April 14, 2017

5777: My First Hosted Passover Seder!

Posted in Judaism at 10:03 pm by chavalah

My Seder set up!

I’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 I’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 “Haggadah” online, and even that we couldn’t seem to get through.

As I’ve assumed some Jewish practice as an adult, Passover remained my sore spot. It’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. I’m not pretending to be traditional here. 😛

Even though I didn’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 can’t say that I’ve ever “entertained” 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 I’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 I’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, I’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 wasn’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. 😛

Best of all, my parents said that they enjoyed themselves, too. It’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 don’t need to be afraid of those steps anymore.

Chag sameach, everyone. Next year in my condo. 😛

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. 😛

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.” 😛

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. 😛

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. 😦

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. 😛

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. 😀 Score!


Book cover

Moving to a largely unrelated note, but this is my blog, after all. 😛 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.

February 19, 2017

The Movie “Denial” and “Alternative Facts”

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:16 pm by chavalah

I’m not attacking freedom of speech. I’ve been defending my right to stand up against someone who wants to pervert the truth.

Rachel Weisz, Tom Wikinson and Timothy Spall in the promotional photo

Rachel Weisz, Tom Wikinson and Timothy Spall in the promotional photo

Undoubtedly the social justice-oriented movie most on my mind this Academy Awards season is the based-on-history film Denial. No, it’s not up for any Oscars, and I’m not here to argue about that. I’m perfectly happy for Hidden Figures to take home that top prize. But Denial, which chronicles Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel case against Jewish historian Deborah Lipdstadt, speaks heavily to these modern times.

When Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway first spun the term “alternative facts,” my mind immediately went to Holocaust denial. Later, of course, the Trump administration would omit mention of the Jews from their statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which Lipdstadt herself would term in an Atlantic editorial as “softcore denial.” Actually, this whole debacle brought into sharp focus for me the “alternative fact” propagated by Simon Wiesenthal some 70 years ago in order to engender Gentile support for Holocaust remembrance–that 5 million non-Jews were targeted for genocide next to the six million Jews. This line of thinking could take me down a rabbit hole about how the Jewish narrative is often tweaked–even by ourselves–to appease Gentile sensibilities, but I think I’ll stop myself. 😛

What skills do we have to combat these “alternative facts”–or to use the more honest term, these lies? Rachel Weisz, who plays Lipdstadt in the movie, has these compelling lines: “Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be accountable for it.” There’s a difference between quantifiable facts–like that the Holocaust happened or that climate change is real–and opinions, such as one’s preference for movies up for Academy Awards.

That’s not to say that there aren’t conflicting ways to get to the truth. My favorite part of the movie, and the part that challenged me most, was the way to fight this libel suit. The lawyers wanted to focus on discrediting Irving and highlighting his antisemitic agenda in a rational, almost detached way, where Lipdstadt focused on the emotional appeal, and fought futilely for some Auschwitz survivors to testify on behalf of the dead. Auschwitz, where one million Jews were killed, was the focus of the trial. When the Nazis realized that their cause was lost, they destroyed the gas chambers to circumvent evidence of what they did there. There is, of course, testimony from collaborators and survivors, as well as scientific inference from what remains, but deniers use the lack of a proverbial smoking gun to spout their propaganda.

Even in today’s hyper-documented world, dangerous conspiracy theories about science, different minority groups, and etc abound. Political leaders in various parts of the globe are denigrating the press in the hopes of blurring the concepts of “fact” and “opinion.” Historians, scientists and others are being compared to politicians and bigots with biased agendas in order to create the idea of “alternative facts.” This movie was a beacon of light to me about the still-powerful call to real truth.

October 11, 2016

Elena Ferrante and the Meaning of Apologies this Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G’mar Chatimah Tova.

September 26, 2016

5776 in News of the Jews

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

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

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

Black Lives Matter/Israeli “Genocide”

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli Government Attitude Towards Progressive Judaism/Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstructionist Intermarried Rabbis Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

Personal dealings with antisemitism

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

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

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

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

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.

February 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 10, 2016

2015: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

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

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

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

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

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

So, without further ado!

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