Monthly Archives: October 2018

“The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective ” by Joy Ladin— A Bible For All of Us

Ladin, Joy. “The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective “, (HBI Series on Jewish Women), Brandeis University Press, 2018.”

A Bible For All of Us

Amos Lassen

I wait patiently for each new publication from a select group of writers. I cannot call them favorites because favorites change; I prefer to call them special. One of those writers is Joy Ladin. She has wowed me with her poetry and she dared to reach out with her memoir. Joy and I share the fact that we are both serious about our religion, Judaism and the important place it holds in our lives. What I really love about Joy is that she dares… and she succeeds. Like her writing, she is lyrical and elegant and I am proud that I know her.

She has certainly dared with “The Soul of the Stranger” and I can picture the naysayers lining up. She gives us a very unconventional look at the Hebrew Bible and she is published by a very important press, that of Brandeis University. I love that the academic Joy Ladin is published by the academic Brandeis press. I heard over a year ago that this was a book that she was working on and as seriously as I wanted to know what she covered and how, I did not ask. I have always though of writing a book being akin to pregnancy. It’s a rough job that gets rougher when the outcome enters the world.

Ladin explores how the experiences of transgender people and other “hyper-minorities” – people who are different in ways that set them apart from most members of their communities – can help us understand the holy writings and the difficult relations between God and humanity that we read in a good deal of the Hebrew Bible. Joy has her personal experiences as an openly transgender person at Stern College of Yeshiva University where she is both a hyper-minority as the only openly transgender person at her Orthodox Jewish university – and as someone who lived for decades as a middle-class white male. She looks at how the ways we relate to those we see as strangers affects the way we relate to the ultimate stranger, God.

In order to explore basic and fundamental questions about religious texts, traditions and an understanding of God, Ladin returns to some of the best-known Torah stories and looks at them through a transgender perspective. We quickly see how the two can compliment each other. I devote an hour a day to studying Torah and it is during that hour that no outside forces are allowed to enter my world. I decided that I would try to use the hints I get here to read from a different perspective even though I am not transgender but feel comfortable in experimenting with new understandings.

By using her own experiences and her reading skills, Ladin looks at the texts that seem to assume that everyone is one gender or another, male or female. Here we notice that the texts speak to practical transgender concerns as well and these include marginalization, and the challenges of living without a body or social role that renders one intelligible to others. These are challenges that can help us understand a God who defies all human categories. We gain new understandings and old ideas are transformed by a new kind of reading and understanding of the text. After all, God was creative and since we were created in his image, we can be creative too. We gain a new understanding of the way God is portrayed in the Torah and we see the relationships between these understandings.

Joy Ladin writes from her heart and from the core of her being. In giving us new ways to see the holy texts, we see the Torah as a sensitive and dignified manuscript. I love that the journey we take here is both spiritual and intellectual. I found by following what is written here, my own relationships with others and God are changing. What we have is a two way street with the transgender experience shedding light on the Torah and the Torah shedding light on the transgender experience. Through this we see what it means to be a stranger and to see God as a stranger.

The book opens with a transgender reading of the Genesis creation story that pushes against notions of inherent gender. In the next chapter we look at other stories in the Torah in which individuals temporarily exceed or question their traditional gender roles. (“Jacob’s outmaneuvering of his second-born status, Sarah’s belated pregnancy, and Isaac’s painful support for the patriarchal system that nearly kills him”). Ladin also looks at the voluntary Nazarite vow in Numbers 6 and Passover’s concern with the errors of either-or thinking that can serve potentially as models for accepting those who transition. She ends with “a chapter that uses both W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of the hyper-minority and the Torah notion of stranger or resident alien to build persuasive ethical imperatives for both transgender and cisgender believers.” Ladin explores how her powerful connection with a God who is not intelligible in human terms helped her navigate her years of dysphoria and pain as she felt similarly unrecognizable to others. Now she introduces Jews and other readers of the Torah to new and sensitive approaches with room for broader human dignity.

In the Book of Numbers, Ladin argues that the recurring conflicts between the Israelites and the God enshrined at the center of their camp resemble those experienced by human hyper-minorities and their communities. Even with God’s centrality to the Israelites’ lives, God is always seen by the Israelite community, as different in ways that are difficult to accommodate or understand. Using this perspective, we see God’s insistence that the Israelites identify with “strangers” by remembering that they “know the soul of a stranger” and experienced estrangement in Egypt. This gives us a communal spiritual practice that helps us to make a place, in our communities and in our lives, for God who is always the ultimate stranger.

Here is the Table of Contents:

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Shipwrecked with God
  • The Genesis of Gender
  • Trans Experience in the Torah
  • Close Encounters with an Incomprehensible God
  • Reading Between the Binaries
  • Knowing the Soul of the Stranger
  • Notes
  • Index

“Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite” by Jake Bernstein— Illicit Money, Fraud and Political Corruption

Bernstein, Jake. “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite”,  Picador, 2018.

Illicit Money, Fraud and Political Corruption

Amos Lassen

Two time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Jeff Bernstein, takes us inside the world revealed by the Panama Papers and it is a world of illicit money, political corruption, and fraud on a global scale. There is a hidden circulatory system that flows beneath the surface of global finance and it carries trillions of dollars from drug trafficking, tax evasion, bribery, and other illegal enterprises. This network masks the identities of the individuals who benefit from these activities and it is aided by bankers, lawyers, and auditors who get paid to look the other way.

Jake Bernstein explores this shadow economy and how it came to be. He draws on millions of leaked documents from the files of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, a trove now known as the Panama Papers. He also looks at other journalistic and government investigations. Bernstein shows how shell companies operate and how they allow the super wealthy and celebrities to escape taxes, and how they provide cover for illicit activities on a massive scale by crime bosses and corrupt politicians around the world.

Bernstein traveled to the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and worked within the United States to uncover how these strands fit together. He looked for who is involved, how they operate, and the real-world impact. He shares how Mossack Fonseca was exposed and what lies ahead for the corporations, banks, law firms, individuals, and governments that are implicated.

In “Secrecy World”, Bernstein gives us a disturbing and sobering view of how the world really works and at the same time, he raises critical questions about financial and legal institutions we may once have trusted.

Bernstein’s concentration is on the stories of those who broke the law, evaded taxes, circumvented international sanctions, hid assets, cheated partners, or ‘normalized’ fortunes made through crime and corruption. He looks deeply into the network that was exposed by the publication of the Panama Papers and he gives us a look at a scandal that is still in the process of unfolding. He “pulls back the curtain on international criminal – or what should be criminal – tax evasion and the corrupt industries that make it possible. We see this through the lens of the blockbuster reporting of the Panama Papers, the enormous leak of internal documents from a Panamanian law firm” and we get an inside view of international investigative journalism.

It reads like a thriller but with a wonderfully written narrative. From the boardrooms of Panama to the secret shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and beyond, we learn how individuals and multinational corporations avoid paying taxes and hide their cash. We also get a look at how an international consortium of journalists breaks one of the biggest stories of the decade with leaking the Panama Papers.

Bernstein’s prose is crystal-clear as he writes about the dark world of illicit finance in a way that sheds light on some of the most complex, shady global networks and illegal transactions.

“Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance” by Amber Jamilla Musser— Reimagining Black and Brown Sensuality

Musser, Amber Jamilla. “Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance”, (Sexual Cultures), NYU Press, 2018.

Reimagining Black and Brown Sensuality

Amos Lassen

In “Sensual Excess”, Amber Jamilla Musser reimagines black and brown sensuality to develop new modes of knowledge production. She examines the epistemologies of sensuality that emerge from fleshiness. She works against the framing of black and brown bodies as sexualized, objectified, and abject, and offers different ways of thinking with and through sensation and aesthetics. “Each chapter focuses on particular aspects of pornotropic capture that black and brown bodies must always negotiate. Though these technologies differ according to the nature of their encounters with white supremacy, together they add to our understanding of the ways that structures of domination produce violence and work to contain bodies and pleasures within certain legible parameters.”

She then analyzes moments of brown jouissance that exceed these constraints. These breaks illuminate multiple epistemologies of selfhood and sensuality that offer frameworks for “minoritarian knowledge production that is designed to enable one to sit with uncertainty.” Using examinations of installations and performances like “Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, she unpacks the relationships between racialized sexuality and consumption to interrogate foundational concepts in psychoanalytic theory, critical race studies, feminism, and queer theory.” This then is a project of knowledge production focused on sensing and imagining otherwise, whatever and wherever that might be.

This book, therefore, is a model for how to read, engage, think with, and celebrate black, brown, feminist, queer, and sex-centered art practices. It is a sustained argument for and celebration of the sensual politics of work by artists like Xandra Ibarra, Mickalene Thomas, Nao Bustamante, and Lyle Ashton Harris. The writing centers on the performative space of the encounter with art objects and practices and we then see black and brown life unfolding not only in these artworks but also around and through them. Musser’s uses material detail of these works, their vitality, their philosophical intensities, and their ecstatic and transformative potential. In effect, this is a consideration of various representational strategies employed by artists of color in order to rewrite what they have been forced to accept.

“On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash”, translated by Ellen Cassedy”— Sixteen Stories

Mash, Yenta. “On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash”, translated by Ellen Cassedy”, Northern Illinois University Press, 2018.

Sixteen Stories

Amos Lassen

Yenta Mash takes us through the various stages of a woman’s life in sixteen short stories that are available for the first time in English. We meet women “in transit”. They are on their way to somewhere from somewhere. Ellen Cassedy has translated these stories from the Yiddish and as I red I was quickly taken back to my youth and the stories we heard back then.

These are authentic stories of historical, physical and emotional survival. We enter a world that is no more and we do so through the eyes, the ears and the other senses of the feminine. The stories are related to the customs of the time that they took place before everything changed with the rise of anti-Semitism. The stories are set in burned out hometowns, the gulag, the new state of Israel, Moldova and they reflect the concept of the wandering Jew. Even though many are concerned with struggle, there is also humor and joy here. As Jews, we know about having to move and enduring exile and Mash fills in the details for readers today. This is literature of immigration, resilience and renewal.

Whenever I sit down to review a collection of stories, I debate with myself as to whether I should say something about each story or just give a review of the whole. Unlike others, I do not pick favorites but try to judge a work as it hits me as a whole. What hit me about “On the Landing” is its relevance today especially because the stories are written in a dead language.

Yenta Mash lived from 1922-2013 and her experiences include surviving Siberia and immigrating to Israel. Mash’s experiences mirror the experiences of the Jewish people and she fills in some of the blank spots. If Ellen Cassedy had not published her translations, there is the chance that some of what we read here, would have been totally erased from history. Mash is a survivor who brings

“humanity to underrepresented history.” She writes of betrayal and indifference, both divine and secular.

I often found myself crying and laughing in the same story and Mash gives us microcosms of the Diaspora.

She has made some very strong suggestions for the twentieth century but I wonder if she would have amended them for the 21st. She felt that prayer needed to be rebooted and remade in order to deal with the traumas of 20th century.

Most of us know little or nothing about Bessarabia where Marsh began her life but we see its importance to her and to the larger Jewish community. Marsh felt it was her responsibility to document what was going on in the world that was blown apart in the 1940s. Not only did she do so but added beauty to a very ugly time in history. I urge you to have a look at these stories. They will change the way you see life.

“The Novel of Ferrara” by Giorgio Bassani— Six Classic Books

Bassani, Giorgio. “The Novel of Ferrara”, translated by Jamie McKendrick, W.W. Norton, 2018.

Six Classic Books

Amos Lassen

“The Novel of Ferrara” consists of Giorgio Bassani’s six classic books, collected for the first time in English. Bassani is among the masters of twentieth-century literature and he and his Northern Italian hometown of Ferrara “are as inseparable as James Joyce and Dublin. This is the first time that they have been published in English as the unified masterwork that Bassani intended. The six books were fully revised by the author at the end of his life and include “Within the Walls”, “The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles”, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”, “Behind the Door”, “The Heron”, and “The Smell of Hay”.

Set in the northern Italian town of Ferrara before, during, and after the Second World War, these interlocking stories give us a world of unforgettable characters: “the respected doctor whose homosexuality is tolerated until he is humiliatingly exposed by an exploitative youth; a survivor of the Nazi death camps whose neighbors’ celebration of his return gradually turns to ostracism; a young man discovering the ugly, treacherous price that people will pay for a sense of belonging; the Jewish aristocrat whose social position has been erased; the indomitable schoolteacher, Celia Trotti, whose Communist idealism disturbs and challenges a postwar generation.”

This is a memorial to the people of Ferrara and to the city itself, which assumes a character and a voice deeply inflected by the Jewish community to which the narrator belongs. This is a book of great pathos, eloquence, and elegiac splendor and above all it is a requiem for so much of Italian Jewry.

Bassani used stylistic detail as a way both to reveal and to conceal character and McKendrick captures Bassani’s elegance and subtle ironies.

“Young, Gay & Restless: My SCANDALOUS On-Screen & Off-Screen Sexual Liberations” by Thom Bierdz— Memoir of a Soap Hunk

Bierdz, Thom. “Young, Gay & Restless: My SCANDALOUS On-Screen & Off-Screen Sexual Liberations”, Bierdz, 2018.

Memoir of a Soap Hunk

Amos Lassen

Thom Bierdz is Phillip Chancellor III on “The Young and the Restless”. He brings us his new sex memoir with the sensationalism of his brother Troy’s story. Bierdz has had to transcend the tragedy of his schizophrenic brother murdering their mom as well as his own scandalous (often amusing) sex adventures. Bierdz was a young closeted cowboy from the sexually-shaming Midwest who became a soap opera star and now 30 years later exposes his amusing and “complicated carnal journey including sexual assaults, trysts with stars, a proposition from a bishop, romance with a famed billionaire, noncommittal relationships, social anxiety, taboo fantasies, penile enlargement, psycho fan roommate, online hook-ups, gym sex, mid-life crisis, leaving Hollywood and society, impotence and rekindled romance.” The book is sexually explicit and contains nude photographs and graphic language. SEXUALLY EXPLICIT. Bierdz has appeared on “Melrose Place”, “Murder She Wrote”, “Matlock”, “Old Dogs New Tricks” and is currently president of www.AmericanArtAwards.com.

“Leading Men” by Christopher Castellani— Fidelity, Desire and Ambition

Castellani, Christopher. “Leading Men: A Novel”, Viking, 2018.

Fidelity, Desire and Ambition

Amos Lassen

I am often asked what makes me decide if a book is worthy of praise. My answer from now on is to say read Christopher Castellani’s “Leading Men” and you will know. Set in Italy in the 1950s, it has a good plot, wonderfully drawn characters and prose that makes me tingle. It does not happen often but my eyes filled with tears because of the beauty of the reading experience. Of course, the fact that one of the characters is someone who was close to me influences my opinion. We join the “beautiful people in Portofino, Italy in July in the 1950s at a party given and hosted by Truman Capote and filled with members of literary and film circles.

An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy. Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. This meeting totally changes their lives forever. We move forward a decade and Frank is dying in Manhattan. He is waiting for Tennessee’s last visit. The mysterious Anja is now a legendary film icon Anja Bloom and lives as a recluse. But then a young man who was connected to the events of 1953 lures her r back into the spotlight after he learns that she has the only surviving copy of Williams’ final play.

Christopher Castellani brings fact and fiction together so that we can better understand the private lives of public people. Through the character of Anja Bloom we see what allows two people to stay together and what pries them apart. Most of us never have had to face major negotiations in life as great people because we have not reached that plateau and what might seem relatively minor to us can be a tremendous obstacle for those living in public.

This becomes an “ultimately heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness.” Through Anja Bloom we see the hidden machinery of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century.

I started reading this book this morning early and just closed the covers some nine hours later. I spent a while stunned and decided to sit down and start writing while everything was fresh in my mind. This is not only a meditation on fame but also a look into private lives of those who live publicly. It is  a love story that is sensitive and bold. I can say that from my own personal knowledge of Tennessee Williams, the man and the playwright, everything here rings true. I love that every once in a while we hear of the discovery of the manuscript of his final play. He has as many final plays as Cher has had farewell tours. Yet I am also convinced that there are still manuscripts of plays that have not been yet found. Hence we get a legend and Williams was indeed legendary.

For those of us who were aware, the love story of Williams and Merlo was extraordinary and I do not believe that Williams ever loved anyone  the way he loved Frank. Here are Merlo’s final days set against memories of an Italian summer in 1953 that changes him and his world forever.

I doubt that many of us are aware of to what great lengths artists are driven to just as most of us are unaware of what it takes to create something that lasts . Castellani seems to know as he created this wonderful story of love, fame, forgiveness and life. We see that sometimes we are so anxious to make sure that we have a place in the future that we do not realize that we are losing the present. All of us are victims to time; we all age and we all change. I am constantly aware of that two word sentence in James Joyce’s short story, “Eveline”. It simply says, “everything changes”. I do not think that we understand what being genius means and while it appeases on one hand, it can destroy if not used correctly. While “Knowledge is Power”, power is not always knowledge.

Castellani has beautiful insight into the characters he creates here and also to the ones he adapts to his story. I must admit that even though I heard great things about “Leading Men”, I approached it with caution because I knew and loved one of the main characters and I did not want anyone tampering with my memories of him. Castellani did not tamper; he enhanced my memories—  of personages, activities and life. In effect this is a novel akin to playing “what if”. We explore the possibilities of what might have happened. I am an emotional reader and I often shed tears not only because of what happens but also because of how it is told. I want to say that “Leading Men” is more than a read; it is a total experience and Christopher Castellani is more than a storyteller; he takes us where we need to be.

“The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World” by Robert Mnookin— Questions of Identity

Mnookin, Robert. “The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World”, Public Affairs, 2018.

Questions of Identity

Amos Lassen

I have always taken great pride in being Jewish and I truly believe that it is an essential part of who I am. Yet for many, this is not the case. There is a certain commitment that goes along with Judaism and for many this is much too difficult to fit into our daily lives. After all, it seems that everything we do requires some sort of commitment and when looking at this, we find we can be Jewish without having a Jewish identity. We once thought that intermarriage would cause our religion to die but we have since learned that the greatest threat to Judaism is disengagement. Disengagement is a foreign concept to me since I have always been active in all parts of Jewish life and I have a problem understanding Jews who join a synagogue (and its not cheap to do so) and this is perhaps their sole relationship to the Jewish people; a people that has managed to stay alive against tremendous odds. It is clear that American Judaism is paradoxical with over 60% of Jews involved in intermarriage.

Writer Robert Mnookin gives us a deep and personal look at the basic questions and issues that American Jews deal with today and their questions and issues are shared by most of us. Jews are influential in many different areas

We know that Jews have made achievements and advances in recent times. Today American Jews have achieved unprecedented integration, influence and esteem in virtually every part of American life. Nonetheless and with all of its diversity and success, today’s Jewish community faces challenges that lead us to wonder whether the religion will last. Dr. Mnookin sees four critical challenges facing our religion and these are rampant intermarriage; “weak religious observance; diminished cohesion in light of a decline in anti-Semitism and virtually no discrimination; and seriously conflicting views about Israel.” We want to know if the generation of today will be able to pass on Jewish identity to the next generation. 

There are no easy answers here and the conclusions that Mnookin makes are provocative. He looks at who should count as Jewish in America and he suggests a radically inclusive standard for the American Jewish community. Who is a Jew should depend on personal choice and public self-identification, not birth or formal religious conversion. To be a Jew in America (or anywhere) one must feel an identification with the Jewish people and the reason someone is Jewish is a sense of personal choice.

Intermarriage has become a fact of life and we must embrace intermarried couples and encourage them to raise Jewish children. Mnookin looks at the fact that current policies of the Israeli government cause divisions within our Jewish community in America and are, in fact, inconsistent with what Mnookin feels are core American Jewish values.

American Judaism has changed a great deal of late. I remember that when I was growing up, there were three strains of Judaism; Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. In New Orleans where I was raised there was no conservative temple until the 60s and there was no love lost between Orthodox and Reform Jews— in fact they did not mix. Orthodox Jews referred to reform Temple Sinai as “Our Lady of St. Charles Avenue” and their services were talked about as the height of showmanship and with a choir made up of singers from the New Orleans Opera House. Today we also have Renewal Judaism and Reconstruction Judaism. Here in Boston we have several minyanim that are not aligned with any of the five movements. There is the opportunity for each Jew to find a place that suits his needs and makes him feel comfortable. Personally, now as official labeled as a Reform Jew, I am amazed at the difference of what Reform is today compared to how it was when I was growing up. I recognize a true sense of community and people who are concerned with the way things are and who are actively involved in repairing the world. However, these five streams of Judaism seem to draw borders. I have never understood why a person could never be just “a Jew”.

So how do we deal with today’s paradoxical American Judaism? Mnookin looks back at Jewish history and law as well as tradition and culture. He has spoken to rabbis and scholars as he explores what Judaism means. He shares what he has found with us and he relates how American Jews, including himself, have either stayed with Judaism or disavowed here. As he does this, he presents what he sees as to how Jews of all streams and all degrees of faith can keep Judaism and the Jewish community alive, vibrant and thrilling.

I love that this is such a personal book and I love being part of this conversation. Like many others, I left Judaism for three decades while living in Israel. I had no need for it as being Jewish was everywhere I looked. Returning to the States, I felt the need for a sense of community and I found that with my fellow Jews and I am since very active in the community. Judaism really never leaves a person— it just kind of hides as if waiting for the chance to sneak out again. One of my favorite encounters with Judaism came when I was a graduate student taking a course on the literature of the Cubist movement. I rediscovered Jewish lesbian Gertrude Stein who never really hid her Judaism except when her life was in danger. My professor was one of the most elegant, brilliant and beautiful women in academia at that time. Not only was she Jewish (but would not openly admit so) and married to another Jewish academic but she also was a member of the second graduating class at Brandeis. We became fairly close but we never talked about religion because, as we know, many academics are above religion. When Chanukah came, I made latkes and brought her some and as she tasted one, her eyes filled with tears as she remembered being raised Jewish. It was a scene that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Mnookin gives us the tools for navigating and negotiating the most important questions and issues of Judaism today. His focus is on the challenges, be they religious, social, familial, or ethnic and every combination and he gives us a look at the larger picture of what it is to be “self-critically human in a world for which few feel sufficiently prepared.
He sees Judaism as a welcoming “umbrella” and he reminds us that once Judaism was based upon what we could not do instead of what we could. Not only is this meditation on faith but it is also a legal analysis of the issues that we face today in Judaism. I really wasn’t prepared to think about this book as much as I have and I only finished reading it some three hours ago. It was my Shabbat treat. I am sure to be thinking of it more and more each day and that to me is a sign of great literature.

For those of you who are unaware of who Robert H. Mnookin is, have a look at his biography from the book blurb. He “is the Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, the Chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the Director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Professor Mnookin was the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and the Director of the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation. At Stanford, he chaired the Jewish Community Federation and served as president of the Stanford Hillel Foundation. Between 1994 and 2003, he served on the International Board of the New Israel Fund as its Secretary and Treasurer. A leading scholar in the field of conflict resolution, Professor Mnookin is the author of nine books , including most recently “Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight.”

“QUIET HEROES”— Heroes of the Early HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Utah

“Quiet Heroes”

 Heroes of the Early HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Utah

Amos Lassen

In Salt Lake City, Utah, the singular religious culture severely complicated the AIDS crisis. Patients received no support from or exiled. Mormon culture encouraged gay men to marry women and have a family to cure themselves of their “affliction,” and this ultimately to secret affairs and accidental marital transmissions of HIV. In the region there was only one doctor to serve all HIV/AIDS patients. This is the story of her fight to save the lives of a population everyone else seemed willing to let die.

There have been many documentaries about the AIDS crisis and many more stories that are both personal and universal. Yet we have not seen anything like this beautiful and inspirational look at Dr. Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder, her Physician’s Assistant, who ran the only practice to care for HIV/AIDS patients in Utah.

The film was directed and produced  by Jenny Mackenzie,  Jared Ruga and Amanda Stoddard, and is conventionally made, with talking head interviews, photographs, news reports, and home movie footage. The film also traverses familiar territory when it discusses the shame and stigma HIV/AIDS patients face (especially during the early years of the epidemic), and how life expectancies for patients changed as AZT and cocktails were able to treat the disease.

What makes this so different from other AIDS films are the personal stories that put a face on both the doctors and their patients. Dr. Ries explains why and how she became interested in infectious diseases and was willing to take on HIV/AIDS patients, especially when the Utah Department of Health refused to treat the many people who were suffering.

We also see how Maggie Snyder provided support for both Dr. Ries and patients, giving them the respect they deserved. Ries speaks of losing many patients who felt uncomfortable being treated by the “AIDS doctor.” She jokes that her practice consisted of “gays and grays” because her patients either had HIV or were elderly. The two women eventually became a couple themselves, lending additional support visibility to LGBT causes.

It is powerful to see how Ries and Snyder—again the only medical team treating HIV/AIDS cases—would not acknowledge patients in public unless cued, so as not to reveal their medical status. They had a back door to their office for patients to use to avoid being identified. These points show just how great the fear and disdain were for HIV/AIDS patients in particular and the LGBT community at large in Salt Lake City, a region not generally associated with the AIDS crisis.

“Quiet Heroes” looks at the Mormons’ attitudes toward homosexuality. The Church of Latter Day Saints believes that couples married on Earth are also connected in the hereafter. As such, homosexuality is not tolerated because of how the Mormons consider the family in the afterlife. One of those interviewed here describes how mothers often abandoned their LGBT kids because of Mormon teachings about homosexuality being a sin thus forcing these mothers to choose between God and family.

We meet a Mormon couple, Kim and Steve Smith, who get married and have two children. The couple faces a crisis when Steve acts on his same-sex desires and eventually infects Kim. How she handles this situation (with Dr. Ries and Maggie Snyder’s help) is moving.

Although Cindy she lost her battle with HIV/AIDS, before she died, Cindy fought to change laws that prevented people with HIV/AIDS from getting married. Cindy sued to wed her husband, showing just how the epidemic made accidental activists out of ordinary citizens. Cindy’s openly gay daughter recounts her mother’s achievements in the film and she is evidence of how her mother’s activism was passed along.

“Quiet Heroes” shows how HIV/AIDS patients think about themselves in negative ways. It is powerful to hear Dr. Reis and Maggie Snyder talk about the many gay men who felt they “deserved” the disease.

The film also includes some upbeat stories. Peter Christie, a Director of Education at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, is a patient of Dr. Ries’ who was on the brink of death with 60 T-cells before cocktails helped to prolong his life. Dr. Ries and Maggie often redistributed HIV/AIDS drugs collected from deceased patients. This practice was illegal, but they insisted they felt the good it would do (assisting folks who had financial hardships when it came to health care) was worth the risk of prison and/or losing their medical licenses.

The film only briefly mentions the expenses HIV/AIDS patients incur and how great a financial hardship it can be for folks too sick to work and without medical care. It is important to be aware of these individuals and the situations they faced. The people we meet are truly real and quiet heroes.

“SHOOTING LIFE”– Living in Sderot

 Shooting Life

Living in Sderot

Amos Lassen

‪Sderot. The area is tense with a feeling of imminent danger and the locals pay the price. Igal Gazit, an unemployed film director from Tel Aviv, moves to Sderot and takes up a teaching job at the high school, leaving his daughter Maya behind with his ex-wife.

‪Igal’s first meeting with his new students doesn’t go well. The students, sensing that he is patronizing them, make fun of the ‘enlightenment’ he brings from Tel Aviv. However, Igal promises Amalia, the principal, that all the kids will pass the State Film Exams. The road to fulfilling that promise is one that the students will never forget.‬