October 11, 2016

Elena Ferrante and the Meaning of Apologies this Yom Kippur

Posted in Italy, Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:49 am by chavalah

One of few people who actually likes the Neapolitan covers. :P

One of few people who actually likes the Neapolitan covers.😛

Before I start, a quick note of remembrance for the recent Jerusalem shooting victims, Levana Malichi and Yosef Kirme. May their memories be for a blessing.

Yom Kippur starts this evening, and in preparation I listened to the Unorthodox apologies podcast. They covered a lot of great ground, including how to make a good apology, and Georgetown’s efforts to reach out to the descendants of those they’ve wronged. But what caught my attention most was a barely expressed argument between two hosts of differing political views, about the nature of public shaming. Liel Leibowitz, who is basically the right of center voice of the show, posited the question whether public apologies meant anything anymore in this hypersensitive “politically correct” environment.

I wrote in my last post that I was concerned about some members of the Left using the idea of “identity politics” (NOT “political correctness,” which I’ll get to in a jiffy) to quiet or even shame voices of dissent about complex issues. But I’m more concerned about some members of the Right misusing the phrase “politically correct” so that they can play the victim card instead of holding themselves accountable to other people. Because one of the things we should all apologize for, imho, is not always treating others with respect, and that’s exactly what “political correctness” actually means.

This past week, the sensational news has revolved around a leaked recording of the Republican presidential candidate making statements about sexually assaulting women. He “apologized” for his past behavior, but those of us who have gone through the Days of Awe should understand that his apology isn’t genuine. Instead of focusing on his wrongdoing, he’s trying to shift negative attention to others.

Later, during the latest Presidential debate, he tried to dismiss his actions by saying “they’re just words” and words can’t harm us. I’ve heard this excuse from other people as well, and it seems like a poor way to try and sidestep the higher integrity of just treating people with respect. As a Jew, a reader and a writer, I know that words have power. The more society normalizes making hateful comments about people based on gender, race, religion, sexuality and etc, the more we live in a world without empathy. And then what’s the point of giving a fuck how we treat each other, physically or mentally? Maybe we Jews don’t need to worry about Yom Kippur, or the Book of Life.

What does it mean to hurt someone with words? Another example on my mind, albeit less serious than the issue of sexual assault, has to do with another sensational story from last week—the outing of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s real identity.

I’ve been a fan of Ferrante’s writing for years. And I know we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, but I never wanted to know her identity. Perhaps I romanticized the ideal that an author could get away with being known more for her work than for her marketing. Either way, this public doxxing strikes me as remarkably petty, the work of a sleuth conflating “journalism” with carrying out a bit of a vendetta. He claimed that he resented Ferrante possibly using fictionalized elements in her memoir, but she’s a novelist, not a politician running for office. Why should his disagreement with her lawful actions justify infringing on her privacy? Why can’t Elena Ferrante be allowed to be successful on her own terms?

For me it comes down to entitlement—feeling entitled to infringe on someone’s privacy if you disagree with some of her decisions, or feeling entitled to use hateful words against others. Don’t downplay it by whining about “political correctness.” To truly apologize is to have humility, and to respect that we owe dignity to a world that is larger than ourselves. This is the lesson that I hope to take with me into 5777.

G’mar Chatimah Tova.

September 26, 2016

5776 in News of the Jews

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:04 am by chavalah

Rosh Hashanah, my favorite holiday, will soon be upon us. It’s a time to reflect and change, rejuvenate and grow, as individuals and as a community.

This blog post is part of my way of doing that. It’s in no way a conclusive list of any and all world events that affected the Jews, but they are the ones that touch me the most personally. I’ve divided this entry into four parts—three broader events, and one that pertains more to my own life.

Black Lives Matter/Israeli “Genocide”

Definitely a significant issue for our community this year. On August 1, a coalition or organizations dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement published a platform of demands to the U.S. government, including the end of financial aid to Israel, citing it’s “genocide” of Palestinian people. Reaction was swift across the Jewish world, with too many sources to cite here. Tablet Magazine, in my humble opinion, did an amiable job of collecting varied reactions from a variety of sources, including a call to the Jewish community to participate more fully in BLM activism before criticizing the movement.

The one that uplifted me most at the time came from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. While praising BLM for their needed advocacy in defending Black lives, and also the lives of Palestinians under occupation, they question BLM’s controversial ally, the BDS movement, and they criticize the one-sided outlook on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They say:

The military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide—a term defined as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians. There is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, each of which constituted a calculated plan to destroy specific groups, and each of which killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The Black Lives Matter platform also does not address the use of violence by some Palestinians, including the rocket attacks against civilians that Human Rights Watch has classified as a war crime. One can vigorously oppose occupation without resorting to terms such as “genocide,” and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.

Like many Jews, I am a staunch progressive who wants to create safe spaces for marginalized groups. I am depressed that for some members of the Left playing the Identity Politics game, it is now ok to ignore the centuries of European and Middle Eastern antisemitism that have shaped the Jewish reality, especially in Israel. They have instead relabeled us as “white colonialists.” But that doesn’t negate the absolute necessity in standing up for Black lives. Black people have been systematically discriminated against ever since arriving in this country; every time I’ve tried to craft this piece over the past few weeks, I was accounting for the latest unarmed Black casualty of the U.S. police. We cannot forget these people.

I hope we can strive for more universal empathy in the future. That is more or less the theme of this entire post.

Israeli Government Attitude Towards Progressive Judaism/Women

Sometimes it seems like whenever Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech in English, he’s either talking to the Obama administration or to the American Jewish community with promises about reigning in the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate.😛 It’s probably not that simple, but there’s a good possibility!

The United States and Israel make up the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population. Although American Jews are primarily from a progressive strain—Reform or Conservative (Conservative being named in response to the Reform movement :P)—Israel is presided over by the Orthodox Rabbinate. There is no civil marriage ceremony in Israel. The Rabbinate often denies conversions performed in other countries, including by the Orthodox. Earlier this year, the Knesset passed a bill to bar the non-Orthodox from using mikvahs for said conversions.

A group I’ve been intrigued by for these past several years is Women of the Wall. Like most Jewish movements, they suffered a schism in beliefs and have more or less separated into two WOW organizations. The main one wants the Israeli government to grant them a mixed-gender space of worship at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site. (The “traditional” one wants to be able to practice in a progressive way in the women’s section in the existing prayer area. This would also allow them to include Orthodox women, who would not feel comfortable praying in a mixed-gender space. That’s what the women do now—performing bat mitzvahs, reading from the Torah, singing and etc—all things banned by the Orthodox establishment. The leaders are often arrested and their religious items confiscated.)

WOW has been involved in legal battles in Israel for years, which culminated in early 2016 when the government promised to create an egalitarian prayer space. But due to pressure from Orthodox organizations this hasn’t happened yet and earlier this month, the Israeli Supreme Court took the government to task.

The Jewish Women’s Archive also dedicated a podcast episode to this topic. I find myself in tears, particularly when male “allies,” to use a contemporary term, pray with the women or pass them a Torah over the partition. Maybe “the problem” isn’t that simple, with so many competing ways to be a Jew, but there’s something so harrowing about Jewish women being heckled and assaulted when they pray. Not by the gentiles this time, but by their fellow Jews.

Polling statistics seem to favor a pluralistic approach to Judaism…hopefully year by year we can expect more tolerance and less bull-headedness.

Reconstructionist Intermarried Rabbis Controversy

Some news from one of the smallest Jewish denominations (existing somewhere between the Reform and Conservative strands, though honestly these lines between progressive movements are starting to blur. Except, perhaps, in this issue.) Shortly after High Holidays last year, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced that it would allow admittance of rabbinical students in interfaith relationships, claiming:

Why have we taken this step? We no longer want to prevent very wonderful and engaged Jewish leaders from becoming rabbis. After years of study, research, and discussion with many members of the Reconstructionist community, we have concluded that the status of a rabbinical student’s partner is not a reliable measure of the student’s commitment to Judaism—or lack thereof. Nor does it undermine their passion for creating meaningful Judaism and bringing us closer to a just world. The issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to fight or police; we want to welcome Jews and the people who love us to join us in the very difficult project of bringing meaning, justice, and hope into our world.

But as of April last year, according to JTA, 19 rabbis have chosen to leave the Reconstructionist movement over this and other issues. According to a spokesperson for the newly formed Beit Kaplan—the Rabbinic Partnership for Jewish Peoplehood, She said the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s recent decision to permit intermarried rabbis, which made it the only denomination outside Secular Humanistic Judaism and Renewal to do so, “muddled the definition of what it means for a rabbi to have a Jewish family.” (We are getting into smaller and smaller denominations here, and moving away from the Orthodox/Reform/Conservative movements practiced by most of the world’s religious Jewry.)

I am of a torn mind about this. My parents chose to raise me as Reconstructionist, in large part because they were the most open to intermarried families in the 1980s. If Reconstructionists claim that my parent’s choice to marry outside of the faith doesn’t preclude our family from being Jewish, then shouldn’t the same be said for rabbis? Or do even progressive movements have a line we cannot cross, lest we lose our sense of identity?

I’d really love to talk to Reconstructionists from all perspectives about this issue, actually. No easy answers.

Personal dealings with antisemitism

Being a Jewish blogger on the internet, one is inevitably prone to receive antisemitic, trolling comments. My operation here is quite small, and I’m fortunate to be insulated from regular abuse. The last comment came in late July, in response to this post from several years ago. I suppose that I gave it a rather provocative title.😛 It concerns the character of Rumplestiltskin in the tv show Once Upon a Time, though as the program has become more original (just started its sixth season!) my opinions, of course, have changed. Though I still think it’s worth analyzing the antisemitic undertones of the original fairytale character.

This latest troll tried to shame me about my wish in seeing actress Ginnifer Goodwin, an identified and practicing Jew, at least from public discourse, play a Jewish character. She claimed that I was a disgrace to “my people,” or some such nonsense. Basically because she disagreed with me on one of my opinions, she felt justified in hating on all Jews.

The only thing I can do is move beyond this. In the words of the Amidah, as translated by the Conservative movement: Open my heart to your Torah so that I may pursue your Mitzvot. Frustrate the designs of those who plot evil against me; make nothing of their schemes.

The future is in our hands now. L’shanah tova, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.

August 28, 2016

Harry Potter and the Boy Who Became a Franchise

Posted in Pop Culture at 5:24 pm by chavalah

Probably my favorite use of my timeturner ever. :P

Probably my favorite use of my timeturner ever.😛

The script boasted the biggest single-week sales in the last decade, according to Bookseller’s Magazine, and will almost certainly be the bestselling book of the year, probably by a lot. The play in London is sold out through May. The next movie, first of a trilogy, is slated to open big in November. And now J.K. Rowling has announced three new ebooks about Hogwarts history to come out next month.

Like many fans, perhaps my first reaction is trepidation. What does new Harry Potter content mean? And will it destroy the magic of the original seven books?

I suppose that’s a rather irrational concern. It’s not like Rowling can take a time turner and erase the publication of Harry’s Hogwarts adventures and his showdown with Voldemort (though if you know the plot of that play… :P) New content, no matter how straining and mediocre, will not take my memories of midnight release parties and all-day reading binges, or connecting with people for years over the love of this story.

We’ve been asking to live at Hogwarts forever, and in many ways that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. The movie studios are now a tourist attraction. Theme parks have cropped up in Florida and California. There’s toys, collectibles, games—I have, among other things, a plush golden snitch and Harry Potter Clue.😛 Pottermore was the website dedicated to Rowling’s storyboarding behind the scenes, which has now culminated in these more accessible ebooks. Even in the middle of writing her original series, she produced some paraphernalia–Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, now the inspiration for the new movies; and Quidditch Through the Ages by Kennilworthy Whisp.

So, it’s a franchise. In the most cynical sense, it’s about making Potter into a never-ending, money-grabbing brand. But for mega-fans, it’s about making the fantasy more real, because the Wizarding World is about more than Harry Potter. It’s a place with lasting value on its own. That’s why J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion, which has nothing to do with the adventures of Bilbo Baggins or the Fellowship of the Ring. In fact it’s a lot like Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard; it’s the mythology that fuels their cultures.

Still, you have to be dedicated. It’s a lot easier to see the Potter series as self-contained; to deal with it on its surface rather than deal with the man behind the curtain. I admit, I didn’t get too far into Pottermore because of the time drain. I’m kinda looking forward to the ebooks; information delivered much more simply.

Some of the magic dimmed for me when Rowling started releasing backstory to complement the first Fantastic Beasts movie. That meant that she had to imagine how magic would work in North America. The writing has been dull and the content offensive to a Native American tribe. Even without all of that mishegas, I have mixed feelings. As much as I want the Wizarding World to be the Wizarding World, and not just the UK and Europe, so much of the inspiration for the originals comes from British folklore and the Western canon of literature. Surely anything with origins in other places would feel very different, and that’s never been the focus of the series. It’s not even the focus of the Fantastic Beasts, films, which appear to be fantasy adventures about a Brit in 1920s New York. I’d rather keep non-Western magic with non-Western writers, methinks.

I actually went into Cursed Child with a bit of optimism. Harry’s life, after all, is safe territory, isn’t it? I certainly adored the original novels. Reactions from fans have been mixed, at best. After writing my review, I think I’ve found the equilibrium of accepting that the plot is full of holes but the Potter themes—finding light in the darkness by working together, and choosing the right path over the easy path—still rang true. I’d like to think that was Rowling’s contribution to the play that was largely penned by Jack Thorne. Definitely had a bit of a different feel, and not just because it was stage directions rather than vivid description. My favorite reviews of Cursed Child are actually discussions; check out the BookRiot Podcast and the Slate Audio Book Club.

I don’t know if I should go any further without acknowledging that Potter fans have also generated a lot of content about their beloved series—from fanfiction to fan films; international Quidditch teams to Wizard Rock bands. Then, making the biggest impact on the real world, we have the HP Alliance. Any huge fandom has a little bit of a natural aversion to franchise, methinks, because once a story expands, it inevitably becomes less of the thing that enticed the first fans in the first place. And yes, new installments could be of subpar quality.😛

Harry Potter is here to stay. I believe that it will be a touchstone for children’s-to-YA fantasy to last the ages (it certainly reinvigorated the genre in publishing) the way that Star Trek and Star Wars are for adult science fiction and fantasy. For my part, I think I’m done with the story of the Boy Who Lived. Sorry, Harry, but nothing can top your prophetic hero’s journey that defined the original seven books. I am still interested in expanding the Wizarding World, Hogwarts lore in particular, though I’ll likely take anything that strays into other cultural territory with a grain of salt. I also want to check out more fan-produced material, because I know from convention panels and midnight release parties that there’s nothing quite so magical as Potterheads geeking out together. How far will canonized Potter material stretch into the future? I can’t say. But I’m on my broomstick and I’m ready for the ride.

July 12, 2016

A Reversal of Fortune and the Price of Revenge: Sansa, Arya and Cersei in “Game of Thrones,” Season Six

Posted in Pop Culture at 12:44 am by chavalah

The reunion that was promised.  (Kit Harington as Jon Snow and Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark)

The reunion that was promised. (Kit Harington as Jon Snow and Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark)

A brief disclaimer: all three of these storylines have moved beyond (and have been altered) from the published books. So I’ll be focusing on the show characters, and not their canon counterparts. I’m limiting my book feels to Bran, and the stunning Hodor revelation from mid-season. WHY DIDN’T YOU LISTEN TO YOUR FATHER, BRANDON?! *ahem*😛 Moving on.

When last we left these three ladies, they were in precarious positions. Cersei was confined to the Red Keep after enduring a venomous walk of shame. Sansa jumped from the Winterfell ramparts into uncertain safety in order to escape her abusive husband. Arya ended up blind after using a face while she was still “someone.”

This year, Cersei succeeded in burning all (or most) of her enemies. Sansa reunited with her brother, Jon, ensured his victory in the Battle of the Bastards, and killed her abuser, Ramsay Bolton. Arya regained her sight, snagged a new face, and returned to Westeros to cross Walder Frey’s name off of her list.

Revenge reigned supreme among these ladies, and they each greeted it with a smile. It’s a major red flag; violence always comes with a cost. But I’m wary to lump the Stark girls too closely with Cersei. Revenge, like people, can come in different shades. Sansa and Arya have embraced acts of cruelty, but they still live by a code. Does the Queen Mother—now Queen of Westeros?


Cersei never regains any of the friends whom she has lost over the past several seasons. Besides for Frankenstein, his monster, and her fiercely loyal brother, Jaime, the Queen stands alone. Even Tommen, who briefly wanted to be “strong” for her, quickly falls under the influence of his wife, Margaery Tyrell, and the High Sparrow.

Cersei opts for revenge instead of facing a likely fatal trial. But in snuffing out her relatively small group of enemies, she doesn’t bat an eye at including thousands of bystanders as collateral damage. “Burn them all,” says Mad Queen Cersei.

And does it end well for her? I wouldn’t think so. As she’s off torturing Septa Unella, her son Tommen, the one person whom she sought to protect, throws himself out of a window rather than accept the world that she created for him. “To House Lannister!” the soon-to-be-deceased Walder Frey declares over his descending body. That’s a sure sign, if any, that House Lannister is on its death knells. All that remain now are three siblings who may soon be at each others’ throats. Cersei’s power shot as Queen of Westeros is meant to convey a dynasty to last the ages. But with all three of her children now dead and the prophecy fulfilled; and with several great Houses aligning with Daenerys against her, I think she’s just ruling over a pile of ash.

On the bright side, ”Light of the Seven” may be the least Game of Thrones music that Ramin Djawadi ever composed, but it quickly rose up to the top of my faves.😛 Very haunting.


Seriously, I'd rather the Walkers win than the love between these two characters die. :/

Seriously, I’d rather the Walkers win than the love between these two characters die.:/

Sansa Stark has been pulled in two directions all season. She starts by swearing an oath to Brienne, which basically positions her as the Lady of her House for the first time in her life. Then she reunites with Jon in a scene I reacted so loudly to that I’m sort of surprised that I didn’t get angry knocks on my door.😛 And she insists, citing her father’s words, that the northern houses will be loyal and fight for Jon. But the northern houses (most of them, anyway) betray her instead by not doing the honorable thing.

On the other hand, there is an un-Stark shrewdness to her, brought on by years of abuse. Her confrontation with Littlefinger not only confirms that last year’s controversy had a larger point than just shock value; it’s also, likely, one of the most brutally honest descriptions of rape that has ever come on TV. Sansa is now hardened and distrusting. She loves her brother, Jon, but he lacks her political acumen so she keeps things from him. She saves the Stark army during the Battle of the Bastards but she gets little recognition for it, leading to jealousy. True, Littlefinger has his own designs, but I’m not quite sure he’s manipulating her. She has her own justifiably conflicted feelings about what’s going down in the north.

It’s been a bittersweet season for my favorite House. Two of the Stark siblings are reunited, but they aren’t exactly living happily ever after. Rickon, the youngest Stark sibling is dead—a cold reality that Sansa could accept far more readily than Jon. And in killing Ramsay, the Lady of Winterfell takes a little bit of her abuser’s sadism into herself. “I’m part of you,” he sneers, which seems like a harrowing send off before she feeds him to his dogs, just as he’s done to his victims all season. She’s not a serial killer; she’s not ready to “burn them all,” surely, but she’s not the “little dove” from season one, either. For a person who now believes that “no one can protect anyone,” what might she justify for her survival?


I admit, I’m not the biggest fan of Arya’s storyline. The House of Black and White serves no higher purpose on the show than to get the girl from point A to point B, and it even disregards its own rules to do so. Jaqen and the waif maintain their personal desires, even though they are both supposed to be “no one.” The poisoned water restores Arya’s eyesight even though she’s still “someone.” She suffers few consequences for her choices—she’s able to fight and kill the waif, even with a gaping stomach wound; she even uses a face to kill Walder Frey, no problem, when the same rules applied last year made her blind. I just found it all very shallow and disappointing.

But Arya’s journey away from the Faceless Men bears more fruit. I loved the play within a play—it was a clever way for Game of Thrones to parody itself, while also giving insight into how the Braavosi people view the drama of our main cast. But my favorite part of the entire tableau was how Arya realizes that she has empathy for Cersei, now number one on her list. She explains to Lady Crane that the death of the Queen’s family would lead her to be angry and vengeful—hmm, sounds familiar.😛 I also like that Arya, after struggling with the implications, doesn’t kill Lady Crane, a woman who’s done her no harm. It shows that she still has a conscience, and she won’t just “burn them all.”

But be all of this as it may, Arya is still a ruthless assassin. Her wide-eyed, grinning reaction to killing Walder Frey doesn’t bode well for her spirit. She may not be psychotic, but something—revenge—has gotten hold of her. Though her list grows ever shorter, her methods grow all the more unhinged. Can a girl who bakes her enemy’s sons into pies deviate from this gnarly path? Will she ever be able to go home, or has “home” disappeared into a cycle of violence?


George R. R. Martin has stated his interest in stories where “the heart is in conflict with itself,” to paraphrase Faulkner. This is what we have to look forward to next year—for the Stark girls and indeed for most of the characters. It’s going to be an emotional ride.

June 30, 2016

Orlando, Tel Aviv, “The Hunger Games”

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 12:46 am by chavalah

Tel Aviv building decorated in solidarity with Orlando and the LGBTQ community

Tel Aviv building decorated in solidarity with Orlando and the LGBTQ community

I’m going to soft pedal into a brief post about current events and empathy by bringing up The Hunger Games. Mostly because I don’t know how to quit you, Katniss.😛 And the easiest way to keep talking about something is to counter what others get wrong about it.

The Hunger Games franchise is easy to dismiss. I recently heard criticism from a BookTuber who claimed that Mockingjay contained an unbelievable amount of death, which struck me as facile thinking considering that Mockingjay is a war novel that largely takes place in a futuristic mine field. But this seems to be the catch 22 that some YA falls into—that people claim it’s both too infantile and too gritty.

Similarly, this NPR piece dismisses The Hunger Games as being written for “a fifth-grade [reading] level,” based on vocabulary and sentence complexity. This is where I often clash with the so-called “gatekeepers” of “good” literature, and their insistence on privileging writing form over writing content. There is a certain banality to The Hunger Games language, though I attribute that in part to artistic license, seeing that Katniss is an unintuitive and largely reactionary protagonist. But more to the point, I believe that the series should be judged by its layered responses to the corruption of warfare, vengeance, dictatorial power, political propaganda; and the need for universal empathy and personal relationships. On the other hand, you can string together a bunch of pretty words that ultimately mean absolutely nothing.

The need for universal empathy has been much on my mind this month, particularly due to the shootings in Tel Aviv and Orlando. Too often, it seems, the first response to tragedies like this is to start assigning blanket blame over an entire group of people. Or argue about who deserves sympathy and who deserves condemnation.

On June 8, two Palestinian gunmen opened fire, killing four people at a market in Tel Aviv. The responses to this could be depressingly polarizing. On the “pro-Israeli” side, grief over this horrible violence could easily turn into casting blanket blame over all Palestinians, as if two people spoke for the entire group, and making life more difficult in the West Bank. On the “pro-Palestinian” side, all one might do is bring up the occupation to completely delegitimize the lives of the Tel Aviv victims, and the threat that Israel faces from violence. But is it righteous to claim that any conflict can justify the killing and maiming of civilians on the other side? No—it is callous and cruel.

In synagogue on the next Shabbat, my rabbis named the dead—Ido Ben-Ari, Mila Mishayev, Ilana Naveh and Michael Feige—and prayed that we may still shine some light on this world. Less than 24 hours later, a gunman forced his way into a gay nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people. Like with Tel Aviv, some people quickly threw up blanket blame. Obviously Islam was the problem, even though several different cultures have homophobic sects. The gunman pledged for ISIS (as well as some of ISIS’s enemies in the Islamic fundamentalist world) in an attempt, I believe, to justify the anger and cruelty he chose to carry out on his own. And lest we forget that Muslims themselves are often the victims of groups like ISIS, now we must keep Istanbul in our thoughts and prayers.

Shortly after the Orlando shooting, I watched this remarkable video from a former CIA operative that espouses universal empathy. In it, she relays the story of an Al Qaeda fighter who referenced movies, including The Hunger Games, where people the world over pit themselves as the District Rebels and their enemies as the Capitol. It’s a shame that grown people don’t really grasp the point of this story, about how conflict corrupts everyone, not just one side. Rebel President Alma Coin quickly falls into the power lust of her predecessor and justifies another Hunger Games, the very practice they went to war to abolish. Soldier Gale Hawthorne is so blinded by hatred of those who hurt him that he justifies bombing civilians—and ends up losing those he loves in the collateral damage. No matter how we see ourselves, if we can’t comprehend that there are human beings on “the other side,” we are doomed.

My biggest takeaway from any violent tragedy is the need for universal empathy. May we all be a light unto the world. Baruch Hashem.

May 20, 2016

Winter/Spring 2016 TV and Movies (OUAt, Galavant, The Family, Mad Max: Fury Road)

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:37 am by chavalah

Once Upon a Time, 5b promotional poster

Once Upon a Time, 5b promotional poster

Welp, the traditional TV season is coming to an end. Just a quick note on some of the media that I’ve been watching, before Game of Thrones consumes me fully.😛

Once Upon a Time, season 5B
I wrote in December that I was looking forward to seeing certain recurring guest stars again, and that was definitely one of my favorite parts of this half season. Often, folks abruptly disappear from this show, leading part of the fandom to dub the notion of “forgotten character island.”😛 But in the Underworld, we got to tie up some loose ends, many of which have been teasing us since near the beginning of the series. There were certainly some parts of this arc that had a “finale” feel, yanno, because ABC could pull the plug after this, but Once will indeed be back for a season six!😀

The showrunners couched the themes of this arc behind watered down Olympian gods and references to the Underworld as a purgatory between “a better place” and “a worse place.” But it lived up to the promise of Once’s integral theme of hope– exemplifying that if you work through your misdeeds, you can find forgiveness and happiness. Nowhere did this work better than with Cora; Barbara Hershey has always been great at bringing nuance to this villain who closed her heart in the face of adult ambition and a painful past. But now we get to see her realize the error of her ways. This is probably one of the strongest scenes of the entire series, where Cora admits that one of her catch phrases, “love is weakness,” was misguided. Granted, the scene does rely on a little bit of retro-history of a forgotten past between her two daughters, Regina and Zelena. But for the most part, Cora is atoning for long-festering sins that she performed against both women.

…I’m also, admittedly, the most invested in Zelena’s character arc that I’ve ever been, now that she’s toeing redemption and starting a real relationship with her sister.😀 Bring me those family ships!

Not everyone got a happy ending, of course. Robbie Kay also reprised the role of Peter Pan, but since he didn’t really grapple with any of his wrongdoing, of course he couldn’t get a happy ending. Still, his final scene was a bit depressing for external reasons. When Rumple vanquished him at the end of season 3A, he sacrificed himself for a noble cause; he was, in fact, a hero. But this time, when he vanquishes his father, it’s more an act of petty revenge. Highlighting, alas, that Rumple seems to be the penultimate villain of this show. We may feel for him, but he doesn’t seen capable of real change.

This was even more stark when he was pitted against Milah. His ex-wife lived her life as a beleaguered but ultimately selfish woman; in the Underworld she was trying to atone, so that she might see her son again. But Rumple snatches that chance away from her for his own gain. Probably one of the most depressing character endings ever, because the show constructed it in such a way that she’s lost forever.:/ Oy.

Elsewhere, things got more interesting between Rumple and his current wife, and not just because of the baby bump and what it means for their family. For the first time in a long time, he and Belle are honest—while awake—with each other.😛 Also, Belle got to grapple with her own beliefs about right and wrong in an episode about Gaston (of course.) I hope that continues next season, and I hope that other characters get to do that as well.

We also got our first lesbian relationship on the show! While I applaud the writers for signifying that gay people want–and deserve–the same happy endings as everyone else, this development was ultimately disappointing. Featuring third tier characters whom we will barely ever see again, stolid relationship chemistry, and insta-love. :/. Coulda done better, Once.

Next season seems to promise the theme of characters—Regina in particular—grappling with their “dark sides,” and I’m all for it. But what happened to Emma’s dark side—a big selling point a year ago when she became susceptible to the powers of the Dark One? I wish that other characters were consistently portrayed with Regina’s nuance—everyone has a liiiittle bit of Mr. Hyde in them.😛

But strap in your seatbelts, kids, for a Victorian steampunk-esque ride, I hope! We’re moving into adult “fairytales!” Also, Henry’s burgeoning author powers, burgeoning romance with Violet, and burgeoning teenage outbursts.😀 I am here for that.

I’m really disappointed that this show didn’t make the cut for a third season, because I found this year to be better than last year. They juggled lots of plot and characters, lots of satire (and lots of Game of Thrones jokes) that came together into a comprehensive and tightly-knit five-hour show.

Seriously, the soundtrack is just great. I started listening to it on my own and recognized the repeating refrain of “a new season” throughout the show’s run, updated to include whatever was going on in the plot at the time of the new versions. Alan Menken and Glen Slater are pretty ingenious with their rhyming (and hilarious) music and lyrics. My favorite is probably “Today We Rise,” speaking of Game of Thrones feels.

Sometimes I think I’m being too easy on this show. Because it’s a parody, I don’t have to worry so much about things like plot believability.😛 Beyond that, one thing I definitely rolled my eyes at was the catfighting between Isabella and Madalena; the standard relationship for female leads on television. *sigh* Gotta admit, though, the harmonies in their song were really quite good. And in general, Madalena got a surprising amount of character development, while still remaining hilariously villainous.

Is it too late to perform some D’Dew voodoo on ABC execs to get this show back again?? Alas, should have written this post sooner.:/

The Family
I was much more ambivalent in watching The Family, a new (and unrenewed) (melo)drama that played after Once. A mystery/thriller that often delegated such issues as child abuse and trauma to mere window dressing, the show mostly concerned itself with a series of increasingly unbelievable “who dunnit” shockers. The more genuine moments about how these events might affect a family were few and far in between.

Joan Allen brought her all to this role of a grieving mother and ambitious politician, but I couldn’t help feeling the entire time that I really should just watch her in Room. Liam James gave a good turn at playing the haunted boy returned from a decade of abduction, when not being manipulated by plot machinations. I was also moved by Allison Pill, and most of the writing for her character, Willa. She struck me as very flawed, but also very human in her long term responses to her family’s plight, so of course she was pretty universally hated by the fanbase.😛

Beyond all that, the cops were largely incompetent and the journalists unethical. And that’s the only area where this show shunted its minority actors, unfortunately. Winning the most offensive award in my book was the character of Bridey Cruz, a lesbian lifestyle blogger turned expose writer. First off, show me the hyper-local newspaper in a small conservative town with the budget for a lesbian lifestyle blogger. Secondly…way to play into negative stereotypes about bisexual women, show. She doesn’t have any real relationships, but is instead a femme fatale, who sleeps with a both a brother and a sister in order to get ahead, professionally. Ugh. It’s the 21st century…time to do better, TV.

Mad Max: Fury Road
I put off watching this movie, in part because when it came out, it was used as a bludgeon against the then recently aired Sansa rape scene on Game of Thrones. I had a feeling that unlike many of my friends, I’d see the movie as more vacuous in that capacity. Don’t hate me, everyone.😛

The reason why this film is viewed as “feminist” while Sansa’s arc was not, is because we don’t witness the sexual abuse. That’s a low bar for me. I’d rather see a character be abused and then be shown as a person afterwards, vs the waifs from this movie. Did they even have names? I mean, I know they did, but I didn’t see any reason to remember them. Did they have any trauma about their treatment, any past histories or hopes for their lives that went beyond the immediacy of the plot? This feminist message was all about the message that female subjugation is bad, but not at all about the femmes–the women–themselves, as people.

And because I didn’t really connect with the characters, I wasn’t all that interested in the plot. Sorry, guys. Spotlight may have been a perfunctory “take your kid to work” type movie, but the art of journalism had more of an emotional arc than any of the women in Fury Road. I’m sticking with the Academy winner.

And that about covers it! Tune in next time for long think pieces about Game of Thrones season six, cos you know they’re coming.😛

April 23, 2016

As Passover Begins, Empathy, Redemption, Complex Realities in Fiction and Life

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 12:48 am by chavalah

Crossing the Red Sea

Crossing the Red Sea

Somewhat recently, my favorite Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire commentator disappointed me with a condescending, simple-minded real-world analogy. Perhaps I should unpack the first part of that statement before I continue, because in general I am very wary of most Game of Thrones/ASOIAF commentary. It’s very easy to dismiss the entire franchise, as one of the actors on the show put it, as just “tits and dragons.” You choose a House or a favorite “badass” character, and generally disparage anyone who isn’t on that team. But my favorite commentator sees the characters and their situations as I do, as flawed and complicated, worthy of nuanced critique and consideration.

Then, fast forward to the real world, where on social media, said commentator made an Israel-to-Nazi-Germany comparison. *sigh*

Don’t get me wrong; I suck in the real world, too. When reading fiction, I pride myself on feeling empathy for (almost) all characters who cross my path. On the metro, if you’re being an annoying asshat, I wanna slap your face. Who knows; maybe you’re in the middle of a debilitating illness or family crisis; I don’t give a shit. Just sit down and shut up. Of course, I’m not castigating entire groups of people, either.

There’s a lot that’s offensive about the Israel/Nazi comparison; I’ll stick to a few. The condescending nature of it, for one thing. This isn’t about thoroughly assessing policy failures, this is about shaking a finger at a country built, in part, on the backs of Shoah survivors. How could you, victims of genocide, do the same to others?

“Genocide,” perhaps, has become too ubiquitous a term. Like comparing anyone you dislike to Hitler, the term “genocide” seems most often, today, to denote any ethnic conflict. So, anecdote time. Thanks to my library job, I come across my fair share of books. Recently, I flipped through this one, which probes the issue of Native American genocide in the wake of European expansion and colonialism. Author Alex Alvarez posits that there were too many individual points of contact between tribes and Europeans throughout the years to slap that label on the monolithic whole. It got me to thinking how limited the term genocide is, and how it teaches us to think of “Native Americans” as one group of people rather than differentiated tribes. (This is also one of the biggest failings in U.S. education, at least from my experience.)

So many people want to divide the world into white hats and black hats, and for some reason, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems to take the brunt of that. I came across another book on the job later—a memoir by an Israeli peace activist, with a forward by Alice Walker. Unsurprisingly, she highlighted several Israeli injustices while pointedly ignoring Palestinian ones (extremists on both sides do this.) What floored me the most was that at the very end, she dedicated the book to the suicide bomber who killed the activist’s niece in Jerusalem. So she can have empathy for the Palestinian who deliberately targeted civilians, but not the Israelis who want to protect their people. There’s an astounding blindness to her assessment that I grapple with—it humbles me. I can see Walker’s blindness, of course. But we all have our blind spots, our inherent bigotries. Something to look out for.

Maybe this is part of the reason that I don’t see the Passover story as a simple morality tale. On it’s surface, the oppressors are punished and the oppressed set free. And I’m not denying the joy of escaping bondage, of creating a community despite outside violence. Surely Jews have had to deal with these issues throughout recorded history as well. In the Seder, we take drops of wine from our cups to acknowledge the cost of the ten plagues, and I’ve heard of traditions of a moment of silence for the Egyptian militia who lost their lives in the Red Sea. Everyone has an inherent humanity.

Another more modern (and controversial in some circles) Passover tradition is to equate Jewish liberation from Egypt to other forms of liberation—from Emancipation in the U.S. to the nationwide legalization of gay marriage, etc. It’s important to realize a universality in life, I believe. Every ethnic group of people has both been the oppressor and the oppressed. Actions can be good or evil, but people throughout history are not white hats or black hats.

To end with, I’ve found new commentators about Israel and the real world, via The Promised Podcast. Their Israeli leftist perspective seems to eschew the extremist opinions that I alluded to above, and it describes a complex society.

PS: Taking a page from some of my favorite online columns, I’m adding unrelated material in separate blog sections.😛 But continuing with this post, I’ve found another Jewish-themed fantasy novel! Check out King of Shards by Matthew Kressel…it’s on my TBR, so I should get to it eventually!😛

PPS: Because I can’t let my love of The Hunger Games franchise die…and it’s also, in essence, a story about a redemption from a type of bondage. Katniss, like Moses, ultimately can’t enter the new “Promised Land.” The reasons for their individual exiles are very different, but it gets me to thinking about how the prophet/leaders in a time of turmoil can’t really foot the bill during peacetime. The Israelites had the tools to start their new community in the homeland. As for Katniss, does anyone really wanna see the Mockingjay on tv, intoning “Fire is catching…now go pay your taxes!”?😛

Several months ago on booktube, I listened to a reader express dismay that there wasn’t a “place” for Katniss in the society that she helped to usher in. But I think this is a fundamental misreading of her character. Katniss never wanted to be a “badass” leader in the public spotlight. She wanted a simple, anonymous little life. Makes her more human.

Chag Sameach.

March 18, 2016

“The Angel of Losses” and a Jewish Gateway into Science Fiction and Fantasy

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 12:48 am by chavalah

A face for Jewish fantasy?

A face for Jewish fantasy?

A few weeks back, I wrote a review of Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses, which I found, almost immediately, to be lacking. I was trying to put the fantastical elements of the story together in my head, when I stumbled across this Strange Horizons review. It purports to talk about the novel as an example of “Jewish fantasy,” and I might even go as far as to say it’s an example of THE Jewish fantasy. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories are a re-telling of Jesus and Christian faith, Feldman’s book reworks Hassidic and Talmudic Jewish lore, which often has a magical realist tint.

I’ll try to be straightforward about the set up. Marjorie is a grad student who is mapping the provenance of the Wandering Jew. The Wandering Jew is not traditionally a Jewish invention, but rather a Christian one—said Wandering Jew was forced to wander for eternity because he rejected Christ. But Feldman claims the Wandering Jew for our own, and melds him with “the White Rebbe,” a minor character in Jewish texts who disappears into a cave, possibly to the Holy Land, and is never heard from again. In the novel “the White Rebbe” is cursed by the Angel of Losses to live an eternal life. The Angel of Losses is also called “Yode’a,” which, if my (looking up) Hebrew skills haven’t failed me, means “to know.” Otherwise the Angel of Losses is an invention, but both characters’ concerns with the Lost Tribes of Israel brings them back to a theme that peppers Jewish thought.

Marjorie’s grandfather encouraged her interest in the Wandering Jew by telling her stories as a child about “the White Magician.” It took until she found his notebooks to realize that the character was meant to be Jewish, and that he haunts his descendants. Her grandfather, not so shockingly revealed to be a Holocaust survivor who hid his religious identity after the war, is one, and Marjorie, of course, is another. An uplifting thing to note for this blog in particular is that Feldman made room for a patrilineal Jew to have access to her ancestral heritage. Always nice when the interfaith community isn’t excluded.

Marjorie teams up with Simon, a librarian/grad student researching the Lost Tribes. Then enter Nathan, a member of a religious, haredi sect who is trying to find the White Rebbe and complete his task of ending the Jewish exile by finding the Lost Tribes. (Also, he’s married to Marjorie’s sister who unknowingly embraced her roots by converting to Orthodox Judaism.) For more information on all of this backstory, try Feldman’s Q&A page for the book.

A few years ago, I touched briefly on this blog about Jews and fantasy, but now I’m actively seeking it out. Also Jews in science fiction, after reading Phoebe North’s Starglass duology, a YA dystopia taking place on a secular Jewish space ship. Here’s my to-read list so far.

There’s also a host of retellings of Biblical myths from a Jewish perspective, in order to flesh out those worlds. But for the purposes of my list, I’m sticking to authors who use Jewish history and lore to create their own worlds.

Perhaps the most invigorating thing about The Angel of Losses is how it expands the fantasy world as a whole. I know common complaints often center on how much modern stuff in the genre is a Tolkien ripoff—elves, dwarves and humans fighting medieval-style battles with magic. This book takes a very different type of magic, applies it to very different people, and explores very Jewish but also very universal themes of exile, loneliness, guilt and belonging.

February 6, 2016

Thoughts on Diversity and Representation in Film, From Academy Awards and Etc

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 2:58 pm by chavalah

An Eddie Redmayne movie that is unlikely to get an Oscar nom.  Well, more likely than "Jupiter Ascending." :P

An Eddie Redmayne movie that is unlikely to get an Oscar nom. Well, more likely than “Jupiter Ascending.”😛

There’s this strange dichotomy in the Academy Awards. Although this year they are not celebrating the performances of racially diverse actors, they seem to have a penchant for other “minority” representations. LGBTQ issues are on their radar, as Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Eddie Redmayne are all nominated for their work portraying characters on that spectrum.

Last year, perhaps disability issues were in the fore, with Redmayne taking home the Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. Multiple issues arise—the issue of the actor/character correlation, for example. Should disabled actors be the only ones allowed to play disabled characters? Should gay characters only be helmed by gay actors? It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg question with which is more important—diverse themes or diverse actors. I tend to err more on the side of themes, because that’s what gets the point across to the audience, that these characters with varying experiences that you’re seeing played out across a narrative bear as much weight as the trials and tribulations of ye standard able-bodied, white, cis, Christian men. Maybe there’s no better example of this than the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where white actors played Asian characters, Asian actors played white characters, and Hallie Berry played a German Jew from the 1930s.😛

More to the point with Redmayne last year—why did he win the nomination, and later the award? The movie clip they chose to illuminate during the ceremony was troubling in that context, with Redmayne straining to pull himself up a staircase. This makes it seem like the Academy was applauding an able-bodied man for pretending that he couldn’t just move his legs and stand up. Look, I’m going to be in Eddie Redmayne’s corner until the end of his life, now that he’s taken on a role in a movie based in the Harry Potter universe.😛 Speaking of bias. But pretending his legs don’t work because the character’s don’t doesn’t deserve special recognition. We might as well give most novelists awards for daring to dream up characters who don’t exist in real life.

So, what does deserve special recognition in the field of acting? I am not a student of acting, just a consumer of narrative in film and creative writing. To me, what counts is the actor’s ability to convince me that the character is a multi-faceted human being. What I liked in Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking was how he started with his boyish devotion to his friends and academic work, his bewilderment-cum-stubbornness in confronting the limitations of his condition and the effect it has on his family, and his wry humor with regards to his growing celebrity. (Note: I’m not referring to the real Stephen Hawking, just Redmayne’s ability to inhabit a character who felt like he was a human being.)

Of course, there are plenty of actors who accomplish this feat, and I’m not sure I could choose between them. To be perfectly cynical about it, I’m not sure that’s what the Academy is after, either. I think they’re as biased and insular as the big wigs of any industry, and awardees are more based on networking than on merit. It’s a problem that goes back all the way to the beginning of the assembly line, which is why there are also fewer projects by Black/other racial minority producers, and about Black/other racial minority themes. The movie business probably needs a variation of #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

I’ve been bitter at “prestige” awards shows for awhile, lately because they refuse to consider that The Hunger Games franchise were actually expertly produced and about major themes of warfare, trauma and propaganda, rather than, like, shallow YA teenage girl feels *hair flip* So I’ve decided to out-snob the Academy.😛 Because seriously, there is no art house movie that can approach the layers of complexity and emotional nuance of most literary novels on the market. All of this being said, I’m going to try and read Room by Emma Donoghue and Carol/The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith this month, and then compare them to their movies. I’ll bet anyone that the books are better. 😛

Another thing I’m doing, within the realm of movies this time, is paying more attention to film festivals. Particularly one—the Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival, which always revs up around the time of the Oscars. In years past I used to just take a cursory look and choose a film or two that was showing near me, but now I’m being much more thorough and want to buy tickets to LOADS. There’s Israel’s submission to this year’s Best Foreign Picture category for the Oscars–Baba Joon, about Jews of Iranian descent and spoken mostly in Farsi. There’s a whole section of films rated LGBTQ. Many films range across countries and time periods, not just depicted time periods, but dates of release.

And perhaps fortunately, Natalie Portman’s directorial/screenwriting debut of Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is already sold out.:/ NOOOOOOOOO. The U.S. claims part of this film; it should be distributed more widely here! 😦 Wah.

I almost wish that all of these films were more similar, because the diversity kind of makes me want to see them AAAALLLL. My pocketbook points me in a more limited direction, alas. But expect a review of something or other on my blog, JewishDC.😀

January 10, 2016

2015: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 6:54 pm by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

It’s my fourth year doing this blog post! I’m especially excited to include an update on Rabbi Barbara Aiello; not only is she rare for being a liberal, female rabbi in that country, but she’s particularly interested in revitalizing Judaism in southern Italy, the home region of my (non-Jewish) family.

Going back to my usual sources, I see there’s a lot about food this year.😛 Also an opinion piece from an American Jew in Rome, and then an article on how the Italian Jewish community sees their own situation. Bookended by incidents of antisemitism, because that’s how history goes this year.

Speaking of history, I also decided to include a few articles that JTA republished from their archives. Gives a rather intriguing portrait of Italy with regards to the Jews…from 1939 to 1960.

So, without further ado!

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