentary is indispensable for studying the Torah and he is equally understood by the scholar and the beginner providing both the scholar and beginner with the key to unlock the Torah’s text.  To study the Bible, through Rashi’s commentary is not only a special treat because it gives insights they can be used in our daily lives.

Of course, Rashi is one of many commentators by the is the ideal place to begin study since he focuses on the plain meaning of the text instead of delving into the esoteric meaning we can find in Torah and he often focuses on a single verse or a single word, allowing us to really think and understand more readily than other commentaries that lo thematic interpretation. We have an emphasis on grammar and vocabulary from which to build a foundation for further study. In my own studies, I find myself stopping at something that I think needs further explanation and saying to myself to look and see what Rashi has to say about it. I have often heard rabbis say the same.

This is a book for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the Torah and its relevance to our lives and times.  The intention of the Torah is to be a guide for humanity at all times and in all circumstances and since times have changed since Rashi, we need new ways to find the messages yet we cannot discount what Rashi has to say. He gives to the wonderful tools we need to see the relevance of what we read.

Let’s face it, we all face challenges in life and we do not always find the answers we need in the written word. I see life as being question after question and this commentary has some 450 plus questions

with three questions on each of the three essays concerning the weekly Torah portion.  In reading this book we try to answer these questions and in doing so we gain a more profound understanding of not only the Torah, but of others and ourselves.  I love that we can use it for single study or with groups.

Each of the three essays on each Torah portion has relevance and almost beg us to ask about them. lent themselves to engaging questions.  The essays cover a wide range of religious backgrounds, and allow for a broad range of topics and perspectives to be addressed.

“Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life” by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz— The Legacy

Schwartz, Rabbi Barry L. “Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life”, Jewish Publication Society, 2017.

The Legacy

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz identifies the prophetic moment in the lives of the eighteen biblical figures that we know as the Prophets and he shows us their relevance today in his new book, “Path of the Prophets”. For me it could not have come at a better time since my hevruta study group has just begun the study of Amos and Isaiah and we going into them intensely. We have already spent hours discussing just what a prophet is and it is so fascinating that Rabbi Schwartz also looks at women— Ruth, Shiphrah, Tirzah and Hannah as well as other Biblical personages that we do not think of prophets— Joseph, Judah, and Caleb. In this way he broadens the term prophet and allows us to see the humanity in the persons.

As we study (my group), I have learned that to really understand these characters, we need to be a bit creative. (In some cases, we have to push aside what we have already been taught about the Hebrew bible and make way for new interpretations. Schwartz uses creativity in his first-person retellings of the prophets’ experiences and then relates them biblical narratives, context, and analysis. He writes of their legacies and of their obstacles and triumphs—and weighs if and how their ethical examples live on. It is, as if, he takes us by the hand and shows us how to integrate biblical-ethical values into our lives; and then challenges us to walk “the prophetic path today.”

The prophetic moment in the lives of 18 biblical figures is identified and Schwartz gives us an intimate view of their inner thoughts, their ethical legacies, and shows us their relevance to our 21st century lives. By bringing together biography and theology and focusing on one crucial prophetic moment in the lives of these eighteen biblical figures, we become more aware of who they are. The prophets are the voice of social justice in Judaism and it is important that this is carried forward.

By including the women, we get a far broader definition of prophet as someone “who was inspired by the Divine spirit, or exemplified the highest ethical ideals of  the Torah”. Rabbinic tradition urges us to consider ourselves aschildren of the prophets”and this makes it important that we look at all the men and women who walked the prophetic path.

“HAVE A NICE DAY”—- A Southern Chinese City

“Have a Nice Day”

A Southern Chinese City

Amos Lassen

Liu Jian takes us on a colorful journey through a southern Chinese city through warm colors and an exceptional musical score that mixes classical American jazz with traditional Chinese sounds. Several people from diverse backgrounds with different motives enter into bloody conflict in the darkly comedic, animated feature film, “Have a Nice Day”.

A bag containing a million yuan is the focus and greed and selfish motives come into play. The gangster boss claims the bagful is his recalls days from future past while lecturing to a spunky subordinate who claims to be an artist. Some philosophical discourse takes place on what iconstitutes art and who can call themselves a true artist. We then learn that the bag has been lost and/or stolen and a butcher/hitman is sent to recover the bag full of money.

The bag moves from one point to another and various individuals reveal social and moral issues while holding the bag of money tightly in hopes of having a better life. In the end, however, it’s all just fantasy.

Modern China is in a state of flux and a real war for control is filled with violence and dangerous activities. By using animation, director Liu Jian is adeptly able to circumvent and soften some of the more distasteful aspects of this movement toward progress while at the same time heightening and stylizing the mood in China today.

As he does, he adds some subtle Western influences as he develops nuances of character. A great deal has been made about China’s growing economic power and goal of world dominance and, by the film’s end, the Hitman says that “without high-technologies we just can’t win.” The film closes with an earthy mise-en-scene as a large city in shades of browns and grays that sits silently while a long, steady rain fills the screen.

The film causes discussion and analysis regarding the state of things. One of the most telling aspects of the film is the frequency characters express a need or desire to leave for another country, often for better educational opportunities or plastic surgery to fix the botched work .

This is a film about a caper and viewers should not get too attached to any characters, but neither should they count any out, no matter how bad their situation looks. Liu gives the film noir trappings and little mundane details that really ground it in the real world.

“Miller Salter’s Last Day” by Jacob M. Appel— Time to Go

Appel, Jacob M. “Millard Salter’s Last Day”, Gallery Books, 2017.

Time to Go

Amos Lassen

Jacob M. Appel’s “Millard Salter’s Last Day” is the story of a man who decides to end his life before he’s too old but then begins to reconsider when he realizes the complications from the world around him. Psychiatrist Millard Salter is well aware of the

frailty and isolation that comes with getting old so he decides to kill himself by the end of the day but before he does, he has some things to take care of. He has a meeting with his youngest son, Lysander, who is now forty-three but has of yet not been able to keep a paying job; he wants to his first wife, Carol, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty-seven years; and to make a brief visit to the grave of his second wife, Isabelle. As if this is not enough to do, there is Delilah, the widow with whom he has fallen in love in the past few months. As Millard begins to wrap up his life, he faces a lifetime of challenges and discovers that his family has a big surprise for him as well.

Let me say right at the beginning that Jacob Appel writes gorgeous prose and just that makes this a worthwhile and enjoyable read. Add to that a plot that is compelling and we get a powerhouse of a book. This is my first experience with Appel but that is about to change.

We are taken into the mind of Salter and the rest of the characters and when Salter reminisces, so do we. After all, the book might seem to be about suicide but it is really about reminiscing about and reflection on life.

I loved getting to know the characters through their foibles, their likes and dislikes and their innermost thoughts. I love Millard Slater as anti-social as he is and I love that he knows who he is and knows when he did wrong. Yes, he messed up his first marriage and he buried his second wife but he loves

Delilah and is filled with compassion for her. He is a thinker with strong opinions and he knows how to deal with people who know how to make others feel small.

With the exception of Lysander, his children are successful, his career is doing well and his love life is fine. Yet, he feels it is time to go. This is a story about death but it is not tragic and death is treated with a kind of irreverence. Most of what happens occurs as Slater goes from appointment to appointment on what is to be his last day. He gets his affairs in order, spends time with Delilah who is terminally ill, he sees his patients and children, even and says goodbye to his ex-wife. The real action (story) is his mind. Slater thinks about the improbability of finding love and this is what really matters.

He keeps checking his watch; afraid of falling behind schedule on his last day making us feel anxious when he gets side-tracked or whenever we think that some of his activities aren’t worthy of anyone’s last day. Because he sees peace in death, it is treated with ease and good New York Jewish humor. As he checks things off of his list, he realizes that he won’t be able to accomplish them before the end of the day, and therefore he will never accomplish them.

Many of us see death as something that happens to other people and we do not think that we will ever run out of time to do all that we want. It is difficult to understand death as it is to understand what exists beyond our universe. Slater also feels that death is a concept that is foreign and too hard to grasp. He even puts things off until later before he realizes what he has done and corrects

For someone dedicated to the idea of killing himself, Slater does not have the ability to understand death as anything but a theoretical and imaginary concept. The idea that we have one last day that there is a last time to do certain things is almost ludicrous to him. He does not doubt that he will kill himself while at the same time there is also a part of him that believes he will get to these things tomorrow.

Tomorrow, like death, is a concept, even for someone who is about to kill himself.

“LOVE, SIMOM”— Coming Out in High School– A Romantic Comedy


“Love, Simon”

Coming Out in High School— A Romantic Comedy

Amos Lassen

You will have to wait until March to see “Love, Simon” but advance word says that this is a movie that you do not want to miss. For Simon love is complicated— no one knows he’s gay and he doesn’t know who the anonymous classmate is that he’s fallen for online.

“Love, Simon: is an American comedy-drama directed by Greg Berlanti and based on the novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda” by Becky Albertalli (reviewed here as well). Simon (Nick Robinson) is a 17-year-old closeted gay high school student forced to balance his friends, his family, his email pen pal Blue, and the boy threatening to reveal his true sexuality to the whole school.

In one scene, Simon imagines this one boy and imagines them kissing underneath the mistletoe at Christmas. This is very powerful to see a guy imagining himself with this other guy especially in a movie that will hit mainstream movie houses.

“DALIDA”— Charisma, Strength and Emotion


Charisma, Strength and Emotion

Amos Lassen

It was said that Dalida was part Édith Piaf, part Juliette Gréco, part disco diva, and part black widow. She was a French-naturalized Egyptian-Italian named Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti who as Dalida became one of the top-selling recording artists in European histor but her personal life was relentlessly tragic. For the Gigliottis, music was the family business. Dalida’s father was first violinist at the Cairo Opera until he broken by his time in an Allied internment camp. Dalida immigrated to France to pursue some kind of show business career and won a fateful radio talent contest in front of the network director, Lucien Morisse and record executive Eddie Barclay. Both men played instrumental roles guiding her early career. Morisse also married her, but it did not last.

Director Lisa Azuelos’ film opens after Dalida’s first, unsuccessful attempt to take her own life, following the suicide of her younger Italian lover. Dalida and death were constant companions and this is a recurring motif throughout the film.

Sveva Alviti is a strong physical likeness of Dalida and she manages to show class and dignity amid all the lurid melodrama. The performance is very physical as Dalida had regular bouts of anorexia. The young unknown plays Dalida with charisma and an impressive strength of emotional conviction in the songs. In the beginning in 1956 we learn of the competition in Paris which launched Dalida, then just 23) and the movie ends in 1987 (the date of her suicide). We see a carefully calibrated popular “product” that plays on the impossibility of Yolanda Gigliotti to achieve fulfillment as a woman yet she becomes an artist under the name of Dalida.

The film opens at Paris’ Orly Airport with Dalida lying to her brother Orlando (Riccardo Scamarcio) and her cousin Rosy (Valentina Carli), making them think she’s leaving only to then double back and secretly steal away to the Price of Wales hotel in Paris, where she tries to end her life a month after the suicide of her lover Luigi Tenco (Alessandro Borghi). During her convalescence, we meet several important people in her life and see a series of flashbacks of her childhood in Egypt and the suffering she endured as a nerd who is mocked by her classmates, her father, a violinist, incarcerated for being Italian in the context of the Second World War, at the “Number Ones of Tomorrow” variety show in 1956 at the Olympia when she met Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), the Director of Programming at Radio 1 Europe. He would go on to fall in love with Dalida and propel her to fame, with the help of Eddie Barclay (Vincent Perez) and Bruno Coquatrix (Patrick Timsit).

However, fame and happiness in Dalida’s private life were absent and her multiple fast romances often ended in tragedy with three of the men in her life committing suicide (Tenco, Morisse and finally Richard Chanfray (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and the chance of becoming a mother was taken from her, first by her husband and manager who would not allow to ruin her career by becoming pregnant and then due to an abortion that was the result of a brief romance with a younger man and that left her permanently unable to bear children. We see that Dalida’s incredible music ability was surrounded by passionate love affairs and deep personal tragedies and these give us a poignant melodrama of a film.

Dalida is a fascinating protagonist. She was haunted by her father’s detainment during World War II and by tragedy, pain and death. These tragedies here are paralleled with Dalida’s extraordinary vocal talents and beauty and the director uses Dalida’s lyrics to mirror the film’s narrative events and character emotions. As the film progresses, we see Dalida as a person who is unfazed by societal expectations and as a woman with so much love that all she can do is follow her heart. This leads to brief relationships with artist Jean Sobieski and Italian musician Luigi Tenco and Tenco’s suicide marks a pivotal part in Dalida’s life, with the musician becoming more fragile and attempting suicide herself. Azuelos finds some kind of inspiration in this by recounting Dalida’s returning zest for life and passion for music. She finds new love, twenty-two year old Lucio (before later embarking on a more volatile relationship with media personality Richard Chanfray). In all of her relationships, director Azuelo captures Dalida’s spirit and passion for music, even when tragedy or pain follow her.

As Dalida, Sveva Alviti is brilliant. She captures the magnetic, world-adored appeal of Dalida and convincingly channels the pain and heartbreak that Dalida faced through her turbulent relationships. She is equally at ease when portraying Dalida’s incredible musical performances. The film also looks at the passion of the singer’s musical performances.

Azuelos has stated that the movie is a redemption for Dalida who still is known as having one of the most successful careers. She left it and her departure was devastating, and the film somehow tries to explain this why this woman, who was ahead of her time became France’s sweetheart and then left everything behind. She had it all, and yet had nothing. Her life was doomed by drama and tragedy. She was tired, insecure and towards the end, despite her new ventures as an actress, she was lost and getting forgotten since the glamour of the sixties and seventies no longer existed.

I never saw Dalida in person but I remember when she recorded a song about peace with the Hebrew and Arabic words for both. Maybe she thought she could make a difference but the gulf was already too big to bridge. At least, unlike so many others, she tried. I was in Israel when she died and we all shed tears.

“CALL ME BY YOUR NAME”— A Jewish Film?


A Jewish Film?

Amos Lassen

I am the kind of guy who is usually judged by two aspects of my life— my Jewishness and my sexuality and the two have gone hand in hand for as long as I can remember. I have been told that I tend to judge things as to whether they are good for the Jews and good for the gays so you can imagine how I felt after seeing “Call Me By Your Name”, a wonderful example of a Jewish gay movie. If you missed the Jewish elements just hold on and I will take you through them and I bet you will be surprised that you did not recognize them yourselves. First let’s not forget that the film is based on writer Andre’ Aciman’s book o the same name. Aside from bring one of my favorite writers, Aciman is Jewish and of Egyptian heritage. By the way, Aciman is straight and I so well remember reading the book when it first came out and wondering how a straight man could have written such a sensual gay novel. While reading his other books, the issue of sexuality never came up but eating that peach here drove me wild. (If you are old enough to remember, there was a similar fruit-eating scene in the screenplay that Larry Kramer wrote based on D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” but it was straight).

“Call Me By Your Name” is a gorgeous coming of age film and I remember all the hubbub when it premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival and there were reports that audiences swooned when they saw it and tears were shed over its beauty.

Let’s have a look at the cast. Elio is played by the young Timothée Chalamet and Elio is a 17-year-old American living abroad in Italy. His father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a professor of archaeology, and each summer he sponsors a different, brilliant student to study with him and this year he has brought Oliver who is played by the very good looking Armie Hammer. Elio and Oliver fall in love with each other and we fall in love with them as they do.

Now you probably do not know that Timothy Chalamet’s mother is Jewish which, according to Jewish law makes him Jewish. Stuhlbarg was raised Jewish growing up in California and Hammer is descended from the Jewish industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer. In the film their characters are Jewish and while we all know people like them, these are not the kinds of Jewish characters that we usually see on film.

We see Stuhlbarg as a welcoming man, an intellectual who enjoys challenging students on small points. He and his family are polyglot and they enjoy the arts and the beautiful things in life. We certainly see the Jewish emphasis on education in all of the characters. Yet we see no signs of Judaica in the family lodging but we do see that Oliver wears a Star of David around his neck. These are secular Jews and Oliver even remarks about having been “the odd Jew” even though he was raised in New England where there are indeed many Jews (I am writing this from Boston now). Elio, on the other hand, and his family are probably the only Jews in their Italian town. Elio tells Oliver that his mother thinks of them as discretionary Jews. Oliver retorts that his “bubbe” taught him about being Jewish.

The Jewish families that we usually see on film are closed and here we have an open family and we hear Elio speak openly about how he almost had sex with a local girl. He does not worry what his family will think when they learn that he is gay and we hear a wonderful monologue about parenting by his father who says that he has always known that his son is gay and even speaks around his relationship with Oliver. He gives Elio the space he needs as he speaks words of love and caution to his son. The ideals we set for ourselves are ours to achieve and that, to me, is a strong Jewish identification. After all, the reason we undertake repairing the world is so that we can better live in it.

We have had some wonderful gay-themed films of late but this is a landmark film in that it is a film that everyone will love regardless of sexuality even with the fact that the two male leads are intimate and that is a necessary part of the story.

There are no composite characters here; we have two specific characters with specific sexualities. While this is a film that indeed belongs to the gay community, it is also very Jewish in its zeal and compassion and intelligence and I think it is just fine that we claim that just to make us feel good right now. I am fairly sure that the gay community will not mind.

I almost forgot to mention that the film was masterfully directed by Luca Guadagnino and it is a true beauty.

“POLLUTING PARADISE”— Havoc and the Ecosystem


Havoc and the Ecosystem

Amos Lassen

In the mountains of Turkey sits the village of Cumburnu where a bad decision wreaks havoc on the area’s ecosystem. The protest by the citizens and the mayor have had little impact on the way the people live.

German-born Turkish writer-director Faith Akin traveled to the village that is where his paternal grandparents lived. It is near the Black Sea in northeastern Turkey. He had been there before but as he researched his family, he fell in love with the location. However, he learned that some ten years earlier, government officials had decreed a tip be installed on the site of an abandoned copper strip mine on the hill overlooking a tea plantation and, further down, the village itself. At the time Akin decided to act out of his shock and anger at the project and filmed filming in 2007 in the hopes of intimidating the officials into cancelling the project.

There had been promises of sturdy construction and the efficient treatment of wastewater but what was discovered was sloppy work on-site and questions about the design of the landfill. To the eye it looks like a large pit lined with rocks covered with plastic.

Problems began right away. Wastewater ran down into the village after passing through the tea fields and dogs and birds scavenge the pile of garbage, whose stench becomes unbearable. Led by the crusading mayor, the townspeople begin to pressure politicians and the tip staff and some confrontations become very heated.

Faith Akin is regarded as a filmmaker of determination and passion and that is what we see here all the way through “Polluting Paradise”. He wanted to make sure that he captured the human element and so he taught the town photographer how to use a digital camera and instructed him to film whenever tempers rose. The tapes were then sent to Akin and his long-time editor Andrew Bird, who edited the footage to produce this shocking documentary.

We see the frustrations of the villagers interspersed with talking head interviews with government officials that Akin himself arranged. The film is a fascinating revelation on the extent of the democratic process in the more rural areas of Turkey and a call to arms and to action for all those who believe in social justice.

The tip is still there even though the government has mentioned the possibility of moving it to another location in the near future. Even if they do, the damage to the village of Cumburnu has been done. The pollution will remain there as will this film will remain with us as a document of grass-roots advocacy.

“The Damned Don’t Cry—They Just Disappear: The Life and Works of Harry Hervey” by Harlan Greene— Gay Life in the South

Greene, Harlan. “The Damned Don’t Cry—They Just Disappear: The Life and Works of Harry Hervey”, University of South Carolina Press, 2017.

Gay life in the South

Amos Lassen

Harlan Greene brings us a look at a nearly forgotten Southern writer, Harry Hervey (1900–1951) and we see that he was “master of many genres, bravely unwilling to conform to conventional values.

As Greene illustrates, Hervey’s novels, short stories, nonfiction books, and film scripts contain complex mixtures of history and thinly disguised homoerotic situations and themes.” Hervey who was able to wonderfully bring together local color, naturalism, melodrama, and psychological and sexual truths in his writings that that showed the world how he lived.

He lived openly with his male lover in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina and his novels were set novels in these cities and often scandalized the locals and critics as well. At a time when it was not acceptable to do so, he challenged the sexual mores of his day, both subtly and brazenly in texts that told one story to gay male readers while writing for a mainstream audience. He managed to escape detection by writing in what was coded language back then but is now somewhat clear to readers.

Hervey also wrote travel books and screenplays and “Shanghai Express” that starred Marlene Dietrich was based on one of his original stories. In some of the first travel books on Indochina, Hervey described male and female prostitution and alluded to his own sexual adventures that were quite bold even by today’s standards. What is so interesting is that even with such literary output, Hervey has remained unknown until now. He has not been included in any survey of twentieth-century gay writers but Greene attempts to change that with this first book-length study of Hervey’s life and work and the first scholarly attention to him in more than fifty years. Hervey opens a window on gay life in the South and in reading about him, we also see the impact of gay artists on popular culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Greene did tremendous research to write this book and it is a welcome addition to the canon of gay literary history.

“Treyf Pesach”— A Fascinating Poetic Look at Judaism


Obenzinger, Hilton. “Treyf Pesach”, Ithuriel’s Spear, 2017.

A Fascinating Poetic Look at Judaism

Amos Lassen

We live in a world where blasphemy has become something we see and hear almost everyday and, in fact, I am not even sure I know what it is anymore. Certainly the works of the Westboro Baptist Church are blasphemous because they are so negative and often disgusting but when one takes potshots at his own religion in fun, I am not sure that we can call that blasphemy. This is what Hilton Obenzinger has done in “Treyf Pesach”, his collection of outrageous and exciting poems about traditional Judaism. There is a great deal of truth in what he has to say. Poet Obenzinger takes radical steps away from rituals, formats and conventions and gives us alternative Passover Seders, Yom Kippur liturgy, Thanksgiving prayers, psalms and other poems and he does so through the use of “proclamations, resolutions, jazz improvisations, incantations, rants, orations, comic monologues, oil spills, life spills, songs, visions, undocumented documents, borders, suns, farewells, minutes of meetings, talk-stories, and all accompanied by provocative drawings of Treyf Passover Seder plates by artist Charles Steckler.”

They symbolic Seder plate that sits at the middle of the table at every Passover table here is decorated with un-kosher food and the story of the Exodus is related with different meanings such as using whiskey instead of wine as we recount the continual slavery of wars and military occupations.

The various poems take place over years and occasions that include “vicious aggressions, to absurd walls, to smallpox blankets, to oil spouting across the Gulf, and more, all framed by the first months of the Trump regime.” Some of these have been read at Seders, Yom Kippur services, Thanksgiving Day benedictions, Sunday fellowships, and other ceremonies but most, because of what they say and how they say are best read silently. Nonetheless, I already have a few ideas for next year’s Seder.