Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“Once More With Chutzpah” by Haley Nell— Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Nell, Haley. “Once More with Chutzpah”,Bloomsbury, 2022.

Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Haley Nell’s “Once More With Chutzpah” is a beautiful story about a young girl dealing with issues of  her Jewish identity, mental health struggles, and sexuality while on a trip to Israel. You would not think that a sentence such as this would awaken anti-Semites, homophobes and anti-Zionists to decry this book even before it’s official publication. I was shocked by what so many had to say about it even though they have yet to see a copy and to understand what it really has to say. I received my copy last week and after reading it went to look at the book’s page on Goodreads where I found excessive hate and complete misunderstanding of what this book is about. We immediately become aware of the lack of knowledge about the Middle East and the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict. Yet these people see fit to write about it as parts of book reviews of a something they have not even read. Politics witch once brought us together is now tearing us part and it is so sad that this is based on such ignorance and hate. Perhaps if these same “reviewers” read this with open hearts and minds, they would see how really wrong they are. It is even more astounding that Goodreads allowed these diatribes to be posted especially since they do not even reference the book. Do NOT let them deprive you of a wonderful reading experience

High school senior Tally and her twin brother Max embark upon an exchange trip to Israel during winter break. Tally hopes that the trip will be good for Max who is still struggling from a car crash that injured him and killed the driver. Tally always planned that they would go to college and begin good lives and is worried that her brother will change their plans.

As they and their group travel across Israel, Tally realizes her plan might not be working, and that Max is not the only one with a lot on his mind. When a new relationship gets complicated in the face of her own anxiety-about her future, her sexual and romantic identity, and her place within the Jewish diaspora, Tally struggles with both  the past, but also with what life will be like when they get back home. On the brink of adulthood, Max and Tally face the pressures of identity and we do so as well.

“White Smoke” by Itamar S.N.— Love, History, Hope, Politics and Human Rights

S.N., Itamar. “White Smoke”,Independently Published, 2021.

Love, History, Hope, Politics and Human Rights

Amos Lassen

Many of you know that I have been an activist for the LGBTQ community in Israel for many years and I devour anything I can read on the subject. I was so glad when Itamar S.N. contacted me about his new book and I immediately sat down to read it.

Yonatan, a bisexual left-wing activist meets Meir, a shy High-Tech entrepreneur and falls in love for the first time. The two marry and adopt twins. Amal, a Palestinian girl the victim of a family honor acid attack comes into their lives and the love story builds. While there were good feelings about peace between Israeli and Palestinian, it soon becomes quite dim when forces put the family’s and the State of Israel at risk.

This is such an important book for me in that it combines two important aspects of my like—-my love for Israel and my LGBTQ identity. Writer Itamar S. N. brings the two together beautifully and powerfully; so much so that I read “White Smoke” in one sitting. As I read the word “hope” stayed in my mind continuously.

“White Smoke” is a dramatic love story that uses important themes and prosaic skill to show us the importance of life and love. Before Yonatan met Meir he had never been in love and we quickly see how the life of the playboy political activist changes when love comes in. When the two men bring  Amal, a Palestinian girl who was the victim of a family honor acid attack into their family, their love grows even more and in fact we see a union between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, as we have all see too well, this does not last and forces not only threaten to destroy the happiness of the family but the State of Israel as well.

Early on we meet Amal as she suffers from having been attacked and filled with pain and thoughts about what she had been through. Upon understanding that her recovery would be lengthy, she became upset and questioned remaining alive.  Her pain was as mental as it was physical.

Meanwhile Yonatan does whatever he can to ire his father, the right-wing Prime Minister of Israel. He becomes the founder of Isratine – a democratic union of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and meets Meir. Their love for each other grows quickly even though the hope for peace between Israel and Palestine loses steam.  Israeli and Arab anti-liberal forces place democracy in danger and threatening the life of the family that the two men have created. There are mistakes on both sides. Writer Itamar S.N. uses the family as a way to look at human rights and we see this through life in modern Tel Aviv.

This is a book that will stay with the reader long after the covers are closed and has us looking at who we are and what hope and love are all about. I find it extremely difficult tout my words on paper as I am so struck by what I read here. More important than anything else is the look at what humanity can be.

 

“Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection” by Sam Apple— An Important but Hated Man

Apple, Sam. “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection”,  Liveright, 2021.

An Important Yet Hated Man

Amos Lassen

Sam Apple brings us the extraordinary story of the Nazi-era scientific genius, Otto Warburg,who discovered how cancer cells eat.Warburg, a Nobel Prize winner was a cousin of the famous finance Warburg’s and was widely regarded in his day as one of the most important biochemists of the twentieth century. His research was integral to the understanding of cancer. He was also among the most hated people in Nazi Germany. He was a Jewish homosexual living openly with his male partner and representing all that the Third Reich despised. Yet Hitler and his top advisors dreaded cancer, and protected Warburg in the hope that he would be able to cure it.

We see Warburg here as a forgotten, morally compromised genius who pursued cancer single-mindedly even as Europe was falling apart around him. While the vast majority of Jewish scientists fled Germany before World War II, Warburg remained in Berlin, working under the Nazi dictatorship. He awoke everyday in an elegant, antiques-filled home and rode horses with his partner, Jacob Heiss, before conducting research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

Apple shows that Hitler and other Nazi leaders were deeply troubled by cancer rates across the Western world and they saw cancer as an existential threat similar to Judaism or homosexuality. They also saw Jewish and homosexual Warburg as Germany’s best chance of survival. We follow him as he finds  his central belief that cancer is a problem of metabolism. Though Warburg’s metabolic approach to cancer was considered groundbreaking, his work was soon eclipsed in the early postwar era, after the discovery of the structure of DNA set off a search for the genetic origins of cancer.

Now, Warburg’s theory returned to us as scientists have begun to investigate the dangers of sugar and the link between obesity and cancer and finding that the way we eat can influence how cancer cells take up nutrients and grow. Apple shows how Warburg’s work may hold the secret to why cancer became so common in the modern world and how we can reverse it

Warburg’s story is one of scientific discovery, personal peril, and the race to end a disastrous disease,  Bringing together science and history, Sam Apple educated us about cells, disease, and diet while telling a fascinating story. Through balanced and clear prose. We get a story that stuns us and keeps us turning pages.

We see what Warburg was like and get a taste of his nerve reading about his sending away a Nazi official who came to ask for his papers proving his Aryan descent. Warburg refused to meet with him because the official arrived at unshaven and smelled badly.  

 

While Warburg’s science is central to a revolution in thinking about cancer as a metabolic disease, Apple gives us a man who in all his brilliant, bizarre complexity was on the road to changing science. Here was a cell biologist who could not stand his fellow humans but devoted himself to saving them from cancer. Apple’s understanding of Warburg’s life and scientific legacy is perceptive and his biology lessons are a pleasure to read as is his history of the connections between Hitler and Germany’s early cancer research.

“There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Jewish Anarchists” by Cindy Milstein— Renewing Jewish Anarchism

Milstein, Cindy. “There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Jewish Anarchists”, AK, 2021.

Renewing Jewish Anarchism

Amos Lassen

Cindy Milstein’s “There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart” speaks to those of us who are unhappy with systemic violence and injustice. We have begun to see contemporary renewal of Jewish anarchism  that comes out of a history of suffering (that comes out of enslavement and displacement, white nationalism and genocide). It is also drawn out ancestral resistance, strength, imagination, and humor–all qualities, and wisdom, sorely needed today. The book is a collection of essays of which many are written from feminist and queer perspectives that look at both past and contemporary trauma “in ways that are humanizing and healing.” We see how to move from grief to joy. By seeing how Jewish anarchists have created, with love, their own ritual, cultural, and political practices, we are able to find ways to repair the world and ourselves.

The collection is diverse and gorgeous and dares to say what so many of us feel.  We learn about Jewish culture and history and how anarchist, radical, LGBTQ, Jews have made them their own. We read about the struggles people have while dealing with oppression and/or privilege and finding understanding and acceptance. We see how to create community and develop organizing practices for world and self-repair. We have not had much to read that bringsQueer solidarity and Jewish community as a source for liberation. The history of Jewish anti-fascist resistance organized by Jewish women and other LGBTQ people is been in the closet for years. I was not really fond of the anti-Israeli-Zionist and pro-Palestinian liberation aspects of the book since I am a very active gay pro-Israel Zionist but I can see how some feel that the conversation is dominated by right wing, Zionist Jews.  We also see that the power of radical left Jewish community is impressive. I am not here to criticize the feelings of the writers but to look at the book as a whole and I do not have to agree with what is included even though it goes against what I believe. What is important is that this is a book that we need to read and understand.

 

 

“Jew-ish: A Cookbook: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch” by Jake Cohen— More Than a Jewish Cookbook for Today

Cohen, Jake. “Jew-ish: A Cookbook: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch”,Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.

More Than a Jewish Cookbook for Today

Amos Lassen

In “Jew-ish: A Cookbook”, Jake Cohen gives us a modern take “on Jewish culinary traditions for a new generation of readers, from a bright new star in the culinary world.” These are not the typical recipes for  chicken soup, challah, kugel, etc. but something much more. Cohen

reinvents the food from his Ashkenazi heritage and uses the influence and inspiration from his husband’s Persian-Iraqi traditions to give us new modern recipes. Some of these are roasted tomato brisket, Iraqi beet Kubbeh soup and Matzo Tiramisu. We don’t just get recipes as Cohen brings us his own history with the dishes he teaches us to prepare. This is also a love story that brings cultures together and celebrates identity. We also learn how to create a community. Cohen says that this is “a queer love story all about me and my husband” that looks “at a queer Jewish relationship through food.”

As he and his husband built their relationship, they wanted to make sure that being Jewish was out of the closet. He adds that his book comes out of his own experience as well as his husband’s Sephardic (Spanish and Middle Eastern Jewish) identity.

 

“The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams” by Jonathan Ned Katz— A Journey

Katz, Jonathan Ned. “The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams”, Chicago Review Press, 2021.

A Journey

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Ned Katz’s. “The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams” is the story of Eve Adams a rebel who was born Chawa Zloczewer to a Jewish family in Poland. She emigrated to the United States in 191, took a new name, became friendly anarchists, sold radical publications, and ran lesbian-and-gay-friendly speakeasies in Chicago and New York. In 1925, Adams risked all to write and published a book named “Lesbian Love”. It was a repressive time, long before the gay liberation movement— a time when American women had just gained the right to vote, Adams’s activism was seen by the young J. Edgar Hoover and the US Bureau of Investigation, and she underwent surveillance and arrest. The case put immigration officials, the New York City police, and a biased informer against her and she was convicted of publishing an obscene book and of attempted sex with a policewoman  who had been sent to entrap her. Adams went to jail and then was deported back to Europe, and murdered by Nazis in Auschwitz. Through startling evidence that distinguishes fact from fiction, Katz gives us the first biography of Adams.

 Adams has been hidden from both LGBT and Jewish history. This is the story of a poor immigrant from Poland, became a lesbian bar owner, bon vivant, activist, and early writer of queer culture. Through her life we see radical working-class bohemians in New York and Chicago in the early twentieth century. Her persecution shows the ways social conservatives, anti-Semites, and anti-immigrant forces came together and conspired to rid the country of those who were considered to be “undesirables” and the consequences of this were tragic. We gain powerful lessons about how we live today.

 Katz’s research is amazing and it gives this lesbian pioneer her proper place in American LGBTQ history. This book finally makes  “Lesbian Love”,  the  1925 book available to us for the first time since it was censored for obscenity and used as a pretext to have her deported.

“Men I’ve Never Been” by Michael Sadowski— A Memoir

Sadowski, Michael. “Men I’ve Never Been”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2021.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

It has been a long time that I have read anything personal by Michael Sadowski aside from his Facebook posts, so when I heard he had a new book it was like connecting with an old friend. As a younger Jewish gay male, I was influenced and inspired by his writing and now as an older Jewish gay male I was ready to be inspired once again. This time Sadowski blew me again with his honest memoir in which he shares his quest for identity and his sexual identity and this is probably because so much his journey resembled my own. As kids, we are taught to be who we are supposed to me and while this is never fully explained to use, we are to find out what it means. Sadowski explores that road to manhood and adulthood by taking us into different stages of his life and shows us the different images that he was exposed to. Not quite understanding what is expected of him, he retreats into quietude while functioning in his world but hiding his feelings. The past weighs heavily on him and he strives to find out who he is and to comply to what is expected of him.

He faces challenges yet he manages to find love, purpose, and self-regard. He comes to understand his identity and his place within his family and meditates on the power of real human connection. He eventually is able to deal with what he experienced through his and troubled upbringing, his alcoholic father and the traumas that toxic masculinity brought into his life. He doffs the false selves that he created to get along in the world and understands what he had to do to maintain them.

Sadowski is a wonderful narrator who takes us into his life in beautiful detail and even though we may not know him personally, we feel we do when we close the covers of the book. I felt I had made a friend who will be with me for a long time and even though the read is finished, what I read is not.

“The Official Jewfro Genius Haggadah Shel Pesach” by Joshua Marcus— It’s That Time of Year Again

Marcus, Joshua. “The Official Jewfro Genius Haggadah Shel Pesach”, Independently Published, 2021.

It’s That Time of Year Again

Amos Lassen

TheJewish festival of Pesach traditionally celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and it is a time when families participate in a Seder together. This somewhat formal meal has two main requirements: speak about the Exodus from Egypt and ask questions. There is usually tension between the questions the characters were supposed to ask and the questions that are asked as we answer those who are often considered to be outsiders.  The story of the Exodus, as well as the way it is recounted in the Haggadah sets out a vision for what the God of Orthodox Judaism wants both from and for His people. When you’re gay or queer or simply questioning the meaning of your own life, this vision does not work. This Haggadah is Joshua Marcus’s own and  follows the fourteen stages of the traditional Seder. It consists mainly of stories about certain characters that relate to each stage, exploring the concepts of freedom, liberation, and purpose. For those with Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, it is extremely relevant as the themes are universal. “We were all raised in one system or another, into which some people seem to fit naturally while others are forced to either compromise or find a safe way out”. Even if you have never had to struggle with your identity in this system, no person is born with ready-made beliefs or practices and each of us has questioned this. The contents of this Haggadah challenges traditional Jewish and religious thought, but it is not meant to be an academic or intellectual document. It is all story that reflects on characters and experiences that are real, resonate regardless of where we stand in relation to religion.

 

 

 

“Yiddish Feygele Journal: Joyful and Gay Dot-Grid Notebook for All You Jewish Queers!,” by Jewish Chai Life— A Special Notebook

Chai Life, Jewish. “Yiddish Feygele Journal: Joyful and Gay Dot-Grid Notebook for All You Jewish Queers!,”  Independently Published, 2020..

A Special Notebook

Amos Lassen

I found this delightful notebook while browsing what is new in Jewish and queer books. It showcases important Jewish values and traditions, as well as well-loved phrases and humor. The cover shows the Yiddish phrase “Feygele”  which means “a birdie” in Yiddish. It’s also a word that was once used to call gay men and like the word “queer” has been reclaimed by many. It features unique cover art celebrating LGBTQ Jews and is perfect for journaling, drawing, writing a diary, doodling, making to-do lists, and more.

 

“The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” by Rachel Sharona Lewis— A New Kind of Rabbi

Lewis, Rachel Sharona. “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire”, Ladiesladies Press, 2021.

A New Kind of Rabbi

Amos Lassen

One of my favorite things about being a reviewer is reading new talent. Rachie Lewis is not new to me as a person but she is as a writer and I had no idea what to expect from her first outing into literature. I knew her as a social activist in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities Boston as an activist so I was not surprised to see that she included activism into her story but I was delightfully surprised by the quality of her writing— so much so, that I read “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” in one sitting. I read a lot of books with Jewish/LBGTQ themes and have noticed that they use this motif as happenstance whereas here it is an integral part of the test and it is extremely well done. I have lived through fascinating times as a member of this community and have watched it change and it is so good to have a book about a rabbi who is both a lesbian and Jewish. (I can just see myself explaining the premise of the book to my observant parents who would immediately have something negative to say).

Rabbi Vivian Green is the head of Congregation Beth Abraham in Providence where they feel that their new rabbi should “sing some songs and go to an environmental rally.” She, however, sees things differently  and wants the membership to become involved with what is happening around them. This, to her, means getting involved in the special election for mayor of the city, to attend interfaith breakfasts with their city-special mayoral elections, interfaith breakfasts, fight for affordable housing and become people who really care and act on how they feel about the larger world in which they live. Then there is the rabbi’s social side when she “would like just one night off to go dancing in the leather boots that make her look like her finest gay self.” The new Judaism has arrived and for Beth Abraham it has done so with Rabbi Green.

Things do not go smoothly and the temple is set on fire bringing about that old division in the congregation. But then they learn that there were other fires in town as well. The rabbi is not willing to let go causing tensions to flair between  her and her boss, the community and a mysterious person who wields a lot of power. The case becomes more than just knowing who committed the crime.

The idea of a rabbi who is also something of a detective is not new. In fact, I have read similar novels with some of the same trademarks of a mystery novel. What is new is the way writer Lewis handles her story. She writes from a different perspective as she attempts to solve the crime as she takes us behind the scenes of the temple’s inner workings.

Today’s issues of solidarity with communities of color, changing wealth from power and the rabbi who is new on the scene provides a fascinating read and also has us questioning ourselves as if we are actually part of the situation. I think the major plus of the book is its relevance to our lives in terms of modern Judaism— a move away from the old-fashioned emphasis on learning and the new emphasis on doing. We really see how much the religion has progressed.  We do need read about study and intense prayer but rather about making a difference. The characters are Jews like us who care about community and justice in our world and not about a world that is far removed from us. I certainly hope that this is the beginning of a new series and that Lewis has plans to continue. She is off to a great start.