November 19, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Movie / Potter Worldbuilding Review

Posted in Pop Culture at 6:14 pm by chavalah

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) popping out of a suitcase.  As you do.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) popping out of a suitcase. As you do.

Third installment of my #NaNoBlogMo Project!

Note: I went into this movie relatively blind. Definitely didn’t have on my Potter fangirl glasses. 😛 I knew for quite awhile that Eddie Redmayne would play Newt Scamander, and more recently I learned that the dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald would be a concern. I’ve followed some of the big fandom stuff, like J.K. Rowling’s short stories about the establishment of Wizarding society in the Americas and the founding of the Ilvermorny school. They left me quite cold, not only because of her shallow appropriation of some Native American mythology but because the writing was so bland. And, like I wrote in my Cursed Child post back in August, a lot of the magic of the Potter series for me centers around British folklore in general and Hogwarts in specific. Still, after seeing the movie, I’m suddenly quite proud that I was sorted into the Thunderbird house. 😀

My overall consensus is that I liked the movie a lot. And it’ll probably grow in my estimation, I think, unlike Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where at best I feel mixed about the narrative. Despite myself, and ignoring all of the Native American issues that are thankfully absent from this film, I’m ready to move the Wizarding World away from Hogwarts and into the Americas.

I don’t necessarily believe it’s a film that can stand on its own, without some knowledge of the original seven books. Particularly the last one, and the backstory about Gellert Grindelwald, which was pretty much washed over in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One. Fantastic Beasts attempted to bring the audience up to speed with a montage at the beginning about the danger Grindelwald posed to Europe, but it’s not the same as a slow build up within the narrative.

The actual story of Fantastic Beasts involves Newt Scamander traveling to the United States in 1926 to set a native Thunderbird free in Arizona. But first he must disembark his steamer in New York, and invariably his suitcase of magical creatures causes a little havoc in the city. Adjacent to all of this, an Obscurus is terrorizing the area and threatening the secrecy of the Wizarding community. Already there’s an “anti-maj” group on the streets, the New Salem Philanthropic Society, or Second Salemers, which claims that dangerous witchcraft must be stopped. We follow some of their members around as well, as they weave into the main story.

Scamander meets up with some colorful characters on his own—bumbling but determined Portpentina “Tina”Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) who wants to reclaim her lost title of Auror for the Magical Congress of the United States, or MACUSA; bewildered but enchanted “no-maj” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who dreams of opening a bakery; and Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who comes off as a little ditzy but is actually an accomplished Legilimens. She’s a mind reader, for those of you who haven’t kept up with Harry’s adventures since book five. 😛 Then there’s MACUSA’s Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Second Salemer leader, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), both of whom play shady characters and who rectify the wrong of these two British actors somehow being left out of the original 8 Potter films, hee.

Rowling is enchanting in her screenwriting debut. As always, I love the names, of course—from MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejojo) to Mary Lou’s adopted children, Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove.) But the real magic is in the connections she draws to her original series. Anyone who has read Newt Scamander’s biography (or brushed up on it quite recently :P) realizes the significance of one of his companions. Graves, at one point, hands Credence a symbol of the Deathly Hallows, which hints his connection to Grindelwald. And it didn’t take long for me to link the Obscurus to the mysterious condition of Dumbledore’s younger sister, Ariana. In essence, Rowling has re-opened the most fascinating (no pun intended) mysteries that she peppered through the last published Potter novel.

It’s also apparent why Grindelwald would make a good, over-arching villain for a now five-movie series, given a certain duel with a famous wizard that he’s slated to fight in 1945. 😛 I imagine that Potter fans might look forward to this the way that Star Wars aficionados anticipated Anakin and Obi-Wan’s battle on the lava planet in Revenge of the Sith. Hopefully with less fannish backlash against the execution, hee.

But we don’t have to wait until the future for good characters—and good villains. Farrell plays Graves with the quiet manipulation of someone who looks like a friend but who uses people for his own means. Mary Lou Barebone is basically this story’s Delores Umbridge, an abuser who justifies hurting children due to her narrow-minded paranoia. Morton plays her with quivering efficiency.

I’ve always been a fan of Eddie Redmayne’s acting, and I was perhaps most emotionally affected when he pleaded with MACUSA to not hurt his harmless creatures. He reminded me strongly of Hagrid, another Hogwarts outcast who was more jittery around most people, and cared for misunderstood animals. Rowling’s big themes were on display here—the danger of the quest for supernatural power, and of “othering” the outcasts, whether human or animal, without making an effort to understand them.

Dan Folger also gave a great turn with some understated, goofy humor. I’m also partial to antsy but committed Tina Goldstein, who by the way sounds like a Jewish American witch to me, so—yup, claiming her. 😛

Some parts of the story didn’t unfold as well, in my estimation. We paid a little too much attention to the fraternal jealousy between the Shaw brothers, given their relative unimportance to the overall narrative. The “fantastic beasts” were cute bits of CGI, but I didn’t connect to them, the way that I did with Hedwig or Crookshanks or Buckbeak. I may have recognized some of the species names from the original Potter stories (or Newt Scamander’s textbook, which I own :P) but I don’t feel inclined to look too deeply into it. Apart from the thunderbird, hee.

The movie was directed by David Yates, who also did the last four Potter films, and Rowling’s script was adapted by Steve Kloves, who also adapted the novels for the big screen. James Newton Howard composed a score that linked this movie to the original series but also skipped off into magic of its own.

As I wrote above, I’m a Fantastic Beasts fan. If the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is to make up a franchise, this is definitely a direction that I’m interested in traveling. Already looking forward to the sequel, set to be in theatres this time next year! But for now, hee, mischief managed. 😛

November 12, 2016

Science Fiction Worldbuilding: How Some Significant Franchises View Government, and the Hero’s Place in the Universe

Posted in Pop Culture at 9:33 pm by chavalah

Next science fiction series on my TBR!

Next science fiction series on my TBR!

Second installment of my #NaNoBlogMo project!

Note: I actually kept meaning to write this blog post since the summer, but more pertinent events kept bumping it down my list of topics. Perhaps it was foresight, because the contentious U.S. election has proven how differently various Americans view the country and their place in it. Though American politics aren’t a direct feature of what’s to follow, perhaps they inspired the creators and writers of these television shows, movies and books. Like all good science fiction, these franchises probe the diverse issues that come out of the conflagration of government, culture and war.

Also, warning: there will be spoilers. 😛

So back in July I saw Star Trek: Beyond in theatres, and I had a brief conversation afterwards with a Trekker friend (see, I’m getting better, guys, and not calling Star Trek fans “Trekkies” anymore. :P) She said that one of the major ways that the film deviated from the original essence of Trek was that the bad guy, Balthazar Edision aka Kroll (as played by Idris Elba) wasn’t “reformed” at the end to toe the party line. Edision was a former human captain who grew disillusioned with the Federation dogma to make peace with one’s enemies. In the movie he’s ultimately killed off, whereas according to Rodenberry’s vision, perhaps he’d realize the error of his ways and embrace a pluralistic, peaceful society. Talk about a utopia! 😛

I admit, I’m most familiar with the reboot movies and pretty vague on the original series. Such a vantage point might be made even more indefensible by the fact that most of the other franchises I’ll talk about wouldn’t have even gotten their feet off the ground if it weren’t for Star Trek. But that’s the way it is, and that’s the information I’m leveraging. I thought I’d take a look at various science fiction government systems, and how the “heroes” are supposed to fit into the broader narrative. There might be some truths in here about how human beings probe these issues in the real world.

And I’m also using this blog post to solidify my own excitement in a new(ish) book duology, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers! I gave into temptation and bought the shiny, UK covers from Book Depository, which also means I got my hands on book two before it comes out in the States next March. 😀 Booyah.

Book one chronicles the voyage of an inter-species crew aboard a vessel that creates wormholes. It’s supposed to be character driven, so much so that on BookTube it’s not only popular with the “SFF” crowd but the literary buffs, too! Then, science fiction TV fans started comparing it not only to Firefly, but to my favorite show of all time, Farscape. I wonder what they mean by that! Will the worldbuilding resemble the stuff that I go into below? I hope to find out shortly, after NaNoWriMo ends!

Star Trek
Takes place around the 23rd century, when sovereign planets, including Earth, are governed by the United Federation of Planets. The planets are all semi-autonomous in how they govern their people, and the Federation exists as more of a United Nations construct. In order to be a member, your planet has to agree to live by the Utopian principles of universal liberty, rights and equality. The UFP is in charge of space exploration, where multi-species crews explore space and make peaceful contact with new worlds.

The “heroes” of most Star Trek media, as far as I can tell, are the crews of these space exploration ships. They believe in the mission of the UFP, although they are sometimes beset, in the reboot movies moreso, with various forms of conflict. Again, I’m not as familiar with most of the characters as I should be, but it appears that they are not super-human…or super-vulcan or what have you. 😛 Every species has its own strengths and weaknesses, but no one’s from Krypton or has been bitten by a radioactive spider. These are just folks, trying to get through their lives.

Years ago, I think I remember the ScapeCast referring to this show as a “dark Star Trek.” In Star Trek, human characters come together with other species, and are known to be intelligent and resourceful. In Farscape, our early 21st century hero, John Chrichton (Ben Browder), is thrust into a galaxy of distrustful aliens who are much more advanced than he is. Granted, that “distrustful” part goes away rather quickly, followed somewhat later by John’s naiveté. John is a fugitive, stuck on board a living ship with a bunch of escaped prisoners. There are two major ruling parties at play here—the human-like Peacekeepers and the lizard-like Scarrans. Each has built a fascist empire, and both are aligned with and/or subjugating other groups.

The Scarrans and the Peacekeepers are in a Cold War-esque standoff situation, and John inadvertently becomes a key player when alien forces frell (Farscape speak for you-know-what) with him, and implant coveted wormhole intelligence in his brain. But the story isn’t just about black hat aliens chasing our white hat hero across the universe. John and his crewmates grapple with the price of infamy and trauma, the desire for home and their evolving relationships. Thematically, the show probes the cost of violence and revenge, and the possibility that each of our steps may lead to alternate realities.

I love this show, but sometimes I think it stole Farscape’s thunder, because it came out around the same time and gained a cult status after a swift cancellation. Firefly takes place in the 25th century, after humans have colonized a new star system. Civil war breaks out between the central government, called the Alliance, and fringe elements called the Browncoats. We enter the scene after the Alliance has won, and we follow a rag tag crew of former Browncoats and other outsiders as they try to scrape by, living on a spaceship and largely committing petty crime for hire.

Empathizing, as we do, with these outsiders, the Alliance comes off as dictatorial and brutal. One of the main characters, River (Summer Glau) was taken from her family as a child and tortured into becoming a martial arts expert and a psychic. I tend to like “just folks” characters, and her superhero qualities kinda grate at me, but then I’m drawn into her trauma. I love me some female characters with good trauma (hello Katniss, my old friend…I’ve come to read Mockingjay again…. :P) Like with Farscape, there’s a lot of focus on interpersonal relationships, and the “villains” are often those who stand in the crew’s way of their objectives. This culminates in the movie, Serenity, when they are hunted down by an Alliance agent as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It ends on a Star Trek utopia note, with the agent seeing the error of his ways and leaving our heroes alone.

The Hunger Games
I mentioned Katniss, so you can’t expect me to leave out my favorite YA franchise, can you? 😛 Set in an unspecified future, in what’s left of North America after environmental disaster, Panem is a dystopia and a dictatorship. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) keeps the disenfranchised districts and privileged Capitol isolated from one another, particularly with a piece of propaganda called The Hunger Games. It’s an annual duel to the death between 24 teenagers, played out until one survivor remains. The Capitol citizens and some of the wealthier districts buy into the national narrative about honor and atonement; the rest understand it as a fear tactic. Rebellion’s been brewing underground for awhile, but it gets a certain push when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) “wins” the Hunger Games.

There’s really no question that the lightning rod for the revolution would have to come from the Victors pool, seeing as they’re the only people whom the entire country would recognize. But Katniss is not imbued with superpowers like River; she’s just a girl with the unusual story of being from one of the poorest districts, and also being able to save her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More to the point, she’s immediately swept up into dueling propaganda schemes, with the Capitol trying to showcase to the public that “she’s one of us,” and the Rebellion trying to fashion her into “the Mockingjay,” a symbol of freedom. Katniss wants to take down the brutal Capitol, but in the face of the ensuing war, author Suzanne Collins turns the story on its head. Members of the resistance become corrupted by vengeance, innocent Capitol citizens, including children, suffer, and the rebel leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore) embraces dictatorship. It’s a more complex approach to war and oppression than white hats and black hats. At the end of the day, this series touches me so thoroughly because it points to interpersonal relationships as being the light in any darkness.

November 5, 2016

GoodReads Choice Awards and the Meaning of Prizes

Posted in Pop Culture at 5:58 pm by chavalah

*bells and whistles*

*bells and whistles*

First installment of my #NaNoBlogMo project!

Note: As part of my NaNoWriMo portfolio this year, I’ve decided to write weekly blog posts on Chava’s Footsteps. I’ve had a lot of ideas that I’ve wanted to get to, and this has basically morphed into my opinion pieces blog. Where else can I play cultural critic? 😉 To start with, I’m going to address a voting issue that has nothing to do with the U.S. elections. Definitely willing to pass that topic by! 😛

On November 1st, GoodReads unveiled the first round of their annual choice awards. It’s like the People’s Choice Awards but for books, and it spans a much larger range of material. I got particularly giddy because I’d actually read three of the titles spread across the numerous categories. I love GoodReads, and I’ve been paying close enough attention to the publishing world these past couple of years to at least have a little bit of familiarity with most of the fiction and some of the nonfic titles. But I mostly read backlist, and therefore can feel excluded from the big shindig at the end of the year.

The next day, BookRiot published an article about the lack of diversity in the Mystery & Thriller category, possibly the most popular genre of the modern age, since GR placed that link right after the vaulted literary fiction. This is the sort of opinion piece that opens the floodgates for reactionary “good literature should trump inclusion quotas” set, and those whose first concern is championing POC writers. The columnist, Jamie Canaves, took a cursory look at the guidelines GR put in place to determine the first round of nominees; particularly that the books have to have an average rating of 3.5 or higher, and they had to be published between November 16, 2015 and November 15, 2016. From there, GR staff “analyze statistics” and pick roughly 15 books per category. Voters have the option of writing in a nominee, and the top five books will be added to the semifinal round, regardless of average ratings, but based against GR statistics.

Presumably those “statistics” include the book’s popularity, but the site is rather vague about that. Canaves highlighted five books by POC authors that fit the average and date published criteria, but a commentator pointed out that most of her books have under 1,000 total ratings, and most of the GR choices have over 3,000. But this issue isn’t divorced from the problem of POC representation either—evidence has shown how the publishing industry promotes white authors the most, which of course leads to more people finding their books and adding them to GR.

It’s interesting to note the differences in categories as well. The groupings that I’m most familiar with—literary fiction, debut fiction, historical fiction, memoir and history—all tend to include POC and other minority voices. Different genres have different relationships to the idea of POC inclusion; for a contentious one, see what’s been going on these past few years concerning the science fiction and fantasy-centric Hugo Awards. GoodReads, therefore, is providing a useful look into the multi-faceted state of publishing today.

Despite my geeky infatuation with the GR awards, I’m really not too keen on most prizes in general. Minority voices have long been excluded in general, not because they’re universally worse writers than white men but because of societal bigotry. And for an English major (shame), I have a relatively cynical view about the nature of objectively “quality” literature. Or perhaps it’s because I’m an English major; therefore I’ve been taught to back my opinions with a thesis essay, and that mimicking another person’s arguments, word for word, is called plagiarism. I mean, if you were to poll every tenured English professor in the world, surely we’d find a small cache that believes William Shakespeare, say, is the pinnacle of literary excellence, and another small cache that believes him to be vastly overrated.

Who gets to decide what is “quality” literature in prizes anyway? With the Man Booker and the Nobel Prize in Literature, the decision is left to a very small group of individuals. Their tastes may vary widely from the majority of the involved literary public—like, say, when they nominate Bob Dylan for an award. 😛 Then there’s the populist votes like the GoodReads Choice Awards. With so many thousands of books coming out per year, our choices are already weighted towards whatever publishing chose to promote more heavily. This setup also demotes self-publishing or even small presses. The majority of the books on the ballot were published by the Big Five.

I’ll speed past the fact that the only books in contention are U.S. published, despite the fact that the GoodReads community is a global one, and move into user-generated problems. Even in accepting the ballot as it is, the voting is in no way fair. In a perfect world, of course, each voter would have at least read every book in the categories that interest them, but I presume that this is relatively rare. I voted in two categories—science fiction and YA fantasy and SF—and in each, I’d only read the book for which I cast my proverbial ballot. *hangs head* Other voters don’t read the books at all. I’ve seen YouTube videos where people go through category by category and pick a book based on their affiliation for a title or cover. Or, to bring it back to publishing, they vote for books that have been in the media.

At the end of the day, we all get different things out of awards, rather than something universally definitive. Like Canaves, I want to see a diversity in the selection, if for no other reason than to get recommendations that will provide me with a variety of different stories. I’m particularly interested in Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (debut authors) and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (historical fiction).

I also like the opportunity to make my voice heard, in however a biased way. I spend all year adding books to my GoodReads profile, editing records for accuracy and writing my reviews. /librarian pride/ I voted for The Last One by Alexandra Oliva and A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir because I enjoyed and wanted to promote them. I decided against voting for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in fantasy, because it’s lessened in my estimation since I first read it, and I like to be honest when casting my ballot for books I can get behind. Besides, as arguably the most popular book of the year worldwide, we all know that it’s gonna win anyway. 😛

So cast your votes, if you’re a member of the GR community and prizes don’t drive you crazy. The opening rounds close TOMORROW, so get on it! Semifinal rounds run between November 8 and 15, then the final round goes until the 27th. But I hope, with this and other literature awards, that you ultimately use them to pick up new books and continue to expand your mind. Happy reading!

October 11, 2016

Elena Ferrante and the Meaning of Apologies this Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G’mar Chatimah Tova.

September 26, 2016

5776 in News of the Jews

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

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

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

Black Lives Matter/Israeli “Genocide”

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli Government Attitude Towards Progressive Judaism/Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstructionist Intermarried Rabbis Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

Personal dealings with antisemitism

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

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

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

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

August 28, 2016

Harry Potter and the Boy Who Became a Franchise

Posted in Pop Culture at 5:24 pm by chavalah

Probably my favorite use of my timeturner ever. :P

Probably my favorite use of my timeturner ever. 😛

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 12, 2016

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

Posted in Pop Culture at 12:44 am by chavalah

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

June 30, 2016

Orlando, Tel Aviv, “The Hunger Games”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 20, 2016

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

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:37 am by chavalah

Once Upon a Time, 5b promotional poster

Once Upon a Time, 5b promotional poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 23, 2016

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

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

Crossing the Red Sea

Crossing the Red Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chag Sameach.

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