Archive for category Judaica

“Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland”–facing fate

Browning, Christopher R., Hollander, Richard S. and Tec, Nechama, editors. “Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland”, Cambridge, 2007.

Facing Fate

Amos Lassen

The Holocaust has held a major place in literature perhaps because even though it is hard to believe that it ever happened, there is something about the human mind that seems to compel us to learn more about it. As years pass now, there will be fewer accounts of first hand material as the last of the survivors leave this world. Cambridge University Press has issued an amazing book of letters translated from the Polish—those of the Hollander family who managed to live through the ordeal. When his parents were killed in 1986 in an automobile accident, Richard Hollander found letters from members of his family that he never knew. The letters were in his parents’ attic and they were all written from Cracow, Poland during the period between 1939 and 1941. They had been written by his paternal grandmother and other members of his family and were stacked in a briefcase. These letters now become a part of the history of the darkest age in the history of humankind and shed light on daily life under the Nazi yoke and show the pain and stress that Hollander’s family endured. It was hard for me to read these letters and even harder to understand how the world allowed something like the Holocaust to happen.  One of the reasons that this book is so important is that this period of time in Poland has little documentation because most of the accounts that we have are those written by members of the Nazi party and not by those who were directly affected by the Nazis. Ninety percent of the Jews of Poland were destroyed as well as the letters, diaries, papers and official records of the Jewish communities.

The letters that Hollander found are especially important because they are almost a complete collection and through them we can see how things changed during the period and they were written by nine different people who give us three different generational views and we can different perspectives on the period.

Many ask why we want to read about such a depressing topic. It is so important that we learn about inhumanity in order to understand history. Had it not been for the Holocaust, history would have been very different and as horrible a period that it was, there were some positive outcomes because of it.

What I found to be so interesting to me was how the letter writers managed to remain a loving family but then again they had not much else, The love that the members of the family felt for one another come through in the letters and they were very careful to write about what has now become some very important historical aspects. Even more interesting is that Richard Hollander’s father, Joseph Hollander, was fighting the government of the United States to avoid deportation and thereby almost certain death. Joseph Hollander was able to save the lives of many Jews from Poland but could not do so for members of his own family.

More than just the letters are here; there are also extensive comments which tie the letters together. This book is an incredible addition to Holocaust literature but as I stated previously it is not an easy read. The letters are filled with so much loves (and fear) that I found it hard to keep my eyes dry as I read. How much better off we would be today if we had had the chance to have the actual Hollanders with us instead of just their letters.

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“City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa”– living together

LeBon, Adam. “City of Oranges”. W.W. Norton, 2007.

Living Together

Amos Lassen

Some of the most memorable experiences of my life took place in the city of Jaffa, Israel. It is a fascinating place occupying its own little area outside of the thriving metropolis of Tel Aviv. Jaffa sits as a city within a city much like the French Quarter of New Orleans, Jaffa has great restaurants, art galleries, shops and a port but above all, it is a historical site. The streets are narrow as they have always been and the people are a mix of Arabs and Jews, also just as it always been in Jaffa.

Adam LeBon’s “City of Oranges” is a balanced look at the history of modern Jaffa and the birth of the State of Israel. LeBon looks at the lives of six families and by doing so makes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict more personal.

Jaffa is a city of layers of people, events and times, of Arabs and Jews living peacefully together, sharing lives and experiences.  LeBon looks at the history of Jaffa by looking at Jewish, Christian and Moslem families to show that the struggle in the Middle East is a human struggle. It is the story of longing for a homeland and fortunes that changed and also the history of a multi-ethnic city that was changed by what was happening in the area. LeBon emphasizes the needs of the Jewish people to have a state and shows the tragic consequences this has caused for Arab neighbors. He names neither villains nor heroes but shows us people, like you and me, trying to find a way through what is going on. Adam LeBon, celebrates the capacity for endurance as we read about the ways people come to terms with themselves and each other.

The families that LeBon writes about are Christian Arab notables, Muslim aristocracy, Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi refugees from Europe. We see the story of Israel told in a microcosm, the struggle for land and the fight for political supremacy and the Jewish ambivalence to fight with their neighbors. We also see Jew and Arab helping each other through the years.

Many of the aspects of the Israel-Arab conflict are captured here. We see the proletarian Jews of Tel Aviv defeating the rich Arabs of Jaffa with their nationalism and we see how violence separated a community that was once solid. It is extremely poignant to read how refugee Jews were chased out of Arab countries and then lived in the lands that once belonged to Arabs who themselves became refugees when the Jews chased them out.

Throughout the book there is an interweaving of history with what was going on in everyday life. This is an intimate history and to me, at least, I did not feel the author’s biases as I read. He attempts to understand without judgment and this is not an easy task. He looks at one town and from it gives the history of the State of Israel and the catastrophe of Palestinians by using the lives of Jaffa’s Arab and Jewish residents.

LeBon has a wonderful knack for detail and allows individual opinion to be expressed without any type of judgment. Courage and trauma mark the histories of both Arab and Jew and we see clearly that neither side has really listened to the other because as LeBon states “any recognition of each other’s losses is a kind of surrender” in a battle for territory as well as memory.

LeBon does condemn (but does so quietly) the excesses of both sides. He talks about the Israeli occupation and the corruption of the Palestinians, Israeli racism, and Palestinian suicide terrorism. His conclusion is one of compromise and I am sure that because of this, there will be readers who find cause to object.

LeBon has done extensive research especially in the lives of the families—two Christians, two Muslims and two Jewish. It is from his interviews with family members, memoirs and private archives that he is able to give us vivid portraits to show us the narrative of the modern Arab/Jewish and Palestinian/Israeli relations. He brings us into the lives of each generation as we witness both political and social upheaval and urban decay and redevelopment and war and its aftermath. It is through the family members that we see the issues of everyday life in Israel today. The families share so much and still sit on opposite sides of issues that are violently divisive yet they still manage to live together, as friends, in the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East. It is this look at the human lives behind the volatile headlines of the world press that gives us a new look and understanding of an area that is often described as the “powder keg” of the world.

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“Boycott:Stolen Dreams and the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games”–the 18 elite

 

Caraccioli, Tom and Caraccioli, Jerry. “Boycott” Stolen Dreams and the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games”, New Chapter Press, 2008.

The 18 Elite

Amos Lassen

It is almost that time again as we gear up for the Beijing Olympics and I always get hooked on them. In 1980, however, we had another reason to be prepared for Olympic fever and that had to do with the American boycott of the Moscow games. American athletes were not given the chance to compete in the Moscow Olympics and many complained that Americans, as individuals, had the right to make their own decision as to whether or not they would participate.

The Caraccioli twins used excellent research and in-depth interviews to look at the decision that then American President, Jimmy Carter, led the impetus to convince our athletes and the United States Olympic Committee to boycott the Moscow games in 1980.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is what led to that decision and it is the merging of politics and athletics that is the backdrop of this extremely interesting books. The authors discovered the real stories of the eighteen athletes who were scheduled to attend the games and we feel their emotions and their pain yet the main character here is the then vice president of the United States, Walter F. Mondale who gives us an outstanding forward to the book. He explains the position of the administration but that policy just seems to be unfair as we look back 30 years. Here was a group of athletes that had spent much of their lives so that they could participate and that chance was taken from them. The book is about those athletes that missed their chance at Olympic glory. They became political pawns on a political stage and we owe them the respect that they so deserve.

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“The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis”– seeking wisdom

 

Kass, Leon R. “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis”, The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Seeking Wisdom

Amos Lassen

I have been told that those seeking wisdom should start that search in the beginning—with the book of Genesis but to do so within its own context. Some claim that the search for knowledge without G-d is why Eve failed in the Garden of Eden. According to Kass the fall of Adam and Eve was not a fall at all but a rise to humanity. I am not sure I agree because to do so might invalidate the many lessons that are to be learned in the first book of the Old Testament.

Kass undertakes many themes in this book and among them are our relationship to G-d, to our families, to our community, to the environment as well as looking at what the basis is of a life well lived. We live in an age that knowledge increases very, very quickly and we have the means for our own self-destruction. What we lack is basic wisdom, a way to know how to go about acquiring wisdom.

For Biblical exegesis this book is at the top and its strength is that the author looked at all translations and is able to point some of the subtle distinctions in language which indeed can alter a text. He gives competing and intelligent interpretations and he manages to unlock the meaning of some of the scriptures but the problematic ones remain just as problematic.

There is a great deal of information here and Kass presents it in a lucid way. He follows the storylines in a chronological and coherent way and he looks at every verse in a way that provides a greater understanding. He searches for a way of looking at the Bible with no agenda and with no bias but to seek wisdom and truth. Kass says that we should read Genesis skeptically and with faith and thoughtful encouragement and let the text speak for itself. It is thoughtful encouragement that takes us to wisdom. If we do this, we see the Bible for what it really is and the characters for who they really are. There are no superheroes and no demi-gods with infallibility but real people who made both bad and good judgments. Kass gives us a wonderful way to read the book of Genesis and reading his book shows us that all of us can attain wisdom.

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“Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou”– seeking the divine

Moses, Jennifer Anne. “Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou”, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2007. $26.95.

Seeking the Divine

Amos Lassen

My review copy of “Bagels and Grits” just arrived this afternoon as I was waiting for the delivery of furniture for my new place. I sat down with it and before I realized it I had read the entire book and I had the best time. Jennifer Moses is not new to the world of publishing. Articles she writes appear regularly in newspapers and magazines and she is a writer by profession. She is also a mother and volunteers at an AIDS hospice in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and also teaches Hebrew at her synagogue.

If you did not know she was a writer, you could probably tell from her prose which abounds with grace and style combined with a noble wit. Her pages exude charm and you just want to find a way to get to her abode for a Shabbat dinner just so you can sit and chat with her.

Moses writes about having moved from a liberal and affluent neighborhood of Washington, D.C. to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the land of gospel, crawfish and Christianity where everyone seems to be a friend of Jesus. After her move, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and attempt at communion with G-d. In doing so, she finds the differences in culture in this country and she shares them with us.

Moses was raised as an observant Jew in the northeastern United States and G-d is no more than something far away. Upon arriving in the South and the Bible belt, she went through a period of crisis regarding faith while serving as a volunteer at an AIDS hospice. As she writes, Moses takes her back to her past and then to the present and her conflicts that she experiences in the South. The portraits that she gives of her childhood and of her parents is vivid and the picture of the G-d of her mother is just like an oil painting, executed in beautiful detail. That G-d was one who, in her mother’s words, was one “of good works and of giving to the Democratic party”. Her father carried the mantle of Judaism and it is with her father that Moses seeks a relationship with G-d. Even though she was raised as an observant Jew, more or less, her skewed vision of G-d later drove her to seek a communion with her maker.

It is her trip South that is the catalyst for her quest. The people she meets in Baton Rouge seem to be constantly in communion with G-d but in the author’s opinion some of the encounters the people have with the deity are absurd and ridiculous, causing her to recoil in anger. They, of course, add bits of local color to their visions of the divine and this riles her up.

Yet it is these people that take Moses into their world and they take the reader as well. Moses feels both anger and jealousy when she sees and hears about the southerners beliefs and she yearns to “be filled with a faith so buoyant” that it would sweep her past herself, past memory and sorrow and into an eternal embrace with G-d. She finds it increasingly difficult to understand why others have a relationship with G-d and she does not.

Moses acts on this issue and begins to learn Hebrew as the first step. She slowly experiences divine touches as she struggles with skepticism but her faith increases and when she is diagnosed with breast cancer, she understands that her recovery will be a great deal easier because she has taken herself on a spiritual journey. Before she received the diagnosis, se began to see signs of G-d in ways that she can understand and her world begins to change.

Surely by now you are wondering why she went to Baton Rouge in the first place. Her husband tired of his job as a lawyer and took a position as a professor of law at Louisiana State University. The family, herself and her husband and three children, moved there and it was then that her ideas about the Jewish religion began to deepen. It was the evangelical Christians who really made her realize that she needed to find strength in her G-d and this is what the book is all about.

Moses tells a beautiful story of her own life as well as of the life of her family and brings the stories into a larger arena concerning the challenges that modern Judaism faces. Her desire to make sense of and live up to her historical heritage is an exquisite tale of self-discovery and renewal of faith.

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A Note on Reviewing

A Note on Reviewing

Amos Lassen

Now that i have entered a new website, I thought I would share my thoughts on book reviewing and react to several comments I have received. I have been asked several times how I select the books I review. My selections are based on two sources. I have been reviewing for years now so publishers send me review copies. There is also the option that I use that if I see a book that I think looks interesting and I have not received a free review copy, then I buy it and if  it is worthy of a GOOD review, I report on it.

I have also been asked why I never give a bad review or if I do I balance it with good points. My purpose in reviewing is to incre4ase awareness of a larger world. If a book does not deserve a good review, I choose not to write about it. My ultimate purpose is to get people to read and if I write about book that has no redeeming value I defeat my purpose.

The other remark that I have received and I have expected it is “Why am I so “hung up” on the Jewish gay issue. There are several reasons for this but by and large it is because I am Jewish and gay and know what I went through reconciling that. It is not a question of being a Jewish issue, it is a religious issue and I have tried to make my reviews read so that any religion or minority group can be interchanged with the word “Jewish” and what the books that I review say can apply to any situation, any minority, and any religion. I am sure some think, “there he goes again with that Jewish business” and to some degree you are right. Just substitute yourself for the word “Jewish” and I think you will understand what I am trying to say. I have also been awarded a grant to write a book about growing up Jewish and gay in the South so quite naturally I spend a lot of time reading books about the subject. My reviews are an exercise for me to voice my opinion and if you feel they do not apply. Just skip over them.

Books for women? I know I have not written much here but I have finally begun to receive books on the subject, so stay tuned. I have a review I am working on now and hopefully there will be more in the future. In the meantime let me just say keep reading.

I have had one major disappointment. I am in contact with many authors and publishers and when I see raw talent, I will go above and beyond so that people are aware of the author. Recently I met a new vibrant young author, a poet who had just self-published his first book. I felt that people had to get to know him and I pushed that book like I have never done before and quite naturally the writer and I became good friends–or so I thought. I introduced him to many, many writers via facebook and other means. I wrote to people I know and told them that they had to read this book and I even went as far as to name it number one on a list I prepared for Lambda Literary Foundation. Shortly afterward my life hit a crisis with the infamous Amazon affair and I really needed a friend. Where was he? Nary a word from him yet his book continued to climb to the tops of many lists and he did so well that he opened his own press and managed to get a nice group of writers to publish with him. We are were scheduled to have lunch to discuss the rift between us when he decided that he had to go away for the weekend and was never heard from again. His poetry recently appeared in major publications and he won a place on the American Library list for which I nominated him and so on and so on. Am I bitter? I guess I am a bit but I learned that when someone writes a book and wants me to review it, I will but I will never go out of my way again and then get slapped for it. We all have our day and his will come.

On a positive note, I am currently moving over 5000 reviews of GLBT movies and books to this site so be patient. This will be the official archive of my reviews. Thanks for reading.

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“A Hole in the Heart of the World : Being Jewish in Eastern Europe”– Returning Home

Kaufman. Jonathan. “A Hole in the Heart of the World: The Jewish Experience in Eastern Europe After World War II”,  Penguin, 1997.

Returning Home

Amos Lassen

With Holocaust Memorial Day almost here my thoughts turn to that horrible period in the history of my people. At this time of year, almost every year, I find myself wondering “What If”? If Hitler had been accepted to art school would things have been any different for the Jews of Europe? What would have happened if the Jews had been able to fight back? Where are they now? What of the ones who hid and stayed? These are tough questions. Joseph Kaufman concentrates on five families of Jews in Eastern Europe who survived the Holocaust. Among them are a West German cantor and survivor of the concentration camps who crossed to Berlin after the war to be a minister to the Jews who were still there, A prominent Berlin communist Jewish family, a Hungarian rabbi who was dismissed by the leaders of the Communist party, young people from Prague, Warsaw and Budapest who discover their Jewish roots after the war, and a Polish Catholic woman who helped care for the Jews.

Kaufman magically weaves these stories together and gives the reader a touching look at the lives of people who were either impacted or touched by the madness of the Third Reich.

Most of us probably think that after the war there would be few Jews in eastern Europe but we learn that is not true. There has been something of s rebirth of Jewish culture and Kaufman accounts for the Jews who are there and shows how they survived fascism and communism and survived. It is even possible to identify with these people as Kaufman tells us their stories. Some of these courageous people have returned to their motherlands and there are not many left to tell the story. The book keeps interest high and the triumph of these men and women show that the Jewish experience made and kept them whole.

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