Monthly Archives: December 2019

“Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life” by James Lovejoy— a Different Orphan

Lovejoy, James. “Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life”, Independently Published, 2019.

A Different Orphan

Amos Lassen

Joseph Chapman is a young man living in  late 18th century London. He is an orphan and has been consigned to a terrible charity school. He knows that  he is different from other boys. At the Little Eastcheap Free School for Unfortunate Boys, the predatory headmaster, Mr. Peevers runs the place and Chowder, another pupil,  becomes the one person he can trust. For their apprenticeships, Joe does well. He is assigned to a prominent progressive bookseller while Chowder must contend with an alcoholic greengrocer, Tobias Cudworth and his wife, Dulcibella. With help from his bookseller, Joe reconnects with Chowder with the intention of resume their relationship. Chowder wants to do the same, but because of treachery, Joe and Chowder land in Newgate Prison and face trial for sodomy.

The novel is a portrait of lower-class strife and the story of how gay men might have lived centuries before homosexuality was decriminalized.

Joseph shares his story, and he gets begins with his sad and sordid childhood that sounds as sordid. His father was a “waterman,” ferrying passengers on the Thames and he and his family of five plus a grandmother live in a two-room flat in a crowded building. His father died as a result a fever made worsened by misguided medical treatment. His mother boxes to make ends meet. (Women’s boxing existed in 18th century England and no was as brutal as the men’s sport). She holds her own for a while, but when driven by a big prize. She boxes with an overmatched opponent and suffers a head injury that leaves her bedridden.

When she dies, the siblings are separated, the older brother sent to apprenticeship and Joseph and his sister to gender-segregated orphanages. Joseph meets Chowder, and they share a tender love affair. They’re thwarted first by a bitter and exploitative schoolmaster and then by geography and Chowder’s cruel caretakers. Their attachment is considered criminal and sinful, yet we see their love as very special and beautiful.

Joseph and Chowder are sworn to one another yet face the tremendous problems for gay men to declare themselves at the time. Joseph’s world becomes larger as he meets several kinds of gay men and there’s a suggestion of a nascent protest movement against the troubles these men face.

It is a heart-gripping human story and writer James Lovejoy gives life to the struggles and triumphs of his characters who are, in effect, representative of gay men and boys of the time.

“Nottingham: The True Story of Robyn Hood” by Anna Burke— A Return to the Forest

Burke, Anna. “Nottingham: The True Story of Robyn Hood”, Bywater Books, 2020.

A Return to the Forest

Amos Lassen

Growing up, I was a voracious reader but for whatever reason the tales of Robin Hood and his gang were never books I wanted to read. It was not until I saw “Robin and Marian” and then later Mel Brooks spoof, “Men in Tights” that I realized what I had missed. I read as many adult versions of the story as I could find and you can imagine my excitement when I learned that Anna Burke was writing yet another version of the tale. I just finished her “Nottingham: The True Story of Robyn Hood: and I loved it. It is a familiar story that she has reimagined and it is wonderful.

Running from the law, Robyn is in Sherwood Forest. She  does not want to break the law; she just wants to take care of her family but the Sheriff of Nottingham has levied the largest tax in the history of England, making her take matters into her own hands. She needs help and so she depends upon “her merry band of misfits and Marian, the Sheriff’s daughter who he has made off-limits. Robyn needs to figure out how to pull off the biggest heist that has ever been in Sherwood.

We really see what kind of person Robyn is when she puts all at risk in order to make sure that her family will be okay. I love writer Anna Burk’s twist on a story is familiar to so many of us and that she is able to use a queer angle in relating it. It is beautifully written and filled with great detail. As I read, I mused about being surrounded by lust greenery with birds tweeting in the trees. It is also a thriller of a read and I was wrapped up in the tensions of the plot. Both Robyn and Marian are wonderfully drawn characters and when they are together, I felt the love between them. Even as a male, I identified with Robyn a bit and wished I could be more like. Her strength of character is amazing.

As I have said before (and with every Anna Burke book I have read), there is something in the way Burke writes and the stories that she tells that make me a fan.

“UNCUT GEMS”— A Man Set on Self-Destruction

“UNCUT GEMS”

A Man Set on Self-Destruction

Amos Lassen

In Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” a man’s individual tragedy shows us the emptiness of the systems that define him. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a small-time jeweler with a gambling addiction who is struggling to stay ahead of creditors, pawning jewelry loaned to him by customers to raise money he needs to pay off sharks. Instead he spends cash on the latest basketball odds. Howard is a man for whom the big pay-off is always just a few steps away but steps that he cannot take. Yet, he manages to be endlessly optimistic. His balancing act is maintained on sheer force of will and his single-mindedness is overwhelming. Howard attempts to dominate every conversation, fast-talking over everyone from clients to creditors to his own wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), whose loathing of her husband signals that their marriage is nearing an end. But Howard makes the fatal error of believing himself to be the only true swindler in any given place even though he lives in an underworld populated entirely by hustlers. Howard never fools anyone. He talks so rapidly and incessantly to his debtors that he dazes them long enough to momentarily evade them for a short time.

By the time we meet Howard, his fragile way of life is starting to crumble. He is so heavily in dept to Arno (Eric Bogosian), an in-law and loan shark whose hired muscle (Keith Williams Richards) threatens Howard with beatings so he tries a way to get out of debt by ordering a valuable opal from an Ethiopian gem mine in the hopes of auctioning it for a massive profit. But because he cannot help himself, he complicates things by letting Kevin Garnett borrow the opal after the Celtics center visits his shop with another hustler, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). It seems to be a win-win situation since Garnett needs a good-luck charm during the Eastern Conference finals and Howard hopes to bet on the Celtics winning. However, things do not go that way.  

The stress of this wreaks havoc on Howard, and the man’s hopelessness show him to be full of impotent fury. His attempts to sound calm suggest a man trying hard not to scream, which he frequently does. Howard issues orders with a finality that would convey authority were he not ignored by l everyone, and the more Howard cajoles and threatens the more pathetic he seems.

We see Howard’s diminishing sense of strength as he becomes doomed. The Safdie brothers do a wonderful job of directing this urban crime thriller with “loopy characters.”

“BENJAMIN”— Letting Love In

“BENJAMIN”

Letting Love In

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Simon Amstell’s amusing and appealing, bittersweet romantic comedy “Benjamin” is a treat. Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is floundering in his career. He is filled with self-doubt as his feature film “No Self” premieres at the 2017 London Film Festival. His private life is also giving him self-doubts especially after meeting a young French singer/musician called Noah (Phénix Brossard) at a gig.

Their romance would run smoothly, if only Benjamin would let it. They are both cute guys and seem to be made for each other. Ben  is wracked with self-doubt about his worth after a two-year relationship went wrong. As we might expect, his ex turns up just at the wrong moment, and that moment is when Ben is meeting Noah’s parents . Director Amstell manages to make the satire and the romance fresh and funny and affecting.

This is a bleak and hilarious glimpse into Simon Amstell’s mind. We see his insecurities and witticisms in his indictment of London, the arts and himself. Benjamin comes across as a  self-portrait. 

Benjamin is a filmmaker, a tea-drinker and “an over-thinking meditating vegan.” He is the archetypal fun-guy who meets his ‘yang’ and together, they are a very cute couple.

The film wrestles with the anxiety caused by the release of Benjamin’s second film and his fears that he may be unable to experience love.

“THE SONG OF NAMES”— A Holocaust Drama

“THE SONG OF NAMES”

A Holocaust Drama

Amos Lassen

François Girard’s “The Song of Names” begins in London in 1951, where Polish-Jewish violin prodigy Dovidl fails to show up to his public debut. Dovidl’s musical education and career have been financed by music publisher Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend). Simmonds’ son, Martin (Misha Handley), watches helplessly as his father is forced to cancel the performance and thereby face major losses that eventually lead to his early death. Martin never sees nor hears from Dovidl again until the present day, when a series of coincidences take him on an extended journey through Europe and America to find him.

Martin’s journey begins a series of flashbacks that slowly reveals how and why Dovidl became part of the Simmonds household. During World War II, as Dovidl’s family, the Rapoports remain in Poland on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Nine-year-old Dovidl (Luke Doyle) decides to go by the name David and is given sanctuary and support by the wealthy Simmonds. The family immediately sees the child’s rnatural musical abilities, and while the same age as David, Martin is at first unsure of this intruder and is upset by his brashness. He is jealous of his family who showers special attention on him.

David’s  musical genius inflates his ego to the point of obnoxiousness, but we also see his vulnerability whenever he reacts to the tragic events taking place in Poland. His friendship with Martin is complex in that Martin envies David yet at the same time looks up to him because of his intellectual and emotional sophistication. We see the confused ideas and impulses that children face when confronted with real-life horror. David and Martin are able to show a wide spectrum of emotions.

Filmed in drab, muted colors making London of the 40s and 50s seem to have no character. Tim Roth as the present-day Martin mostly asks other characters about Dovidl’s post-1951 actions and this could have been depicted rather than merely spoken of. The reliance on the flashback is often clunky and Clive Owen as the older Dovidl hardly gets to explore the character’s rich contradictions and the subplot involving the men’s mutual love interest (Catherine McCormack) seems to be added for melodramatic purposes.

The material is powerful and conveys the tragedy of the Holocaust on both a personal and historical level and that tragedy is used to show Judaism almost exclusively with grief mourning. I really wanted to love this movie but too much emphasis is placed on a kind of collective martyrdom, especially when it suggests that the reason for Dovidl’s disappearance is his way of honoring the Shoah by renouncing the secular world. The film is built around Martin’s quest to understand what became of Dovidl but his character’s religious understanding of and response to tragedy is seen as a plot twist instead of the result of a spiritual journey.

Martin spends years searching for the man who was like a brother to him, hoping to find the closure he needs. He hopes for answers. Shortly before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, Simmonds’ father Gilbert took young  violin virtuoso Dovidl Rapaport into their home, promising to nurture his career from the presumed safety of London. Even though young Martin was jealous of Rapaport’s prodigious talents, he too took pride in protecting his surrogate brother. However, the uncertainty of his family’s fate back in Poland tormented Rapaport, causing anxiety that often manifested itself in boorish and anti-social ways. Nevertheless, his talent only grew. By the time he reached his early twenties, he recorded an album that electrified the critics. Everything was fine at the rehearsal and sound-checks, but when it was time for the uninsured concert to start, Rapaport was a no-show.

The betrayal of his family haunts Martin as he obsessively tracks leads that take him back to Communist era Poland, but to no avail. His wife Helen worries about the financial and emotional strain, but she still accepts his quest for the truth. Martin Simmonds is a character everyone will identify with and Tim Roth is excellent as Martin, humanizing his neuroses and making his obsessive behavior sympathetic.  In contrast, Clive Owen emphasizes all of grown-up Dovidl’s rough edges and standoffishness. The big revelation probably will not be all that surprising, but that is really not the point of the film. Rather, it clearly depicts the power of music to heal. This is the first feature film to receive permission to film on-site at the Treblinka memorial and we also see the half-dead shell of one of Rapaport’s former violinist rivals after decades imprisonment and dubious “treatment” in a Soviet-era sanitarium.

All is somewhat predictable, but the human messiness of the characters and their situations is much more important. It is sad that the narrative is lacking in clarity over timelines. The “Song of Names” is a reference to a l Jewish prayer, a days-long recitation of the names of the Holocaust victims set to music, and this sacred music is the film’s theme. 

“Cleanness” by Garth Greenwell— “Foreignness, Obligation and Desire”

Greenwell, Garth. “Cleanness”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020,

“Foreignness, Obligation and Desire”

Amos Lassen

Set in Sofia, Bulgaria, Garth Greenwell’s “Cleanness” is a novel of hope after major change. It is a time of upheaval during revolution in which an American teacher faces a life that is transformed by finding and losing love. As he prepares to leave the place that he has come to know as home, he struggles with the life he led including the intimate encounters that were part of his life in Bulgaria. He realizes that these memories are reflections of his past. When a student shares a confession with him, he is reminded of the first person he loved. He had been seduced by a stranger and became part of a sadistic relationship with an older man. Then there was a romance with a foreigner that both reopened and healed wounds. As he reflects on his past he begins to realize something about making connections— with the people he has loved, with the places he has lived and with himself. Reading this is like falling into a dream with gorgeous language and even more beautiful landscapes.

Greenwell takes us into the mind of his main character, the teacher/narrator and we read of subconscious urges and conscious longings. There are explicit sex scenes and great detail related in the first-person. Sex here becomes a way to communicate and a way to understand the importance of sex in the world. We cannot forget that the map of Europe was formed by sexual urges and desires and we see here that sex is about power and control.  

Those of you who have read Greenwell’s “What Belongs to Me” (one of my favorite recent books) will recognize the teacher/main character but this is not a sequel. Rather, it is a continuation of that story but it also stands alone. Knowing something about the writer, I cannot help but wonder how much of this is autobiographical.

Divided into three sections of three chapters each, we have vignettes of relationships that took place before, during and after the main relationship, the one that the teacher has with a character simply named R., a young student from Lisbon, who we see  as lacking goals in life and somewhat unable to rest.  As I said earlier, there are graphic depictions of sex including anonymous couplings, S & M encounters and passivity and dominance. These are not gratuitous but totally necessary for us to understand the teacher. Some of the sexual encounters are loving while others seem to be there for transition but all are necessary.

The prose is glorious and lyrical and I thought as I read that I could well imagine Greenwell introspecting as he wrote. Prose like this comes from the essence of being and is very real.

Let me take you on a short tour of the plot. “Mentor”, the first story is about the narrator meeting a student, who shares a story that the narrator recognizes from his own adolescence. The next two chapters are about a  sexual encounter and attending a protest march and we realize here that the book is actually a collection of separate scenarios that are loosely connected. At the center of the book is the teacher’s affair and relationship with R. that has ended and our teacher feels lost.  Part 2 gives us detailed information about that relationship but this leads us to several more scenes that at first show no connection to each other. Even though I had a bit of trouble with the connection between the relationship with R. and the chapters of disassociated scenes, this did not stop me from enjoying every word. I saw the book to be written in a kind of stream of consciousness. Having spent many years of my life living in Europe and searching for myself, I found a great deal to identify with and that is what great literature does—it pulls us into the story and doesn’t let go. I do not see myself letting go of what I read here anytime soon.

“Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America” by Christian Smith, Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo— Passing Belief On

Smith, Christian, Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotollo. “Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Passing Belief On

Amos Lassen

“Religious Parenting” looks at how parents approach the task of passing on religious faith and practice to their children. We live at a time of overall decline of traditional religion and an increased interest in personal “spirituality” making it difficult for parents to transmit religious beliefs, values, and practices to their kids. We know that parents are the most important influence on their children’s religious lives, yet they have been almost totally ignored in previous studies of religious socialization. Christian Smith is a renowned religion scholar who, with his collaborators Bridget Ritz and Michael Rotolo, explores  American parents’ strategies, experiences, beliefs, and anxieties regarding religious transmission via hundreds of in-depth interviews about religious traditions, social classes, and family types all over this country.

We hear the voices of evangelical, Catholic, Mormon, mainline and black Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist parents and we learn  that, despite tremendous diversity, American parents share a nearly identical approach to socializing their children religiously. For almost all those interviewed,  religion is important for the foundation it provides for becoming one’s best self on life’s difficult journey. Religion is basically a resource for navigating the challenges of this life and not preparing for an afterlife. Parents see it as their job, not religious professionals’, to give their children the life-enhancing religious values that, in turn, provide resilience, morality, and a sense of purpose. Challenging longstanding sociological and anthropological assumptions about culture, the authors show that parents of highly dissimilar backgrounds share the same “cultural models” when passing on religion to their children. We read of parents’ real-life challenges while breaking innovative theoretical ground.

We are challenged here to reconsider the importance of beliefs and values in their understandings of culture.  The book “reveals American religious parents as valuing their children’s freedom and self-determination in relation to religion, while at the same time wanting their children to come to the same beliefs, values, and religious perspectives that they themselves hold. Religious Parenting is an important work in the study of family life and religion.

“Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil” by Susan Neiman— Confronting Past Evil

Neiman, Susan. “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Confronting Past Evil

Amos Lassen

Susan Neiman’s “Learning from the Germans” is  an urgently needed perspective on how a country can come to terms with its historical wrongdoings. Neiman, a white woman who came of age in the civil rights–era South and a Jewish woman who has spent much of her adult life in Berlin uses here unique perspective along with philosophical reflection, personal stories, and interviews with both Americans and Germans who are dealing with the evils of their own national histories.

Neiman tells the story of the long and difficult path Germans faced as they attempted to atone for the crimes of the Holocaust. In the United States, Neiman interviewed James Meredith about his battle for equality in Mississippi and Bryan Stevenson about his monument to the victims of lynching, as well as lesser-known social justice activists in the South in order to provide a “compelling picture of the work contemporary Americans to consider the nuanced forms that evil can assume, so that we can recognize and avoid them in the future.

Neiman relates hard truths that others avoid and leave unsaid. The book is disturbing yet hopeful and insightful as t looks at who we are as human beings and the values we have as a nation.

This is an insightful comparative analysis of post-WWII German sentiments about Nazi atrocities alongside southern American attitudes about the Civil War and slavery, suggesting how Americans might better come to terms with their country’s history. It is also a “pointed demonstration of how Germany offers lessons for attending to polarizing issues of the past and present and serves as an important lesson for those who seek to face up to the past wrongs in this country.”

What Nazis and Americans shared in common was the idea of the superiority of the white race. Nazism went after Jews and others as inferior to Aryans and themselves as “the Master Race.” The planter slave owners saw black people as inferior thus allowing white people to see themselves as superior.

Neiman counters the Nazis learning by examining common parallels and uncommon resolutions. Slavery and Nazism were vehicles which drove a racial superiority/inferiority hierarchy. Nazism crashed in WWII but the effects of slavery live on in American society and the  current administration is pushing to “ensure domestic tension” and succeeding at a very alarming rate. .

Nazism had a short life span (12 years) in which to sink deep roots. America began to set racism’s roots in 1619. While America is proud of its exceptionalism and with slavery, America has been exceptional in how long it has endured, and how pervasive racism still is. As Americans we are affected by a post traumatic syndrome.

Neiman explores the concept of “Vergangenheitsaufarbeiting – working-off-the-past, as practiced for the past nearly 75 years by Germany to come to realistic and accepting terms with the horrors of the Nazi regime. To understand why, how and where this was implemented to derive the present day re-unified Germany that can feel shame and regret for their past sins, while being ‘proud’ to have the Enlightenment values to do so.”  She explores whether the lessons of the German process since the Second World War might be a model for Americans to come to terms with our legacy of slavery and racism.

“Disengagement: Leaving Home, Finding Home & Encounters Along the Way” by Daniella Levy— Leaving Preconceptions Behind

Levy, Daniella. “Disengagement: Leaving Home, Finding Home & Encounters Along the Way”, Kasva Press, 2020.

Leaving Preconceptions Behind

Amos Lassen

How often do we ask ourselves if the place where we live is home? Can we really define “home” and do we know when we are there? Years ago I went “home” to Israel and was sure that I was indeed in the place where I was supposed to be? Is home a physical place or is it a state of mind? Daniella Levy faces these questions in “Disengagement” by having us step outside our regular lifestyle and listen to what others have to say. The Key word here is “other”. It is important for us to know and experience others in order to understand how we live today. Against the backdrop of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, we meet characters as they deal with each other and themselves.

In “Disengagement” we meet characters whose lives are changed when on August 18, 2005, the settlement of Neve Adva was evacuated by Israeli forces. This was a polarizing event and we see in it a microcosm of the politics of today. People were forced to leave the place that they considered to be their home. Among the characters that we meet here are a rabbi who searches how to understand his own sacrifices, a formerly religious soldier who is forced to evict the first girl he ever loved, a Holocaust survivor who can escape the memories of the past, a widow who is the process of moving her husband’s corpse to a new grave and a young Palestinian female who seeks hope and she deals with the destruction that surrounds her. Taken as a whole, we have a group of people who might never have met each other had times been different.

“They come from different corners of Israeli society, rooted in their own beliefs, busy with their own troubles. Farmers and fishermen, skeptics and believers, immigrants and natives, children and grandparents struggle with faith, loss, jealousy, hope—and the turmoil around them only deepens the rifts that divide them.” Some of them live in Neve Adva, the place whose destruction brought all their lives together and changed them forever. In reading about them, we have to leave our preconceptions behind and forget what we have thought about the “other”.

Neve Adva, while a fictional place, becomes very real as we realize the meaning of the word “disengagement” especially for those of us who have never been forced to disengage from something we love. Here this is not just physical disengagement; our characters disengage from their material surroundings but also from the people they know and love, from their opinions and from their beliefs.

I remember all too well watching on television in Israel when the first disengagement came after the visit of Sadat to Israel in 1977. We watched as Israelis at the settlement of Yamit in 1982 were forced out of their homes by other Israelis and their settlement leveled to the ground. It was a numbing and heartbreaking experience. With “Disengagement”, I was taken back to those memories.

This is a beautiful book and a wonderful read and it just might challenge you to see the “other” differently. I deliberately have not named the characters or go into much detail because I want you to have the same experience I had as I read. Each character (and poet Maayan Tzurim) opens new doors and new ways to think. Now it is up to you to open those doors and walk through. You just have to wait until March 23, 2020 to do so.

“Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues” by Rabbi Toby Bayfield— Modernity and Judaism

Bayfield, Tony Rabbi. “Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues”, Bloomsbury, 2019.

Modernity and Judaism

Amos Lassen

British rabbi Tony Bayfield looks at the impact of modernity on the Jewish community today in “Being Jewish Today”. He shares the journey of millions of women and men through today’s difficult world and explores the meaning of Jewish identity and its relationship to Jewish tradition and belief from the perspective of a person fully integrated into the modern Western world. He asks tough questions about his Jewishness, Judaism and the Jewish God and we see that these are the same questions that asked by those of all faiths and by those who have no faith. 

Rabbi Bayfield begins with an account of the journey of Jewish people and thought from ancient times to the present day, then considers Jewish identity, Israel as land and anti-Semitism. He then looks at Torah: Halakhah – practice, and Aggadah – ethics and the matter of belief in a world that is facing global extinction. He then explores the widely evaded questions of universal suffering and divine inaction. “

The book draws on key religious and secular thinkers who contribute to his argument. This is a book for all Jews, religious or cultural, and to anyone who is curious about the nature of Judaism and religion today. The writing is filled with the rabbi’s humanity and it is filled with insights and challenges for non-Jews, as well.

Here is a thoughtful and inviting statement of what it means to be a Jew today and is totally relevant. Rabbi Bayfield shows us how to understand Judaism now that science and modern sensibility have changed how we look at the world. I felt that he was writing specifically to me as he reflects on “the universal dimensions of Judaism and those parts concerned with Jewish identity”

“Rabbi Tony Bayfield CBE was Head of Britain’s Movement for Reform Judaism and is Professor of Jewish Theology and Thought at Leo Baeck College, London. Britain’s leading liberal Jewish theologian and the author of several pioneering books on the theology of dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths, he is one of only three Jews to have received a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity.”