“Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home” by Leah Lax– Moving On

uncovered

Lax, Leah. “Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home”, She Writes Press, 2015.

Moving On

Amos Lassen

Of late, there have been many memoirs written by Jews who have left the religiosity of Orthodox Judaism. Obviously the authors of these have something to say. Interesting enough is that the majority of these are written by women. There must be an interest in this type of book because they are selling and people are reading them. One of the newer titles is Leah Lax’s “Uncovered”. In it she tells hr story which begins when she was a young teen who left her secular Jewish home to become a Hasidic Jew and it ends with her becoming a forty something-year-old woman who knows that to find the personal freedom that she seeks is to leave the religious world. We read of her arranged marriage, her former fundamentalist faith, being a mother and a member of the Hasidic community. She looks inside herself to consider her creative, sexual, and spiritual longings and discovers that they have been simmering beneath the surface as she lived the life of a truly religious woman. Even with all of the other memoirs out there, this is the first that tells about a gay woman who spent years in the Hasidic sect. This is also the story of a woman finding the place where she knows she really belongs.

Even though her story is very personal, I am sure that it is a story that many will recognize. Everywhere in the world there are women who are forced to cover their bodies by patriarchal religions that actually control the wombs of their females. Lax was one of those but she had the courage to break away and the honesty to tell her story. It is not a pretty story but it told tenderly. It is a story of damage and struggling and it is the story of some helpful people. Above all else, it is the story of a person trying to live an authentic life.

The prose is pristine and it touches the heart to read about a woman who had to deal with shame and live a life of rules that kept her bound and could not be changed. It is also an inspiring story about just how hard it can be for a person to become who he/she really thinks they are. Lax’s voice as a Jewish woman and as a lesbian is the voice of one who must be silenced—after all, we all know there are no such things as religious Jewish lesbians and we also know that religious Jewish women do not have the right to speak about themselves. (I see this almost daily in Boston—a beautiful young girl with a terrible wig on her head and five children who walks steps behind her husband and who does not speak unto spoken to—when a child cries, the husband looks at his wife as if to say, “quiet the child”. What I do not see are exchanges of love in their eyes. It is as if she is there to serve and not disturb him).

We read of how Lax moved from loneliness through what promised to be a new family and a new community and then ultimately into a pure appreciation of the world away from the world that made her suppress her needs.

Lax had been the perfect Hasidic woman. She taught young believers and spoke at conferences while at the same that she raised her seven children. As she aged, however, she felt less sure of her place in both her life and her religion. She found the courage to take control of her life and then becoming true to herself. We see that the Judaism of the Hasidic sect is an old religion being practiced in a modern age where most of it is outdated. Leah Lax brought it up to date in her life and we can only wish the best for her and admire hoer courage to do what she felt she had to do. I just wish that others would do the same. I say that as an observant Jew who loves his religion and who has found a way to reconcile sexuality with faith.

 

 

 

“I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” by Grace Jones and Paul Morley— A Life and a Career

grace jones

Jones, Grace with Paul Morley. “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs”, Gallery Books, 2015.

A Life and a Career

Amos Lassen

It seems like it has been forever that we are waiting for this book. I can remember several years ago hearing that Grace Jones was writing the book that would find the word “secret” as obsolete. I am not sure that she is successful with but I can say that her book is a no-holes-barred account of her spectacular career and turbulent life. Her story is the tale of a persona and how it developed and made her one of the world’s most recognizable artists. Now here is where I must be candid—I know nothing about Grace Jones and during her most life and career when she was most active and adored, I was not living in the United States and had no idea of who she was. From reading her book, I see that a missed someone who was really special.

Jones has been a singer, model, and actress which made her a deluxe triple threat. She has always been an extreme, challenging presence in the entertainment world ever since she surfaced as an international model in the 1970s. She has style and she talent and she knew how to channel them to become “one of the most unforgettable, free-spirited characters to emerge from the historic Studio 54”. She recorded disco classics such as “I Need a Man” and “La Vie en Rose” and she is known for her provocative shows in underground New York nightclubs where’s she was back then loved and “hailed as a disco queen, gay icon, and gender defying iconoclast”.

In 1980 she left the disco scene so she could explore experimental interests and musically she broke free and began mixing house, reggae and electronic music as she created a new hybrid kind of music and new classics were born.

In the past, she swore she would never write a memoir but now she has and she regales us by giving us some intimate insight into how she evolved, her personal philosophies, and her career.The book includes sixteen pages of full color photographs of which many come from her own personal collection. Jones is a one-of-a-kind. She left behind her strict religious background in Jamaica and conquered over and over New York, Paris and the entire decade of the 1980s. She answers only to herself.

We read about her lovers, his seemingly constant journey to find new experiences, her eagerness to try something new and her circles of friends that include fashionistas, artists, and musicians. More than anything. Jones has been able to marry life to art.

Grace Jones left Jamaica as a twelve-year-old in the 1960s. She first found fame as a fashion model in the early 1970s and then as a sensational disco queen during the Studio 54 years. She sees herself as a showgirl and as a realist and as a party animal and a performance artist. She has known Bond, James Bond and was a confidant of Andy Warhol. Now she can add  author to that list.

“LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT”— A Carpenter and a Tomboy

love at first fight poster

“Love At First Fight”

A Carpenter and a Tomboy

Amos Lassen

“Love at First Fight” is a French comedy about a young carpenter and a tomboy. Arnaud has been enjoying his summer and it has been quite peaceful… but then he met Madeleine, a beautiful girl who, unfortunately, is quite brusque.

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Arnaud (Kevin Azais) is working with his brother trying to maintain a carpentry business they inherited from their recently deceased father. Things change when he meets Madeleine (Adele Haenel), an independent thinking young woman who is in perfect physical condition thanks to swimming and other exercises. Madeleine exudes self-confidence. Arnaud volunteers to take her to the next town to enlist in a two-week military boot camp. He realizes that Madeleine is the most interesting and sexy woman he has ever met so he decides to sign up for the training as well. Each of them handle boot camp differently and as they do, they test their relationship. The most daring challenge they face is their own experiment in survival in the woods where wildfires are huge and spreading.

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We see that there is chemistry between them. It is inevitable that many will compare this to “Silver Linings Playbook” with the way it portrays a romance that is against-all-odds. The difference is that where “Silver” dealt with mental illness, this film deals with masculine “posturings”. Even after having sex together, our two characters stay on their guards. The focus on physical sparing is actually about each of their abilities to endure emotionally. There are moments when we have commentary on gendered identity even though what happens is the result of comedic interchanges. Quite basically this is a romantically inclined drama that subverts its conventions by playing around a bit with gender norms.

Arnaud met Madeleine at a self-defense class where he is forced into a wrestling match. Madeleine is intense and committed to winning, and in a panic Arnaud bites her, inadvertently winning their match. Later they meet again when Madeleine’s parents consult with Arnaud and brother about building a wooden hut on their property. Madeleine tries to stop the sale, but is unsuccessful. As they Arnaud and brother begin to build, he sees Madeleine’s strange behavior and eventually finds himself in her good graces. She wishes to join the most advanced military service possible so that she can be prepared for the coming end of days. Arnaud is fine as long he is allowed to tag along.

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Madeleine’s assumptions and expectations are much too lofty for the ‘advanced’ military training she for whatever masochistic reason she wants to do. Kevin Azais’ Arnaud is definitely a more passive force as he follows Madeleine around. When the two of them go out on their own, they leave behind them their disappointment of the structured world to fend for themselves. Love becomes a little lost on its own seriousness, though it finally allows Arnaud to prove how he resourceful he can be to Madeleine. They share an offbeat strangeness that makes them a memorably odd, believable couple.

“Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans” by Don Brown— Emotional Memories

drowned city

Brown, Don. “Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans”, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015.

Emotional Memories

Amos Lassen

It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. For those of us who are New Orleanians and were there for the storm, this is an emotional reminder. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s tremendous winds and raging water destroyed a great American city. Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water. Property damages across the Gulf Coast topped $100 billion. One thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives. I still have a hard time making any sense of it. On one hand it was one of the most horrific events of my life but on the other hand, I am happy in Boston today because of it. The story of Katrina is one of selfless and heroic people who have had the courage to stay and rebuild yet it is also the story of incompetence, racism, and criminality. The story of Katrina is a story of tragedy and triumph and in the same breath.

I have many memories of Katrina and have had many nightmares about it. I have been working on a presentation about the storm and as I have been thinking about it and reviewing written material, I still find it hard to believe what happened in New Orleans. I have seen hundreds of pictures that have reopened some of the wounds I felt as I watched from my window as New Orleans went under water. It is still hard to conceive of anything like this could have happened yet we all know that it.

Don Brown brings us a wonderful book about the storm for young readers and in it he captures both sides of Katrina and does so through art and through narrative. His graphic novel is totally accurate and as I read I relived the story. Every cartoon panel is based on a direct quotation from a victim of or participant in the storm.

I learned that 5,000 children were separated from their parents and that some rescuers had to deal with living, poisonous snakes and that family pets were helpless and lost their lives to drowning and/or starvation. The dog I have today, Sophie, a Jack Russell terrier was found by rescuers and I adopted her in Arkansas. I still see the fear she exhibits when she gets close to water.

Brown’s book is simple and beautiful with a strong message that we not forget Katrina.

“Drowned City” is both a somber and totally engrossing read about the events that led up to Katrina, what happened during Katrina and what has happened since Katrina.

“Ukrainian Otherlands: Diaspora, Homeland, and Folk Imagination in the Twentieth Century” by Natalia Khanenko-Friesen— Ethnic Identity

ukranian otherlands

Khanenko-Friesen, Natalia. “Ukrainian Otherlands: Diaspora, Homeland, and Folk Imagination in the Twentieth Century”, (Folklore Stud in a Multicultural World), University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Ethnic Identity

Amos Lassen

“Ukrainian Otherlands” explores modern ethnic identity based upon how diaspora and homeland are understood by those in the Ukraine and those Ukrainians who live in other places. Author Natalia Khanenko-Friesen uses folk songs, poetry and stories, trans-Atlantic correspondence, family histories, and rituals of homecoming and hosting that developed in the Ukrainian diaspora and Ukraine during the twentieth century to do just that. It is fascinating to see that many of the aspects of culture and seen in those living away from the homeland and still maintaining a sense of yearning for it. Certainly, in the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora we saw this and it was not until many Jews felt secure in the countries of the diaspora, that they dared to sublimate their thoughts.

What we see here “each group imagines the “otherland” and ethnic identity differently, leading to misunderstandings between Ukrainians and their ethnic-Ukrainian “brothers and sisters” abroad”. What the author sees as vernacular culture is that culture that is based upon and informed by

theory and fieldwork. Reading this is like being on a journey that takes us to another time and other places. We become aware of the balance between ethnicity and interpretations in theory.

“The Orion Mask” by Greg Herren— Discovering Family

The OrionMask

Herren, Greg. “The Orion Mask”, Bold Strokes Books, 2015.

Discovering Family

Amos Lassen

Heath Brandon grew up essentially without a mother. She died when he was three-years-old and his father never spoke about her or her family. After his father’s death, his mother family reached out and Heath decided to go to Louisiana to meet his only family now. He learned a good deal about his mother’s death and about the family mansion in neighboring Mississippi where there were many family secrets. These were not just ordinary secrets, however and Heath realized that whatever had happened when he was a young child might just be hidden in his own memory.

Heath was able to find his birth certificate and learn that the woman who he thought was not his mother, the woman who raised him was not the woman who brought him into the world. His birth mother’s name was Genevieve and although the thought we had been born in Florida where he lived his entire life, he discovers that he had been born in New Orleans. A man named Jerry came to him at the airport and told him that he wanted to talk about his mother. Jerry saying he’s writing a book about his family, and he needs Heath’s help. Heath, not knowing the man was not anxious to help at first but he really wants to learn about his family and this is surely one way of doing so. He gets in touch with the Legendres and is invited to stay ant, who invite him to stay at their family mansion, Chambord.

His grandfather Geoffrey warmly welcomes him but his aunt and cousin act as if they resent him being there. He only wants to learn about his family but they feel that the past should stay in the past and they see him as a threat to their happy existence. Heath is determined to find out what happened the night his mother died.

Herren always manages to come up with an interesting story and here is a mystery thriller that is a fun read. Since it is a thriller I am limited in what I can say about it.

“We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City” by Roberta Brandes Gratz— Hope in the Rubble

we're still here

Gratz, Roberta Brandes. “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City”, Nation Books, 2015.

Hope in the Rubble

Amos Lassen

Hurricane Katrina ushered in one of the darkest periods in American history. It brought with it destruction unparalleled in America along with “government neglect and socioeconomic inequality” yet among the rubble, there is hope. In “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards” we get a look at New Orleans’s revival in the years following the hurricane. Here are the stories of people who returned to their homes and have taken the rebuilding of their city into their own hands. New Orleans is recovering even with the governmental policies that actually cause the rise of

“disaster capitalism” instead of the public good. Writer Roberta Brandes Gratz looks at the most fiercely debated issues and challenges that face New Orleans and these a violent and corrupt prison system, the tragic closing of Charity Hospital, the future of public education, and the rise of gentrification. The stories we read here are not the ones we got in mainstream media. Instead of the usual same old, same old we read of the

strength and resilience of a community that continues to work to rebuild New Orleans and in doing so is revealed what Katrina was not able to and did not destroy: “the vibrant culture, epic history, and unwavering pride of one of the greatest cities in America”.

The book shows us the most shameful machinations of city government. We learn what really was responsible for the closing of the hospital and how neighborhood residents were railroaded.

We also read of citizens who are fighting the problems alone. There has been so many mistakes made and there has been so much neglect and apathy in the city, it is a wonder that anything is getting done but surprisingly it is. I was born and raised in New Orleans and I will always be a New Orleanian regardless of where I live and I have not lived there in many years. It hurts when someone has nasty things to say about New Orleans and the fact that so much went wrong that an American city was almost washed right off the map.

This book is an investigation and reportage of a city in trouble and it is a wonderful tribute to a wonderful city. We read of the ugly, the good and the bad and even though I found some historical mistakes as well as information that has since been contradicted by Congressional testimony, it is still a fascinating read. It would have been that much better if the dates were correct, I love the stories we have not heard before and I love seeing that the citizens really care about bringing the city back, It is just not the place I want to be at this point in my life yet I still love my hometown. It is possible to love a place and not live there. It hurts to see New Orleans today because it does jive with the memories I have.

We really have had so much written about Katrina that I am not sure that we need any more but in the case of this book, it provides what others have been not so fortunate in doing. Gratz writes about education, healthcare, urban development and environmental preservation and does so from the voices of the people. She shows us how the people of New Orleans are rebuilding their city. Those New Orleanians who are saving their city while big money and bad government try to do the opposite.

“LIFE”—James Dean and Photographer Dennis Stock

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“Life”

James Dean and Photographer Dennis Stock

Amos Lassen

“‘Life’ tells the story of photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) who convinced a rebellious young actor on the cusp of stardom, James Dean (Dane DeHaan) to allow him to shoot him for Life Magazine. The men take a trip from LA to Dean’s hometown of Fairmont, Indiana, via Times Square, New York so that Stock could, in his words, capture Dean in all the environments that had “affected and shaped the unique character “.

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‘While Stock thinks he’s capturing a star in the moment before he breaks; in fact, he’s documenting Dean’s last moments of intimacy and simplicity. In the process of their journey, a deep affection and improbable friendship gradually develops between the two young men. Their trip would result in some of the most iconic images of the age and a new breed of film star.’

“Being Conchita” by Conchita Wurst— Meet Thomas Neuwirth

being  conchita

Wurst, Conchita. “Being Conchita”, John Blake Books, 2015.

Meet Thomas Neuwirth

Amos Lassen

Before winning the 2014 Eurovision song contest, with the song ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, Thomas Neuwirth (better known to the world as Conchita Wurst) was an unknown. At the contest, he dressed as woman but kept his beard. His song was about the overt hostility toward gays in Russia and the homophobia of Eastern Europe. As he sang, we realized the importance of what he was doing and it became

a watershed moment for LGBT campaigners. Winning the contest brought community support right across the continent in the gay community and beyond. Now Conchita’s inspirational book will undoubtedly attract that same support and goodwill. It was published to coincide with Eurovision’s sixtieth-anniversary show that will be broadcast from Vienna to an estimated worldwide audience of 200 million fans. If you have seen the contest, you know that it is 95% camp and 100% fun. Here is Conchita’s full story from rural childhood to recording artist, Gaultier Couture model and cultural icon.
The book has already stirred controversy but not about LGBT issues. It seems to be one of those books you either love or hate. One reviewer said that it is “ a really badly written, cliché-riddled piece of fluff, in which you learn absolutely nothing about Tom/Conchita beyond his/her desire for world peace”. Another reviewer said,

“Super, super inspiring! Every word from this book really stood out and sunk in for me! The connection was unreal and I learnt so much more about Conchita as I only knew her from Eurovision! Conchita is so articulate and charismatic just an overall amazing writer! This is a must read”. You will have to read it and judge for yourself.

“THE LESSON”— Mounting Debt

the lesson poster

“The Lesson” (“Urok”)

Mounting Debt

Amos Lassen

As I watched “The Lesson”, I had a hard time wondering whether this film is a comedy or just a dark look at life. Nadya (Margita Gosheva) is an English teacher and translator in rural Bulgaria. She comes from a family with money and social class but Nadya married a well-meaning but incompetent Mladen (Ivan Barnev), a sometime drunk who aims to make money by fixing up and selling an old camper van. When her mother has died, her father remarried but this time to a distinctly unrefined new wife and this resulted in father and daughter becoming estranged.

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When Mladen gets into financial trouble, it is up to Nadya to find a solution, but a series of setbacks keeps causing her plans not to work and she soon is to decide which of her principles she is prepared to sacrifice in order to pay her husband’s debts and keep her home. There are no good solutions since all of them are degrading ones. At the same time, she sees that one of her students has been stealing money from the others and from her and this causes her to build pragmatic strategies for uncovering the thief.

As Nadya, Gosheva gives an intense performance as Nadya. She is on screen throughout the film and it is because of her that and the film’s cutting social critique comes across effectively. Her pacing is wonderful as she deals with her personal troubles and her efforts to solve the school theft mystery.

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We see Nadya’s life as one of unfairness and disappointment. Everything comes to a head when learns that has put his family disastrously in debt to their bank, which is about to foreclose on their house thus forcing Nadya to go a humiliating journey to find a way to save her house and her family.

When she finds the money to pay the bank, a mistake about the amount she owes, of course, and she finds that money, but there’s an extra transaction fee. Then in the middle of this, her car breaks down. We are reminded of just how difficult it is to pay a debt back to a bank, or a phone company, or a credit-card institution. We see not just the threat of losing a home or self-respect, but a more insidious facet of poorness: the relentless uncertainty as to whether another shakedown is coming, in the form of more interest and an endless, self-perpetuating cascade of “convenience fees.” The film shows that poverty is a profound and often irreversible.

Nadya is an average English teacher in an average school and she tries to teach her class of about honesty after one of them has cash taken from another’s purse, making each of them cough up some coins to help the robbed girl and hatching a plan to try to catch the culprit. This was before her own troubles began and then she discovers the truth about her own financial situation. We feel for her immediately.

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She has to choose between begging from her father or facing the anger of the local loan shark (Stefan Denolyubov). She is in position where if something can go wrong, it will. We see Nadya as a woman who tries to keep control and we seem to feel her panic. The tension in the film is quite thick. We also see

That ethical acts are met with punishment and moments of kindness are just fleeting enough to make the next bit of tension feel all the more severe. Nadya beautifully never loses her grip even as her choices being gradually stripped away until the unlikely seems inevitable. Directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov give us a film that some may see is spare but it is actually unsparing in its conclusions.