June 30, 2019

Game of Sansa: An In Depth Look at Sansa Stark in GOT and ASOIAF

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:43 pm by chavalah

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark at the end of the tv series

“Be gentle on a night like this and you’ll have treasons popping up all about you like mushrooms after a hard rain. The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.”

“I will remember, Your Grace,” Sansa said, though she had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me.

A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin

In my last post, I tried to maintain a sense of objectivity, and not get caught up in singular character arcs on Game of Thrones. But enough of that nonsense. 😛

I was going to write this anyway, since Sansa is THE ONLY QUEEN I’D BEND MY KNEE TO. 😛 But perhaps it’s even appropriate in the world of cultural commentary to focus on Sansa who, after all, is the only female ruler of season 8 who didn’t devolve into tyranny. I’m sure she won’t be a perfect queen. She’s a touch too cynical for the North, and being granted power in her own right is different than fighting for survival against the whims of Ramsay Bolton or King’s Landing ciphers. But on the other hand, as I’ve been fond of saying, Sansa is the only character thus far who cares about the damn grain. Throughout seasons 7 and 8, she was constantly planning for the long-term survival of her people. And she did so through forging alliances, not waging war. (A slight oversimplification, to be sure, but one of my favorite lines from season 7 was “I’m sure that cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way to get people to work together.”)

Show Sansa is the epitome of the story for me, if not quite that way in the books. Namely, Show Sansa is one of the people who fights for the people. She supports war when threatened, but not out of megalomania or revenge. She mostly works for a better future–for herself and for the North.

Book Sansa hasn’t been given nearly this much agency so far. And as much as I like that her kindness is more fleshed out, and her feminine traits are more represented on the page, there is no doubt that things go better for Sansa on the show. Even down to her siblings’ warging abilities being downplayed. Is it possible that Sansa’s broken link with her direwolf, Lady, means she can never truly be of the North–or a Stark–again? That’s certainly not the way it went down on HBO. Show Sansa got to go home. She even got to have a respected voice in public discourse. Whatever her flaws when she was young, she overcame them.

Being a Sansa fan means I almost had an inverted experience with Game of Thrones. Most people seem to love the early seasons and not think too highly of the latter ones. Granted, the first seasons had strengths regarding pacing and nuanced character interactions that the last ones often lacked. But in terms of Sansa, she was allowed to grow past her book limitations once there were no more books to adapt, whereas in the first few seasons her role was truncated. Her canon fear at the altercation between Arya and Joffrey in book 1 came off as bitchiness in season 1. She had no long, drawn out escape plan with Ser Dontos, or scenes of kindness with the commonfolk. Her naivete was vastly overplayed in season 3.
And she barely even got to sing her hymn at the Battle of Blackwater! This is my favorite fan version, far exceeding what they put in the show.

On the opposite side of the coin, her marriage to Tyrion was much more amiable on the show, and it led to an interesting alliance in the last season. In season 4 she took her own action with The Lysa Situation rather than deferring to Littlefinger’s lead like she did in A Storm of Swords. Ultimately, years later, she bested the sleaze at his own game. I have trouble believing she could do that in canon, though some book fans seem to expect it. Maybe when she’s older? She is still only 13 on paper, after all.

Substituting Sansa for Jeyne Poole as Ramsay’s wife meant Sansa got more screen time–but also more trauma than she’s seen thus far in the books. For my part, though I wish the rape wasn’t played up at the end of the episode like shock value, I don’t think it was wrong to point out that Westerosi norms give space for this type of abuse. I also don’t think it was a betrayal of Sansa’s character for her to find trouble even after she’d grown so much because of The Lysa Situation. Real life isn’t like a series of building blocks with one achievement stacked on top of another. People stumble and still make mistakes sometimes. Somewhat relatedly, although I personally find repugnant Sansa’s assertion to the Hound in season 8 that men like Ramsay helped strengthen her, I can’t deny that some abuse victims see things that way. Especially, I’d think, in culture like Westeros where there are so few protections for the downtrodden.

But man oh man. Her ensuing relationship with Theon, where the two of them saved each other? Her fealty to Brienne and her reunion with Jon, which was undoubtedly the most emotional scene on the show for me? This Gandalf the White moment (ok, maybe I’m overdoing it) when she provides the Nights of the Vale for the Battle of the Bastards? I mean, part of me rebels against the fact that she has to be that much of a badass to merit attention, but such is Game of Thrones. The larger conflict has always involved war, so acts of heroism on the battlefield come with their own clout. (On the opposite side of the coin, Sansa gave into vengeance when she murdered Ramsay with his dogs. But if ever there was an understandable act of cruelty, then it’s that one.)

Notwithstanding the “gotcha” moments of the Winterfell season 7 plot, I love how Sansa finally freed herself from Littlefinger. And finally (tada-ching!) season 8. Sansa’s coldness towards Daenerys could be seen as overly aggressive–except that it was mirrored in the rest of the Northmen and bore fruit when Dany turned out to not have their best interests at heart. Was it perhaps a bit foreshadowing that Sansa saw the Dragon Queen’s flaws? Perhaps–and I’m on record in the last post that I wish Dany’s progression had been more nuanced this year. But I also think that Sansa adopted the North’s wariness for outsiders. Along with a healthy dose of skepticism about people who desire the Iron Throne.

So who is Sansa Stark throughout the series? She begins as a young, naive, bratty girl who wants to leave her past behind (and alas, has little of her canonical kindness or romanticism.) She suffers horrible losses and endures brutal but thorough lessons on how to survive tyrants. When she leaves King’s Landing, she uses those skills to make herself an active player in the game, and perseveres even as she suffers more hardships. She reunites with her family, having realized the pettiness of wanting to separate from her roots, but Adult Sansa also learns to use her own voice. And when given power she does what few of her contemporaries do–puts the survival of her people first.

Sansa is not your stereotypical badass fantasy hero. Her strengths, both learned and cultivated, are quieter–cunning and empathy. She’s largely underappreciated and also largely needed to make a better world. But most importantly, perhaps shockingly, she’s the most like us. Most of us aren’t going to battle every adversity with a sword and assassinate all of our enemies. Most of us won’t be the most powerful person in the room, and we’ll have to work hard for what we do get. But hopefully we know what it is to survive–even when we’re fumbling on our way.

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May 27, 2019

A Focus on Legacy and Culture Following the Final Season of “Game of Thrones”

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:27 pm by chavalah

WARNING: Spoilers for Season 8 of “Game of Thrones”

Who will sit on that stupid throne? 😛

When showrunners David Benoiff and D.B. Weiss (often short-handed to “David and Dan”) took on the reigns of Game of Thrones they didn’t want the show to end the way of Lost or The Sopranos, with fans debating the finale for years to come. They took steps towards close-looped directness about the important narrative arcs. But they forgot to shield themselves from one thing….becoming the biggest zeitgeist of worldwide pop culture.

That’s what I think about in regards to most season 8 criticism, how impossible it would be for any ending to live up to cultural demand. Everyone has dreamed up their own endgames for their favorite characters, or epic battle scenes that even this budget can’t touch. Even more poignantly, the show isn’t really about the show anymore. It’s about all the chatter around the show–dozens of celebrity news articles that crop up even about a misplaced coffee cup on set. And David and Dan have no control over that–I mean, sure, someone effed up with the coffee cup. 😛 But they can’t control that most of the Game of Thrones phenomenon centers around people ruminating over Game of Thrones, not what actually happens on screen.

The published speculation and water cooler recaps that brought many people into the fold who might have otherwise ignored GoT gave the audience a sense of participation. It’s the era we live in, where all news is disseminated on social media, and ergo social. Why else do we have a well-stocked online petition demanding a redo of this huge production that was season 8? David and Dan could account for narrative mistakes, but not the onslaught of manning the most infamous television show during an age of hyper-connectivity over the internet.

This isn’t to say that David and Dan’s season was perfect. I’m just trying to keep this in mind as I assess the story based on the narrative and the hype around the show. It’s as crazy to say that the season was “all bad” as it is it was “all good.” Ultimately, I believe the weaknesses of the narrative had to do with making these last two seasons too short.

The two major plotlines of season 8 consisted of wrapping up the threat the Night King; and finding out who, of any of the remaining contestants, would ultimately sit on the Iron Throne. I came to respect that the show dispatched the Night King first. No matter Martin’s message about the undead in the books, this was always a weaker part on screen. Better to get back to the interpersonal conflict. But I also think it should have been Jon who killed the big baddie. Arya may not have been a “Mary Sue,” but I don’t like doing things out of shock value, which is more or less how Benoiff described the decision in a behind the scenes clip. Yes, they’d built up to this for a few years, but what about Jon’s resurrection? Surely, in an episode as apocalyptic as this one, we needed a messiah. The other characters who died were clearly adhering to well-worn redemption arcs. The slow-mo music and acting at the end–a significant departure from David and Dan’s usual way of depicting action–seemed to imply that this battle was more metaphorical than physical. It asked the question of the main characters: who are you in the face of death?

But at the end of the day, this is a small quibble. It’s not like I can’t believe that Jon was detained and Arya has the skills to do the deed. A bigger problem is Daenerys’s story arc. And this is where my “needed longer seasons” criticism comes in.

My metaphor for the Dany story arc was that I could see it on the horizon, but I needed more time to get there. Obviously, the seeds were laid in early. From the end of season one, Dany spoke in terms of conquest and vengeance. In that vein, it was a good thing that she had her “white savior surf” moment at the end of season three, because it played into real-world issues about champions and cultures they set forth to “liberate.” The problem is that Westeros–for Dany and within the story–is much different than Essos. I’m in agreement with Abigail Nussbaum’s twitter analysis. The show should have focused more on Dany’s political failures–the dissociation of having to see Westerosis as allies rather than followers. When they put their minds to it, GoT does politics well. We just needed more of an arc.

This probably means that David and Dan would have had to tone down on some of the special effects, and filter that money towards more interpersonal scenes. Notwithstanding that the two dragons flying by the moon is probably the best approximation of epic fantasy I’ve ever seen on television, I wish the show hadn’t been so much about such thrills. For several years they were promising us bigger, more epic battles; this strategy ignores some of the real magic of the narrative. Namely the gradual character development.

But the most important thing to me is the themes, and here is where Game of Thrones nailed it. The battle against the undead, as well as the battle against the dangerous living, both end on a note of triumph for humanity. Yes, the endings aren’t “happily ever after,” (and yes, I wish Bran had played a more active role in the season before being named King. Though I’m a big fan of that reminder that a knowledge of history and memory is important for any kingdom.) But the people who survived actually care about making the world a better place. Even if they poo-pooed democracy. 😛

I think this show has gotten an unfair rap for nihilism. And in that wake, some fans embrace that nihilism. The countdown to and duration of season 8 was littered with scoreboard tallies predicting “shocker” twists, as well as rankings of likely character deaths. It was like watching the citizens of the Capitol place bets on the kids in The Hunger Games. Granted, Game of Thrones is fiction (as is The Hunger Games, though not to the people inside the story. Propaganda makes it seem to the citizens of the Capitol that these kids, and their real humanity, doesn’t matter.) But like those Capitol folks, who send survival gifts to their favorites, are we not trying to impact the story from the sidelines? Don’t some of us ignore characters and plots entirely, and only demand more and more gore leading to a single victor?

Game of Thrones is far more nuanced than that. It’s often dark, but only because it accurately depicts the price of war. Characters we love make horrible decisions–or vice versa–because people are complicated. And there’s no real winning in terms of being a conqueror. The closest we can come to victory is compromise.

I’m indebted to this show for bringing the complex world and personalities of this book series to life. It wasn’t perfect, but one can’t watch the behind-the-scenes documentary and not see all the heart. That certainly makes it worth it to me.

April 28, 2019

Personal Passover Reflections for 5779, Amidst Another Antisemitic Tragedy

Posted in Judaism at 12:00 pm by chavalah

Google Maps view of the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif.

I’d already drafted this post before learning about yesterday’s shooting attack at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif. One woman, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, of blessed memory, was killed. Three more were injured, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, Almog Peretz, and 8-year-old Noya Dahan. The young girl’s family had immigrated from Israel because of continual damage to their home in Sderot due to rocket attacks from Gaza. Hatred leaves a long trail.

The attack came six months to the day after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, and also on the last day of Passover. It stands as testament that the Jewish fight for freedom is never over. But luckily, we are not alone. Some 900 people of several faiths gathered at a nearby church for a vigil, and a crowdfunding campaign has already raised over $18,000. It’s heartening to end the holiday with the reminder that most people are kind, compassionate and just.


5779 marked the first time that I attended a synagogue seder. Rabbi Holtzblatt of Adas Israel in Washington, DC was kind enough to carve out time on the second night to administer to the community.

I was seated at Table 20 in Kay Hall, so there was a lot of interest here! Many people in attendance appeared to be young professionals, perhaps the type that couldn’t make it home for the holiday. But I was struck, yet again, about obstacles to doing Passover alone. Most folks were smart enough to come with significant others, or friend groups. I had more difficulty breaking into conversations. When I sat down at the table, there was actually significant discussion about “Game of Thrones,” but only inasmuch as to confirm that not everyone had seen the latest episode. 😛 It does seem like opportune timing to be thinking of “Game of Thrones,” considering the characters at Winterfell will be fighting for the ultimate freedom tonight! :/

This perhaps also stands as testament as to how popular stories can bring people together. We were all gathered at Kay Hall to retell the story of Exodus, but it’s difficult to be self-directed at a table of strangers. We had the Haggadah in front of us, but few people seemed inclined to follow the written word of the Maggid. Rabbi Holtzblatt provided some direction at the beginning of the seder, as we went through Kadesh (first cup of wine), Urchatz (the first washing of the hands) Karpas (dipping a vegetable in salt water) Yachtaz (the breaking of the middle matzo), Rachtzah (the second washing of the hands) and then the blessings over bread and matzo. By the time we got to Korech, or making a sandwich with bitter herbs (and the optional sweet charoset), my table was in a little bit of disarray. Probably because the horse radish had been all but consumed with the gefilte fish, and now we were scraping the bottom of the dish. We’d also gone through several bottles of wine by that time as well. Oh well! (I actually stuck to the grape juice because my problem with alcohol is that it’s rarely sweet enough for my palate. :P)

Rabbi Holtzblatt attempted to provide her own interpretation of events, from highlighting the synagogue’s work with modern-day refugees to grappling with the more vengeful parts of the story. But somehow it felt more topical and less fulfilling than a typical rabbinical service. Passover is really a holiday about family, when we’re supposed to be interacting around the table rather than listening face-forward to our leaders on the bimah. But still, something is better than nothing, and I’m very grateful to my community.

At the end of the seder, my table suddenly turned into the place to be. As the tireless maintenance staff entered to put Kay Hall back to rights and congregants started to leave, others joined Table 20 to sing popular Passover songs. My family isn’t religious–we didn’t have a seder this year–and I’m far from comfortable singing alone in Hebrew. :/ Perhaps this can be a point of self-improvement before next year.

Another thing to consider–I’m still halfheartedly poking at the idea of leading my own seder. There’s plenty of areas where I have to kick own butt about this, but the one that sticks out in my mind is focus. Considering we won’t be doing the full, unabridged seder (thank goodness Adas didn’t either or I wouldn’t have made the Metro home!), how should I make it meaningful? I read this article on JTA concerning various haggadot with themes such as the Holocaust to lesbian feminism. Again, this shows the vast applicability of the story of freedom, as well as Judaism’s storied history and evolution. I want to make sure my seder showcases both the universal and the temporal of our lives in the here and now.

At the very least, I’m grateful that I’ve maintained this tradition of yearly Passover reflection. But I should keep challenging myself to do better as well. Freedom is a journey, and I will keep circling back to the story of Exodus throughout the rest of my life. I hope all of you who celebrated had meaningful experiences.

March 31, 2019

Jewish Fantasy Quests and Fairytale Retellings!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 7:32 am by chavalah

Godserfs series covers

Continuing a tradition concerning writing about Jewish fantasy every few years in March. 😀 I have new things to say!

First, I’ll check back in with my list from 2016. I’ve read and reviewed The Second Mango, Central Station (which is technically science fiction but eh,) and Last Song Before Night. I still have yet to read A Highly Unlikely Scenario or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, but it’s currently # 22 on my goodreads tbr! 😛

Last month, I read The Godserfs series by N.S. Dolkart. Like most Jewish fantasy, I first heard about this on the Jewish Book Council website. Dolkart (writing under his real name) claimed to have written “The Jewish Narnia.” Narnia, he says, is Christian because it’s allegorical of Christian themes. Ergo, a fantasy would be Jewish for adhering to Jewish themes.

He decided to go with biblical interpretation. In another essay, he writes:

It is important to note that the Tanakh accepts and assumes the existence of multiple gods, besides the one “true” God. In Exodus 12:12, God says to Moses: “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” Numbers 33:4 confirms that God “executed judgments against their gods.” These other unnamed gods are less awesome (e.g. Psalms 86:8, “Among the gods there is none like you, Lord”), but they’re around, opposing our God and each other, and generally doing no good in the world.

The problem is that our God, or “The God Most High” in the Godserfs series, isn’t exactly benevolent either. I say “problem,” because the idea of a cruel and capricious god doesn’t jive well with most modern day Judaism. Literal readings of the bible tend to make growing numbers of people critical of those who follow religious traditions.

So I went into this series feeling a lot of internal push-back. But soon the story carried me away. Yes the gods are cruel, but usually remote enough so that I can focus on other things. Namely the human characters, who were refreshingly complicated creations for genre fiction. I don’t care what defines their world; I want to see where our prophetic islanders, Criton, Bandu, Narki, Phaedra and Hunter, end up!

And admittedly, I felt smug to be reading a medieval questing series without all the Christian overtones. Yes, there were magical maguffins, but none of them led back to Jesus. Instead, magic led back to a leviathan creature, and sometimes even denoted human intelligence in trying to debate with and understand the world, Talmudic style.

I’m not actually that well-versed in biblical scholarship, so I suppose it’s not surprising that an engaging fantasy series would jump-start new interest. Mythology begets mythology, after all. As a fiction lover, I’ve always appreciated the power of a good story and good worldbuilding. I think that’s part of what drives me towards the Jewish religion, beyond identification with the ambiguous “Jewish culture.” “Belief” isn’t a simple morality tale.

But I’m also barreling forward towards my latest Jewish fantastical obsession–fairytale retellings! 😀 (Of a sort. I’m using the term liberally.) Come “SciFi September” this year, I hope to read these three:

Hopefully I’ll be back by March 2022 (or even before) to tell you what I think! Happy reading!

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.

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. 😛

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