Monthly Archives: August 2021

“Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood” by Mark Oppenheimer— An Antisemitic Attack

Oppenheimer, Mark. “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood”, Knopf, 2021.

An Antisemitic Attack

Amos Lassen

Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, is one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the country and it is known for its tight-knit community of multigenerational families. On October 27, 2018, a gunman killed eleven Jews who were worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue making this the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. Mark Oppenheimer gives us the story of the community at the center of the attack.  He details the dialogues that he shared with “residents and nonresidents, Jews and gentiles, survivors and witnesses, teenagers and seniors, activists and historians” and writes about the confrontations that Squirrel Hill had to deal with as it healed. The stories that we read here give us an account of collective grief, love, support, and revival. Squirrel Hill remained vibrant and supportive and that is what this book is about.  The book focuses on thehopes, fears, and tensions that we must deal with as we attempt to heal.

 Many neighborhoods would sink into despair and recrimination after something like this but not Squirrel Hill. We get a look at what happened after the event and seesocietal resilience and insight on gun violence. We also read about “the tragic superficiality of our supposed differences.”

A tragedy such as the Squirrel Hill massacre cannot destroy the heart of a community. Oppenheimer shows us a unique Jewish place that extends to Jewish life and community in present-day America. He faces the questions left behind of how to continue, how to remember and memorialize when the massacre makes no sense. Instead of writing about the gunman killer, he the experience of the victims, survivors, and community.

We better understand what it means to be a community in a time of tragedy and to find hope in a time of terrible trouble. While this is the story of the Squirrel Hill community, it is also the story of each Jewish American community in this country.

“LIKE A DIRTY FRENCH NOVEL”— Connecting Stories

“LIKE A DIRTY FRENCH NOVEL”

Connecting Stories

Amos Lassen

Director Mike Cuenca’s “Like a Dirty French Novel” is made up of a series of linked stories. We meet Hue (Robby Valls) and Crystal (Jennifer Daley), a couple whose relationship is dead but are stuck under the same roof due to the pandemic. Hue begins getting calls from a woman (Laura Urgelles) he doesn’t know but who obviously knows him.

Forester (Grant Moninger) gets calls from the same woman as Hue. He also has the misfortune of being mistaken for his twin brother by a pair of inept hitmen.

Lane (Amanda Viola) is lonely in her new home until she meets Jake (Aaron Bustos) at the park. Things are looking up but he is killed in an accident. She meets his girlfriend, Crystal, who was cheating on Hue with him.

Hue is searching for Crystal who has disappeared and as he searches, the connection between all of the characters begins to become clear. In the midst of these interludes is the search for a comic book.

There is no real social disruption to explain the characters’ actions making this film just a collection of stories about a bunch of losers And not particularly interesting ones either. The film begins in the realm of both the absurdist and the surreal.

The opening narration tells us that a pandemic has spread across the globe. However, the stories contained in the film are not about the pandemic proper. The film was shot in less than a week during the Fall of 2020 . 

Written by Cuenca, Ashlee Elfman, and Dan Rojay, this is made up of stylistic choices. Those who dare enter this strange world with patience will find something special here. 

The connecting thread to the stories is the mysterious woman caller who seems to know a certain character’s deepest sexual pasts. The connections don’t end there. These people do get dirty and they could all very much exist in a paperback French novel.

All will is revealed, but nothing is completely as it seems. With every moment, do not take anything on a surface level. 

“Unprotected: A Memoir” by Billy Poster— Race, Sexuality, Art and Healing

Porter, Billy. “Unprotected: A Memoir”,Abrams, 2021.

Race, Sexuality, Art and Healing

Amos Lassen

Billy Porter is one of our beloved entertainers and now he shares what it was growing up Black and gay in America. Porter was a young boy in Pittsburgh who was seen as different. At five years old, he was sent to therapy to “fix” his effeminacy. He was constantly bullied at school, sexually abused by his stepfather, and criticized at his church, coming of age in a world where simply being himself was a constant battle and struggle.

In “Unprotected”, Porter shares hislife story in his own words. This is the story of courage and  of a boy whose talent began to open doors for him. He lived in trauma but had the  determination to get through hard times and to become an icon. He refuses to back down or hide and he is an inspiration to so many.  He is important and relevant and as he heals from his trauma, we see how to face our own. He is the embodiment of an artist and a class act in all aspects.

This is a story “of survival, commitment to authenticity, and healing; a road map out of hell.”

“Rethinking Community Resilience: The Politics of Disaster Recovery in New Orleans” by Min See Go— Civil Activism and Disaster

Go, Min Hee. “Rethinking Community Resilience: The Politics of Disaster Recovery in New Orleans”, NYU Press, 2021.

Civil Activism after Disaster

Amos Lassen

It is pure and ominous coincidence that “Rethinking Community Resistance” arrived in my mailbox the day before the 16thanniversary on Hurricane Katrina and when New Orleans was once again waiting for a disaster. I was there during Katrina and evacuated four days after the storm hit and did not return until eight years later and then just for a visit. I heard stories about what was going on but I was now living my life in first, Little Rock and then Boston.

After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people swiftly mobilized to rebuild their neighborhoods. They were often assisted by government organizations, nonprofits, and other major institutions. In “Rethinking Community Resilience”, writer Min Hee Go shows that these recovery efforts are not always the answers they seemed to be, and that they actually escalated the city’s susceptibility to future environmental hazards. 

Through interviews, public records, and more, Go examines the hidden costs of community resilience. We see that despite good intentions, recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina furthered existing race and class inequalities and put disadvantaged communities at risk. Further, we see that when governments, nonprofits, and communities invest in rebuilding rather than relocating, they  lay the groundwork for vulnerabilities. Here are the challenges communities face in the world of today.

Resident action alone could not overcome the structural racism that led to unequal disaster effects and inequitable recoveries and neighborhood scale successes led to exclusionary redevelopment and reduced resilience in other ways. The relationships between neighborhoods and local public action are more relevant than ever for “researchers, planners, policymakers alike who are investigating neighborhood change and facing disaster recovery and climate adaptation.”

Well-intentioned community-led recovery efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans were often incomplete and haphazard making the city susceptible to future risk. The romanticized notion that civic action can uniformly fill the void created by incompetent or weakened government and enable residents to overcome crises and create more resilient communities is tossed aside here.

 

Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics” by Clare Carlisle— Rethinking Spinoza

Carlisle, Clare. “Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics”, Princeton University Press, 2021.

Rethinking Spinoza

Amos Lassen

Throughout history, Spinoza has been seen as either one who forsook God or one who was a pantheist. Claire Carlisle in “Spinoza’s Religion” presents him as neither. Looking at “Ethics”, she brings together Spinoza’s metaphysics and his ethics together through the concept of“being in God” and grounds it in a deep questioning of how to live a joyful, fully human life. We see Spinoza wrestling withreligion, looking critically and constructively in the broadly Christian context in which he lived and worked. For him, philosophy was a spiritual endeavor that showed his devotion to a truthful, virtuous way of life.

His ideas about eternal life and the intellectual love of God are problematic and Carlisle uncovers a Spinozist religion that unites “self-knowledge, desire, practice, and embodied ethical life to reach toward our ‘highest happiness’―to rest in God.” Reading this, we reconsider both Spinoza and religion. Focusing on the “Ethics”, we think again about Spinoza’s relationship to religion and to modernity and their meanings.

Carlisle’s makes a compelling case for the importance of religion for Spinoza’s vision of human self-fulfillment. We get a “nondualistic, nondogmatic, and life-affirming spiritual philosophy” that places Spinoza in a rich dialogue with Christian theology along with new approaches to ethics, freedom, transcendence, and participation in God. It will be impossible to consider Spinoza without reading this.

“Walk Between Worlds” by Samara Breger— A Queer Fantasy

Breger, Samara. “Walk Between Worlds”, Bywater Books, 2021.

A Queer Fantasy

Amos Lassen

In “Walk Between Worlds”, writer Samara Breger takes us into a world very much unlike our own and introduces us to characters who charm us with their smart dialogue and wonderful adventures.  Here are queer love stories filled with imagination and whimsy. What seems to begin as a simple story of finding a missing princess soon becomes a collection of stories that are sweet and have a message.  

Sergeant Major Scratch Keyes of the King’s Guard is having a bad day at a time that should have been the best time of her life. Everything suddenly goes awry. Her king denies her promotion and she loses the knighthood that the promotion carries. When she feels like nothing can get any worse, Scratch and James, her best friend are arrested for having planned the abductionof Princess Frances and they are sentenced to death.

The Vel and Umbrella, the Shae siblings come to help them and let them know that the situation is much more complicated than it appears. The four begin a dangerous adventure where they meet beasts, bandits, and mysterious people. For defense, they only have a kitchen knife and they have not formulated much of a plan as to what to do. They are headed for a place called “Between”, that promises to deliver Scratch and James to the princess, if they survive. However, it seems that the Shaes have not been completely open.

This is not the kind of book that I normally read but I was pulled into the story by both the plot and the prose. From the very first page I was into the story and I read it in one sitting. My opinion of fantasy literature is evolving because of Breger’s magical story.

“Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union” by Pamela Braun Cohen— Lives that Matter

Cohen, Pamela Braun. “Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union”, Gefen Publishing House, 2021.

Lives that Matter

Amos Lassen

Covering thirty years, Pamela Braun Cohen’s “Hidden Heroes” takes us into the modern-day exodus of Soviet Jews from the Soviet Union, a period of Jewish history that has rarely been told and is in danger of being forgotten. We explore the grassroots Soviet Jewish emigration movement focusing on the actions of heroic refuseniks in the Soviet Union and the individuals in the West that Natan Sharansky  refers to as the “army of students and housewives” who waged the battle to free Soviet Jews. From Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania to the Central Asia, the stories of refuseniks come to life as we read about their identity and the work they did protesting on the streets, defending themselves in courtrooms, defying jailers in their prison cells, and struggling to survive in Siberian labor camps. This is the story of the resistance and moral courage of men and women inside the Soviet Union and of those in the West who worked for them. 

 Pamela Braun Cohen became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early 1970s. She inspired others, transformed herself, and most “changed the world” – sometimes over the objections of men much more famous than herself. The leadership of Cohen, Micah Naftalin, and a whole generation of mostly volunteers changed the world yet until now we have not known much about them.

This is not just a story about the Soviet Jewry movement. It is also untold story of the Jewish leaders inside the former Soviet Union who risked their own lives for the right to be free, and to be Jewish. Cohen was personally transformed to leadership and to observant because of her interactions with the “refuseniks”.

This is the story of courage and determination by the Russian Jews who defied a world power and the army of housewives and students all over the world who supported their struggles. Pamela Cohen led their efforts with dedication and bravery.

Each chapter is broken up into short sections that spotlight different people who were involved in the movement so that this becomes the story of individuals.

“The Midnight Man” by Kevin Klehr— Dream Lover

 

Klehr, Kevin. “The Midnight Man, Nine Star Press, 2021 

Dream Lover

Amos Lassen

Stanley is almost fifty and his life is not good. He hates his job, has an overbearing mother, and is in a failed relationship. Things change when he meets Asher, the man of his dreams but he does so as he dreams. Asher is all that Stanley is not—-young and confident. He offers Stan the chance to become five years younger every time they get together. However, when they fall in love, Stan knows he can’t live in Asher’s dreamworld. Yet he is haunted by Asher’s invitation to “slip into eternal sleep.”

Every night when he falls asleep, Stan enters his dream with Asher who has a mission— to take him back to the past and see the Stanley’s that were. This awakens Stanley to what he missed in life and to regain what he lost as he matured. Stan changes, so much so that his partner, Francesco, begins to rethink the path their relationship has taken and realizes he might still love Stan the same way he had years ago. But Stan falls deeper in love with the idea of living a different life where he can experience all the things that he’s still passionate about but did not act upon. 

It takes a while to get into the plot but with a little bit of patience, an enjoyable read is here. There is a strong message here about not ignoring your passions.

 

“BOY CULTURE: THE SERIES”— Older and Wiser

“BOY CULTURE: THE SERIES”

Older and Wiser

Amos Lassen

Director Q. Allan Brocka co-wrote (with Philip Pierce) the screenplay for his 2006 film adaptation of Matthew Rettenmund’s 1995 novel “Boy Culture,” and it was brilliantly successful.


“Boy Culture,” the series, respects the source material without simply telling the same story. In the time frame of the series it’s been ten years since X, the narrator and main character, (Derek Magyar) is living happily ever after with Andrew (Darryl Stephens). But now the two have recently broken up, and, because of economic reasons, X is still living in the house he shared with Andrew.

 X has returned to hustling. He is now in his 30s and not the hustler he once was, picking up pointers from a twenty-something pimp called Chayce (Jason Caceres). Some of Chayce’s instruction has to do with the realities of the modern world; it’s now possible for escorts to get paid via PayPal, for instance, or to show themselves on Only Fans and Instagram. Chayce is more than just a pimp, he’s a salesman, and he knows what people want. 

Chayce sends X off on a series of wild assignations. The six episodes of the series take place at bachelor parties, cosplay hookups, and an outcall to the home of two lovely ladies who enjoy gay porn.  The characters are older and wiser. X is now more empathetic than before, and is now more exposed, more available, and physically bigger. Keep your eyes out for this new series.

“GYPSY 83”— An Outsider Road Picture

“GYPSY 83”

An Outsider Road Picture

Amos Lassen

Todd Stephens’ “Gypsy 83” is an outsider road picture and“coming of age” story. Sara Rue stars as Gypsy, a chubby aspiring rock star and Stevie Nicks fan who leaves Sandusky, Ohio, with her gay goth pal, Clive (Kett Turton) to drive up to a New York City gay bar’s annual “Night Of 1000 Stevie’s” look-alike contest. Along the way, they meet a succession of Middle Americans who’ve learned to live with compromised dreams.

Gypsy and Clive overreact to every perceived slight and it is a stretch to imagine Rue trying to become a rock star by imitating Stevie Nicks at a drag show.

Despite being set in 2001, both characters are very much trapped in the Eighties. They worship Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Clive’s room is adorned with posters of The Cure and Morrissey. Rather than this being an act of youthful defiance and rebellion, Gypsy’s father is shown having been in a semi-successful band in the Eighties. In the opening scenes, Gypsy walks through the car park at work, people she passes being hilariously shocked at her ‘outrageous’ image.

After reading about a club night in New York, they see it as a chance to escape Ohio and pursue their dreams. What follows is a cinematic road trip that clearly considers itself to be an important milestone in the coming-of-age genre. Along the way, they learn profound lessons.

The film tries desperately hard to convince us Gypsy and Clive are beautiful misunderstood souls trapped in a sea of mediocrity, but they simply come across as posers.

Writer/Director Todd Stephens shows no dramatic flair, either in charge of a pen or a camera. The two leads do a convincing job with the material they’re given, but when said material is this sloppy, who cares?

Set in 1983, Gypsy is not all that different from most girls her age except that she has a good voice and a song to sing. Clive is 18, and is a pretty and skinny boy who wears all the Goth dresses foppish Goth. He’s a happy kid who adores his best friend and wants to see her dreams come true. He wants to find a handsome guy who will love him for who he is.

Clive firmly believes Gypsy has one hell of a good chance of winning. He convinces her to pack up her car and take him along as they drive East toward semi-fame. Along the way meet cult goddess Karen Black as lounge chanteuse Bambi LaBeau, performing nightly at the High-Ball Cocktail Lounge, which is just another pitstop on the road to The Big Apple for the travelers. But Bambi is even more weary in her life than the travelers and convinces the two kids to come to her house after a show, where the sadness of a misspent life is seen. Clive gets her out of there before it’s too late and they hustle off down the road, doing their best to rediscover their confidence in themselves and their dreams.

Later, when Gypsy and Clive come face-to-face with their own sexuality, the film becomes one of self-discovery. “Gypsy 83” is an enjoyable little drama and a nice little slice of what it was like to grow up in the 80’s.