July 29, 2014

A month of religious fervor

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 11:07 pm by chavalah

Activists take to twitter to support coexistence and peace.

Activists take to twitter to support coexistence and peace.

It’s been an intense several weeks in the world. With somewhat guilty relief, I went to San Diego Comic-Con on Wednesday and largely ignored current events, except for a few snippets of news programs, with all their violent imagery. Ran into a few Christian protestors with signs about how we should repent and return to Jesus; they always make me miss the Jews, and wuddaya know, today I read an article in Tablet Magazine about a couple of chabadniks who came to set up Shabbat dinner and encourage Jewish attendees to lay teffilin. :p. I’m assuming that they didn’t bring women along, and didn’t reach out to female attendees, but it makes me wonder.

In the US, the month started with the aftermath to the largely controversial Hobby Lobby case in Supreme Court. I wouldn’t go so far to call this “a war on women,” which is too extreme and one-dimensional to be accurate, but it doesn’t sit well with me that my gender can be denied access to healthcare (and it is healthcare–whether an individual choice to avoid pregnancy, or, like me, one is on birth control out of absolute medical necessity,) based on someone else’s beliefs.

As a strong advocate of religion, I’m even more perturbed about what this ruling says about faith. “Religion” is too complex a concept to be defined by it’s dictionary entry, but as a deeply spiritual and cultural person, I reject that it has anything to do with owning a corporation. Religion is a lifelong conversation about the meaning of why we are, coming together with a community with whom you share ancestral and/or spiritual ties. It’s so much deeper, so much more meaningful and important, than to be delegated to topical, secular affairs like workplace protocol. Bestowing corporations, these soulless, industrial entities, with “religious rights” is, frankly, offensive to me.

But it’s sort of the month to be offended, given the horrible turmoil in Israel and Gaza, only to be broken up by the horrible turmoil in Russia and Ukraine. Sadly, it’s a relief to remember how universal violence is, that no one conflict has a patent on it.

Before Comic-Con my stomach was in knots for days, checking in on Facebook to make sure my Israeli friends under the constant rocket fire were holding up ok, and topically keeping up with the news reports, just for a factual account of what was happening. Going into it in depth is largely a futile, finger-pointing gesture. There’s no opinion piece that either my largely pro-Israel Jewish friends and not-so-fond-of-Israel non-Jewish friends have reblogged that I could fully agree with; they were always not holding one side or the other to the complete culpability that it deserved. The only thing I can pray for is a “long-standing” ceasefire similar to those from the past; that’s the only way humanity can possibly “win” this. That being said, maybe I’m too optimistic, but I feel that broader US news-watching audiences have a deeper understanding, this time, of the harrowing role Hamas plays in terrorizing both Israelis and Palestinians. But I can’t be absolutist on this; the world isn’t like that. Both sides, Hamas (and their allies) and the Israeli government play a role in the loss of innocent life; I hold both responsible.

As a Jew, I can never be fully divorced from this issue, not only because of my aspirations for a positively evolving Jewish state, but because antisemites use this conflict to become more violent themselves.. Even in the United States, rioters have beaten pro-Israel advocates and vandalized property, to say nothing of the more vitriolic atmosphere in Europe, particularly France, where Jews are repeatedly assaulted, and synagogues firebombed and barricaded with worshippers inside. I refuse to blame an entire religion or ethnic group for the fear and pain of my people worldwide, but I must stand as witness. I pray that our fear and pain won’t lead to xenophobic tribalism and hatred; that we will continue to strive for global peace.

This is why I believe that true religion is about communities of people. Institutions may gravitate towards blanket paranoia, dogma, damning actions against both others and their own. You look at the institutions in charge, and peace in Israel and Gaza, probably peace anywhere, is likely never possible. But you look at people reaching out to each other, despite any divides…that’s a different story. The picture above comes from the twitter hashtag #JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies.. Sure, some tweeters are still too one-sided and politically absolutist for my tastes, but peace has to start somewhere. Seeing other people as people might lead to understanding a broader worldview, too.

I draw the most inspiration from the families of Naftali Fraenkel and Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who consoled each other after the deaths of their sons. May their memories be a blessing.

June 30, 2014

Game of Thrones: The Behind the Scenes for the Traditional Fantasy Journey

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:55 pm by chavalah

Three years ago on Game of Thrones, Ned Stark was thwarted in his noble attempts to both show mercy to his enemies and stand behind his political convictions. Once he was killed, his son set off to avenge him, only to be murdered himself after a series of personal and political setbacks. The Starks are dead, most fans proclaim, meaning the adult Starks, the ones with the most agency to pull their family back together. With the three adult Starks dead, we are left with the dispossessed children–Sansa, a hostage in King’s Landing; Arya, a fugitive in the Riverlands; and Bran, chasing a prophetic future beyond the bounds of Westeros. (And Rickon, the baby who has hopefully found some sort of safety). Their half brother, Jon Snow, is a man grown, but is bound by oath to a family-less Order.

In my last entry, I talked about how Game of Thrones/ASOIAF relates to real-world social issues. From a different point of view (and thanks to tumblr fandom for this idea,) I can divide the six remaining original POVs from book one into two camps. Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon are viewpoints into the larger story, this impending war between ice and fire. Sansa, Arya and Bran are on more character-driven journeys; to find purpose when the heads of their family, and all those Stark ideals about honor and duty have all but dissipated. It’s undoubtedly my favorite part of this sprawling saga–sticking with the journeys and character development of these kids, who in other fantasy (and more mainstream) novels might just be background characters. With this arrangement, GRRM–and also the show–gives us something new.

I’m tentatively calling this clip my new favorite scene in the series, supplanting Sansa begging Joffrey for Ned’s life. It’s a slight divergence from the book, where Sansa is directly guided by Littlefinger to lie about Lysa’s death, though in her head she justifies it the way she later does on the show; “better to trust the man you know than the strangers you don’t.”

But with the tv medium demanding more external action and Sansa being aged up from her canon counterpart, it’s a change I can buy (helps that Sophie Turner played it off beautifully, too). It’s a development that’s been long in the making for this character, and I mean for longer than season four. Sansa Stark is the type of character who is easily dismissed because she’s not aggressive, and she certainly had no place to be in Joffrey’s court. Like with almost everyone on the show, her life was dictated by powers greater than herself, and in Joffrey’s court, all the king and Queen regent wanted was a receptacle for physical and emotional torture. What she learned there was how best to steel herself against the abuse, so that even in season two, as she seamlessly composed herself after Meryn’s beating, Tyrion remarks “you may survive us yet.”

Season four provided a greater range for the character, largely because outside of King’s Landing, she was able to use her skills in different ways because Littlefinger wanted something far different from her. Under his tutelage, she learned to ask questions of the world around her, and unraveled the mystery of Joffrey’s murder conspirators.

Sansa and Arya were more linked this season than any before, in what i dub the subplot of The Stark Sisters Under the Tutelage of Questionable Men. The Hound teaches Arya to be unquestioningly self-serving and nihilistic in the face of a cruel world (a simplistic viewpoint that I don’t buy, but rings very true for the characters,) and Littlefinger teaches Sansa how to manipulate people for her own ends. Both girls end up surpassing the teacher in the end, with Sansa one-upping Littleginger in her testimony (though it’s worth noting that canon Littlefinger likely wouldn’t be so unprepared to explain Lysa’s murder, but then again, even in the books he sometimes slips up around Sansa,) and Arya leaving the Hound to die. In these acts, the girls also expunge the selfless teachings of their father; Sansa lies and connives simply to save her own skin, and Arya forgoes showing mercy to someone who is now helpless.

Each of them also deny new protectors who are more closely aligned with their parents. Arya refuses Brienne, who was her mother’s guard and is now trying to fulfill an oath by keeping the girl safe, and Sansa lies to Lord Royce, a man who grew up with her father, and maaaaaybe would’ve helped her out of honor. In neither case are the girls 100% sure of this new person’s motives, but what they do know is that their parents’ ideology contributed to their own deaths. So the girls adapt, change and survive.

Bran meeting "The Three-Eyed Raven" in "The Children"

Bran meeting “The Three-Eyed Raven” in “The Children”

Bran’s journey is a little more mainstream for fantasy; a boy awakes from a tragedy to a supernatural calling, and goes on a quest for answers. But, from what little more has been written of his story in the books thus far, I don’t see this as a religious parable. Bran isn’t on his way to become a god, or a devil. He’s there to become a part of the esoteric fantastical fabric of this world, and gain, in memory, far more than he lost with his legs. It’s not religious (though characters like Melissandre put their own spin on matters like this,) but it’s deeply spiritual in a high fantasy way. And yet Bran also subverts one fantasy trope by not taking on the mantle that was left to him, as lord/king of Winterfell.

In Game of Thrones/ASOIAF, the question of who rules isn’t really all that important. The Stark rulers (and most others) are all dead. But how their heirs endure, on both realist and fantastical levels, is far more intriguing.

May 25, 2014

Reality vs Fantasy in Game of Thrones

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:08 pm by chavalah

Cersei and Jaime Lannister, as played by Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Cersei and Jaime Lannister, as played by Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

So I had this idea, awhile back, to do a “mid-season check-in” for year 4 of Game of Thrones. Flash forward a little bit, and suddenly we are 3/4ths of the way through. :P But, as this is Memorial Day Weekend, and since there is no new episode tonight, I figure why not now?

This is the first time I’m writing about Game of Thrones in the middle of a season, and about a non-religious topic. The event that first grabbed my attention this year is the event that first grabbed everyone’s attention—(Purple Wedding notwithstanding; I should amend to say, the first controversial event,) wherein Jaime and Cersei Lannister engage in sex at a viewing of their dead son.

In the book, it was not rape. On the show, we found out from those in charge, it was not meant to be rape, but instead a violent, but ultimately consensual, act. It came across to a large chunk of viewers, including myself, as a definite rape—Cersei saying “stop,” and Jaime saying “I don’t care.” It’s a unique controversy when it comes to the show, imho. We book purists like to get our knickers in a twist, sometimes justifiably (I’m just saying, they completely altered the character of Catelyn Stark, and ergo erased a lot of the pertinent themes about being a mother in this patriarchal society,) and sometimes ridiculously (“peachgate” and “only Cat” vs “your sister” come to mind.) But you don’t have to be a book reader to recognize signs of assault. Going by reviews, and how long the issue stayed relevant in pop culture news, the showrunners experienced their first widely acknowledged failure in production.

The strange thing, for me, is how well that scene might have worked as a rape. Fandom will agree or disagree with this point in a multitude of ways, but personally, I found that it fulfilled what rape scenes in serious fiction are meant to fulfill—it informed Cersei’s character, as well as gave the audience a non-titillating example of standard, violent sexism in a patriarchal society. Jaime, IMHO, like most men in longstanding relationships with women, felt entitled to her. “Why must I love a hateful woman?” he lamented, seeing himself as the victim of their relationship before attempting to take back power for himself. In the next episode, Cersei is angry and distant with him. In the one following, she tells another character, Oberyn, who is trying to vouch for the safety of her daughter, that “everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.”

Except for the incident with the not/rape, I always felt like the showrunners and I were on the same page with Cersei, moreso than I was with the book series’ author, in fact. While they made Catelyn into a more one-note character, fretting fruitlessly in the corner when she wasn’t dead set on violent revenge, Cersei became more complicated, more sympathetic as a lonely and abused woman, even as her victimization led to villainous behavior. The scene between Oberyn and Cersei is one of my favorites—I saw clearly that she was genuinely concerned for her daughter, Myrcella, yet she also wanted to use these feelings to sway Oberyn against her wronged brother, Tyrion. A couple of episodes later, Oberyn and Tyrion, in conversation, confirmed this for me. “Making honest feelings do dishonest work is one of her many talents,” Tyrion says. Overall, I think the writing of Cersei, plus Lena Headey’s haunted portrayal, is a triumph in showcasing how Westerosi patriarchy turned her into a victim-come-villain.

Is Game of Thrones/ASOIAF merely an escapist fantasy, with way too many pornos in the former, or is it a series of reflections that are congruent with the real world? This is another controversial issue for fandom; I come down pretty strongly with the latter. Around the time of the controversial rape scene, almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by militants to be sold as slave brides, proving that sexist oppression in patriarchal societies is still alive and well. As Daenerys Targaryen argued with her advisors and new subjects about how to deal with the slavers who crucified 163 children, a condemned murderer’s botched execution has US states rethinking how they administer the controversial death penalty.

And just yesterday, a man in California killed 6 people before shooting himself because he felt entitled to more attention from the opposite sex than he got. Sexism, entitlement and the repercussions of patriarchal society should exist in fiction because they exist in the real world. In Game of Thrones/ASOIAF, Petyr Baelish had his lover poison her husband, and then took steps to start a war that destroyed families, lives and the countryside, all because he felt wronged by society for not “getting his dream girl.” In the last episode, he told said dream girl’s teenage daughter, “in a better world…you might have been my child” before putting the moves on her, too.

Look, I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade if they’d rather see this franchise as escapist fantasy, or more fascinating for it’s mythological worldbuilding and prophecies. There’s more than enough room for all of us in Westeros and Essos. :P But I remain steadfast that the best and most compelling fiction, certainly the type that I would dedicate all of this time and attention to, is supposed to give us a fuller picture of the real world, through characters we can relate to more than we can to names in the news. And in analyzing how they are affected by these issues of prejudice, sexism and patriarchy, hopefully we will have more empathy for the real world, and more of a drive to fix what needs fixing.

I’ll see you again next month at the end of season four. “Game of Thrones” currently airs on HBO Sundays at 9 pm.

April 27, 2014

Niece’s First Passover

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 6:49 pm by chavalah

Seder plate and hagaddah at my family seder

Seder plate and hagaddahs at my family seder

Passover 5774 is now behind us (in EST time, tonight is the 13th day of the Omer,) so time to assess my thoughts. I believe, or at least this has been my experience, that this holiday is the most awkward one for an interfaith/non-religious family, and I happen to come from both. Most of the rest of the important holidays center around the synagogue, so I can basically ignore what my relatives are doing and be enveloped in my shul. But Passover is a family affair, meant to be commemorated around the dinner table. There’s no getting around celebrating, or not celebrating as a unit.

My family seder was less of a seder and more of a Passover-foodie dinner with a seder plate in the middle. I found, and printed out, a six-page Haggadah filled with a few parody songs; after the meal, we skipped around belting a few lyrics here or there, as led by my sister. That was about it. This is probably a good place to extend thanks to friends who invited me to their house for the second night seder, where I could actually take part in some of the ritualistic aspects of the holiday.

The big attraction of the evening was my niece. At five months old, this was her first Passover. As we cooked and prepared, we regaled in our usual activities with her—holding and playing and feeding and being awed by her presence. We also got to FaceTime with our family in Kansas, just before their own seder, and it was a real treat, as some of them had yet to see the baby. I did check out some holiday books from the library, but unfortunately my niece was too fussy for reading.

All in all, I have to believe that her first Passover was a success. As one of the more religiously and culturally inclined Jews of my family, what I want for my niece is to have a sense of comfort and hereditary acknowledgement of Jewish expression. We may not have done a full seder, but I feel comfortable that she will grow up with an annual meal involving matzah, gefilte fish, and my mother’s set up seder plate. She can take it from there.

In broader world news, the day of our seder meal actually coincided with the attacks at the Jewish Community Center and nursing home in Overland Park, near to where some of my family lives. Antisemitism happens all of the time, but for me this one probably hit closest to home. As part of a personal expression of solidarity, I changed my Facebook image for all of Passover to the JCC logo. More importantly, I kept up with reading essays trying to deal with the tragedy; this one is my favorite. It’s good to know the ways in which hatred can’t win, that we will rise up in friendship and camaraderie, and learn to embrace and celebrate our differences.

Chag sameach, and I hope that all of you who celebrated had meaningful experiences with your loved ones.

March 9, 2014

I Do Believe in Neverland on “Once Upon a Time”

Posted in Interfaith, Pop Culture at 12:01 pm by chavalah

Promotional material from the Neverland story arc

Promotional material from the Neverland story arc

The spell isn’t broken yet. Every year, I seem to love ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” more and more.

If you read my update from last year, you know that I loved season two. As I’ve been interacting with more of fandom, I’m surprised by how alone I am here. I mean sure, there were some flaws, most notably the one-dimensional villains of the latter half of the season, Greg and Tamara. They were both killed off at the beginning of season three. Tamara was undoubtedly the worse of the two characters, which was especially annoying since she was the only African American actress on this largely white show. I’m hopeful that Alexandra Metz, who is joining the cast in the role of Rapunzel, will provide a character of more substance.

But beyond the whole debacle of these anti-magic extremists with their zappy tazers, season two was, to me, about family, and particularly the evolving relationships between mothers and daughters (not to mention the fantastic Baelfire reveal, which cemented the “Once” family tree as too crazy for even Jerry Springer to handle. :P But seriously, I think “Manhattan” may still be my favorite episode ever in the series.) The magical component to the show gives it a super special feel as well. It often strips away the logical and scientific buffer, and instead peoples’ emotional connections and beliefs drive the plotty action. I find it a little ironic, perhaps, that I listen to a Christian-centered podcast about “Once” where the hosts often try to quantify and rationalize magic, as though if it worked like this before, it can’t work another way after. To me, “Once” is very much a show about the power of faith.

I feel like much of the fandom has a sense of nostalgia for season one that I just do not share. Sure, for awhile it was fun to meet new fairytale characters and figure out where they fit into the curse’s narrative. But if the showrunners continued in that vein, and if they had left the curse intact, the series would have become convoluted and stagnant. Personally, I’m much more happy with focusing in on our main characters, with occasional trips to the sidelines, but mostly I want to see how they grow and change. There’s been phenomenal character growth thus far, particularly for our “villains,” who may not be so villainous after all.

Season three has so far, without a doubt, been the most compact season of the series. These first 11 episodes have gone largely uninterrupted week to week, and they’ve focused on telling us a complete story about Neverland and Peter Pan. Another strange admission—I’m a fan of Barrie’s original “Peter Pan.” I personally see the story as Wendy-centric, since she is the one who comes to Neverland on the cusp of her womanhood and ultimately leaves again, whereas Peter, perpetually a child, is incapable of change. This is largely turned on it’s head for the show’s adaptation. Wendy is a sideline character and a pawn, and Peter Pan in fact goes through a great many changes. Instead of being a child who never grows up, he’s a man who chooses eternal youth as a justification for his greed and cowardice. He is the villain of this piece. :O And actor Robbie Kay did such a good job of it that I’m having trouble going back to canon. :P Honestly…I’m going to miss that little shit. :P Precocious and driven, his mind games were a lot of fun.

Peter Pan being Rumplestiltskin’s father added such dimension to both characters, and even to their descendants, Nealfire and Henry. “Once” isn’t exactly the show that is applicable to real world issues, but there’s something very genuine in how they deal with family relationships. It is our family relationships that often hold the most power over our lives, to whatever end.  This season also heals a bit of a rupture when it comes to Regina vs Emma about Henry–the two women may not be friends, but they are allies and consider each other to be equal mothers (as does Henry himself, for the first time in the series.  *swoon*)

So tonight, ABC starts airing the final 11 episodes of season three, which, with the promotional hashtag #WickedIsComing, promises to revolve around a certain Wicked Witch of the West. :D One of our principal cast members may be dead, according to the explosive mid-series finale that aired three months ago, but personally I’m not giving up hope yet. I’m not too thrilled with the clichéd “love triangle” between Emma and two dudes (though it is pretty geeky, on a macro level, that Captain Hook is a contender. :P) Personally, I’m far more interested in the continuation of the Mulan and Aurora (acronym “Mulora”) subplot. I’m very grateful that the showrunners assumingly listened to fandom complaints, and decided to diversify the sexual orientation playing field, particularly with a female character who’s in love with another woman. This show has been really dynamic in writing complicated, well-rounded ladies. I look forward to seeing where they go next.

“Once Upon a Time” airs on ABC Sundays at 8 pm.

February 6, 2014

Concerning Victimhood Comparisons

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 6:48 am by chavalah

"12 Years a Slave" movie poster, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor

“12 Years a Slave” movie poster, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor

Admission: I have not yet seen “12 Years A Slave.” It’s an important movie, and I need to. It’s just ever since seeing “Schindler’s List” in the nineties, I’ve needed my own space and time to process a movie with the amount of constant, institutionalized violence that this one promises. I’m waiting for the DVD.

“Schindler’s List” and “12 Years A Slave,” from my admittedly unverified perspective, seems like an apt comparison when it comes to assessing blockbusters about historic, legally-sanctioned persecution against two minority groups. “The Holocaust” and “slavery” are largely seen as the two pinnacle events of brutal, wide-scale xenophobia leveled against Jews and African Americans respectively. (To be very broad about it, and not taking into account other such travesties that both spawned from or created The Big Two, and also other groups persecuted by both.) Sometimes, however, such comparisons feel hurtful.

In the wake of the massive success of “12 Years a Slave” in the box office and awards ceremonies, I’ve seen a lot of commentary about the disproportionate representation of the Holocaust both in US movies and the US history classroom, the latter of which I find baffling. I don’t mean to call anyone out as an antisemite or a liar, just going off of my own experiences. Personally, I find the general US history curriculum for school-age children to be rather weak. What I remember coming away with is mostly keywords—concentration camp, gas chamber, Anne Frank, “jude” star…plantation, whippings, Harriet Tubman, underground railroad. My increased knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the institutionalized nature of the Holocaust, its impact on my people and its place in Jewish and world history came from my mother, my religious/cultural community, survivors and my own research. And I do feel a little slighted by this accusatory comparison, not to discount that slavery is massively under-taught in most US school systems.

There is, no doubt, a disproportionate amount of Holocaust movies in the US mainstream. There seem to be key reasons for this, without resorting to victimization Olympics, some more understandable than others.

One of the big reasons the Holocaust is more accessible than slavery is because it’s still contemporary history. Survivors are still alive to share their stories. There are easily identifiable “antagonists”—leading party members of the Third Reich with their goals and agenda, including the Final Solution and the targeting non-Jewish victims (though this is the most simplistic re-telling of the Holocaust). Also, technology from the 20th and 21st century has been much more effective at recording and preserving Holocaust primary source testimony. (But check out the Library of Congress for access to slave narratives collected in the 1930s.)

A more problematic reason for the seesaw between Holocaust movies and slavery movies in Hollywood is that the former event largely casts the United States in a positive light, whereas the latter is one of our country’s worst and long-lasting human rights offenses in history. If there was one, big reason for the dearth of slavery stories in our cinema, I’d wager it has more to do with discomfort about airing the worst of our communal dirty laundry, rather than “but then we’d be losing out on another Holocaust movie.”

All this being said, I’m an advocate for more slavery movies and less Holocaust ones in the future. Not only for more honest, fair treatment of the African American experience, but for Jews and other Holocaust victims as well. I feel that we’re so over-saturated with Holocaust movies that they’re no longer as accurate a portrayal. When Kate Winslet jokes “I told you to do a Holocaust movie” for easy access to an acting award, then I think we’ve lost perspective. We’ve drained this horrific event of its horror and human empathy.

I’d actually been on the fence about making this post, given the highly sensitive nature of these subjects. But then something happened today on Facebook—an acquaintance invoked “Goodwin’s Law”— a vernacular term meant to stem blithe comparisons between Hitler/Nazis and anyone/thing you happen to dislike—in regards to someone else mentioning, offhand, that people were killed in the Holocaust. The Holocaust has officially lost enough meaning in some public consciousness so as to erase its VICTIMS. That’s pretty terrifying. (Another apt comparison—glib remarks about how any hardship is akin to slavery. Lots of similarities here.)

My main point is that I think it’s hurtful, wrong, and ultimately self-defeating to compete with “victimization” stories. Both of these events have their unique (yet often similar) challenges within US and worldwide consciousness, and both deserve thoughtful and thorough review.

Happy Black History Month. Am hopeful that recent films such as “12 Years A Slave,” “The Butler,” and “Fruitvale Station” will raise awareness and pop culture representation of African American issues. Best of luck to the first in the Academy Awards, airing on March 2!

January 12, 2014

2013: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 6:25 am by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Continuing the trend from last year, I’m chronicling the Jewish news from a country where such news is often overlooked—the home of my father’s family, Italy.

Seems like a quieter year than last, particularly without any big skirmishes in Israel acting as fodder for antisemitism abroad.  Instead, we have our usual antisemitism revolving around neo-Nazism, old Jewish slurs about money, and etc.  Particularly distressing is the reveal that a supposed Italian “Schindler” figure may not have been so benevolent after all.

But it’s not all bad news, as members of the community receive accolades, get involved in politics and more.  I’m particularly thrilled about the new Jewish library in Naples (near where my family lives!) and intrigued by the oldest known Torah scroll being found at the University of Bologna.  Oooh yeeah.  Librarians and archivists represent! :D

I’ve included links to the stories and dates below; please feel free to add anything I may have missed. I think it’s important, on a macro level, to gain insight into Jewish communities that exist outside of Israel and the United States. Our Tribe has made a long, distinguished mark on the world! I am glad, in however crooked a way, to be connected to the Italian Jewish community.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 1, 2014

2013 in review

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:58 am by chavalah

Happy New Year!  Excited, for the second time, to have garnered enough views on this blog to merit a WordPress annual stats update.  I look forward to continuing to write about interfaith issues and Judaism in pop culture, and especially interacting with all of you, in 2014!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,700 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 28 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

December 20, 2013

The shallow mainstream criticism of supposedly shallow characters

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 4:56 am by chavalah

Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) comforts Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) after she awakes from a night terror about their shared experience in the Hunger Games.  Obviously a depiction of the one-note action heroine.

Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) comforts Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) after she awakes from a night terror about their shared experience in the Hunger Games. Obviously a depiction of the one-note action heroine.

In reading mainstream pop culture’s reviews of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (which I know I shouldn’t do, even if it has an approval rating around 90%,) I’m constantly irritated by criticism like this line: “Jennifer Lawrence commits to Katniss as much as she would a complex David O’Russell character.”

My complaint is two-fold. What makes Katniss a shallow character? And what makes her David O’Russell characters so damn deep?

I’m still on the fence about whether or not I want to see “American Hustle.” I’m kind of worried that Judaism will be used as a silly movie quirk, in the same vein of Lawrence slinking around in negligee. But Tiffany, Lawrence’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook,” (I imagine that most critics who still maintain that she was a “complex character” would still have to look up her name by this point,) was one-note.

Unlike Katniss, Tiffany didn’t change during her movie. Katniss started “Catching Fire” reeling from PTSD, closing herself off from emotion as best she could, and refusing, out of fear for her family, to acknowledge how her actions fed into a nation-wide call for revolution; she ended the film by allowing herself to have a real relationship with Peeta, by constantly struggling in the Quarter Quell over the nature of her true and supposed enemies, and by starting to accept her symbolic role as the Mockingjay in the revolution.

Tiffany starts, and remains, as the brash and uninhibited “manic pixie chick” to Bradley Cooper’s character. At best, she’s granted an archetypal existence as the woman in mourning who self-medicates by sleeping with multiple men. Oh my God. When she was explaining it to Cooper’s character about being fired after screwing all 11 of her male colleagues, all I could think of was “so what, did management have a meeting when it was just ten of them, and came to the conclusion that, ‘ok, she can stay unless she also fucks Steve’?” Anyway, that all backstory. Her major purpose in the movie was to say to Cooper’s character, “look at me, I’m confident in who I am, and I want you to do this dance competition with me,” and she ended with “look at me, I’m still confident in who I am, and we did that dance competition. Plot twist: we’re now making out!”

…in fact, I’m not as alone as I feared when it comes to noting shallowness in the script writing. Robbie Collin, writing for The a Daily Telegraph, states that “Lawrence, who was a wonder in The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone, does manage to create a tangy, complex character from some very thin source material.” Personally I still wouldn’t call Tiffany complex, but I understand what critics and award shows were drawn to–Lawrence’s incredible ability to emote genuine emotion (or in the case of Katniss, to also suppress it).

Mainstream media isn’t actually reacting to the movies in question here, but actually to their archetypes. “Silver Linings Playbook” was quirky, with an Oscar-approved cast and a vague focus on mental health, so it’s labeled mature fare. The Hunger Games is scifi, so Katniss can therefore be nothing more than a one-note action figure. More to the point, it’s YA with teen romance, with a primarily young and female fan base, so it’s immature.

Honestly, there should be a litmus test here. Why is it automatically interesting for Tiffany to sleep with 11 people for largely unexplored reasons, yet Katniss is boring for having feelings for two boys with whom she grew up and faced hardships like battle and poverty? It’s not like her character dilemma rests on which one she’ll ask to the prom. She’s literally dealing with life and death situations–debating with Gale about running away to avoid Capitol retribution, choosing to save Peeta’s life in the Quarter Quell because she cares about him, has deep respect for his humanity, and wants to show some of her own.

At the end of the day, maybe I’m judging a shallow profession for incorrectly labeling shallowness. Most mainstream critics don’t dig deep into the movies they’re reviewing–they give a cursory analysis based on personal biases and generally accepted truths. (Quirky Oscar-studded films=complex. Scifi and YA=shallow). That’s just the status quo. I just wish that more of them would realize what a certain doctor has to say on the subject: “The status is not quo.” :p.

November 12, 2013

Peeta Mellark and “Feminine” Characters

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 6:18 am by chavalah

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

After a year and a half of waiting the Catching Fire movie premiere is now under ten days away. What better time to write my ode to Peeta Mellark?

Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games franchise and Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire franchise are among my favorite characters in literature. Both of eschew the stereotypes of being a macho, tough guy (or tomboy) badass archetype to be of interest. One can just as easily be interested in songs, mythology and dancing, or baking, painting and pacifism, and still be a hero.

Granted, there are a lot of differences between Peeta and Sansa, to say nothing of the worlds they inhabit. In the case of Peeta, there’s a lot about him already that’s “masculine”—he’s very strong from working in the bakery storeroom, and he kills and wounds people in both of his Games. But when push comes to shove, that’s not what defines him. He turns to baking for solace, painting for healing, and his love for Katniss as a lifeline.

Peeta detractors, turned off by these attributes, sneer at the fact that Katniss is the more angry and aggressive of the pair; Saturday Night Live even capitalized on a skit when titular Jennifer Lawrence was hosting, about how wimpy and useless Peeta was in the first Games for getting stabbed in the leg and needing Katniss to save him. Even Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta in the movie adaptations and is generally known for his progressive views (see Straight But Not Narrow,) has mocked his character in some interviews for not being “manly” enough.

For me, however, one of the questions of the books is—how “manly” is too much? If we take the character of Gale, who is far closer to the “badass” stereotype than Peeta is, he grows increasingly more militaristic and exhibits aggressive tunnel vision as tensions against his enemies wage on. But by the end of the books, this dogma comes with a huge price.

What’s so wrong with Peeta’s way—advocating for peace and manipulating the political situation through verbal propaganda? More to the point, when do the “feminine” pursuits of baking and painting lead to mass, national harm? Short of hurting others, why can’t we let people be who they want to be?

I suppose that part of the reason I’m so offended by this sexist refusal to allow men to be seen as “feminine,” aka “weak” is that stereotypically, Jewish men have been painted in this light. Likely influenced by our religious adherence to lifelong study, Jewish fellas are often portrayed as whiny, bookish and unathletic (I’m thinking back to the scene in Airplane! where the stewardess offers a passenger a thin pamphlet on famous Jewish sports stars for some “light reading.”) I suppose one defensive response to all of this would be to point out that there are, in fact, plenty of Jewish athletes out there. But the question I want to raise is—what does it matter if they’re not? What if they’d rather study to become a doctor or study Talmud all day? What if they’d rather paint, bake and fall in love with a girl?

Many people involved with or critiquing the Hunger Games franchise seem to understand that the predominately female fanbase is often (though not exclusively) drawn to “the sensitive artist type” that Peeta represents. But like Catching Fire is to The Hunger Games, I want to expand our world building a bit. I want to live in a place where it’s ok, and even encouraged, for everyone to be sensitive and creative, no matter his or her gender, religion or any other considerations. Guess I gotta hope that this fire is catching. :P

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be in U.S. theatres starting Thursday, November 21 at 8 pm. You’ll probably catch me in line a fair few times! :D:D:D

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