“Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye: Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side” by Lyla Blake Ward— “Slightly Jewish”

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Ward, Lyla Blake. Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye: Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side”, City Books, 2016.

“Slightly Jewish”

Amos Lassen

It seems like lately I have been reading several books about growing up Jewish in New York of the 1930s. “Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye—is how Lyla Blake Ward did so. The book is unique in that it uses essays and poems, histories and vintage photos to bring this period back to life.

Between 72nd and 110th Streets was considered a Jewish neighborhood. Fir many of those who lived there, this was their world and they only began to navigate outside of the area when they began to grow up. I think many of us who grew up Jewish did so in our own little worlds and did not begin venturing out of them until our parents felt we are competent to do so, For me growing up in New Orleans, I remember clearly that my school, my Hebrew school, grocery store, synagogue were all right there and the only place we went outside of this is when the folks took us to the JCC. Like Lyla, after school we played on the sidewalks as parents conversed with neighbors on their porches. It was a more innocent time back then.

Lyla’s entertainment included hopscotch, marbles, jump rope and playing jacks with other children her age on the sidewalks of New York. America, Ms. Ward and her friends enjoyed them on the sizzling streets of New York.

Back then, the stereotypical Jewish mother prevailed and all of us who grew up back then will see our mothers inside of Lyla’s. I all of a sudden remembered why we could not have anything sweet before dinner. Mother told us that it would ruin our appetite (like we would never have another) or when we spoke about new friend at school, the first question asked was “Is he/she Jewish?”. Mothers back them we like hens over their chicks.

We see Lyla Ward’s life through her eyes during three specific periods—childhood, the teen years and as an adult. I was stunned to read how much alike growing up Jewish (slightly or otherwise) seems to be universal. Reading the writer’s memories dragged up many of my own. Then there is the thought that so many of us share and that is why we grow up we are not going to be protective like our mothers until we realize that we are the same and think, “Oh my God, I have become my mother”.

We realize as we read that the neighborhoods of our youth played a very important part in who we are today. In Ward’s Upper West Side of Manhattan we see that it has great cultural significance as well as personal importance. This is Lyla Ward’s story but it is also the story of her neighborhood. She has been able to wonderfully share what was with her readers. She also captures the other people who lived in her neighborhood and it seems that everyone was Jewish. And the memories that come that—Stride Rite and Mother Goose shoes, Hellman’s mayonnaise (I still use it), halvah as a special treat, monogramming and so many other memories that so many of us share. (I almost forgot the Rosh Hashanah fashion show at shul). This is not only a fun read, it is a trip to the past and back again and the tickets to go there are very reasonable.

“Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story” by John William Huelskamp— Six Young Friends and a War

friends of the wigwam

Huelskamp, John William. “Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story”, Barrington Group Publications, 2016.

Six young Friends and a War

Amos Lassen

“Friends of the Wigwam” is set between the years 1857-1865 when America was bound up in he Civil War. We meet the men and women of Illinois who were responsible for the election of Abraham Lincoln. The plot is based on the true story of one young woman who passed as a men during the war. We actually become part of the joys and the sorrows, of the successes and the failures of the characters. We see what the war did for families and friends.

We read about the role of Illinois volunteer regiments in the Civil War, but that is just part of the story. We actually read about how history influenced six friends and how they found a Winnebago Indian Wigwam near the Pecatonica River. This became their secret and special place. It became a place for friends and for love and even for a shelter to a runaway slave. Author Huelskamp has dome some wonderful research here and I really liked that we could not really distinguish what is fact and what is fiction.

The book is written with such great description that it felt to me like the action was happening before my eyes. Some of what you will “see” here is the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, battlefields and galas. To maintain that sense of reality, letters (real letters) become part of the plot.

John Huelskamp has combined character narrative with Civil War documents and gives us a story that is so compelling that it is hard to put the book down. We go back in time and see what it was really like to live and die at the time of the Civil War days.

I believe that it is the passion with which this was written that makes it so fascinating.

“Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories” edited by Masha Geesen and Joseph Huff-Hannon— A Protest Against Russian Propaganda

gay  propaganda

Gessen, Masha and Joseph Huff-Hannon (editors). “Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories”, OR Books, 2014.

A Protest of Russian Propaganda

Amos Lassen

“Gay Propaganda” is made up of original stories, interviews and testimonial that capture the lives and loves of LGBT Russians living both in Russia and in exile today. It is a provocative response to Russia’s recently passed and ill-defined ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

In an attempt to consolidate political control after the pro-democracy protests in Russia, Putin and his party felt that an enemy was necessary to unite the party and what or who would a better enemy than the LGBT community?

In June 2013, Putin signed a bill banning any and all “propaganda” of so-called non-traditional relationships. In the months that followed the number of firings from employment, attacks and hate crimes rose considerably.

The Duma began to debate a law to take children away from gay and lesbian parents. Then came the Olympics and the propaganda became stronger as we saw Russian LGBT people being harassed and arrested. They became the objects of state-sanctioned homophobia. In this book, we have stories of “men and women in long-term committed relationships as well as those still looking for love; of those trying to raise kids or taking care of parents; of those facing the challenges of continuing to live in Russia or joining an exodus that is rapidly becoming larger and larger. These stories put a face on the struggle to be accepted in Russia and we can only hope that love will win our and that indeed it conquers all. In these stories we see the realities of the people and not the way that the Russian government presents them. We do not hear the words of the bigots who censor lives and ban expression.

A book like this is the best weapon in the fight against anti-LGBT prejudice because it puts the reality of who LGBT people are as opposed to what the government of Russia wants us to think they are.

“GEORGE CRUMB: VOICE OF THE WHALE”— A Portrait of Crumb and his Music

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“George Crumb: Voice Of The Whale”

A Portrait of Crumb and his Music

Amos Lassen

In 1976, Robert Mugge made a film about George Crumb, composer. This was Mugge’s first music-related film. Now to celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary, MVD Visual is making available a newly remastered version on DVD and via digital streaming.  

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It is impossible not to be impressed by Mugge’s use of color and tint in this film. We see Crumb’s life in green tint, his work in blue tint and the connections between the two are seen in full color. We also get  a complete performance of Crumb’s 1971 composition “Vox Balaenae for Three Masked Players”.

While I was not familiar with Crumb before seeing this, I am now a total fan. He was influenced by West Virginia gospel music and exotic instruments and he shows us how he plays them and uses them in his compositions. We learn about his compositional techniques with fellow composer Richard Wernick, and his musician wife Elizabeth discusses their life together; at the university and Wernick’s Penn Contemporary Players (Carole Morgan, Lambert Orkis, and Barbara Haffner) perform “Vox Balaenae.” 

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Crumb’s music has been described as “poetic, atmospheric, mysterious, evocative.”  He describes it thus “I feel intuitively that music must have been the first cell from which language, science, and religion originated.” 

Of late, George Crumb has been talked about, and praised, more than any other composer of the avant-garde.”  In the decades since the film came out, praise has grown and his compositions have been performed and recorded around the world. It is possible to find 150 recordings featuring his work on Amazon.com.

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“George Crumb’s reputation as a composer of hauntingly beautiful scores has made him one of the most frequently performed composers in today’s world.” He is the winner of Grammy and Pulitzer Prizes, and he continues to compose new scores.  Crumb’s music often juxtaposes contrasting musical styles, ranging from music of the western art-music tradition, to hymns and folk music, to non-Western musics.  Many of Crumb’s works include programmatic, symbolic, mystical, and theatrical elements, which are often reflected in his beautiful and meticulously notated scores.

“A shy, yet warmly eloquent personality, Crumb retired from his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania after more than 30 years of service.  Honored by numerous institutions with honorary Doctorates, and the recipient of dozens of awards and prizes, Crumb makes his home in Pennsylvania, in the same house where he and his wife of more than 60 years raised their three children.  George Crumb’s music is published by C.F. Peters and an ongoing series of “Complete Crumb” recordings, supervised by the composer, is being issued on Bridge Records.”

“FORBIDDEN: UNDOCUMENTED AND QUEER IN RURAL AMERICA— Fighting for Justice and Equality

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“Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America”

Fighting for Justice and Equality

Amos Lassen

Premiering at Outfest 2016 is the story of Moises Serrano. His parents fled Mexico 23 years old hoping to find a better life. Now Serrano is a gay man and forbidden to live in the United States because he is undocumented. The only choice he has now is fight for justice and demand equality. He faces significant hurdles based on his undocumented status, his sexuality, and the limited resources available living in a rural area.

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Moises’ story is one of personal transformation and it leads us to question our government and wonder is there any solution for cases like this. Moises’ battle is a battle for human rights. America is his adopted home—he grew up here and has spent his entire life here but he must leave because even though he feels 100% America, he is not. We see Moises as a passionate and complex young man and his story is certainly relevant to the other 11 million undocumented immigrants that live in the United States today.

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Moises is an ideal character for challenging stereotypes about undocumented immigrants and same-sex couples. Viewers can readily connect to his passion, complexity, and all-around likability. His story relates directly to the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., and LGBTQ individuals fighting for equality and civil rights. “Forbidden” gives a face to those immigrants and as it does, it “humanizes their issues, decriminalizes the adult immigration story and asks us to reconsider what it means to be an American.”

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We have seen and heard for the last few months how Donald Trump, has said terrible things that are what he feels about immigrants. “Forbidden” fights back his and others damaging and uninformed ideas. W see here “how a loving family has the power to combat the destructive oppression of entire groups of people”.

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Moises’ experience is like so many other gay undocumented youth and shows the need to address bullying and create spaces where people do not have to hide or fear for their lives, nor should they be ashamed of any aspect of their identity.

“Walking the Dog’ by Elizabeth Swados— After Incarceration

walking the dog

Swados, Elizabeth. “Walking the Dog”, Feminist Press, 2016.

After Incarceration

Amos Lassen

Ester Rosenthal was a child prodigy and comes from a well-to-do Jewish family but she is also a kleptomaniac. For her own good her name was changed to Carleen and goes to jail fir a heist gone wrong. Sitting in prison for twenty years, time became for enemy and she passed her 20s and 30s isolated. When she was finally freed, she went wild in New York City. For two decades, time is the enemy. Her twenties and thirties crawl by in stifling isolation and when she was finally released, she finds a job as a dog walker in Manhattan’s most elite neighborhoods. She soon realized that it was easier to relate to dogs than to relate to humans. She, however, was determined to also prove herself a real person and tries to reconnect with her estranged and ferociously Orthodox daughter. On her mind all the time was trying to find a way to reconnect to the real world after being locked up. She begins her personal journey of self-discovery.

Author Elizabeth Swados died just this year (2016) and this is her last book. In it she shares, in detail, he story of the struggles of returning to a society after being estranged from it. It is also a novel about relationships— Carleen’s relationship with freedom, with her high-end clients and with her hyper-religious Orthodox daughter. Here is a story of a

The descriptions don’t do the novel justice—not only woman brutalized by a system that doesn’t understand or make space for those living with mental illness or criminal past. It is also the story of a mother and daughter who had once been bound by love. , it is also the story of art. And even more than that, it’s a story of the non-traditional love between a sometimes frustratingly troubled mother and her daughter.

We become very aware of what prison can do to one’s mental health and in the opening sentence Carleen tells us that she is “not used to walking on grounds without fences.” Carleen shares her post-release disorientation with spending time training dogs. She gets a sense of comfort being fenced in with an animal to which she can teach something. Dogs and people both need boundaries.

For Carleen there are few boundaries. Her brain works within strict parameters. We see how incarceration changed her and how the legal system caused her to lose some of her faculties. We also see that she is multi-dimensional and has been through chronic compound trauma.

I found myself tearing up several times because of the beauty of the prose and becoming angry with myself for just discovering Swados after she was gone.

“The Houseguest” by Kim Brooks— The Summer of 1941

the house guest

Brooks, Kim. “The Houseguest: A Novel”, Counterpoint, 2016.

The Summer of 1941

Amos Lassen

It is the summer of 1941 and Abe Auer, a Russian immigrant and small-town junkyard owner, is disenchanted with his life. When his friend Max Hoffman, a local rabbi with a dark past, asks Abe to take in a European refugee, he agrees to do so. What he did not know was that the woman coming to live in his house is “a volatile and alluring actress named Ana Beidler”. Ana shares stories of her lost stardom and she charms and enchants Abe with her glamour and sensuality. the Auer family with tales of her lost stardom and charms and mystifies Abe with her glamour and unabashed sexuality. This forces forcing him to confront his own desires as well as the ghost of his dead brother.

Just about that time news from Europe about what was going on with the Jews and American Jews began a struggle to understand what was happening. There were those who were ready to form a army and leave to go fight and there were others who hid from what they heard as if there hiding would make things go away. It was not until a synagogue in Manhattan was burned to the ground that the characters begin to feel the threat of war coming closer to home.

“The Houseguest” looks at what was happening here in America as the Second World War raged in Europe. We read of organizations that tries to help the Jews of Europe at the time that the United States was turning people away. We are also made aware of what was going culturally and socially with American Jews. There was the popularity of the Yiddish theater and there were junkyards but there also was a world of political activists who worked covertly. What this book is really about is identity, family, and the decisions that define who we will become. Our story begins with arson in Manhattan and ends with another kind of arson that took six million lives in Europe. It was the fire here that was the catalyst that brought about the activism of the American Jewish community.

The plot follows the lives of characters that each show us what American life was like here and we read of the anguish, helplessness and the pains they bear. Just Anna’s presence in Abe’s life made a tremendous difference in the way he saw others and himself. However, just as their relationship begins, there are more serious problems for European Jews.

As the characters feel the impact of the war in Europe, they each reach out in their own way to fight. Using the Holocaust as a backdrop, Brooks brings us characters that want to change the world and as they try, they also change themselves. We read of complex, ambiguous relationships between her characters and the Brooks’ prose seems to come from her heart. Her characters are so real that I actually felt Abe watching me as I read.

We can call this a Holocaust novel but it is different in that it takes place here in America. In the 40s America was a different place and the emphasis was on everyone minding his business and not venture into others areas. However, not looking and not believing what was happening in Europe only helped accelerate the genocide that was happening as we stood by.

Just as this is a novel of characters, it is also a novel of emotions. I am a pretty lay back guy until my emotions take over and they did take over several times as I read “The Houseguest”. I might also add that this is a novel of descriptions and writer Brooks does a wonderful job of describing events and places. She knows Chicago and we see that in the way she describes the city.

I believe that Kim Brooks chose every single word that she wrote and her purpose was to give the reader the best possible picture. I was stunned by the beauty of the prose and the beauty of the plot. Here is a novel about refuges that becomes a novel of refuge. We all have dealt with the eternal question of our responsibility to others and would we actually others from harm if we could?

While this is a novel of another time and place, it resonates with today’s modern world. Just as many did in the 40s, we too are dealing with a global crisis. The difference is that today there is not as much emphasis on the individual.

Through Brooks’ characters, we gain a different greater perspective on the complexities and politics of war and how helpless we feel as it rages. The writer wonderfully balances the historical with the fiction. We see the inner lives of the characters as they struggle with community issues and the state of the world around them. I am sure that this will stay with me for a very long time.

“Spartacus Berlin Gay Guide 2016”— The Perfect Travel Guide for Pride Season.

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“Spartacus Berlin Gay Guide 2016”

The Perfect Travel Guide for Pride Season

berlin

 


“You are crazy my child, you must go to Berlin.” — Franz von Suppé, Austrian composer

Berlin is one of the world’s most popular gay travel destinations. When elsewhere the streets empty for the night, the fun just starts in Germany’s capital. Even during the day it never gets boring. With the abundance of clubs, bars, museums, galleries, and theaters one can quickly lose the overview. But not with this guide. This completely revised edition includes many free tickets and vouchers to various parties and sights—a must-have for every Berlin visitor.

Gay Berlin enjoys the reputation of freedom and adventure—rightly so. Anyone who wants to can go out on a daily basis, at any time and dance, celebrate, love. It’s the birthplace of gay self-confidence of today. Berlin is not called the LGBTIQ* capital of Germany, if not Europe, without reason. Some researchers locate the cradle of modern homosexual identity right here.

Unlike in Paris, New York and London, there are no restricted gay districts in Berlin. There is, of course, Schöneberg with its long gay and lesbian tradition, but the gay (night)life takes place in the same way in the other city districts. The Spartacus Berlin Gay Guide presents these districts in detail—as each of them has its own exciting gay scene with the one or other special feature.

That there is such a gay diversity has its reasons: Berlin is regarded as epicenter of the homosexual emancipation. In the years before the World War I and especially in the 1920s, Berlin was pioneering in the international gay rights movement. This city guide takes a look through the pink-colored glasses back to the beginnings of this movement, the never-ending nights of the “Golden Twenties”, the terror of the Nazi regime, and the divided city up to the post-reunification era with the first openly gay mayor.

The Spartacus Berlin Gay Guide is like a man in his best years. It has been published annually since 1981, originally under the title “Berlin von hinten [German: “Berlin From Behind”]. It is the first publication of the Berlin publishing house Bruno Gmünder”, certainly one of its most popular publications, and one of the longest-running gay city guides in the world.

208 pages. 
Full color. 
US $20.99

“NIGHT WILL FALL”— Retelling the Holocaust

night will fall

“Night Will Fall”

Retelling the Holocaust

      Amos Lassen
     

André Singer’s documentary about the Allied film record of the liberation of the camps is horrific to watch but also very important. Much of the footage that was used in the war crimes trials and cut into documentaries was suppressed and locked away. Then in 2008, an abandoned film supervised by Alfred Hitchcock was finally finished.

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Documentaries about the Holocaust are problematical in that the subject has been thought to be a cultural taboo and could only be discussed in serious and grave terms. After the war most Americans saw only chosen snippets of film footage, with short glimpses of the horrors in the death camps. The published images were more than people wanted to see. Most Americans first saw extended documentary footage in a for-profit Hollywood picture in which big stars portrayed victims and villains. Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” was done tastefully and with a social purpose. The graphic film from the camp was actually part of the actual Nuremberg trials and it showed the reality of our times that had been suppressed before that film was released.

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The English, the Americans and the Russians all shot film in the camps during their liberation. “Night Will Fall” is the story of the 1945 production and then abandonment of a long-form film documentary that had been sanctioned by the Allied victors and was partly overseen by Alfred Hitchcock. The director developed a script and an approach for a document by which he intended to quash present and future claims that the mass murders were faked, exaggerated or a political illusion. “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” was prepared up to a certain point, but then shelved and there was no set time to finish it.

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The U.S. Army finally brought in director Billy Wilder to supervise a shorter version called “Death Mills” but it also remained classified, and was not released to the public. A version of it was shown to German audiences and footage was also shown at the Nuremberg trials, as evidence against the German war criminals.

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It was announced some ten years ago thatthe British Imperial War Museum was finally going to complete the original. By that time we had already seen much of it on PBS TV in 1985 and reel of the film was located, in its work print form. It screened at least twice on “Frontline: Memory of the Camps”.

“Night Will Fall” about the making of these earlier films but it softens many shots.

 

“THE FREEDOM TO MARRY”— How Marriage Equality Was Won

freedom poster

“The Freedom to Marry”

How Marriage Equality Was Won

Amos Lassen

The documentary by Eddie Rosenstein, “The Freedom to Marry” is an inside look at the movement that transformed a nation and the law. The film that provides an emotional, behind-the-scenes view of the campaign and strategy that ended marriage discrimination nationwide.

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We hear directly from April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse – two of the courageous plaintiffs who took the fight for the dignity of their family and children all the way to the Supreme Court. We see and hear from Mary Bonauto she prepared to stand before the nine justices of the Supreme Court to make the case for marriage. We go across the country with the “Freedom to Marry” team and see its members working with organizations and allies to rack up the building-block wins and create the climate that allowed for victory.

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“The Freedom to Marry” is the behind-the-scenes story of those who did the work and transformed a “preposterous notion” into one of the most successful civil rights campaigns in history.

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Evan Wolfson is the founder and president of the now-defunct “Freedom to Marry” organization whose goal was to legalize same-sex marriage. Now after a hard-fought 32-year battle, his mission is over and the campaign that he led is over and the movement has closed its doors. Not only is the  brains behind marriage equality but he also dedicated his entire career to the cause. In 1983, while at Harvard Law School he wrote a paper explaining how the LGBT community could achieve marriage equality. He only got a B on the paper back then but in the thirty years that followed, he changed the world.

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“The Freedom to Marry” has its world premier at the Frameline Film Festival   on June 25.