“PARTNERS”— Undercover Cops

partners

“PARTNERS”

Undercover Cops

Amos Lassen

Straight cop Benson (Ryan O’Neal) and gay officer Kerwin (John Hurt) are an odd couple who are teamed to solve a series of murders in James Burrows’s “Partners”. boss, Chief Wilkins (Kenneth McMillan) has put the two men together to go undercover as a gay couple to hunt down the person responsible for a series of murders in L.A.’s gay community. The discomfort each feels at first dissolves as Benson relaxes into his role, while Kerwin finds his bliss in domesticity. However, this happiness is short-lived when Benson’s roving eye makes him a target for the killer and only Kerwin’s clear-eyed deductions may prevent his partner from becoming the next victim.

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 This is one of those cop “buddy” comedy, like so many that were made in the 1980’s, with the exception that here, one of the cops happens to be gay. While some may label this “progress” and such, it’s not difficult to find a dozen or so films that came earlier that were more daring and radical, not to mention better made.

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Because the police department is criticized for failing to solve the murder of a gay man, Chief Wilkins puts macho Detective Sergeant Benson) to go undercover with the clichéd gay desk officer, Kerwin. This means that the two will spend the remainder of the film bonding with each other, while tracking down clues about the killer. For the most part, Benson works through his homophobia by uttering homophobic remarks whenever he gets angry and having sex with lots of women, while Kerwin cooks and does the laundry for both of them.

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We first realize that this movie is a dud when a dramatic scene comes across funnier that those scenes that are meant to be funny. This is indeed a comedy but the problem is that we laugh at the drama and ignore the comedy. Nothing comes across as intentional and it is all really just boring. It is, however, never intentionally homophobic and not nearly as silly as say, “Another Gay Movie”. It is actually a movie that means well and when we consider that it was released in 1982, we can certainly understand it a bit better.

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Now there are some problems—gay Kerwin never ever mentions a boyfriend or ever having ever been in a relationship with another man. Given his age, this is a bit strange. He is actually such a “wimp” that he never defends himself whenever Benson uses a homophobic slur. As such, the relationship that develops between Benson and Kerwin seemed to be somewhat abusive as Kerwin acted more like Benson’s servant than equal partner. The ending, which I will not share here, is weak and certainly does not seem to be aware of the Hays Code having been overturned some twelve years before the movie was released.

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The two men adopt their homosexual disguises, which include a lavender Volkswagen, a lavender jogging outfit for Kerwin and lots of tight-fitting jeans and tank tops for Benson, and set up housekeeping in an apartment house favored by homosexuals. Benson forces himself to put up with the passes of aging queens and to play the role of available hustler in an effort to obtain information. Kerwin teaches Benson about being gay, much of which is foreign even to him.

Benson is not comfortable in his role and we constantly sense that he would much rather be somewhere else. He has a hard enough time acting gay and things aren’t helped by the fact that photographer Jill (Robyn Douglass) has caught his eye but has no idea he actually likes women.

Watching the movie now so many years after it was made, shows us that it was definitely made for a certain time period In history and that it would never get made today. It relies heavily on stereotypes and uses slurs that are unacceptable in this day and age but at the same time, surprisingly, the homosexual characters are not regarded or treated as one-note jokes.

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So much of the movie is predictable yet it is still entertaining so I am not writing it off—not by any means. Benson learns that gays are people just like us and the entire gay issue is handled very nicely but that does not make it a good movie or a bad movie.

“BLUE DREAM”— “Even When It Hurt”

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“Blue Dream”

“Even When It Hurt”

Amos Lassen

 Kinga Galambos is a Hungarian swimmer who has been diagnosed with cancer and who is also a woman who does not give up easily. Her dream, despite her diagnosis, is to continue to swim regardless of the pain she deals with. In just five minutes director Gergo Elekes captures not only the woman but also her perseverance and he does so with this beautifully shot short film. This is not what I would call a happy film but it is quite inspirational. We see Kinga on the verge of death as she deals with effects of chemotherapy that both makes her weak and is painful. She, however, does not let go of her dream she refuses to concede—her memory and her dreams keep her alive and moving forward. I believe it is important to understand that many of us never think about dying until we sense that our lives are getting shorter.

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There is something about the serenity of the swimming pool that stands in contrast to the pain she feels from cancer. It is her dream that allows her to function against the reality of what she is facing.

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This is quite a dark film that tugs at our emotions and it is very difficult not to be affected by what we see. The cinematography is stunning as is the music and it is amazing how director Elekes succeeds in capturing the very harsh reality of cancer and the way that our star copes with it. It is, as if, the film is a poetic ode to feelings that many times stand opposite each other—uncertainty, innocence and wonder and pain and loss. and uncertainty and so much more. 

“NAOMI AND ELY’S NO KISS LIST”— Falling for the Same Guy

naomi and ely's no kiss list

“NAOMI AND ELY’S NO KISS LIST”

Falling for the Same Guy

Amos Lassen

Naomi (Victoria Justice) and Ely (Pierson Fode) are two best friends now beginning their studies at NYU and they have been in love with each other for their whole lives and even though Ely is gay. They have a “No Kiss Least” which has been able to stop any arguments between them in the past but now is being when the two find themselves in love with the same guy. Now they must decide if their friendship is strong enough to get past this and their entry into adulthood. David Levithan’s book is the basis for this sweet comedy.

Ely has two mothers, one of whom had slept with Naomi’s father and the two teens are still working on patching that up especially since Naomi’s father walked out of his family. Ely is openly gay even though he has not yet had sex with another man and this disappoints Naomi even though she tells Ely the opposite. She was raised in the lap of luxury never having had to want for anything and deep down inside she feels she might be able to help Ely “change”.

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Naomi and Eli are determined to stay best friends for eternity and so they made up a list of men that neither of them is allowed to kiss and this was a way to make sure that no potential boyfriends would ever come between them. However, Bruce, who has been dating Naomi is not on the list. Their little relationship is quite new and did not really get off the ground yet. One night, however, one night Bruce and Ely got it on and had moved much the point that Bruce and Naomi has reached. Naomi is not happy about this and takes this very badly ending her relationship with both of them. She also has other problems and has become responsible for her mother who took to her bed when her husband left them and Naomi is also responsible for finding a way to pay the rent before they get evicted.

Both Naomi and Ely seem to be quite shallow and superficial and that makes it hard to identify with them.Although I said this is quite a sweet movie, it is also fluff. Directed by Kristin Hanggi, it never really gets more than one-dimensional.  Victoria Justice and Pierson Fode are fine in their parts but they could have been so much better if their characters had been a bit deeper.

“UNITY”— Empathy?

unity

“UNITY”

Empathy?

Amos Lassen

Unity begins by showing us two cows being led to their slaughter and we see the terror in their eyes. This is a very powerful explanation on what being human is all about and empathizing with the suffering of other living things. The film then begins a series of narrations (that I understand to be the script of the film). Geoffrey Rush is first then Anjelica Huston, Helen Mirren, and so on. These narrators come and go in short segments, each as if adding to the previous thought, starting with the birth of the universe. Marion Cotillard and then Mark Strong come in with the arrival of fauna and flora on earth. This gives us the thought that the universe is a ‘one’ and we are all part of it. Joaquim Phoenix introduces mankind, and Jessica Chastain introduces us to the laws of the universe. 



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What we see is that we all come from the same nebula, the same universe and we should ask ourselves why we separate ourselves into different, conflicting unities. Why are we not all one unity? Why do we always fight?
 Consider how many times you have asked that question and then how many times others have asked it.

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Now of course we suspect that the film will deliver an anti war message and it does. We are to see here that humans simply haven’t learned how to stop wars and/or violent conflicts. There is nothing new here, we all want world peace or at least we say we do. From what I perceive to be the basic theme and thesis of the film— that war is hell— war is hell, the movie very strangely turns its emphasis to vegetarianism or eating animals is terrible. The film argues that animals don’t really hold water, and their appeal is superficial.

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Humans are seen here as uniquely carnivorous in nature just for the sake of it. No uncomfortable parallels in the animal kingdom are addressed.
Obviously this is used to make the transition simple to the exploration of spiritual necessity of selflessness, loss of ego, love and compassion. Here it turns to silliness to make the point that animals never wear eyeglasses or hearing aids or wigs. The film ignores the fact that sick or weak animals die, so of course the ones that we see are perfectly healthy and not to be compared to humans, please. Living by killing, as we do, is contrasted with living by loving, quoting philosophers and giants of history, as if we needed to be convinced.

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Then we shift metaphysically and the question of the meaning of life. Writer/director Shaun Monson seems to hope that we will evolve from Homo Sapiens to Homo Spiritus very soon, at one with the universe and living in harmony. While the themes here are timeless, the film is way to idealistic and propelled by wishful thinking. It also does not have a connection to the real nature of humanity that it seems like a philosophy lecture wrapped in idealism. In fact, I am not even sure that this is a movie and if it is than it is quite disturbing. We sense a mood of hopeless naiveté that is driven by a frustration with the human condition. It suggests its audience is materialistic and far too obsessed with celebrities, when the narrators themselves are extremely wealthy celebrities and make their living off of our materialism and obsessions with their kind. Each time a narrator switches over, we’re treated to the headshot of each accompanied by their name and this is totally distracting. Then there is that the message of the film is obfuscated by the fact that it tries to cram so much into the film and that it really does not have much to say. The celebrities who appear do nothing to advance the film. It is really hard to find something good to say about the film unless you enjoy being spoken down to.

“PRETTY BOY”– A Gay Teen’s Struggles with his Faith and Sexuality

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“Pretty Boy ”

A Gay Teen’s Struggles with his Faith and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Cameron Thrower’s 32-minute short film “Pretty Boy” is now making the festival circuit.

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Sean Collins (Nick Everman) is taken to a motel and is given a prostitute for his 18th birthday by his father (John Bridell). He must sleep with her to “fix” his homosexuality. This is a coming of story about a Sean who is bullied at school and struggling with his sexuality together with the hardships of high school. After his devout Catholic father finds some “interesting” magazines in his room, he is ready to go to any lengths necessary to get his son to be a man and perform the way men are expected to perform. He introduced Sean to Katie (Rebekah Tripp), a prostitute that understands the stigma of modern society and helps him see the light that is within him.

 

“Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship” by Joshua Gamson— The Changing Family

modern families

Gamson, Joshua. “Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship”, NYU Press, 2015.

The Changing Family

Amos Lassen

The American family has been going through constant change and we are certainly aware that today they are much different than they were, say, ten years ago. Parenthood has taken new directions with the advent of technology, activism, and law.   Joshua Gamson in “Modern Families” brings us some new ands extraordinary family stories of families that have been created (including his own) and in them we see that indeed the world has changed. The stories we have here come from a child with two mothers, made with one mother’s egg and the sperm of a man none of them has ever met and carried by the other mother; another child who was born to a man and a woman in Ethiopia and delivered by his natural grandmother to an orphanage after both his parents died in close succession one after the other. He was then taken to another woman to be his mother and she is raising him alone. We have the story of a girl with two dads, conceived with one father’s sperm and eggs donated by a friend and carried to term in the womb of another close friend who becomes their surrogate. Then there are two girls, one born in Nepal and the other in India, legally adopted by a woman who is co-parenting them with her girlfriend and a gay male couple. These are certainly not the stories we heard as children but they are the stories that today’s will likely hear. 

While these stories are personal, they are most certainly political. In “Modern Families” we have stories that include the personal the ethnographic. These are what we call unconventional families and their stories include adoption and assisted reproduction, gay and straight parents, coupled and single, and multi-parent families and this is all seen against a background of true multiculturalism and the social, legal, and economic contexts in which they were made. We see the difficulties encountered in creating a family and that many times parts of biological reproduction took place in a different body than that of the parents raising the child. We see that sometimes the model of kinship was made up virtually from scratch and many times with tension. We see also that becoming parents is not biological and that it can involve dealing with many issues including social conventions, legal and medical institutions and have been dealt with by heightened intention and inventiveness, within and across multiple inequities and privileges.  We must remember that institutional change often comes after the creativity of everyday living. Each of the families in this book shares the joy of being part of a family.

“Modern Families” looks at change from the inside out instead of the usual opposite way. The new relationships that we have here are complicated in many ways but they are balanced by love and hope. We now live in a society where we are now free to marry who we want and our families now come from how we choose to make them. There is beauty in creating a child extraordinarily. Our vocabularies are changing and we now have words and phrases such as assisted reproduction and we now face new forms of co-parenting and global adoption. In effect, we are challenging what was once considered to be traditional kinship and even intimacy has taken new forms and directions. It is all happening very fast. We now have new questions to which we do not have answers and choice has now entered the equations dealing with family. It is a wonderful time to be alive.

“THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT”— A Mock Prison Experiment

the stanford perison experiment

“The Stanford Prison Experiment”

A Mock Prison Experiment

Amos Lassen

After he received the green light to conduct an unusual experiment in the basement of a Stanford University building, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) embarked on a mission to study personality under pressure. Dividing volunteers into groups of prisoners and prison guards, Philip orchestrates a penitentiary setting with plywood walls, classrooms, and broom closets, sending unprepared “criminals” into a setting with all-powerful “guards.” Not sure what to expect, Philip and his colleagues begin to see change within the men right away, capturing on video tape an increase in force, humiliation, and brutality as the two sides clash. For guard Christopher (Michael Angarano), the experiment provides a chance to experience power and attempt theatricality, but for prisoner Daniel (Ezra Miller), time in the hallways with his fellow inmates proves to be maddening, inspiring an uprising against those who believe they’re in control.

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Twenty-four male students out of a possible seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The project was conducted by a group of researchers under the leadership of Philip Zimbardo and lasted six days in August 1971. The idea was akin to what Hannah Arendt said about the banality of evil, a theory that dispels comfortable human projections of morality and individuality. Zimbardo assembled 24 college boys for a simulation of federal prison conditions, converting a series of campus offices and hallways into a makeshift staging of a correctional facility with little personal space and no sunlight. The team then randomly assembled the students into two groups: guards and prisoners, telling the guards they were selected for their position because of inherent personal qualities that were vaguely defined on purpose as to flatter their egos and give them a sense of superiority over the people playing the prisoners. Then the volunteers began to live according to the rituals of prison life, which quickly morphed into a series of psychological tortures. The “guards” harassed the “prisoners,” forcing them to perform physical exercises, punishing them for increasingly nonsensical reasons, personally demeaning them, and effectively breaking down their senses of self by the almost constant repetition of their assigned prisoner numbers. Conditions escalated at a rapid pace until the plug was pulled abruptly to halt what had become a real prison in “microcosmic extremis”. In less than a week, many “guards” and “prisoners” had internalized their new roles and some of them even forget that they were participating in a simulated exercise.

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Zimbardo wanted to show that, in broad terms, in certain institutional situations might, in themselves, be inherently diseased and on human capacities for bending to authority in spite of perceptions of violations of common morality. Protocol might then be the ultimate religion and we might see that we can do anything when so justified by the sudden, “simultaneously freeing, and constricting expansion of the rules of relativism”.

In director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film, the “guards” and “prisoners” were sorted literally by the tossing of a quarter in some instances and they all, left to their own devices, chose to be prisoners, because they resent the law. This detail symbolically suggests a like sorting as practiced by capitalism, classism, racism, you name it. We ask and answer the questions— Who are we? Are we just merely drones playing whatever role’s assigned to us? The implications of “The Stanford Prison Experiment” could very well partially serve to contextualize the historical tolerance of atrocities, such as the genocides in Germany and Darfur and so on.

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This experiment could possibly elaborate on the mass population’s willingness to play into a social game of exploitation that blatantly refuses to serve them and that is overseen by “politicians who exude a blithe contempt for their populace”. Additionally, the experiment looks and at then practices

the various manipulations that it was attempting to demythologize and decry, and it has been understandably criticized for a basic failure of simulation: The participants were partially unmoored by a confusion of reality, as they were rewarded (with authority) or punished (with lack of the same) for events that they didn’t precipitate. In a real prison most of the prisoners have earned their fate, or at least understand why they’re there and what the general sweep of the situation is. What we see is the collapse of man’s basic orientation and it is, I understand, very difficult to portray the rapid devolution of sanity on the screen so that it appeals real and actual.

The film omits most biographical details of the experiment. Zimbardo’s motivations are so vaguely established as to render him as a Machiavellian villain. Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbot create an experiential portrait of the torment wrought by the conditions of the experiment. With this approach, the film is often an unpleasantly single-minded experience, reveling in one horrible act after another. Yet, this ugliness also represents an act of aesthetic purity that puts us on the way the “guards” and “prisoners” alike think. We begin to feel as if we’ve spent six actual days with these people, and suspense comes from a sense that any kind of awfulness can materialize from the stagnation that Alvarez so wonderfully captures here.

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The study was funded by the US Office of Naval Research on the cause and conflict between military guards and their prisoners. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and writer Tim Talbot have created an honest and accurate depiction of a psychological experiment that goes terribly wrong. One of the problems is that Zimbardo was too involved in the experiment and took the role of prison superintendant and participant, not observer. This did away with the control group in the experiment causing the study to take on the air of chaos with prisoners revolting against the guards, guards abusing their prisoners, sometimes physically without checks and balances enforced. Therefore we assume that what we see is fiction.

The conclusions that were made by Phillip Zimbardo after his experiment are based on environmental situation, not individual personality traits and are reminiscent of the prison guards’ cruelty that took place at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. Was that behavior at Abu Ghraib the product of environment or just “a few bad apples” unfortunately assigned to where their sadism could flower? If it is the former, then why was it allowed to happen unsupervised? Zimbardo’s study asks more questions than it answers.

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“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is based on a true story, and one Zimbardo continues to lecture about to this day, sharing and his intent and findings with the exercise, which still carries validity. Performances are passable for this type of picture, finding the cast made up of young independent actors who’ve already worked together on numerous occasions. This is a gripping, chillingly provocative study in dehumanization and the abuse of authority.

“The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books” by Nafisi Azar— The Importance of Fiction

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Nafisi, Azar. “The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books”, Viking, 2014.

The Importance of Fiction

Amos Lassen

Azar Nafisi (“Reading Lolita in Tehran”) met an Iranian immigrant at the signing of one of her books and he told her that “Americans could never appreciate their own literature the way that oppressed Iranians would” and she set out to prove him wrong, Nafisi set out to prove him wrong. In the process she found that Americans are obsessed with the acquisition of things rather than ideas. As she wrote here she brought memoir and polemic together and created a place known as the “Republic on Imagination” which is a place “where the villains are conformity and orthodoxy and the only passport to entry is a free mind and a willingness to dream”. She tells us how, as a young girl, she discovered American fiction and using four of her favorite novels—Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Azar reminds us of the crucial role that literature has played in the past. In these four novels she looks at themes that include everything from the humanities to violence. She criticizes the newly created Common Core Curriculum and how it looks at the purpose of education. Nafisi looks at literary escapism through her favorite American novels. She brings her own personal views to the table and does so with wit and style.

The text is divided into three sections and what we get here is a personal exploration of the American character through its literature. Actually I felt that the book is actually about a look at what it means to the writer to be an American. We see this through her relationship with books as well as her relationship to others expressed through literature.

At its heart, the book is about what it means for Ms. Nafisi to be an American, as discussed through her relation to books, and her relationships with others as expressed through books.

Nafisi takes on the American education system and issues with Common Core standards and acknowledges that the Common Core is a product of the Race to the Top program. In the first and third sections we get a look at her personal view of life. She then shows us how each of her favorite books is connected to memories she has of people who are no longer alive. These people are those she discussed books with.

Nafisi wonderfully explains why reading and literature should be powerful. As an avid reader, I am well aware that literature can change lives and I was instantly reminded here of how Nafisi to Iranian students. They learned that literature liberates both the hearts and the minds just as it does here in America. The concept of the Republic of Imagination is a magical place that we can go to when we need to escape the reality of chores and routines. It is a democratic place with no boundaries, and where there are no limitations based on race and/or sexuality, ethnicity, nationality. To enter one must be curious and empathetic. It is there that we see that using the imagination is not a frivolous activity but rather an escape from the dullness we find in life. There is nothing without imagination and if we do not dream than we produce no art. In a world minus art there is really nothing.

Nafisi is a brilliant writer and we are so lucky that she shares her ideas with us. Literature is subversive in that it comes from the imagination and challenges the way things are. Her argument is that we need to reread certain American novels and in doing so become creative and engaging. I would like to believe that I already am since my life is one of books.

“Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer— Bringing the Legend to Life

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Hammer, Rabbi Reuven. “Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy”, Jewish Publication Society, 2015.

Bringing the Legend to Life

Amos Lassen

This might sound a bit sacrilegious but as when I was a kid, Rabbi Akiva was like the Lone Ranger to me— I loved him even though I did not know much about him but I think it was the fact that he was such a mysterious yet heroic figure that I wanted to grow up and be just like him. He was a man among man. As I grew he remained mysterious but we part ways when I became involved in higher education when our heroes change to philosophers and those who dared to buck the status quo. I suppose I had forgotten that Akiva did that as well.

And then I moved to Israel and the good rabbi reentered my life. So who was this paragon who I worshipped? Akiva ben Yosef was one of the early sages and one of the most important ones. He lived at a time that was crucial in the development of the Jewish religion. The theology that he developed became a very important part of what we refer to as Rabbinic Judaism. I still remember as a kid in Young Judaea singing “Amar Rabbi Akiva” so when I participated in my first Lag B’Omer celebration in Israel it was very special because it brought my childhood hero back to me. Now all that I want to know about him is in this wonderful new book by Rabbi Reuven Hammer. What I gathered here is that it is not what kind of life Akiva lived that is so important, what really matters is what he left behind—his legacy.

He was not just fascinating for me—he was fascinating for Jews for hundreds of years. When we look at the oral law, we realize how important Akiva was and I find it interesting that there has not been a book written about him in English since 1936. Yet our religion is filled with his influence. He helped his people; those who became known as the Jewish people, survive difficult periods and challenges and taught them how to live good religious lives.

Akiva during the time before the destruction of the Temple in 70 B.C.E. through the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 B.C.E. That legacy played an extraordinarily important role in helping the Jewish people survive difficult challenges and forge a vibrant religious life anew and it continues to influence Jewish law, ethics, and theology even today. Akiva’s contribution to the development of Oral Torah cannot be overestimated, and in this first book written in English about the sage since 1936, Hammer reassesses Akiva’s role from the period before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE. In a nutshell, Akiva was born in 50 B.C.E. and was a leading contributor to the Mishnah  and Halacha. He is referred to in the Talmud as “Rosh la-Chachamim” or Head of all the Sages. He recognized Bar Kochba as the messiah, and was executed by the Romans in the disastrous aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt. He was an important figure in creating the Biblical canon and protested against the inclusion of parts of the Apocrypha  yet he strongly defended, however, the canonicity of the Song of Songs and the Book of Esther.

Akiva systematized Halacha and his hermeneutics and exegeses make up the foundation of Talmudic learning. Akiva created his own Midrash in that he was able “to discover things that were even unknown to Moses” and is responsible for making the oral law a place from which new treasures might be continually extracted. The essence of his religiosity is based upon these principles:

  • “How favored is man, for he was created after an image; as Scripture says, “for in an image, Elohim made man” ( ix. 6).
  • “Everything is foreseen; but freedom [of will] is given to every man”.
  • “The world is governed by mercy… but the divine decision is made by the preponderance of the good or bad in one’s actions”.

Anthropologically speaking, Akiva saw man as having been created not in the image of God but after “a primordial type; or, philosophically speaking, after an idea”. He taught that God combines goodness and mercy with strict justice and that “God rules the world according to the preponderance of good or bad in human acts. Rabbi Hammer here looks at what we know about the growth of early Judaism, why Akiva spoke out about “Christian Jews,” as well as at the influence of Hellenism, the Septuagint, and the canonization of the Hebrew Bible. What we really see is that had there been no Akiva, Judaism would have been very different. The book clarifies a great deal about Akiva especially in the realms of thoughts, beliefs and concern about the Jewish people. By reading about him, we not only learn of who he was but also how to deal with issues of the present day. Once again we see here how learning about the past helps us with the present.

“Return to Zion: The History of Modern Israel” by Eric Gartman— “The Ingathering of the Exiles”

return to zion

Gartman, Eric. “Return to Zion: The History of Modern Israel”, Jewish Publication Society, 2015.

“The Ingathering of The Exiles”

Amos Lassen

Modern Israel’s history is like no other nation in that it is not only the history of a physical place but it is also the story of ambition, violence, and survival. In his new book, Eric Gartman shows how a people who were scattered and who had no country were able to rebuild themselves in a land of which many had no concept of before living there. Israel was the homeland of those who had no home and it became the place where people were able to reach full potential without threats of anti-Semitism from without. However, there were problems and we see how those that came to land had to face threats by those who, during the many years of the dispersion, had come to regard the land as their home. This is one of the major problems of the modern Jewish state— who has the deed to the land? Yet is also the story of the coming together of the Jewish people, “the ingathering of the exiles” from Europe and form other place where Jews had settled during what has come to be known as the Diaspora. It is also the story of perseverance and courage, of tragedy and reinvention. It is the story of the nation called home by many who had never been there and the country that is still called home by many who will never go there. 

Gartner writes with two main themes—reconstitution and survival. To build a nation in a place that is torn by different groups who also want to call it hone is very problematic. The citizens of Israel have to face constant challenges from neighbors who are hostile to the fact that Israel was created where it stands today. There are also challenges from foreign governments with divided support and the fact that citizens of the state have been and continue to be attacked by large armies (three times in the first twenty-five years of existence). The land is one of turmoil because to protect it means to sacrifice life and to be in an almost war of independence yet the Israelis know what they have to do to maintain their and do so. When we consider that in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 statistically every family in the country lost someone, we see the strength of a people determined to keep their home.

Gartman also looks at the leading figures in Israeli history and these include Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzchak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon. We see them here as they stand alongside of the way events were perceived after the horrors of the Second World War. We have a chance here to read of declassified CIA, White House, and U.S. State Department documents that detail America’s involvement in the 1967 and 1973 wars, as well as proof that the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was a case of mistaken identity. What the importance and uniqueness of this book is that it pulls together the threads of history and in doing so we get a look into the modern state and a true picture of Israel.

Granted that this is an overview of history and therefore is very general but even in that, there is much here that is new and important. It is, of course, pro-Jewish and pro-Israel and some may find these to be limitations but if we considered the real reasons for the creation of the State of Israel we see that these are, in effect, prerequisites. This is a very readable history of Israel and an excellent look at what happened and why it happened.

It is interesting to see that as Israel has come of age so many opinions about Israel have changed. I must say that having grown up in the Zionist youth movement and going on aliyah when I did, opinions of the state were very different. Living in Israel for many years let me see how these opinions changed yet even today after having returned to America, I still see Israel with the same idealistic eyes I had as a youth. So let me say that this is a book for non-specialists and for younger readers who want to get an introduction to the rise of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel. For those who want more about the internal workings of the state and its relations with the rest of the world this is probably not the book they are looking for. Do I recommend it? I do whole-heartedly but with the reservation that this is just part of the story. The heroes remain the heroes, basically unscathed and larger than life.

“Eric Gartman is an intelligence analyst for the United States Department of Defense who has lived and studied in Israel and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East”.