SEVEN NEW JEWISH DOCUMENTARY FILMS

SEVEN NEW JEWISH DOCUMENTARY FILMS

“ON THE MAP”

“On the Map” tells the miraculous story of the Israeli Maccabi team and their “David and Goliath” victory over the Soviet Red Army champion team in 1977. The film includes archival footage of Israeli-American basketball hero Tal Brody whose triumphant words would become a slogan for generations to come: “We are on the map and stay on the map! Not only in sports, but in everything!” Filmmaker Dani Menkin (“39 Pounds of Love”) and producer Nancy Spielberg conducted vivid interviews some forty years later with the team’s players, NBA luminaries and political leaders. Natan Sharansky says that Brody’s statement made him smile during the nine years he spent in Soviet prison following the historic game. Aulcie Perry, an African American player from New Jersey, discusses his conversion to Judaism.

“FOREVER PURE”
While “On the Map” is a feel good film, “Forever Pure” holds angst and racial tensions. “Football is not a very fascinating sport,” says Beitar team owner Arcadi Gaydamak, a Russian-born billionaire with political aspirations, who signed two Muslim players from Chechnya in 2012. Prior to this, Beitar was the only team in its league that had never fielded an Arab player; its loyal fans, La Familia, known for radical nationalistic right-wing views, reacted with violence and hostility, while other fans decried the racism. “So why does it attract so many fans? At the subconscious level football is a clash between two different groups. It is a kind of war,” says Gaydamak, who viewed the team as a propaganda tool. His controversial decision to bring Chechen players to an all Jewish team — according to his own admission in the film – was not because they were good footballers, but to spark a reaction amongst the fans against their own team in order to “expose its real face.” Despite its history of conflict, Beitar has had a huge influence on Israeli society and elections, drawing presidents, mayors and prime ministers to use the audience for campaigning.

“SUPERGIRL”
When nine-year-old Naomi Kutin breaks a powerlifting world record, she turns into a national phenomenon and “Supergirl” is born. The Forward covered her in 2012, starting a media avalanche. She seems like a typical Orthodox Jewish pre-teen, planning a fun Bat Mitzvah party, praying in synagogue and chatting with friends at Yeshivat [Noam] in New Jersey, but otherwise this girl’s extreme competitive sport is completely unorthodox (Naomi calls it her “powerlifting alter ego”). Director Jessie Auritt follows Naomi over several years as she fights to hold on to her title while navigating the challenges of adolescence and facing health issues that could jeopardize her future in powerlifting. I think the only thing more painful than a twelve year old lifting 265 pounds is watching her do it. (Imagine at 95 pounds squatting almost three times her body weight.) Naomi’s definitely a noteworthy and charismatic subject, but the paradox of this twelve year old slim, pretty, suburban Jewish girl as a powerlifter defies every stereotype. Although her story is captured well on film, it’s hard to quite grasp Naomi’s and her parents’ (who willfully train and encourage her) true motivation to acquire such record setting physical strength.

“THE FATHER’S CHAIR”
“Thy Father’s Chair” also documents atypical Orthodox characters, sixty-something quirky identical twins Abraham and Shraga, who live together in their childhood home in Brooklyn. After the death of their parents, they lost control of their surroundings, allowing trash to pile up, old food to decay and stray cats and vermin to move in. Propelled by a determined neighbor, the brothers allow a professional cleaning crew to sort and clean their neglected abode. There’s nothing Jewish about the bug infested, filthy household, except for the holy books deemed as “shaimes” to be buried separate from the garbage.

“BIG SONIA”

In “Big Sonia,” director Leah Warshawski follows her grandmother, Sonia, one of the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust in Kansas City, as she shares her inspirational story of survival on speaking tours, from 8th grade students to prisoners. The 90-year-old seamstress, who loves using animal prints (from her coat and hand bag to steering wheel and couch), now runs her late husband’s tailor shop in a mall that’s on the brink of closing. In the film, Sonia says that she had an awakening after hearing people denying the Holocaust. “I was naïve that now people will really take out the hate of their hearts and respect you for who you are as a human being, but I was very very wrong,” Sonia says. “It tortures me so deeply when I hear and see that we are going backwards and the hate is still growing.”

“THE WONDERFUL KINGDOM OF PAPA ALAEV”
“The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev” focuses on a domineering patriarchal father and grandfather, Papa Allo Alaev, approaching his 80th birthday, who rules his family as band leader of their family folk-rock group, implementing Bukharian customs and the belief that the nuclear family extends for many generations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he moved his clan from their native Tajikistan to Israel, where they share everything – household and stage. Performing for over 50 years, they blend Eastern European, Jewish and Roma influences. Excluded from performances is Ada, the only daughter of Allo and the designated homemaker. While the men travel for gigs she secretly decides, with the help of her son, to form her own musical identity, calling into question the future of the family business.

“MOTHER WITH A GUN”
“Mother with a Gun” takes as its subject the Jewish Defense League. Rabbi Meir Kahane founded the JDL in New York City in 1968, training Jewish youth in self defense. Archival footage shows Kahane rallying for Jews to own guns: “Don’t be afraid of it. Be afraid not to have it.” Once considered the most active terrorist organization in the United States, the JDL is currently led by Shelley Rubin. Jeff Daniels’s documentary follows Rubin’s path to extremism, showing how an archetypal good Jewish girl defied family and community expectations to return power and pride to a nation of previous victims. In today’s climate where second amendment rights are being hotly debated, this film, which represents its subjects fringe views, seems particularly a propos.

“Queer” by Meg-Joan Barker— A Non Fiction Graphic Novel

queer

Barker, Meg-Joan. “Queer: A Graphic History”, illustrated by Julia Scheele, Icon Books, 2016.

A Non-Fiction Graphic Novel

Amos Lassen

I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of work it took to sit down and develop a book of this kind. Here activist-academic Meg John Barker and cartoonist Julia Scheele bring to life the histories of queer thought and LGBTQ action and activism in a groundbreaking non-fiction graphic novel. They bring us an entire kaleidoscope of characters from the diverse worlds of pop-culture, film, activism and academia and take us “through the ideas, people and events that have shaped queer theory”. I love that we get identity politics and gender roles, privilege and exclusion and sexuality in a graphic novel as well as see how these ideas become part of our culture and the way we understand biology, psychology and sexology. Some of the rich moments of LGBT history are included here— Alfred Kinsey’s view of sexuality, Judith Butler’s view of gendered behavior as a performance.

This is quite a fresh way to look at who we are and the history that we bring with us. This is one of the first books to make some of the constructs of academia readable to non-academic readers.

 

 

“My Bare Naked Heart” by David Avery— Friendship and Sexual Awakening

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Avery, David. “My Bare Naked Heart”, Walt Whitman Press, 2016.

Friendship and Sexual Awakening

Amos Lassen

It is the 1950’s and college freshman John Branson (like so many others at the time) has a secret. John likes men and going to school at an all male college is like being in a candy store for him. But this was also a time when gay sex was illegal and times were rough for gay people. It was a time that none of us should ever forget and remain determined that this will never come again.

John has to deal with his sexuality and the fact that he is attracted to his roommate and best friend, Daniel. He is also attracted to Dusty, a good-looking college senior from California who is the resident advisor in his dorm. Author David Avery brings us erotic fiction about learning about friendship, love and sex at a time when hate was a popular emotion.

John narrates the story as he thinks back about what it was like to be in college back then and we see that it was not always a happy time. He is melancholic at times, wishing that go back to those college years with what he now knows about himself since he now has gained knowledge, self-acceptance and maturity. It is important that you know that this is a highly sexual novel with the sex scenes described in great deal so if erotica is not your thing, this would not be book for you. On the other hand, the erotica in no way gratuitous and it is really necessary in order to better understand the characters and the time they lived in. Several years ago when I was reviewing for some of the more liberal publishing houses (i.e. Cleis Press), I made the observation that there are really two kinds of erotica we find in gay novels—there is the raunchy for raunchy’s sake and that there is literary erotica and that is what we find here. The characters are carefully drawn and there development is much more important that are the sex scenes. It is important to understand the role sex plays in a relationship so I do not think it is overdone and we see it as part of who the characters are.

I have always felt that in order to understand where are who we are now, it is necessary to know how we got there and looking at “My Bare Naked Heart”, I realize that this is so much more than a gay romance or an erotic novel. It is a look back at how we once had to live and love. Avery is an excellent writer and his story flows reminding those who lived through period of so much that they had experienced. For those of us who are children of the 50s, 60s and even 70s, this is a special book in that we are reminded of what we went through. Avery wonderfully captures the spirit of the times.

While the novel, at its most basic, is about John’s experiences he also has to deal with his sexuality, and self-acceptance and this is an integral part of every gay person’s life. We also need to remember that coming out is not a one-time experience and we come out over and over again throughout our lives. In the back of minds, there is always the question of sharing one’s sexuality with others. By telling them. It is not easy for a writer to bring physicality and emotions together when creating characters yet Avery has done so brilliantly. He deals with seven main characters and by the time you close the covers of the book, you feel that you know them all well. I could have gone into much more detail about those that we meet as we read but I do not want to spoil the reader’s adventure of meeting the guys and learning to love with them. I found this to be an amazing book that I did not want to end. There is good news in that this is the first book of a projected trilogy so even though the book does end, we know that the characters will be back.

 

 

“Irish Black” by David Lennon— Desegregating Boston, a Mystery

 irish-black

Lennon, David. “Irish Black”, Spike Books, 2016.

Desegregating Boston, A Mystery

Amos Lassen

I first got to know of David Lennon’s writing with his collection of detective stories of New Orleans and they fascinated me to read how a non-native New Orleanian was able to capture the city I grew up so beautifully. Some years later, I moved to Boston, Lennon’s home territory and as I changed addresses so did his writing. (By the way, this was pure coincidence). Another interesting fact is that I lived in New Orleans during desegregation and I can tell you that contrary to what the media would have you believe, things went smoothly and much unlike what happened in the northern city of Boston. To this day, I am aware of the racial tension that exists here, racial tension that I never saw in the south to this degree (and I was one of the first white teachers to go into the Black schools in New Orleans).

“Irish Black” opens as violence connected to school desegregation as ordered by the courts escalates in South Boston and a series of what seemed-to-be related gang killings took place. Then with the murder if three children, detective Tommy Doyle, a member of the Boston police force begins to question if these murders are the result of some other more dastardly and sinister plot than just desegregation.

South Boston was already having a rough time dealing with racial tension and Doyle is reminded of something from his own past and the investigation becomes more and more difficult for him. It was not enough that he was dealing with his marriage that had failed, alcoholism, his self-acceptance as a gay male and “the death of his friend and fellow cop, James Michael “Sullly” Sullivan”. It was difficult anyway with what was happening but the extra baggage makes it that much worse. Lennon is a fine storyteller who pulls the reader in immediately and like Doyle, we have a hard time understanding the difference between reality and what he is thinking. We get the feeling that if he was able to deal with his own problems, he would certainly be better able to deal with the racial tension that he is surrounded by.

Lennon does not write about romance here but about coming to terms. Doyle has something with a young rent boy and we hope that this will be the key to opening the door on his problems with facing his sexuality.

There is so much about this book that I would like to say but cannot because to do so would ruin the read for those who have not yet done so. I can say that this is a story that does not lag and that Lennon’s prose keeps us reading as his plot has us turning pages as quickly as possible. The ending is left open but this does mean that things do not come together. Rather I see that as a clever way of pulling us in and make us want to read more by David Lennon. Unfortunately for me, that means, I will have to wait until he writes another book.

“Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions” by Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka— An Extraordinary Life

out-of-the-ordinary

Jivaka, Michael Dillon/Lobzang. “Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions”, Fordham University Press, 2016.

An Extraordinary Life

Amos Lassen

Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka (1915-62) was a the British doctor and Buddhist monastic novice chiefly known to scholars of sex, gender, and sexuality for his pioneering transition from female to male between 1939 and 1949, and for his 1946 book “Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology”. Now available for the first time and more than fifty years after it was written is his memoir. We read of

Dillon/Jivaka’s various journeys–to Oxford, into medicine, across the world by ship and we do so within the major narratives of his gender and religious journeys. Written chronologically, Dillon/Jivaka begins with his childhood in Folkestone, England, where he was raised by his spinster aunts, and he shares his days at Oxford where he was totally immersed in theology, classics, and rowing. He writes of his hormonal transition while working as an auto mechanic and firewatcher during World War II and his surgical transition under Sir Harold Gillies while Dillon himself was attending medical school. He writes about his worldwide travel as a ship’s surgeon in the British Merchant Navy and shares detailed commentary on his interactions with colonial and postcolonial subjects, followed by his “outing” by the British press while he was serving aboard The City of Bath.

This is the record of an early sex transition as well as a unique account of religious conversion in the mid-twentieth century. Dillon/Jivaka shifted from Anglican Christianity to the spiritual systems of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky to Theravada and ultimately to Mahayana Buddhism. He attempted ordination as a Buddhist monk in India and Tibet but and with a great deal of controversy. He died before becoming a monk but his ordination as novice made him the first white European man to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. His book gives a distinct and powerful voice to the history of the transgender movement.

The memoir was blocked from publication in the 1960s and hidden in a warehouse in London for years. It is suspenseful and heart-breaking tale that ends with a mysterious death in the Himalayan Mountains. Dillon, here, finds new answers to enduring questions about gender. At the same time, he was never able to solve the puzzle of his own identity and died in trying to gain transcendence. Dillon’s memoir deserves a place alongside the great spiritual narratives, from Augustine to Merton. This edition contains an introduction and notes supplied from a trio of scholars who have become part of Dillon’s life history.

We can only imagine how important this book is to the transgender community as well as to the general history of sexuality. It is an intense and captivating story of spiritual and gender conversions.

 

 

 

 

 

“Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge” edited by Seteny Shami and Cynthia Miller-Idress— A Different Time

middle-east-studies

Shami, Seteny and Cynthia Miller-Idress (editors). “Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge”, (Social Science Research Council), NYU Press, 2016.

A Different Time

Amos Lassen

I doubt that there is a person alive today who is not aware of what is going on in the Middle East. Not a day goes by without hearing something from that part of the world. It becomes even more interesting when we consider that some of this is coming from new religions. It is difficult to do so but we must attempt to understand the area especially now with all of changes. However, study has become involved in then politics and the ever-continuing controversies that are taking place there. Having lived in the Middle East for many years, I was there when change began and what we have today is a far cry from what once was. Today in this country we have to deal with knowledge and power and the quest for both in a section of the world that is far removed from us. With the American government now playing a role at universities, education is affected in the way that we, as Americans, get to know the “others”.

New world regions today are of more pressing social and political interest than the Middle East: hardly a day has passed in the last decade without events there making global news. Understanding the region has never been more important, yet the field of Middle East studies in the United States is in flux, enmeshed in ongoing controversies about the relationship between knowledge and power, the role of the federal government at universities, and ways of knowing “other” cultures and places.  This book studies the big issues that affect the fields of study on the area and these range from “the geopolitics of knowledge production to structural changes in the university to broader political and public contexts”. The book traces the development of the field from the early days of the American university up to the “Islamophobia” of the present day and it Middle East studies as a discipline and explores its impact on the social sciences and academia. We have topics such as “how different disciplines engage with Middle East scholars, how American universities teach Middle East studies and related fields, and the relationship between scholarship and U.S.-Arab relations, among others”. This is a comprehensive, authoritative overview of the importance of the field of academic inquiry came to be and anticipating where it will go from here. This is, quite simply, a book that must be read and it affects how we see the priorities, alliances, and comforts of the Middle East.

The essays included offer analytical insight, explore key dimensions of the field of Middle East studies, including its relationship to the traditional disciplines and its place in American higher education as well as the political assaults to which it has been subjected to in the past and still today.

 

“Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers” by Dr. Arthur Green— The Most Important Ideas in Judaism

judaism

Green, Arthur Dr. “Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers”, Jewish Lights, 2016.

The Most Important Ideas in Judaism— an Introduction

Amos Lassen

I have been a Jew for a long time (since birth, in fact) but I sincerely doubt that I could come up with the Jewish ten best list. Yet today I have been asked many times why do I want to be Jewish. I don’t really have an answer to that aside from loving my religion and its traditions that it is a part of who I am. What about Judaism is even worth preserving? Well, there must be something since it has been around for some thousands of years.

For me, at least, Judaism is unique and it allows me to have a way of life and a system of values. Dr. Arthur Green has his own ideas and he presents them to us with wit and candor and with his own stories and stories of the rabbis. He has narrowed it down to ten ideas in Judaism that have kept him connected and loyal to the tradition that was passed on to him. He here has written a book of “timeless Jewish wisdom” that gets us to explore further and search out the riches of Judaism for ourselves. If you want to find out what those ten items are, you will have to get a copy of the book.

There are no real surprises here and we have heard these ten time and time again but I wonder how many of us ever took them seriously. The book could have been quite stale—after all, we have heard all of this before. It is Green’s summary that is so unique and so special. He encapsulates the basic principles of the Jewish faith and shows us what it means to really live a Jewish life.

 This book is what truly living a Jewish life is all about. It is also a wonderful introduction to the fundamentals of the religion and is perfect for those who want to study a bit more. It is beautifully written and totally accessible and I have a copy sitting on my desk right next to my Hebrew Bible and Herman Wouk’s “This is My God”. Arthur Green gives us the ethos and the essence of Judaism with meaning and with love and we owe him a big thank you.

 

 

“Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World” by Patrick Range McDonald— The AIDS Heathcare Foundation

righteous-rebels

McDonald, Patrick Range. “Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World”, Raymond Press, 2016.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation

Amos Lassen

 Patrick Range McDonald brings us a thought-provoking portrait of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the world’s largest HIV/AIDS medical care provider. It began as a grassroots organization during the 1980s AIDS crisis in Los Angeles and today it as an aggressive, global leader in the seemingly unending fight to control HIV and AIDS. McDonald shows us the motivations behind the organization’s life-saving efforts, its battles against and alliances with various governments and political establishments, and its work today. It provides free HIV treatment and prevention services to vulnerable, lower-income people in more than thirty countries.

McDonald follows AFS for a year and it is that year in which it experienced as clashes with the Obama administration, the state of Nevada, and the World Health Organization. He recorded interviews AHF’s key players, including president Michael Weinstein. He shares the reports of AHF outposts around the globe, from Miami to Uganda, Cambodia to Russia, Estonia to South Africa. His most significant discovery is that AHS is a “passionate, smart, and tenacious ‘people power’ organization that brings hope and change to nearly all corners of the world”.

We come to see the AHF as “a blueprint for every kind of righteous rebel who wants to make the world a better place”.

 

“Gay Men at the Movies: Cinema, Memory and the History of a Gay Male Community” by Scott McKinnon— Gay in Sydney

gay-men-at-the-novies

McKinnon, Scott. “Gay Men at the Movies: Cinema, Memory and the History of a Gay Male Community”, Intellect LTD., 2016.

Gay in Sydney

Amos Lassen

In many cases and places, cinema has l played a major role in the formation of community among marginalized groups. “Gay Men at the Movies” is a look at that process for gay men in Sydney, Australia from the 1950s to the present. Writer Scott McKinnon uses a variety of sources, including film reviews, media reports, personal memoirs, oral histories, and a range of films to show and to understand “cinema-going as a moment of connection to community and identity”. We see here how the experience of seeing these films and being part of an audience helped to build a community among the gay men of Sydney. I do not have much information about this book and I am waiting for my copy but is sounds fascinating.

 

“DANTE’S COVE: THE NEXT GENERATION”— Coming Back to Us

dante

“Dante’s Cove: The Next Generation”

Coming Back to Us

Amos Lassen

I did not realize how much I missed the original “Dante’s Cove” until I read about its upcoming return. The show aired for threes season between 2004 and 2007 and it followed supernatural goings-on in a coastal town where there were vampires, sorcerers, ghost children along with male nudity and

gay sex. When the owners of Here Media were convicted of financial improprieties, the show ended. I understand that now it could very possibly come back to us if enough money is raised.

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The original show had as many fans and just as many detractors who felt that it often looked cheap, the acting was inconsistent and the plots were sometimes so crazy that it was easy to get lost in what was going on. I found it to be fun even though it was not great and those who stayed with it really seemed to love it.

This planned new season, is set several years after the conclusion of Season 3 after a dark apocalypse nearly destroyed the island. Director Sam Irvin is ready to give us, once again, a sexy supernatural drama. Some of the key characters will return and new characters will light up the Cove with lots of fire and passion. Here is what the basic outline of the series tells us.

‘The young hero of Season 4 has emerging desires and powers that lead him toward danger and these powers have not been seen in generations. Meanwhile, there is a global conspiracy comes to be and it sheds new dramatic light on disturbances in Dante’s Cove. Unknown alliances come new be and new adventures that deal with murder, betrayal, and unstoppable passion.