What to Watch– reviews of 2 blockbuster series about Jewish life; What to Read– a murder mystery with a disturbing edge and a smashing autobiography


Last night I watched Happy as Lazzaro. This is a witty Italian film on Netflix. It’s about a community in the hills of the region of Lazio, not so far from Rome. While you’re watching, you don’t know the era – I suspected present day; Larry thought it was generations ago. The camera gently follows an extended family of 45 poor agricultural workers and their children who cut and dry tobacco, grow wheat and tend to sheep.

The landowners are a rich family, with a spoilt son who decides to break away from his family for a while. The unlikely relationship he has with one of the labourers, Lazzaro, comes to a curious halt. But it’s the rest of the film that is truly amazing. I don’t want to ruin it for you. Wonderful. And spellbinding.Here’s the trailer. 

There’s a battle of shows on your screen about Jews in Newark, NJ vs Jews of Williamsburg, New York. The first series is The Plot Against America, based on the late Philip Roth’s – and I’m his big fan – novel by the same name. plot2Roth’s book came out a few years after 9/11, and I wrote a review of it for the (now defunct) Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine.The Outlook used to publish four to six times a year for 52 years (since 1963). It was the only left wing magazine by and about the Canadian Jewish community.  Since the mainstream Jewish community in Canada moved decidedly to the right in the last two decades, Outlook subscriptions tumbled.  In addition, progressive online publications of all sorts went increasingly online – in a bid to save money and gather a wider readership.  The Outlook was obliged to fold.

Outlook Magazine covers of two issues

My review, which I can’t locate now, looked at Roth’s book as a metaphor for the persecution and legal prosecution of Muslims in the post-9/11 US.

Plot Against America vs The Terror Factory

Don’t take my word for it, read the excellent book, The Terror Factory  by journalism professor Trevor Aaronson.



Here’s an excerpt,

All of this is to say that I am less and less impressed with the Plot Against America series which is now loading, week after week, on HBO. While the episodes seem quite faithful to the novel, the series’ top rated creator and show runner – David Simon – prefers to tell rather than to show.   See the Plot Against America trailer here. 

With a thick brush, he paints the somewhat idyllic lives of the middle-class Jews in their close-knit neighbourhood in Newark, NJ in the years leading up to World War II.  plot3That is until the US presidential election of 1940, when (according to the novel) Roosevelt does NOT win, the presidency as he did,  in fact. Rather, a right-wing anti-Semite who is also an American flying ace, Charles A Lindbergh runs for the Republicans and wins the presidency.   What follows is the ratcheting down of rights and freedoms for American Jews. While Roth’s novel was somewhat spare, even ambiguous, the HBO series is not.  Simon goes over the  quandary of one American Jewish family desperate to do something to help the Jews of Europe under Hitler.  According to the series, it is clear there was no way of helping until the US became an ally and joined the second world war efforts, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

But I’ve got to congratulate David Simon because he is the creator of other excellent shows like The Wire, and Treme.  As a Jew, he says he supports BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), and he openly criticizes Israel and applauds efforts of Palestinians who are fighting for their human and civil rights. Read this recent and surprising interview with him.

Of course the US is home to “potboiler” television programs and films in which characters all too often wear their hearts on their sleeves. The tendency toward over-the-top  emotion is exhibited  on the TV screen, in movies and now on streaming networks.

The Plot Against America is worth watching – but I worry that the series’ emphasis on the bold and nasty discrimination against the Jews  will encourage some in today’s Jewish community to insist that anti-semitism, and attacking their rights is just around the corner. I don’t think it is.

A much better series to watch is Unorthodox on Netflix. This short series was made by a German-Jewish filmmaker who lives in Montreal. It’s fascinating. It tells the modern day story of a woman — barely out of her teens– who is born and raised in the Satmar Hasidic community located in Williamsburg—a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. She escapes a loveless and disastrous marriage and a stifling community, to move to Berlin. Her world is revitalized by her unlikely – but believable – friendships.

The film moves slowly and deliberately. You won’t take your eyes away from the protagonist. And you’ll be running to find out more about the Satmar sect, as well as life in perhaps the world’s most international and even comforting city.  Here’s the trailer. 

For every proponent of the film like me, there is a detractor. Here is an account by another Hasidic Jewish American woman who says Unorthodox is seriously flawed.  

What to Read…

I’ve just finished the fourth book, Broken Harbour, in the murder/thriller series by Irish-American writer Tana French. I didn’t like it as much as the others. I’ve written here about the Witch Elm, and also The Likeness. I preferred them. This one is heavy on the mystery. The personal conundrum of the lead detective, Scorcher, is worth reading more about than the couple of chapters devoted to it in this book. Still – it’s 500 plus pages which no one can (should!) sneeze at in these endless days and nights of isolation during the virus.broken2

I’m reading a short but very punchy autobiography by 35-year-old Mohamed Abdulkarmim Ali, who as a child, came to Canada from war-torn Somalia, via the Emirates and the Netherlands. Angry, Queer Somali Boy, a Complicated Memoir is excellent. angryIt’s also scary and speaks to the violence of dispossession and displacement. And the violence inherent in many immigrant experiences in Canada. It is wonderful to see that the book’s publisher, the University of Regina Press, has created The Regina Collection, which

“builds upon University of Regina Press’s motto of  ‘a voice for many peoples.’  Intimate in size and beautifully packaged,  these books aim to tell the stories of those who have been caught up in social and political circumstances beyond their control.”

I got this 2019 book from the Halifax Public Library.

And Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti has a humorous 800 word summary of her self-isolation so far –here.

globeGlobe illustration by Hanna Barczyk



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