“Sex, Love and Judaism”—- “I went to the Let’s Talk About Sex Shabbat”

“Sex, Love and Judaism”

” I went to the Let’s Talk About Sex Shabbat”

 Jessica McDonell· April 6, 2014, 4:59 pm   ·  ”The Daily Pennsylvanian


So, does anyone have any questions about sex and Judaism?” someone asked. “How do Jews feel about masturbation?” asked someone else. “What about gay sex?” someone added. “Or casual hookups?” added another.

I was at an apartment I’d never been to, full of people I’d never met, to attend my first Shabbat dinner. But, I’d been told that this was no ordinary Shabbat. Termed the “Let’s Talk About Sex Shabbat,” it was going to include a conversation about sex and Judaism.

“Our goal was to foster conversation on a hot topic between Jews who might not find their space at Hillel,” College sophomore and Shabbat host Molly Elson told me. “Shabbat dinner is a great weekly Jewish tradition that stretches back millennia, and reflects a lot of our experiences growing up in Jewish homes.”

It’s a great way to connect with other people with similar experiences on campus,” she added.

The dialogue was open, thought-provoking and occasionally snarky.

“The impression I’ve gotten is that relationships of any kind are about more than just sex or reproduction. Jews in general tend to be pretty chill when it comes to the physical side of a relationship as long as there is an emotional foundation,” someone offered.

When it came to actually answering the questions, sometimes someone cited a passage from the Torah or the words of a specific Rabbi, but more often than not, no one had a definite answer to any of the questions. This wasn’t about telling people how Judaism approaches sexuality, but rather, discussing the nature of sex from the perspective of modern, college-aged Jews.

“So the sex-through-a-sheet thing is definitely not true,” someone added,referring to an urban legend that Jews have sex through a sheet with a hole in it.

“Definitely not. The Jews are very supportive of nakedness in general. Both in the physical and metaphorical sense,” clarified someone else.

People shared their past experiences or talked about the approach of the synagogue they attended as a child, but it was clear that they had each created their own, personal definition of what it meant to be Jewish.

The Sex and Shabbat dinners were organized by the Jewish Renaissance Project to foster this type of approach to Judaism. Rabbi Joshua Bolton, head of JRP, said “the event [enables] hundreds of students from across campus to convene intimate, honest dinner/conversations about sex in the 21st century, and in particular on Penn’s campus.”

It was also very much a social event, as Shabbat dinners often are. After dinner, I went home and the rest of the group headed off to Copabanana for an open bar night they were calling “The Matzah Ball.”

“THE FIVE HOUSES OF LEA GOLDBERG”— A Poet, Author, Playwright, Translator and Researcher

five houses“The Five Houses of Lea Goldberg”

A Poet, Author, Playwright, Translator and Researcher

Amos Lassen

It seems to me that Leah Goldberg has always been art of my life. As a kid we heard her poetry and stories and sang her songs. In college we studies her poetry and her messages about the beauty of the Land of Israel but it was really not until I moved to Israel that I really understood her importance. Goldberg was a modern Renaissance woman at a time when women were staying at home and raising the children.


In this film by my friend Yair Qedar we learn that Goldberg’s writings are regarded as classics of Israeli literature, and remain extremely popular among Hebrew speakers where she is considered the feminine equivalent of Haim Nachman Bialik, the man considered to be the greatest poet in the Hebrew language.

Lea Goldberg has been dead almost fifty years yet she is still an enigmatic figure – a powerful woman who lived with her mother and never married, a woman who reinvented herself from the ashes of the First World War and became Israel’s most beloved poet.


The film is a cinematic fantasy in five acts using animation, after effects, still photos, original music and interviews which, taken together, celebrates the story of Lea Goldberg.


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“THE KIBBUTZ”— The Intrigue of the Kibbutz

the kibbutz

“The Kibbutz”

The Intrigue of the Kibbutz

Amos Lassen

It has been a little over a century ago that the first kibbutz was established on the shores of Agam Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee by a group of young Zionists who wanted to create the “New Jew” and New Judaism. The settlers had two major missions: firstly to settle and develop the land under difficult physical conditions and hostile surroundings; and secondly, to establish a human laboratory which would challenge the traditional structures of society as a whole and of the family in particular. The kibbutz would become the role model for the moral codes, values and culture for the rest of the Jewish settlement movement. I spent more than half my life thus far living on a kibbutz, an experience that has totally changed my life and so, for me, this is a very special film.


 Both the Jewish and the non-Jewish world have been were intrigued by the kibbutz. In the early days sociologists and educational researchers wanted to learn about what was happening on the kibbutz and later, in the 1960′s and 70′s, young European and American volunteers came to “work and play”. 

 Over the years some 270 kibbutzim were founded forming the physical and cultural foundation of Israel and presenting an avant-garde execution of a social-agricultural ideology which proved to be highly viable. In the 1980′s and with the fall of the Berlin Wall years of deep crises began for the Kibbutz Movement. Yet, in comparison with similar forms of communal living in the US and in Russia, which only managed to exist for a generation or two, the kibbutz has maintained a sustainable form of communal life well into the third and fourth generations.  The kibbutz still seeks, in its “human” laboratory”, an alternative to the brutal capitalist world. It has been said that the idea of the kibbutz is a reflection of Marxism in its purest form.


 The mini-series “The Kibbutz” documents the dramatic story of this lengthy human test case, a story which treasures the constant and systematic tension between the individual and the nation, between the family and the group, between the utopian conceptual ideas and the rough daily life. Now, once again, the kibbutz as we knew it faces an unsure future. The Israeli government has discontinued special funding for the kibbutz movement and agriculture which had once been a mainstay of kibbutz life has been taken over by private corporations. In this film we see the significant questions that rise from the ideological discourse of the Kibbutz.

 ”Without imposing his commentary on the product and without displaying subversion director, the film is able to shed a different light on the Kibbutz movement”. We are also made aware the film settles somewhere between the significant ideals and the minute moments.


Modi Bar’On and Anat Zeltzer’s series the Kibbutz “completes the trendy return of the Kibbutz in a graceful and in depth manner…” They have chosen to document the heart and soul of an Israeli Myth.

“A PLACE IN HEAVEN”— Trading a Place in Heaven

place poster

“A Place in Heaven” (“Makom be-gan eden”)

Trading a Place in Heaven

Amos Lassen

Jewish law actually says that it is possible to trade a person’s place in heaven and this film deals with that idea as the idea moves from theory to real life. We meet a young officer, in the early days of the State of Israel who returns from a successful operation. He is very hungry so the assistant army cook offers him a ridiculous deal. The cook will make the officer’s favorite spicy omelet in exchange for the officer’s place in heaven.


Now forty years later, the officer (Alon Aboutboul) has retired and he is lonely and bitter and has he prepares for death, his son who has recently embraced Judaism wholly, decides to search for the assistant cook who had bought his father’s place in heaven so that he can cancel the contract. If he succeeds at finding him, he will then be able to save his father from hell and also find peace for himself.


I think what surprised me most about this concept of the film is the use of a little known element from Jewish law (Halacha), especially since the concepts of heaven and hell are usually not discussed and, in fact, I was taught that they do not exist in Jewish ritual.


When the officer returned to his base, he spoke to the assistant cook who was a Holocaust survivor and jealous of the officer. The officer is secular and a non-believer which is the case many times of those who grow up in the Jewish state of Israel. The cook believes that there is a special place in the afterlife for brave officers who risk their lives to save the state and fellow Jews and the officer who is so hungry is willing to trade that place for a spicy shakshuka (a dish of eggs, tomatoes and spices) and he is ready to sign a contract that transfers his secured and confirmed place over to the cook.

Time passes and forty years elapse—the general is now on his deathbed and a bit shocked that his son has discovered and embraced Judaism. He is in a race against time to find that cook’s assistant who, forty years earlier, bought his father’s place in heaven. If and when he finds him, the son has to nullify the contract. If he doesn’t, his father will go to hell.

The father is an interesting character in that he both carries and crushes his family—he is great at war and politics but has not been much of a father. We certainly become aware of the lack of bond between religion and strength. Here is a modern retelling of a story that is fillet with echoes from the Bible and the film is filled with minor characters to suggest a richly conceived universe in which the story resonates. The script that takes on the big themes of generational continuity and karma, and actors perform the written words beautifully. Director  Yossi Madmony makes it all work wonderfully.

“FRED”— “A Very Inside Look at a Very Out Campaign”

fred poster


“A Very Inside Look at a Very Out Campaign”

Amos Lassen

When openly gay candidate for President of the United States, Fred Karger, announced his desire to run for the office some four years ago, filmmaker John Fitzgerald Keitel was there at his side. Keitel spent the next two years documenting his historic campaign. Now we have the film of that run a one- hour documentary, “Fred”. We get a real inside look at the roller coaster campaign. We are with Fred from the towns of New Hampshire to the Iowa State Fair.  We see him take on Fox News and Mitt Romney and the reaction from voters to any openly gay GOP candidate as the “campaign travels from New Orleans to New York, from Gay Pride Parades to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference”. Fred fights for inclusion in the debates, takes on his opponents and campaigns to let lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans know that anything is possible. Here is an hour of history that will make you “laugh, cry and the film is guaranteed to delight all audiences.

“9 STAR HOTEL”— Palestinians Working in Israel

nine star hotel

“9 Star Hotel” (“Malon 9 Kochavim”)

Palestinians Working in Israel

Amos Lassen

Daily Palestinian construction workers cross the border to work clandestinely in Israel. This film follows them as they build their own shanty community in order to more easily enter Israel as they risk their lives to earn a living. Israeli director, Ido Haar, follows a band of Palestinian day laborers as they try to make a living by illegally crossing the border near the Israeli city of Modi’in for work. As a silent spectator, Haar is able to show intimate kinship between the viewer and the subject as he uses a handheld camera that takes the position of a group member as they sit and eat meals by a campfire and when they flee from the police. At times like this the picture blurs.



The film concentrates mainly on two young best friends, garbage scavenger Ahmed and construction worker Muhammad, The film is an often-touching portrait of the anxiety, desperation, hardship, and dangers of such a life, in which the men reside in makeshift huts—or simply covered beds—out in the rocky hills overlooking the city and trample over bumpy terrain and busy highways to find employment, and remain prepared to abandon everything in order to escape patrolling law enforcement. Haar is sympathetic to their perilous condition, which is threatened by the erection of Israel’s security fence, and analogized in one scene as an unstable rock building (dubbed a “9 Star Hotel”) that Ahmed playfully builds. Yet the director shrewdly refrains from condemning the (unseen) military forces whose responsibility it is to locate and eject illegal Palestinian immigrants, instead allowing political commentary to come through the men’s curses regarding police conduct and Muhammad’s countervailing opinion that their culture (“We think backward, we never think forward”) and the Palestinian Authority (“Liberation my foot”) are to blame for their situation. A general avoidance of the big picture in favor of the immediate here-and-now, however, negates any substantial investment in—or analysis of—the action at hand, as it’s frustratingly difficult to glean larger insights when Haar deliberately avoids addressing the two overarching issues that have a bearing on these state of affairs: the justness of Israel’s immigration policy, and the economic conditions in the Palestinian territory that drive men to sneak across the border to provide for themselves and their families. 9 Star Hotel is an empathetic portrait of a particular human circumstance, but without greater context, it ultimately feels like only half the story.

Ahmed and Muhammad share the same fate but never give up chasing their dreams. The film digs deep into their minds and explores what makes these men tick, following them on their daily quest to make it to work as they dodge the law, and survive the night. In the midst of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these men are forced to turn their backs on their own people and seek work in their enemies’ territory.

Haar’s film is not  a political film. On the contrary, it’s a true story of survival, friendship, and family. It’s a shocking documentary about Palestinian men seeking illegal work to stay alive. It’s a film about loyal friends whose future is completely uncertain. They may have work today and tomorrow, but nobody knows whether they’ll have work next month. They spend day and night in fear of being arrested, but they have nowhere else to go. Until now, nobody knew who these men are, what they do, or what they may have to say. With the release of this documentary, however, their voice is finally heard.

While Haar realistically depicts the few joys in the life of these men, he also captured scenes of a more dramatic nature. Every now and then police officers suddenly show up to patrol the hills in search of illegal workers, which creates substantial panic among the Palestinians. To them, the sound of a siren means abandoning camp and running as fast as possible. Another captivating sequence follows a group of men trying to get one of their sick buddies to the nearest hospital. Haar’s handheld camera often shakes a little too much for viewers to clearly experience what is going on, but at least it adds a sense of real-life suspense.


Haar has done a great job exploring the misery of these workers, but one thing the movie is missing is a broader context. Digging too much into the tension between Israel and Palestine would probably have reduced the power of the movie, but Haar could have added a little more background information as to why these Palestinian workers have to face this brutal lifestyle. Looking at it that way, “9 Star Hotel” only offers one side of the situation. I’m sure at one stage during the movie you wouldn’t mind finding out how these men ended up there in the first place. Although Haar touches on this later in his interview, it’s certainly a significant detail that’s missing from the film.

“Hibernation and Other Poems by Bear Bards” edited by Ron J. Suresha— Bear Bards and Poetry

hibernationSuresha, Ron J. (editor).  “Hibernation and Other Poems by Bear Bards”, Bear Bones Books, 2014.

Bear Bards and Poetry

Amos Lassen

Do you remember a time when men were either straight or gay? It was not that long ago. Now our community is made up of my subgroups within the larger LGBT community and one of those groups is made up of men who call themselves bears—they tend to be larger and hairier in build that say twinks or preppies or metrosexuals. And like the other subgroups bears have developed their own culture and even their own literature. For some of you the idea of a bear poet might seem incongruous—well, forget that because in this new anthology of bear poetry I found several gems.

Editor Ron Suresha says that this anthology was three years in the making and I am sure that is not because bears don’t write poetry but because he wanted the very best and it sure looks like he got it.

I fully believe that you can judge a people or a community but the literature it produces and while it may seem incongruous that bears who represent big burly men would write poetry, I feel that this book is very important for them and for the rest of us to be able to see what they can do. Suresha himself says that “… the bear community needs this book… a community of men like the Bears must produce art and literature that represent the inner desires of its men, and this collection of poems certainly fulfills that requirement”. We are almost past having to prove ourselves to others, now we must prove ourselves to our own community. If you look at the scope of gay literature you can find anything you might want but let me remind you that it was not always like this.  I remember all too well the sad stories filled with suicides and lies and unhappy endings. By coming into our own and winning a bit acceptance by the larger community, we have seen the tide turn and now we have stories about everything you can imagine and the days of hiding are over. Yes, sure and without a doubt bears can and should write poetry and all of us—bears, non-bears, gays and straight should read it.

I sat down to write a review and instead I find myself musing over the state of our literature but it is important to understand that the state of our literature reflects the state of our community that is based on who we are. Now on to the book.

“Hibernation” features poetry by a who’s who of gay writers (some 40 in total). Among them are David Bergman and Albert Skip Brushaber who I understand are responsible for the title of the collection and they are joined by Alfred C. Corn, Jameson Currier, Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, Jack Fritscher, Daniel M. Jaffe, Raymond Luczak, Jeff Mann, Ron Mohring, Felice Picano, Jay Starre, Jim Stewart, Dan Stone, and Emanuel Xavier and many fine poems from other American and Canadian contributors. Of those listed here, there are only two whose work I have never reviewed so I feel right at home. (Several of these writers I have reviewed more than once and several more than twice).

The collection contains 100 poems most of which are written in free verse and every issue of life is contained here from the “changing standards of masculinity, male romance and lust, maturing men’s body issues, and what it means to live and love within the worldwide gay male bear community”. The tone of the poems varies—some are men looking at themselves while others are erotic and/or amusing. The beauty of poetry is that the author has complete freedom to write and in most cases it s the reader who does the interpretation. I am sure some of you remember poetry from high school or college classes in which we took a poem apart until that was left were like the bones of the turkey at Thanksgiving. I have often wondered how Lord Byron or John Milton or even e.e.cummings would react to what we did to his work. What the poems share in common is the bear experience. What I love is the fun I had reading it. I also loved that I got a new picture of some of the authors I already knew. The problem I have in reviewing something like this is that I am almost forced to concentrate on a few of the 100 poems but in that way I show bias. So I won’t and I will look at the anthology as a whole. I know too many of the writers so to pick some over others could cause ill feelings.

I notice that rather than use the word “contributors”, Suresha uses “cubtributors” so that we are reminded who and what we are reading. I can only imagine the selection process—a poem must catch the reader immediately; there is not as much time as a short story for it to make an impression so editor Suresha had his work cut out for him and I am sure he is very proud of this  volume.

If you have ever wondered what a “bear poem” is, you will get your answer right here. If you have ever attended a bear function then you know that they bring sex, art, culture, and commerce together in a really fun way. This happens all over the world wherever bears meet…it seems natural and healthy that individuals group themselves together through ritual and language. There is a bear experience, which is shared among hundreds of thousands of bear-identified men. Most people see those deep connections in the community if they pay attention. The subculture has continued to flourish  due to its position as a prominent, well-established worldwide gay and bisexual men’s community during a time of huge civil rights changes for GLBTQ people around the world. Therefore we can define “bear to mean a masculine, mature queer man is here to stay”. As Suresha says and I quote him totally (with a minor change). “If folks reading this believe in bear community and think that bear literature or a bear poetry anthology is something that our community should have, then get out and get  yourself a copy and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

“THE BALANCE” by Neal Wooten— Life Hanging in the Balance

the balance

Wooten, Neal. “The Balance”, Bold Strokes Books, 2014

Life Hanging in the Balance

Amos Lassen

It is so good to see so many young adult titles and those that are so different in plot and scope. In “The Balance”, we meet nineteen-year-old Piri who lives in a world of technology somewhere above the clouds. An accident caused him to be dropped from his city and (as in the first sentence of James Joyce’s “Eveline”), everything changes. He does not know how to deal with this different life and he is scared. He sees creatures that are gruesome looking and known as Scavs yet he is also very taken by the bonds they share with each other. He is then rescued by an other young man named Nico and he not only begins to have feelings for him but to understand those feelings as well. Even though he cannot find real comfort, he has found love and that trumps everything else. But then “he discovers just how far the city dwellers will go to maintain control, and the horrific truth behind an ancient and secret alliance, he will do everything he can to protect his new family—and disrupt the balance”.

Privileged people live in the city and everything they do is done in a controlled manner. They have been trained not to show emotion since they were children and family members do not exchange physical affection. The society is also programmed that everyone dies at 80 years old when they are too old for the workforce or have stopped helping raise their grandchildren.

The Children are the people on earth and they serve the city dwellers by providing them with crops and people to work for them after they have been chosen in a weekly ceremony. The children don’t have much but their lives are full with family. They get their rules for life from a book that they all read which is a paraphrase of our bible.

Genre-wise this is a young adult dystopian book that deals with two wrongs—evolution and religion and one right—love. In this new society, same-sex love is common and totally accepted but this is not a book about gay love, it is about society. After finding himelf in a world that he had never known, Piri has to find a way to live in this new environment. He was able to find family, to make friends and  to fall in love. In fact, Piri finds life where he never knew it could exist.  While things are good for him, he is fine but when he learns the truth about the balance, he has other ideas. He must decide between his new life or the life he once knew and between love or comfort. His decision could indeed affect the balance.

 Piri’s narration within himself changes as the story goes forward. He begins as an objective commentator, who simply watching the world and he spoke in short to-the–point sentences. He doesn’t even say a word to Nico his rescuer for quite a while. As the book begins to draw to a close, Piri becomes vocal as if he is filled with passion and desperation and I must credit author Neal Wooten for the skill he used in pulling this off.

 While the story is quite complex, it is told in simple English without much dialogue and this is because Piri has involved in introspection. The use of religion and religious symbolism is very effective although perhaps I should reword that to say anti-religion. The ending may catch you off-guard as it did me. There are some small problems in the text and I suppose that is because this is a new author to me. Given time that will all fall away.

Queer Passover Seder Helped Me Reclaim Judaism

Queer Passover Seder Helped Me Reclaim Judaism

By Stosh Cotler

An alternative Seder plate holds a coconut, representing closeted LGBTQ youth. / JQ International

At the time, it didn’t occur to me to be offended or concerned that I was being circled by the cheerleaders and other popular girls who held hands, bowed their heads and prayed for my soul. They were part of “Christian Life” at my high school in Olympia, Washington. I recall several instances when they earnestly attempted to save me from eternal damnation. I didn’t refuse their efforts or consider the implications of their actions. I just wanted to fit in.

I grew up Jewish in the Pacific Northwest. But not in a religiously observant family, or a proud intellectual family, or a family of labor organizers who taught me early and often never to cross a picket line. My family was on the fast track to assimilation, and by high school, being Jewish was simply a reminder that I was an outsider.

By the time I was in my late twenties, I was reeling from a spiritual crisis. A decade of organizing and social change work had left me feeling hopeless and burned out.

Randomly, I was invited to a Passover Seder hosted by an older lesbian couple that I recognized from our local gay bar. I hesitated — not because they were practically strangers, but because I could already feel the potential embarrassment of not remembering the holiday rituals correctly, not being able to read Hebrew, not feeling “Jewish enough.”

Wavering about the decision until the very last moment, I arrived at Devon and Pauline’s home. I approached the door and saw their beautiful mezuzah, alongside the rainbow flags and pink triangle sticker. I walked in the door and was greeted by a number of dogs (naturally), and then found myself sitting alongside several butch-femme couples and a few gay men.

We began the evening by reading from handmade haggadot. The ancient story of the exodus was augmented by quotes, pictures and examples of modern-day social justice struggles, ranging from the civil rights movement to ACT UP. These people sitting around the Passover table, some of whom had endured painful experiences with the Jewish community because of their gender and/or sexual orientation, had not only managed to stay connected to our tradition, but had placed their own struggles of oppression within this larger narrative of liberation.

I was in shock. It had never occurred to me that being Jewish could be revolutionary. That it could provide a spiritual and political path to personal and communal freedom. It was the first time I recognized the possibility that my Jewishness could be a relevant and compelling force in my life.

It was breathtaking to feel such a profound sense of integration.

I cried during the Seder itself. The tears just kept welling up and spilling down my cheeks. I cried for days and days afterward. I felt shattered — heartbroken for all that I had missed growing up, grateful to feel a oneness that I had been desperately yearning for, troubled when I learned more about stubborn intolerances within the Jewish community, and unsure of how this profound experience would ripple through my life.

When something so deep happens, there is no going back. That Seder marked my return to Judaism and the beginning of my conscious and proud identity as a Jew. And for that reason, I think about Passover as my own personal Jewish anniversary as well as the time when we sit together with our loved ones and recount the story of liberation.

But it’s not just our personal liberation, and our people’s liberation. Passover is a time for us to think about all people’s liberation. There are so many people, here in our country, who are still being held in bondage. Some of these bonds may be thankfully loosening, like those faced by LGBTQ people who are still denied our full rights as citizens. And some of these bonds are terribly — tragically — entrenched, as the thousands of people who have been imprisoned and forcibly deported from their homes and families can attest.

So let us mark the Seder as a time to celebrate the sweet possibility of freedom. But let us also use the time to acknowledge the responsibility toward the oppressed that freedom brings. Fighting these liberation stuggles, and others, has become my life’s work. And while that fact does not surprise me, it still amazes a part of me that I am fortunate enough to do so as a Jew.

Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/195906/queer-passover-seder-helped-me-reclaim-judaism/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Opinion&utm_campaign=Opinion%202014-04-07#ixzz2yEGi7mrt