February 28, 2019

Thoughts on BDS, and Affording It Too Much Power

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 7:49 am by chavalah

Popular BDS Photo (Wikipedia)

Like many Jews, I’m no fan of BDS.

BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, seeks to promote the wide-scale boycott of Israel due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A lot of it’s activity buttresses against antisemitism, with leaders and prominent members calling for Israel’s destruction, the targeting of Jewish civilians and even violence on American college campuses (and around the world.)

More generally, I don’t support academic and cultural boycotts of any kind. Such demands diminish the opportunity for compromise, camaraderie and empathy, and seek to see the world in black and white good guys vs bad guys terms. Once, on Facebook, a friend posted a BDS ad about a trip to the West Bank, which explicitly told participants to stay away from Jewish religious and historical sites in Israel. Presumably because that would mess with their narrative where Jews are imperialist colonialists in the Middle East.

But I’m not too thrilled with the path that BDS opposition has taken either, particularly in America. BDS is our latest “cry wolf/ antisemitism” bat signal. This blinds us to the true complexity of antisemitism, which in turn makes it more difficult to combat. A private citizen who is a BDS supporter, someone who isn’t shouting slurs, threatening Jews or actively campaigning to destroy Israel, but who wants to stand up against the injustices of the Occupation, might claim that we are tampering with the First Amendment right to free speech.

In fact, as BDS-centric lawsuits have cropped up in court, this is exactly the argument that has come up. Not to mention scrutiny–by Jewish sources, too– of Marco Rubio pushing anti-BDS legislation, say, when the country was in government shutdown. For the record, I support some legislation against BDS, but it has to be under the auspices of normal anti-discrimination laws. This opinion piece lays it down well.

The issue has been percolating in my mind, in regards to increasing antisemitism allegations against The Women’s March, as well as altercations involving other left-wing leaders. Often times, people on both sides of the issue cite progressive support of BDS as the reason for the controversy. But I find that to be an incredible oversimplification.

Recently there’s been a slew of leaders (often Black, which opens up a whole other can of worms about attacking the POC community) who have come under fire for things they’ve said about Jews and Israel. As I sift through all of the controversy, what strikes me is that “BDS” has become a blanket that obscures more serious issues.

Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez of the Women’s Movement allegedly stated that Jews were leaders in the slave trade, a falsehood popularized by The Nation of Islam. Later, according to early Women’s March leader Evvie Harmon, Mallory and Perez tore into another leader for being Jewish: I was raised in the South and the language that was used is language that I’m very used to hearing in rural South Carolina. Just instead of against black people, against Jewish people. They even said to her ‘your people hold all the wealth.’

Another leader, Linda Sarsour, has a history of gaslighting Jewish organizations she disagrees with, and effectively delineating that there are “good” and “bad” Jews.

Angela Davis, who almost lost out on an Alabama civil rights activism award due to actions blamed, in part, on the Jewish community, supports Rasmeah Odeh. Odeh was convicted and served jail time in Israel for her role in a 1969 Jerusalem bombing that killed Leon Kannie and Eddie Joffe, and injured 9 others. An outspoken opponent of the US’s prison system, Davis didn’t extend those beliefs to the USSR, wherein she called its Jewish refusenik prisoners “Zionist fascists.”

Marc Lamont Hill, a CNN commentator who was fired last year, tacitly endorsed Palestinian violence against Israelis and evoked a popular anti-Israel slogan. Hill claims that his remarks cater towards his belief that there should be just one, non-Zionist state in Israel and Palestine, and that he’s not specifically endorsing violence against Jews. But that feels like a bit of a cop out, considering the cultural and religious makeup of the vast majority of Israelis, as well as the multi-faceted Jewish history in the region, which he sees fit to ignore.

To be clear, I don’t think Hill should have been fired, nor Davis’s award temporarily rescinded. (As for The Women’s March, Carly Pildis hues close to my own opinion.) But I don’t think its racist to be critical of antisemitic beliefs and statements. This goes far beyond a boycott.

As a progressive, I feel betrayed that the new left’s call for “intersectionality” has somehow missed the Jews. As an American, I’m aware that the most dangerous antisemitism towards my own community comes from extremism on the right. As a cynic, I wonder how many people care about bigotry at all, or if they just want to use it a cudgel against the other political party. The Zioness Facebook page is often filled with bitter complaints whenever the group comments on progressive causes. Never mind that their manifesto says that they “fight for…women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and any other human being whose rights are denied.” Obviously some people just follow the nonprofit to spew vitriol on feminists, by way of Zioness’s criticism of The Women’s March.

I’ve basically been in a whirlpool about all of this for months. Writing helps. 😛 So too did attending a Deborah Lipstadt talk about her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now. There’s something cathartic about attacking the problem head on, defining terms and engaging in history without bias.

At the end of the day, BDS is more pernicious than it is benign. It seeks easy answers and feeds into old hatreds. But banning it might do about as much good as banning Holocaust denial in Germany. It hasn’t stopped antisemitism from rearing its increasingly violent head.

More generally in the world, there seems to be a extreme rightward shift towards authoritarianism and xenophobia, including in the Israeli government. Sometimes I want to bury my head in the sand and leave the world to its bitter fate. But then I remember organizations like Roots and PCFF, and the non-toxic side of Jewish twitter, like Batya Ungar-Sargon and Carly Pildis who advocate for nuance and empathy.

Ultimately, I’m responsible for my own moral compass, not all of humanity’s. I’ll do my best to speak up for a world that engages with empathy, complexity and community. Hatred and cruelty will always exist out there, but sometimes a bit of perspective can help turn my rudder in the right direction. There’s still a subset of people out there who are fighting for a compassionate future. Those are the people who deserve my focus.

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January 30, 2019

2018: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 8:21 am by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Reaching the tail end of the first month of 2019, so it’s time to roll out one of my blogging traditions. I’ve opened each new year of Chava’s Footsteps this past little while by blogging about the Italian Jewish community. Here is a collection of news articles, mostly published to Tablet Magazine or JTA but there are some others too, that detail 2018 stories pertaining to Jews in Italy and/or Italy’s relationship with Jews. A couple of these stories are more broadly about Europe, but Italy is always mentioned specifically.

The election year garnered a few stories about where Italian Jews came down on politicians and movements. We also have the usual blend of food stories, Holocaust references (both philo and antisemitic), and nods to older history. Always love reading about a new museum.

Cycling is always a big theme; in 2018 an Italian race opened in Israel for the first time! Though elsewhere, anti-Israel sentiment at Italian Liberation Day celebrations caused tensions for the Jewish community. In inspiring news, Italian Jews stood up for Roma communities, long persecuted in Europe. And as a personal favorite niche–there’s a few stories in here about writers and publishing! I should check these people out.

I’ve included all of this and more below; please feel free to add more stories in the comments. So, without further ado!

Read the rest of this entry »

December 16, 2018

Diving into Italian Television with “My Brilliant Friend,” Season One!

Posted in Italy, Pop Culture at 10:12 am by chavalah

Season One HBO Promo

Not to be self-centered or anything, but my first thought when I watched the trailer for My Brilliant Friend is that it was made for me. 😛 I immediately recognized Max Ricther’s recomposed Vivaldi in the teaser trailer. I loved the casting, particularly for the two leads, Lenu and Lila. And no critic I’ve read denies that Saverio Costanzo does not stray far from Elena Ferrante’s source material.

Perhaps that’s a little bit of a problem, though. My Brilliant Friend is the shortest of the Neopolitan novels and already it strained at the seams of the eight-part first season. (Each of the other, longer, books is also intended to be divied up into an eight-part adaptation.) Sonia Saraiya points out in her recap of episode three that in the book, Lila was much more invested in Lenu’s education even in middle school. And Hilary Kelly criticizes episode seven for removing Lenu’s proactive involvement in Lila’s relationship with Stefano (Giovanni Amura). The new seasons will have to find even more ways to commute and even excise certain plots.

But, as I alluded to, the soundtrack was already comfortably familiar (or dramatic. :P) And not only did Elisa Del Genio, Margherita Mazzucco, Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace look like Lenu and Lila, respectively, but they also acted exactly how I imagined. I was stunned when I realized how young and ebullient Gaia Girace, in particular, appears in real life.

So for me the character interactions, though more compressed than in the novel, rang true. I also liked some of the more retrospective moments. Particularly when middle aged Lenu (voiced by Alba Rohrwacher) projected epic classical confrontations, like that between Caesar and Pompey, onto the Solara/Caracci fireworks competition; or she criticized her neighbors’ simple-minded revelry at Lila’s wedding as “plebeian.” These moments are somewhat made for visual representation.

But it takes away in how it shifts the focus. There is something of a soap opera in the tv adaptation, where we are forced to pay attention to the various small dramas of the neighborhood. Sure, they figure into the novel as well, but from Lenu’s biased viewpoint. They are important in how they shape Lenu and Lila’s lives, not in how they play out in front of us.

Perhaps the show also allowed me to partially indulge in one of my own fantasies, too, where Lila and Lenu are slightly less competitive and somewhat more congenial. I still bristle at the stereotype of the “catfighting frenemies,” but Ferrante’s heroines are so much more than that. They are both struggling against their circumstances (perhaps Lenu’s are more internal and Lila’s are more external) in crafting their own identities.

Certainly the main storyline of the season, where Lila tries to escape the clutches of the brutish Marcello Solara (Elvis Esposito), plays well with an audience today. We are invested in the #metoo era, and patriarchal society, where Lila’s life is basically doled out by her father, jealous Fernando (Antonio Buonanno) and her brother, thin-skinned Rino (Gennaro De Stefano), is as unsavory as any dystopia. Lila is our type of badass heroine, but her badassery is much more than spitting out snarky lines or delivering an ass kicking (or knife threat.) She refuses to compromise herself for other people, and in turn expects that her compatriots will not compromise themselves either. When they do…well, I shouldn’t spoil the the next book/season. 😛

Lenu is a different sort of animal. Where Lila is a prodigy, Lenu’s excellent marks come from intelligence and a photographic memory. She doesn’t have many strong convictions about her life (excepting her crush on that arrogant jerkface, Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico)), and she often uses Lila as a mirror. I’d be curious as to how book readers viewed Lenu on screen. I think that overall I had less sympathy for her since we weren’t as privy to her interior monologue. Interestingly enough, it seems that Margherita Mazzucco had the same issue. In the documentary, My True Brilliant Friend, she expressed frustration with her character’s passivity and Lila-worship. Her experience might be even less sympathetic than ours, since presumably she wasn’t privy to the voiceovers while filming.

Overall I loved this viewing experience. I’d like to watch this season again, perhaps with my parents who have only watched the first three. My dad has limited familiarity with the books, but he’s taken with the dialect, which reminds him of his father. My grandfather grew up outside of Naples, in a much healthier home environment. 😛 I still have family in the Neapolitan area, and I’d love to reach out to them about this project. Also to my mother and sister, who read and enjoyed the books as well.

I could probably use a Lila to tighten up my prose, but in short: big thumbs up from me! I look forward to returning next year for season two. 😀

November 26, 2018

Revisiting “The Hunger Games” for the 10th Anniversary

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:56 pm by chavalah

The Hunger Games 10th anniversary covers

Fourth and final installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

I read The Hunger Games series before the first movie came out, so admittedly the 10th anniversary of the franchise wasn’t high on my mind. But I still think about the series a whole lot, and I even voted for those books in the “Best of the Best” category in the GoodReads Choice Awards. So I figured it would be a good time to revisit Katniss Everdeen on this blog. 😛

When I heard that Scholastic was publishing a 10th anniversary box set of The Hunger Games series, it didn’t really peak my interest. I already have copies of the books, after all. But alas, I forgot to read the fine print. 😛 Not only would the novels be repackaged, but they would also include 50 pages of bonus material. 😮 Including the longest interview with author Suzanne Collins on the series ever! The New York Times published a small excerpt, and even though some of the information is common knowledge, there are enough nuggets here to make me twitch. Twitch twitch…

I don’t usually buy into these types of marketing ploys, but hey. 😛 Favorite series’ often get an exception.

Also in light of the 10th anniversary, Sabaa Tahir (who is currently writing another noteworthy young adult series) wrote in the Times about her relationship to Katniss. Her essay is largely about Katniss’s rage, and how her government underestimated her. The premise makes me pause, because I’m a fierce advocate of the fact that Katniss is not the superhero she pretends to be. One of the main criticisms of The Hunger Games—that the lead is a Mary Sue world savior type—is that readers fall into the propaganda. “The Girl on Fire,” “The Star-Crossed Lovers” and even “The Mockingjay” aren’t real. They are identities foisted onto Katniss by others in order to sell a narrative.

But I suppose it’s a little reductive to claim that Katniss wasn’t angry and that she didn’t take action. In her first games, she launches an ad hoc plan in order to force the Capitol to accept two victors. And in the Quarter Quell, though other actors set her down the path, in the heat of the moment it was her decision to blow out the force field. Her propos in District 13 were reactive but genuine.

Anger, particularly in young women, is often frowned upon. But doesn’t it also make an impression on the public stage? Look at Emma Gonzalez and Malala Yousafzai for examples of infamous angry girls. It makes sense that they might garner some attention and even celebrity. Their circumstances are unique in how they can express themselves publicly over well-known events. And Katniss, unlike these real life examples, doesn’t have a lot of competition on Panem’s state-run media outlets.

The major difference between the Capitol and the Resistance is how they package Katniss’s anger. The Capitol wants to deny it, and claim that her unusual actions in the Games is fueled by love for Peeta (a premise that is not entirely inaccurate, either.) The Resistance wants to channel it into war recruitment. Although the latter remains more true to Katniss’s emotions, it also simplifies them to make a point. Katniss’s real anger borders more and more on trauma as the story goes on, and is complicated by guilt over her actions in the games and Peeta’s more peaceful influence.

Tahir ends her essay with this rather bold statement, in light of the fact that Katniss will never be “fully healed” after war:

That is a hard truth, and it made me wonder: If Katniss knew what she would endure, would she still have fought? To me, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Her courage is sewn into her very bones. When the violence of the world knocks at her door, she must fight.

Is it really that simple? Many of Katniss’s decisions are fueled by the narrow desire to help those she loves, not a broader sense of altruism. She volunteers for the games in order to save Prim. She forces the issue with the berries, and even agrees to become the Mockingjay, out of a desire to save Peeta. When the Peacekeepers exact punitive measures on District 12, perhaps Katniss would have stayed off camera had Gale not been tied to the whipping post. Maybe she does react to broader injustice while in the field and witnessing the carnage there. There could be something inside of her that strives for survival in the face of oppression, like why she decided to go past city limits to hunt when her family was starving. When confronted with people who look up to her, she wants to help them. Maybe even her promise to kill President Snow is made out of some sort of loyalty to Joanna.

But even her ultimate decision to assassinate President Coin is selfish, isn’t it? Yes, she ultimately rids Panem of another child-murdering despot. But the reason she goes on this course is “for Prim.” Because Coin’s war tactics ended in the death of Katniss’s sister, and civilians from both sides of the conflict. I suppose I see Katniss as more self-absorbed than altruistic. Like many of the famous heroes of history, she felt the call of action due to specific circumstances in her life. So in answer to Tahir’s question, if Katniss had known what awaited her by the end of the war, I agree that she still would have felt compelled to do what she did…so long as someone(s) she loved was in danger.

Katniss never saw herself as a leader. She was simply a girl who wanted to live a quiet life at home. I suppose this circles back to why I identify with Katniss Everdeen. Not because she is righteously angry or because she’s a war hero. But because underneath of it all, she’s a stubborn little introvert who loves fiercely but selectively. She might fight for the world under extenuating circumstances, but her real drive is ultimately to be left off the grid, in privacy and peace.

Maybe the material in the 10th anniversary books will shed more light on how Suzanne Collins sees Katniss. But at the end of the day, all readers have the right to interpretation. The best stories, the ones that last, aren’t narrow in scope. They offer lots of ways to appreciate the material.

So glad to witness that The Hunger Games still has that spark after its first decade. 😀 Fire is catching!

November 18, 2018

The Multiple Storylines in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

Posted in Pop Culture at 2:21 pm by chavalah

Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) amasses a following

WARNING: Spoilers to follow for “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald!”

Third installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

I was going to wait a week to write this review, but eh. I think I can swing it now, and I have a lot on my mind! Granted, this thing definitely deserves a rewatch and, like with most movies, I think I’ll like it better over time. I like it decently well now, at least as a fan who is well versed in this world and story. This installment is very much in the middle of bigger things. But I was also disappointed by some aspects.

I’ve seen this criticism online and repeated it often enough that now my friends are saying it—JK Rowling wrote a novel and then tried to cram it into a 2 and a half hour long movie. It’s somewhat similar to what happened with the original Harry Potter movies, except that in that case we had the books to provide greater reference and insight into the characters.

There were a lot of individual storylines going on in this movie. Grindelwald escaped from American custody and set up base in Paris. Newt is trying to get permission to leave the country (presumably to visit Tina), sidestep the painful relationships with his brother and former crush, and evade the Ministry (and possibly Dumbledore) who have their own plans for him. Tina is on a mission to find Credence, Credence is looking for his birth mother, Queenie wants to find a world where she can marry Jacob, and Jacob seems to want the first movie back again, with regards to the main foursome and their adventures. 😛 Leta, aka Newt’s first crush and Theseus’s fiancée, is carrying a big secret and Dumbledore, as always, is trying to position his human chess pieces in order to take down a dark wizard. There are also side characters with motivations that fit into these varying storylines.

The time constraints made most character arcs feel rushed. I suppose, to some extent, I should simply accept that six months happened off camera, and in that time Newt’s interest in Tina grew more obsessive, and Jacob started using endearments with Queenie. 😛 I was more on board than some with Credence being alive and Jacob overcoming the thunderbird’s obliviative potion because of small little tells in the first movie. But Queenie and Tina’s rift was explained in backstory. They didn’t even interact in the sparse scenes they had together. There were some indications, mostly unexplored, that Newt had received some sort of fame from his book. Newt and Tina oscillated between a deliberately obtuse, if funny, misunderstanding about where their relationship was, and propelling the plot forward in trying to find Credence. Nagini, who featured prominently in previews because of her shocking original series future and fan controversies surrounding it, mostly existed to hold Credence’s hand throughout this movie. There wasn’t enough time to say much about her own life, beyond her introductory scene.

Of course Credence’s heritage, and the ways that it tied into various other wizards, was deliberately confusing, and left my friends wanting to explore the Lestrange family tree. 😛 If Credence was thought to be the last of a pureblood line and Leta’s younger brother (which he wasn’t, but another baby was), then where did Bellatrix’s hubby and his bro come from? 😛 If we ignore the original series, it’s a tragic story and lends Leta some of the best emotional gravitas of this film. Her other half brother, Yusuf’s portion was exposition heavy, though it spoke to long-lasting human consequences of using Unforgiveable Curses. But it’s Zoe Kravitz (and Thea Lamb as teenage Leta) who steal the show with their grief and guilt.

The character who disappointed most was Tina, as I feared might be the case. Beyond giving Katherine Waterson a sleek, new makeover, the movie also had limited to no time to highlight her neurotically focused nature. One thing I liked about her and Newt is that they both seem to be caretakers. Newt cares for animals, both in this film and the last one. But though Tina reaches out to Credence individually in movie 1, she doesn’t ever talk to him in this one. Also, what’s the deal with her status in Paris? Is she there as an Auror under MACUSA’s direction, or, as seems to be the case when Queenie goes looking for her, has she gone rogue? Yet she’s easily able to enter the French Ministry later. I might be getting too nitpicky about this. 😛

But I think it’s fair criticism to point out that she doesn’t react at all when Credence, let alone her sister, joins Grindelwald. Hopefully Rowling will give her more room to reflect on that in the next movie. And speaking of Queenie’s defection, it made me want to rub my eyes out with sandpaper. How can you believe that this wizard who speaks of “othering” Muggles, would be cool with you marrying one? I’ve been kind of quiet about this, but I lamented that the girl was such a ditz in the first movie. 😛 Now she’s reminding me of certain lower class Americans who believe that a pampered billionaire mostly interested in keeping the money with his rich friends *cough cough* would have their best interests at heart.

This leads well into the issue of Grindelwald and charismatic populists. I know this is a contentious opinion, but I liked Johnny Depp’s performance. It’s possible that I set the bar too low with “not Jack Sparrow.” 😛 I thought he had flair without being too over the top. There was a rumination to his actions, even when condoning the worst, and a focus on empathetic messaging that made him more nuanced then Voldemort. Voldemort is a fairytale villain, and frankly most interesting in how he influences Harry. Grindelwald is meant to inspire hope, not fear. It’s not just Johnny that pulled this off, but also the flashback scenes with Dumbledore, whom I also think Jude Law nailed. But for having such minimal time with the characters, I think Dumbledore’s flashbacks, like Leta’s, brought out the human connections.

In hindsight, Grindelwald’s message of the dangerous ways of the non-magic populace was made palpable by foreshadowing footage of World War II. Perhaps it’s a bit on the nose, but Rowling’s parallels to real history show how whole populations can get swept up in hatred and violence. Juxtaposed against all of that is the promise of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s epic duel of 1945 (at the end of the war,) which will require the breaking of their blood bond. Frankly I’m ok with it not being an unbreakable vow, because there’s something so much more personal about what we saw in the Mirror of Erised.

Perhaps the ultimate Credence heritage reveal is meant to break the confusing Lestrange conundrum by positing that “Aurelius” is the last of the Dumbledore line. (I’m going to take another digression to posit that Ezra Miller, so silly real life and so tormented in many of his roles, is the best actor here.) I think that some people are flummoxed at the introduction of another Dumbledore sibling, but it’s fair to point out, as folks did to Harry all throughout the last book, that the man was very private. It’s also possible, and I’m kind of turning this idea over in my head, that Grindelwald is lying to Credence, simply to get what he wants. He spoke point blank to his followers about laying the path to get the boy to join him. I guess we’ll find out how it goes in a few years! 😛

Some parting notes: I loved the geeky references to Nicholas Flamel and young Professor McGonagall, of course. 😛 I hope Leta stays dead because that felt tragic and earned. From Newt’s perspective, given that he is our hero, I guess, his endgame in this movie is that he can’t sit on the sidelines of history. Sometimes you have to take a side. And perhaps these were superfluous but I liked the flashbacks to the first movie, regarding Newt having to wrangle in some escaped circus creatures. Which also let Jacob shine with his humor, lol, and played into one of Rowling’s major themes about the cruelty inherent in labeling living creatures as “freaks.” There’s a lot going on in here!

In general, movie 2 is not as easy and contained as movie 1. 1927 Paris is never the aesthetic center of the story as was 1926 New York City. There wasn’t just one plot about Newt’s creatures and a couple of subplots about an obscurial and the creepy Barebones. Instead there are several balls in the air, and though Grindelwald’s rising popularity and Credence’s heritage are the main focus, every character had semi-realized personal aims. Casual fans won’t find this very accessible, but I think that Potterheads will appreciate its place in the broader story. It certainly had the feel of a “linking” episode. Time will tell how the full saga plays out. But in general, as much as I appreciate the special effects, the cinematography, acting, musical score and even the story, they won’t ever feel as expansive as novels. The Harry Potter books leave a lot to live up to.

November 10, 2018

Representational Drama and Authorial Intent in the Fantastic Beasts/Harry Potter Franchise

Posted in Pop Culture at 9:16 pm by chavalah

Claudia Kim as Nagini in “Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindelwald.”

Second installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

We are less than a week away from the United States theatrical opening of Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindelwald, and drama has been stewing in this franchise before there were even Fantastic Beasts movies. (This is the second of five, which presumably will culminate in the books canon epic duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald.) Here’s my review of movie one!

The early professional reviews are tepid at best, but as an avid fangirl, I’m hardly an impartial observer. 😛 Like most Potterheads, I have a list of what I want to see, and some quibbles about what has been leaked so far.

I’m wary to start with quibbles, though. Ever since the Harry Potter books peaked at epic popularity, the line between reader demands and authorial vision has become blurred. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that when a piece of art, be it a book or a movie or etc, goes out into the world, readers are free, even required, to interpret what’s put in front of them. But when franchises become this infamous, I worry about the penchant for groupthink and drama. Maybe it comes down to this: I’m going to question J.K. Rowling for her choices, but I’m also going to question the fandom on why popular opinions exist. I will also unpack my own biases about what I want to see in the film.

Here’s one problem I have with (a vocal portion of) the Harry Potter fandom: they tend to see the story as a closed loop. I’m as guilty as anyone of throwing the word “canon” around, but as a writer myself, I try and remember that not everything Rowling dreamed up can actually make it onto the page. When Pottermore published her research, she wasn’t “ret-conning.” She was just admitting to the fact that creating the Wizarding World required more work than what fit into Harry Potter’s narrative. You, and I, might’ve come to our own conclusions about certain things, but that doesn’t make Rowling’s authorial legwork a sham.

This culminated in the reveal that Rowling saw Dumbledore as gay, and as having romantic feelings towards Grindelwald. Fandom opinions exploded, sometimes based on personal homophobia and sometimes based on that idea of “ret-conning.” One BookTube friend claimed that his opinion that Dumbeldore was straight was every bit as valid, though personally I see canon as more of a blank slate when it comes to Dumbledore’s sexuality. It doesn’t make sense to me that people can’t take a step back and realize that this issue, within the parameters of the Harry Potter novels and movies, is inconsequential. Would it make sense for a scene to exist where Dumbledore calls Harry to his office and reminisces over the details of his love life? I don’t think so!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m now worried that fans will get up in arms regarding this movie if Dumbledore’s feelings aren’t blatant. Maybe it’s personal preference, but I’d rather Dumbledore be nuanced than some sort of identity politics spokesperson.

The fandom has always had an uncomfortable relationship with LGBTQ+ representation, going way back to the introduction of Remus and Sirius. (Unpopular opinion time: I’m cool with seeing them as friends. In fact, I think that some of the insistence on imagining them as lovers stems from the fact that society, as a whole, doesn’t have an appreciation for the deep bonds of platonic friendship. That being said, if they’d turned out to be gay it would have made sense to me, too.)

But the most alarming LGBTQ+ complaint came after the first Fantastic Beasts movie. Some people were up in arms about the “gay baiting” regarding the relationship between Graves and Credence. I realize that identity representation is a legitimate concern, in that we want our media to reflect real life. But this particular focus was severely misguided, and it completely ignored the reality of the relationship on screen. This wasn’t about teasing the audience with undeclared homoeroticism. This was the portrayal of a conniving adult willfully manipulating a teenage boy in order to serve his agenda. Is it offensive? Absolutely. But much like Voldemort and Umbridge are offensive in their actions, that’s kind of the point.

The Crimes of Grindelwald big controversy veered off in a different direction. A trailer released in September revealed an Asian shape-shifting character named Nagini. That’s right—Rowling provided a stunning backstory for a Harry Potter character who hitherto was never presumed to be human!

This is leagues away from a sexuality reveal. Rowling claims that she always saw Nagini as a human trapped in snake form, hearkening back to Asian-inspired mythology. Again, many people are calling this a “ret-con,” but I don’t see the need to question Rowling’s assertion that she had this backstory in mind since writing the books. However, this opens up a far more complicated can of worms. As Helene Guldberg writes in Psychology Today:

Human beings, unlike other animals, are able to reflect on and make judgements about our own and others’ actions, and as a result we are able to make considered moral choices.

If Nagini was just a snake, she bears less culpability in joining up with Voldemort. Considering that Voldemort is the main antagonist of the Harry Potter series, and Rowling clearly wanted to explore the human fallacies that brings a man like this to power, this hidden identity does feel a bit like a gut punch. If Nagini, who, like Harry is now a human horcrux (amongst other things to the Dark Lord,) is that not significant enough to make part of the original story? This is too significant a moral quandary, even if rather separate from the main thrust of Harry Potter’s narrative arc.

Less murkily, I agree that casting a Korean actress in the role was a bad move. I believe that Rowling et al are trying to amp up diverse representation, but they stumbled into a shallow trope here. Namely that people of color serve as “magical helpmates” to the white cast. I get it, I get it—nearly everyone in this franchise is magical. 😛 But they are magical in normal, proscribed ways to the Wizarding world. They aren’t anomalies who are then shunted into simplistic, subservient roles.

I mean, even if Nagini does, as I assume she will, get a more complicated, human story arc in these new films, that doesn’t erase her complete one-dimensionality in the original story. But I’m going to try and pull myself out of this whirlpool now and address a smaller concern rife with my own personal bias—the representation of the Goldstein sisters.

I called them as Jewish in the last movie, and I’m sticking with it! 😛 JTA apparently extended that assumption to Jacob Kowalski— I’ll take him, too! But I really developed a soft spot for Tina Goldstein in the first movie. I’m already disappointed that she seems to have gotten a sleek makeover for the second. Much like when Emma Watson started highlighting her hair when she played Hermione, I say: alas. What’s wrong with some frazzled ladies? 😛

Which leads me to wonder if there will be actual Jewish representation in this film. Will the two (or three) characters publicly “come out”? Will there be reference to Jewish culture? Granted, the Goldstein sisters seem fully ensconced in the United States Wizarding society, which holds itself separate from the muggles—sorry, no-mags. But why can’t Jewish wizards and witches get together to throw a Chanukah party? A girl can dream. 😛

November 3, 2018

GoodReads Choice Awards 2018 Predictions and Standouts

Posted in Pop Culture at 6:50 pm by chavalah

Here’s to ten more years!

First installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

Hello; welcome to NaNoWriMo and the beginning of the end-of-year awards season! 😛 The first round of the 2018 GoodReads Choice Awards concludes tomorrow, so get your vote in today! The semi-final round, buffed up with top write in contestants, goes from Oct 6-11. The final whittled down round opens on the 13th and runs for two weeks! Winner will be announced Dec. 4.

Last week I shared my picks for my favorite 2018 reads by category. Today, I take a look at the lists that GoodReads aggregated and I give my thoughts! I won’t be going through all the categories, so if favorite genres tells you a lot about a person, have at it. 😛

Fiction
Predicted Winner: Still Me (Me Before You #3) by JoJo Moyes. Here’s where I get snooty. I’m not going to invoke that diminutive term chick lit, but this definitely strikes me as more plot-focused than character-focused. I kind of wish that GoodReads had a category solely reserved for literary fiction (this also plays into some of my feelings about more prestigious awards of late *cough cough*Man Booker *cough*) But this is Romance, so it’s veeeeeery popular.
Personal Interest: My pick is in this list: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer would be a relatively close second. Of my non-reads, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza sticks out. It’s a family drama (yeeees), and I’ve heard great things. Plus it has all the buzz of being a debut author writing for a debut imprint—headed by Sarah Jessica Parker!

Historical Fiction
Predicted Winner: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Man, her read numbers blow everyone else out of the water. I see her more or less in the same vein as JoJo Moyes.
Personal Interest: I wrote in a book for this round; assuming it doesn’t go anywhere, I’ll switch to The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin for the semifinal. Still think it’s the most Jewish book I’ve read all year, except for that predetermination conceit. 😛 I have two other titles on my Litsy TBR–The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar and Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Former is a dual timeline story separated by centuries in the Middle East (sounds expansive and magical), and latter deals with Columbian violence from the 1990s (sounds informative and visceral).

Best Fantasy
Predicted Winner: Circe by Madeline Miller…though maybe its literary fiction fans won’t venture into the fantasy section. Don’t see why not, though. This statement makes me a hypocrite, but I don’t necessarily mind literary fiction with a genre fix in the genre fiction section, so long as the fantastical elements are worthy of it.
Personal Interest: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a Rumplestiltskin retelling featuring Jews, so it’ll definitely be one of my scifi September pics of the future. 😛 And I’m too intrigued by The Book of M by Peng Shepherd to put it off any longer. I bristled at it being called “literary dystopia” because it includes a magical element; placing it in Fantasy seals the deal for me.

Best of the Best
Since it’s the decade anniversary of the GoodReads Choice Awards, they hauled out all of their old winners to pit against each other! I voted for Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, which after all I placed as my second favorite book of all time in a recent BookTube tag.

Science Fiction
Predicted Winner: Iron Gold (Red Rising #4) by Pierce Brown. A science fiction heavyweight. His previous book in this series won the award last year!
Personal Interest: I’m expecting my pick, Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers to make it to the semifinal round. Otherwise, I think it’s time I pick up Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. I was worried, when I first learned about it, that it would be a lukewarm Handmaid’s Tale copycat. But now I hear great things.

Memoir and Autobiography
Predicted Winner: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership by James Comey. This one doesn’t have the most amount of reads, but I figured I’d put my money on a Trump-related book.
Personal Interest: See, I was gonna vote in this category until I remembered that If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan was no longer eligible! 😦 I love me some Jewish lady memoirs, but in an effort to branch out I’ll say that Educated by Tara Westover has caught my eye. It’s about her survivalist upbringing to western “liberation,” complete with accounts of physical and mental abuse. But I hear she never paints her family or their beliefs as one-dimensional villains. Sounds like a well-rounded person with lessons to teach. (I made a pun! :P)

History and Biography
Predicted Winner: Burracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Scifi for the nonfiction club; a famous literary author from yesteryear “returns from the dead” with a new book!
Personal Interest: Again, I mostly focus on Jewish themes in this genre. But if I were to branch out, I’d go for The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (love him…Fred Rogers, that is,) and The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss (sisters are doin’ it for themseeeeelves! Seriously, American ladies, come Tuesday and go out and vote!)

Debut Author
Predicted Winner: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. Once again, the read numbers dwarf the competition. I guess Mystery and Thriller is giving Romance a run for its money!
Personal Interest: Unpopular opinion time…I read Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and thought it was just ok. So I’m sticking with The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Why? See above.

Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
Predicted Winner: A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas because the author owns this category. 😛
Personal Interest: I’m sticking with my pick, A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir. I also read Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, but book three of The Illuminae Files suffered from diminishing returns, imho. Other than that, I have an ARC of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black that I really should get to! I’m curious to read into this fairy phenomenon, and even some adult fiction BookTubers appreciate this novel.

Picture Books
Predicted Winner: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss (and John Oliver.) This’ll rack in the votes for reasons not necessarily related to children’s literature. 😛
Personal Interest: I’m really only in this for my niece. 😛 I’d go for We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins because she loves dinosaurs. But seems a little too macabre for her sensibilities. Petra by Marianna Coppo, on the other hand, looks both creative (a rock as the protagonist!) and uplifting.

And now I’m geeked out (for this week, anyway. :P) I love making these posts because I get to think critically about what’s out there, and squee over new possibilities! Happy reading everyone!

October 30, 2018

My Picks for the 2018 GoodReads Choice Awards!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 10:16 pm by chavalah

My 2018 picks in fantasy and science fiction.

Before I begin, rest in peace and baruch dayan emet to the victims of two recent terrorist attacks on American soil–Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Jeffersontown, KY, and Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. The latter constituted the worst US antisemitic attack in history. Wishing my people a refuah shleimah. I’m proud to be here on this blog promoting the wealth and beauty of Jewish religion and culture.

I waited so long to write this that the Choice Awards opening round is now live! Alas! My objective for this blog post is to point out books that I’d like to nominate this year. Some will be on the lists and some won’t. We can write in votes until November 4!

Like many people, I think I’m kinda rigging the system. I’m not voting in every category, but there’s no way that I’ve read a majority (or even minority) of the books published in 2018. In some genres, I’ve only read one! We all know that the most well-known books (*cough* Fear by Bob Woodward in nonfiction *cough cough*) will end up the winners.

That being said, I view these awards as a way to show support for the books I’ve loved, not as a test of comparisons. I’ll go to the big frou frou awards for that. 😛 On GoodReads, I (and I hope you will join me) just want to shout out my love of reading! So here we go! My picks! Links lead to my reviews, except for the graphic novel and the picture book.

Fiction:
Girls Burn Brigher by Shobha Rao. A harrowing but beautiful novel about friendship, and the cost of misogyny and destitution: the ways they can break you but also what can lift you up.

Historical Fiction:
Eternal Life by Dara Horn. A retrospective on motherhood, Jewish history from the female lens, and the meaning of life.

Fantasy:
Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer. Lyrical and evocative, this sequel to Last Song Before Night takes our protagonist to a new city with strange magic and hidden schemes.

Science Fiction:
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. Chronicles the lives of humans–and aliens–associated with the Exodan Fleet which left a dying Earth–and asks what its purpose is once its found safe harbor.

History and Biography:
Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America by Shari Rabin. Positing that freedom of mobility and loosening of religious organizations defined the American Jewish experience of the age–and onward.

Graphic Novels and Comics:
Grace for Gus by Harry Bliss. I got this for my niece, but I think my adult relatives were more enamored with the detailed pictures paying tribute to New York City and current events!

Debut Author:
Beneath the Haunting Sea by Joanna Ruth Meyer. I’m probably “cheating” here more than anywhere else because I know this author, but I looked forward to reading her YA fantasy for years and she didn’t disappoint!

Young Adult Fantasy:
A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir. Though I didn’t find the third book to be as explosive for the characters as A Torch Against the Night, the politics are revving up and the magic is growing much stronger!

Picture Books:
Black Bird, Yellow Sun by Steve Light. I bought this for my infant nephew, and my sister sent pictorial proof that he was taken by the colors and imagery!

I’ll be back this weekend where I’ll “NaNoBlogMo” my thoughts on the GoodReads generated lists! Happy reading!

September 9, 2018

5778 in News of the Jews

Posted in Judaism at 9:13 am by chavalah

Continuing in the vein of my posts for the last two years. Wherein I assess my personal thoughts about the broader Jewish world before the start of High Holidays this evening.

The United States

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading about the American Jewish experience this year. We’ve always been in a bit of a weird position. We’re legally white, because the powers that be in the 19th century figured that helps establish Manifest Destiny and the idea of a superior culture, based on color. I’m not sure if any other nation, even other British colonies, formulated its identity so firmly along race lines. For Jews, it’s a far cry from the inferior position that we held in Europe (and often in North Africa and the Middle East.) But just because we were legally white doesn’t mean that we didn’t face bigotry and persecution here. “Cultural” whiteness isn’t so clear cut, at least with us.

This is helping me deal with realities for Jews on the left today. (The perception of Jews on the right seems to lie between Nazis screaming “Jews will not replace us!” and the fetishizing of Israel as a pornographically gun-happy state. I’m kinda scared to watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s “mockumentary” on the subject.) For my purposes, I’m projecting American Jews as “other” from our country’s politics. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Jewish narrative is cyclical. We don’t fully fit in anywhere.

It’s an easy cop out, though, to not engage. I know that my “activism” consists of watching Zioness from afar and occasionally reposting articles in the hopes that my liberal friends will consider an empathetic approach to Jewish issues. I FEEL both despondent and resigned to the fact that we’ve been here before. So few gentile movements give decent credence to the Jews. We have to contend with Women’s March leaders defending (or at the very least downplaying) Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism, or dismissing the storied, progressive history of the Anti-Defeamation League. “Intersectionality,” the new left says, does not apply to Jews.

So thank you, JTA, for publishing this opinion piece. Let me take the message into 5779–do NOT disengage. Find common ground for the greater good. But keep resisting, too. Make sure that Jews are heard.

The Personal

I really love my book club (hi guys!) Should be doing more about my Jewish affiliation, but y’all are my biggest kehila right now.

Even though I think y’all think I’m crazy for how much I associate The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin with Jewish themes. But seriously–this might be the most kosher book I’ve read this year! Excepting–lol–that I believe the fortune telling aspect, and main conceit of the story, is a little too far into the Christian predetermination camp.

The themes of this book loom large during the High Holiday season where, metaphorically, we exist somewhere between life and death. There’s beauty and tragedy to the image of Gd sitting poised to write our names or blot them out of the Book of Life. But on a deeper level, these holy days remind us of the fragility of life. Death is inevitable for all of us. But how are we going to live in the here and now? That’s up to us, and these ten glorious days give the structure to assess for the future, however lengthy or brief.

With every passing year, I find myself more emotionally connected to Rosh Hashanah. This might be the only time of year when I believe in the “God” who feels prevalent in the general understanding of Abrahamic religions. Gd as a sense of personal expectation, at least, of separating “right” from “wrong.”

Usually I’m an agnostic. Aside from love of family, my most deeply held belief–so deeply that sometimes it startles me–is in the Jewish narrative. I think about the long thread of Jewish religion, culture and history and I’m left gasping for air. Gd is simply a character in the story. The beauty and pain, the persecution and promise and hopeful redemption of the Jewish narrative is what makes me believe in a higher purpose.

I’m not trying to spit on, y’know, the vast majority of the world or anything. 😛 I’m just saying I know where my place is, because this belief is so integral to me. I tend to express this devotion through reading and reviewing a boatload of Jewish literature per year. But I have to challenge myself, too. Judaism is about kehila. We may also be the people of the book, so props to me for that, but I need to interact more with the people, too. This is where I belong.

The Israel

To get the most important bit out of the way–next year to renewed actions towards peace with Palestinians. I don’t want to be glib, but the topic obviously merits its own space.

On a more personal note–what the shit. And more of this?

I know I’m focusing on the negative. It can be difficult, as a Diaspora Jew, to feel the nuances, the bad and the good, of the Israeli experience. I continue to be grateful to The Promised Podcast, but as an American, non-Orthodox Jew, its easy to feel those deepening divisions. A nice counter to that argument–JTA recently published that many Israeli and American Jews are sick and tired of the Chief Rabbinate. Next year to focusing on where we agree and effecting pluralistic and empathetic change.

L’shanah tova.

August 9, 2018

My Top Four Experiences from 2018 San Diego Comic-Con!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 9:25 pm by chavalah

I was so busy trying to get an artsy shot in the exhibition hall that I didn’t even notice these lovely ladies from Harper Collins smiling at me!

Another year of San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone. And I was there–attending for my third time! SDCC is one of the biggest conventions in the world, and tons of entertainment media has already covered the highlights. But they mostly focus on big industry news from the movie and television studios.

My Comic-Con experience is a lot quieter. But just as fun and meaningful for a fan girl! 😛 I’ve chronicled my four favorite experiences from the four days that I attended the con. Getting geared up for my next trip to geek capital!

#1) Hitting the Bookish Exhibition Hall
My experience in the exhibition hall of previous years has been fleeting. The area is so packed with everything from big industry funhouses to smaller sellers that it attracts some major crowds. But this year I had a mission–stake out the big five publishers! I have a booktube channel and bookstagram account to honor, and they had free books to hand out! 😛 I got soooo many free books (here’s my haul!) basically from any bookish booth I could find. …I miiiight have broken my SDCC custom bag on the very first day. :/ Will that stop me from going so crazy in the exhibition hall next time? Wait and see!

#2) Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Viewing
This is a regular staple for me, both at SDCC and with the local DC-area Browncoats. There’s a couple of things that make this year extra special, though. First of all, it’s the ten-year anniversary (Joss Whedon, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion were in town for the reunion!) I didn’t actually see that in person, but I did stick around for Dr. Horrible’s Unofficial Singalong Sequel. I was rather impressed with how the amateur production team handled the material. Their songs started out mimicking the originals but then turned into something new. And the characters grew a bit as well–meaning that Penny finally got to tell off Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible for their macho BS. 😀 So much power of fandom here…from singing and reacting to the original, to banding together to create something new. As Dr. Horrible says, “the status is NOT quo…” we’re changing it!

#3) Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Poster
I usually try to stay away from anything having to do with getting an autograph. They tend to be ridiculously expensive and tickets sell out well in advance anyway. But I was tentatively perusing the Unofficial San Diego Comic-Con Blog when I came across this announcement. It was for an exclusive Harry Potter poster celebrating the 20th anniversary, no tickets required! We just had to show up half an hour beforehand to get in line. Of course, this is Comic-Con and no one showed up at the last minute. We were circling the Sails Pavilion like vultures, trying to stay a step ahead (no pun intended) of the events staff whose job was to keep everyone moving. With so many people in attendance, we could easily cause a traffic jam. But when they announced the opening of the line, a mass of people swooped in so fast that it merited its own sound effect. 😛 Scholastic was extra kind to all of us as we waited for the big event. Not only were we promised a signed edition of the exclusive poster (three of the illustrators were waiting with pens in hands), but we also got a commemorative tote bag, pin, and another expansive poster from Brian Selznick! Indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy was also selling Potter books, so I decided to shell out the cash. I purchased the second illustrated edition since Jim Kay was on hand! It was like winning the jackpot!

#4) The Psychology of Shipping Panel
This happened to be the last panel that I attended, and I think I went out on a high note. A team of psychologists and doctoral students from Marshall University shared intel from their study on favorite fandom ships and what they say about the shippers. I don’t tend to “ship” characters romantically very often, but the concept does give me the fuzzy feels of being involved in fandom. Sure, it’s pretty silly to feel so attached to the lives of popular fictional characters, but it is a method of camaraderie after all. You can always find someone who “ships” the same pairing that you do! 😛 But more interestingly, perhaps, this psychological research tried to pinpoint the different types of relationships, and ergo why specific people are drawn to specific ones. Suddenly this is about understanding ourselves more than it is about something imaginary! 😛 I long to see the full report–alas, trying to explain the ins and outs to lay people in under an hour turned to confusion at times–but I don’t think that’s in the cards. They are interested in new subjects for further research, so maybe I will be getting in touch! I’d like to be included as one of the fans of science fiction/fantasy pop culture! And in heartening news…the Katniss/Peeta ship is still going strong. 😀 #TeamEverlark

Bonus Note
I didn’t attend this panel, but apparently it made enough of a splash for JTA to notice it. In “Art During the Holocaust,” Ruth Goldschmiedova Sax, a survivor, spoke of her experiences in the camps, and also how Nazis used comics as antisemitic propaganda. Meanwhile, in the United States, predominantly Jewish comics used the art form to speak against the Nazi regime, which other panelists expanded upon. I decided to skip this in order to stay in a lighter head space, but man do I feel like I missed out on something important. Tangentially, during downtime at the Con, I was reading Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This. It’s intergenerational conversation style sorta hues to her father’s infamous Holocaust graphic novel, Maus. So maybe I did take part, in a way. 🙂

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