Top 4 Films of 2016

I don’t get why people say 2016 was a bad year for movies. Yes, I can count the amount of great films that came out this year with my fingers. However, i’d much rather have a handful of greats than a slew of pretty goods. Although there definitely were more 2016 releases that I enjoyed, here are the four that stood out above the rest, proving that 2016 was an unforgettable year for the medium of film.

 

#4- Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling

Genre: Fantasy

I am a huge Harry Potter fan. I credit J.K. Rowling as the person who shaped me into the avid media consumer I am today. Without the story of the boy who lived, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing this piece. When a prequel series was announced, written by Rowling herself, I was very hesitant to build hype. Especially with the transition of medium from novel to film, I knew I couldn’t allow myself to get too excited. There were so many opportunities for failure with this movie; I am so happy to say that Rowling didn’t screw it up. Fantastic Beasts was fantastic. It did everything a great prequel should. Despite having some subtle nods, it didn’t rely too much on the original work. It had intriguing, well-written characters that weren’t just cardboard cutouts or carbon copies of Harry and company. It managed to work as a satisfying, self-contained story, while still building the foundation for the rest of a five-part saga. Although this isn’t a full review, I couldn’t go without mentioning how much I loved the movie’s 1920s New York aesthetic. Although there were some jarring plot holes, everything else about the movie was so good that I can’t dwell on them too much. Far superior to the other piece of Harry Potter universe media that was released this year (i’m talking about you Cursed Child), Fantastic Beasts is a real treat for any potterhead.

 

#3- This House Has People in It

Director: Alan Resnick

Writer(s): Alan Resnick, Dina Kelberman, and Robby Rackleff

Genre: Horror

I was very tentative about placing a short film on this list. After all, a TV movie under 15 minutes long can’t possibly convey as much as a 2.5 hour theatrical epic, right? Wrong! This House Has People in It managed to do that and more. Alan Resnick has finally made a name for himself by producing one the most clever, intriguing, and genuinely scary horror stories of all time. If you are unfamiliar with Adult Swim’s infomercial block, it is a late-night home for experimental short films disguised as infomercials. You may have heard of some of its more famous products such as Too Many Cooks and Unedited Footage of a Bear, both of which I would also highly recommend. Despite its 12 minute run time, This House Has People in It is one of the most densely packed movies ever made. It is literally impossible to absorb every detail it has to offer, even with multiple viewings. For a fantastic analysis and in-depth explanation of the short and its expanded material, I would highly recommend checking out NightMind. Even if you don’t end up watching this film, I would still give him a look, he’s one of the best horror analysts on YouTube. This House Has People in It might not grab you upon your first viewing. In fact, you may initially find it funny like I did. With each subsequent viewing, however, you begin to pick up more on what is actually happening. Then you begin to think about it. The genius of the film is that this mental process is part of the movie itself, an essential component of its fear building. Hold onto your bed sheets, because you will not be sleeping after experiencing this horror masterpiece.

 

#2- Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name)

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Writer: Makoto Shinkai

Genre: Anime Drama

Kimi no Na Wa, or Your Name in english, would have definitely taken the number one spot if it weren’t for a last minute sneak up. Your Name is the definition of perfect melancholic storytelling. It fills you with such strong and potent emotion, but it’s very difficult to decipher whether these feelings are of happiness or sadness. The only other movie in recent memory that has made me feel this way has been Wolf Children, one of my all time favorite films and overall pieces of media. Although I can’t say Your Name is one of my favorite movies, I can say it is a must see. You may groan at the premise; yet another body swap movie. However, this is the seminal body swap story. Never has this trope been executed more perfectly and originally. Despite being centered around the oldest trope in the book, there truly is nothing like Your Name out there. It takes beautiful animation, relatable characters, and a phenomenal soundtrack, and puts them in a blender to give you an experience. Although an anime film, its medium is by no means a barrier to entry. I would highly recommend this movie to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of anime experience. If subtitles aren’t your thing, Funimation is working a dub that seems pretty promising. In whichever format you prefer, go watch Your Name. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll even get a bit turned on.

 

#1- Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Eric Heisserer, based on short story by Ted Chiang

Genre: Science Fiction

Arrival was a film made for me. As a fan of science fiction, relatable characters, and alien stories; this was a homerun. It was the only movie this year that managed to become one of my all time favorites. I can go on for pages about how much I loved Arrival. However, I don’t want to talk too much about it, as I do plan on doing exactly that in an in-depth analytical review in the near future. Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who you may recognize from his work on Prisoners and Enemy, two great movies. Arrival is by far Villeneuve’s best film to date, and what elevated him to one of my all time favorite filmmakers. However, we can’t give Villeneuve all of the credit. I recently discovered that Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life. Although I have not yet gotten a chance to read it, there is no way it will go unread before I write my full review. Further, science fiction is my thing; it’s probably my overall favorite genre of fiction. However, Arrival goes beyond the typical boundaries of what the genre has to offer. Its unprecedented storytelling method, excruciatingly gorgeous cinematography, and unforgettable characters make it one the best films of the decade. Although I can’t say it’s my favorite science fiction movie, it’s definitely my favorite “alien invasion movie.” That’s just it though, I can’t even bring myself to call it an alien invasion film without precautionary quotation marks. Arrival is just so much more than Independence Day or War of the Worlds. It’s the story of a woman, and the events that reshaped the course of her life. In Amy Adams’ best performance, we come to know the character of Louise Banks, befriend her, understand her, and even cry for her. If not an active consumer of complex fiction such as myself, it may take a few viewings to fully appreciate and understand everything this movie has to offer. But those subsequent viewings are well worth the price of admission. Arrival is a movie I just can’t stop thinking about, and that means something to me.

 

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Top 3 Albums of 2016

We can all agree that 2016 wasn’t the greatest year. However, if there was one medium that got me through all the chaos, it was music. Nothing shortened the agonizing metro rides more than the sounds of MZShaidu and Casey Williams. There were three albums in particular this year that rose above the rest, proving that this decade has still got it when it comes to music. Here are my top 3 albums of 2015:

 

#3- RWBY Volume 3: The Original Soundtrack

Artist: Jeff & Casey Williams

Genre: Soundtrack

RWBY has the hands down greatest soundtracks of any piece of visual media. Not only does the music compliment the show perfectly, but each volume’s soundtrack stands alone as a fantastic album in its own right. Although RWBY Volume 1 still holds up as my favorite album of the trio, Volume 3 is a close contender. This album covers the gamut of genre and tone, ranging from upbeat pop tracks to somber orchestral pieces. Variety isn’t its only impressive feat. Each individual song is some of the best its genre has to offer. Divide is one of my all time favorite metal songs. Cold, with its beautiful orchestral backing, manages to make me tear up with each listening. Whichever genre of music you prefer, this album has it all, and at top quality for that matter.

 

#2- Bedroom Bedrock

Artist: MZShaidu (Vocals by Digibro and Endless Jess)

Genre: Rap

When I found out that Digibro and Endless Jess, my two all time favorite YouTubers and some of my biggest creative inspirations, were making a rap album together, I was ecstatic. This hype was only amplified when I learned that MZShaidu (Digibro’s brother), one of the best electronic musicians working today, was producing the beats. Despite my anticipation, Bedroom Bedrock did not disappoint. It quickly became my most listened to album of the year; I’ve probably heard it about 30 times all the way through. However, what stands out about Bedroom Bedrock to me the most is that it managed to make me appreciate a genre of music that I formerly hated- rap. The masterful writing of both Digibro and Endless Jess was extremely evident in the lyrics of every single track. It made me understand that rap wasn’t simply an outlet for artists to talk about all the sex and money that they have; rap can be poetry. Songs like Get Action! and ROTTEN are some of the most clever, well-written, and relatable “poems” I’ve ever heard. Listening to this album brought me back to the days where I was obsessed with poetry, reading legends like Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman for the first time. If you don’t like rap based on the same assumptions I had, you should definitely give this album a listen.

 

#1- Sunset Memories

Artist: ODDEEO

Genre: Synth Wave & Vocaloid

Sunset Memories is an album that was meant for 2016. In a year full of stark pessimism, we needed this. The short, but masterful record transports listeners into a future of optimism. This is a world of sprawling metropolis, flying cars, and humans coexisting seamlessly and peacefully with robots. The biggest worry the album’s protagonist has to face is falling in love with her best friend. The fact that he is a robot isn’t even an afterthought. The best part about Sunset Memories is that everything I just mentioned isn’t even expressed through lyrics. The genius world building is all ingrained in the aesthetic of the music. This is especially made apparent in the fantastic music video for This Feeling is a Cliche, which is a must watch, regardless if you are planning to listen to the album in its entirety. That’s what makes Sunset Memories so genius; it builds an entire world without even saying a single word about it. I know this expression is thrown around alot, but sitting back and closing your eyes while listening to this album will transport you. You will forget about all of the stress and worry of your daily life, and, just like Retro Gumi and Chromo 2000, focus on love in a beautiful future. If that isn’t something that people need this year, then I don’t know what is.

Rogue One- A Gonzo Review

NOTE: This review will contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read it.

It was interesting to see a Star Wars movie at a time other than midnight. I have begun to associate the franchise with late night coffee at the Grind and schmoozing with fans in $7,000 cosplays. However, with a ticket price of five dollars and some change at the small local theater for the first showing of the day, I couldn’t argue with the appeal of going at 10 a.m. On a Friday, non-holiday, morning, I didn’t expect to see so many middle aged moviegoers crowding the theater. I severely underestimated the power of Star Wars, and its ability to drag people of all ages out of their mundane lives into a galaxy far, far away. Regardless, it was really nice to spend another two hours in that galaxy, especially only a year after the release of the newest main saga film.

Rogue One was the first in what Disney is calling the “A Star Wars Story” brand name. In between main saga episodes, fans will be treated to different stories from throughout the Star Wars timeline. This is probably the best approach Disney could have taken to cash in on their ripe franchise annually. It gives them time to work on the main trilogies, while splintering off different teams to produce these universe-building anthology films.

My expectation for the anthology movies (and specifically for Rogue One) was very simple. As long as it’s good, i’m good. In other words, as long as the film is entertaining and doesn’t disrespect the main saga, it’s fine in my book. It doesn’t need to be the next Return of the Jedi, it just needs to give me a good time. Rogue One did exactly that. It wasn’t amazing, but it was by no means bad.

I think the main issue I have with Rogue One is that the writers forgot one of the main factors that makes most of the Star Wars movies such masterpieces; great characters. Don’t get me wrong, the characters in Rogue One were good enough, but that’s just it; they were only good enough. To quote Jesse Wood, they were a “flock of stock template characters.” Jyn Erso- generic punk/badass chick protagonist. K-2SO- generic comedic relief. Baze Malbus- generic seemingly annoyed, but actually cares, friend character. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Most of the characters in this movie weren’t particularly interesting, which is a stark departure from the franchise’s predecessors. Darth Vader, Han Solo, and now even Rey: some of the greatest fictional characters of all time. I can’t see myself thinking about any of the new characters in this movie unless i’m actually watching it.

However, it’s unfair to not give credit where credit is due. Although not too well written, there were some characters that I genuinely did like. I thought the primary antagonist, Orson Krennic, while somewhat generic, was very realistic. This is the kind of person that would exist and behave this way in a political environment like the Galactic Empire. He
was also very sympathetic; all the best villains are. Despite rooting against him, I understood his position, and genuinely felt bad for him. This was only aided by an occasionally over the top, but mostly strong performance by Ben Mendelsohn.

Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe was a conflicting character for me. He was by far the most interesting, but I feel as if he was wasted in Rogue One. A force sensitive that was neither Jedi nor Sith: what potential. I loved how he treated the force more like a religion, bringing the mysticality back to it. However, with a limited runtime, and many other characters to juggle, he was only able to have a few of the developmental moments he deserved. He could carry his own film to be honest; who wouldn’t want to see a movie about a man who either goes blind or was born without sight, and turns to the force for answers? Disney, can you please make Chirrut Imwe: A Star Wars Story? That honestly probably would have been a better movie.

Anyway, let’s get back on track here with Saw Gerrera. He was an intriguing character that was handled very well. I have come to understand that he was a somewhat important character in the Clone Wars TV series. I’m happy that Rogue One didn’t just expect you to know who he was. They explained just enough for you to understand his character, but left enough open to make you want to go back and watch his Clone Wars episodes. Although he didn’t have as much screen time as I would have liked, his presenc in the movie was still very strong. He added a lot of depth to the conflict dynamic of the rebellion and the empire, showing that the mainstay Rebel Alliance wasn’t the only revolutionary group in the galaxy.

Saw wasn’t the only veteran character to make his way into the movie. Darth Vader, while used very minimally, was handled perfectly. He obviously needed to be there, it wouldn’t have made sense if he wasn’t. However, the writers used him just the right amount. Both of his scenes were fantastic, especially the concluding scene of the movie. The reprise of James Earl Jones, and the absence of Hayden Christensen was pleasantly surprising.

On the subject of veteran characters comes what probably will be the most talked about component of Rogue One; Governor Tarkin. In Episode IV, Tarkin was portrayed by legendary actor Peter Cushing, who sadly passed away 22 years ago. Yet, Tarkin returns in Rogue One, played by “Peter Cushing.” Over the past decade, Disney has been working on a piece of technology that film buffs should have payed more attention to. In 2010’s Tron Legacy, Jeff Bridges fought against a younger version of himself. In Captain America: Civil War earlier this year, a middle-aged Tony Stark presented a younger holographic version of himself to an impressed audience. You may notice that both of these films involved the computer generated use of a younger version of an actor who was in the movie. However, these were simply tests of the technology: tests that succeeded. In Rogue One, this technology was implemented at its fullest potential, allowing for the deceased Peter Cushing to reprise his role, regardless of the physical presence of a fairly unknown actor. I find this very troubling. I would imagine that the Cushing family allowed this, and expressed that this is what Peter would have wanted (although there is really no way to be sure). However, this opens up a whole new can of worms with regards to film ethics. Can filmmakers just bring back famous actors from the dead for their movies? Do studios now have to copyright actors? What is perhaps most troubling about this idea is that all three films that this technology was implemented in were products of none other than Disney. Disney seems to be the only company with this technology, or at least the only one who has actually used it. Although I can see other studios studying Rogue One to figure out this technology for themselves, the fact still remains that Disney has an apparent monopoly on an extremely unethical piece of filmmaking technology. Again, this is all my personal opinion. Most of the audience may not have a problem with this technology. However, it disturbs me a bit, and I feel like that definitely impacted my opinion of the movie (how major or minor this impact I can’t say). To clarify even further, I had no problem with the use of A New Hope era Leia in the final scene. Carrie Fisher is alive and well; she clearly gave full permission for this. It’s only when an actor is six feet under, and has no way of expressing their desires, that I see an issue.

Now i’ve been hinting at my love of the final scene in this movie throughout this whole piece. The ending of this movie is one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema. The movie concludes with a seamless transition from Rogue One into the opening scene of A New Hope. The slow build to this reveal was perfect; once I realized what was happening, I got literal chills. This scene also serves as the first time outside of expanded universe material that we see Darth Vader mowing down enemies in his signature suit. We obviously got to see his involvement in Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith, but he was still wearing his Jedi cloak when he took part in those actions. As a huge Darth Vader fan, and a lifelong Star Wars fan for that matter, this scene was a reward for my dedication to the franchise. It felt almost like a gift from Disney to me directly, thanking me for my die-hard love of the saga.

Despite what you may think, this final scene was not my favorite part of the movie. There are two more components that, to me, are even stronger. The first is a resolvement of a plot hole that has existed in the franchise since its 1977 debut. How did the empire fail to realise that there was such a huge flaw in their superweapon (the thermal exhaust port)? Rogue One follows the story of Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso, the head architect behind the Death Star. Still sympathetic to the rebels, Galen purposely implemented this tiny flaw into the design of the weapon, hoping that the Rebel Alliance would one day use this knowledge to destroy it once and for all. This was a genius way to make sense of such a large plot hole, and this was the perfect movie tackle that task in.

Now for what I believe is the strongest part of the film. All of the main heroes die in the end. Not one of the protagonists we have followed makes it out ok. They truly sacrificed themselves for the rebellion. It is constantly restated throughout Episode IV that many rebels died to get the Death Star plans to the Alliance. As this was a movie about those very rebels, I’m so happy they didn’t just take the easy way out, and actually had the guts to follow through.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had its problems, but I definitely still enjoyed watching it. For me, it sits comfortably below the original trilogy, the Force Awakens, and Revenge of the Sith, but it still soars eons above Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Rogue One wasn’t amazing, but like I said, it didn’t have to be. It wasn’t disrespectful to the main saga, and that’s really all that matters for a Star Wars anthology movie.

How Trump Won- A Technical Perspective

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Source: The Associated Press

The 2016 presidential election has come and gone. After one of, if not the, longest elections cycles in American history, it seemed that many were ready for its passing. All of the controversy and lackluster media coverage didn’t ease this impatience. Regardless, it has come to a close. However, what many didn’t expect was the outcome. The shocking nature of these results was made evident in the New York Times’ 2016 Election Forecast, in which they said Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning.

Regardless, it is clear that Donald Trump managed to secure the President-elect title. The race, with regards to popular vote, was very close. However, this was not what allowed Trump his victory. Without the Electoral College system, Clinton would have succeeded at becoming the first female president.

The Electoral College consists of 538 people known as electors. Each elector is assigned a certain amount of points (some more than others, and vice-versa). Electors will typically vote based on the popular vote within their particular state. For example, because Trump gained the popular vote specifically within the state of Florida, the Floridian m
embers of the Electoral College voted Trump. Whichever candidate gains 270 electoral votes secures the position of President-elect.

While extremely rare, this system has the potential to allow for a candidate, without receiving the overall popular vote of the nation, to possibly still become president. This race was one of those rare instances. Over the years, this dilemma has led many to question whether the Electoral College should remain as an institution. Some argue that the national popular vote should determine who becomes president. This argument has become increasingly more prevalent in the days since Trump’s electoral victory.

Trump was clearly able te this system to his advantage during the election. He gained the electoral vote in many essential states. These include Florida (29 electoral votes), Texas (38 electoral votes), and Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes). Clinton did gain some strong states herself (exemplified by California, with 55 electoral votes). However, Trump was able to continue on to secure his 270 with the support he gained from these key states.

The Electoral College system is only one component in the overall conglomerate of factors that led to Trump’s victory. CNN’s Exit Poll data reveals some unexpected information that can provide some reasoning behind Trump’s victory.

One of Clinton’s largest efforts was to secure the female vote. While she did get the majority, 54%, this was a very close majority. Trump still secured 42% of women. Another big push for Clinton was the minority vote, which she lost 21% of to Trump. While many expected the moderate vote to go mainly to Clinton, she only received 52%.

Evidently, many were shocked by the outcome of this election. However, there were factors in place, as made evident by both the Electoral College system, as well as additional exit poll data, that help explain Trump’s upset victory.

Film Review- Denial

Note: This review was initially published on the Moment Magazine official site on 10/11/16. 

Link: http://www.momentmag.com/film-review-denial/

denial

Denial is an astonishingly accurate adaptation of the famous 2001 court case Irving vs. Penguin Books Ltd. In this case, renowned historian Deborah Lipstadt stood trial against David Irving, an infamous Holocaust denier. After Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier and bigot in her book Denying the Holocaust, Irving accused Lipstadt of libel. This case came to fruition due to the British legal system, which requires those accused of libel to prove their innocence—the opposite of the legal system in the United States. The movie portrays the struggles, and eventual triumphs, of Lipstadt and her legal team in their battle against pure hate.

As a Jew with multiple grandparents who are Holocaust survivors, I have an inherent emotional connection to this case—and in turn, this film, which I saw at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s premiere screening. Following the film there was a discussion with Deborah Lipstadt and the producers Russ Krassnoff and Gary Foster. The sheer amount of historical detail incorporated by the filmmakers was astounding. The producers pointed out a perfect example of this meticulousness during the question-and-answer session; the head of Lipstadt’s legal team, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), never made eye contact while addressing Irving (Timothy Spall). A factual detail so easy to abandon would never make it into the screenplay of a generic blockbuster hit.

“Deborah said, ‘I’m about to sign this paper giving you these rights. You need to promise me one thing: the truth,’” Russ Krasnoff, one of the producers, explains. “It was our mantra.” In other words, a painstaking dedication to portraying the truth was one of the Denial team’s core values. The producers explained that this pursuit even extended to having Lipstadt on the set, in order to make sure everything was accurate from her point of view.

Lipstadt’s story is about the dedication to truth—and the filmmakers took her lesson to heart. “Every single word that David Irving says in the film… it was all taken from transcripts or interviews,” says Krasnoff. “Every word was documented.” This was astonishing to me. Some of Spall’s lines were so shockingly ignorant and hate-filled that I assumed they had to be exaggerations—like Irving’s “No holes, no Holocaust” diatribe. However, I came to realize that the over-the-top nature of these deliveries only proves Spall’s skill in accurately portraying such a sinister person.

The film’s realism was only bolstered by outstanding performances from Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, who flawlessly portrayed opposing forces in what might be their best roles to date. The support and fondness I felt for Lipstadt also extended to Weisz, who was able to transform expertly into the historian over the course of the film’s nearly two-hour runtime. Timothy Spall has always been excellent at playing fictional villains; his transition from fictional evil to real-world evil was seamless.

Where the illusion of realism that drives this film was somewhat shattered was with actors Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott, whose performances sometimes felt unnatural. There were also occasional shots that either lingered too long, or placed emphasis on subjects that should not have been emphasized, which was a bit jarring for me.

But what I enjoyed most about Denial, aside from its potent accuracy, was its timelessness. “It’s not just about Holocaust denial,” says Lipstadt. “It’s vaccines. It’s the environment. It’s Sandy Hook in Connecticut, where kids were murdered.”

A large portion of the Q&A centered around the idea that whenever there is a tragic event in history, there will always be people who find a way to deny it. Whether they are anti-Semitic, racist, or simply in need of a selfish way to cope with said tragedy, they exist. With so many horrific events occurring on a near-daily basis throughout the world, there will always be those who seek to undermine the truth. They cling to tiny details, minuscule inconsistencies, and blow these details up to horrendously large proportions in an attempt to prove their opinions. However, Lipstadt, her legal team and the filmmakers prove that, whether it be the Holocaust or any tragedy, the truth will always prevail.

Denial’s purpose surpasses entertainment. This movie should be used as a tool, a weapon in the fight against hate. Producer Gary Foster explains this best: “If we can spark and inspire conversation—and get people to say, ‘Hey, there’s a difference between opinion and fact’—then we have done good.”

The Books That Shaped You

Note: This article was initially published on the Moment Magazine official site on 9/13/16. 

Link: http://www.momentmag.com/the-books-that-shaped-you/

 

In our Books that Shaped Great Authors symposium, we asked 20 Jewish writers to tell us about the books that influenced them the most. Their answers ran the gamut from Winnie-the-Pooh to War and Peace. Hoping for some equally inspiring responses, we asked our readers to tell us their own stories about books that changed them. Here are some of our favorites.

 

My life changed course during my high school marine biology class. Two afternoons a week, our teacher would don a field hat and read snippets from the introduction to John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, written to memorialize Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts.

One passage sold us on the immense value of good literature, good science and good friendship. Steinbeck describes a moment four days into his own birthday party. Ricketts, having already imbibed about five gallons of beer, awakens from a nap and reaches for his nearby quart-size bottle: “He found it, sat up, and took a deep drink of it. He smiled sweetly and waved two fingers in the air in a kind of benediction.
‘There’s nothing like that first taste of beer,’ he said.”

We were gobsmacked. We cheered, our adolescent belief in the healing power of an all-nighter wrapped in the package of Steinbeck’s own fine prose, philosophical observations, and finished neatly with a newly minted form of religious ritual.

My transformation led me to pursue the paths that Ricketts and Steinbeck modeled. I relentlessly pursued a first career in marine and wildlife biology, all the while writing, with Steinbeck as my muse. My recent career as a spiritual care counselor and chaplain is yet another branch of the Ricketts/Steinbeck legacy. Although I grew up middle-class and Jewish and my pastoral training has been through Jewish seminaries, my life has been lived on the rough edges, as a biologist as well as in the areas where I live and serve, whether fishing in the harbors or ministering to heroin addicts in skid rows.

It is no accident that Steinbeck used the word “benediction” in the passage my classmates and I so loved. To him, the sacred happens in small moments as well as it would in a church or synagogue. Steinbeck’s works always portray his own struggle to show us the spiritual easiness of the land, how humans seem to mangle it all up, and how we can find redemption.

—Susan Katz

Suddenly, All-of-a-Kind Family popped into my head. The tender love and care shared between parents and daughters, the sisters’ relationships and identity as individuals and as Jewish immigrants, helped me relate to my father’s childhood and upward struggle. The tension of tradition, observation, and contemporary life was one he felt constantly. He passed this year, but left a legacy for my siblings and myself that engendered a deep love for Jewish observance with the freedom to participate as is most meaningful. I still think of Ella and Henrietta and the other sisters whose father was that same loving guide, who deepened their appreciation for their roots and quietly modeled how to be a good Jew, a true mensch.

—Jenny Merdinger

Tao Te Ching, written by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu—I’d recommend the Penguin translation by D.C. Lau—is the book that came into my life like a bolt of lightning. It is not a Jewish text, but it has probably been discussed and interpreted as diversely as the books of the Talmud.

Though astonishingly brief, even in translation, and despite being over 2,500 years old (like the Hebrew bible text, it is still mostly intelligible to modern readers of the language), its contents are absolutely relevant to life in the 21st century. Full of incredible juxtapositions and paradoxes, Lao Tzu’s book is like the ancient embodiment of Yoda’s teachings to Luke Skywalker, and for me as a high school student, the ideas in this text were totally opposite to the deadline-driven, achievement-focused, survival-of-the-fittest society that I was racing through as a young adult. Quotes from the book were and continue to be life-changing revelations that contradicted everything I thought I knew and helped me to find a more relaxed attitude, which also probably contributes to greater success and happiness in career and relationships. For example, “Excessive speech leads inevitably to silence. Better to hold fast to the void.”

I would even argue that this book is the original and best self-help book of the past 2,500 years. (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, might be my personal choice of runner-up).

—Brian Landberg

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, when I was a sophomore in college. This was the book that really taught me to read carefully, with my whole heart and mind, and with an eye for the detail and nuance in Ellison’s language, in his characters, images, motifs, and themes. It was also the book that began my more mature thinking about race in America—never a more urgent topic than right now.

—Rebecca Schwartz

I was interested in health, medicine and anatomy from a very early age. I used birthday money to buy my first microscope at age 10. I wasn’t sure how I would use that interest because I was a female, and had no related role models. Then I read Woman Surgeon by Else K. Laroe, and that transformed my thinking about the possible. I retired five years ago after 46 years in health care. I received much more than I gave.

—Karolyn Rim Stein

Many books and authors influenced me as a young person growing up in post-war Germany, long after World War II was over. Max Frisch and Wolfgang Borchert were instrumental in defining my attitude towards peaceful coexistence. However, the one book that opened my mind to an even greater extent was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It started the adoption of a different perspective of how I viewed the world and, more importantly, human behavior. Manipulation and emotional control are presented very clearly in this book—all the more reason for me to resent them.

—Ingrid Webster

 

These responses have been edited and condensed.

Top Ten Jewish Podcasts: Reader Edition

Note: This article was initially published on the Moment Magazine official site on 9/13/16. 

Link: http://www.momentmag.com/top-ten-jewish-podcasts-reader-edition/

This past July, we gave you a list of some of our favorite Jewish podcasts. We were soon inundated with recommendations for other podcasts readers felt we overlooked. We’ve done some listening ourselves, and came up with ten more Jewish podcasts for you to enjoy. If our last list didn’t turn you into a podcast lover, this one just may do the trick.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-19-49-pmUnorthodox

Debuted by Tablet last summer,“Unorthodox” is a self-proclaimed “smart, fresh, fun take on Jewish news and culture.” This weekly podcast is hosted by Tablet editor-at-large Mark Oppenheimer and features writers Liel Leibovitz and Stephanie Butnick. Guests have included include best-selling author A.J. Jacobs, essayist Sloane Crosley and Jewish Voice for Peace executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson. If you want to hear about “everything from the presidential elections to Amy Schumer, Israel to Drake,” “Unorthodox” is for you.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-23-52-pmBarr’s Banter

Rabbi Robert B. Barr has been putting a rabbi’s perspective on current events since 2007. As the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Barr is a champion of the Humanistic Judaism movement. Discussing everything from the Syrian refugee crisis to the high holidays, Barr has tackled hundreds of topics in his nine-year-old show. With each episode in the two-minute range, “Barr’s Banter” is an easy addition to your weekly routine.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-25-13-pmThe Book of Life

“The Book of Life” is a podcast all about Jewish media. Whether it’s books, music or films, if it’s Jewish, it’s covered. The show is hosted by biblical fiction author and librarian of Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida, Heidi Rabinowitz. She has interviewed many renowned Jewish creatives, including author Angela Cerrito and filmmaker Roberta Grossman.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-18-35-pmJudaism Unbound

“Judaism Unbound” is a “project that catalyzes and supports grassroots efforts by ‘disaffected but hopeful’ American Jews to re-imagine and re-design Jewish life in America for the 21st century.” In other words, the main goal of the podcast is to construct a Jewish lifestyle that fits into modern-day American society. The show is hosted by Daniel Libenson and Lex Rofes, the heads of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, an organization with the same goal as its podcast. Join Libenson and Rofes as they interview guests such as author Richard Elliott Friedman and American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, all in the name of evolving Judaism.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-16-53-pmTreyf

Are you a Jew living in North America? Do you have an interest in (left-wing) politics? If one or both of these apply, “Treyf” might be the podcast for you. As a self-described “debatably Jewish podcast,” “Treyf” addresses some of the thornier political discussions taking place in North American Jewish communities, from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to social and racial justice. The episodes’ relatively short length (anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes) does not limit their guest repertoire. Writer Mark Tseng Putterman and journalist Josh Nathan are some of the many voices “Treyf” has recruited to facilitate discussion of the Jewish political sphere.

13227095_1755939367958664_5595034377956959036_nReally Interesting Jews

Hosted by Rabbi Evan Schultz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut, RIJ seeks to introduce American Jewry to the people who are working to change their communities. Whether it be thinkers, project facilitators, or conversors, RIJ wants you to know all about them. Some of the revolutionists that have been featured on the podcast include spiritual community founder Lizzi Heydemann and Ruth Messinger, former president of the American Jewish World Service. Schultz states his goal for the podcast clearly: “…my hope is that their stories will spark conversations in your homes, communities and synagogues.”

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-13-43-pmNew Books Network—Jewish Studies

The Jewish Studies subsection of the New Books Network of podcasts tackles a new Judaism-related book each week. Rather than simply discussing each book, NBN takes the time to interview their authors. Some of these writers include Jonathan Garb, author of Yearnings of the Soul, and Robert O’Kell, author of Disraeli.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-11-51-pmKaddish

Death is a difficult subject matter for anyone, regardless of religion. Student Rabbi Ariana Katz hopes to ease the struggle with her podcast, “Kaddish,” which focuses on mourning rituals and customs. With a variety of guests and first-person stories, Katz strives to provide listeners with a deep and contextualized look at death. “There is a dearth of death education, and there is a romanticising, exoticizing, and sexualizing of death,” the show’s description reads. “Kaddish aims to stay in the muck, the complicated, unsexy, terrifying places, because those too are a part of grief.”

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-1-30-00-pm

Stuff Jews Should Know

The title says it all. Join Mottle and Batya Wolfe as they discuss different Jewish essentials and topics—holidays, landmarks, traditions, laws—in under a half an hour, from Purim to the Temple Mount. You’ll be an expert in no time.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-4-10-21-pmOMGWTFBIBLE

Last but definitely not least, OMGWTFBIBLE describes itself as a “brand-new English translation of the Hebrew bible.” What OMGWTFBIBLE really is is a rebranding and retelling of the Torah as “the world’s oldest comedy serial” as opposed to a traditional (and serious) religious text. As host David Tuchman writes, “Doesn’t it just plain suck that the Old Testament isn’t cool anymore? The book’s got everything: genocide, incest, and even talking donkeys!”