June 30, 2018

“The Expanse” Season 3 and a Michael Chabon Addendum

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:46 pm by chavalah

Broader Jewish Inclusion, Not Exodus

Chabon singin’ / wikipedia

Last month I was pretty glib in denouncing Michael Chabon’s graduation speech at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But in seriously reading the thing, it’s not fair for me to get away with a mic drop. His words aren’t quite so self righteous as I made them out to be, as he grapples with legitimate violence and cruelty that comes out of some “separatist” ideologies of Judaism.

I do still think that he’s being alarmist. The vast majority of Jews, particularly in America, add more to their identities than the religion alone. Just check out any wikipedia page of a celebrity with Jewish heritage.

Intermarriage numbers are around 50%, and as the child of intermarried Jews and the family member to even more of them, you bet I’m peeved when my co-religionists calling it a plague. But this also furthers my resentment of the fetishization of intermarriage, too. Chabon lauds people like me as “mongrels and hybrids and creoles,” but he’s never had to stand in front of a group of Modern Orthodox Jews who look at him like he’s an alien until he explains, “no, it’s my mother who’s Jewish.” Like the award-winning novelist, I’d like to eradicate this dangerous form of wall-building (and especially to stop dismissing Jews of patrilineal descent!) But I wish he’d acknowledge the reality for intermarried Jews and their descendants before turning us into some banner for his cause.

Edmund Case, the founder of InterfaithFamily.com (disclaimer: I’ve written articles for them…also, Case is coming out with a book in 2019?! *adds to tbr*) posits the message of inclusion rather than exodus thusly:

We need to broaden our thinking about heirs to Jewish tradition and include not only those who are born Jewish or Jews by choice, but those who are in relationships with Jews. We need to adapt our concept of Jewish “people” to a broader Jewish “community” that includes everyone who is Jewishly engaged – Jews, their partners from different faith backgrounds and their children – to welcome and include all of those people as heirs to our valuable heritage.

To that end, I’d also add the Jews of Color out there. Chabon told the graduates directly: “Find room in the Jewish community for all those who want to share in our traditions.” Why dismiss Jewish pride as the purview of terrorists like Baruch Goldstein, instead of expanding it to include Jews in All Hues, Kulanu and etc? People like Shoshana Nambi, who’s studying to be the first female rabbi from Uganda? (Kol HaKavod!!) Not to mention all of the “traditional” Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who celebrate Jewish heritage but also respect and engage with others.

Finally, Chabon says, “It seemed to me then, sitting at my brother and sister-in-law’s table, that Judaism had survived for so long not because of its famous tradition but rather because of its mutability, its flexibility, its adherents’ capacity not just to behave but to feel as though they have always been what they never were before.” I’d like to find a middle ground. Change doesn’t come out of nothing; one has to engage with tradition to find it. And change for change’s sake is as reductive as blindly following rituals. The real “wall” is to be unquestioning about it all. Sometimes “divisions” are necessary. The Shabbes distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” dictates a day of rest and reflection so that we don’t run ourselves into the ground with unquestioned work. And every time we confront human rights issues means drawing lines in the sand. Chabon has come out strongly against the Occupation in the West Bank. Hopefully, heeding his own words about flexibility, he’s empathetic to both sides while being unflappable about abuses.

I think I’ll end it there, having done, I believe, this subject a little more justice than I did in May. Now, speaking as a Jew with a decidedly un-Jewish interest… 😛


“The Expanse”…Expands in Season 3// SPOILERS!

Final season on SyFy!

Header fail. 😛 But I still think the synopsis holds up. Tl;dr–I’m still catching up on seasons one and two of “The Expanse.” I watched the first few episodes when they aired and wasn’t impressed by a few things. I (wrongfully) thought that Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) was a one-dimensional bad guy. But I think I had more of a point when it came to the Miller/Julie storyline. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw explains it well on the Daily Dot:

Miller’s initial storyline was genre-savvy, but not in the Buffy sense. Tracking the missing heiress Julie Mao (Florence Faivre) across a bustling space station, he was a noir cliché: a grizzled, morally ambiguous white guy in a trilby hat, increasingly obsessed with a young woman he’d never met. Beautiful missing-or-dead girls have motivated many a male antihero over the years, offering a kind of romantic mystery without requiring a real relationship. Julie Mao was the face of the show, her body floating through space on the season 1 posters and home release, but she wasn’t really a character.

All of that had changed when I randomly came across a mid-season 2 episode a year later. Bobby Draper (Frankie Adams) felt like the new Julie, but she was actually at the forefront of her story. It was all about how she was a gung-ho, nationalistic marine, but when she’s used as a pawn she starts to question the superiors who had defined her reality. This also led her to become part of the broader plot, a “Game of Thrones”-esque conceit, where the warring human politics aren’t actually as important as the supernatural lurking in the background. Well, on “The Expanse” maybe it’s even worse because humans are messing with it and causing all sorts of destruction.

That leads us into the first part of season 3, where our main (I’d argue) protagonists, a “Firefly”-like crew of misfits on board their ship, the Rocinante, are trying to save a friend’s daughter. Some nefarious scientists are trying to inject her with “the supernatural” element, the protomolecule, in order to make a weapon. They also get entwined into the Earth/Mars/Belt warfare plot, cos people can’t seem to leave them alone. 😛

Some of the audience don’t seem to like the political storyline, which is generally about the fissures between Earth, Mars, and the underrepresented people who live on space stations in the asteroid belt, mining resources for “the inners.” Much of the first half of this season’s storyline revolved around Avasarala trying to stop a war that her colleague, Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) is keen to start for the good of Earth. He’s thwarted in part by a new character, Rev. Dr. Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell), who offers a refreshingly human take on a religious character for a scifi show. She’s earnest, perhaps a little naive, also moral and driven. Errinwright and Avasarala are traditional politicians–often conniving but also driven by genuine ideology, not greed. Anywho, part one of the season ends with Errinwright’s arrest and the Roci friend is reunited with his daughter.

The second half is a bit of a game changer, with the war called off and everyone working together because the protomolecule is creating “a ring” in space on its own. I appreciate how the show isn’t afraid to take risks and alter course, but I do think that it messes a bit with the pacing. Something like six months passed between two episodes, and we’re supposed to feel the tension concerning the long absence of one of the Roci crew. But only a few weeks later, real time, she realized her mistake in leaving and charted a course back.

Still, this show hits me in the gut with character feels. I’m not usually much of a shipper, but Holden (Steven Strait)/Naomi (Dominique Tipper) pushes all my buttons. It’s like watching John/Aeryn on “Farscape” again (except that I was a bad fan and sometimes I shipped John with Chiana. :P) They’re just two lost souls from different cultures trying to find some love and a fresh start…*wistful sigh* Well, another reason why “Nolden” reminds me of J/A is that I’ve heard evidence of grown men shipping them too, hee. Yeah, I could watch the season three finale on repeat solely for the lovey dovey stuff.

OK, I’m being a little glib. Holden and Naomi have more going on in their personal arcs than their sexy, sexy romance (seriously *wipes brow*) but this show also does relationships well. The second part of the season focuses on the part distrustful, part respectful push and pull between two Belter leaders, Drummer (Cara Gee) and Ashford (special guest star David Strathairn!) I was a little iffy on Ashford’s antagonistic turn in the finale, but then again the stakes were high and people make stupid decisions when they’re afraid. I’m also a fan of Drummer’s surly “I don’t get what you see in him” attitude with Naomi re: Holden. 😛 She’s sort of the biggest badass in the room (in the finale she refused to let her broken spine get the best of her and walked around on mechanical legs), which is usually a turn off for me, but in her case, I’ll allow it.

Same, too, for Bobby, who at least uses her brain as much as her brawn, and it looks like she’s defected from the Martians (again?) at the end of the season? Not sure. Also a little unsure about the new relationship between Anna and Roci crew member Amos (Wes Chatham.) He’s the brutal, unscrupulous sort of watch dog character that, again, usually turns me off, though I’m contractually bound to be in Chatham’s corner for life since he’s a “Hunger Games” actor. 😛 And he brings a certain…soft determination? to his character’s convictions, which maybe makes him a good fit for Anna after all. On the surface it seems like he should find her self-righteously idealistic and naive, but instead he’s taken a shine to her. I was also a little underwhelmed by “the revenge plot” of Julie’s sister, Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole) but it looks like she’s along for the ride in season four, too.

I love the diversity of the cast, and all of the science, though I don’t really understand it. 😛 And since I’m still ignorant of some stuff that happened in previous seasons (I’ll be caught up next year!) I’m sure I’m missing some deeper nuance. But one of the things that intrigued me most in the second half was the reappearance of Miller (Thomas Jane)–who died in season two! 😮 He appears as an apparition to Holden, but it’s not really him; it’s more like the protomolecule is trying to find the best way to communicate with our main character. This reminded me a bit of a scene near the end of one of my favorite movies, “Contact,” where the aliens speak to Jodie Foster’s character by impersonating her dad. It’s certainly a bit weird and intrusive, but something big is going on underneath the surface. Can’t wait for the next season, Amazon! 😀

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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.

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.

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.

December 19, 2015

Fall/Winter 2015 TV Summary

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:48 pm by chavalah

"Dark Swan" promotion from OUAT season 5A

“Dark Swan” promotion from OUAT season 5A

Happy Holidays! I might be more prolific than usual this month and write another post, because as all science fiction/fantasy and/or pop culture geeks can tell you, it’s a big time for movies. 😛

But to start, some lukewarm thoughts on the two television shows I watched this season; “Once Upon a Time” and “The Leftovers.” Rounding off with “The Man in the High Castle,” a show I haven’t watched (and a book I haven’t read) but is surely a springboard into Jewish and other significant issues.

Once Upon a Time, season 5A

This might be my least favorite first half of a season ever. There’s still a lot I liked about it, particularly making King Arthur into a villain. “Once” is very good at twisting the attributes of traditionally heroic characters to show the dark sides of their personality traits. (And, paradoxically, the sympathetic angles of a canon villain’s bad choices.) I also really liked how “the dark one” magic played on Emma and Hook, their motivations and their weaknesses that led them into flirting with being Sith Lords, hee.

I’m usually more ok than some others with “the rules” of magic being a bit all over the place, because the true purpose of this series is to show, through a mythological construct, the emotional consequences when these characters choose to follow such choices as hope, faith or love, vs hate, fear and anger. But this half season, things felt a little less internally driven and a little more externally forced by the writers, like Merida physically and psychologically bullying Rumple to become “brave” so he can do the minor plot thing for Emma. Part of this has to do with introducing intriguing secondary characters who are primarily meant to propel the plot for the leads before abruptly disappearing. Maybe we need some spinoff shows, hee.

I’m incredibly disappointed in Rumple and Belle getting a hard reset into being the villain and the ignorant wife. We’ve been here before, due to more understandable circumstances, and I’m not keen to see it play out yet again. I like characters who change, and I especially feel duped because I had such hope for them, “Once” showrunners. 😛

And in that vein…I’m a little wary about entering the underworld in the next half season. I feel like the writers were a little loose with setting up the backstory, because I don’t think the point of this family show is to promise that everyone will rot in hell after death, no matter what. 😛 I think this will be a very specific journey to a place that holds very specific people (and speaking of, there are some guest stars who I can’t WAIT to see in 2016. :D) But what happened to “dead means dead”? Why does Hook get a pass when no one else does? I rather wish that Nealfire, Graham and others might confront Emma on this point. 😛 And I’m also hoping—if we save Hook from death, which seems likely, someone else should be gone forever. Should be some lasting consequences, at least.

The Leftovers, season 2

I suppose, overall, I’ve become more amenable this season to the idea that this show might not be about the Christian rapture, but about a predominately Christian-identified nation convinced that it has experienced the Christian rapture. 😛 I contextualized more of the imagery and liturgical music, I suppose. And this year, we did briefly get to see a pair of Chassidic Jews and a tour bus or two of Chinese people. Booyah. But the most obvious show of diversity came through the introduction of the awesome and nuanced African American family, the Murphys. Looking forward to seeing these folks again.

But actually, “The Leftovers” is only nominally about the Rapture/Departure, what have you. What it’s mostly taken with is the multiple resurrections of its protagonist, Kevin Garvey. If I thought I was annoyed by his storyline last year…*cracks knuckles* It’s a simple identity crisis story, writers; you’re ridiculously blunt about it when Kevin is singing “Homeward Bound” while having flashbacks. You don’t need to kill him, and then break the laws of nature to bring him back—magically draining a lake so he won’t drown or whatnot. Honestly, this storyline sounds like something that should be parodied on @GuyInYourMFA.

Give me more of Nora Durst and Ericka Murphy—played beautifully by Carrie Coon and Regina King. Speaking of a literary conceit that actually worked, their episode felt like a short story that was bookended by two rocks being thrown through front windows. In the face of losing their children, these women grapple with motherhood, guilt, and they earnestly ponder the supernatural. Or give me more Matt Jamison. He’s the most human depiction of a Christian religious figure that I’ve come across in TV drama; not the boy-next-door clergy (in Jewish terms, I always think of Rabbi “Look at the Parking Lot” from “A Serious Man”), nor does he belong on the pulpit of the Westboro Baptist Church. He seems like someone who would fit nicely into a Marilyn Robinson novel, at least from what I’ve gleaned second-hand. (Speaking of Twitter and hashtags, I kind of wanna try one of her books, but I have #TooMuchToRead. :/ Anywho.)

Undoubtedly the worst part of the season came by way of Liv Tyler’s antagonist. Her squeaky voice makes her sound like a one dimensional little girl villain prevalent in some horror, and due to the story constraints she’s barely able to move beyond that. But what I’m surprised received no backlash was the scene where she raped a guy. I get it; “The Leftovers” is nowhere as big as HBO’s flagship, “Game of Thrones,” but for all of GoT’s flaws in execution, Ramsay’s actions at least made contextual sense. There was no “enemy protocol” or character motivation that gives this rape scene a pass. And we certainly don’t get any sort of realistic aftermath, IMHO. Talk about inserting something for mere shock value. Big fail in my book.

The Man in the High Castle

From the off, and even before knowing about the controversial subway seats/ads, this concept gave me the heebie jeebies. It’s like I’m Superman, and every time I engage with the outside world, I get Lex Luthor tattooed across my eyelids. Or if American pop culture was obsessed with another class of “supervillain”—say, the Ku Klux Klan? Even if consistently portrayed as “the bad guys,” if I were Black I wouldn’t want to constantly see those hoods. It’s a bit of a moot point, because, as I’ve argued on this blog before, the United States turns to Nazis as our supervillains because we can see them as totally “Other,” something we unfortunately cannot extend to the KKK.

So here’s the time for a standard disclaimer—I’m not judging anyone who watches the series, much less who read Phillip K. Dick’s 1962 book. I’m sure, at the very least, it portrays the values of underdog resistance and the fallacy of fascism. But as a Jew, I look at Pop Culture Nazis and I wonder…are we losing track of things here? Do we need the fictional Nazis to take over the country for us to understand that antisemitism, racism, and other forms of xenophobia (which all exist here in real life) are bad? Do we have to imagine the Nazis having power to do worse than the Final Solution in Africa? (The latter of which probably deserves a historically accurate show or two, given the atrocities that actually happened there under colonialism.) Aren’t fictional Nazis a bit of a cheap shot at trying to gauge universal issues?

I just have too much baggage for this franchise. 😛 The Nazis are such a huge part of modern Jewish history, and, to my mind, can be so misunderstood. Starting (perhaps hypocritically) with the fact of how prevalent they are to the Jewish idea of peoplehood. I’m pained every time I read a study that claims Jews consider “remembering the Holocaust” to be THE most important aspect of our cultural life today. Should we be diminished to our ability to survive atrocity? Should we forget what Hitler tried to erase, all the centuries of Yiddish language, food, culture and religion, from writer Sholem Aleichem to rabbi Regina Jonas? (And that’s just Eastern Europe, of course.) This is part of the reason why I try to read a lot of Jewish fiction, but I usually stay away from the “Holocaust” theme. The Jewish Book of Life podcast recently did an episode about this, with regards to kids’ books.

In the real United States of late, plenty of other people are invoking the Jews of the Holocaust in response to some horrific public “discourse” concerning racially profiling immigrants and registering Muslims. I’m all for making comparisons to hopefully increase communal empathy for underprivileged groups, but sometimes something is lost in translation. Like when people compare the Holocaust arm tattoos (rather than the “Jude” stars) to registering “non-Christians.” The arm tattoos were used exclusively at Auschwitz to identify bodies, because the SS killed so many people there per day. It’s a little different than what we’re facing here. I’m wary of the idea of shoving Holocaust education down everyone’s throat, but Jews should be more than dead bodies in your allegory. Real, living people were victims of that genocide, and what happened to them, sans alternate history franchises or comparisons to other groups, should matter, too.

(For a different take from another Jewish Rachel, check out Tablet’s review of this television show. She raises some good issues about current events, HOWEVER. *dusts off superhero cape* I’m here to battle my arch-nemesis, shallow interpretation of The Hunger Games trilogy. :p Katniss is not a messianic world-saving hero, but a teenager largely coerced into creating propaganda for the commanders behind the scenes. And if you want to talk “realistic”—the highly improbable hypothesis of the Axis powers winning the war doesn’t quite cut it. A series that probes how violence is destructive, no matter which side you fight for, is more “adult” in my opinion. Anywho. Stay tuned for more Hunger Games thoughts (plus a little something called Star Wars, most likely arriving soon!)

September 29, 2015

Recapping High Holidays and a World of Scapegoating

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 10:17 pm by chavalah

During the Days of Awe, Jews are supposed to apologize and seek forgiveness from the people we’ve wronged in the last year. I struggle a lot with the concept of relationships; I’m on the autism spectrum, and I find it difficult to grow close to people, even when I desire it. At school or at the job, it’s easy to feel competitive, or undervalued, or generally out of sync with your environment and the people in it, especially in the DC area. Got a mention in a few rabbinical sermons I heard last week.

But I think I made some decent strides last year. I joined a book club, I started going again to a local writers’ meetup. It might not be about bosom buddies, but it’s invigorating to be part of discussions about passions that are so central to my life. I feel like one of my biggest challenges is to open myself up to contact with the human race. (I’m doing pretty ok with the domesticated feline race. :P)

On a grander scale, I think the human race should join me in trying to make empathetic contact with the rest of the human race. During the Days of Awe, Anne Coulter tweeted something disparaging about Jews, which a bunch of antisemites picked up on to further the stereotype about Judaism’s attempt at world domination. A brown-skinned Muslim boy brought a clock to school that some of his teachers automatically assumed was a bomb.

On Yom Kippur, traditionally speaking, the head of the temple casts the sins of the people onto a goat to send out into the wilderness; this is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Today, all humans continue to actively scapegoat each other; we condemn those who are different from us in order not to confront our own flaws. Jews are power-hungry manipulators. Muslims are terrorists. Gay people are destroying the institution of marriage.

Instead, we should look inside of ourselves. Confront the greed, the violence, the damage that we, not the shadowy Other, do to our own relationships. As we try to clear away that fog, the world, the people in it, our own lives, should become less encumbered.

G’mar chatima tova. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.

April 18, 2015

Finding a foothold with Passover 5775

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 8:20 pm by chavalah

Familial Seder set-up

Familial Seder set-up

I had planned to put together my own Seder this year in my brand(ish) new condo, but then my aunts flew in for the holiday and I scratched that. My mom did her usual, preparing the traditional meal with matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, chicken and salad; my aunts brought their signature dishes and the slim Haggadah they use for their normal affair with the rest of my extended family. They take turns reading from the book and then eat; at my parents’ house we ate, and then half-heartedly read a few pages.

After the dishes were cleared and macaroons put out on the table for dessert, my mom got out candles for me to light for Shabbat, and then we partook in our own little tradition of quickly retelling the Exodus story as a transition into discussing modern day politics and socio-economics. Not in the binary “it’s all Obama’s fault” or “damn all corporate interests” way, but a more detailed look into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, capital punishment, how human nature effects people in good and bad ways at different times. We covered a lot of ground. :p

This was also my niece’s second Passover, and she greeted me eating a piece of matzah. :p. She didn’t seem to like it much, but like most people she kept chewing anyway. She also seemed to like the broth from the matzah ball soup, so she’s slowly learning the ways of Ashkenazi Jewish food. Hurrah!

And I sang in a Pesach concert with my synagogue’s and another choir in late March. It was so rejuvenating on many levels–the first time I’d sung chamber music with a group in a long while, keeping time with the conductor, the cadence of each stanza. I learned a new harmony for “Eliahu,” which made me very happy. Intrinsically I seem to find music very spiritual, and so does my mother; our relationships to Judaism are very different but we come together to sing. Dayenu!

I still feel like I have a long way to go with Passover, though, as the semi-religious daughter of an assimilated family. I think that’s why I have to claim it as my own home and hearth holiday. Every year my parents host a big shindig at their house for Thanksgiving as a way to reconnect with friends and family, and to embrace the benefits of hospitality. I want Passover as way to connect with my family spiritually. I want to cook them matzah ball soup and a chicken from Safeway, and I want to gather parts of the Haggadah to explore Jewish identity and the broader issues freedom, faith, journeying, and home. And by “family” I mean my parents, because even after some thirty-odd years, I feel confident that they might endure my eccentric tendencies. :p

I hope that everyone had a happy and meaningful holiday. L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim!

March 5, 2015

Leonard Nimoy’s Legacy of Jewish Science Fiction and Dual Identity

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 7:28 pm by chavalah

Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and William Shatner (Kirk) in the original Star Trek

Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and William Shatner (Kirk) in the original Star Trek

One of the first entries I posted to this blog centered on J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, and the complex ethnicity of Mr. Spock. It reminded me so much of my own identity, two parents of different religions/ cultures/ ethnicities…one foot in each world.

Perhaps for Leonard Nimoy, may his memory be a blessing, this might have served as more of a metaphor. Spock’s human heritage could stand for Nimoy’s acceptance into the broader American, Hollywood (or UFP, as it were,) culture, where his Vulcan side, with the salute based off of the Priestly Blessing, signified his parents, Ashkenazi Jewish shtetl immigrants.

I admit, when I first started getting into scifi and fantasy, I didn’t really consider Star Trek and its Jewish lens, although at the time I wasn’t considering anything for a Jewish lens. My gateway drug to this genre was Star Wars, and in the accepted and small minded way, I took sides. I was taken in by Lucas’s space opera, and the struggle of a protagonist who hones his identity and power against a familial legacy. Star Trek, to me, seemed like one of those “day at the office” shows, if your office was a spaceship and your job was either to make sure it ran properly or investigate various aliens. (I’m sorry, Trekkies. Please don’t vaporize me! Is that a thing? *hides*)

What’s worse, as a dummy teen, I was blithely unaware of the fact that some of my favorite new tv shows, like Space Cases and Farscape, were directly inspired by Star Trek. But instead, it was these stories, rather than the original, which made me realize that a crew can be like a family, and alien encounters can shape that one’s trajectory as much as the Force.

I’ve never gotten around to watching any original Star Trek, or any of the franchise before the J.J. Abrams movies. It’s something I’m thinking I should change, now that I’m more aware of creator Gene Rodenberry’s vision to project a future for diversity in humans as well as aliens. Nimoy, who is practically incongruous with his character Spock at this point, is testament to that. More to the point, he could find a seat at the table without giving up his ethnic identity, whether it be Vulcan or Jewish.

In another blog post, I may have to focus on my quest for Jewish fiction from the viewpoint of the children of interfaith marriage (a small sidenote—is the story of Esther, commemorated last night at Purim holiday megillah readings, our first major depiction of an interfaith union? :P); I’m assuming Spock doesn’t ruminate too much on his dual heritage. But science fiction continues to provide a creative avenue into progressive, empathetic thinking—where we can meet new people, or species, from different walks of life, and realize that they’re not so alien after all.

Live long and prosper (LLAP).

February 5, 2015

History vs Art, and other concerns

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 12:32 am by chavalah

Still from the movie, "Selma," starring David Oyelowo

Still from the movie, “Selma,” starring David Oyelowo

As a disclaimer, I have yet to watch “Selma” which is up for Best Picture in the Academy Awards this year. But some of the “factual” criticisms levied against them remind me of being a fan (or sometimes not so much of a fan) of novel adaptations for TV or film. For example, one of my biggest disappointments with “Mockingjay, Part 1” was that they excised a conversation between Katniss and Haymitch working through their anger and guilt over failing to protect Peeta–as if this were an actual historical event. (In my defense, it would have made the story stronger. :p)

With “Selma,” some of this criticism comes from historians, claiming that the movie painted President Johnson in too negative a light. Director Ava DuVernay responded that she didn’t want to make a film about “a white savior,” aka she wanted to focus on some of the African Americans, namely Martin Luther King, Jr., I assume, who were at the center of the Civil Rights movement. I might add that, be the source material a novel or actual history, a movie is too contained to give much dimension to non-main characters. But another argument is–this isn’t a documentary, it’s art. DuVernay–or Francis Lawrence of the final three “Hunger Games” films–aren’t contractually bound to stay true to “the source material.”

The natural follow-up question might be–does that make the movie less “true”? This might be where my fiction-oriented/spiritual brain trumps whatever I have of a facts and figures science brain. :p. I think the truth contained in novels and other fictional media are that they can go deep into characters, and explore the complex questions of identity, history, politics, relationships, etc, etc, etc from a uniquely emotionally resonant perspective. The “truth” about life is more than a ledger book of physical actions. “The truth” is about several different narratives and experiences, but who has the time to watch a movie as long as life? :p

But to be hypocritical (another component of the complexity of “truth,”) I feel disappointed that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was omitted from the movie, even as he marched to Selma amongst other white clergymen who were depicted, so I’ve read. When a group one identifies with is part of the larger narrative (particularly a positive narrative like joining together with diverse communities to stand for civil rights,) I suppose it’s natural to want to see that validation. And again, perhaps a short scene of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel shaking hands might’ve made for a stronger story. But either way, this is one small component of a work that belongs to art, not history. I’d rather judge DuVernay’s movie on what’s there rather than what’s not.

Just because there is a commercial component to some art doesn’t mean that we, as consumers, require a say. This transaction isn’t about buying a pair of pants, after all; it’s about exploring the world in new ways. Part of that, in fact, requires us to give up personal control. No movie, or book, or etc is perfect, but I hope that people leave their personal biases at the door, insofar as is possible; and that they also take into account what the creator was trying to accomplish (and how well he or she succeeded at that) before offering critique.

Tangentially, I’m always on the lookout for films that portray a variety of Jewish characters and experiences in the driver’s seat (currently I’m having trouble narrowing down my selections for the 2015 Washington Jewish Film Fest). But that feeds into my empathy for the perceived goal of the movie, “Selma”–to depict African Americans as the center of their story rather than as the supporting cast. It’s a perspective we don’t often get to see in Hollywood, though with recent successes like “12 Years a Slave,” hopefully it will become more normalized.

Sticking to judgement, though, I don’t really care how the Academy considers something to be a good or bad movie; they have their own issues to work out. But since we are still relatively close to the beginning of the year, allow me to offer my best and worst novel reads from 2014. :p

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