Review of Kosher Movies

by Amos Lassen

kosher movies web2
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It has been one hundred years since D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was released and even though it was considered to be controversial (and remains so today because of its racism, it is an important milestone in the history of cinema in that it remains responsible for the movies to be the dominant and most influential medium of visual arts in the modern age. It revolutionized movie storytelling with its cast of hundreds and its nearly three-hour length. Because of the way it was received, we understand just how important it was culturally and socially. We later learned that the leaders in the film community were Jewish men who were working hard to raise an industry to become part of the cultural expression of this country.

Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Marcus Loew, William Fox and Irving Thalberg were among the principal founders of such important motion picture studios and production companies as Paramount Pictures, Fox and MGM. Because of these men, the film industry contained a significant Jewish element and it was interesting that the first film with sound was “The Jazz Singer”, the story of a traditional Jew who seeks fame and fortune as a popular entertainer and the tension of assimilation that is caused by this. The movie made the movie-going public aware of Jewish values that were to become mirrored by society at large. These values included overcoming adversity, the triumph of hope and the belief in second chances. These values were soon part of the American mind and this came about by the way there were seen on the screen.

In “Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema”, Rabbi Dr. Herbert Cohen looks at there values— the very same ones that have not changed with the movies and we come to realize that Jew and Gentile aspire to them. Rabbi Cohen goes a step further and looks at the peculiarity of the Modern Orthodox approach to engagement with popular culture and film as a way to glean from it “common experiences of life that can and should enhance an Orthodox expression and appreciation of the world, and humanity within it”.

“Kosher Movies” is a collection of short essays on movies that reinforce this Modern Orthodox ideal. The films are grouped together by themes (i.e. parenting, relationships, sports and adversity, ethics and self-improvement) and the essays themselves usually run about two pages in length. They look at the overarching leitmotifs and ideas that the films themselves convey to reach almost a “homiletical conclusion of some of what Orthodox Jews should garner from watching movies.

Rabbi Cohen’s book is not to be confused with other

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Review of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

by Amos Lassen

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Rabbi Joseph Polak won the 2015 Jewish Book Award with “After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring”, a memoir about a mother and child who were able to survive two concentration camps and then deal with the past when they tried to reclaim their lives. They were forced to deal with rejection by society, disbelief and invalidation making it very difficult to come back into the world.

I am sure that it is beyond any of our thought processes how to deal with a world where we are not welcome especially after near death experiences in the most of all living conditions. We meet a child who decides early on that when he grows up he will pursue the only career that speaks to him—he is to be a teacher about the role of God in history; he will become a rabbi. And that is what Joseph Polak did and he is today a rabbi and an academic.

As you can imagine, this is not an easy book to read. This is Polak’s story of how he was reunited with his mother after the war and went on to Canada and became a rabbi.

This is also the story of the deportation of Dutch Jewry to Westerbork, and from there how Polak was sent to Bergen Belsen where he as a three-year old child was liberated. The author tells more than his own story— he poses questions about what happened, about the meaning of survival, about God and the Jewish people. He gives us brilliant depictions of scenes of torment and humiliation. He writes about how the inmates of the camps came together in solidarity and how those who survived maintained that solidarity. He writes about how his life has been troubled and how the influence of what the victims have gone through remains always with them even when they would deny it.

This is about learning to be human again and he raises questions about how man can be so evil. Because he survived, Polak has had his entire life to try to make sense of the Holocaust to find a way to reconnect with the God who seemed not to be there while his people were being killed.

Joseph has the rest of his life to make sense of the Holocaust, to find a way to re-connect with a God painfully absent from the destruction of his people. He and his mother faced years of starvation, brutality, and deplorable conditions.

After the war, the government of the Netherlands forced surviving Jews to prove that they were parents of children who survived in a different location. We can only imagine how difficult that must have been for Polak’s mother whose son’s earliest memories of Bergen-Belsen include playing hide and seek among mountains of skeletal bodies. There were no happy memories.

Instead of forgetting about God like so many others, Polak struggled to understand God’s role in the terror and genocide. He became a rabbi and later he eventually realized that he would be one of the last Holocaust survivors, one of the final firsthand witnesses to the horror. Hence he wrote this book as a way to try to recall those events that so terribly impacted his life and his mother’s life.

This entry was posted in Judaica on January 22, 2016.

Review of Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halkhah


Rabbi Johnny Solomon 
Ktav/Urim, 2016

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‘In 1950-1951, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, better known to all his students and admirers as “the Rav”, gave a year’s course on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Unfortunately, we do not possess the Rav’s own lecture notes of the course… We are fortunate, however, in possessing a complete set of students’ notes on the course taken by Rabbi Gerald (Yaakov) Homnick… These very full notes allow us to reconstruct the Rav’s lectures with a high degree of confidence.’

This is the opening paragraph of Lawrence J. Kaplan’s Preface to Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah which lets the reader know that this scholarly book is an attempt to recapture the insights of “the Rav” on Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (‘Guide of the Perplexed’).

However, as is evident from Rabbi Dov Schwartz’s Foreword, this endeavour of reconstruction is not merely driven by a desire to better understand the Rambam. As he explains, the ideas, terms and approach of Rav Soloveitchik appear to shift in the 40’s and 50’s, while, at the same time, ‘R. Soloveitchik carried on a constant dialogue with the thought of the “great eagle”’ (ie. Rambam).

Thus, Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah ‘is an important work of R. Soloveitchik that fills a void by opening window into a relatively unknown period in his philosophical development, while also enriching our knowledge of the connection between him and Maimonides’.

The book is divided into two halves.
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Silvia Fishbaum, author of the upcoming Dirty Jewess, remembers her mentor Ludovit Feld

9789655242775The unusual bespectacled face of a little 40-year-old man with a black cap atop his head leaving Auschwitz together with surviving children is captured in one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. His tiny body is seen onscreen leaving the camp every day in an endless loop at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

Far from being forgotten or remembered only as prisoner A-7740, Ludovit Feld (or Lajos Baci – Uncle Lajos) is, twenty-five years after his death, widely recognized and even revered.

This little giant of an artist spent his entire life painting and portraying the people and daily life in his beloved Kassau (Kosice) – the second-largest city in the eastern part of Slovakia, known for its rich Jewish history. He was also an art teacher who taught children how to draw with their heart and many of his students made names for themselves in the world of art.

Feld had three strikes against him: He was a Jew, a dwarf, and poor. The ninth child in his family, he was the only one stricken with a handicap. As an adult he barely reached a height of four feet and the bullying he suffered during a time of growing anti-Semitism was almost too much for his small shoulders to bear.

In the spring of 1944, when he turned 40, Feld’s family and the other Jews in Kosice were loaded onto truck beds and driven to Teglagyar (“brick factory” in Hungarian) on the outskirts of the city, which served as a Jewish ghetto. Nearly thirteen thousand Jews were crammed into that small area.

As it turned out, Ludovit’s name was not on the deportation list due to the intervention of an art student of his who happened to work as a typist in the local Gestapo office. She deliberately omitted his name in the hope of sparing him from almost certain death.

Family was very important to Ludovit, so after a sleepless night he filled his little backpack with art supplies and walked to the brick factory ghetto. His family was happy to be reunited with him but knew his chances of survival were much greater outside the ghetto gates. Every day he would sit on his little stool drawing countless scenes of daily life in the ghetto, portraying the despair and the grief and the ever-present armed guards.

When they were deported to Auschwitz, Feld, because of his size, was assigned to the children’s barracks housing the twin boys known to history as the “ Twins of Auschwitz,” victims of the unspeakably sadistic experiments of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Although he never had any children of his own, Feld became a father figure to all the twins. He rescued fifteen boys he believed wouldn’t survive the last death march by hiding with them for ten days and nights under the lowest bunks on the frozen ground. The boys in their testimonies all referred to Ludovit as their savior.

Feld’s entire family, with the exception of a sister and a brother, perished in Auschwitz. After the war he returned to his beloved city where he lived alone until his death.It was in Auschwitz that Mengele discovered Feld’s talent and, together with Czech artist Dina Gottlieb and Polish photographer Wilhelm Brasse, became part of the team drawing and documenting the doctor’s hideous experiments. Because Feld was a dwarf he was also subject to Mengele’s depravity. Adding insult to injury, Mengele demanded that Feld draw portraits of him so often that Ludovit could practically do it with his eyes closed. Continue reading “Silvia Fishbaum, author of the upcoming Dirty Jewess, remembers her mentor Ludovit Feld”

Interview with Brian Hull of the Kaytek the Wizard Puppet Show

“Kaytek the Wizard” Puppet Show at the Gracie Theatre

By Alexander Downing

Wishing Chair Productions and puppet designer, is bringing his puppet play “Kaytek the Wizard,” based on Janusz Korczak’s book, to the Gracie Theatre for two performances Friday February 10th.

The story revolves around Kaytek, a mischievous schoolboy who wants to become a wizard and is surprised to discover that he’s able to perform magic spells and change reality. He begins to lead a double life: a powerful wizard in the dress of an ordinary boy.

Shows are at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. As a community service, Husson University is offering tickets to the 11 a.m. show for only $2.

The 11 am performance is free to all Husson students, staff, faculty, and members of their families.

Tickets for the 7 p.m. show are currently on sale from $10.00-$15.00. To reserve tickets, call the Gracie Theatre box office at 207.941.7888 or visit Group rates are also available for the 7 p.m. evening show.

Check out the interview here.