“My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg— A Novel as Memoir/ A Memoir as Novel

Hirshberg, David. “My Mother’s Son”, Fig Tree Books, 2018.

A Novel as Memoir/ A Memoir as Novel

Amos Lassen

“My Mother’s Son” is a novel that is written as the memoir of a radio raconteur. It uses inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in as a way to deal with major issues that affect Americans today including disease, war, politics, immigration and business. It is set in earlier times thus giving a sense of distance. This is the story of an extended Jewish family in Boston (a grandfather, his two daughters, their husbands, an uncle and two boys, Joel (the narrator) and Steven, his older brother, who are the sons of the older daughter). The story is both universal and personal and has something for everyone— “betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls and a dog.” We read about a family and the word it lived in and what made it even more special for me is that I m in Boston as I write about it.

I believe that most of us have shared the same mysteries of childhood. We know that there are things that our parents do not always tell us when we are kids. I remember my parents reverting to Yiddish when they had something to say that they did not want us to hear. Beginning in Boston in 1952, young Joel knows that there were truths that he did not know about. It wasn’t that his parents lied to him, it was that not everything was discussed with the children. In my house, for example, the Holocaust was a forbidden topic and I did not learn about it until I was in college. (My folks did not want to upset “der kinder”). In Joel’s family the mystery of girls was not a topic for discussion; death was only for the old.

Through flashbacks to the early 1900s, we learn about Joel’s grandfather’s immigrant beginnings and his wife who had been murdered and his aunt’s running from Germany (with her husband) on the morning following Kristallnacht, in November 1938. Joel continues to learn about his family and as he does, he discovers that a souvenir baseball bat caused the death of a cousin and a murder. As he began to put things together, he uncovered a family secret.

We move forward to 1952 and the Korean War, polio, Kennedy and baseball. We see that Hirshberg sees that year as when “societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration” were changed. This all sounds very serious but do not worry—there is also great humor here, great dialogue and wonderful descriptions of a time that was. There are also no stereotypes— these are replaced by the multi-ethnic (Irish, Italian and Jewish) cast of characters.

I have been writing about this family and this period as if it is all very real… but it is not. This is all fiction and it all comes from the mind of the author who has stated that it is not based on anything in his life.

In 1952 I was far from Boston, growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana yet the Boston we meet here is very alive and seems very real. We see it through 13-yer-old Joel and his thoughts. Even though I have been in Boston only six years, I have spent a lot of time visiting places and reading about the Boston that was, especially Jewish Boston. What I am trying to say is that even though I have been told that this is all fiction, it could very well have been. We might say that this is “a twenty-first century exploration of the formative American Jewish experiences of the twentieth century.” It speaks to the urgent concerns of today even when we are taken back to another time.

I believe that what David Hirshberg tells us here is that we remember the lies we heard and grew up with more than we remember the truths and while I can easily explain that here, I would rather have you discover what that means by reading this wonderful novel. This is a big book coming in at about 350 pages but during the first reading, it moves quickly. I found that after I read it that I wanted to immediately go back and read it again to see if I missed anything (but that is me; I do that a lot, especially if it is a book that I am reviewing).

I love this book and this is not something I say very often. I think that by reading it, I understand myself a bit more and I certainly think that I understand American Jewish culture a bit better.

“The Ruined House: A Novel” by Ruby Namdar— Merging the Real and Unreal

Namdar, Ruby. “The Ruined House: A Novel”, Harper, 2017.

Merging the Real and the Unreal

Amos Lassen

I seldom get emotional while reading but every once in a while I read a novel that shakes the core of my being. Ruby Namdar’s “The Ruined House” did just that. By the end of the first paragraph, I knew that I was in for a read that would affect me profoundly. As I read on, I realized that I was reading a very special book in which the real and reveal merge. No wonder this book won the Sapir Prize Israel’s highest literary award. It is as if writer Ruby Namdar chose every word specifically for this story about materialism, tradition, faith, and the search for meaning in contemporary American life.

Andrew P. Cohen is professor of comparative culture at New York University and his life is good. His students love him, his research and writing has been published in noted and prestigious literary magazines and he is about to receive a faculty promotion . He and his ex-wife Linda are on good terms and his two adult children are proud of and adore their father. His girlfriend, Ann Lee (a former student half his age) provides wonderful friendship and love and we soon see that Cohen is no ordinary man. However, all of this changes when he begins to have strange visions that have something to do with an ancient religious ritual that will change his comfortable life. In just one year, his life falls apart as Cohen questions what he believes. As this takes place, we get a meditation on the modern world and see someone who is alone even though his life is surrounded by millions of people. Cohen is experiencing a mid-life crisis.

“The Ruined House” is about one man’s life and how his world is influenced an ancient legacy “that has always rumbled beneath the surface of our superficial world”. With gorgeous prose we are taken into the life of a man who leads a secular life but who is also haunted by religious visions. To say that this book is about Cohen’s mid-life crisis is not enough because it is about so much more—-

American Jewry’s search for meaning, faith in the modern and contemporary world, the Messianic idea of Judaism, life in exile and the struggle for finding foundations when one is surrounded by a base that is fragile. Namdar confronts the questions that have bothered Jews throughout history.

Throughout the novel, we find pages from an ancient Talmudic text that take us back to the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Hidden in the small letters of this narrative is the key to understand Andrew Cohen. As his world falls apart, he questions his beliefs. As he does this, we see New York intellectual life in the first years of the twenty-first century.

It all starts when little things start going wrong such as his developing a tire around his waist, he has spats with his girlfriend, and he becomes ill. Then he begins having powerful visions that greatly bother him and he begins to understand that he is living only on the surface and that he is not really real with anyone or about anything. Cohen’s mystical visions seem to hint at his being a Cohen and his visions include a priest possibly making a terrible mistake during a ritual. Of course, he could just be having a nervous breakdown or a psychotic break. Whatever is happening, it takes a toll on him.

The story is divided into books and with each book are pages of so-called Talmudic text that describe rituals that correlate to how Cohen lives his life and we see that he thinks of himself as above others much as did ancient High Priests of the Hebrew Bible. We begin to notice that Cohen He doesn’t value his family enough to spend much time with them, his friendships are superficial, his wealth comes from an inheritance and he is an intellectual, cultural, and social snob.

The book was written in Hebrew and beautifully translated by Hillel Halkin.

“Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph “Tommy” Lapid” by Yair Lapid— A Father

Lapid, Yair. “Memories After My Death: The Story of My Father, Joseph “Tommy” Lapid”, Thomas Dunne, 2017.

A Father

Amos Lassen

Last night I decided to begin reading Yair Lapid’s new book for about an hour before I went to sleep. Some six hours later, I was still reading and in fact, I never got to bed last night. I challenge anyone who reads the first chapter to be able to stop there. The prose is wonderful and Hillel Halkin’s translation is a work of art. Lapid paints a portrait of his father, Tommy, a man who had been a leading figure in the creation and the early days of the State of Israel.

Tommy was “a loved and controversial Israeli figure who saw the development of the country from all angles over its first sixty years.” He had already seen his father taken away to a concentration camp. He came to Israel at the birth of the country and he lived through every major Jewish incident for the next 60 years. He was a uniquely unorthodox man and his politics were neither left nor right, he was a secular Jew and he exposed many of the contradictions of life in Israel. He said exactly what he thought and never hid or changed his own truth. He was never too embarrassed to say that he regretted something and while many saw him s harsh, he was actually a very warm person filled with emotion.

This is a different kind of autobiography in that his son writes in his name. We do not have autobiographies in which the a son writes about his father in the first person. What makes this even more difficult is that the father is a large than life character. Lapid does this with the love that a son has for his father. Tommy Lapid survived the Holocaust, went to Israel from Yugoslavia as a Hungarian Jewish refugee and became a minister in the Knesset of his new country. We see the son’s love for his father in every line. I was familiar with the name Tommy Lapid but did not know much else about him. For his son to write this as if it is being dictated from the grave is very special. I laughed and I cried while I read and I do not regret losing a night’s sleep for a second. Here is the story of a man who was able to triumph over human tragedy. The book has just opened the door for me and now I am planning to do some more extensive reading of anything I can find about Tommy Lapid.

“78/52”— Two Suppressed Protagonists and One Scene

“78/52”

Two Suppressed Protagonists and One Scene

Amos Lassen

In “78/52”, director Alexandre O. Philippe interviews film scholars and professionals about Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Psycho”. The first half of documentary is features observations that will be familiar to Hitchcock fans. Peter Bogdanovich discusses the way the film was influentially marketed (the insistence that viewers see the film from beginning to end and promise not to divulge its secrets). We are reminded that audiences were once more casual about film-going, walking in and out of a theater and seeing only portions of movies (a culture that Hitchcock helped to do away with).

 

“78/52” really comes to life with the psychosexual perversity of Hitchcock’s film, which changed cinema’s relationship with sex and violence. Philippe shows how responses to the film can vary by the gender of the viewer. Guillermo del Toro speaks about the film’s Catholic guilt, observing that Marion must die for stealing money from her employer despite seeking atonement before her murder. But Illeana Douglas says that Marion is killed for sexually arousing Norman, while Karyn Kusama states that this scene is “the first modern expression of the female body under assault.” The variety of these responses shows a source of the film’s troubling power: “its simultaneous devotion to social structures (the rules of religion, work, and of puritanical sexual decorum) and awareness of the chaos that such structures ultimately fail to contain.

We see how Hitchcock prepared the audience for the shower scene that explodes social and cultural fault lines. When Marion packs to go on the trip that will doom her, we see a shower stall behind her profile. When a police officer pulls Marion over, he suggests that she sleep in a motel. Ideas of “mother”—as an epitome of 1950s entendre, surveillance, and hypocrisy are all over the dialogue. Then there is the scene between Norman and Marion in the parlor of the Bates Motel. Every line of dialogue contains multiple meanings, indicating that there will be two catharses: Marion resolves her madness while Norman surrenders to his fractured id.

These two protagonists are conjoined by variations of the same form of suppression. Norman was conditioned by his mother to fear sex and he is stranded by location at the motel. Norman Bates is a deranged relic of the authoritative family loyalty that was on television in the 1950s. On the other hand, Marion Crane engages in an affair with a married man that leaves her stymied and frustrated. Norman and Marion are both victims of disproportionate sex: One’s desexualized while the other is relentlessly sexualized relentlessly. These tensions come into conflict when Marion is stabbed to death in the shower.

Seventy-eight is the number of cuts in the shower scene and 52 is the number of seconds that the sequence lasts. Director Philippe named his film after the sequence’s DNA code and tries to break it apart to reveal the inner workings of Hitchcock. He slows the shower scene down, freezes it, rewinds it, and adds interview subjects and becomes more impressive when taken apart.

Philippe finds details that many have never noticed— Norman’s mother’s eyes as she pulls the shower curtain aside to stab Marion and the phallic knife as it rips through a curtain of water giving it a Freudian intensity. Philippe juxtaposes storyboards, script passages, and the final cut of the sequence, showing the Hitchcock’s devotion to creating a moment of brutality.

The identity of Marion’s destroyer is yet another acknowledgement of the gulf between the genders: Norman assumes the persona of a woman who enslaved him so as to enact a bitter homage and transactional revenge to his mother. Norman is patriarchy, as well as one of its many victims.

Here is an entire movie about a scene from another movie, and it comes in at about 60 times the length of the original material. We see here that “Psycho” is more than just a great film in that it’s practically the a look at the modern cultural discourse on topics from sex and violence in America.

“CANDY APPLE”— A Black Comedy

“CANDY APPLE”

A Black Comedy

Amos Lassen

Visual Artist Dean Dempsey directed this film based upon his biological father and true stories that are strung together in a fictional narrative. “Candy Apple” follows Texas Trash as he struggles to get sober while his son Bobby attempts to begin a career in filmmaking. Bobby tries to cast his own father and the neighborhood characters that inspire him but constantly fails in obtaining a finished project. 

Trash has all but abandoned landing a job or reigniting his band as planned, and is at the heels of local eccentric, Roxy. With the help of hallucinogens, the two have regular adventures through New York and other worlds.

Because he was flat broke, Bobby supports himself through sex work that his beloved, Lady, organizes for him. He does not share this with Trash, who has a secret of his own in how to earn cash. With no prospects of legal employment, Trash lands a gig moving drugs in a small distribution ring for a cut in sales. 

When Bobby learns of Trash’s relapse and near fatal overdose, his confidence and belief in his father is broken. The film ends where it begins, with the father and son struggling to balance desire with reality but never getting it right. Here is New York seen as grimy and filled with an assortment of intense, oddball characters that are low on cash but high on ideas.

The film follows a father and son as they try to survive in New York, and the undercurrents of vice and addiction that undermine their thoughts of a better life or an artistic life. The film is a collaboration with CREEM Magazine. It is homage to New York’s gritty Lower East Side of the ’70s & ’80s.

Punk rocker Terry Trash is double-amputee who moves back to New York to room with his adult son Bobby (Dempsey) in a small apartment on the Lower East Side.  Bobby is reluctant, but committed, to helping his ex-junkie father, all the while trying to stay focused on his own creative pursuits.  Bobby tries to cast Trash and the neighborhood characters that inspire him, but constantly fails and turns to sex.  Meanwhile, Trash has all but abandoned landing a job or reigniting his band, and, instead, has befriended local eccentric, Roxy (Neon Music) and they set out for a life of adventures. The film ends with a father and son struggling to balance desire with reality but never able to do so.

“Traitor: A Thriller” by Jonathan deShalit— A High Stakes Thriller

deShalit, Jonathan. “Traitor: A Thriller”, Atria Books, 2018.

A High Stakes Thriller

Amos Lassen

I cannot say too much about Jonathan deShalit’s new novel, “Traitor” since we have a few months before it is published bit I wanted to let you know about it so you can add to you list of books to be read. It is a high-stakes thriller that pits the intelligence of one man against one of the most successful spies ever to operate against American interests. It all begins when a young Israeli walks into an American embassy and offers to betray his country for money and power but he has no idea that the CIA agent interviewing him is a Russian mole. Years later, this same young man becomes a trusted advisor to Israel’s Prime Minister and throughout his career, he has been sharing everything he knows with Russia. Now, there is a hint that there may be a traitor in the highest realms of power and a top-secret team is put together to hunt for him. The chase takes this team from the streets of Tel Aviv to deep inside the Russian zone and, finally, to the United States, where a very unique spymaster is revealed. The final showdown—between the traitor and the betrayed—can only be dealt by an act of utter treachery that could have far-reaching and devastating consequences.

 

“Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World” by Hasia Diner— A Visionary

Diner, Hasia. “Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World”, Yale, 2017.

A Visionary

Amos Lassen

Julius Rosenwald was a” humble retail magnate whose visionary ideas about charitable giving transformed the practice of philanthropy in America and beyond”. I found this book particularly fascinating since his daughter, Mrs. Edgar B. Stern was a great patron of the city of New Orleans, my hometown, and we all grew up hearing about the wonderful things her family had done.

Julius Rosenwald (1862–1932) was born into a family of modest means. He was the son of a peddler yet he amassed great wealth as the man at the helm of Sears, Roebuck. His most important legacy, however, was not in the field of business but rather in the changes he introduced to the practice of philanthropy. He did this anonymously and refused to have his name attached to the buildings, projects, or endowments that he supported. Rosenwald’s most passionate support was for Jewish and African American causes continues to influence lives to this day.

Writer Hasia Diner looks at his attitudes toward his own wealth and his distinct ideas about philanthropy and in doing so, she posits an intimate connection between his Jewish consciousness and his involvement with African Americans. We read of his belief in the importance of giving in the present in order to impact the future, and how he encouraged beneficiaries to become partners in community institutions and projects. We see a truly compassionate man whose generosity and wisdom transformed the practice of philanthropy.

Rosenwald had three great missions: Jewish opportunity; African American progress; and advancement of the national ideal of exceptionalism. His story is one for the ages and Diner has given us a wonderful look at a man who did so much.

“REPATRIATION”— “Exploring the Past and Retracing a Life Left Behind”

“REPATRIATION”

“Exploring the Past and Retracing a Life Left Behind”

Amos Lassen

Chad Tyler (Ryan Barton-Grimley) has returned home from the army and is welcomed in his Midwestern hometown by new and old friends alike. He visits his old regular places and tries to get reacquainted as he has a drink at each stop. Chad was once the star of his school’s baseball team and is still loved by many. Before long, he has a bit too much to drink Chad. Cad comes upon Camille (Jes Mercer) a girl who had a crush on Chad years earlier and together they continue to visit the bars, play pinball, bowl but then Camille takes off after hearing some nasty rumors about Chad. We also learn more about Chad and begin to wonder if this is the same guy we met just a little while before. From the time that we meet him at the bus stop, his life seems to be good and everyone is happy to see him but then the story changes its course.

Ryan Barton-Grimely, an actor I had never heard of, suddenly came my way in two different movies in a period of a week. Elsewhere on my site, you will find a review of “Elijah’s Ashes” where he turns in an unforgettable performance as a drunk homophobe. In “Repatriation”, his performance as Chad is nothing short of brilliant. Chad (or I should say Barton-Grimely) pulls us in at the very beginning and we find him charming even after he lets us see who he really is (and I am not going to share what that is). This is the kind of performance that we usually find by chance. A movie like this is the kind of movie all of us should have the chance to see.. Technically this film is almost flawless and everything about it held me captive as I watched. Everything in my life was put on hold until it was over and then for about an hour afterwards.

Director Douglas Muellar has every reason to be proud of his first feature film. Unfortunately for you I can only praise the plot because to tell you about it would ruin a very exciting cinema experience.

PTSD is not a new theme for films but it is explored differently here. This is a film that you do not want to miss so search to see where it is bring shown near you.

“ONE OF US”— A New Life

“ONE OF US”

A New Life

Amos Lassen

“One of Us” is documentary about three Hasidic Jews who have left that community, and the price they pay for having done so. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady introduce us to the three who have left for different reasons. Ari, a teen, left because his hunger for knowledge was in conflict with religious restrictions. Luzer is an aspiring actor who lives part-time in Los Angeles and tells us that his impression of the outside world came from secretly watching movies. Etty is in her early 30s and is seeking a divorce from a husband who the police took out of the home because of abuse. The Hasidic community has exploited legal loopholes and financial muscle to win custody battles.

Set in Borough Park and Williamsburg, we see the difficulties of the three subjects but we do at first in  obstructed, hazy, or fragmented” ways. This film is a very strong condemnation of the oppression that is part of the social structure of Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities. We see that the communities are insular and have high birth rates and their ownindependently operated ambulance and police forces. Directors Ewing and Grady challenge the culture of violence and silence that keeps many Hasidim isolated and privately anguished.

The film begins with a recording of a 911 call made by Etty, a thirty something mother of seven and a victim of spousal abuse. As she speaks out about the violence and forced sex in her marriage, her husband’s family takes terrible measures to silence her. Men stand outside her apartment wielding hammers to intimidate her. They are dressed in full Orthodox clothing ready to handle a perceived threat to their neighborhood.

Ari, a questioning teenager and victim of rape at an Orthodox summer camp, is first seen cutting off his sidelocks. Even though he is wearing a yarmulke, he is a rebel who chain-smokes as he defiantly uses the internet in a public park (Orthodox communities largely forbid the internet, and have their own limited libraries.) Most of Ari’s struggles, including drug abuse take place off-screen. Etty’s story is especially powerful because we see the masculine power systems that control so much of society.

“One of Us” spends two years following three individuals whose quests for meaning, purpose and even personal safety cause them to abandon the Hasidic religious community they grew up in but came to view as suffocating to the point of despair. None of the three people we meet here regrets leaving and joining the wider world. their after stories as well as their before ones touch on loneliness, insecurity and even trauma.

Satmar Jews speak Yiddish, are suspicious of outsiders and are bound by adherence to very strict rules of worship and life. The movement was born in 18th century Eastern Europe as a way to bring joy to everyday worship. It was almost erased by the Holocaust. Children are in part seen as community property essential to ensure the group’s survival. Nobody leaves unless they pay the price for freedom and we see that price here and how difficult it is to pay. The stories of our three characters give us anarrative through in which we can see the contradictions that make up our identities.

“PLEASE LIKE ME”— Exploring Sexuality

“Please Like Me”

Exploring Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Josh (Josh Thompson)realizes that he is homosexual after breaking up with his girlfriend. With her support and that of his best friend and house mate Tom, Josh must also help his mother with her battle with depression while at the same time getting his family to accept his new lifestyle.. Things become a bit more b complicated when he explores his sexuality with a young and handsome Geoffrey.

Josh Thomas developed this web-series from his stand-up routine of the same name in 2007 when he was just 20-yeas-old. He is the writer/producer/star of a fictionalized version of himself, who during the very first episode is dumped by his girlfriend, hit on by a hot guy in his office Geoffrey (Wade Briggs) and his newly separated mother Rose (Debra Lawrence) is rushed to hospital after a suicide attempt.

Unfortunately, Thomas’s self-deprecating humor and his whole look at life make him an unlikely leading man but we nevertheless root for him. The scenarios he writes are fresh and very funny.

He is surrounded by a cast of those who are well meaning but fail to do the right thing even though their intentions are good. When his mother is released from hospital, the Doctor tells Josh that he has to move back in with her. His father (David Roberts) is actually keener to move back into the marital home, but there is s problem in his young Thai girlfriend (Renee Lim ). The show was a smash hit in Australia and came the U.S. in 2013 on the short lived Pivot TV channel and now Hulu hopes it will repeat its success.