“Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— What the Torah Tells Us

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Sacks, Jonathan Rabbi. “Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible”, Maggid, 2016.

What the Torah Tells Us

Amos Lassen

The Torah is a storehouse of questions, some of which have answers only by interpretation. In this second companion volume (the first was “Lessons in Leadership) to his “Covenant and Conversation” series, Rabbi Saks takes an ethical exploration of the weekly Torah portions looking for the message if send us. He looks at the questions that have difficult answers. “Why was Abraham ordered to sacrifice his son? Was Jacob right in stealing the blessings? Why were we commanded to destroy Amalek? What was Moses’ sin in hitting the rock? And how did the Ten Commandments change the Jewish people, and humankind, for good?”

The Hebrew bible is the blueprint for morality in the Western world and as such it delivers a message of truth, compassion, dignity and justice, Sacks tells us but it is not always clear to the naked eye.

This new book is made up of readings/commentaries on selections from the Hebrew bible, with special attention to ethics, philosophy and social and political history. Many times Rabbi Sacks investigates the language and the grammatical style of the Torah in order to find the real meaning of what is being said and we indeed see that the Hebrew that is spoken today is not always the same Hebrew of the Torah.

Beginning with a portion of the Torah that he has selected, Rabbi Sacks explains the wording and how various Jewish interpreters have discussed it over time. He then gives his own interpretation making it relevant to the modern world.

At times, the Hebrew bible features certain passages that some biblical scholars have referred to as lawsuits, because the passages seem to be conducted as claims and counter-claims in a court of law. We all have the Law of Moses and see that the Bible could also be a handbook for legal instances. We see here that Jewish thought is unlike the Western philosophies in that it tends to go against the tradition of that philosophical bent. For those who are not aware, it is important to know that Rabbi Sacks is British and therefore his ideas might be a but different than what we have here in America. His society is traditional British and this makes the way he looks at the Hebrew bible very interesting to say the least. Having studied linguistics for so many years, I am fascinated by the way he deals with the Hebrew language.

 

 

“Flying Without a Net” by E.M. Ben Shaul— One to Watch For

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Ben Shaul, E.M. “Flying Without a Net”, Interlude Press, 2016.

One to Watch For (Coming in November, 2016)

Amos Lassen

Dani Perez is a secular Israeli working as a software engineer in Boston and until now has never had any trouble balancing his faith and his sexuality. Then he meets Avi Levine, a gay Orthodox Jew and sign language interpreter. As the two men fall in love, Dani finds himself wanting Avi in his life but confused by Avi’s observance and attachment to his religion. Dani can’t understand how Avi reconciles what his religion demands with what his body desires. And although he wants to deny it, neither can Avi.

Even though Dani can lose Avi to his Judaism (especially since it objects to homosexuality), Dani supports him and stays with him during his struggles.

“Will they be able to start a life together despite religious ideology that conflicts with the relationship they are trying to build?”

“Being Jazz” by Jazz Jennings— Quite a Girl

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Jennings, Jazz. “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen”, Crown, 2016.

Quite a Girl

Amos Lassen

Jazz Jennings is a teen advocate and a trailblazer. She has already been named by Time Magazine as one of Jazz Jennings—named one of “The 25 Most Influential Teens” of the year. In her new book she shares her very public transgender journey and she inspires people to accept the differences in others while they embrace their own truths.

At the age of five, Jazz transitioned to life as a girl, with the support of her parents. A year later, her parents allowed her to tell her incredible journey in her first Barbara Walters interview which was broadcast at a time in history when the public was much less knowledgeable or accepting of the transgender community. She has had other high-profile interviews, a documentary, her own YouTube channel, a picture book, and her own reality TV series, “I Am Jazz” and she has become one of the most recognizable activists for transgender teens, children, and adults.

In her book she shares how these public experiences and appearances have helped to bring about a new awareness of and a new attitude toward the the transgender community. We know that it has not been easy and Jazz has faced many challenges, bullying, discrimination, and rejection. She has persevered and she educates others about her life as a transgender teen. Her family has always been there for her on her journey and they have stood with her against those who don’t understand the true meaning of tolerance and unconditional love. Now that she is teen, Jazz must learn to navigate the physical, social, and emotional upheavals of adolescence (particularly high school) and this is complicated by the unique challenges of being a transgender teen. We can only imagine how difficult it is to make the journey from girl to woman when Jazz began her life in a boy’s body.

The message that Jazz writes and that she lives is so much more than the journey of the transgender person. We have universal themes here and we know that we are all a little different and we all have something within us that tends to isolate us. In reading what Jazz has to say, we begin to think about our own lives and anyone who was a bit different from the mainstream (whatever that means).

I must admit that I found it difficult at first to understand how someone so young (age 5) was able to identify as transgender at such a young age. What made this even more difficult is that I have a transgender nephew who transitioned at age 40 from female to male. It is interesting to see that Jazz felt female at such a young age and that she had to full support of her parents. Yet Jazz has dealt with puberty while being a public person and an advocate for the LGBT community. She was filmed for a TV show, spoke at conventions and conferences, wrote a book and became a role model while other teens were dealing with puberty and worrying about having pimples.

Jazz gives us a frank, realistic, and a-political insight into what a transgender person has to deal with. We can only hope that those who need to read this book will do so and I am speaking about politicians and fundamentalists.

“A Grande Romance” by Antonio— Love and Mystery

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Antonio. “A Grande Romance”, (a Grande Mystery), Smashwords, 2016.

Love and Mystery

Amos Lassen

Julian Grande is having a good life. He has finally been able to go into the business he has longed for—opening a bookstore. As if that is not enough, he loves the town where he lives and has his best friend working for him but even more important is the new prospect of love that comes in the person of Jaxon Reed, a sexy fireman. However, suddenly things change and the question of truth hovers over Julian and his friends.

Antonio’s descriptions are wonderful as his the way he draws his characters. We constantly want to turn the page to find out what happens next. Julian wants to get to the truth about why the mystery (which I will not include her) has become such a major issue in the ways that he and Jaxon will spend the rest of their lives.

This is one of those books that is hard to review because of the mystery and my fear of giving something away that would spoil the read for others. I seem to always say that when I review one of Antonio’s books and that is a plus for the writer. He knows how to grip the reader and have him/her pay attention to every line in the text.

“HOMO SAPIENS”— Dilapidation and Decay

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“Homo Sapiens”

Dilapidation and Decay

Amos Lassen

In Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Homo Sapiens”, we see 94 minutes’ worth of destroyed, decayed, and looted environments. There are no humans in this world and there is no narrative, we simply see only the traces of our violence and neglect. We see earth as a planet as if it has abandoned by people who made sure to ransack it on their way out to other planets and galaxies. There are deserted Japanese-style rooms filled with hundreds of stacked books; wrecked movie theaters with film projectors that are rotting; bars that are filled with mold and moss; flooded auditoriums; and dilapidated hospitals, corporate offices, prisons cells, and bowling alleys.

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Instead of surveying landscape, Geyrhalter gives us an exercise endurance not because of the film’s pacing, but due to the filmmaker’s refusal to offer any sense of orientation (we do not know where we are in terms of location) or progress. What at first seems to be an examination of the deterioration of one single village becomes an inspection of the four corners of the world. The most beautiful moments are made up of birds flying indoors, sometimes coming in and out of structures as if playing a game of hide-and-go-seek with the camera. These creatures are the only things that breathe, and that actually move on the planet that seems to be rotting away. Human creations crumble and the birds seem to mourn as they play with the camera.

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In this film without people, the camera focuses on the remnants of civilization— this is an anthropological investigation into the modern world that shows us the infrastructure of society. We feel that we are entering different spaces and being present for whatever small environmental changes (wind, rain) happen.

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With no music, no dialogue, no people and no mankind, we see still-life portraits of abandoned structures, with each shot typically lasting fifteen to twenty seconds. It seems to be science fiction as it studies a seemingly post-industrial and post-apocalyptic planet abandoned by humans.

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Geyrhalter has not filmed any abandoned private residences here; he’s more concerned with giving glimpses of the remains of once-valued social structures—of which there is a vast selection.

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The film spends time on the two sorts of structures whose ruins have developed the most fervent followings: old movie theaters and shopping malls. Indeed, it’s interesting that the most melancholic, disquieting images are those of discarded places of entertainment and leisure: theme parks, playgrounds, bowling alleys, and discotheques. “The documentary is as much a portrait of shifts in mass amusement activities and the fleeting nature of leisure fads as it is a study of declining industries and societal neglect”.

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We see entire towns that have been left to rot, as well as some large, mysterious structures whose original functions are not always apparent. Little camera movement and the duration of the shots allow us to see details that surely otherwise would have escaped notice (cascading leaves blown by the wind, dust particles in a beam of bright sunlight, raindrops forming small puddles).As the film nears it close, it moves further and further away from human life.

“Madre Mia”— When Stress and Personality Clash

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“Mia Madre”

When Stress and Personality Clash

Amos Lassen

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a harassed, burnt-out Italian film director who is working on a political film about labor unions and worker’s rights but much of her energy is drained by visiting the hospital every day where her mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is dying of complications stemming from an enlarged heart. She is very grateful her brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) has picked up the challenge of being there for their mother.

Shots from "Mia Madre"

Shots from “Mia Madre”

 

Margherita is also having a hard with Barry Huggins (John Turturro), a brash and loud Hollywood actor who hates being given directions. His claim to fame is that Stanley Kubrick was “crazy” about him. However he does not get the script what the script for this movie says and constantly makes mistakes in his speeches. The tension between Margherita and Barry eventually becomes a screaming match between the two of them.

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Nanni Moretti directed and acts in this dramedy about the stresses and the personality clashes suffered by a woman with way too much on her plate. The film is carefully measured and satisfying as the narrative revolves around Margherita’s squabbles on set, her making calls to the hospital, and the regular vigils with her brother by their mother’s bed. Buy and Moretti share a wonderful, low-key chemistry that conveys the intimacy between their characters. Margherita is always wrapped up in the exigencies of directing and she shows fragility and guilt over her absences from her mother’s bedside, while Giovanni is the steadfast one, reversing the usual scenario of women as primary caretakers. The disappointment that Margherita feels about of being easily replaced by her brother, comes together with relief thus adding to the scene’s complexity.

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Margherita’s falters and asserts herself, in turns, as she navigates her professional relationship with her film’s American star, Barry. There is a lot of energy in the film and it reflects beautifully how acceptance of adversity, or the building of trust, might happen in real life. There are two fairly compelling stories in the film. The first is about Margherita who is faced with the unenviable task of shooting a movie about a union strike at a factory in an economic environment where the subject matter hits too close to home. Besides that, she also has to deal with the manic personality of Barry.

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The second story also follows Margherita, as she struggles to come to terms with the imminent death of her elderly mother. She has to reconcile with her brother Giovanni (director Nanni Moretti) and somehow prepare herself for a definitive emotional trauma upon the death of her mother.

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What we clearly see are the struggles of a woman who must somehow remain a dedicated professional despite immense stress in her home life.

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Margherita Buy is a compelling leading actress and gives quite a performance. The intent and meaning behind her emotional instability is clear and actress Buy shows understandable gradualism throughout the film.

“PITCHFORK”— Gay and Gory

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“Pitchfork”

Gay and Gory

Amos Lassen

A group of friends return home with a friend to help him share a secret only to learn that sometimes older secrets are even more deadly. “Pitchfork” is the first film in a trilogy and it is all about secrets.

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A group of young people who head out to support their friend during a trying time in his life. What they don’t know is that somewhere in the beautiful farmland that surrounds them, there is a mad killer stalking them and who is ready to make their lives a living hell.  We see that there is a reason a pitchfork is the Devil’s favorite tool…

Created and directed by Glenn Douglas Packard, the film is stirring up a great big buzz on social media.  There have been a few ‘stabs’ at gay-themed horror, and here is another one is on its way, where coming out serves as the backdrop to a creepy tale.

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“Having recently shared a life-changing secret with his family, Hunter recruits his friends to come with him from New York to the farm where he grew up as he faces his parents for the first time. As the college students enjoy the fresh air of Michigan farm country, an older, more dangerous secret slowly emerges. While Hunter (Daniel Wilkinson) navigates a new place within his conservative family, a vicious creature from their past descends on the farm, putting the unsuspecting city kids in mortal danger.”

“Nick and Greg” by John Roman Baker— The First in a Trilogy

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Baker, John Roman. “Nick & Greg” (“Nick & Greg Books”), Wilkinson House, 2016.

The First in a Trilogy

Amos Lassen

 Set in Brighton, England in the late 1950s, we meet Nick and Greg who themselves just met one day after school. Brighton was an exciting and dangerous place back yet they made it their playground. As they run around town with the innocence of youth, they discovered not just the secrets of Brighton but also their deep love and passionate desires for each other.

They learn that there is gay life in Brighton and that it thrives there even though it is illegal according to the law at the time. What is there is hidden behind closed doors and neither seen or spoken of. Nick wants to learn about his sexuality and begins to read all that he can and he looks for other gays to befriend. Greg, however, is held in because of his family and his own sense of uneasiness and soon begins to show signs of self-destructive behavior that could really hurt his mental state.

John Roman Baker does a wonderful and brutally honest job of sharing the lives of two young teens who grew up at a time when being gay was very different than it is today. I have always found interesting to learn how gay people in other parts of the world deal with their sexuality and here we see how it was in Brighton. There is truth and there is wit in depicting that. Since this is the first book in the trilogy, we know that the two friends we meet here will be back with more of their story and I can’t wait to read about them again. I found this to be a special treat and eagerly await “Time of Obsessions” and “Dangerous Seas”.

 

“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen— In His Own Words

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Springsteen, Bruce. “Born to Run”, Simon and Schuster, 2016.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

In His Own Words

Amos Lassen

At the very beginning of “Born To Run”, Bruce Springsteen tells us, “Writing about yourself is a funny business…but in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” It is then up to the reader to decide if he has succeeded in doing so. I suppose that also hinges on what the reader wants to know. We learn that what made Springsteen decide to write his own biography was when he, with his band, performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show in 2009. He was so exhilarated that he decided to write about it. During the last seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life and in doing so he writes with originality, humor and honesty. He gives insight into what it was that has driven him during his life and career and that includes “the motivations, the demons, the anxiety, the joys, the fears, the hopes, the dreams”, the very elements that we have heard in his music. He proves that not only can he write fine lyrics and music, he that he can also write fine prose. This is his story and he tells it in the way that it should be told.

Springsteen writes about growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey and seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He shares his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With honesty and candor, he tells us about the personal struggles that inspired his best work, and shows us why the song “Born to Run” reveals more than we might have thought. While this is labeled as a memoir, it is so much more. It is a book anyone who has ever wanted to be part of rock and roll. Springsteen’s story is both intimate and personal and it shows that he knows a lot about people.

The book is written in short chapters and as we read, it is almost like being part of a conversation. Even though it comes in at 528 pages, it is an easy read. Because Springsteen has many of the same insecurities as many of us, we identify with him. He is a rebel and the writes in the language of one. Be prepared to be surprised by “Born to Run”. I was not expecting it to be nearly as good as it is.

 

“ONE NATION FROM TRUMP”— On the Trump Train

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“One Nation Under Trump”

On the Trump Train

Amos Lassen

Are we ready for a balanced examination of Donald Trump, the most talked about presidential candidate in history? Personally I am not but because I was asked to review this new documentary, I am going to tell you what I think of it and you probably also see what I think about Trump. The film wastes no time jumping into what it calls, “the unstoppable Donald Trump revolution”.

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We get both the high and low points of the Trump’s improbable rise, from early speaking engagements to explosive televised debates to galvanizing speeches and public media feuds to, finally, securing the presidential nomination We are taken aboard the Trump Train from the very beginning and get an unflinching look at what may be the most important political figure of the 21st century. (How I hate calling Trump important).

Now this is not much of a documentary since it is just an hour of clips from Trump interviews and speeches. There is some voice over and the film reaches the end, the voice doesn’t match with what is on screen. The film is not insightful and is just simply a propaganda piece. We see no opposing views.

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The film actually makes Trump look worse than he is. There is no continuity and there was no editor. Nothing holds together and it’s just Trump with his fake tan and terrible hair telling us that he is wonderful. We see and hear his fear mongering and agenda of hate. He comes across as a

“rancorous power hungry lunatic as someone who can’t fit the pieces together very well”. Like its subject, it is completely idiotic with a bunch of useless video clips. If there is a redeeming aspect of this film it is that it shows a disgusting presidential campaign that will go down in history as a shameful reflection of a country’s hatred and anger.

And from a Trump supporter who saw this film:

“My Yahoo handle is StocktonRob. I am a 68 year old Nam vet and a Republican. Trump is an honest man, albeit not perfect as he willingly admits. This excellent examination of Trump in his many interviews and rallies and meetings with Americans gives an overall view of a man who is very likely to beat Crooked Lyin Hillary in November. There did not need to be any opposing views in this documentary because it is dealing strictly with “the phenomenon of Trump” as a Republican presidential candidate and that is exactly what is examined. There is an unbridled enthusiasm at Trump rallies and within the Republican Party for this man who has put to one side his incredible business career in an effort to be elected U.S. President so he can use the same negotiating skills that have made him so successful in business in the international and national arenas of politics. I highly recommend this video to all Americans so they can see through the lies of the left and the mainstream media. (totally liberal) in the U.S. Stockton Rob”.