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Budapest Noir is fun, but uninspired at SF Jewish Film Festival

Aug13

by: Madison Wilson on August 13th, 2018 | No Comments »

Still from Éva Gárdos’s BUDAPEST NOIR – Image courtesy of Pioneer Pictures
I walk up to the Castro Theatre around 5:40, friends in tow, silently congratulating myself for arriving a full twenty minutes early. As my friends and I confidently jaywalk across Castro Street to enter the theatre, I hear one let out a small moan – what’s wrong now, I wonder – then I see the line. It not only snakes around one corner, but continues past the next far into a residential neighborhood behind the historic movie palace. Clearly there was some buzz about one of the first American screenings of this Hungarian film. We trudged along as the line steadily moved forward, finally culminating in a mad frenzy at the entry to the theatre to give someone, anyone our ticket before walking inside. The theatre is packed, and those early twenty minutes I thought would at least result in a seat on the first floor only bought me one in the nosebleeds. I sit down listening to live organ music and sensing the anticipation floating above the crowd. After the organist finishes, there’s a brief introduction by someone from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the film’s sponsor, then director Eva Gardos steps onstage. She, like her main character, is a person of few words, and without much fanfare the show begins.

Budapest Noir is a movie rendition of the bestselling Hungarian novel of the same name by Vilmos Kondor. The film takes place in Budapest’s seedy underbelly, winter, 1936, just before Hungary aligns itself with Hitler. The mist and drudge are the perfect backdrop to this nostalgic murder mystery. Zsigmond Gordon, the hunky, ubermensch reporter, meets a mysterious dark-haired beauty in a cafe just before police find her dead body on the streets of the red-light district. Gordon becomes obsessed with uncovering the story of this seemingly forgotten young woman. On the side, ex-lover and photographer Krisztina reappears at Gordon’s apartment and serves as his investigative sidekick and girlfriend. They follow the woman’s tracks from the chief of police, to a brothel owner, a nude photographer, corrupt politicians, and underground fights, eventually discovering that Budapest’s best-known coffee importer is actually the girl’s father. He is secretly Jewish and would not allow the mystery woman, who we now know as his daughter Fanny, to marry her lover, the son of a rabbi, so she fled. The final scene is perhaps the most touching, where Krisztina leaves Gordon without warning for London and the two tearfully separate at the train station.

Maybe it was the fact that the entire film was in English subtitles, but I found the plot a bit difficult to follow, and when I did follow, quite predictable. Budapest Noir has the prostitutes, the seedy old politicians, the Communists, a hefty sprinkling of fascist and communist allusions, and maybe even a reference to Hungary’s current political situation, but Gardos did not incorporate these elements in a unique way. Even the climax felt, well, anticlimactic, as Fanny’s mother kills Fanny’s father out of revenge in a rather bizarre scene involving a gun and birthday cake. The series of events make sense at the end and tie up neatly but didn’t leave me at the edge of my seat.


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For Katie Geneva Cannon Let Them See Your Tears

Aug10

by: on August 10th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

When a human being dedicates her life to the sustenance and joy of humankind, when she works with a will for justice and for the moral evolution of humankind, when she dies, it is fitting to pay tribute. This is nothing new for me, I think that works of mourning, acts of mourning keep us grounded and connected to a reality that life on this earth, in this delicate human flesh is fragile and fleeting and over far too soon. We all live moment by moment. We cannot take tomorrow for granted, and a life well lived is a work of art.

The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the first African-American woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the first African-American woman to chair the dissertation committee of another African-American woman in religious studies, a pioneer of womanist thought, a towering figure in theological ethics, my own teacher, mentor, sister and friend has died. (https://www.upsem.edu/newsroom/professor-katie-cannon-first-black-woman-ordained-in-pcusa-dies-at-68/)

This for me is personal.

There is much that I could write about her scholarship and her pedagogies that have influenced a generation of scholars, teachers and preachers. We will be writing essays about her thought in the areas of ethics, homiletics, teaching and learning for years to come. There will be much to say about her concepts of unctuousness and her thinking regarding “ethosfacts” in her application of archaeological methods in the field of social ethics. We will be dancing the dance of redemption that she adopted and adapted from her teacher Beverly Wildung Harrison, made her own, and passed on to us for our own adoption and adaptation. We will make her thinking regarding the work of sociologist Oliver Cox part of a womanist peace theory. And we will, through her spirit, continue to “debunk seamless histories; . . .unmask the deadly onslaught of stultifying intellectual mystification; . . . and disentangle the ordinary absence of women of color in whole bodies of literature.” (Katie G. Cannon “Structured Academic Amnesia” in “Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society.”)

This, however, is personal.

There is an old saying that when the student in ready, the teacher will appear. That was the case with Dr. Cannon and me. I first met her at a Society of Christian Ethics meeting in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. She was already a star. I was just starting work on my PhD in Religion at Temple University, not exactly sure whether the academy and I would make a good fit, especially when it came to academic writing. I was trained in journalism and had worked in both print and radio. I was trained to write in a clear, concise and if possible entertaining style. Academic writing was abstruse and turgid. Why use a simple word or sentence when a complex paragraph will do?

Much of the discourse I heard at the conference was over my head, and I was not certain whether people really knew what they were talking about or if the difficult language was an obfuscation to cover up intellectual uncertainties and insecurities. I remember that she and I had a short conversation in the lobby of the hotel near the end of the conference. I do not remember how the conversation started. I probably saw her and walked up to her and started the conversation. As a journalist, I am not shy about approaching total strangers, introducing myself and starting a conversation. I do not remember much of what we said, but I do remember that she asked me what I was interested in studying and that she listen very carefully. She gave me her complete attention. After I had answered her question, she encouraged me to continue my studies. She thought that my intellectual project was worthwhile. I never questioned whether or not I ought to work toward the PhD after that conversation.

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The Power of Privacy: A Review of The Oslo Diaries

Aug6

by: on August 6th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

The signing of the Oslo Accords was, to many, a sign that Israeli-Palestinian relations would improve. Photo by Ohayon Avi

After seeing The Oslo Diaries at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I felt inspired to start keeping a diary of my own. The Sundance-selected documentary, directed by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, tells the tense and moving story of the secret 1992 peace talks and their tragic failure, using interviews, reenactments, and primary sources to give us a holistic perspective on the historical moment. I recommend you see it too.

 

The film is named quite literally, as much of the film’s dialogue is taken directly from the diaries of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators of the Oslo Accords. And while their journal entries aren’t in literal conversation, they do provide the inner dialogue of some of the story’s most important characters — and frequently overlap in their subject matter, like two sides of the same coin. Without a doubt, the film holds great emotional power, and even, at one point, brought me to tears. Despite the diaries’ centrality to that power, however, the filmmakers fail to realize their practical and symbolic significance. Ultimately, the film paints a beautiful picture, but misses an opportunity to create something more meaningful, condemning itself to the same fate as the Oslo Accords.


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Feared Than Loved

Aug5

by: on August 5th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

I’ve been thinking about love and fear. Love is a strong force in my life, the thing that heals, the thing that opens my heart to give, the thing that greets me each morning as I open my eyes, grateful for another day. As the Song of Songs – the epic liturgical poem of awe and desire – puts it, “love is as strong as death.”

But love’s opposite – fear, the weapon of the unloved – is swirling all around me.

There’s the ambient fear of racism, violence, poverty, and exploitation, so deeply woven into the fabric of most U.S. cities that it becomes normalized. It takes artists to put a frame around the truth, revealing something of its actual dimensions, actual impact. For a clear-eyed glimpse of the daily fear machine in action and the toll it takes, go see the rich, nuanced, deeply affecting movie Blindspotting, just now in theaters.

There’s the fear that rises in relationship to other threats such as climate crisis. The New York Times Magazine’snew issue consists entirely of a controversial piece, already perceptively criticized by knowledgeable writers such as Naomi Klein and Robinson Meyer for downplaying the economic and power relations behind global scorching. Read all, and do your best not to be overcome by fear.

But my main topic today is another type of fear: the fear that arises in response to extreme state actions, the fear that acts as fuel for fascism.


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The Coarsening Yet Hope of the American Mind

Aug3

by: Kirk J. Schneider on August 3rd, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Babies being wrenched from parents, disquieting authoritarian alliances, alarming levels of civil and political discord–this is our country in the summer of 2018.

To be sure there are also positive developments but are they reliable, enduring?

While many of us are wringing our hands asking “how in the world we got here?” Perhaps the more accurate question is “Why, given our mercantile-materialist past, shouldn’t we have gotten here?”  In his 1978 book The Illusion of Technique, public philosopher William Barrett forewarned of the damage being done through our reliance on devices–rather than people–to staunch our moral predicaments; and we should have paid more attention.

Today we are stained with the legacy of all those who fell –wittingly and unwittingly –under the spell of a “machine model for living.”  This model emphasized efficiency (or what many called efficiency): speed, instant results, appearance and packaging; and it lured millions to the marketplace–or killing fields. The result however was anything but “efficient” in the larger sense. We created ease and convenience, to be sure.  But the advances were largely external–relegated to how fast we drove, how quickly we ate, how many gadgets we owned or people we manipulated; but our interior life, our capacity to feel and reflect and communicate was left bereft.

The result is that, today, too many of us have become calculative and consumerist giants but emotional and imaginative dwarfs, steely and impenetrable, but bereft of nuance, attunement, and depth;  and this is precisely our dilemma.

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We, too, wandered lost in the desert; A Rabbi in solidarity work with migrants

Aug3

by: Rabbi Brant Rosen on August 3rd, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Some of Jewish tradition’s most cherished spiritual lessons derive from the narrative of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, guided by God’s presence as they make their way toward the Promised Land. Today, as we hear increasing reports of migrants risking incarceration, starvation, and death in the deserts along our southwest border, these sacred stories call out to us with a desperate immediacy.

It is all too clear that U.S. border policy is creating a crisis of death and disappearance in the southwest borderlands. It is unconscionable that our government is leaving migrants to die in the desert – and that humanitarian workers are now being criminalized for helping them. As a Rabbi and a Jew, my faith compels me to witness and to respond.

Image of car door among some trees, painted with sign: "No Mas Muertes, Bienvenidos"

Entrance to No Mas Muertes desert aid camp near Arivaca, AZ. Image courtesy of Patrice Clark.

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes – a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona – has documented how border enforcement pushes migration routes into some of the most remote, dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. As violence and hardship grow in parts of Latin America – in direct response to US foreign policy – and as pathways to asylum and other relief are cut off, growing numbers of people are crossing the border to reunite with their families and seek safety.

In 2017, 57 sets of human remains were found in Arizona’s West Desert, including 32 on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet this number represents only a fraction of the people who have disappeared and died in the region; some estimate that 10 times as many people die trying to cross these deserts.

For the past three years, No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes has left water, food, socks and blankets for migrants crossing the Cabeza Wildlife Refuge, but outrageously enough, these humanitarian relief efforts have now been criminalized by the Trump administration. Earlier this year, Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing federal felony charges, and he and eight other No More Deaths volunteers are also facing federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza.

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Review of Steve Herrmann’s Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times

Aug1

by: Reverend Dr. Matthew Fox on August 1st, 2018 | 1 Comment »

This exciting and important book is filled with verve and insight that only Dickinson can awaken. With the help of Carl Jung and the inspiration of his own deep work, including his penetrating insights on Walt Whitman’s launching of an American movement of Spiritual Democracy, Herrmann sheds brilliant light on the spiritual genius of Emily Dickinson. Rightly does the author call Dickinson a “medicine woman for our challenging times,” for even today – 130 years after her death – she still brings forth wisdom and insight to challenge patriarchy. The book is filled with insights triggered by James, Jung, Whitman, Emerson, Everson, Jeffers, Melville, Humboldt, and the author’s own well-traveled soul. Herrmann’s acute exegesis of many poems that sometimes seem opaque is sensible and eye-opening.

Herrmann argues that the crux of Dickinson’s struggle was her wrestling with the archetype of vocation. It was her vocation as a poet that charged her with awe and ecstasy as when she wrote: “Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,/ And I am richer than all my fellow Men–/ Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily/ When at my very Door are those possessing more,/ In abject poverty – ” (#1640) Yet she had to sacrifice her career as a public poet in her lifetime because she was excluded for the most part from the male-dominated world of publishing. Herrmann believes that Dickinson underwent a “crucifixion of her ego on the cross of her poetic vocation.” After suffering a breakdown she revealed how she rose not as a wounded bird but riding “the Ether into the air or sky as shamans do.”


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Love, Gilda Gives Gilda Radner a Voice in 2018

Aug1

by: Robin Kopf on August 1st, 2018 | No Comments »

Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner

I’m in a warm room, mid-afternoon sun streaming in through poorly obscured windows. The brown couch is ratty and well loved, but comfortable in a way that fits the room. I’m flipping through photo albums and watching grainy home movies on an old, dusty TV. Sitting on the couch next to me is Gilda Radner, pointing to her favorite photos, laughing at how silly she looked in her Roseanne Roseannadanna costume, and sharing stories about the people that joined her in the photos. Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary Love, Gilda transported me to times, places, and feelings that I never would have experienced, but it nevertheless made me feel as close to Radner as if she were my cousin or aunt: close and nostalgic, but with a sense of mystery that there are things you can’t ever fully understand about a person.

Love, Gilda, a documentary about the funny, sad, and ultimately love-filled life of original Saturday Night Live cast member, Gilda Radner, opened this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The documentary tells the story of Radner’s early life, the beginnings of her comedy career, her rising stardom on SNL, her adult life and other projects after SNL, and her decline and untimely death from ovarian cancer at 43.


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In Asserting Itself a “Jewish State” Israel Moves Further Away from Being One

Jul31

by: Alex Gertner on July 31st, 2018 | 3 Comments »

This past Saturday I attended services at a large Reform congregation. As the Rabbi led us in a discussion of Israel’s controversial new nation-state bill, I remained silent. Issues of Israeli politics are for residents of Israel to decide, I usually tell myself. That’s been a convenient way of avoiding controversy. This time controversy seems unavoidable, however. Since the bill seemed to me to presume to represent the best interests of all Jews, we must talk about it.

Room in the Knesset, many desks with people sitting and walking around

The interior of the Knesset where, early on July 19, the "Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People" was passed. Image courtesy of Itzik Edri.

The bill’s defenders in synagogue argued that many of its clauses, such as the fact that Israel is the home of the Jewish people, are already widely accepted by most Jews. Critics of the bill pointed out that other clauses, such as establishing Jewish settlement as a national value, are the source of deep disagreement. The bill’s critics also questioned the purpose of codifying values held by Jews if not as a basis for the exclusion of minority groups. The bill’s defenders in turn argued that the bill was passed by a democratically-elected body representing all of Israel.

As the discussion unfolded, I turned the pages of the synagogue’s prayer book to the beginning of morning services, to the list of Obligations Without Measure. “These are the obligations without measure, whose reward too, is without measure,” I read in the prayer book. Alongside widely extolled obligations in Judaism such as honoring parents and hastening to study is another obligation: to welcome the stranger. As I contemplated this obligation, the nation-state bill seemed a document in conflict with itself. As it affirms the Jewish identify of Israel, it subverts the obligation to be welcoming towards non-Jewish peoples.

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What Needs Rethinking to Make Another World Possible?

Jul30

by: on July 30th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Knesset members vote on amendments to the proposed Jewish nation-state bill at the Knesset. Image Courtesy of Miriam Alster.

I miss my optimism.She’s hiding deep in shadow, in a place that has more in common with the Kali Yuga than the messianic era. She’s trying to wedge herself into a future of chaos and oppression in which the old world breaks down, holding onto the hope of rebuilding along lines far more loving and just. I keep hearing this scenario framed as spiritual teaching or political analysis. Either way, the type of encouragement I’m feeling these days says that we are on the bridge between worlds, the old systems crumbling, the new order not yet having taken shape. We are wisely counseled to take heart from history, from those forced to live under the boot of dictatorship who found ways to resist, survive, thrive, and regain freedom. We are wisely counseled to prepare to live through this without forgetting ourselves.

Coaxing my optimism out of hiding, I send her frequent whispers of reassurance. Look at the vast resistance to illegitimate authority and cruel plutocratic policies! Look how far we outnumber those being served by the Present Occupant of the White House, and if only we vote, we will prevail in anything that can be decided by an election! This too shall pass, I tell her, maybe into something surprising and wonderful.

Now I’m starting to get messages in return.”From where I’m hiding,” my optimism tells me, “I see too much certainty about what’s right and true on all sides. If the old order is breaking down, wouldn’t this be a good time to re-examine our ideas about what should take its place? I’m not coming out till that happens.”

She has a point.Consider the action the state of Israel’s right-wing governing coalition took last week, passing a a new law as part of its foundational legislation – kind of a decentralized constitution – establishing Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Civil rights advocates and Arab Israelis (who make up more than 20 percent of its citizenry) quickly condemned the law as apartheid, racism, and the end of democracy. While the law does not explicitly deprive Arab citizens of rights such as voting, it opens the door to even more preferential treatment of Jews. It flies the flag of dis-belonging, of less than, of unwelcome. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading the coalition behind this legislation (even while charged with at least two counts of bribery by the police), has lots of support from the White House.


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