“The Yid” by Paul Goldberg— Stalin and the Jews, The Jews and Stalin

the yid

Goldberg, Paul. “The Yid: A Novel”, Picador, 2016.

Stalin and the Jews, The Jews and Stalin

Amos Lassen

It is the winter of 1953 in Russia and Stalin had formulated his plans to rid Russia of Jews. Government agents are hard at work making their routine nightly arrests in Moscow. They arrive at the home of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a marginal Yiddish actor from a closed Yiddish State Theater company and knock on his door thus beginning a point of no return and bringing in a strange cast of characters and Kafkaesque events.

Author Paul Goldberg introduces us to Frederich Lewis, a black American who left racist oppression in Nebraska to work in the remote Communist steel mills of the USSR; Aleksandr Kogan, a disillusioned surgeon who had once been a machine gunner from Levinson’s old Red Army unit and is now threatened by anti-Semitic rumors circulating about a “Jewish doctors’ plot” to kill high-ranking Soviet officers and officials with poison-laced syringes; and Kima Petrova, a beautiful girl has only revenge on her mind. Together the three have concocted a simple plan to kill Stalin before his “Final Solution” operation has a chance to do damage.

Writer Goldberg brings in Shakespeare, Gogol, and Sophocles to give us a novel of literary beauty that includes a Passover pageant with the underlying idea that God did not stop Abraham’s hand and there was a flourishing human sacrifice that was staged at Stalin’s private dacha. You may wonder where “The Yid” fits into a literary genre—it is a historical fictional dark that while at times is absurd yet makes a lot of sense.

What many do not realize about Stalin’s plan to rid Russia of Jews is that if it had been carried out successfully, it would have dwarfed the Nazi genocide of East European Jewry. Here we get a look at how Russians lived at a time in which fear and paranoia reigned. It was a time when loved ones suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again.

This is a book that demands the reader have patience and stick with it even when it is not easy to do so. The comedy that we get includes what seems to be senseless schtick and the characters seem absurd and surreal but there is a person for this which you will discover as you read.

The book is structured in three acts including lines of dialogue formatted as though part of a script and it is easy to imagine what we read taking place on the stage. The title of the book is as provocative what we find inside. Tremendous and staggering change was about to take place that February of 1953. The story revolves around Stalin’s Final Solution and while there is historical evidence to this, Goldberg embellishes history by the addition of the comedic characters and the way they react to this fact of history. We meet these Yiddish-speaking jokester-superheroes who make it their mission to avenge countless acts of anti-Semitism, both real and anticipated. I understand that Goldberg bases his characters on his friends and relatives in Russia.

One of the fierce fighters who remembers what happened during World War II is based on Goldberg’s grandfather and he even uses his grandfather’s name. Many of the characters hammy are actors who quote from the Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

The novel begins with the late night raid on the apartment of Solomon Levinson and this is a routine event for the 25-year-old Russian officer in charge of rounding up Levinson. But Lieutenant Sadykov was not accustomed to theatrical behavior. He had expected a clichéd Jew that Russian propaganda has made so familiar. He certainly did not expect the nicely dressed old man in an ascot who is totally polite.

We then meet Friedrich Robertovich Lewis, a black American originally named after Frederick Douglass. He was given a Yiddish nickname and, he prefers Yiddish to the racist talk he heard growing up in Omaha. He can curse in Yiddish much more creatively than Levinson can. The two of them waste a lot of time wishing each other plagues and ailments before figuring out how to make the Soviet leave.

The group of characters enlarges as “The Yid” continues in its structure of a three-act play. Soon there is a core group determined to stop the deportation and pogrom that could become Stalin’s last gift to Russian Jews. Its members will change the course of history. As to how this will happen demands reading this absolutely fascinating book.

“Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud” by Joseph Skibell— The Talmud as a Storybook

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Skibell, Joseph. “Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud”, (Exploring Jewish Arts and Culture), University of Texas Press, 2016.

The Talmud as a Storybook

Amos Lassen

The Talmud one of the great collections of ancient Jewish wisdom and is also one of the sacred texts of Judaism. It is made up of the Mishnah, the oral law of the Torah, and the Gemara, a multigenerational metacommentary on the Mishnah dating from between 3950 and 4235 (190 and 475 CE). The Talmud is a challenge to understand without scholarly training and study. However, it is fascinating to think about how it would be interpreted if taken as a collection of tales with relevance for modern readers. This is just what Joseph Skibell does in this volume. He found such stories as “a thief-turned-saint who was killed by an insult, a rabbi burning down his world in order to save it, a man who lost his sanity while trying to fathom the origin of the universe, a beautiful woman battling her brother’s and her husband’s egos to preserve their family.”

Skibell reads some of the Talmud’s tales with a storyteller’s insight. He concentrates on the lives of the legendary rabbis depicted in its pages to find what wisdom they can give to our modern age. Then by uniting strands of the stories in the Talmud and scattered throughout, he gives us narratives that he analyzes and interprets as novelists do. This is an imaginative way to look at the holy writings and we see a denial of what are considered conventional notions of piety. They are “wild, rude, and even racy yet these writings are transcendent as they bring together the mundane and the holy instilling a sense of awe in the reader. Skibell takes us through the Talmud with its stories and teaches us to pay attention to both what is said and what is unsaid. He takes age-old stories and breathes new life into them.

“Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men” by Hal Fischer— A Replica of the Original

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Fischer, Hal. “Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men”, Cherry and Martin, 2015.

A Replica of the Original

Amos Lassen

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“Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men (1977)” has become one of the most important publications associated with California conceptual photography in the 1970s. This new edition is a reproduction that maintains the look and feel of the original volume. However, this new edition has been reconfigured into a book format the 24 text-embedded images of Fischer’s 1977 photographic series “Gay Semiotics”.

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The photographs present the codes of sexual orientation and identification that Fischer saw in San Francisco’s Castro and Haight Ashbury districts. They vary and range from such sexual signifiers as handkerchiefs and keys to depictions of the gay fashion “types” of that era that range from “basic gay” to “hippie” and “jock.” We also get Fischer’s critical essay, which is marked by the same clever anthropological tone that we find in the image/text configurations.

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Fischer’s book circulated widely, had a worldwide audience in both the gay and conceptual art communities. Fischer’s insistence on the visual equivalence of word and image is a hallmark of the loose photography and language group that included Fischer, Lutz Bacher, Lew Thomas and others working in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was f first published as an artist’s book in 1978 by NFS Press and this was a time when gay people had been forced to both evaluate and defend their lifestyles which caused “Gay Semiotics” to  gain substantial critical and public recognition. Thirty-seven years later, the book still remains a proactive statement from a voice within the gay community from a moment in history just before the devastation wrought by AIDS. 

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“Hal Fischer (born 1950) grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. He arrived in San Francisco in 1975 to pursue an MA in photography at San Francisco State. Through his work as an art reviewer and photographer, he soon became embedded in the Bay Area’s artistic and intellectual scene. He continues to live and work in San Francisco”.

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“The Gilded Razor: A Memoir” by Sam Lansky— A Memoir of a Double Life

the gilded razor

Lansky, Sam. “The Gilded Razor: A Memoir”, Gallery Books, 2016.

A Memoir of a Double Life

Amos Lassen

By the time that Sam Lansky was seventeen years old, he was an “all-star student with Ivy League” aspirations”. He was then a student in his last year

at an elite New York City prep school. However, a nasty addiction to prescription pills soon made him go out-of-control and this was mixed with several reckless affairs with older men. His future was indeed in jeopardy. It took a terrifying overdose for him to straighten out but it did not happen quite that way. His young life included leaving Manhattan and going to a wilderness boot camp in Utah and to a psych ward in New Orleans. His life remained one of chaos until he finally decided to face himself.

Lansky shares his life as a young addict and he does so with great sensitivity, humor, and tremendous self-awareness. He is brutally honest and his prose is beautifully poetic. In his first book, he quickly proves that he is a writer who is able to take a life that was almost totally broken and resurrect it into a very positive existence. He is truthful when he writes about using and hitting bottom and he is truthful in his climb up to sobriety.

As our narrator of his own story, Lansky shows that addiction can come to any class of person at any time; addiction has no interest in education or intelligence. We see here in all of its ugliness, the power of addiction. Lansky remarks and I love this sentence; there were “too many beautiful people doing too many ugly things.” He takes us from the ugliness of addiction to the beauty of being sober. Yet, through the beauty of Lansky’s writing, the ugliness subsides and a kind of hard-won hope takes its place. Reading this at times was painful because it hurts to see a young life destroyed especially when it had so much going for it. We are with Sam when he tries to sober up and fails and tries again and fails and tries again and fails but then he succeeds. With the pain of reading came the catharsis of Sam’s being and I wanted to reach out and give him a big hug.

We read of the problems and the tests and the hurdles he must get through but doesn’t and I just wish that he had shared a bit more about the time he did not relapse. This is not a new story, we have read it before but not with the powerful prose that we have here. His gay experience is also one we have seen before— the descent into the seedy dive bars, meeting older men, the alcohol, the sex, the shame and so on. However, we see Lansky as a youth trying to find a way out but unable to do so. This is the way he entered adulthood as if that is not difficult enough. I finished reading the book a little over two hours ago after having devoted my whole day to it. It was a day well spent but I am glad that I only had to deal with all of the emotions I felt just once. I am not sure I could do so again. Next time I read this book, I will do so little by little.

“Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It” by Michael Wex— Yiddish Food?

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Wex, Michael. “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It”, St. Martin’s, 2016.

Yiddish Food?

Amos Lassen

“Rhapsody in Schmaltz” looks at the history and social impact of the cuisine that Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central and Eastern Europe brought to the U.S. and that their American descendants have developed and refined. Author Michael Wex looks at how and where these dishes came to be, how they changed from region to region, the role they played in Jewish culture in Europe, and how they play in Jewish and more general American culture today. I remember going to lecture by Joan Nathan (of Jewish cookbook fame) about two years ago and she stressed that there is really no such thing as Jewish food but there is, for example German Jewish food, Polish Jewish food, Russian Jewish food and so on Wex here traces what he refers to as Jewish food back to the Bible and the Talmud and then to other places and shows how that food came to us in America today.

Rhapsody in Schmaltz traces the pathways of Jewish food from the Bible and Talmud, to Eastern Europe, to its popular landing pads in North America today. He writes with humor and with detail as he examines the impact that these foods have on us. For example, Diane Keaton had a pastrami sandwich in her classic “Annie Hall” and Andy Kaufman was known as Latke in the film “Taxi”. Larry David features a Seder on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, and from these examples we see that food is always there in our imaginations. Wex takes us on a journey into “the sociology, humor, history, and traditions of food and Judaism”.

For Wex, schmaltz is “a salve, a balm, the heart, soul, and very tam of the edible delicacies and their origins that he chronicles here”. What we read in this book is “a learned examination of the religious whys and wherefores of the food found in North American Polish-Jewish homes (like mine and his) through the 1960s”. Writer Ben Schott puts in like this, “’Rhapsody in Schmaltz’ is essential reading for anyone who has shmeared a bagel, trifled with trayf, or hunted the Afikomen.” We learn a lot here through the wisdom of Wex. He gives us the

the true stories behind these the dishes we love as he takes us on a tour of eating Jewish. We look at food from the dietary laws in the Torah to the modern bagel. The history of our food coincides with the history of our culture.

“After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring” by Rabbi Joseph Pollack— Mother and Child Survivors

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Polak, Joseph. “After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring”, Urim, 2015.

Mother and Child Survivors

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Joseph Polak won the 2015 Jewish Book Award with “After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring”, a memoir about a mother and child who were able to survive two concentration camps and then deal with the past when they tried to reclaim their lives. They were forced to deal with rejection by society, disbelief and invalidation making it very difficult to come back into the world.

I am sure that it is beyond any of our thought processes how to deal with a world where we are not welcome especially after near death experiences in the most of all living conditions. We meet a child who decides early on that when he grows up he will pursue the only career that speaks to him—he is to be a teacher about the role of God in history; he will become a rabbi. And that is what Joseph Polak did and he is today a rabbi and an academic.

As you can imagine, this is not an easy book to read. This is Polak’s story of how he was reunited with his mother after the war and went on to Canada and became a rabbi.

This is also the story of the deportation of Dutch Jewry to Westerbork, and from there how Polak was sent to Bergen Belsen where he as a three-year old child was liberated. The author tells more than his own story— he poses questions about what happened, about the meaning of survival, about God and the Jewish people. He gives us brilliant depictions of scenes of torment and humiliation. He writes about how the inmates of the camps came together in solidarity and how those who survived maintained that solidarity. He writes about how his life has been troubled and how the influence of what the victims have gone through remains always with them even when they would deny it.

This is about learning to be human again and he raises questions about how man can be so evil. Because he survived, Polak has had his entire life to try to make sense of the Holocaust to find a way to reconnect with the God who seemed not to be there while his people were being killed.

Joseph has the rest of his life to make sense of the Holocaust, to find a way to re-connect with a God painfully absent from the destruction of his people. He and his mother faced years of starvation, brutality, and deplorable conditions.

After the war, the government of the Netherlands forced surviving Jews to prove that they were parents of children who survived in a different location. We can only imagine how difficult that must have been for Polak’s mother whose son’s earliest memories of Bergen-Belsen include playing hide and seek among mountains of skeletal bodies. There were no happy memories.

Instead of forgetting about God like so many others, Polak struggled to understand God’s role in the terror and genocide. He became a rabbi and later he eventually realized that he would be one of the last Holocaust survivors, one of the final firsthand witnesses to the horror. Hence he wrote this book as a way to try to recall those events that so terribly impacted his life and his mother’s life.

 

“I CAN BE PRESIDENT: A KID’S EYE VIEW”— Children Talk About the President

I can be president

“I Can Be President: A Kid’s-Eye View”

Children Talk About the President

Amos Lassen

A diverse group of children talk about what they think it would be like to be president of the United States. They share what they think about what being president entails and through the kids we are reminded that one can always have dreams. The film that was originally shown on HBO is a sixty minute look at youngsters in elementary schools whose hopes are both very funny and yet very touching. The film brings it all to life through animation (the wonderful work of Michael Sporn). While the responses from the youngsters are simple, they are quite profound in their simplicity. They have something to say about diversity, war, being a leader and becoming an adult. I felt a promise for the future while listening to them.

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Kids have hopes and dreams and many times these are just as significant as those that adults have. When a child wishes for free ice cream for all, he is saying something about equality. At first we might think that the responses are humorous but they are also promising and a look to the future. Kids understand about discrimination and they know that we do not have the right to discriminate. They know that Obama is our first black president—as one little girl says, “He was black and all the other past presidents were white. And even though he was different from the other past presidents, he still wanted to try because he wanted to do that job.” Another expresses a profound idea— being a better person now makes one a better person later in life. And yet another child says that once sworn into the presidency, she would be kind to all citizens.

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We truly see the beauty of youth here and director-producer Diane Kolyer and director-producer-animator Michael Sporn have made quite an amazing little film. The kids are wonderful, the length of the film is just right and the animation is beautiful. But this is a kids’ movie and we are just invitees. We need more films like this— we learn then and youngsters are validated.

“SKY’S THE LIMIT”— Looking for Love

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“Sky’s the Limit”

Looking for Love

Amos Lassen

Jason (Timothy J. Cox) is a young father whose wife has recently died and he and his son are dealing with that loss. Jason is not content to be alone for the rest of his life so he has begun meeting new women via the Internet and this has causes him to not give his son, Frankie (Joseph DiStefano) all the time and love that he needs. Frankie really wants to be with his dad especially because it is just them. Seeing that this does not work, Frankie retreats into the fantasy world of Sky King but he is unable to get his father involved in this. In fact, there is very little connection between father and son.

Jason gets a date but the babysitter cancelled at the last minute so he had to take Frankie along on the date which was not the greatest idea. Basically the film is about dealing with tragedy and we see both characters struggle each in his own way—Jason to the Internet and Frankie to fantasy.

Directed by April Schroer, I found it hard to identify with the characters and that was due to the limits of time. As Jason, Cox is great but I really wanted him to deal with his son who so clearly wants him in his life. It took his going out on a date and taking Frankie with him to realize what was important. Jason understands that he is wrong in his priorities and that his relationship with his son is suffering. This is a beautiful story made stronger by good performances and I found myself totally involved in what was going on.

 

“THAT TERRIBLE JAZZ”— Where is the Sax Player?

that terrible jazz poster

“That Terrible Jazz”

Where is the Sax Player?

Amos Lassen

Nicky (Timothy J. Cox) is a bar owner who called private detective Sam Sellers (Ephraim Davis) to track down his sax player, Wynn Dumont (Gyasi Howard), in the house band who has been missing. The band is scheduled for a gig at the bar and they need their sex player and as Seller works on the case it seems that the truth about what has happened to the player is not what anyone wants to hear. Writer-director Mike Falconi’s new short noir film is shot in black-and-white photography with good performances and even though we have seen similar films like this before, “That Terrible Jazz” really gets things right.

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In a very short fifteen minutes, Sellers meets several suspicious characters including the player’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Alksne), band mates (John Rifici and Thomas Schmitt), and a former band member (David A. Rodriguez and each of this could have the clue that Sellers is looking for. As is characteristic of noir, we feel that we are not getting all that is needed to solve the case.

Sellers uses what he hears from the people he interviews to put pieces together and of course it would have been easier for him if he had a back-story but he has to rely on what he has been given. Because the film is short, those details would not work here and we get the feeling that we are seeing part of a larger story and that perhaps Falconi is planning to make this into a full-length feature. As Sellers investigates we become aware that alcohol, anger, jealousy, and lies tend to make this a difficult case.

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Davis’ Sellers is perfect—he is man dealing with his own demons and cigarettes and alcohol are two of them. Nonetheless he is set on solving the case for his friend Nicky so that the mysterious “terrible jazz” will stop haunting the club and he will be able to get on with his life. I love the noir approach and hope that perhaps we will be seeing more films of this kind again.

“THE RUNAROUND CLUB”— A Question of Morality

the runaround club poster

“THE RUNAROUND CLUB”

A Question of Morality

Amos Lassen

When two thieves set out to rob a battered suburban family, they had no idea what was waiting for them. The family’s father is a controlling person and as the situation heats up, there are a few surprises.

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Lucas (Ariel Zuckerman)  and Sam (Jack Lynch) are ready to make a heist and they seem to have everything down pat—they look for a house where the residents are gone and they plan to break-in, take what they want and head out. However, the house they choose is actually a bit more difficult than they had planned on. The family consisting of father, Frank (John Depew) who they learn is abusive and dominating and he is there with his two daughters, Linda (Asts Paredes)  and Eliza (Caitlyn Parker) ) come back sooner than expected. The two men separate once inside the house and Sam is stopped unfortunately by the father. Soon things get wild and both the robbers and the family are affected.

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Written by Andrew Gleeson and Director Matt Rindini, this short film is a twist in the classic house robbery and instead of just a short sixteen-minute movie about a robbery, we get a morality tale. We see what happens when what starts off as a planned bad intention turns into something completely unexpected.

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