My Day: Kraftidiotin

What?

Kraftidiotin is a Norwegian word, I think.  At least it’s the name of a film made in Norway.  Starring Stellan Skarsgard.  I watched it this afternoon on Netflix.

Would I recommend it to you?  No, not really.  But it did win a couple of awards, and got some pretty good reviews.

Skarsgard is a snowplow operator who lives somewhere in snowy Norway, and who seems to live pretty well (I guess everyone in Norway lives pretty well these days).  He is married to a woman who has her own profession (not sure what it is) and they have one son, who is a teenager, and looks like he was a nice kid.

“Was” because he was murdered, apparently by a drug gang who were cheated by someone Skarsgard knew and who had asked his son to come with him on the fatal escapade.  The son was innocent, but killed in vengeance.

When Skarsgard, presumably the mildest of mild men, hears this, he decides he will take out the gang, and as he finds out who was involved, he kills his target right after getting them to give him the name of their immediate superior, all the way up to The Count, a young man who runs the gang, has his own son, and is divorcing his wife.

The Count immediately assumes that the murders are the work of a competing gang, made up of Serbian immigrants.  A gang war commences, and everyone (I mean everyone) with the exception nof Skarsgard, the Count’s wife and the Count’s son gets killed, each one more brutally than the one before.

The film is not big on dialog.  The scenery is cold and snowy, but beautiful.

And, oh yes……it’s a comedy.

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My Day: The Talmud and Jesus

A very interesting talk today after kiddush at Adas Israel by Rabbi Noah Bickart on Jesus and the Talmud.  The interesting points:

  1.  While the rabbis generally made it impossibly hard to create the case for capital punishment, this position was not without question, as at least one rabbi maintained that the lack of the threat of capital punishment would increase the number of murders in Palestine.
  2. The law as set forth in the Mishnah appears to say that, in case of a capital crime, the accused was either to be killed (generally stoned) or freed.  No alternative for long range imprisonment or any thing similar.
  3. There is a provision in Deuteronomy providing especially tough punishment for one accused of enticing the worship of other gods.
  4. The Christian bible makes it appear that the Jews gave Jesus to the Romans for execution.  Did this ever happen?  Difference between theology and history?
  5. When the Babylonian Talmud was first printed, in Italy, it had to be approved by the Vatican. This meant that those in charge of the printing had to do some self censorship with respect to references to Jesus, Christians and Christianity.
  6. This included elimination of a section saying that the Jews killed Jesus by stoning, and then hung his body (this is apparently what Jewish law would have encouraged, the hanging for deterrence).
  7. Of course, the New Testament does not say this.
  8. We know of this language in large part because of Yemenite manuscripts of the same time – in Yemen, they did not worry about offending Christians.
  9. Nor did they worry about this in Babylon – in fact Babylon was a part of the Sassanid Persians,  and largely Zoroastrian , but tolerant with many minorities, including Jews and Christians.  The Talmud was written in the 6th century (?), when Christianity and Judaism were competing in Babylon, and the Roman Empire was the enemy of the Persians (with quite a number of incursions and battles), so it was likely that the Jews would want to have taken credit for killing Jesus.  Noah B. thinks this comment, in Sanhedrin, was a polemic.
  10. The Mishnah says that when someone is convicted of a capital crime, on the way to the stoning, there is a herald who asks for anyone to come and show why the sentence should not be carried out – to prove the two witnesses were lying. Sanhedrin said that, in the case of Jesus, had a herald for 40 days before the trial but that no one came into Jesus defense.  Again, is this polemic?
  11. I think he said that this entire section is not in the Jerusalem Talmud.

My Day: Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett really didn’t write many well known plays –  “Waiting for Godot”, “Krapp’s Last Tape”, “Endgame”…. that’s about it.  And of these three, only “Godot” is a full length, two act play.  We saw it last night (not for the first time) at Shakespeare Theatre, the first class production of Dublin’s Druid theater company.

Who is Godot (who never comes, of course), and who are the two men waiting for him every evening?  Who is the (presumably) rich man and his servant who stroll through? And what about the little boy, Godot’s messenger?  Every critic, every viewer has his own idea.  Of course, the name Godot has God within it – so waiting for God to help and guide, and waiting for the Messiah to return or come…..those are some of the obvious ones.  And there are a number of biblical illusions in the text – but is this really a religious play?

It’s the theater of the absurd, as they say, but what does that mean?  Is the play absurd? Or is the world absurd?  Hard to say.

As usual, I am no expert.  But I know enough to say that most of this play is pretty boring, no matter the skills of the actors or directors.  Nothing really happens, nothing is realistic, everything is, in fact, absurd.  The two men – homeless, homosexuals?  Men whose pasts were better than their presents?  The rich man who turns blind, oblivious to anything but himself.  His yoked servant, Lucky.  And why is he called Lucky?  He does everything his master asks, including “thinking” (when he goes into a monologue so fine that it can be looked at as the unwilling precursor of today’s rap music), and then who becomes dumb.

And time?  Yesterday, today?  And memory?  And who is Godot?  And why are they waiting for him?  And is the fact that they are waiting for him and he never comes related to the fact that Beckett made the play so long?  It’s almost 2 1/2 hours long.  Sometimes I think it should be named “Waiting for Godot to End”.  [I heard today, in another setting, that Samuel Johnson once said of Paradise Lost that everyone believes that every page is masterful, but no one wishes it was even one page longer. Godot resembles that remark.]

 

My Day: Are American Jews in Danger?

This was the topic at my Thursday morning breakfast group.  Looking at the rising number of reported antisemitic incidents, and the America First instincts of the present administration, the question about the security of Jewish Americans comes to the fore.  Is 2018 America the equivalent of 1920’s Germany?  Can “it” happen here?

There were about 30 of us in attendance, and the conversation lasted the usual 90 minutes.  The positions of those who spoke varied, but I would say that the majority of us did not see the parallel, and saw the need to be vigilant, but no need to panic or make alternative plans (we did not discuss possible alternative plans – moving, or moving assets, to Israel or Canada, or wherever – and whether any alternative location offered more security).

Some expressed thoughts in no particular order:

  1.  American society is in trouble – no question about that.  But if you asked an African-American or a Muslim-American if the Jews should be concerned, they would laugh.  Our problems are nothing compared to theirs.
  2.  Fascism does not come all at once; it builds over time.
  3. You have to be concerned about the universities, where there are the opposing features of increasing Jewish and Israeli Studies programs, and anti-Israel and in some instances anti-Jewish feeling.
  4. The Jews of this country are so successful in their professional lives, and so visible, and antisemitism has not interfered with that.  And Jews are 10 percent of the Senate and about 8 percent of the Congress; even the current administration, with Mnuchin and Kudlow, and Cohen, and Miller and Jared Kushner.
  5. There’s no religious discrimination against Jews – just sociological, some based on envy, some on the fear that Jews squeeze out others.
  6. Nationalism is growing world wide, and Jews are viewed as cosmopolitan, not national.  But nationalism does not work the same way in the US.
  7. Israel does provide a modicum of security, but also acts as a flashpoint to increase anti-Israel and then anti-Jewish feeling.

 

My Day (not): The St. Louis at Adas

Every year, Adas Israel honors someone not Jewish who was involved in rescuing or saving Jews during the Nazi years.  The honorees are noted in the Garden of the Righteous on the campus of Adas.

When this program began over 20 years ago, the honorees themselves would attend and be honored at the ceremony and have a chance to speak.  Then, as the honorees began to pass away with greater frequency, it was a family member (usually a son or daughter) who would accept the honor.

The program was always accompanied by a description of the individual and their activities, there would usually be a representative from the embassy of the country in which the activities occurred, and often a musical and sometimes visual program.

This year, the program honored the captain of the St. Louis, the German passenger liner which was filled with approximately 900 visa-holding Jews on their way from Germany to Cuba in 1939.  When the ship got to Cuba, most of the visas were determined to be unathorized, and Cuba refused to allow the passengers to disembark.  The captain of the ship, Gustav Schroeder, tried to reach port in several other places (including American ports) before leading the ship back to Europe, landing in Antwerp Belgium.

I was unable to attend the event this year, due to baby sitting responsibilities, but my wife went and reported back, and I have read through the program.  There was a film about Schroeder, there was a message from the Embassy of Germany, there was a musical program, and there were two speakers (one the father of an Adas congregant) who were passengers on the St. Louis and who were later able to escape the Nazis’ grasp.

It sounded like a wonderful and especially meaningful program.

My Day: Ireland and the Brits

Sometimes a play is easy to watch; sometimes, difficult.  This has little to do with quality, or enjoyment, in my mind.  For example, “Paper Dolls” at Mosaic was easy enough to watch – but I thought the quality was lacking. “Translations”, Brian Friel’s 1980 play which we saw the other night at the Studio, was difficult to watch, and excellent.

Some plays are difficult to watch because they portray very unpleasant things, such as a play, say, about child abuse.  Some are difficult to watch because they hit too close to home – say portraying your ethnic or religious group very negatively.  Neither is the case with “Translations”, at least not for me.  “Translations” is difficult to watch because of language – and this is all right because “Translations” is, in many respects, a play about language.

“Translations” takes place in a village in Donegal, Ireland, in the 1830s.  The British are trying to Anglify Ireland by eliminating the teaching of Gaelic in the schools, and changing the names of cities, towns, rivers and hills from Irish to English.  The Irish, many of whom speak Gaelic but no English, are not very happy.  The British don’t care.

The characters in the play include a crusty alcoholic who runs a private “hedge school”.  He speaks English, but doesn’t want to, but he also is fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek, which he believes all educated people need to know and which he spouts from time to time.  He is accompanied by an old man whose mind wanders, and who appears homeless, but is always accompanied by his Greek and Latin books, and who seems to have a personal relationship with some of the Greek gods.  The school teacher has two sons – one who lives at home and is unemployed; the other who has moved to Dublin and seems to have started to make a success of himself.  Then there are three young Irish women and another fella, none of whom seem to speak any English.

The Dubliners son goes to work for the British army and accompanies them back to his home town to help them map the area and change the geographic names.  The younger British soldier falls in love with one of the Irish women, and she with him.  The relationship does not prosper – but that’s a different story.

I want to talk about language.  So you have characters who speak English and characters who speak only Gaelic and often they are communicating with each other.  But the actors are all speaking English, no matter whether or not the character is speaking Gaelic.  So you can have two characters speaking to each other (both in English, but one in Gaelic), so they cannot understand each other.  And you can have a third character acting as translator, sometimes speaking in English and sometimes in Gaelic, but always in English.  And it’s seamless.

But that’s not all.  You also have these two characters spouting off in Latin and Greek – and they are really speaking Latin and Greek (although sometimes, the spouting is followed by a “what did I say?” to another character, who answers in English or Gaelic in English.

And everything happens in the thickest of Irish brogues (I am told in fact, that the characters are speaking with a Donegal accent), which makes everything – English, Gaelic in English, Latin and Greek – that much harder to absorb.  But, as I say, it’s seamless.

The play debuted in Belfast in 1980 when the Republic/Northern Ireland relationship was at the top of the news and Belfast haunted by Catholic and Protestant gangs. It is just as apt today, both for historical and generalized societal reasons.

One other aside – although the play is set in the 1830s, the feel is more contemporary, and there is talk of emigration to the United States.  There is also talk about potential potato blight.  In fact, both of these topics are prescient.  The blight had not come to Donegal but it would just ten years or so later – the great Irish blight which led to so many Irish fleeing their country for America.  I don’t normally think about the timing of the Irish famine – or of the waves of Irish immigration here.  So in addition to dealing with an imperial power exerting unnecessary influence on an isolated population, the play puts the Irish economic tragedy into historic perspective.

I recommend it highly – but it’s a toughie.

My Day: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Our first game of the season was yesterday.  Because it’s April and it was a mid-day game, the crowd was small, so access to the park via Metro was easier and more pleasant than usual.  The part looked good, but I am concerned that the food options have changed, due to the accusation of sexual misconduct against Mike Isabella’s restaurant chain chased them from the stadium.  On the third deck, the only place I looked, there is a new barbecue stand – but who wants to pay $15 for a ball park brisket sandwich?  Most of the third floor food options were closed, another disappointment.  I wound up wit the usual chicken tenders and fries – I must say that the tenders were not of the best quality; the fries were satisfactory.

You have to be concerned about the Nats’ 6-6 start.  Doesn’t bode well to me, even though Easton is now on the disabled list, as is Murphy.  This game was 3-3 into the top of the 12th (we left after the 10th), but the Braves scored two and won.  Not a bad game – but you don’t like to lose in extra innings at home.

Oh, well…..that was my day.

 

My Day: The Origin of Israeli Society

Last night, Arieh Saposnik of Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism spoke at Congregation Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg.  His topic:  “Creating Israel’s National and Cultural Identity: From the Ottoman Empire to the Modern State”.  Saposnik is the author of a book related to this subject:  Becoming Hebrew:  The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine.  Attendance was approximately 150.

Last night’s presentation was broader than just the Ottoman era; it stretched to the present day.  Perhaps this was too broad for a 40 minute speech, but much of what Saposnik said was quite interesting.  Some of his points worth remembering were:

  1.  The Zionist movement was not only to create a Jewish State, but to create a new Jewish culture.  For some, the creation of the culture was more important than the creation of a state, or at least more important than the creation of a state in Palestine.
  2. Although Herzl started the Zionist movement, and is very important for that reason, he was not the first European Jew to suggest that Jews needed a home of their own (perhaps Pinsker was), and he was already losing control of the Zionist movement when he died in 1904, as the Eastern European “lovers of Zion” were wielding the most influence in the movement.
  3. Antisemitism was one of the prods for Zionism, but also was the feeling that the liberalization of western Europe benefited individual Jews, perhaps, but was destructive of traditional Judaism.
  4. As Jewish groups began to move into Palestine, there was a split there between “Old Jews” (religious, traditional in dress and education, generally poor) and “New Jews” (modern people who wanted to combine Jewish identity with modernity without antisemitic influences surrounding them.  These two groups were often very vocal in their opposition to each other.
  5. There was also a movement among some Jews to disassociate themselves from European ways.  Jews had been considered by many to be aliens in Europe, to be half-Asian.  In Palestine, some Jews adopted the thought that they were really Asian and not European and believed that the time would come when Jews and Arabs would be great allies and cohabitants.
  6. Israel in 1948 was a PSTD country – one quarter of its residents were Holocaust survivors, its population doubled in the first few years, and then grew by another 50% in the next few years.  This happened – it would be as if the United States added another 500 million people in a couple of years and had to house, feed, educate and employ them – and Israel was very poor.  And, at the same time, had people who spoke a babel of languages, came from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and there was a war going on.  One percent of the Jewish Israeli population was killed in the 1948 war.

He talked about many of the issues affecting Israel today – what does it mean to be Jewish? Or Israeli?  How do/should the Jews get along with the Arabs in the country.  Religion vs. secularization.  All those things we know. But he put them into a broad historical context which was helpful, and which was appreciated by a large part of the attendees, including those who were native Israeli, and who seemed to feel that he was describing the country well.

 

My Day: Paper Dolls

I usually like musicals; sometimes I like them a lot.  But last year, when we went to see “The Wild Party” at Constellation Theater, we hated it.  So bad that we walked out at the intermission (something we really never do) and wondered why anyone in the audience returned for the second act.  Well, that’s not the end of the story.  The end of the story is that the Constellation production of “The Wild Party” won 11 Helen Hayes awards (undoubtedly more than any other single production did).  So much for our taste.

Today, we went to the matinee at Mosaic to see “Paper Dolls”, a musical built around six transvestite men from the Philippines, living in Tel Aviv as caretakers of elderly Israelis, and spending their evenings as a drag singing/dancing group playing at various venues around the city.  It’s a musical, although an easy musical to write in that the songs are not part of the story line, but instead are simply the songs sung during the Paper Dolls’ performances.  Easy, peasy.

The story line?  The men come at various times on work visas to Israel, which requires them to keep the job they came for, or leave (voluntarily or otherwise) – no way to quit one job and look for another.  But one does quit, and one gets fired, and one works for an old man who dies.  Out, out, out.  Meanwhile, there’s an intifada going on, and the Paper Dolls are befriended by a gay Jewish wannabe documentary film maker, who wants to make them stars through his movie making.

I went into the show with anticipation, but it was quickly quashed. I found the show to be rather shallow, and thought that the script was demeaning to the Filipinos. There was a small ensemble, mixed gender, but all dressed as chasidic men with long, long beards, singing a bit and moving around the furniture; demeaning to chasids as well as to Filipinos.

Yes, there were a few things I liked – A couple of good toe-tapping songs (although much of the music was all too familiar Yiddish and Hebrew songs), I liked especially “Walk on the Wild Side”.  And a couple of good scenes where there actually was some drama.  But by and large, I certainly didn’t think the show was worth the time or money.

On the other hand (and no surprise here), most of the audience seemed to love it (we did run into a friend on the way out, who shared our opinion).  Rhythmic clapping with the songs, and a long, loud standing ovation.

My fearless prediction:  at least 11 Helen Hayes awards for “Paper Dolls”.

My Day: Nat Turner and God

In 1831, a 31 year old slave named Nat led a rebellion that terrorized Southampton County, destroyed several plantations and left dozens of whites, and even more blacks, dead. After 2 months on the run, Nat (named Turner after his master, who was apparently not his father) was captured, tried and executed by hanging. Before his death, he was interviewed by attorney Thomas Gray, who purportedly took down Turner’s “confession”, embellished it, and published it.  Later of course, the confession was the basis for the first person novel by William Styron The Confession of Nat Turner, which was fictionalized, and controversial but nonetheless won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968.

The truth is that, with the exception of a few basic facts (Nat lived on the Turner plantation his entire life, he ran away once and returned, he was considered very smart, he was literate, and he was very religious), little is known about his life.  Even the work published immediately after his death by Thomas Gray is now questioned by some scholars, and the Styron work is, by its own terms, fictional.

A newer entry on the scene is Nathan Alan Davis’ “Nat Turner in Jerusalem”, which just finished a very successful run at the Forum Theatre in Silver Spring.  We saw the last performance tonight, but I expect this is a play that will be presented elsewhere and often.

There are three characters (in this version, two were played by the same actor), Turner, the lawyer Gray, and the guard at the jail.  It takes place the night before Nat’s execution. Gray’s goal is to convince Turner to confess to a larger conspiracy, so that the perpetrators will all be known and will be stopped before the uprising spreads to other parts of Virginia and neighboring North Carolina. Turner keeps saying that there is no conspiracy.  Gray doesn’t believe him, is worried about the stability of society, and wants to be able to publish and sell Turner’s confession, so that a larger conspiracy is important for him. The jailer goes back and forth from being friendly with his prisoner, and harsh towards him.  Turner, in Davis’ version, although eloquent on the evils of slavery, is basically portrayed as a delusional preacher, convinced that the Day of Judgment is upon us, and that he was  precisely directed by God to exert vengeance on the whites for their treatment of black slaves.  There is no remorse in him for the murders of men, women or children. It was God’s will.

Whether this religious fanaticism had this much to do with the real Nat Turner and his revolt, we don’t know.  But its good theater, and it really isn’t important as to whether it is historically accurate.  It’s a wonderful play, beautifully written, and the dialogue is both credible and powerful. It reminds us of the untold consequences, intentional and not, of fighting evil with more evil and the dangers of too much God.  And it doesn’t stint on describing the horrors of slavery, the horrors of the failed revolt, or the dangers of the prophecies civil war.

The actors, John Hudson Odom and Joe Carlson were forceful and convincing, and the staging worked perfectly.  And tonight, the show was oversold – they had to bring in more chairs.  That kind of turn out is rare for Forum, and it was good to see it.