“A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora” by Daniel Boyarin— Redefining Diaspora

a traveling homeland

Boyarin, Daniel. “A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora”, (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion), University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Redefining Diaspora

      Amos Lassen     

As Jews today, the word “Diaspora” remind us of many different things but most agree that the traditional definition is the description of the geographical scattering of people and/or the conditions of alienation abroad and the desire and yearning for the ancestral home. Diaspora often carries with it the idea that its occurrence is the result of the “cataclysmic historical event of displacement”. Daniel Boyarin says that Diaspora may be more constructively construed as a form of cultural hybridity or a mode of analysis. In this, his new book, “A Traveling Homeland”, he says that “the case that a shared homeland or past and traumatic dissociation are not necessary conditions for Diaspora and that Jews carry their homeland with them in Diaspora, in the form of textual, interpretive communities built around Talmudic study.” We may live anywhere and still feel the ties to the Jewish religion in that we study the holy texts.

Boyarin says that the Babylonian Talmud is a “diasporist manifesto, a text that produces and defines the practices that constitute Jewish diasporic identity.” Boyarin examines the ways the Babylonian Talmud sees its own community and sense of homeland which brings him to show us that Talmudic commentaries from the medieval and early modern periods have also produced a doubled cultural identity. While the physical text changed places and times, its study has continued. How it has been studied has been affected by the surrounding cultures and ultimately, according to Boyarin, “Talmudic study is the core and heart of a shared Jewish identity and a distinctive feature of the Jewish Diaspora that defines it as a thing apart from other cultural migrations.”

The idea that the Diaspora was born out of sorrow and despair shows us that regards of where we are, we take our Judaism with us.

“Counternarratives” by John Keene— Looking at History and Literature


Keene, John. “Counternarratives”, New Directions, 2015.

Looking at History and Literature

Amos Lassen

Here is a look at literature that spins history and storytelling. Beginning in the 17th century and coming up to the present, we go all over the world and see novellas and stories that draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts, and speculative fiction to “create new and strange perspectives on our past and present”. In “Rivers,” a free Jim meets up decades later with his former friend Huckleberry Finn; “An Outtake” chronicles an escaped slave’s fate in the American Revolution; “On Brazil, or Dénouement” burrows deep into slavery and sorcery in early colonial South America; and in “Blues” the great poets Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia meet in Depression-era New York and share more than secrets. Keene gives us new looks at old stories and it is amazing. I suppose you might call this revisionist literature and it is thought provoking and haunting. This is not the kind of writing that us easily explained but once you get into it, you will understand what it is all about.

“Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law” by Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg— A Re-examination

gender equality

Tucker, Rabbi Ethan and Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg. “Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law”, Urim Books, 2015.

A Re-examination

Amos Lassen

The equality of genders has become an important part of how we live today and as it spreads through society, religions have to re-examine themselves regarding gender. The Jewish religion being patriarchal has begun to look at its own traditions especially in religiously observant sectors. Traditional communities turn to their guiding sources to re-examine old questions (whatever those sources might be). This book looks at the wealth of Jewish legal material surrounding gender and prayer, with a particular focus on who can lead the prayers in a traditional service and who can constitute the communal quorum, the “minyan”, that they require.

I think we might even go a step further and ask some of these religious Jews, why it is necessary to have ten men to pray. The two issues here being the number “ten” and the word “men”. How many people know why there must be the number ten to constitute a minyan and even more important, how many have even thought about it or questioned it? I honestly never thought about it until last year and only because I was in a course where it came up. As for why there must be just men is another issue altogether. This book can be a wonderful resource for dealing with these questions. The authors explore the issue of gender in depth and they show us the Jewish legal tradition that is responsible for its underlying values, “enabling its complex sources to serve as effective guides for contemporary communal decision-making.” While we may not get all of the answers, we are given a lot to think about.

I was reminded of my own experience of growing up as an Orthodox Jew and my synagogue wanted to initiate mixed seating which meant that men and women could sit together in the sanctuary during prayer. It was already a bit more liberal by having the women sit on the sides and raised just six inches above the men. When it came to a vote, there was a deadlock and so those who were against the idea of mixed seating took the issue to the Supreme Court of the State. A ruling was never issued but it made no difference because the faction left and soon afterwards the synagogue fell apart.

“Compulsion” by Meyer Levin— “The Jewish Crime of the Century”


Levin, Meyer. “Compulsion”, Fig Tree Books Reprint, 2015.

“The Jewish Crime of the Century”

Amos Lassen

I have heard others say that I am a bit obsessed with the Leopold/Loeb affair and I suppose that there is some truth to that. I have never been able to understand the entire business and whenever I need to think about something, it seems that I return to it; I suppose because I have so many unanswered questions. Quite frankly it bothers me a great deal that two such promising young men should be involved in such sordidness especially when it did not need to happen. It has been 90 years and there is still so much we do not understand about it. Even Meter Levin’s classic “Compulsion” makes me think about it even more and it is 60 years old. Between Leopold, Loeb and the Rosenbergs, I spend a lot of tine just sitting and thinking about the criminal mind and how it comes to be.

I remember that as a kid, I would hear people whispering about it. It seemed that everyone knew something about the murderers and/or were reading “Compulsion” and talking about it. Leopold and Loeb certainly were responsible for some degree of American anti-Semitism. (After all, Jews do not commit such horrific crimes, do they?)

“Compulsion is a fictional account of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s horrible and horrifying murder of a 14-year-old boy and while the names are changed to Steiner and Strauss, everyone knew the book was about Leopold and Loeb. The story sticks closely to the actual facts of the 1924 crime.

When the book was published, it became an instant sensation and a bestseller. Murder mysteries were popular in the 50s and 60s and one that was based on a true story, a story as gruesome as anyone imagine was what Americans liked to read. The Leopold/Loeb murder was nothing ordinary—there was no reason for it to happen. The killers’ aim was to commit the perfect crime and the murder of Bobby Franks, then just 14 was the way that they thought they could succeed. It was a gratuitous murder by two young men who looked at what they did as “an intellectual project carried out with the detachment of a scientist.”

Meyer Levin was fascinated by the case and that was probably because he was close to it. He went to the University of Chicago and he was precocious like Leopold and Loeb. As a young Chicago reporter, he helped cover the case for the local paper and he appears in “Compulsion” as the narrator, Sid Silver.

What is interesting about “Compulsion” is that it is long and full of talk and even has a bit of psychological analysis in it. The reading public, writers and film studios were drawn to the book. Leopold and Loeb were curiosities, Jewish boys from good homes and wealthy families. They were young admirers of Dostoevsky because with him crimes could be philosophically justified and they loved Nietzsche for his concept of the superman who was not bound by society or morality. He was above that and they wanted to prove that so were they.

The teenage Leopold and Loeb — prodigies who had graduated from the University of Chicago while still in their teens — were immersed in Dostoevsky (“Crime and Punishment” with its philosophical justification of the crime), Gide, and above all Nietzsche and his notion of the superior man not bound by morality.

“Compulsion” is certainly well written but it is not literary. After all, it is a crime novel much like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” that came out some 13 years later. What Levin did here was to give the people what they wanted; a crime novel and more than that—a novel about a crime that everyone was aware of. Indeed, it is a crime novel and a thriller but it is also a psychological novel that uses social psychology about issues that the case brought up— what did we know about these rich Chicago Jews and was there anything sexual in this case?

Meyer Levin dared to right about homosexuality when it was still deep in its own closet. He mentions that the Bobby Frank’s body was mutilated in the genital area and he writes about the sexual immaturity of the murderers. We suspect that the two men were in love with each other but we read nothing of them ever being sexual with each other. Could it be that this sexual denial also figures into the case? Then there is the issue of Jewish self-hatred as Freud suggested in the 19th century with the idea that the Jew does not want to pay the toll to be a Jew and that could explain the mutilation of Bobby Frank’s genitals. Levin really captures the wealthy Jewish culture of Chicago at the times and the fact that many Chicago Jews chose not to be especially visible and in fact, at that time, Jewish organizations were quiet and worked quietly. It was not a time for social activism.

Some have remarked that if Leopold and Loeb had to kill someone, it was better for all that they chose a Jewish victim. Had they chosen someone of a different religion, the murder would certainly have been looked at differently as we have seen historically in blood-libel cases. This was not a murder dealing with a ritual; it was a murder for murder’s sake. Here was a crime that was about the anarchy of murder, a crime that resembles in theory the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, what happened in Rwanda and Darfur. Can we assume that this is why we still read “Compulsion”? It seems to me that we now exist in a time when killing and murder are considered horrors of our time. The book might be about a time in history but the crime of Leopold and Loeb is a lasting one; one that will never be forgotten and this is just how it should be.

“Saving Julian” by Mason Stokes— The “Ex-Gay” Ministry— A Comic Look

saving Julian

Stokes, Mason. “Saving Julian”, Wilde City Press, 2014.

The “Ex-Gay” Ministry— A Comic Look

Amos Lassen

By now we have learned that “ex-gay” ministries are dishonest, disreputable and money-grabbing organizations that really do nothing yet somehow they have managed to sit on their laurels for work they have not done. In fact, just last night I watched a movie that had been sent to me to review, “Stained Glass Rainbows” in which the majority of the speakers are “ex-gay” and “ex-lesbians”. Now that we know that this kind of therapy is bogus, why would anyone want a gay person to review his or her work?

“Saving Julian”, on the other hand, is a comic novel with dark humor about Paul Drucker, a 58-year-old psychology professor and part-time preacher (WTF!!!). He authored the very popular “Saving Our Boys from the Gay Menace” and this has caused him to be very much in demand on the lecture circuit in which he gladly shares the heterosexual bible with the masses. He tells his audiences that “there’s no such thing as a gay man.  There are only men with unmet ‘homoemotional’ love needs.  And this can be fixed.” Aha—we have heard this story before many times. We can be cured of homosexual impulse and lead “normal Lives” but we know the truth and it is only a matter of time before Drucker ends up in the bed of a gay male, something he claims to despise and that will send him straight to hell.

Drucker is caught with Julian, a 21-year-old “escort” he found online and he knows his world is about to fall apart just as one-day Cher’s face may fall. Have you noticed that men lead ex-gay ministries are vocally anti-gay? Lately we have seen that those who are so loud are men who are hiding from who they really are. We need only remember Larry Craig, that Ted Haggard guy and McGreevy guy who after living a lie came out and became a friend and supporter of our community. How quickly we have forgotten how he alienated us until then. “Saving Julian” is a look at the men who think that love can be cured yet are themselves hypocrites and liars and practice cruelty in the name of God.

Paul Drucker’s story, like Paul Drucker himself, is irreverent. It is about manipulation, lies, deceit, hypocrisy and cruelty. It explores the world of the ex-gay (a phrase that should be deleted from usage). This is not a condescending look but rather an honest and humorous look at those who believe we can be cured of loving each other.

Just by the nature of its subject, this easily could have been a book that lost its way and instead of being one-sided, it is both sensitive and totally compassionate. Author Mason Stokes looks at both sides of “ex-gay” ministries and as it explores it explains. The characters are also well drawn, believable and they engage the reader. They have to face what they believe and this is done by answering questions that go right to the heart of the issue where they are forced to confront their own beliefs.

Do not be mislead; just because this is a comic novel does not mean we can laugh it away—there is a very strong message here and I love that the book is both entertaining and educational. We enter a world of hustlers and homophobes and we meet some truly disgusting characters. Disgusting, villainous or what have you, the characters are human as well and being human they suffer from or make peace with their own perspectives. There are also those who are perfectly at home with who they are.

While we indeed laugh at ex-gay ministries in real life, we do not often get a novel that allows us to do so and for that we must praise Mason Stokes. His prose is wonderful as are his descriptions but it is his plot that makes this such a good read.

“WHY DOES GOD HATE ME?”— Who is in Need of a Cure?


“Why Does God Hate Me”

Who is in Need of a Cure?

A young gay man finds out he’s not the one who needs curing in “Why Does God Hate Me”,  a bit of a comedy with a serious message mixed in. This is a‘ coming-of-age comedy about Matthew, a 14-year-old boy living in a very religious town, whose best friend Ester tries to ‘cure’ him of being gay. But a trip to San Francisco shows Matthew that he might not be the one who needs curing.’

“Something Like Thunder” by Jay Bell— Learning to Fight

something like thunder

Bell, Jay. “Something Like Thunder”, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).

Learning to Fight

Amos Lassen

“Something Like Thunder” is Jay Bell’s sixth book in his “Something Like” series. However, it is only the second in the series that I am reviewing but I have no idea why that is. This is Nathaniel Courtney’s story of how he learned to fight ad become a survivor. Nathaniel did not let what other said about him get him down and he very easily could have.

Briefly this is how Nathaniel rose above what others did to him as he learned so much about falling in love and herein is the focus of the story.

“Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist” by Pierre Birnbaum— The French Prime Minister

Leon Blum

Birnbaum, Pierre. “Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist”, (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2015.

The French Prime Minister

Amos Lassen

Léon Blum (1872–1950), was France’s prime minister three times. He was a socialist activist, and courageous opponent of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, and he profoundly altered French society. Blum who was responsible for France’s forty-hour week and its paid holidays, which were among the many reforms he championed as a deputy and as prime minister,. Blum was also as a proudly visible Jew, a Zionist, and eventually a survivor of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Pierre Birnbaum’s new biography of Blum integrates his Jewish commitments into the larger story of his life. Here we see an extraordinary man whose political convictions were shaped and driven by his cultural background. Birnbaum shows how Blum’s Jewishness was central to his outlook and mission, from his earliest entry into the political arena in reaction to the Dreyfus Affair, and how it both sustained and motivated him throughout the remainder of his life.

. Léon Blum has never gotten the recognition he deserves as a French statesman, a socialist leader, and a proud Jew. Birnbaum means to change that here. The book is a compelling and interesting look at “the life of French politician and former Prime Minister. Léon Blum. Birnbaum has used primary sources that bring Blum and his adversaries to life.

“THE EASY WAY OUT”— Three Brothers


“THE EASY WAY OUT” (“L’Art de la Fugue”)

Three Brothers

Amos Lassen

Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is one of three brothers and the one who is determined to help his siblings in their unhappy lives. He a writer who produces catalogues for exhibitions and he shares his office and his secrets with Ariel (Agnes Jaoui) his colleague and confidante. When he gets home to his apartment in the center of Paris that he shares with Adar (Bruno Putzulu) his lover of 10 years who he barely talks to and sleeps alone on an air mattress because of his ‘bad back’.  He pays no attention to Adar’s idea of moving to the country and buying a house together.

the easy way

Gerard (Benjamin Biolay) is the elder brother and he and his wife have recently separated and he is now living at his parent’s house while he stubbornly continues to believe his wife will take him back. Meanwhile Louis (Nicolas Bedos), the younger brother is being pressured by his interfering father to marry his high-school sweetheart while he is in the midst of having an affair with a married woman who he clearly is totally full of lust for.

the easy way1

All three brothers have had to deal with their meddling father and somewhat loony mother all their lives. Their father refuses to believe that the small menswear store he has owned for years is, and he is hospitalized regularly for his heart condition. He uses his fading health as a reason to pressure all three of his sons into doing what he wants them to do and what he thinks is best for them.


This is a film about compromise—the compromises lovers and families make to keep their relationships alive and it was adapted from a novel by local Boston author, Stephen McCauley Director Brice Cauvin changed the original setting from Massachusetts to Paris and sees it as a universal story that neatly captures the machinations of this close knit family that has difficulty in recognizing that the three brothers are in different stages of falling in or out of love.


The film is believable and very funny at times and while it starts with Antoine shedding tears, it ends with all of us smiling.