RIP Olivia Newton-John

Every performer is unique in their own way. But there are some who are so iconic that it does not take much to conjure up an image of them.

Olivia Newton-John was one of these performers. She passed away today after a decades-long battle with cancer. She was 73.

Remembered for her singing career and for playing Sandy opposite John Travolta in the 1978 movie musical Grease, she was known for her wholesome image and unique singing voice.

It may be surprising to learn that Newton-John was also Jewish via her mother’s side of the family. Her maternal grandfather, Max Born, was a respected mathematician and physicist. Like his colleague, Albert Einstein, Born and his family fled Germany at the start of World War II. They had no idea that they were escaping certain death.

In the words of our mutual ancestors, may her memory be a blessing. Z”l.

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The Forgotten Exodus Podcast Review

Immigration from one land to another is part and parcel of human history. Unfortunately, so are violence, expulsion, and becoming a refugee.

The new podcast, The Forgotten Exodus, tells the story of Mizrahi Jews who were either forced out of predominately Arab lands or left of their own volition. Produced by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which also produces People of the Pod, this limited series started releasing episodes this week.

Each week, the listener is introduced to one person who tells the story of their family. This person speaks both of their familial past in the land of their ancestors and their experiences living outside of that country. After this narrative is told, a historian fills in the gaps with the documented events that led to the immigration or expulsion.

When we talk about Jews, the focus is often on Ashkenazi Jews. The problem is that in doing so, we forget that Jews come from many nations and have different skin tones. This podcast rounds out the Jewish narrative and brings new colors and flavors to a tale that the listener thinks they know.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

New episodes of The Forgotten Exodus drop every Monday.

Jews Don’t Count Book Review

Intersectionality and progress go hand in hand. We cannot make this country and this world better if we only speak to or include certain groups of people.

David Baddiel‘s 2021 book, Jews Don’t Count, takes this racist concept and drops it squarely in the lap of the reader. He speaks about antisemitism on both the right and the left, referring to certain politicians in both the US and the UK. On the right, we are not accepted because we are Jews. On the left, we are seen as the oppressor because the image of the Jew is often of one of Ashkenazi descent (i.e. White). And of course, the issue of Israel is packed in and used as needed.

He also takes on Jewface and the controversy of a non-Jewish performer playing a Jewish character. Particularly when this character is a full-on stereotype without the nuances and humanity that are given to the non-Jewish character.

The problem he points to is loud and clear: if we are to move forward and create a better world, all groups must be included. No one should be left out.

There are only a handful of books that I think everyone should read. Jews Don’t Count is one of them. Especially those of us who are fighting for a future in which we are all equal and judged on our merits, not on our labels.

There was one line that has stayed with me. At this stage of his life, Baddiel is an atheist. He stated that if he were a hidden Jew who was outed during World War II, he would still be killed because he is Jewish. Nothing else would have mattered to the Nazis.

A couple of recent headlines perfectly summed up this idea. Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro (whom I disagree with about everything) made the following statement about Reform Jews:

“What do you think about what former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer once said: that Israel should put its political fortune in the Evangelist community rather than in the Reform Jewish community [in the US]?” Segal asked Shapiro, who at just 38 years of age has written 11 books.

“As a matter of blunt fact, that’s true,” Shapiro answered. “It’s an unfortunate reality of life in the United States that Reform Judaism, as a branch, does not see Jewish identity in a serious way, as central.

“It’s a very simple rubric for me: If as a Jew, your values are more in line with same-sex marriage, transgenderism and abortion than they are with, for example, the safety and security of the State of Israel – I have serious questions about how you think about yourself as a Jew,” he continued, receiving a standing ovation.

Then Pennsylvania Senator Doug Mastriano (who is also on the political right) said the following about Shapiro:

“We don’t want people who are atheists. We don’t want people who are Jewish. We don’t want people who are, you know, nonbelievers, agnostic, whatever. This is an explicitly Christian movement because this is an explicitly Christian country.” He also added: “Ben Shapiro is not welcome in the movement unless he repents and accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior

It doesn’t matter to Mastriano and his ilk that he and Shapiro have the same beliefs when it comes to this country’s identity and future. It only matters that Ben Shapiro is a Jew.

The only way to stop this kind of thinking is to stand together. Until we do, the ideals that our founders believed in will be just that.

Do I recommend it? Without a doubt.

Jews Don’t Count is available wherever books are sold.

Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres Documentary Review

Dreams sustain us when everything seems dark. Without that light and that hope that dreaming provides, what we wish for will always seem far away.

The new Netflix documentary, Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres tell the story of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres. Born in a small shtetl in Eastern Europe in 1923, Peres and his family immigrated to what was then British-controlled Palestine in the early 1930s. When the modern state of Israel was created in 1948, he joined the newly formed government and over the decades, rose up and down in the ranking of leadership.

His story is both the story of Jews in the 20th century and Israel as we know it to be today. He faced political challenges that are universal and unique to the region. Above all, he believed that peace and co-existence with the nation’s Arab neighbors are not unattainable goals. Though they were not achieved within his lifetime, Peres opened the door for future generations of Israeli leadership to follow in his footsteps.

Narrated by George Clooney, this narrative is about a dreamer who was also realistic. Peres knew what he wanted the future to look like. At the same time, he understood that it would take work, courage, and being open to new possibilities to get the job done.

What I took away from the film was that dreaming is a good thing. But without getting your hands figuratively dirty, the image in your mind will remain just that. That inspiration crosses all boundaries and perhaps provides the lift we need to get off our buts and do what we need to do.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres is available for streaming on Netflix.

A Call to Spy Movie Review

Espionage has been a tactic of war for a millennium. Spies have as much power in changing the outcome of the conflict as much as any soldier on the battlefield.

A Call to Spy is a 2019 World War II movie that is based on the true story of three female British spies whose work helped the Allies to win the war. Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) is an American woman who lost the bottom half of one of her legs in a hunting accident. Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), of Indian Muslim descent, was one of the first female radio operators to be sent behind enemy lines. Leading them is Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) was born to a German Jewish father and a British Jewish mother and one of the few women in a position of authority. Leading them all was Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache).

I really enjoyed this film. Though it told the story of these three specific women, there were many more who gave up their safety and their lives for the nation. It is a well-written, dramatic, and powerful tale of bucking expectations and in doing so, saving the world. What I really liked was that our three protagonists are all different, providing a vision of the future in which we all have opportunities, regardless of race, religion, background, etc.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

A Call to Spy is available for streaming on Netflix.

The Only Way to Describe the Beanie Feldstein/Funny Girl Dustup is a Dumpster Fire

In Hollywood, one of the methods that producers use to fill seats is to hire performers who are well known to the audience. The problem is that this method does not always work. Just because an actor is famous does not guarantee that they are right for the role or that fans will respond in a positive manner.

For the last few months, Beanie Feldstein has been headling in the new revival of Funny Girl. Though most of the reviews were not entirely bad, they were not entirely good either. Though I haven’t seen it, close family members have. What they told me echoed what has been written about the production.

Feldstein was supposed the role of Fanny Brice until the end of September. She is now leaving at the end of this month.

To be fair, this is the first revival of the musical since its premiere in 1964. Given that the only person who has played the title role is Barbra Streisand, the expectations perhaps need to be a little more realistic..

Lea Michele of Glee fame will be taking over from Feldstein in the fall. Though it has only been a few days, the rumor mill in regards to Michele’s supposed diva behavior has not stopped churning.

I’m obviously not in showbusiness. But I have been in the working world for nearly two decades. From my perspective, this is a dumpster fire than can only go one of two ways: Michele can prove her critics wrong and the show will last. Or, it will all go down in flames and the reputation of this beloved Broadway musical will have a tarnish on it that will remain on it forever.

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I Have a Huge Problem With the Claim that Anne Frank Had “White Privilege”

White privilege is a serious problem, both in the historical sense and in our modern era. The idea that one’s skin tone dictates our opportunities or lack thereof is, unfortunately, in 2022, a problem that we are still wrestling with.

Earlier this week, there was a debate on Twitter as to whether or not Anne Frank had “white privilege“. The person who made this statement is either uneducated about the Holocaust or is deciding to twist the historical facts to fit their own perspective.

Of course, she was white. As were all of the millions of Ashkenazi Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their co-conspirators. Their skin color meant shit, they were only seen as the other because they were Jewish.

This assertion spits on the memory of Frank and is a harsh reminder of why the Holocaust must not be forgotten.

May Anne’s memory be a blessing and may we truly for once, learn from the past. Z”l.

Meant to Be Mine: A Novel Book Review

Prophecy is a funny thing. Though it may appear that our fate is set in stone, there is hopefully an opportunity to take control of our destiny.

Meant to Be Mine: A Novel, by Hannah Orenstein, was published last month. Edie Meyer is a twenty-something New Yorker whose grandmother has predicted the romantic future of her family for decades. Upon reaching a certain age, Grandma Gloria has informed each individual as to when they will meet their significant other.

Edie’s date is coming up fast. That morning, she is scheduled to be on a flight for her twin sister’s surprise engagement. It seems that Grandma was right when a handsome musician sits down next to her. Though it seems that he is her person, there are some questions that Edie cannot get out of her head. When a revelation shakes her to her core, she must choose between fate taking control or opening the door to someone completely unexpected.

I enjoyed this book. Edie is the type of protagonist we can all fall in love with. Though she does want love, it is not the defining characteristic of her narrative. I love her humanity, I loved her very unique family, and I wish that everyone would have a grandparent like Grandma Gloria. At the age of 90, she has more energy and chutzpah than others who are decades younger.

What clinched me was the pride in Edie’s Jewish identity. Though her family is far from Orthodox, they do not hide who they are or put up a false front in the name of fitting in.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

Meant to be Mine: A Novel is available wherever books are sold.

Throwback Thursday: King of the Egg Cream (2014)

Ambition is a wonderful thing. It propels us forward like few things can. That being said, there is a downside to being ambitious. In our drive to succeed, we may ignore a few moral or legal boundaries, which can stop us in our tracks.

The 2014 Tablet magazine helmed album King of the Egg Cream is based on an old-fashioned radio show. Harry Dolowich (Justin Bartha) is a lawyer who wants more than life offers in his largely immigrant Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville offers. This leads him to become the ringleader of a syrup racket in Brooklyn in the 1920s.

This is obviously a niche type of album. That being said, I have truly enjoyed it. Harry is an interesting protagonist. His intentions are good, but in the end, his ego and his drive get him in trouble. What makes it more than a standard period narrative is the details of the era, allowing the listener to be swept into the narrative.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

The Last Checkmate: A Novel Book Review

When we talk about the Holocaust, we sometimes forget The Righteous Among the Nations. These are non-Jews who put their lives and safety aside to save their Jewish neighbors.

The Last Checkmate: A Novel, by Gabriella Saab, was published last year. Maria Florkowska, a Polish-Catholic teenage girl, has been forced to grow up quickly. The only connection to her life before World War II is her love of chess. A member of the Polish underground, Maria, along with the rest of her family, is caught by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz.

After her parents and siblings are murdered, Maria is initially stuck in an emotional cycle of grief and anger. When one of the camp’s commanders notices that she plays chess well, he decides to use her skill to entertain the guards. This opens the door to doing everything she can to get him transferred to another camp. When they met again at the war’s end, Maria challenges him to one more game, not knowing the outcome.

I truly enjoyed this book. If nothing, Maria is proof that there are good people in this world. It also shows that when it seems darkest, there is always some spark to keep us going. I love Maria’s sass, I love her intelligence, and I love her fight to stay alive.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely?

The Last Checkmate: A Novel is available wherever books are sold.

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