Monthly Archives: February 2019

“The Art of Leaving” by Ayelet Tsabari— A Memoir in Essays

Tsabari, Ayelet. “The Art of Leaving: A Memoir”, Random House, 2019/

A Memoir in Essays

Amos Lassen

Ayelet Tsabari is an award-winning Israeli writer who has traveled the world in searc of love, belonging, and an escape from grief following the death of her father when she was a young girl. We begin with the death of her father when she was nine years old. His death left Ayelet feeling rootless, devastated, and driven to question her complex identity as an Israeli of Yemeni descent in a country that both suppressed and devalued her ancestors’ traditions. Having lived in Israel for many years and having had many Israeli/Yemenite friends. I immediately recognized Tsabari’s feelings.

Early on Tsabari writes of her early love of word and putting pen to paper and we move with her to her
rebellion during her mandatory service in the Israeli army. She begins to travel from Israel to New York, Canada, Thailand, and India, falling in and out of love with countries, men and women, drugs and alcohol. In effect, she was running away from/ She writes about her first marriage and her struggle to define herself as a writer in a new language, her decision to become a mother, and finally her rediscovery and embrace of her family history which was “a history marked by generations of headstrong women who struggled to choose between their hearts and their homes.” She ultimately realized that she must reconcile the memories of her father and the sadness of her past if she was ever going to come to terms with herself. Tsabari writes with emotion that she passes on to her readers and what we see here is basically a meditation about the lengths we go to while trying to escape our grief and the search to find the place where we belong, and the sense of home deep within ourselves.
Written as a collection of linked essays, this memoir is filled with passion and pain; the fear of adolescence and the army, the apprehensions about adulthood, the search for a sense of belonging, and the reconciliation of “the disparate parts of our lives and ultimately ourselves.” 
The memoir captures and transcends her journey of self-discovery as a Jewish Yemeni woman within and beyond the borders of Israel. Tsabari is tender and fearless as she digs into her memory and shares her nuanced, complex, and beautiful findings with us.

“The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List” by Alana Newhouse— “Food, Glorious Food”

Newhouse. Alana. “The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List”, Artisan, 2019.

“Food, Glorious Food”

Amos Lassen

Some eight years ago I attended a session with food maven Joan Nathan at which she explained that there is no such thing as Jewish food. Rather, she said we have German Jewish food, Russian Jewish food, Mexican Jewish food and so on. In other words, Jewish food is determined by location and not by religion. Tablet Magazine chooses to use the term Jewish food as it is and we, of course, understand what it means. After all, Matzoh balls may taste different in different places but a matzoh ball is just that.

“Tablet’s list of the 100 most Jewish foods is not about the most popular Jewish foods, or the tastiest, or even the most enduring. It’s a list of the most significant foods culturally and historically to the Jewish people” and these foods are explored deeply with essays, recipes, stories, and context. Some of the dishes are no longer cooked at home, and some are not even dishes in the traditional sense like store-bought cereal and Stella D’oro cookies, for example). The entire list is up for debate and we can certainly understand why. We have some mouth-watering dishes here while there are those that many of us would never consider eating such as unhatched chicken eggs and jellied calves’ feet.  Then there are those universal favorites like the previously mentioned matzoh balls  and pickles, cheesecake, blintzes, and chopped liver. The recipes are all global and the food is representative of all aspects of the Jewish experience.

Those who have recipes here include Ruth Reichl, Éric Ripert, Joan Nathan, Michael Solomonov, Dan Barber, Gail Simmons, Yotam Ottolenghi, Tom Colicchio, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, Maira Kalman, Action Bronson, Daphne Merkin, Shalom Auslander, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Phil Rosenthal, among many others. This is “the perfect book to dip into, quote from, cook from, and launch a spirited debate.”

You don’t have to be Jewish to love “The 100 Most Jewish Foods” but it is best not to be hungry when you read it. It is  funny, emotional and memorable as well as entertaining and informative.

“Blood Echo” by Christopher Rice— Conspiracy of Blood

Rice, Christopher. “Blood Echo”, (“The Burning Girl”,  Book 2), Thomas and Mercer, 2019.

Conspiracy of Blood

Amos Lassen

Charlotte Rowe has had a very strange life. She was kidnapped and raised by serial killers and became infamous as a result. Everyone in the world knew who she was but she was the only person who knew what she had become. the world has any idea what she’s become… She is both an experiment and a weapon. With the help of a superpower drug, she and a pharmaceutical company are hunting down and eliminating society’s most depraved human predators. Charlotte’s latest mission has been derailed in a horrifying way and she is having trouble with  her own capacity for violence, Charlotte wants to retreat a bit so she can work on her new relationship with Luke, a sheriff’s deputy in Altamira, the isolated Central California town where she lives. However, she is being threatened and not only is this disturbing to her but it also dangerous.

A very large network of domestic terrorists with ties to Charlotte’s influential and corrupt employers have now appeared threatening to take over the town putting everyone she knows and loves in danger’s path. Charlotte realizes that she has to use her special powers. The time has come to act and take on the situation. While this is a thriller, it also has something to say about the “devastating effects of childhood trauma and what makes a monster…” Rice brings together bloody violence, complex characters, and high tech in a  very dark story that pulls us in with the first sentence and keeps us wanting to learn more about Charlotte. We know that she survived a childhood of murder and exploitation and how to fight back. She was raised by serial killers and has become a weapon because of a superpower drug she has been taking. When something goes wrong on a mission, a vast criminal conspiracy follows her home. However to truly understand what is going on, it is best to read “Bone Music” book one of the trilogy before reading this. I have read all of Rice’s books and have seen his writing mature. The plot here moves quickly and there is a lot to be gleaned in reading about this ethically corrupt pharmaceutical company  that while experimenting with some futuristic drugs, goes far beyond drugs which will alleviate illness. Some of its other projects seem objectionable. Charlotte is the result of one of their experiments and it was with that when she gained superhuman strength, when she is feeling fear and also the power to regenerate wounds. There is also a serial killer to be stopped, and a fanatical band of domestic terrorists that are endangering the town and surroundings.

The plot was filled with non-stop high octane excitement. However, since I hadn’t read the first book in the series I felt at a disadvantage. Characters and events from the first book were mentioned, but I felt there were gaps in my knowledge which prevented me from having a more enjoyable read. This was particularly true of Charlotte’s horrific early background and what led her to undergo the experiments which made her so powerful. I wanted to know how she met Luke, now a deputy sheriff in a small, isolated town. Charlotte would like to retreat there as some of her violent assignments have preyed on her conscience, but she is also tied to the company which made her superhuman.
We gain a lot to think about on issues such as vigilante justice and our illusion of privacy.  The action here is quite intense and there are many twists and turns that keep us guessing.

“America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today” by Pamela Nadell— Identity, Influence and Social Activism

Nadell, Pamela. “America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today”, W.W. Norton, 2019.

Identity, Influence and Social Activism

Amos Lassen

Pamela Nadell’s “America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today” shows how Jewish women maintained their identity and influenced social activism as they wrote themselves into American history. If you have ever wondered what it means to be a Jewish woman in America, this is a great place to start reading.  Pamela S. Nadell brings together the stories of a diverse group of extraordinary people going back to the colonial-era matriarch Grace Nathan and her great-granddaughter, poet Emma Lazarus, to labor organizer Bessie Hillman and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to many other activists, workers, wives, and mothers who helped carve out a Jewish American identity.

What unites  these women is first,  a strong sense of self and second, a resolute commitment to making the world a better place. Nadell shares how Jewish women have been at the forefront of causes for centuries, fighting for suffrage, trade unions, civil rights, and feminism, and hoisting banners for Jewish rights around the world.  They have been taught and informed by the shared values of America’s founding and Jewish identity and they have made their marks on the history of this country which is also their country.

Writer Nadell’s broad knowledge is see on every page here. “This is not a collection of biographies, but rather a seamlessly arranged narrative of the intersection of gender, religion, identity, immigration, and assimilation.”

“Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel” by Matti Friedman— Israel’s First Modern Spies

Friedman, Matti. “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel”, Algonquin Books, 2019.

Israel’s First Modern Spies

Amos Lassen

 The founding of both the State of Israel and Israeli identity are explored by Matti Friedman in his new book, “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel”. This is the narrative that chronicles the exploits of a unit of Arabic speaking Jewish spies that were put together by the British spies and Jewish militia leaders in Palestine  during the Second World War. These spies  were known as the Arab Section and went undercover in the battle for the physical creation of the State of Israel. They were to collect intelligence, carry out sabotage missions and assassinations and even though they were Jews, they had come from the Arab world and therefore easily take on Arab identities. When the existence of Israel meant the War of Independence, these spies went undercover in Beirut, where they spent the next two years operating out of a kiosk as they collected intelligence and sent messages back to Israel via a radio whose antenna was disguised as a clothesline.

This was very dangerous and the spies did not always know to whom they were sending messages and reporting. There were some twelve spies in the Arab Section at the beginning of Israel’s War of Independence of which five were caught and executed. Eventually, the Arab Section emerged as the nucleus of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
Friedman writes about the identities of the spies which is a reflection of Israel’s own complicated and fascinating identity. Israel sees itself and therefore presents itself as a Western nation, when in fact more than half the country has Middle Eastern roots and traditions, like the spies of this story. This helps to explain the life and politics of the country, and why it often puzzles the West. This true story of real-life spies and the paradoxes of the Middle East is every bit as good if not better than the fictional spy stories that fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries. While this is an intimate story, it has global significance. 

Israel was born with complicated identities and as you can well imagine, each story has stories about it. To hear these stories is to go on a journey through history. Matti Friedman is a wonderful storyteller and a wonderful writer so much so that I read this in one sitting. I knew something about the spy situation because a member of my family was involved in a very important sky ring in Israel at the time leading up to the nation’s independence. I did not know anything, however, about the Arab Section.

This is a very good spy story that has all the components of a thriller— we have a very high-stakes war, the birth of a new nation, people with double-identities, lots of suspense and betrayals. The four spies we read about here include Gamaliel Cohen, Isaac Shoshan, Havakuk Cohen and Yakuba Cohen grew up as Jews in Arab lands; came of age in British Palestine as dark-skinned Middle Easterners who were looked down on by their European counterparts; lived undercover as Arabs in hostile territory; and were never publicly acknowledged in Israel as the heroes they were. Finally their stories are told in this brilliant book that keeps you wanting to know more.  We see how a band of Jewish spies from Arab countries helps explain the political and cultural transformation of Israel from its European Jewish origins into the largely Middle Eastern country it is today. Israel is a true melting pot.

“Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia” by Karen Ordahl Kupperman— Life Between Cultures

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia”, NYU Press, 2019.

Lives Between Cultures

Amos Lassen

Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s “Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia” is the story of four young people, English and Powhatan, who lived their lives between cultures. Kupperman changes the focus from the history of the founding of Virginia to the less-known and compelling story of young people who became part of cross-cultural relationships. However, since history cannot be related from just one side of history, we see both here. This is also another look at the story of Pocahontas who became an emissary for her father when she was just ten-years-old. Pocahontas’s father ruled over the local tribes and it was necessary to be in some kind of relationship with him. We also have the never before told stories of  Thomas Savage, Henry Spelman, and Robert Poole, young English boys who were forced to live with powerful Indian leaders to act as intermediaries as well.  

We have intrigue and danger in their stories. As Pocahontas, Thomas, Henry, and Robert collaborated and conspired in carrying messages and trying to smooth out difficulties, they never knew when they might be caught in the firing line of the hostilities that were developing.  They had special status and a degree of power but because they had relationships with both sides, no one trusted them completely.  The stories are written by Kupperman who an expert in sixteenth is- and seventeenth-century and she shares with us what she found in the archives. They were able Henry Spelman’s memoir, travel accounts, letters, and official reports and records of meetings of the governor and council in Virginia. She also draws on recent archaeology to give us the stories of the young people who were very influencers of their day and were ready to change the way we have understand early Virginia. Here are young people who are caught up in events which they had no control over.

When we read the stories together, we get quite an introduction to the tragic history of the Jamestown colony.  By looking at the young people who moved between Algonquian and English communities, we gain new insights as well.
The “English Boys” were sent by their families to the Jamestown Colony, with the specific intent to have them live among the local Indian tribal families so they could learn the language and serve as go-betweens the leaders of both the English and native residents of the land. At just about the same time  Pocahontas and Squanto and other Indian children were sent to England.

Kupperman also reports on the wider story of the gradually deteriorating relationships between English and “Americans”. We learn  what life was really like for these early settlers and those  that they would ultimately displace.

Kupperman adds the details that give more reason for their actions and she writes of the incredible harshness and cruelty on both sides. I was surprised to read that the Virginia Company encouraged the City of London to round up “a hundred children of twelve years and upward” to populate the colony resulted in a very unsettling time of transition as the population was made up of more and more of these young arrivals who did not necessarily want to be there. new arrivals. The boys we read of here were selected for service with the Chesapeake Algonquians because they were “still malleable, unbaked dough, and could therefore adapt to life with the Powhatans and learn new languages more easily. As the colonists raged and starved because they could not cope, the boys saw competence and a culture in which status was earned rather than acquired….They could see the value of both sides.”

From the way that I see it, this book is about the cultural divide between the Powhatan and the English settlers of the time and how the two cultures clashed and how subsequent generations in Virginia dealt with the growing English colonies.

Kupperman covers so much more than just Pocahontas who was just a young teen in 1609 and had peers with four English boys who were brought along on English parents often gave up their troubled teens to servitude by sending them on ships destined for the Americas. They were expected to learn the new culture and act as intermediaries. It worked in some cases, in others it did not and many didn’t always want to return to England to report to the king.

The Natives treated their women more equally. Women’s work in agriculture, from planting corn and tobacco, to their say in communal affairs, was seen as equal in their tribes and the Englishmen could not understand that. The English quickly became addicted to tobacco but needed the native people to show them how to grow it. English nobility did not do labor, though, and they expected the Natives to do it all for them.

The second part of the book focuses on Pocahontas’ life as Rebecca Rolfe who was unfairly treated. The English obsession with class and their insistence that people could not move up or down the social strata in the end hurt them as an Empire.

Beyond the four main protagonists of the book, Kupperman discusses the wider practice of trading people — children, prisoners, indentured servants, slaves — between the differing factions that were settling North America, including the Spanish. In New England, the Mayflower Pilgrims relied on Squanto, a Native American from the Patuxet tribe who came to live with them in 1621. But these children with what the author calls “fluid identities” came to be mistrusted, as their loyalties could not be pinned down and the information they gave was, often suspect. However, Pocahontas, though, her presence among the settlers in Jamestown was life-saving, as she brought her knowledge of agriculture with her, allowing them to grow a crop (tobacco) that had a high market value.

Interactions between settlers and Native Americans were not always negative and violent. While that certainly became the case, in the early years, it’s interesting “to see how everyone was trying to work things out even though the driving factor was usually the desperation of impending starvation (the colonists) and the need for hunting, fishing and agricultural grounds (the Native Americans).”  

I found reading about Indian social behavior to be fascinating. It was a time when Indian societies were intact and had not yet been utterly distorted by the European presence. During this period, relations with the colonists fluctuated between cooperation and violent terrorism under the strain of Jamestown’s poor preparation and need for food.

 

“DON’T EVER WIPE TEARS WITHOUT GLOVES”— In Sweden

“Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves” (“Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar”)

In Sweden

Amos Lassen

While there’s a tendency in English-speaking countries to only ever consider how certain events affected us, of course they often affect other places too. That’s very true of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In terms of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, we rarely hear about countries aside from the United States. Most documentaries and films tend to concentrate on what happened in this country. The three-part mini-series Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves” takes us to Stockholm, Sweden in the early 80s.

 

Rasmus (Adam Palsson) is a young man comes to Stockholm to check out the bright lights. Staying with his aunt he soon immerses himself in the gay world, meeting other people and having fun. He meets Benjamin (Adam Lundgren), who comes from a very strict family of Jehovah’s Witnesses when he knocks on the door of one of Rasmus’ gay friends, hoping to spread the word of his religion. Rasmus immediately sees that Ben is gay, something the young man thought nobody could see. Ben slowly begins to open up and eventually starts a relationship with Rasmus.

Things are not perfect though. Benjamin just wants a simple monogamous relationship and has no intention of coming out to his parents while Rasmus feels people should be out and proud, and he also wants to have sex with other people too. Then they hear about a “gay plague” and people around them start getting sick. From the very beginning we sense that this is not an easy film and the title comes from a line of dialogue in the first few minutes where a nurse is informed not to touch AIDS patients without full-on safety gear. Throughout the film,  we move between the young men figuring out their lives amid the promise of early 80s Stockholm gay scene and Rasmus lying in a hospital bed suffering the effects of AIDS.

The film uses quite an effective structure, contrasting the hope and possibility of gay people in a society that’s slowly becoming more accepting of different sexualities, with the devastating impact the AIDS virus has. The three hour-long episodes are helped enormously by some great performances. Adam Palsson is excellent as the brash Rasmus but this is Adam Lundgren’s movie— he is the heart of it all. The supporting cast is excellent as is the recreation of 1980’s life. There is a nice specificity both in its visual style and how it shows an intimate knowledge of the areas of Stockholm that were popular with gay people in the early 80s, including the place where the bars were to where people went cruising.

It’s not always an easy watch since the film doesn’t shy away from the horrible reality of the end stages of AIDS. However that’s as it should be. For those who weren’t around at the time, it’s easy to think the AIDS crisis was a bad thing without realizing what it was actually like for those living through it. As we see here, these were people still somewhat dislocated from society and often estranged from their own biological families. They had built their identity and new families amongst one another and then had to watch those closest to them dying ugly, agonizing deaths and often wondering if/when the same would happen to them. They also knew that if it had primarily been happening to straight people, the reaction would have been a full scale emergency rather than it becoming a political football and ignored by many.

“Don’t Ever Wipe Tears” was a bit of a sensation when it first aired in Sweden in 2012, and there was even talk of it being recut into a film for distribution in other countries which is finally happening.

“WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY”— The Past, The Future

“Who Will Write Our History?”

The Past, The Future

Amos Lassen

“Who Will Write Our History” shares the   mostly unknown story of a covert group known as Oyneg Shabes and how they promised to defeat the Nazis with pen and paper. Rachel Auerbach (Jowita Budnik, voiced by Joan Allen), is headed to on a train to Warsaw in 1946, three years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that took place in April 1943.  The war had been over for a year-and-a-half and Rachel has learned recently that a hidden archive was found.  Nobody ever thought that this archive would ever be recovered.  Two caches were found and the first came in September 1946 with the recovery of ten boxes.

Journalists, authors, teachers, and children and other Jews battled with their pens.  They were determined that their written world would ensure the survival of Jewish history long after the Nazis had done their dastardly deeds.  Historian Emanuel Ringelblum (Piotr Glowacki, voiced by Adrien Brody) wanted to make sure that  the archive would go on to be included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register and to become known as the Ringelblum Archive. Today it is housed at  at the Jewish Historical Institute which used to be the Jewish Social Self-Help (ZSS) offices.

“Who Will Write Our History” 2016 dir Roberta Grossman

It is important to understand that the archive at Oyneg Shabes is one great act of accusation against the German policy,” says Polish historian Jan Grabowski.  He points out that any underground activity or collecting of evidence of German crimes carried the death penalty.

Ringelblum was the leader of some 60 members of Oyneg Shabes who would lead the fight against the Nazis.  When 450,000 Jews were sealed inside the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940, Ringelblum joined with other Jews (including journalists, scholars, and Jewish leaders) to create the group that became Oyneg Shabes.  Through Ringelblum’s leadership, the sixty members were on a covert mission to expose the Nazis for their lies and propaganda.  Now we are  finally getting to know what really happened in Warsaw.  Once the focal point of Jewish life, the city was almost destroyed during the war.

Of the sixty members of the group, only three would survive the Holocaust.  These include Auerbach, Hersh Wasser, and his wife, Bluma Wasser.  Of the three million Jews living in Poland, only one in one hundred would survive.  Hersh (aka Hirsch Vasser) knew where the archive was buried so his survival played a key role in finding it.  Two milk cans containing archival material were recovered in December 1950.  Finally, the third archive cache remains missing and is The third archive contains half of the documents so it’s recovery is crucial.

After collecting testimonies from Polish survivors following the war, Rachel Auerbach emigrated to Israel.  She would take a job as the director of the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony for Yad Vashem.  She came up with the idea to use the survivors’ testimony during the trial of Adolf Eichmann.   While so many did not live to survive the Shoah, these 60 people made sure that Warsaw’s Jewish history would live on and this was being carried out during a period which Jews were being killed by the Nazis without mercy.  Without this covert group, important history would probably not exist. 

“Who Will Write Our History” is just one of many Holocaust era stories that were unknown for years and are now being told and it examines the past as it cautions about the future.  The film which focuses on a small band of individuals who found strength in defiance of Nazi control through the simple act of writing. They chronicled their lives and  what they saw, what they felt, what they refused to become fora secret archive– Oyneg Shabes” (the joy of Sabbath). They found a way to be remembered as more than victims but as people who resisted.

The Oyneg Shabes archive is a living record of the days within the ghetto as told by its members. “Within the archive, they celebrate the good days, mourn the bad, contemplate the ethical difficulties of surviving when people are dying of starvation and disease all around you, and try not to lose hope.”

“Who Will Write Our History” focuses specifically on the Warsaw Ghetto and  is split into three congruent portions running simultaneously that create an immersive and contextually thoughtful experience. The first portion is a reenactment of events featuring actors in the roles of the individuals central to the creation of the secret archive. The second portion uses voiceovers in the place of most of the dialogue for the actors. Though the actors do have a few lines which they speak themselves, the bulk of the dialogue comes from letters from the archive, which the faceless voices communicate while we watch various reenactments take place. The third portion is a series of experts who offer commentary on what was happening.

 

The film is an emotionally-charged experience, and a necessary one. Even now, the lessons of the past remind us all that too easily can unease turn into frustration, into hate, into violence and that the violence perpetrated on a people can happen to anyone with enough time and without resistance.

This is a shattering and inspiring story to tell, yet its style continuously holds us at arm’s length. Under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum the Oyneg Shabbos circle of academics and journalists documented life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto, collecting eye-witness accounts. Most of the film is told through the words of the Oyneg Shabbos group (so-called because they often met on Sundays. In large measure, the film also draws from visuals preserved within their hidden archives.

“Which side of the story becomes the official narrative? Whose accounts do we elevate to the level of “truth,” and whose do we ignore or even bury? What is real, and what is fake? These are top-of-mind questions in 2019.”

“TEL AVIV ON FIRE”— A Film about a Film

“Tel Aviv On Fire”

A Film About a Film

Amos Lassen

Making a film about the making of a film, or in this case a TV show, is structurally difficult. When making. Film about the making of a film, a balance must be found and it is often difficult to do so. Director Sameh Zoabi was able to do so as he presents alternate realities by using them go explore life in present day Israel. He brings us a farcical comedy with a disarming hug and a surprising dash of romance.

Salam (Kais Nashif) is our main character and he  seems, at first, to be more hapless than huggable. He is a Palestinian living in Israel, working as a production intern on the flamboyant soap opera “Tel Aviv On Fire” with a telenovela set in 1967 on the cusp of the Six-Day War. It’s clear he’s mainly there at his producer uncle’s indulgence. He is also trying to  reconnect with old flame Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi). This is a pro-Palestinian melodrama, which stars Tala (Lubna Azabal) as femme fatale Arab woman Manal, who takes on the Jewish name ‘Rachel’ in order to set a honeytrap for Israeli military commander Yehuda (Yousef Sweid).

When Salam steps in to help with a spot of pronunciation trouble, he finds himself in an argument about the word “explosive” in the script – just one of many spot-on choices that Zoabi and co-writer Dan Kleinman go on to use for full effect, Tala takes a shine to his ‘writing’ skills. Suddenly elevated to the scripting crew, Salam finds an unexpected ally when he is hauled in for questioning at one of his daily journeys through an Israeli checkpoint by army commander Assi (Yaniv Biton). Assi, whose wife is a fan of the show (that has a following on both sides of the border) really wants to be able to show off by giving her juicy titbits of the plot, and takes a look at the script, only to be horrified by its content. He quickly sets about advising Salam on how to make Yehuda a more dashing prospect and, while this initially gets the Palestinian out of a tight spot, he’s soon caught between the plot aspirations of the pro-Jewish Assi and the pro-Palestine backers.

Zoabi amps up the absurdity levels as Salam tries desperately to find compromise, all the while showing how the script acrobatics and attitudes represent a microcosm for the wider societal strife, where any show of empathy for either side might be branded “anti-Semitic” or “Zionist” or where a wrong word at a checkpoint can lead to a day’s lost work. The material is treated with a soft touch but finds time to offer comment on the way that attitudes and conflict can be passed down from generation to generation, letting neither side off the hook.

The story has several layers but the heart of the film is always there— an odd couple bromance between Salam and Assi. The film’s real achievement is in capturing the people rather than simply the politics, such as the way that Assi’s desire to change the commander into a romantic hero is at least as much to do with impressing his wife by proxy as it is connected to dogma. Salim lives in Jerusalem, but the show is taped in Ramallah. To get to work on the West Bank, he has to go through a check point, and he can only do so if he agrees to Assi’s demands. This Israeli film gives us a unique portrayal of Palestinian-Israeli tensions that is marked by dramatic pretense and cold humor. With its provocative title and brilliant and humorous narrative, the film gives a new meaning to the comedy genre.

Indirectly, the film also shows that the younger generation is burdened by the suffering of the past generations and that no matter who the aggressor is, Palestinians and Israelis still have to live together, regardless of how each side views the past. Just like with the characters of Salam and Assi, there is always something that can bring people together.

“Relation of Virginia” by Henry Spelman and Karen Ordahl Kupperman— Memoir of a Young Boy

Spelman, Henry and Karen Ordahl Kupperman.  “Relation of Virginia”, NYU Press, 2019.

Memoir of a Young Boy

Amos Lassen

“Relation of Virginia” is a memoir of one of America’s first adventurers, a young boy who acted as a link between the Jamestown colonists and the Patawomecks and Powhatans. Young Henry Spelman writes, “Being in displeasure of my friends, and desirous to see other countries, after three months sail we come with prosperous winds in sight of Virginia.” This is how Spelman’s story begins. When he was fourteen-years old, his mother sent him to Virginia in 1609. He was one of Jamestown’s early arrivals and he soon became an integral player in the power struggle between the Chesapeake Algonquians and the English settlers. Shortly after he arrived, he accompanied another English boy, Thomas Savage, to Powhatan’s capital and after a few months accompanied the Patawomeck chief, Iopassus; to the Potomac. Spelman learned Chesapeake Algonquian languages and customs, acted as an interpreter, and knew a host of colonial America’s most well-known figures, from Pocahontas to Powhatan to Captain John Smith. His manuscript tells Henry’s story in his own words, and it is the only description of Chesapeake Algonquian culture written with an insider’s knowledge. Spelman’s account is lively and violent and filled with anthropological and historical detail. It is a valuable and unique primary document and illuminates the beginnings of English America and tells us much about how the Chesapeake Algonquians saw English invaders. This is the first transcription from the original manuscript since 1872.

Spelman was a new arrival in England’s Jamestown colony who, at age fourteen, was sent to live with the Powhatans, Pocahontas’s people. Henry is unique among boys who lived with Native people because he wrote about his experiences, and his memoir is a major source on Chesapeake Algonquian life in the early days of English colonization. As he matured, he found himself caught between loyalties. Colonial authorities put him on trial for informing Opechancanough, the Powhatan chief, about changes in Jamestown, and he died at the age of twenty-eight in fighting between Natives and English.