April 16, 2018

Pesach in 5778: Wandering the Wilderness

Posted in Judaism at 10:39 pm by chavalah

My Passover care package this year. Now that the holiday is over, I can go to Panera! ๐Ÿ˜€

After my seder last year I wanted to keep going with a bang, but that’s not the way things turned out. I did go home for the first weekend of the holiday, but was largely busy with unrelated family stuff (if I squint hard enough, I can pretend that our activities paralleled the Exodus story. :P)

We ate some traditional food and my mom and I sort of hashed over the re-telling after everyone was gone for the night. I also forced her to listen to me recite some interesting-to-me passages from progressive Haggadot. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t feel too genuine or spiritual. I kept asking myself what would make my Passover experience better–how I could improve and feel like I’m doing some justice to this holiday. I don’t want to blindly follow rituals (though a little bit of incorporation is certainly welcome.) I’d like the chance to invite people over and discuss the meaning of oppression and wandering through the wilderness and the power of community, perhaps. I want to read passages from Jewish sources and novels and poetry and make everyone bring and discuss their own, like a school project. ๐Ÿ˜›

In essence, I realized over the first few days of Passover, I wanted something that I already have. Guided yet free-flowing conversation about intriguing narratives and themes–sounds a bit like my Jewish book club! :O So does this mean I’ve already found what I’m looking for? Or should I challenge myself to be more traditional, and step outside my comfort zone by offering myself as a “host” for a young professional seder? The local JCC is always seeking people to set those up.

I want my family. Passover remains, for me, the most difficult holiday in which to be a Jew on one’s own. Sitting quietly in shul just isn’t a big part of it, though the next week I did schlep into DC for the Shabbat service that fell on the eighth day. Before starting the Yizkor service for the deceased, Rabbi Alexander talked about resurrection and the song that Moses and Miriam sang at the Red Sea. He asked us to share with one another memories of our departed ones and music. And suddenly I found myself talking this other young woman who was at shul alone. I told her about this memory of playing “Greensleeves” for my mother’s mother, of blessed memory. She was visiting in Baltimore and she told me that it was her favorite song. I sounded it out on the piano and she twirled around like a ballerina.

Another fun aspect of this particular Shabbat–Cantor Brown led us in Passover melodies like Dayenu and Chad Gadya as we davened (prayed) part of the Amidah. And I realized that this is something else I could bring to my own practice, particularly with my mother–this love of song. I definitely need to get more comfortable with the Passover music. ๐Ÿ˜›

I’m not sure if I have a “point” to make with all of this, but here’s my best Pesach 5778 wrap up. #1: If you want to make something meaningful, then you have to be a leader and put in the effort. #2: You usually have most of what you’re looking for. You just have to piece it together.

I hope that all of you celebrating spring festivities had a meaningful one.

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March 29, 2018

Spring 2018 Lesbian-Themed Pop Culture!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 7:43 pm by chavalah

I can’t help but follow the trends. ๐Ÿ˜› Lady love is hitting the landscape on the screen and on the page. Here’s a few pieces that I’m looking forward to consuming!

White Houses by Amy Bloom was released by Penguin Random House in February, and it chronicles the relationship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and prominent female reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok. Historical fiction ahoy! It’s not Bloom’s first dip into the arena (for either historical or lesbian-themed fiction) but it’s certainly her most audacious. The writing might be fanciful but the characters were once real.

I’m rather intrigued to get a closer look at the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. And yet I’ve read two of Bloom’s other novels, which didn’t blow me away. But they weren’t awful, either, and she’s doing something a little new here. Maybe it’s time to give her another chance. Oy, there’s so much to read!

Speaking of which, these next two options are movie adaptations based on books I’ve already read. Well, I’m sort of fudging things a bit with this one. It’s the dramatization of the friendship and love affair between novelist Virginia Woolf and socialite Vita Sackville-West. Woolf, herself, wrote Orlando as a bit of a love letter to the other woman, but this movie, I believe, will be a more realist account of their relationship.

It’s currently in post-production and appears to be a rather small film…I hope that doesn’t keep it from coming across the pond! It’s due sometime this year, and I’m keeping my eye out.

Finally, this is another small production out of England, but it’ll be hitting US theaters in late April! It’s called Disobedience, based off of the award-winning novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman. It chronicles the relationship between a young wife and a female pariah from the Orthodox Jewish community in London.

I’m a little hesitant about this one because I loved the book (defenses up!) The trailer gives off the impression that the main conflict of the movie will be a current relationship between these two women. Perhaps that’s an odd thing to complain about in this blog entry that is celebrating relationships between women! ๐Ÿ˜› But so much more is going on in the novel. And I’m constantly reminded that characters on the page can be more multi-faceted than characters on screen.

Still, I’m very taken with the acting abilities of my fellow Rachels. ๐Ÿ˜› I’ll definitely be in the theater shortly after this movie opens, and I’ll be documenting my adaptation thoughts on my reading and writing blog!

I hope I’m coming off as facetious in this piece where I giggle about Lady Love. ๐Ÿ˜› I’m serious about giving my kudos to lesbian relationships depicted in pop culture. Hopefully we’ll get a diverse set of stories into this particular type of sexuality. Onwards and upwards from here!

February 5, 2018

Retro TV: Revisiting “Six Feet Under”

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:08 pm by chavalah

“Six Feet Under” logo

I seem to be gearing up for my first season of tv-watching in 2018, or at least I’m trying to! ๐Ÿ˜› Still no word from SyFy about season three of The Expanse. I think I’m forgoing Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access because I’m gonna splurge for Hulu and The Handmaid’s Tale instead. Expect a book-to-adaptation review on my reading/writing blog, soon!

I won’t be watching the Olympics, I know, it’s a shande, though I will return for season 7b of Once Upon a Time. So that just leaves my HBO regimen. The first show of interest to come on the air, this Sunday, is Here and Now, the newest project of Alan Ball.

When it comes to Alan Ball’s HBO projects, I have some unexplored feels. Not so much about True Blood, which I wrote about a few times on this blog (short version: I enjoyed that show, but it ended as a hot mess. :P) No, I’m thinking about Six Feet Under.

Exciting sidenote–another big event for me on Sunday is that an anthology where I’ll be published is having its launch event. ๐Ÿ˜€ So this is making me think about my “themes” in fiction, because I’m one of those pretentious writers who gets caught up in a certain idea. For me, it’s my fear of abandonment. There’s no greater abandonment, of course, than death.

Six Feet Under takes place around the Fisher family funeral home. Most episodes start with documenting the death of a guest star, which then lends itself to the storylines of the main cast. Much of the show has to do with the drama between the two brothers who run the joint–laid back man child, Nate Jr, and rigid and closeted (to begin with) gay man, David. We also delve into the lives of their mother, Ruth, their much younger sister, Claire, and their employee, Federico. Everyone’s also a bit haunted by the “ghost” of their patriarch, Nathaniel Sr, who dies in a car crash in the first episode.

I put “ghost” in quotation marks because this isn’t a literal poltergeist. The show is relatively neutral on the afterlife, preferring to focus on the here and now (ta da ching), and the dead appear as projections of the living. It’s a built in trick to deal with inner drama. ๐Ÿ˜›

Every now and then HBO airs a few episodes of Six Feet Under, and I get sucked in a little bit. I think that the strongest storylines revolve around Nate (Peter Krause) and David (Michael C Hall.) I also had a bit of a soft spot for Claire (Lauren Ambrose) who, though much different than me, was the same age. The show basically chronicled “our” high school and college years.

When the storylines stayed close to the family and business drama, I was hooked. But a couple of subplots went off the rails and became too melodramatic–the whole incidence of Nate’s wife’s disappearance and mysterious death, and David being kidnapped and abused. Those always kept me from getting fully engrossed in the series.

I’m also a little eyebrow archy the deaths depicted–they were almost always freak accidents or intentional killings. Statistics show that most of us in the US will die of heart failure or other afflictions in our advanced years, but most victims on the show were middle aged. I suppose I have to suspend disbelief and say that most of the Fisher clientele were elderly, but they showcased the more unusual cases to complement whatever was going on with the living people.

In a way, the show was a long treatise with how to deal with the advent of death. At the end of the first season, Nate gets a harrowing brain injury diagnosis, which he succumbs to near the end of the last season. It’s one of the only times that we get a “death montage” at the end, not beginning, of an episode. But otherwise, the presentation of Nate’s death is treated like everyone else’s. Before he dies, with David seated at his bedside, we go into this strange, psychological dreamscape with their father to probe how both of the men confront this concept.

A couple of episodes later the show ends with this future-reaching montage that depicts the deaths of all of the main characters. It always makes me tear up. It’s told from Claire’s perspective, as she literally drives through time while partaking in a cross country move. Here, most characters die of more natural causes, and I wonder if we had to see the entire show before we could appreciate the relatively normal lives and deaths of the Fishers et. al. (I also love the music and am freaked out that Claire lives to be 101. At least one of us will.)

Claire’s death depresses me to a degree because we don’t see any living family members around her (I assume Ball figured that would be distracting, seeing as she outlived all of the main cast.) Instead, we see a display of all of the pictures that she took of her family–a reminder that the finality of death cannot take away from the fullness of life. The overall show proved that for most of the characters, imho, even those who didn’t live the longest.

For more ruminations by Ball and the cast on the finale, click here. I’m going into Here and Now relatively unspoiled, though it looks like it’ll be closer in tone to Six Feet than to True Blood. Hoping it lives up.


This show isn’t airing any time soon, but I’ve also been niggling over Transparent. It’s rather obviously about a transgender and gay family, but it’s also about a Jewish family. When it comes to “Jewish,” Hollywood usually depicts one of two strands–very Orthodox or very Seinfeld. ๐Ÿ˜› But this series is about a Reform family! Progressive (and still active) Judaism ahoy! I need to see this. I’m talking myself into it. My parents have an Amazon prime account… hmm. *wheels turning*

Hope my fellow TV nerds find something good to watch this year!

January 22, 2018

2017: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 11:45 am by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Before the month goes out, I’d like to start my year in blogging in the usual way! ๐Ÿ˜› I’ve amassed a variety of news sources, mostly published to Tablet Magazine or JTA but there are some others too, that detail 2017 stories that pertain 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.

Common trends abound–leaders die, may their memories be for a blessing, the Italian Jewish community rallies in the face of national disasters, antisemitism is rife, yet so is communal solidarity. Some personal essays recount the Holocaust or controversial figures within it, some medieval Jewish ruins are unearthed, some communities in the south get a long overdue boost of Jewish culture. I’m especially excited about Sicily, as my nana was born there. She was Catholic, but I can consider the Sicilian Jews as my step family. ๐Ÿ˜›

One Italian congregation even joined the Reconstructionist movement, the small, largely American denomination that defined my childhood! :0 Most of Jewish practice in Italy is Orthodox, but perhaps the times are a-changin’.

In terms of sports and antisemitism, soccer aka football seems particularly toxic. But there’s an interesting proliferation of empathetic cycling stories, heh.

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 »

October 30, 2017

Pet Bereavement

Posted in Judaism at 11:57 pm by chavalah

Happier times

Halloween approaches and I’m rounding out the first month, roughly, after the death of my cat, Leah. There’s so much good that I’ve been privy to as well, from the outpouring of support from my loved ones to some unrelated positive milestones in my life. But October was still a rough time.

On September 30, sitting in Yom Kippur services, I finally allowed myself to entertain the horrifying notion that my cat might be at the end of her life. She had only fallen sick, or at least noticeably so to me, during the Days of Awe. But I’d taken her to two appointments at the vet’s, had another one set up for an ultrasound, and I saw the look on the technician’s face when I explained to her what the vet had seen in Leah’s x-ray. On Tuesday, October 2, the day that I found her body, my mother was coaxing me on the phone home from work to accept this possibility.

Leah died within days of the anniversary of Chavalah, my childhood cat’s death. She also died days after a horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas, and during a time when several of my local cohort were anxiously awaiting an update from our friend in Puerto Rico (she was finally able to find a wifi connection, thank goodness). Yet my Facebook post announcing Leah’s passing was filled with love and support from all quarters. I truly feel very blessed.

My parents drove to Silver Spring from Baltimore that first night to take Leah’s body in preparation for burying her alongside the childhood cats. My sister stayed on the phone with me as I cried and babbled in confusion. When my three-year-old niece saw me a few days later she stayed by my side, complimented my hair and asked me how I was feeling.

But despite the fact that I’m surrounded by pet lovers online and off, the scope of my grief still feels unwieldy. For the first couple weeks, I scoured for virtual and in-person support groups but didn’t feel fully ready to own my feelings. I’m sure that anyone who has lost a pet feels some sort of guilt. I was spared the decision of putting Leah down, or having her die in a place that she hated, but her death was still so sudden. At 10 years old she was a senior cat, but just barely; Chavalah lived to be seven years older than her. Surely there was some sign that I’d missed, stupid ways in which I’d been distracted in the weeks and months leading up to her death. I’d failed as a cat guardian, maybe I’d even killed her. It’s taking time to learn how to forgive myself.

Naturally, I also feel the pull towards my faith. It felt awkward to be wrapped up in the end of Leah’s life during a holiday that is about human redemption. Leah (who I named after the biblical matriarch, similar to how I named Chavie, as well as this blog, after the 19th century Yiddish character) was not a Jew, but I am. Surely there’s a place within progressive Judaism to deal with the grief of losing non-humans. Yet I feel uncomfortable, and am not as involved with my synagogue as I could be. Shortly after Leah’s death the cantor emailed me as part of the flash choir to take part in Simchat Torah, but I declined. I didn’t have it in me to feel joyful.

I’m at a slightly better place now. I’m reading, preparing for NaNoWriMo, enjoying parts of life again. Now I’m guilty because I no longer expect to see Leah in the condo or need to play YouTube videos to make me fall asleep at night.

This weekend I’m finally going to an in-person bereavement session at the Montgomery County Humane Society. I’m hoping that it’ll be uplifting to be around other people who’ve recently experienced this type of pain. I’m curious about how they cope with grief, with time moving forward and the possibility of adopting new companions. I’ve found grief an impossible journey to go through alone, which is why I’m often talking about it in person and online. The bereavement group feels like a step out of quicksand and onto a solid path again.

I don’t know where this ends; in fact I’m not sure that applied to death and grief. I’m sure that I’ll ultimately contextualize Leah’s memory differently than I did Chavie’s, given the various differences in their circumstances. Leah and Chavie were two different cats, and I was a different guardian to each of them. But I want to thank those closest to me, those who checked in from afar, and those who checked in after several years, for being my support group. Grief is a strong emotion, but so too are love and compassion. I wish you all, humans and pets alike, the best going forward.

September 19, 2017

5777 in News of the Jews

Posted in Judaism at 10:06 pm by chavalah

I’d like to do a repeat, in a way, of this post from last year, but I don’t think I’ll be as thorough. Suffice to say that pretty much all of the contentious issues discussed there are still contentious issues.

Still, I have some stuff on my mind so I’ll divide into subheadings below. It’s largely a focus on the negative, but that’s often a good starting point for reflection and atonement, heh.

The United States

I’d like to touch on the increasingly polarized nature of U.S. politics and how this affects American Jews, perhaps more than any other cultural group. On the left, we have the issue of intersectional identity politics acting as a smokescreen for antisemitism, most prominently realized during the Chicago Dyke March and Chicago Slut Walk. On the right, we have actual neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, and the President acting as an apologist for them.

I’m in no way saying that these two extremes–verbal antisemitism and exclusion vs emulating the people responsible for Jewish genocide–are morally equivalent. But as a Leftist, a Zionist and a Jew, I certainly feel obligated to grapple with the former. You don’t talk with a neo-Nazi, with someone whose endgame is to push you into an oven. But as someone who cares about marginalized groups, here are my bullet points for certain segments of the Left.

  • Don’t let selective “intersectionality” boomerang until it resembles right wing censorship, with that division between which groups merit consideration and which don’t.
  • Whether you’re unknowingly co-opting supremacist slurs or not,
    hate is still hate.
  • Equating Israel with “white colonialism,” erases both the oppression of Jews and their right to self-determination, plus all of the non-Ashkenazi Israelis. (Not to mention that even calling Ashkenazi Jews “white,” given our history and sometimes present in Europe and the United States, isn’t a cut and dry issue, either.)
  • Realize that there’s more complexity in many human conflicts, and religious/cultural/ethnic identities, than white hats vs black hats, innocent angels vs mustache-twirling villains. “Patriarchy” and other means of oppression doesn’t just belong to one group.

I wonder, and assume that in more thoughtful corners of the Left, we realize that these toxins manifest, and must be dealt with, in all communities. You can’t talk with Nazis or other supremacy groups, but you should be able to talk with everyone else from varying backgrounds and perspectives. Empathy should be a big-tent idea.

The Personal

I need to back off of the vitriol that is the world of Facebook comments. At the very least so that I don’t have the same conversation with my mother over and over: “Mom, right wing Jews are calling me a Kapo again!” “Stop reading that crap!” ๐Ÿ˜› I’m sure some extreme left-wing Jews are also spewing hate, but somehow I get more access to the other side. Some people who use their affinity for rightist politics and/or the current US administration to completely tar and feather other Jews. I’ve even seen the justification that neo-Nazis in Charlottesville are ok so long as their targeting “leftist Jews.” (Disclaimer: definitely an extremist fringe position!)

This isn’t the first time that Jews have allowed varying religious, political or cultural opinions lead to toxic nastiness, but it feels like virtual anonymity has led to a special type of trolling. Maybe I’m cynical in believing that they don’t actually want to communicate, but I don’t have the time or mental energy to get involved in all of that anyway. Best not to drink poison and look for more productive ways to spend my time.

Speaking of such, it’s time to acknowledge the larger, natural world and the havoc its wreaked on several communities lately in the US and abroad. As I enter the High Holidays, I need to find the means to donate.

The Israel

Speaking in my personal capacity as an American Jew, relations with y’all in the Israeli government have been difficult. ๐Ÿ˜› Let’s go back to a bullet list.

Shana tova, everyone, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.

July 18, 2017

Judaism and Nostalgia in Summer Blockbuster Movies

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:58 pm by chavalah

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, charging into the fray

I’m not sure I’ll be going to the theater for any more blockbusters this summer. There’s the visually stunning Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets coming out this week, but my mind is already wrapped tightly around another story. ๐Ÿ˜› (I also saw the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, too and my response is eh, cute. :P)

My interest in superhero franchises is almost nonexistent and DC properties rank lower in my mind than Marvel ones (this is probably my favorite clip of all time about Superman. And also from one of my favorite movies of all time, but I digress.) But like many other people, I took an interest in the new Wonder Woman movie. It was the first film of its kind in years with a female at the lead, and that female lead was Gal Gadot, a Jewish Israeli actress.

I’m always up for a story that focuses on a strong female character (mileage may vary on what that phrase means, but more on that later.) I was also charmed and disconcerted when my non-Jewish Wonder Woman-loving friends giddily linked to this article, say. For a brief period of time, it was like Israel could be just another place, privy to benign attraction whenever one of it’s people intersected with the broader world (and then this happened to bring me back to reality, which I suppose is even more incentive for me to live in Wonder Woman-land for a little while longer.)

The movie premise, as expected, didn’t really do much for me. DC superhero aficionados were thrilled that the cynical, bleak cast of recent Batman and Superman films had faded away to something more “old school” about a mega human choosing to fight the good fight. I’m not much of a fan of lauding fighting as an unquestionable good because I also don’t believe in a world of mustache-twirling villains (though–spoiler alert!–turns out that humans aren’t slaves to the villainous God of War after all, and are often willing participants in worldwide destruction.) I mean, this comes back to my antipathy with the superhero mythos; it doesn’t speak to me, or the issues that I like to see explored in speculative fiction. Star Wars and Harry Potter might have the “chosen one” and even a mustache-twirling villain or two, but those stories are told through the lens of fantasy, and their worlds and characters are much more developed, imho.

The human elements, as always, were the most compelling to me. Personally I think Gal Gadot and Chris Pine’s chemistry was a little hot and cold (I might be too nitpicky) but it’s obvious that she had to feel a connection to him in order to thereby be connected to all humans. The side characters weren’t developed past their archetypes, but still they stood as a reminder of a more complicated world. A world where, in 1918, a brown man fights because he can’t be an actor. And more intriguingly, a world where perhaps no group of humans are all good or all bad, because as we’re reminded, Native American Chief Napi’s people were oppressed by “good guy” Steve Trevor aka Chris Pine’s people. Yet here, in The Great War, they find common ground. That’s the optimistic message that I can get behind.

Since personally I don’t relate all that much to Wonder Woman’s kick ass physical skills (other than my mixed response to the idealized female Israeli sabra from the perspective of an American woman of the tribe, but that’s a whole other ball of wax), I’ll return to what I do connect to–Gal Gadot’s Jewishness. Among all the hoopla came a sudden controversy about whether or not Gal Gadot, and by extension all Ashkenazi Jews, are white. It’s a complicated mire, though perhaps I can distill my opinion succinctly–in considering the idea of “whiteness” as privilege, which I believe is its usual distinction, then Ashkenazi Jews have indeed been “white” in the US, Israel and elsewhere. They are certainly almost always perceived as white simply going by skin tone, unlike Judaism, which can’t always be “perceived” on sight. But Ashkenazi Jews have also been oppressed and seen as “non-white,” particularly in Europe. Gal Gadot’s own grandparents were Holocaust survivors, which means her own personal history is partially defined by persecution, marginalization and refugee status. Tl;dr–diverse representation, particularly along racial lines, is important; ethnic identity is complicated. And I wish that more people didn’t see things in simplistic terms, but maybe that’s what I get for wandering into a superhero movie. ๐Ÿ˜›

Though perhaps to end on a more conciliatory note, I’ll point out that the Nice Jewish Fangirls podcast pointed out that this whole “fight for justice” theme kind of fits in with the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, aka fixing the world. They’re big fans of the movie and have a lot of interesting stuff to say, so check them out!

***

Old fandom loves die hard

In far less critically acclaimed news, I also took a gander at the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I probably would have ignored it altogether if I didn’t ultimately get confirmation that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly would be reprising their roles. But they were, and old fandom flames were re-ignited!

Film did a good job of tricking us in the beginning. They had Will’s young son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites), try to rescue his father from the curse of Davy Jones, only to be turned away. Obviously it was a set up for Henry to grow into a young man on a quest, but sadly that whole plot was sidelined. Instead, we were privy to the same tired jokes and slapstick humor involving Captain Jack’s (Johnny Depp) exploits, which already felt a little stale. We got a new magical maguffin, more overwrought Jack backstory (honestly, do we need to know the provenance of his hat?), a tepid romance with an underdeveloped character in Kaya Scodelario, and a completely flat attempt at an emotional arc for Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush.) Disregarding all of the contradictory information (like why was Will turning fishy if he was keeping up his end of the bargain?) why not just focus on the Turner drama?? Elizabeth didn’t even get any lines, and barely a walk on, after test audiences demanded her presence. Sigh. It was like Mark Hamill in The Force Awakens all over again. ๐Ÿ˜›

But beyond all of that, what I really wanted after a 10 year hiatus since movie three was a better, more romantic ending for Will and Elizabeth! And I got that! Well, kinda. There’s a little bit of an easter egg at the end, and…I won’t go into spoilers just in case Pirates 6 gets made. Guess that depends on box office numbers (I hear the movie made more of a splash overseas than here) and whether or not they can get Johnny back on board. Probably depends on which other celebrity he can share a cameo with. In this one, it was Paul McCartney. ๐Ÿ˜›

Either way I’m expecting it to be bad…but if Orlando and Keira are in it, you can bet your pirate monkeys I’m the sucker that Disney can cater to. :”> I’ll just go skulk off to the corner now.


But I’m going to take a little bit of a tougher stance with Disney regarding the recently released A Wrinkle In Time photos. (Now there’s a teaser trailer, too!) Storm Reid and Levi Miller look great as Meg and Calvin, but what’s with the three witches? I suppose it’s too much to ask for anything else from a slick Disney production, but their outfits are Hollywood glam. Not at all the awkward, frumpy attire of three bemused aliens stealing sheets from the line and pretending, badly, to fit in with humans. These pictures strip away the gritty realism from the book, alas. It’s not enough to make me not see the film (nor is the fact that Chris Pine looks his age, and not old enough to be the father of a teenager,) but I’m starting to think that this book can’t really be adapted. At least not by a corporation with all of their glitz and glamour. Alas. The film comes out in March 2018, and I still expect it to be much better than the 2003 mess, so there’s that. ๐Ÿ˜› Huzzah.

June 25, 2017

Winter/Spring 2017 TV: (The Leftovers, The Young Pope, Big Little Lies, The Expanse)

Posted in Italy, Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:06 pm by chavalah

So much Christian content in my tv lately. Enough to make me wanna buy a subscription to The Jewish Channel. ๐Ÿ˜›

I’m a month later than last year in making this post, though the Game of Thrones schedule has changed, too, so I guess that’s my excuse. ๐Ÿ˜›

As is custom, HBO dominates most of my tv habits. Starting in February and ending earlier this month, I routinely watched their Sunday night 9 pm programming. And I have a little bit of a quibble. The male-centric stories–The Young Pope and The Leftovers revolve around dudes with god complexes, and are generally lauded as prestige television. The female-centric Big Little Lies is seen more like fluff. I’m not gonna leave that statement there without examining it more fully, but as a gut instinct it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Mixing my metaphors here. ๐Ÿ˜›

The Young Pope

I’ll start with my least favorite. Ultimately, I don’t think this show did much for me. I loved the chance to see Italy, insofar as it was presented, as the primary backdrop, I appreciated the chance to showcase non-US or UK actors like Silvio Orlando who played a compelling Cardinal, and I was particularly intrigued by Diane Keaton’s unusual turn as the taciturn Sister Mary.

Some people liked creator/director Paulo Sorrentino’s surreal style, but I found it to be a little grating. The premise seems to be somewhat twofold–a spoiled little boy is elected Pope, throws big tantrums and makes everybody’s lives hell because his parents abandoned him and now he has the power for global payback. Then, after a remarkably racist episode set in Africa, where he schools a fictitious, unnamed country in the merits of compassion and justice, he slowly takes his own lessons to heart. Having finally “grown up,” the series ends on an ambiguous note of–did he see his folks in the crowd while delivering a homily in Venice? (And did he survive said experience??)

It’s an annoying, egotistical conceit. Jude Law can’t just be playing a random dude with abandonment issues–he has to be THE POPE. The women in Big Little Lies are dealing with similarly big life issues like adultery, spousal abuse and rape, but none of them get to be High Priestess of Avalon. Which I suppose is also a remark on the lack of women in the highest echelons of most religions, but still–their problems aren’t seen as any bigger than the problems of any normal human.

Perhaps the episode that held the most promise for me was the penultimate one, where we follow Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cรกmara) to New York where he’s arrived to apprehend a pedophile priest. We meet the priest, who of course was abused himself as a child, and also an obese sickly woman whom Gutierrez is counseling. They had the promise of being compelling characters but we spent so little time with them, and Sorrentino made so much out of melodramatic music and vague flashbacks that they ultimately felt more like caricatures.

As a Jew, I admit that the saints and miracle-workers that populated this story just aren’t my bag, baby, so maybe it’s a subjective disconnect. I found this show to be disjointed and underwhelming in theme. Holding out hope that maybe HBO will pick up another Italian project in the future–well, there’s “season two” of this, The New Pope, but I’m not sure I’ll watch. Meh.

Big Little Lies

Based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, there’s no doubt that this story is a little bit fluffy. Or maybe it’s a matter of perspective; I haven’t read the book myself, but my mother found it to be relatively beach ready after getting through the harrowing Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

I think that a lot of this has to do with format and setting. The format is very plot based; we start with a murder, so the question of “whodunnit?” (also “who’s the victim?”) looms large over the narrative. It’s a puzzle to be solved, which sometimes eclipses the natural progression of the character arcs. A last minute shocker reveal about two seeming strangers with an shared past proves very convenient. Also, the story takes place in a rich suburb of Monterey, and despite any real world issues, we’re constantly reminded of the privilege and frivolity that pervades these peoples’ lives. Plus, there is so much gossip and backstabbing that after awhile, I really wanted to put somebody’s eye out.

The ending is also a little pat, with all of the main characters, some of them enemies, coming together to say goodbye to the murder investigation with a picnic on the beach. Didn’t really feel deserved.

I was intrigued with how they handled the spousal abuse storyline. I’m used to the one-dimensional Lifetime approach, where an innocent woman is duped by a sadistic man who shows his true colors when it’s too late. Here, Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgรฅrd have built a more complicated set of rituals and denials around what’s happening. Meanwhile the therapist calls bullshit, so the show isn’t excusing said abuse. It just feels more real–all the way down to how it affects their seemingly oblivious kids.

Shailene Woodley gives a tense and masterful performance as the vulnerable single mother and rape victim of the story, to the point that I could barely recognize her in scenes with her antagonist, Laura Dern (who also played Woodley’s own doting mother in The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about some dissociation! :P) And speaking of Woodley, her Divergent co-star Zoรซ Kravitz, also gets to play with a more complicated role as Reese Witherspoon’s sorta rival.

Oh, Reese. ๐Ÿ˜› From the trailers I was afraid that her character would be the Regina George of the bunch, but actually she’s far more layered. Jealous and possessive, Type A driven, definitely flawed–and depressed about her college-aged daughter moving physically and emotionally away from her. I liked the idea that her marriage is on the rocks because she and her husband have different sexual needs and general drives, and I was disappointed when the show introduced the affair subplot. Alas.

Still, I found this to be an enjoyable miniseries. And more refreshing than male gods–we focus on the lives of female humans. ๐Ÿ˜› I’d like more of this, please.

The Leftovers

Loosely based on the Tom Perrotta novel, The Leftovers is probably the most thoughtful, best realized show on this list (and I say this while deeply disliking aspects! :P) But in touching how abandonment and loss of faith touch a particular set of people, it’s quite powerful.

I’ve written in some depth about season one and season two, though I’ll have to rehash some bits in order to come to terms with the final season.

Quick recap: 2% of the world’s population disappears and the show revolves, sorta, around the 98% of leftovers trying to make sense of it all. I say “sorta” because in season two, I came to terms with the fact that this isn’t a maxmist story about how everyone deals, but rather a very minimalist one about a how a small sliver of familiar middle class white Christian folks deal with it. (Departure is a very flimsy cover for “Rapture.”) On the plus side, I do love delving deep into a few characters. So this season I made my peace with the Kevin=messiah mishegas, because at least his surreal journeys to the afterlife were funny, and I liked how the Australian character, Grace (Lindsay Duncan) related to that hoe down.

I’m still disappointed in all of the dropped threads–like the tense relationship between Jill (Margaret Qualley) and Laurie (Amy Brennerman), the mother who abandoned her in season one. Last season was unique for bringing in a fully realized African American family, the Murphys, but this season they were incredibly sidelined. And more generally, I dislike how the drama on this show is always pushed TO THE MAX, like how Kevin, Sr. (Scott Glenn) can’t even ask a random guy for directions without said guy setting himself on fire.

The inciting incident of this season, set seven years after “The Departure,” is that Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston) promises that a great Noah-like flood will come, and only Messiah Kevin (Justin Theroux) can save them. The cast ends up in Australia because Nora, Kevin’s girlfriend (Carrie Coon) wants to expose a fraud where some scientists are claiming they can send survivors to where the Departed went. Equally as likely, she wants to hitch a ride to her Departed children.

So I’ve made my peace with the Christian elements, but then this year they go off and appropriate different religious observances. In “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” Kevin, Sr. hops around Australia recording aboriginal songs because he’s sure they will stop the flood. We get very little insight into the cultures of these real tribes. Then, in “It’s a Matt Matt, Matt World,” the show uses some Yom Kippur liturgy to bolster Matt’s character arc. Don’t get me wrong; he’s one of the more complicated characters on the show (egotistical yet vulnerable. Plus he gets a goodbye scene with his sister, Nora, in the finale that I’m desperate to have reproduced on Game of Thrones before the White Walkers kill the remaining Stark children /wibble). But obviously that liturgy is meant for a very different, very somber, very community-oriented purpose than Matt’s personal tsuris.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that Nora is my favorite character, and so the final scene is a real winner for me. One thing that I think The Leftovers does exceedingly well is dole out character-enlightening monologues. Nora’s final monologue, all about the need for and fragility of human connections, gave me major Mockingjay finale vibes. Also, her description of “the Departed” land made me desperate to reread Station Eleven. I think it’s still on my dad’s nightstand. ๐Ÿ˜›

So I dunno, if the destination and many parts of the journey are an indication, then this is the best show on here. I’m definitely glad that I stuck with it; was an interesting, if bumpy, ride.


Admittedly, I’m a sucker for taglines like this.

The Expanse

Shockingly enough, I turned away from HBO for a brief period of time–and to the SyFy Channel! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ I hadn’t really watched them since they were the SciFi Channel! ๐Ÿ˜›

OK, so I tried this show last year and gave up halfway through season one. I didn’t find it to be that compelling, and I think the reason for that was because of the framing story–a noir detective search for a missing girl. The girl, Julie, (Florence Faivre) wasn’t a character in her own right, but rather a spark to set off the plot. Basically: a few hundred years into the future, humans on Earth and Mars are locked in combat, and our fellows living in the asteroid belt are caught in the middle. But there’s a sudden new, scary weapon of mass destruction (discovered at the end of the Julie arc), and most of our main characters, a Firefly-like crew of diverse folks, have to speak truth to power.

But in season two the plot is in motion, and I could focus on the consequences and the other characters. We are introduced to Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) who has a rather age-worn character arc of being a militant who has to reassess her values when she finds out that her planet’s government isn’t as noble as she’d like to believe. But at least it’s her arc; she isn’t just part of someone else’s.

I also really liked the budding romance between Jim (Steven Strait) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper), even when I shouldn’t have because Jim’s in the midst of the standard “good boy exposed to bad situations, losing his moral compass” bit. But the end of season two ends on a far more ethically ambiguous note for both of them.

One of the reasons I wanted to watch the show in the first place was because of Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays a shrewd Earth diplomat. She seems like a far more complicated character this year, so yay. And finally, I’m a sucker for a geeky, botanist dad (Terry Chen) trying to save his young daughter. Goes without saying that this show already has a refreshingly diverse cast.

Ultimately I’m not sure that the characters transcend the roles assigned to them by the needs of the plot, but I love the themes of this show. How much does allegiance to home planet (or Belt) define you? Where is the line between right and wrong? We might be stepping into very Game of Thrones territory here, where the consequences of war far outstrip the players.

This is based on an ongoing series of science fiction books by James S.A. Corey; one of several options that I’m quibbling about starting. Time to get out my hashtag–#SoMuchToRead! Am I a bad book nerd if I just let the television show tell the story to me? :/ Alas. It’ll be back on air sometime in 2018.

April 14, 2017

5777: My First Hosted Passover Seder!

Posted in Judaism at 10:03 pm by chavalah

My Seder set up!

Iโ€™ve had it in my head for a couple of years that I wanted to host my own Passover Seder. But plans always came up to divert me. Instead Iโ€™d spend the holiday with my interfaith and assimilated family, and any attempt at a Seder pretty much fell apart immediately. Last year I found a one-page โ€œHaggadahโ€ online, and even that we couldnโ€™t seem to get through.

As Iโ€™ve assumed some Jewish practice as an adult, Passover remained my sore spot. Itโ€™s a family holiday, and my memories of robust family Seders ended in childhood. And I was mostly bored by religious ritual then, so I mostly remember leaving the table and heading off to play.

So this was my year to reclaim the holiday! This was my year of coming home. I sent my parents an evite, knowing that I could coerce them to at least follow some of the rituals, and we had our Seder Sunday evening, the day before Passover 5777 began. Iโ€™m not pretending to be traditional here. ๐Ÿ˜›

Even though I didnโ€™t chase after hametz with a feather, my condo is about 75% comprised of cat fur, so I did have to embrace some serious cleaning. Opening my home, even to my parents, was an apprehensive task for me. I live alone, and canโ€™t say that Iโ€™ve ever โ€œentertainedโ€ guests in the formal way. Here again I differ from my family, who clean house and cook meals for people during at least one festive holiday per year. I decided that if Passover was important to me, and Passover is very much about community, this would be the time for me to join their ranks.

Like with most holiday preparations, it was a stressful experience. My parents ended up arriving an hour and a half late and I had barely started cooking. I had to run to CVS for some chicken broth while my mom rolled my matzah balls into boiling water; the soup ended up rather tasteless (though the matzah balls were great! :P) And my dad graciously tipped my Ikea table onto its side to tighten some seriously loose screws, and then he got out the big vacuum for some final de-furring. My cat stayed in the bedroom, having exhausted her curiosity about why Iโ€™d pulled said table away from the wall in the first place.

My biggest accomplishment of the day was obtaining a free shank bone from Whole Foods, after I asked customer service about an obscure 2012 blog post Iโ€™d read half an hour earlier. I also printed out some supplemental reading from HIAS, the American Jewish World Service and a page from The Five Books of Miriam edited by Ellen Frankel.

My mom brought the Seder plate, some homemade charoset, and our Reconstructionist Haggadah. We skipped through the book, playing a little hodge podge with the ceremonial rituals, and focusing on responsive readings that spoke to us about the holiday. My mom and I sang the four questions in Hebrew, and my dad read in English. We told the story of the Exodus in our own words as the natural light shifted and my cat came out to meow for food. Then we sang a few songs, cleared the table and washed dishes, talked about other things, and my folks headed home.

Despite the preparation anxieties of the weekend, which honestly feel as much part of the experience as the Seder itself, Iโ€™d call this a success. The food was (mostly) good, and our religious content was casual but meaningful. I felt connected to my family, to my heritage, and even to myself in the ways that I hoped I would. Taking on the mantle of Passover meant that I had to take responsibility for my religious identity in a new way. This wasnโ€™t about sitting in a pew in synagogue, but about leading the festivities, like Miriam with her tambourine by the Red Sea. OK, maybe not that significant, but you get the idea. ๐Ÿ˜›

Best of all, my parents said that they enjoyed themselves, too. Itโ€™s all well and good that I wanted to do this for myself, but to be a noteworthy host, I also had to bring something to the guests. I feel like something changed in me by opening my home to others, even if it was just my own parents. To practice Judaism fully, you have to share your life with your family, your community. Sometimes, you have to be the leader in things that matter to you. And I donโ€™t need to be afraid of those steps anymore.

Chag sameach, everyone. Next year in my condo. ๐Ÿ˜›

March 21, 2017

Latest Pop Culture Jewish Ruminations (Mostly a Review of “X-Men: Apocalypse”) :P

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:36 pm by chavalah

Erik (Michael Fassbender) confronts Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) at Auschwitz

Does God exist? And if “He” does, why does He allow mass crimes against humanity to be perpetrated against His people?

These are the questions, asked in an explicitly Jewish way, that captured my attention most while watching X-Men: Apocalypse. A little background–yes, I saw it in theatres, but the constant barrage on HBO has me thinking about it again. ๐Ÿ˜›

The three X-Men reboot movies have all essentially been about the same thing. Even though this film is ostensibly about a Bronze Age demigod attempting to gain omniscience and destroy/rebuild the world in his image, it’s REALLY about Erik’s neverending distrust of humanity and pull towards the dark side. Apparently losing his family to the Holocaust was a little too retro for the third time, so the story fridges a sudden wife and daughter instead, in order to nudge Erik from quiet country life into vengeful mass murderer again.

Except that this film does deal heavily in the Holocaust, and in the most real and visceral way that I’ve ever seen, at least in a big genre blockbuster. Erik and Oscar Isaac’s character, who is basically the closest we come to God, act out a pantomime at Auschwitz that is uncomfortably familiar to me as a Jew who has learned about the genocide since being a little girl, and has listened to survivors. It’s a conversation that even those of us born years after the Holocaust ended have had in our heads.

The scene starts with Apocalypse taking Erik to Auschwitz and saying “this is where your people were slaughtered,” which strikes me as a very particular sort of framing. Not all of “the people” were slaughtered after all; many of us lived on, l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation. But for many survivors, and perhaps others pondering the enormity of the Holocaust, the Jewish people ended in those gas chambers and mass graves. In the 1980s, Erik is living in his native Poland, but he doesn’t appear to be leading a Jewish life aside from singing Yiddish lullabies to his daughter. Obviously the macro character arc for Magneto is predicated upon the loss of his entire identity as a child, leading him to embrace an extremist mutant ideology.

Then, Apocalypse and Erik move on to a God/Man struggle talk, which would not feel out of place in the Bible. Apocalypse introduces himself by several monikers, which hearkens back to the Jewish belief that we can’t know the one true name of God so we call God by many names, including “Shem” and “Elohim,” both of which Apocalypse ticks off. Erik then asks Apocalypse, well if you are God, WHERE WERE YOU when this was happening, and Apocalypse answers that he was sleeping. The answer really isn’t as important as the question concerning what sort of magnanimous God would allow the Holocaust, or any other form of genocide or crime against humanity, to happen. The issue is of course much more complicated than the movie makes it out to be, because Apocalypse is merely a character with an agenda to tap into Erik’s rage. But the fact that this conversation takes place at all, between a Jewish man and a godlike figure, has been niggling at me in a Jewish identity sort of way. Not sure what this means…except that this largely insipid action film moved me very personally for about five minutes. Not to say that I hated the rest of the experience; just…eh.

***

Stray observations:

Did anyone else think that Apocalypse may in fact be the unintentional good guy when he made the world’s nukes go away? He even referenced the Bible again with the Tower of Babel story–“You can fire your arrows from the Tower of Babel, but you can never strike God!” An ungenerous reading of the Tower of Babel story paints God as jealous of human industry, and therefore scatters us so that we don’t get too smart. But human smarts have led in part to these possible Earth-destroying weapons of mass destruction–just saying I’d be cool with a supernatural force intervening to say “yeah, no, this shit won’t fly.” ๐Ÿ˜›

I try not to be a sucker for romance (I don’t really think most of the characters in this franchise are developed enough for that anyway) but I got the feels when Charles (James McAvoy) told Moira (Rose Bryne) “I’m on a beach…in Cuba…with you.” Hearkened back to the first (and strongest) reboot movie, though you kinda have to ignore that he’d stolen her memories from her for the past 20 years. :/ Also that no one had aged much in that time. ๐Ÿ˜›

THE major reason that I went to see this film in theatres was that I was hoping that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) would have ONE conversation together. This was accomplished through a five minute back and forth about fear in the face of danger, with the dude characters constantly interjecting. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Possibly my least favorite part of the film: the sexual tension between Logan and Jean Grey. Ugh, I’ve endured SIX YEARS of Aiden Gillen perving on Sophie Turner via Game of Thrones, ever since she was like 13-14 years old; I do not NEED this here. Please, someday, let me see a Sophie Turner project where someone old enough to be her father is NOT hitting on her. ๐Ÿ˜›

I’ve seen some comparisons concerning Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique role in this film to her Katniss Everdeen role. Apparently, since the events of the last film, she’s seen by many young people as some sort of folk hero, and like Katniss, she’s not comfortable with the attention. The main difference being that superhero Mystique, largely on her own, decided last minute to NOT partake in a political assassination; and human Katniss, largely manipulated by government agents and propaganda forces beyond her control, was picked to be the figurehead of a revolution. It’s interesting, though, that in this movie, they gave Mystique a Katniss-like prickly, reclusive loner vibe. Overall I find Mystique’s character to be pretty underwhelming. The X-Men movies are mostly the Wolverine show with a side dish of Erik and Charles debating the nature of humanity. But at least I got to add to my quota of constantly referencing The Hunger Games. ๐Ÿ˜€ Score!


Book cover

Moving to a largely unrelated note, but this is my blog, after all. ๐Ÿ˜› I’ve slowly been getting into reading more recent science fiction books, and my latest conquest was Planetfall by Emma Newman. It’s been on my mind a lot–it’s the story of a woman, Ren, who, along with a thousand others, follows her close friend-turned-prophet off of Earth and onto an alien planet where she’s convinced that she will find God. It’s actually pretty low on the religion and pretty high on the science, except that this isn’t what drew me into the book.

The novel is a character study about Ren, our unreliable narrator who is dealing with an anxiety disorder. The plot jumpstarts with a mysterious stranger coming to town who inevitably unravels several colony secrets, but it’s a very interior novel. It’s also a bit about the search for meaning, if not outright the search for God. (Said prophet, it should be said, is actually shunted into a Moses narrative; by the time the book starts, most of her compatriots are waiting for her to “come down from Sinai,” as it were.)

Still, I can’t help but hold this book up against my occasionally explored “Jews in space” theory, and I wonder if what this is telling me is that we wouldn’t invariably go to space, at least not to find God. God, for us, is very tied up in our history, which is very tied into Earth, Jerusalem in particular. Even if we don’t go to space for religious reasons, could most (heavily identified or practicing) Jews bear to leave Jerusalem so far behind? (Now perhaps would be a good time to quote the Psalms. Or Yehuda Amichai. :P)

Before I go too off the rails here, I guess I’ll end by pointing out that Newman has written a companion book to Planetfall–it’s called After Atlas. I’ll need to get to it sooner or later…there’s just so much to read! Oy.

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