“CHAPPAQUIDDICK”— A Flawed But Human Ted Kennedy

“Chappaquiddick”

A Flawed But Human Ted Kennedy

Amos Lassen

“Chappaquiddick” which was directed by John Curran, is a historical drama about the infamous car accident on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18th, 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy accidentally drove his car off into a body of water resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

The film takes place in a short amount of time that includes the afternoon prior to the accident, the accident and the immediate aftermath. While we may never know exactly what happened on the night of July 18th, screenwriters, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, give us compelling picture of what might have been. The screenplay uses the themes of why Ted Kennedy waited so long to report the accident, family loyalty and reputation.

Jason Clarke is perfect as Ted Kennedy. He totally stays away from what could have easily been a caricature of Ted Kennedy. He plays Kennedy as a deeply conflicted man who as the last living Kennedy son, feels the constant pressure of being in the shadows of his brothers Joe Jr., John and Bobby. From the start of the film, even before the car accident, Ted is uncertain of what exactly he wants to be politically. He feels a duty to his family and the Kennedy name. Throughout the film, we clearly see that what Ted is really after is the approval of his stroke afflicted, wheelchair bound father, Joseph Kennedy (Bruce Dern), who despite being frail and ill, still looms heavily over Ted (but then he had no other sons to do that to).

The film begins with Ted hosting a reunion for “the boiler room girls”, the women that had worked for his brother, Robert F. Kennedy at a rented house on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s Vineyard. One of the women there is Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) who is still understandably shook up by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy that just happened a year prior. Ted wants Mary Jo to work for him. Their kinship is clear from the get-go but only hours later in the evening will Mary Jo end up dead.

The film shows what might have been going through Ted’s mind after the accident. Scenes of him in shock in a bathtub, reaching out to his father for advice (albeit not good advice) and finally going back to the party to tell his cousin, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and US District Attorney, Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) what happened. Joe tells Ted to report the accident.

but Ted did not do so until the following morning. What happens afterwards is really messy. The aftermath is messy. Ted retreats to his father’s home where a team of lawyers and public relations men are waiting for him. “Chappaquiddick” gives us what I believe to be an earnest portrayal of the last living son in one of America’s most powerful and revered political dynasties at his lowest, darkest hours. What makes the film work is it’s non-partisan treatment of the subject. For me this is even more interesting since I am in Boston and the Kennedys are the royal family here. The name Kennedy opens doors here.

“Chappaquiddick” never condones or condemns— It simply tries to answer why Ted Kennedy took ten hours to report the accident. The film never has to go one way or the other in presenting the facts, it simply reflects and engages its audience.

We see a portrait of privilege and tragedy that reminds us that the myth of the Kennedys is fascinating. Until I lived in the Kennedy state, I never really understood the American obsession with the Kennedys and I see that we love them and hate them at the same time. Stop to think about it a moment. Have you ever heard a good word about Joe Kennedy, Sr.? On the other hand, have you ever heard anything negative about mother Rose Kennedy? Ted Kennedy really had no choice and had to pick up where his brothers left off.

Teddy Kennedy was the kid brother who was doomed to survive, forced into a position for which he was not up to or ready for. Does any of this have to do with Edward M. Kennedy driving off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard with woman who died as a result.

“Chappaquiddick” takes us through that Edgartown weekend and its aftermath with “imagined precision.” The portrait that emerges of Kennedy is damning but human and might be accurate. It is implied here that both Mary Jo and Ted were still in great pain over the death of Robert (and John) and we see America as a country aching for the last Kennedy to announce a White House run, while that man has no such plans. We get no suggestion of a physical relationship between Ted and Mary Jo but the film does hint that that might have been about to change.

Gargan urged Kennedy to do the right thing (tell the truth, resign) while a roomful of powerful men scheme how best to save the family legacy and keep a Kennedy in the running. Those who were there then were Kennedy adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) and former defense secretary Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown). They were called there by Joseph P. Kennedy himself. We hear Joe on the telephone saying the word “alibi” and we watch as Ted changes from perpetrator to victim. Have we forgotten that at the same time the Apollo 11 moon landing took place and Neil Armstrong’s one step for mankind is held up and cattily next to Ted Kennedy’s failure that night.

This is a fine film and while you probably will not learn anything new, you will be given something to think about.

“DIE BEAUTIFUL”— Driven By Dreams

“Die Beautiful”

Driven by Dreams

Amos Lassen

Jun Robles Lana’s “Die Beautiful” is about a man (Paolo Ballesteros) who is driven by his dreams of being able to win a gay pageant. As simple and as familiar its plot is, it embraces itself interestingly to a non-linear narrative that supports to the story and message it wants to express. The film begins with Trisha (the feminine side of Ballesteros) at her funeral, having her makeup adjusted by best friend Barb (Christian Bables).

We do not know the reason for his death and it is a mystery for some of his close friends. But what we learn is that she passed out shortly after winning the beauty pageant, something she had dreamt of since her youth. (yes, the pronouns are confusing).

The back-and-forth between Trisha’s earlier life and his dying state makes for a sense of indulgence and enormity to the overall narrative. Performance-wise, this film is amazing. Paolo Ballesteros gives one of the best acting performances all year so far as does Christian Bables, as Barbs.  Together their chemistry is exceptional and I honestly cannot imagine the film without them.

The film shows us life as a misguided and uncertain series of events to joy. The pursuit to happiness might not happen on the way we expected it to be, but it has already been there when we don’t see it.

There are moments that we least expect to happen and there is death, where beauty wears its strongest suit. I realize that I have not said much but I do hope that it is enough that you will make it a point to see this film.

“MONSTERS & MEN”— Five Short Filmz

“Monsters & Men”

Five Short Films

Amos Lassen

Not everyone has access to LGBT film festivals and unless releasing companies make compilations of the short films shown, some of these will be missed and that’s too bad. But then we have wonderful compilations like “Monsters & Men” that bring us short films from directors Blake Mawson, Francis Luta and Dominic Poliquin. These films are edgy and filled with suspense. There are more complete and fuller reviews of each of these films here on this site. The DVD includes:

“PYOTR495” is a look at Russia’s LGBT Propaganda Law and 16-year-old Pyotr is baited by an ultra-nationalist group known for their violent abductions – but Pyotr has a very dangerous secret that his attackers could never have accounted for.

“Attention of Men” is the story of Colt, a struggling aspiring writer, collects money after having sex with a complete stranger. Soon after the stranger is gone, an unexpected knock comes making Colt feel unsafe and he flees. He meets Ely, a very wealthy man and they are soon involved in a May/December relationship yet more of a father and son instead of loving partners. However, Ely has demons in his life and as they take over, Cole watches the loneliness of a man who he thought had it all.

“Forces” looks at the concepts of friendship and masculinity as they are in a “bromance” between a gay football player and a straight military man.

“Wolf” is the story of Gael, a young artist who is doing his internship with an older and more-established artist named Ruby. It is clear that Gael admire his mentor but as Gael accepts them as they are, his relationship with Lou is affected and Gael soon begins a downward spiral filled with urges over which he has no control.

“Turbulence” looks at what happens when a plane begins its descent as a young gay couple faces the differences between them. Alex is soon to start his nine-to-five career but he does not know how to share what he really wants with his boyfriend Brett. Brett is straight-laced and privileged young man who was a law school frat boy and is now yet fully at peace with his sexuality. As the plane encounters turbulence so do the lives of these two men.

“99 Creative WOWs Words of Wisdom for Business – Motivational Gift Idea for Entrepreneurs, Business Owners, and Creative Thinkers” by Randi Brill— A Motivational Quick Read

Brill, Randi. “99 Creative WOWs Words of Wisdom for Business – Motivational Gift Idea for Entrepreneurs, Business Owners, and Creative Thinkers”, Perfect Paperback 2017.

A Motivational Quick Read

Amos Lassen

I do not read motivational or self-help books. They are simply not what I look for when I want a good read. However, when I learned that “99 Creative WOWs” was part of the gift package at this year’s Academy Awards. I decided to have a look. The first thing I noticed was the great deal of energy that comes out of each page and I soon understood that it is energy that takes us to the top.

There are three categories here— “Business (inspire, intrigue and illuminate ideas for professionals), Creative (spark ingenuity and motivate professionals to infuse creative problem solving) and Personal (offer thoughtful perspectives when life’s challenges tax even resilient individuals).” These are highlighted by the use of vibrant color and excellent graphics. Change/Improvement/ Learning are the keys here.

This is a wonderful go-to book for finding success quickly. Randi Brill presents us with an east to read and to use guidebook with 99 words of wisdom quotes for business, money, motivation and success as well as powerful advice from the author’s own experiences.

On each page we get an insightful, useable action item and a way of approaching and thinking over a situation. Whether you are a recent college graduate, a new business owner or a seasoned professional you can easily see how to increase your creativity in terms of your business. Randi Brill gives us her knowledge in a format that is both a visually pleasing and meticulously motivational.

“Of Men and Angels” by Michael Arditti— The Myth of Sodom

Arditti, Michael. “Of Men and Angels”, Arcadia, 2018.

The Myth of Sodom

Amos Lassen

The divine vengeance wreaked on the city of Sodom is one of the most enduring and influential myths of all time. Michael Arditti’s monumental work explores its creation, dissemination, and application in five key historical epochs. The characters that we meet here include exiled Jews, Babylonian temple prostitutes, a playwright, a Renaissance artist, a Bedouin escorting a Victorian canon and a Hollywood movie star with AIDS.

The novel extends over five historical periods, from the earliest days of the Hebrew Bible through to 1990s Los Angeles. Angels begin and end the book and these angels are guardians, messengers and intermediaries with distant deities and they hold the story together.

The story is centered the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone brought down by angels on God’s orders. Only Lot and his daughters are spared the destruction. This is a story we all know well.

Christianity argues that the fate of Sodom, and its neighboring city Gomorrah, was the result of its inhabitants “embracing” homosexuality. Thus the church condemns same-sex attraction is “the sin of Sodom”.

Arditti looks at how three millennia of homophobia has been based on how we read this text since the Bible tends to be unclear about what happened and its cause. The “sin of Sodom”, according to the words used in the Authorized Version of the Bible (authorized to whom?), is an absence of hospitality, over-attachment to other deities, or lack of trust in God. As A Jew, I have been taught that the sin of Sodom is the lack of hospitality and the fact that the stranger was not welcomed. There are strains of Judaism that focus on homosexuality as well. We also sometimes forget what happens after the destruction and I do not believe I have ever heard a sermon about Lot’s two daughters who fill their father with wine and sleep with him to propagate the race.

This is a novel about religious hypocrisy. Each of the five sections of the book tells the story of its victims. In the first section, we meet Jared, a young scribe who has been exiled with his fellow Jews to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. His job entails creating new written versions of the Genesis stories after the originals have been lost in the aftermath of battle. He really struggles to reconcile the teaching of Judaism on the sin of Sodom with his private exploration of a more tolerant attitude to human love in the city in which he is captive.

The second episode is set in mediaeval York where the Guild of Salters is acting out a Miracle Play telling about Lot’s wife who supposedly was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back on the destruction of Sodom. Simon Muskham whose faith leads him to take part enthusiastically in a re-enactment of Lot’s escape from Sodom as part of the city’s mystery plays, sees his same-sex attraction as a gift from God, an act of heresy that costs him at the hands of the church authorities.

The third section moves to the late 15th century in Florence where Sandro Botticelli paints the Destruction of Sodom, as the city is caught up in the religious fervor of Friar Savonorola’s revolutionary Puritanism, and the conflict between the Renaissance’s depiction of the human body and the strict sexual morality of Christian orthodoxy.

In the fourth section, we begin in Egypt with the story of an English Anglican priest who while visiting the Holy Land is determined to locate the ruins of Sodom. His narrow and very English self-assurance and self-righteousness is undermined by his companion, his nephew who has been in the employ of the East India Company. He witnessed the horrors of mutiny and has bitter and sad memories but what the hook is here is that he is an unrepentant “sodomite” and his stories easily disturb the parson’s narrow understanding.

The last section in set in Hollywood, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It begins with an entry from a mock-Wikipedia about the film “Flesh and Brimstone” that has been condemned by religious groups for its revisionist interpretation of the biblical stories of Abraham, Lot and Sodom. Nonetheless, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for actor Frank Archer in his last screen appearance. Archer had been a star for several decades and he was a closeted gay who could not be open about his sexuality and his relationship with his Russian-émigré lover Gene. Rumors that Frank is gay began to circulate after Gene’s death. Frank is HIV positive and his appearance in the film was courageous. This was at a time when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence.

One of the problems of writing about five different periods is that the story could feel “fragmented, repetitive, or didactic”, but Arditti is such a fine storyteller that this is a challenging and exciting read. Quite basically, “Of Men and Angels” is an unstinting look at the biblical roots of gay persecution but it is also so much more. We feel Arditti’s position, that those who have engaged and those that engage in gay sex have been subjected is revolting attitudes and punishments over time.

Arditti combines education and research with his art of storytelling to give us a walk through Judaeo-Christian and Islamic history. 
He maintains “that the rules and legends these traditions have bequeathed are tainted by falsification, intimidation or opportunistic lies.”


The angel Gabriel introduces each of the five episodes that question what actually happened at Sodom. 
What had the men of that town done to cause God to decree its destruction? Why were angels sent there and what was their essential identity? Why did Lot protect them to the extent of offering his daughters in their place to his menacing neighbors? What about the incest of Lot’s daughters’ with him after they have fled? Why does Lot’s wife look back at the town when she had been warned not to? These are not new questions and most of us have asked them many times.

The dilemmas of the five main characters are concerned with whether or not homosexuality is a sin, a crime, against nature, tolerated, celebrated or concealed. We are reminded of ideologies that have caused gay baiting, hating and martyrdom. Religion and its tales have been complicit in oppression, along with men’s paranoia and weakness. What Arditti depicts here are innocent expressions of natural urges, impetuous moments of pursuit of pleasure and/or compensation for what might otherwise be a “thankless and punishing existence.” We feel the author’s zeal in retelling history from a point of view that will comfort those who feel that they have been prey to unmerited criticism, or worse, for too long. Arditti’s intellectual understanding of his subject is sharp, disturbing yet satisfying. I am in total awe of the man and his novel.

“HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD”— Germany, 1933-1945

 

“Hitler’s Hollywood”

Germany, 1933-1945

Amos Lassen

Hitler’s Hollywood tells the story of one of the most important and dramatic period in the German cinema history. The Third Reich cinema was a heavily censored industry and at the same time, longed to be a German dream factory. It produced, among others, the Nazi blockbuster “Münchhausen”, at the request of Joseph Goebbels. It established its own celebrity star system and used the latest marketing tools. Between 1933 and 1945, about 1000 feature films were produced in Germany and only a few were openly Nazi propaganda films and even fewer could be considered harmless entertainment. As we look at these films and the people behind them, we see how stereotypes of the “enemy” and values of love and hate managed to be planted into the viewers’ minds, through cinema.

This film reminds us of stars such as Hans Albers, Marianne Hoope and propaganda directors such as Veil Harlan, Hans Steinhoff and many more. We also learn about Joseph Goebbels in his role as Propaganda Minister for the Nazis as well as his exploitation of the female actresses. We are taken on a journey back in time to take a closer look at what kind of films were being made during this time period. Despite Germany’s economically struggles after World War I and the Great Depression, those working in the film industry were receiving the highest salaries in Europe. As National Socialism grew in political strength, many actors, actresses, directors, producers and camera men were forced to leave the country, since many of them were Jewish, and go to Hollywood or England. Only a few would become famous such as Marlene Dietrich,  Peter Lorre, Fritz Lang, and Hedy Lamarr.

It is hard to imagine that over one thousand films were made in this time period. We see those who worked in this current political environment and how some participants subtly fought back while others said nothing. Films at the beginning of the war were dramatically full of illusion and presented a pleasing dream-like atmosphere that was a sharp contrast to the reality of the situation at hand. In the late 1930s some of the most famous propaganda films were produced. There is a total 22 films which are still on the censorship list and can only be seen on special request and have to be viewed with an assistant who will explain the symbolic propaganda to you. These include films such as like the anti-Semitic films Der Ewige Jude (The Enternal Jew) and Jud Süß and the Nuremburg Rally films such as The Triumphs of Will, Der Seig des Glaubens and Tag der Freiheit: Unser Wehrmacht which are three of the most famous propaganda films ever-made by the innovative female director Leni Riefenstahl. Despite her genius, she paid a heavy price for her political position since it followed her throughout her entire lifetime.

The ideology never changed— we saw the beauty of the Aryan race mixed with illusion and showing Hitler’s new successful Germany. The Third Reich is unthinkable without its propaganda. And Nazi propaganda is unthinkable without its films. This is the premise of “Hitler’s Hollywood”. The German political system was so obsessed with aesthetics that it was only natural that films played a significant role in disseminating the Nazi ideology into the minds the German people.

Director Rüdiger Suchsland was raised watching classics with his grandmother, a proud anti-fascist and he realized how the aesthetic character of the Reich went way beyond the infamous human swastikas and torchlight parades; it involved the creation of a massive film industry that embodied the regime’s imagery of supremacy and its rhetoric of hate. Nazi cinema revealed much about its time and its people as we see here. Suchsland claims in this documentary: “The whole Third Reich is Goebbels’s film.”

Narrated in its English version by German cult actor Udo Kier, this is a spine chilling, yet also dreamy, succession of scenes from Nazi-era movies, which emerge as precious historical documents and mirror the main obsessions of the regime. From the fascination with youth to the almost erotic fascination with death, we see the German obsession with looks. It seems disgusting today, but what emerges from Suchsland’s documentary is the subtle acuity employed in the production of propaganda films. The diversity of these films is certainly striking—- comedies, burlesque, war movies, musicals, documentaries. Seemingly all genres were adopted; some for direct propaganda.

As World War II approached, however, hatred and incitement became increasingly more obvious in cinema, as well. Blacks were portrayed as barbaric and Jews as disgusting rats. Nazi Hollywood virtually announced the Holocaust in the documentary “Der ewige Jude” which was commissioned by Joseph Goebbels in 1940. In “Jud Süß”, possibly one of the most famous demonstrations of anti-Semitic propaganda, Veit Harlan warned the Aryan people from all kinds of Jews, from “the stereotyped, dirty ones living in the ghettos, to the subtly assimilated ones”. The movie ends with the demonic killing of the Jewish character, a deceitful rapist; it was screened in at least 15 European countries.

This documentary is a look at a moment in history that serves as a reminder of the power of art and imagery in propaganda. Nazi filmmaking made sure that certain ideas became such an intrinsic part of the German people’s collective unconscious during the regime. “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the illusion.” Hannah Arendt.

“HENRY MILLER: ASLEEP & AWAKE”— An Intimate Documentary

 

“HENRY MILLER: ASLEEP & AWAKE”

An Intimate Documentary

Amos Lassen

When Henry Miller was 81 years old, Tom Schiller made “Henry Miller: Asleep and Awake” an intimate documentary with him during which Miller talks openly about writing, sex, spirituality, and New York. The film opens in Miller’s bathroom which is a shrine covered with photos and drawings and where Miller graciously shares the highlights of his “gallery.” His voice is raspy as he talks about philosophers, writers, painters, and friends. What we see here is the “unique and prolific life of a singular American artist”. Miller has collected photos and drawing hi entire life and they find their way to his bathroom. He points out the highlights of his “gallery”, talking about and sharing various Buddhas, Blaise Cendrars, Hieronymous Bosch and Gaugin, several Japanese writers, Hesse, a stone carving by Jung. He further speaks about women he has found attractive, his tendency to hear “celestial music” in airplanes, the relationship between Zen and sex, the fact that “most writers don’t look so hot” (because they spend so much time alone), and the question of identity, which “harasses” him.

 Miller is a literary legend, the author of the infamous, groundbreaking “Tropic of Cancer.” This short verité portrait from Emmy® Award-winning director Tom Schiller was filmed in 1973 when the and an amazing look at Miller and his ideas about life, writing, his thoughts on sex, spirituality, nightmares, and New York.

“The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies” by Dawn Raffel— An Extraordinary True Story

Raffel, Dawn. “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies”, Blue Rider, 2018.

An Extraordinary True Story

Amos Lassen

Writer Dawn Raffel introduces us to Dr. Martin Arthur Couney and his extraordinary life story. Dr. Couney figured out that he could use incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive (which is not so strange), while at the same time make good money displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows (which is very strange).

Dr. Couney saved many prematurely born infants and at the same time that he had to deal with the scorn of the medical establishment which he ignored. He also had to deal with the new science of eugenics. Couney was an opportunist and he was also a nice guy who really cared about his little patients. However, a part of the puzzle about who Couney was seemed to be missing.

Raffel has done wonderful research here to give us an almost unbelievable story. Couney was born Michael Conn and for more than 40 years, he saved the lives of tiny premature babies by placing them in incubator sideshows at Coney Island and world’s fairs. He did this instead of charging his patients’ families and was able to fund his practice by charging admission to curious crowds. At the same time we fought a medical establishment that claimed these were hopeless cases and a eugenics movement that wanted the weakest to die.

Dr. Couney also helped get Jews out of Nazi Germany. What only Dr. Couney knew was that his medical documents were not real and neither was the name of Dr. Couney. Yet, he was the man who saved over 6000 children some of whom are still alive today 

Through the use of newly discovered documents, obscure reports, and interviews with some of the now elderly surviving infants, Raffel brings us the story of Couney’s carnival career, his personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of tiny babies. What we really see here is “how technological ingenuity and exuberance could be built on compassion”.

The book is filled with photographs and I must say that I found it to be one of the most fascinating books that I have read this year. I probably would never have hard about it had I not been contacted by the book’s publicist and now I want to make sure that others hear about this book. As for that missing piece of the puzzle (even though I made a slight mention of it), you will simply have to read this to find out if it fits or not.

“Living Out Loud:An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture” edited by Michael J. Murphy and Brytton Bjorngaard— A Good Foundation Text

Murphy, Michael J. and Brytton Bjorngaard, editors. “Living Out Loud:An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture”, Routledge, 2018.

A Good Foundation Text

Amos Lassen

“Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture” is an excellent evidence-based foundation in the interdisciplinary field of LGBTQ Studies. Chapters on history, diversity, dating/relationships, education, sexual health, and globalization reflect current research and thinking in the social sciences, humanities, and sciences. It includes coverage of current events and recommendations for additional readings, videos, and web resources help students apply the contents in their lives.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Out of the Past: Histories, by Christianne Gadd

Chapter Two: Same/Difference: Diversities, by Michael J. Murphy

Chapter Three: Getting It On: Sexual Behavior & Sexual Health, by Michael J. Murphy

Chapter Four: Together, Forever?: Relationships,by Christine Smith and Joel Muraco

Chapter Five: Reading, Writing, Queering: Education, by Elizabeth Dinkins and Patrick Englert

Chapter Six: We’re Here! We’re Queer!: Power, Politics, & Activism, by George Waller

Chapter Seven: Pop Out!: Mass Media & Popular Culture, by Byron Lee

Chapter Eight: Signifying Queerness: Literature & Visual Arts, by Susan K. Thomas and William J. Simmons

Chapter Nine: Getting Around: Globalization & Transnationalism, by Evan Litwack

“The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” by Gregory J. Wallance— A Remarkable Life

Wallance, Gregory J. “The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring”, Potomac Books, 2018.

A Remarkable Life

Amos Lassen

Though she lived only to twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn only lived to the age of twenty-five but those years contain a remarkable life. Gregory J. Wallance shows us just how remarkable that life was in “The Woman Who Fought an Empire”, the story of a heroic and  a bold young woman who was the daughter of Romanian-born Jewish settlers in Palestine and who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring.

Sarah learned that her brother Aaron had formed Nili, an anti-Turkish spy ring, to aid the British in their war against the Ottomans. He did so after the beginning of the first World War. Sarah, had seen the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks and she believed that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire could save the Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. She joined Nili and eventually became the organization’s leader. As they worked behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces until she was caught and tortured by the Turks in the fall of 1917. In order to protect her secrets, Sarah shot herself.

Sarah Aaronsohn’s leadership of the Nili spy network during World War makes her one of the most fascinating personalities of the early Zionist era but somehow over the years she has slipped between the cracks. Unfortunately, this is a little known story about a truly impressive young woman who had been shocked by the atrocities she witnessed which were carried out by the Turks against Armenians. Sarah Aaronsohn and her brother stood up to several members of their Jewish community in Palestine and risked torture and death to provide information to the British.

We do not learn as much about Sarah’s personality as I hoped we would since I have been familiar with her story for years. (I had an aunt who was a member of Nili). We see that Sarah was a very intelligent and extremely tough woman who could easily become a feminist role model.

Wallance has done great research to bring us this story and while this is basically Sarah’s story, we also get insights into some of the key historical personalities and sociopolitical forces that helped shape the modern Middle East.