Monthly Archives: July 2021

“A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard” by Jill Culliner— Jewish Life in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe

Culiner, Jill. “A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard”,Claret Press, 2021.

Jewish Life in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe

Amos Lassen

We really know very little about what Jewish life was like in “the Old Country”. What we do know has come to us in stories and what we have suspected is that it was community driven. There is the possibility that this is simply myth.

We have read that nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Mitnagdim, and religious law dictated every aspect of daily life. We have been told that secular books were forbidden and those with independent thoughts “were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution, and expulsion.”

During the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, there were those who were determined to create “a modern Jew” and begin schools where children could learn science, geography, languages, and history. Here is where we meet Velvel Zbarzher, a rebel who sang his poems to poor workers and craftsmen. Because he condemned the religious stronghold he was banished from his community and became itinerant. By the time he died in Constantinople in 1883, the Haskalah had triumphed and there was the modern Jew. However, modernization and assimilation did not end to anti-Semitism.

Writer Jill Culiner  decided to research Velvel and she searched for him in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania, looking for the houses where he lived, and the bars where he sang. She was also looking for a d way of life in Austria, Turkey, and Canada that was no more. She gives us a look at the times and places of Velvel that is a romantic mystery and a trip through time. We see the shtetl as a vibrant place of life through the eyes of

the unjustly forgotten Hebrew poet and Yiddish melodrama author, Velvel Zbarzher. Beautifully written and a tribute to a man who seems lost to history, I was mesmerized by what I read. Being a rebel is not easy and facing exile makes it that much more difficult. I cannot help but wonder how many others suffered the same fate and are lost to us.

“Cry, Angry Hills: A Novel of the Middle East” by Richard Reese— Two Families


Reese, Richard, “Cry, Angry Hills: A Novel of the Middle East”, Independently Published, 2019.

Two Families

Amos Lassen

“Cry, Angry Hills” by Richard Reese is the story of two families who struggle over one land once belonging to both people. Saul and Rachel Rabinowitz leave Revolutionary Russia to settle in the Hills of Judea to build a new life as Jews and a country for their children. Sheikh Ahmed Fawza is the proud descendant from a fierce warrior that was granted this land some thirteen centuries ago when Islam first swept into Palestine. Sheikh Ahmed will fight for the Judean Hills which belongs to him and is the very heart of the Palestinian nation. When the two patriarchs clash over a dry wadi, the confrontation between them begins a tragic 100 Years’ War which still consumes their descendants.

This is historical fiction novel with a Prologue set in 636 and going on to cover the period from 1917 through 1987, starting in Russian Poland with the pogroms and proceeding into Palestine, through the British Mandate, the Holocaust, World War II, the Partition of Palestine and birth of the State of Israel, wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, the PLO, suicide bombings and attacks, the 1982 Invasion of Lebanon through the academic and political wrangling between Zionists and anti-Zionists.
When the Rabinowitz family arrives in Israel they settle in farmland in the Judean hills, on land claimed by the Fawzas. The conflict over that land is the central theme of the novel, the now existential battle over competing claims whom the land belongs to. Reese avoids demonizing one side and glorify the other.

The novel is multi-layered and complex, like the overarching conflict of to whom these hills belong. The personal stories are interwoven with the religious, cultural, and political issues. It’s well researched with historical accuracy. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are presented as all good or all evil. We read of the internal, factional conflicts within Israel and Palestine as well, ultra-orthodox vs. secular Jews and Israel hating vs. co-existing Palestinians. There are wars within wars and the conflicts carry on throughout all aspects of life.



A Visual Feast

Amos Lassen

 Amjad Abu Alala’s “You Will Die at Twenty” is a visual feat that explores the impact of culture and superstition on the life of a young man in rural Sudan. The sun and the sky’s color establish a sense of place— the small village where Muzamil is born. He is taken by his mother Sakina (Islam Mubarak) as a newborn to be blessed by the local sheikh where one of the dervishes dancing at the ceremony collapses in a fit as he counts to 20. The sheikh leads us to believe the superstition of those present to conclude that Muzamil is doomed to die when he reaches twenty-years-old..

This becomes physically and emotionally restrictive for Muzamil – his father (Talal Afifi) is unable to cope and abandons the family for work abroad, leaving the youngster being bullied as the “son of death” by the local boys.  He is barely allowed to play with them and is kept on a short rein by his mother until the local sheikh persuades her to let him take religious instruction. Muzamil begins a sweet friendship with local girl, Naima (Bunna Khalid) and becomes an expert at reading the Quran, however but there’s an opacity to characters’ motivations which and this is frustrating as the film continues.

It is indeed possible that Sakina’s blind faith might leave her unquestioning as regards Muzamil’s fate, it’s not clear what he, himself, thinks of the situation. A new arrival in town Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj) may spark a sexual awakening but the director never quite manages to marry all the various elements into a satisfying whole.

Abu Alala forgets the need to bring the story together and this becomes a film about potential, both that of its young protagonist and of the director. The fear of death has always been what defines much of the human condition and the film uses that truism to its core. What few have is a unique and visually striking look into the lives of a deeply religious and traditional community in rural Sudan.

Muzamil is a passive character who does what he’s told and obeys religious edicts. Sulaiman’s sacrilegious antics (like drinking alcohol) directly challenge the teen’s mindset and remind him that there is more to life than worrying over what cannot be controlled.

There is universal relevance here. In an age where it’s easy to become cynical, the film emphasizes the futility of succumbing to despair. Religion can be a powerful tool to uplift the human spirit, but it can also stifle it and lead one to become a victim of nihilistic fatalism. It’s fascinating to see Muzamil realize this as the film edges toward its conclusion and the fear of death suddenly becomes an expectation of death. His entire worldview is suddenly upended and he wants to run away.

Amjad Abu Alala captures the breadth of village life in central Sudan with authenticity and respectfully. Here is a deep window into a culture that we do not see in mainstream cinema.

“When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky” by Margaret Verble— A Century-Old Mystery

Verble, Margaret. “When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky”, Mariner Books, 2021.

A Century-Old Mystery

Amos Lassen

Margaret Verble’s “When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky”is set in 1926 Nashville and follows a death-defying young Cherokee horse-diver who, with her companions from the Glendale Park Zoo, is determined get to the bottom of a mystery that has continued for centuries. 
Two Feathers is a young Cherokee horse-diver on loan to Glendale Park Zoo from a Wild West show and she is determined to find her own way in the world. Her closest friend at Glendale is Hank Crawford, who loves horses like she does and is from f a high-achieving, land-owning Black family. Neither Two nor Hank seem to have places in the segregated society of  Nashville at the time.

Disaster comes during one of Two’s shows and strange things start to happen at the park. Vestiges of the ancient past surface, apparitions appear, and then the hippopotamus  becomes  ill. Just at the same time, Two is avoiding admirer and becomes close to Clive, Glendale’s zookeeper and a World War I veteran, who is haunted by terrible memories of war. To get to the bottom of it, a group of park performers, employees, and wealthy stakeholders come together in this beautifully written story of  unexpected friendship.

Two Feathers’ act involves diving into a pool while riding on the back of a horse. She enjoys the spotlight and knows her way around a crowd. She is not very vocal and the concentration is on what she thinks and feels and not what she says. The story is character-driven but it takes a while to realize that.  

The history and underlying theme of how different races are/have been treated is  what makes this such a fascinating read. We see the importance of learning from the past and not repeating mistakes and looking at other cultures with an open mind. There are several story lines so, at times, it is a bit difficult to keep them straight but once past that, mostly everything falls into place. If you like historical fiction, this is a book for you.

“THE REAL THING”— The Wrong Relationships


The Wrong Relationships

Amos Lassen

 “The Real Thing,”  is a 232-minute Japanese drama about an idealistic and self-destructive young man who obsesses over all the wrong relationships. Tsuji’a (Win Morisaki) love for the mysterious and disastrously messy Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura) is a problem he deals with because since it affects his other romances with co-worker Minako (Akari Fukunaga) and Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi).

Tsuji is sometimes warned and also sometimes thinks about what will happen if he continues to pursue Ukiyo, a timid, unstable woman who is often in debt, homeless, and suicidal. His story is a moral tale.  Ukiyo is more of a human-shaped bad luck charm than she is a person whose charm forces men to help her.  Her long-suffering husband confirms the low opinions of her. 

Tsuji cleans up after Ukiyo and yearns for a relationship with her that she’s either not ready or capable of. Tsuji and his lovers hold onto each other despite themselves, because of the way the world is. Financial insecurity rules everything around Tsuji, even the way he and many others talk about love and characters go through the results of bad decisions, abandoning and supporting each other. They accuse each other of being obviously cruel and manipulative. 

Tsuji’s sometimes shown to be the same kind of stubborn at work and at home. He goes out of his way to test and report on his company’s products and starts a group project to pick up the slack for an unproductive colleague. 

Tsuji’s actions are generally treated like circumstantial evidence with which we must judge him. Is he acting out of self-interest, or can he genuinely not help himself? Is he in love with Ukiyo, or just the idea  of saving her? Is any of this meaningful?

At first, Tsuji is relatively comfortable with his salaryman job and his no-commitments relationship with his co-worker Naoko. Then one night in a convenience store, he meets Ukiyo who is consumed with chaos. Shortly after, he saves her life when her rental car stalls in a train crossing. This becomes a pattern as he saves her from many crises, some minor others very significant and involving her lack of money.

We have sympathy for poor, wild Ukiyo whose character seems rather inscrutable and exhausting but she manages to get us to feel for her. This is a long film but it is nice to really get  to know characters.

Director Kôji Fukada uses structural quirks to drive the audience to question details that most filmmakers would take as a given. “The Real Thing” is bifurcated, as Tsuji and Ukiyo switch roles. She eventually endures the torment of losing control, as Fukada understands the constant chaos of her early misadventures to be a form of manipulation every bit as evil as Tsuji’s relaxed Tsuji becomes both a mysterious object of pursuit and as the characters grow more life-like, the repetitions of earlier passages become emotinally moving. 

“CHARLATAN”— Fighting Illness


Fighting Illness

Amos Lassen

“Charlatan” is a historic drama from Agnieszka Holland, which is “loosely” inspired by the life of Czech herbalist Jan Mikolásek and is firmly in the impact of constant regime change on individual citizens. Mikolásek (Ivan Trojan) may not have been a charlatan in the medical sense, whatever his opponents may have suggested. We see that saving the lives of many stands in positive relief against his flaws in terms of his personal life and interactions. There are moments when Mikolásek is so casually monstrous, particularly when it comes to his assistant-turned-lover Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) and the wife he has elsewhere. This is mirrored by his work, with his diagnoses being given after he looks at vials of human urine.

Starting near the end of the story, Marek Epstein’s script goes back and forth in time, encompassing Mikolásek’s traumatic experiences of the Second World War  before learning his trade from an elderly woman (Jaroslava Pokorná). Alongside the daily queues of regular citizens that await his treatment, we also see his ministering to everyone from Nazis to Czech president  Antonín Zápotocký, the death of whom is a catalyst for Mikolásek’s enemies to take him before the court on trumped up charges.

Unfortunately, the script, however, shows the stiffness of Mikolásek, so that though the director and stars bring an excitement to the relationship between Palko and his boss (the most fictional element of the plot) causing  the script to fall short showing what lies beneath. The film is amazing in terms of dramatic sweep but on a personal level but it’s frustrating as Mikolásek remains a stubborn enigma to end.

Holland has based her antihero on the historical figure of Mikolasek, and takes us through his epic life and eventual downfall.He tells is that his “life’s mission has been to fight illness with nature’s weapons” and so he diagnoses illness by assessing the state of people’s urine. It seems that he has treated just about everyone for one ailment or other and some patients will cross his path again in fateful ways.

 Mikolasek came to nature’s healing powers from an early age, he apprenticed with a local woman who was considered to be s a witch by villagers. He endures the First World War and flirts with Nazi collaboration in order to survive the Second. Suspicion and envy are everywhere around him. The postwar communist regime finally brings him down as does his forbidden affair with his handsome, married, and much younger assistant is something that Stalinist Czechoslovakia will not accept. 

We sense an air of poetic isolation around Mikolasek by seeing him through frames and prisms, an artful technique but it distances us from a man who already difficult to like. We see him correcting, lecturing, or withholding something from others. For someone who \ lives to heal people, he doesn’t seem to like actual people very much, and it comes as no surprise to see him fall into those who seek revenge. His prideundermines the political point that Holland wants to make about the evils of totalitarian tyranny. We can easily imagine Mikolasek getting in trouble in more open political systems than communism. The film opens up the question of when pride crosses the line between noble pursuit and fatal blind spot.

There is also a sense of inevitability throughout the film. The film also manages to balance war and persecution with homosexual romance and does so beautifully.

“PRAY AWAY”— Ex-Gay Ministries


Ex-Gay Ministries

Amos Lassen

Kristine Stolakis’s feature documentary, “Pray Away” is the story of how so-called reparative therapy has originated in its prominent form within evangelical church groups. It is an attempt to cure one of homosexuality, whether by force of another, or voluntarily. The “ex-gay” graduates of the programs often say they have chosen a new life of normalcy. This is true somewhat, but it isn’t that they have made the choice of sexuality, but that of repression.
We see the supposedly cured “ex-gays” who lead these programs, trying to help others become like them, even if they themselves are still actively repressing their own desires. We hear from the former face of a group called Exodus in which Josh Paullk, who admits that even he never changed, and that he lied that he didn’t still have feelings for men. Since leaving the organization, he says he truly believed had the power of change.

We see voluntary conversion therapy as what it is: a form of self-harm. Whether it comes from societal pressure, religious conviction, or any other fear of one’s same-sex attraction, this is a process of lying to oneself and the world, and treating a part of the self as a form of evil that is incredibly damaging. For some, there is panic, and for others, there is a turn further inwards. Trained self-hatred leaves scars, and these Christian fundamentalist programs are exactly that.

There are four threads in the documentary and one of the most difficult to watch is that of Julie Rodgers, who was held up as the teen ex-lesbian face of the movement after being forced into a reparative program at sixteen. Some parts, like enforced adherence to gender roles (girls must wear makeup, sports are too masculine), come off as almost cartoonish for these programs. But reality sinks in: these are young teenagers are being trained to hate themselves. She says she’ll always remember being a teenager who was told she was a bad kid for having acknowledged who she was, and this is where we see just how much these teachings remain even when those who’ve gone through them have left and denounced them. When we see Julie in the present day after seeing her through archival footage, we watch her prepare for her marriage to a woman, and we see the happiness that comes with freedom and that the effect never quite leaves.

​Instead of beating down the misery, the documentary shows that there has always been a future possible for the subjects who had tried to fix something they were told was wrong with them. We see them happily married, or living as themselves, years after what they had been through, and we can see that future instead of wondering if maybe it could have worked. When we are only shown the misery of conversion, we are led to believe that it is an ending, when it is very much so. We seea painful false path and that there’s always a way back.

In the 1970s, five Evangelical gay men decided to start a bible study dedicated to helping one another leave the homosexuality. Word quickly spread, over 25,000 letters were received, and soon these humble meetups became Exodus International, the largest conversion therapy organization on the planet. As it rose, so too did its leaders even as they slowly began to realize that what they were selling was simply homophobic snake oil. Even if they married the perfect woman and doted on their kids, those same-sex attractions never really went away. Finally, in 2013 they were told to dismantle the movement  and close down the organization and apologize for all the damage it had caused to queer people everywhere. Nonetheless, Exodus International’s destruction has continued.

Director Stolakis brings together a tremendous amount of archival material with current interviews with the movement’s founders (including Randy Thomas, former vice-president of Exodus International (and now the husband of a former “ex-gay”), and John Paulk, who started Love Won Out, the conversion therapy wing of Focus on the Family. (He and his “ex-lesbian” wife Anne, Paulk made the daytime TV circuit until he got drunk at a gay bar in DC and was outed. This brought about an “ex-gay” crisis. He and his wife also divorced in 2013, though she is still a “ex-lesbian”).

Yvette Cantu Schneider, the onetime head of Exodus International’s women’s ministries and “ex-gay” spokesperson for the Evangelical nonprofit Family Research Council has kids and continues to be happily married to a man, now identifies as bisexual. The most shocking is Jeffrey McCall, who considers himself a “formerly transgender”  who is the founder of Freedom March, the nationwide organization, which brings together people across the race and gender spectrum who’ve been divested their queerness. Today, he is often used by the Christian Right to introduce anti-LGBTQ legislation wherever it may pass. He is a new face with the same old self-hate.

The documentary is filled with horror stories and it is difficult to watch. It’s the true story of the many lives that were ruined (some needlessly ended) because of the homophobia of the religious far-right. Exodus used all means of mental torture and diabolically desperate acts to convince young people on the LGBTQ spectrum that they were sinners facing hell and worse.We hear stories of people who had been forced, usually by ultra-religious parents, to go along with this brain-washing. We see the brutality of what they were forced to do and the ignorance of the leaders of the methods they adopted that never had a chance of succeeding.


The Midnight Special was one of the greatest music television shows that was ever done.”
 — Barry White
This 10-Disc Collector’s Set Features More Than 130 Live, Uncut Performances from 1972-1980 – Many of Which Have Never Been Available Before – from the Greatest Soul Singers of the Decade Including James Brown,Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Spinners, The Stylistics, Bill Withers,
Sly & The Family Stone and Many More!
This Incredible Collection Also Includes 18 Bonus Interviews with
Top Soul Stars, a 40-Page Collector’s Book and a Bonus DVD: “The Midnight Special Presents Marvin Gaye In Concert From The Atlantic Stadium,”
a Rare, Historic Live Concert Performance Never Before Available!
The ’70s was a special time for soul music, a decade filled with legendary artists like Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, The Stylistics and so many more. And for home viewers, it was also a boon, as week after week, Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special – television’s very first live music show –made it a point to feature soul artists performing their biggest hits live and uncut in the prime of their careers. While “Soul Train” also featured these acts, only The Midnight Special gave viewers actual live performances instead of lip sync, treating them to virtual front row seats for performances by the most talented soul singers of the time.
Available for the first time at retail, the greatest performances from The Midnight Special featured in one spectacular 10-disc DVD collection:  Burt Sugarman’s THE SOUL OF THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Fans of ‘70s soul will thrill to an unforgettable line-up of legendary soul artists performing their greatest hits uncut and unedited — just straight-from-the-heart singing with live musicians in front of a live audience. And now, Time Life delivers a singular set featuring a collection of more than 130 live, uncut performances from 1972-1980 – many not seen since their original broadcast!
All-time classic soul hits in The Soul of The Midnight Special include love songs like “Betcha by Golly, Wow” by the Stylistics and “You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” by Gladys Knight and The Pips and dance grooves like Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” Ohio Players’ “Fire,” and Chic’s “Good Times.” Also included are chart toppers and fan favorites such as “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays, “Tired of Being Alone” by Al Green, “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” by Spinners, “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “I Want to Take You Higher” by Sly & the Family Stone, “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire, “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” by Natalie Cole, “Just to Be Close to You” by Commodores, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” by Lou Rawls, “Special Lady” by Ray, Goodman & Brown, and “Something He Can Feel” by Aretha Franklin.
In addition, Time Life is including a bonus DVD featuring “The Midnight Special Presents Marvin Gaye In Concert From The Atlantic Stadium,” a rare, historic live concert performance filmed exclusively for The Midnight Special in 1974 and available for the very first time anywhere. Also included in this completist’s set are 18 Bonus Interviews with top soul stars including The O’Jays, Gladys Knight, Bobby Womack, Patti LaBelle, George Benson, James Brown, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, Quincy Jones and more, along with a collectible 40-page book, jam-packed with archival photos and stories about the stars.
About Time Life
Time Life is one of the world’s pre-eminent creators and direct marketers of unique music and video/DVD products, specializing in distinctive multi-media collections that evoke memories of yesterday, capture the spirit of today, and can be enjoyed for a lifetime. TIME LIFE and the TIME LIFE logo are registered trademarks of Time Warner Inc. and affiliated companies used under license by Direct Holdings Americas Inc., which is not affiliated with Time Warner Inc. or Time Inc.

“HERE COMES YOUR MAN”— A Simple Grinder Hookup


A Simple Grinder Hookup

Amos Lassen

A simple Grindr hookup becomes an unlikely romance between two young men in “Here Comes Your Man”. Jordan turns up at Aaron’s place and the two handsome men see each other for the first time. At first it was awkward but a margarita puts both men at ease, and we realize that this might not be a usual one night stand. Changing one night in to forever is not easy and we are with Jordan and Aaron as they discover this.

Omar Salas Zamora’s film was originally released in the United States as a mini webseries that follows the ups and downs of a relationship that begins as a casual hookup, and gradually becomes tortured.

Aaron (Jason Alan Clark), gets ready to meet Jordan (Calvin Picou) and as the two get it on, it becomes clear Jordan has never been with a gay man before. The nervousness of this encounter feels real. As the duo laugh off the awkwardness, they become more emotionally intimate.

Unfortunately, Aaron and Jordan have no chemistry in the rest of the film and the script depends too much on surprise revelations – such as Aaron being HIV positive, or Jordan’s heterosexual past that just awkwardly fit into the story.



Behind the Scenes

Amos Lassen

“Black Magic Live: stripped” takes us on atrip behind the scenes of Las Vegas’ only Black male revue show and the often complicated lives of its male strippers. We see it through the eyes of its owners, Eurika Pratts and Jean Claude LaMarre and explore the challenges the Black Magic Live show and its core group of dancers and what they have experienced during their 4 years on the Las Vegas Strip. As they tried to establish their presence in Vegas, the all-black show and its dancers and staff have had to deal with racial prejudice, strong competition and emotional pitfalls. Allen “LoverBoy” Hayward who at 46 years old is the most senior dancer in Black Magic Live and he realizes  that his time may be coming to an end, as he has aged out of the dance scene and that he must make room for the younger guys who will soon take his place. Jetorious “KIng” Morris is 26 and a former NFL prospect, who suffered a career-ending injury and discovered stripping as a fallback career. Jimmy “Lockz” Sigmond is a Vegas transplant from Los Angeles, who has served 7 years in prison before becoming a Black Magic Live Dancer.