Shabbat Reading List

Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content
Jul
12
2024

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Sorry/Not Sorry, a new documentary by Cara Mones and Caroline Suh, is an examination of the Louis C.K. Affair. The comedian’s career famously came crashing down in 2017, when The New York Times reported on accusations of sexual misconduct from five women, including two young comedians who said that he had masturbated in their presence after inviting them to his hotel room. The facts of the case are not in question, since C.K. fessed up and issued a public apology. But, this film asks, how sincere was the apology? And what is the correct penalty? Is eternal banishment too much, or just right?

In the aftermath of the revelations about C.K., a film he’d written and directed was shelved and shows were canceled; he claims he lost $35 million. During his time in the desert, he was horribly ill-served by some of his defenders—most notably Bill Maher and Dave Chappelle, both of whom mocked his victims. And nine months later he was back, performing in venues large and small, though now he had to personally shell out the rental fees for the big ones like Madison Square Garden. Sorry/Not Sorry features footage of him joking onstage about his hiatus, and we’re supposed to find him callous—but he’s a comedian, and isn’t that what comedians do? Perhaps the most honest response to C.K.’s comeback in the film is that of a young man about to see him at the Garden: “We all allow ourselves a certain amount of hypocrisy, and this is mine.”

Along with the question of how long a sinner ought to spend in purgatory, there is the quandary of what to do with his prior existence. Sorry/Not Sorry uses old clips to demonstrate that C.K.’s proclivities were a secret to no one—that masturbation was the core of his sexuality is amply demonstrated even by a not especially careful examination of his work on the stage and on his TV shows. So should his oeuvre now be discarded? Most of it has been removed from streaming services: His FX show Louie, for instance, can now only be found on the comedian’s website, where you have to pay to watch it (which I did). Just as I recalled, it’s a brilliant series, in which the difficulty of relationships, of parenting, of confronting our personal devils is addressed with amazing insight and admirable frankness. The self-loathing of men of a certain type—and the clumsiness and worse this leads to—have never been so clearly delineated; his dictum that “men are the worst thing that has happened to women” is borne out in almost every episode, as it has been in his life. (This was a series, after all, with an episode where C.K.’s avatar defends the practice of masturbation against the attacks of a beautiful Christian crusader—and ultimately retires to her hotel room bathroom to masturbate.) There’s no question about it: Knowing what we know now, the show is impossible to watch without a deeply queasy feeling.

Jacob Plitman (former publisher): For all the growing interest in labor organizing, there aren’t enough good books about it. Dr Jane McAlevey, who just passed away, wrote four. All four are characteristically savage, direct, and biting manifestos, ranging in form from memoir (Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell)), to academic study (No Shortcuts), to political roadmap (A Collective Bargain), to technical manual (Rules to Win By). Part of why, I think, there aren’t enough good books on organizing is that it is grinding, unpredictable, sometimes boring, and often hard to describe. When you’re organizing, everything is possible yet nothing feels under your control. Organizers haunt doorways where workers clock in. You have to try to look casual while speed-walking up to exhausted workers clocking out, and smile to try and make the whole thing slightly less awkward. You’re not a canvasser, but you are waving down strangers. You’re not a salesman, but you do want to discuss the matter of the workers’ health insurance. The goal, basically, is to meet a worker, strike up a conversation, and ten minutes later secure an invitation to their home. When you do manage to get a phone number, type it in and hit call immediately. If it doesn’t ring you know it’s fake. Don’t act weird. You’re the one coming off like a manic bible salesman; the worker is just trying to get home. Approach 15 workers a day in this manner for six days a week for two months and, if you’re lucky, you will start getting somewhere. Then the easy part is over.

Her main lesson is that you must not give up: Workers will empty their hearts to you, take on public roles, display astounding courage, and then won’t answer your phone calls. The boss will start “fighting back,” which literally means illegally harassing, disciplining, interrogating, surveilling, or maybe firing worker leaders. And at the next shift change, the sight of you will strike the bravest leaders mute. If your leaders get fired, you file lawsuits with the labor board. Eight months later, they will eventually win and get wages repaid. At that point, the leader may have been in a homeless shelter for weeks. It’s up to you to figure out how to tell them they won, because their cellphone got cut off a while ago.

In organizing work, bluntness is a virtue, and McAlevey was a hammer in a world of nails. She specialized in commandments:. You must build workers into a fighting organization, and teach them to wield that organization to extract the maximum from the employer. You must refuse convenient strategies that remove agency from the worker leaders, even when there are strong arguments for doing so. You must seek maximum participation from the worker unit even when that will make things complicated. You must struggle towards majority decision-making. You must get close to the workers, and stay close to them. You must win.

McAlevey’s voice—at turns drill sergeant, dreamer, historian, tactician—will endure. So must we. 18/10.

Carrie Shapiro (board of directors): It’s been almost 10 years now since I started taking the classes at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (BISR), a unique concept of seminar-style adult education that is taught at a sophisticated level by brilliant young academics on everything from Faulkner to Numbers Theory. The classes in New York City are held in Manhattan and Brooklyn, twenty or so people around a table in cultural spaces, backrooms of bars, or the BISR headquarters in Dumbo. And since Covid, there are plenty of courses taught over Zoom as well.

I normally get enough satisfaction from just reading BISR’s beautiful course catalog, perusing all these ideas without committing to anything. And then one class will connect perfectly to what I’ve been noodling alone in my mind. At present, that’s Suzy Schneider’s online class on risk, which could not be more relevant to my summer conversations on swimming in the ocean, heat waves, and elections. For those of us far from university days, our dinner conversations are fun and noisy, jumping from topic to topic, but generally pretty low on facts and theory. This is made up for by a BISR class, which involves hours of reading original sources and big thinkers followed by three hours of freewheeling and in-depth conversation with much younger people each week for a month. In the spring, I took Suzy’s class on the modern history of Palestine. Even though I’ve been immersed in this topic for years, I’ve never actually read the essential documents from the late Ottoman era through to the British Mandate documents and up to the best academic thinkers of today, such as Rashid Khalidi and Avi Shlaim. The course joins the long list of subjects that I’ve delved into over the past decade: the Frankfurt School, subways, psychoanalysis, monuments, non-profits, President Jackson, Robert Moses, William Morris, Primo Levi, Socrates. It has made the world so much bigger and understandable for me.

***

Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety—covering one parshah, or section, every week on Shabbat morning. In this moment when many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification, we’ve begun a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text’s meaning is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Chukat

The rabbis of the Talmud are famous for making meaning from the smallest of textual oddities. In the case of this week’s parshah, Chukat, their attentive eyes notice a seemingly jarring transition from one topic to the next: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.” What is the connection, the rabbis ask, between the death of the prophetess Miriam and the community’s need for water?

They respond by explaining that the Israelites had been drinking from a well that was provided to them on the basis of Miriam’s merit, and when she died, the well dried up. (“Miriam’s well” later became a recurring motif in Jewish feminist ritual, most famously through the practice of placing a cup of water, known as Miriam’s Cup, on the Passover seder table.) At first, the replacement for this well comes through the violent assertion of power. Moses strikes a rock: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” he asks, and water flows once again; God punishes Moses for his outburst, telling him that he is no longer allowed to enter Canaan. But despite this error, the Talmud teaches that after Miriam’s death, the water returned through the merit of Moses and Aaron.

Later in Parshat Chukat, however, we are presented with an entirely different way to understand this well, and thereby communal sustenance. After Aaron dies, we get an odd little scrap of poetry. The Israelites arrive in Beer (a site in the desert that literally means “well”), where God tells Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” The Israelites then sing a song to the well, which the medieval commentator Rashi claims is the same one they have been drinking from all along: “Spring up, O well—sing to it—the well which the chieftains dug, which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs.” This is water brought forth in some way by the entire people, and accessed without hierarchy, without strife—a well by and for the people. This image of abundance through collectivity echoes a midrash that teaches that when Moses and Aaron initially gathered the Israelites around the rock to get water, each person was, impossibly, literally adjacent to the rock, able to access the water without pushing or waiting. This is, in the language of the midrash, “one of the places where the small can encompass the great,” where a tiny space comfortably holds huge numbers of people.

Today I cannot read these stories of a thirsty people panicking and crying out for water without thinking of Gaza. We have no miraculous well, no prophetic leader who will summon a solution in an instant. But we do have one other. Audre Lorde, in her iconic essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” teaches that “without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” So despite the temptation to fixate on individual responsibility—to pour energy into questions like how many GoFundMes for starving Gazan families can I stretch my funds to donate to, or can I make it to this protest on this day—we must remember that it is only together, assembled in solidarity, that we can hope to sing forth the nourishment that is needed.

Avigayil Halpern is a rabbi and writer based in Washington, DC, whose work focuses on feminist and queer Torah. Read more of her writing here.

Jul
5
2024

This week, we welcome Naomi Gordon-Loebl in her new role as the deputy publisher at Jewish Currents.

Naomi Gordon-Loebl (deputy publisher): I first met Alessandra Lacorazza a few years ago when she directed my friend Julia Weldon’s music video, “Til the Crying Fades,” honoring the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. I remember her telling me that she was writing a film about the summers she spent with her father as a child. That film is finally out, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

In the Summers, which I saw last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows two sisters as they visit their loving, adventurous, and also flawed father in New Mexico every summer. The sisters are played by several actors who shift as the characters age; the father, Vicente, is played by René Pérez Joglar, who incredibly has never acted in his life—though he has spent quite a bit of time on stage as the Grammy-award winning musical artist Residente. The acting is one of the film’s several strengths; the intimacy, pain, and at times rage on screen is so tangible that it is hard to believe that these people were ever strangers to each other.

In the Summers is also visually stunning; the haunting landscape of Las Cruces is almost a character in and of itself, and the film is full of slow, artfully lit scenes whose emotional weight lingers. The image of Pérez Joglar’s shaking fingers, lighting a cigarette as he waits for his daughters, will live in my mind for a long time. But the biggest reason that In the Summers has stayed with me is that it is a portrait of human complexity. Vicente is the consummate fun, playful father; when he challenges his daughters to a hands-free spaghetti-eating contest, or teaches them to play pool at the local bar, there’s something almost pure and innocent about him. At other moments, he is cruel, callous, even terrifying, as is the case on one nighttime drive that I won’t spoil here. Lacorazza has said in interviews that she made the film for “children of complicated but beautiful parents,” and it feels as though the film embraces both versions of Vicente as wholly true, neither canceling out the other. It’s the kind of complexity, and even paradox—cruelty and innocence, intimacy and distance, love and harm—that, when words fail us, art gives us a way to understand.

Marc Jonathan Costello (art and design director): Marshall McLuhan’s decisive treatise on media has a long tail. Published in 1967, The Medium is the Massage has its Cold War anchors, but it still feels like it could have dropped on the eve of 2024. The book anticipates the seismic change brought on by our digital age—centering on mediated life, but ultimately discussing cybernetics and computing as well. The strategic misspelling of “message,” functioned within the new era McLuhan was theorizing. The misspelling gave the book a decisive something “off,” and operated to psychically fill the book with meaning, giving it a memetic quality. (Charli XCX is cashing in on precisely this memetic effect, using intentionally distorted and blurred typography from a cool Type Foundry in such a way that it just looks like condensed Arial. The move is impressive, and I expect at least 70% of our core audience are enjoying Brat summer.) Quieten Fiore’s editorial design is the perfect fit for McLuhan’s text: The book feels like a zine, composed of considered graphic layouts, each simultaneously a cultural referent and clip art. The work makes use of contrast to communicate confidence in its irony, accompanied with repeating thumbnail art, and strong yet self-aware modern typography. As the title suggests, the work of the author, editor, and designer blurs thanks to the new technologies which McLuhan, Fiore, and the producer, Jerome Agel clearly demonstrate.

There’s always something eerie about seeing the cultural and technological soothsayer’s prediction from the past reflected in the present. In the section titled “your neighborhood,” we see the arrival of the global village, a term analogous with globalization: “Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all men.” Simultaneously, we see within that statement the conventional critique of social media. What is often missed is the bluntness of electric circuitry. The virtual global village lives in fiber optic cables and remote data centers, rendering affects, and assuring the smooth flow of supply chains with a complex series of zeros and ones.

In the section titled “your job,” McLuhan asks, “When this circuit learns your job, what will you do?” He’s a tad optimistic about the potential of this new regime to free labor from work. The creative industry is currently holding its breath about artificial intelligence (AI). A perverse anxiety flows across LinkedIn dot com, as well as the creative studios, mapping Soho and Dumbo. Some creative directors see the potential of AI—maybe, as McLuhan suggests, as a way to overcome being forced to “do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old,” or as a progression of the tendency of authorship to dissolve against the tide of technology. But for the rest, the stakes are more existential: Can taste really just be reduced to data points? I say that with a tinge of irony because the regime of zeros and ones already has more sinister consequences than making bad advertisements. McLuhan’s cold war foresight that “real, total war has become information war” aligns disturbingly well in our social media landscape constituted in a frictionless scroll of real and fake atrocities, customized to your silo. Likewise, algorithmically-generated kill lists in Gaza, executed by unmanned drones, show us the military version of making work at the intersection of art and technology, that McLuhan, concerned with nuclear winter, didn’t anticipate.

Perhaps McLuhan and Fiore have a debt to pay for their role in aligning counterculture to cybernetics, but their work reading the tea leaves, and ultimately acting on a collective intelligence, can’t be denied. McLuhan’s most prescient proposition is that the global village created by the market and its electronic circuits established a new figure of youth that flees its individualism, and is drawn to roles over goals or specialized jobs. He saw this in the growth of the counterculture and its rejection of a mass subject. We see the evolution of this pattern today in the rise of so many niche subcultures, driven by memetic language and attended to by parasocial relationships—each with their own evolving niche markets. Here we come full circle to our era. If we’re all just data points, it’s a losing game, and all our dystopian fears are probably true. The puke green background could be filled with whatever charli-meme generated type you want—it could be an atrocity, a scene from a porn, or your favorite recipe. It doesn’t matter. However, if we can see in McLuhan’s predictions what is yet incomplete—the potential of cracking open the tools of culture, of technology, and the self—then maybe we can see what is possible when we all have our fingers on the pulse.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The dreadful spectacle that is American politics today can be traced to many different moments in our nation’s past. Was it the ’60s and the reaction to the anti-Vietnam War movement, or perhaps the Goldwater candidacy? Was it McCarthy in the ’50s, or the isolationists and America Firsters of the ’30s and ’40s? Or should we seek the source further back still, in the Civil War era? After all, reading William Freehling’s magnificent two-volume opus on the secession crisis, The Road to Disunion, reveals that many then felt the same paranoia about federal designs on freedom that haunt us still. Or should we go even further back? If we read Freehling’s Prelude to Civil War—his history of the Nullification Crisis of 1832–1833—we have to ask how much of our system’s rot is owed to John C. Calhoun.

John Ganz’s brilliant and compelling debut, When the Clock Broke, focuses mostly on more recent precedents for the present insanity. The book centers on the early 1990s and the policies, people, and ideas that exploded into prominence during those years. Some of the individuals discussed are more familiar or obvious than others; Ganz’s originality and intelligence is manifest in his ability to make us see that the cult of the Mafia boss John Gotti represented as important a cultural and even political inflection point as Rush Limbaugh, whom he also discusses. Little-known thinkers like the fascist-leaning Sam Francis and the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard are shown to be important and influential thinkers: To read Francis’s fulminations against modern culture and democracy and his advocacy of the cause of “middle-American radicals,” and Rothbard’s critique of government involvement in our lives as a form of tyranny, is to confront the politics of the modern Republican Party. Ganz gives a detailed recounting of the 1992 campaign of Ross Perot, in which an inchoate, incoherent rage at the political class found its perfect representative in a man who had no real program, demonstrated authoritarian tendencies in his professional dealings, and had nothing to boast of but a largely bogus reputation for campaigning to save POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War. Angry middle-class middle Americans needed no more than that to choose him to show their discontent.

The Gotti chapter, which also outlines the beginnings of Rudy Giuliani’s career, places the popularity of Gotti and of the fictional Corleones in a social context that explains not only their popularity, but a widespread sense of the degeneration of America. For the right, Ganz argues, “the famiglia in The Godfather stood for an earlier, more wholesome and integrated social form fighting to keep itself intact in an American culture that threatened to dissolve it.” The supposed superiority of the Mafia to the American government is demonstrated in the first scene of The Godfather, when the undertaker Bonasera turns to Don Corleone for assistance. Ganz cites the aforementioned Francis, who wrote that “America, as the Don describes it and as Bonasera has experienced it, does not behave like the Corleone family after all, and the differences between the two societies do not favor America.” The Mafia, Francis argues, is what sociologists call a gemeinschaft, a society based on honor and deference, while America is a sterile gesellschaft based on cold rationality. For the insurgent far right, the former is always to be preferred.

To speak of the degeneration of America assumes it once had a certain majesty. But America is not France; we never had a moment as sparkling as the French Revolution, or the Popular Front of 1936, or May ’68, and so its descent into political idiocy has been a steep one. Our history has played out against a backdrop of economic and racial inequality, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and boobocracy. The fall Ganz describes in When the Clock Broke, which indeed accelerated in the 1990s, was thus a fall from a height that was never more than ankle-high.

Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety—covering one parshah, or section, every week on Shabbat morning. In this moment when many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification, we’ve begun a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text’s meaning is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Korach

Faced with so many of my Jewish communities excusing or endorsing Israel’s relentless destruction of Gaza, I’ve returned again and again to an essay by the 20th-century pacifist and anarchist Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares. In “The Liberation of Hebrew Thought,” Rabbi Tamares contends that critiquing one’s community often involves a tacit moral compromise. Most of those who engage in such rebuke, he argues, are not actually prepared to sever themselves from the community in the almost inevitable event that their efforts are unsuccessful. If anything, by taking on responsibility for the collective, critics tend to reaffirm their communal ties, making them more susceptible to being “dragged along by the collective’s crooked ways.” Therefore, he cautions, rebuke is “only appropriate for radicals of great spirit, like the early Prophets. Whether or not the community turned toward them, they would never join the community.” For Rabbi Tamares, only one who has totally spiritually disconnected themselves from a community can critique it without fear of inadvertently binding themselves more deeply to its wickedness. Anyone who hasn’t reached this level of moral “independence” should invest their energy in mentally separating themselves from the collective rather than attempting to transform it.

The question of how to relate to a sinful community stands at the heart of this week’s parshah, Korach. When Korach, a rogue Levite, leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron to usurp their power, only a small band follows him at first. Soon, though, the entire Israelite people has risen up in sin. “Stand back from this community,” God tells Moses and Aaron, “that I may annihilate them in an instant!” Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, crying out, “When one member sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”

At first glance, God’s instinct to destroy the Israelites and Moses and Aaron’s plea operate according to a similar logic: The pure and impure, good and evil, can be easily separated. They simply disagree about who falls into which category. God sees the entire people, save Moses and Aaron, as wicked, while Moses and Aaron see the ringleaders of the rebellion as evil and the rest of the Israelites as blameless, if misguided. Instead of destroying the entire community, they argue that God should only destroy the ones leading the sinful uprising.

But Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, a 19th-century Hasidic master, offers a different understanding of Moses and Aaron’s response to God. When the two brothers throw themselves on the ground, this is not, he argues, merely a desperate appeal for God’s mercy. Rather, it is an act of admission that, as Rabbi Tzadok imagines them saying, “We are no better than they are.” In casting themselves down physically, Moses and Aaron symbolically affirm the fact that they too are bound up in the Israelites’ sin. To accept God’s verdict of innocence would be dishonest: They are tied to the community, and if the community has sinned, they insist that they are necessarily also implicated. This is not a devolution into moral relativism; Moses and Aaron still see Korach and his core followers as wicked and deserving of punishment. But there is no neat division between guilty and guiltless. They are not asking God to save the innocent—for there are none––but rather to spare those who are “merely” complicit, themselves included. Moses and Aaron, as Rabbi Tzadok imagines them, thus offer a model of moral accountability that runs counter to Rabbi Tamares’s vision of rebuke. In Rabbi Tzadok’s rendering, there is no position outside of the community: We are always already implicated in broader communal wrongs, so the only question is whether we work to change the communities to which we are tied. Ironically, our complicity can be the basis of guiding them toward teshuvah.

For the past nine months, I have found myself publicly framing most of my critiques of my own communities in ways that reaffirm my connections to them—leaning on my position as a rabbinical student, the fact that I spent the past two years in Jerusalem, our shared grief in the wake of October 7th, and the language of Torah. Time and again, I have insisted that I see my fate as bound up in the fate of my community, and that my critiques of Zionism and Israel’s war crimes are also motivated by concern for our collective safety. I imagine that Rabbi Tamares would insist that such critiques are a grave moral danger: By reiterating my identification with these communities, I only become more invested in them and more likely to stray from my own principles. But like Rabbi Tzadok, I’m skeptical that it’s possible to evade complicity by walling myself off. Even if I cut my material, relational, and spiritual ties to those communities, would I not still be bound to them by virtue of our shared commitment to Jewishness? And if I somehow entirely dissolved my commitment to Jewishness, would I not still be implicated in innumerable horrors as an American citizen, a participant in a violently avaricious capitalist economy, and a beneficiary of numerous structures of supremacy? Perhaps the greater risk is not of being “dragged along” by my communities’ sinfulness but of refusing to take responsibility for them. I share Rabbi Tamares’s despair: I do not know that they can be changed. But my entanglement with them at least allows me to try.

Aron Wander is rabbinical student, organizer, and writer.

Jun
28
2024

Raphael Magarik (contributing editor): At a moment of excitement about radical unionism, and since the United Auto Workers (UAW) seems to be emerging from a half-century stupor, I’ve been reading about leftist and labor movements. Last year, I read Detroit, I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, an excoriating account of Black workers rebelling against the UAW’s racism and complacency in the late sixties and early seventies. The book is remarkable for the Black Marxist tradition it chronicles, which differs considerably from the more media-friendly (and nationalist) Black Panthers; for its prophetic linking of deindustrialization and militarized policing; and for the spunk of its protagonists, as when they take over the student newspaper of Wayne State University and convert it into a radical medium.

Perhaps less famous, if only because newer, is Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge, a comprehensive and moving history of the Farm Equipment Workers union (FE)—a brilliant and brief-lived experiment in radical unionism. Though formally organized in the 1930s, the union derived its militant traditions from the deep hatred workers at International Harvester felt for their managers, and especially the McCormick family of robber-baron owners. Indeed, Gilpin’s title comes from Nelson Algren’s phrase for the subterranean resentments that lingered in Chicago after the Haymarket affair: in 1886, after Chicago police killed strikers at the McCormick reaper plant, at an otherwise peaceful labor rally, someone threw a bomb at the police; the anarchist August Spies and three of his comrades were framed for the crime and executed. The FE drew on these longstanding grievances, partly because its leadership (including the author’s father, DeWitt Gilpin) were mostly committed, if hardly doctrinaire Communists, who understood unionism as class struggle.

In its brief institutional existence, the FE’s militant striking exacted remarkable concessions from International Harvester: contracts with good wages, an impressive system of shop-stewards who addressed workplace grievances, and all without making many concessions on the union’s right to strike. Moreover, as early as the 1940s, the Communist organizers insisted on racial equality within the union: this having Black union leaders, bargaining for Black workers’ interests, and, in the case of the Louisville local, even making daring attempts to integrate public parks and hotels.Sadly, the FE was crushed in the anti-Communist repression of the late forties and early fifties—targeted for “raids” by Walter Reuther’s much larger, much less radical UAW. The union was eventually summoned before the House Un-American Committee and forced to testify as they were waging a 1952 strike, during which they faced an ugly, falsified murder charge against one of their Black leaders in Chicago. By the 1950s, they had given in to Reuther and were folded into the UAW, where staff organizers were permitted to hold their positions so long as they renounced their links to the party, and the the tradition of unremitting war against the boss gave way to a top-down, liberal, and bureaucratic union.

The Long Deep Grudge ends on a plangent note: even in the fifties, IH was starting to close its Midwest plants to move to cheaper and less unionized locales. By the seventies, the liberal UAW’s dream of shared prosperity gave way to a long, slow series of union concessions, and the mismanaged International Harvester was sold off to private equity as part of the long dismantling of American industry. Despite this bitter ending, the book is nonetheless a delightful read. Gilpin thoroughly revised her decades-old dissertation into zippy, narrative history, rich with colorful characters. By writing labor history as a tense drama of class struggles, Gilpin lets us feel the power and excitement of radical ideas. And most importantly, she shows how the disciplined, Communist thinking of the FE’s core leadership and a more diffuse, anti-authoritarian anarchism that suffused the base delivered material victories for workers.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Across her lengthy career, the great French director Catherine Breillat has had one great theme: sex. While cinematic depictions of sex have usually focused on men’s experiences, Breillat is unflinching in her portrayal of the act—and the relationships around it—from the woman’s point of view. The ironic title of her 2002 film Sex Is Comedy fits precisely nothing in her catalog, which spans five decades. Her approach is more fittingly summarized by the title of her 2004 film Anatomy of Hell, in which she underlined both the centrality of sex and her refusal to prettify it by giving the lead male role to a porn star, Rocco Siffredi. Sex in Breillat’s work is sometimes ugly and clumsy, as we see in her early films about young women entering the sexual fray like 36 Fillette (1988), and even more so in more recent work like Fat Girl (2001). After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 2004, Breillat was sidelined for several years; during her recovery she was victimized by a con man, an experience that became her 2013 film Abuse of Weakness. Her weakened state has slowed down her production. But in Last Summer, her first film in a decade, Breillat’s vision has not in any way softened.

Anne, played by the radiant Léa Drucker, is a successful lawyer married to a successful businessman, living in a palatial home with their two adopted daughters. The husband’s troubled teenage son, Théo, moves in with them; he’s a typically hostile adolescent who is also—not incidentally—quite handsome, in a rather bedraggled way. This being a Breillat film, we know what to expect: The teenager and the woman twice his age soon move from hostility to an affair. Breillat understands her characters and their motivations perfectly. In addition to Théo’s unsurprising attraction to the beautiful Anne, he hates his father, so what better way to strike out at him than sleeping with his wife? And while Anne loves her husband, the affair offers a respite from a life that has come to bore her. The morality of it all never enters into anyone’s considerations. The play of these various elements is skillfully executed, and the way Breillat represents the headlong nature of their affair—as well as its conversion into anger and hatred and then back again—is both troubling and natural.

The film is full of perfect Breillat moments, exemplary of what makes her and her films so extraordinary. The first time the couple has sex, for instance, the camera focuses on Théo’s face and its contortions; this is sex from the woman’s point of view. When we see them together the second time, the camera is in an extreme closeup on Anne—but it’s not from the man’s point of view. Rather, it shows the woman taking pleasure in her own pleasure.

Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): Stage lore has long maintained that all theaters are haunted by the spirits of deceased performers. They come out and play to empty houses in the wee hours by the glow of the “ghost light”—a single-bulb floor lamp left on for them in theaters all night. (A duller interpretation insists these lights are there to prevent folks from tripping on the scenery.) In my adolescent stage-struck, Hebrew-school years, I conflated the ghost light with the ner tamid, the eternal flame that hangs above the Torah ark in synagogues across the world. To me, both represented spiritual connection with my far-flung peoples—past, present, and future.

The performance artist/comedian/songwriter Morgan Bassichis made that connection flesh in their poignant and hilarious show, Can I Be Frank?, which channels, claims, frames, and honors the performance artist/comedian/songwriter Frank Maya, who died of AIDS in August 1995 at age 45. Best known as the first out gay comic to have a half-hour special on Comedy Central, and for his chill responses to cringey questions about “homosexuals” on The Dick Cavett Show in 1991, Maya fronted a band, performed streamy “rants” and comic bits in mainstream gigs and in downtown spaces like Dixon Place, PS122, the Kitchen, and the very stage at La MaMa where Bassichis just conjured him. I saw Maya–and so many artists lost to AIDS, who also haunt these venues–perform there decades ago. Ever since, I have been scampishly quoting his joke about Anne Frank–which I won’t spoil here–and was delighted that Bassichis landed it, and that an audience still guffaws at its truthy irreverence.

Bassichis opens his show with one of Maya’s rants on the reverence owed to the dead, but stops and starts over several times, cutting in to offer commentary, some of which purposely misses the point, in a droll demonstration of both the necessity and impossibility of summoning up one’s ancestors. In presenting some of Maya’s material, refashioning his routines, and performing a couple of his songs alongside their own, Bassichis exposes the distance between Maya’s world and today’s, and tenderly builds a queer bridge across them.

I hadn’t remembered that so much of Maya’s material was about death, ghosts, afterlives—maybe because everything was about death in those terrible times. I did remember how much was about sex, an aspect Bassichis also grabs onto. How inspiring, they suggest, that even as ACT UP was lying down in the streets to protest the state’s murderous indifference to AIDS, Maya was ranting about a guy too tired to have sex with him or joking that if it hadn’t been for his scout leader “I wouldn’t have had sex till I was 16.” Insisting on life’s lusts and joys–everyone, everywhere, even in the direst circumstances—Bassichis shows, is what keeps the lights on. Bassichis played a handful of sold-out performances earlier this month, but keep an eye out: I can’t imagine they won’t land a longer run somewhere soon.


***

Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety—covering one parshah, or section, every week on Shabbat morning. In this moment when many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification, we’ve begun a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text’s meaning is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Shelach

Over the past nine months, I have returned again and again to a phone conversation I had with my mother-in-law in May 2021, amid a major Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. Sitting in Jerusalem, I couldn’t stop thinking about the rising death toll, or how the violence unleashed against the growing protest movement in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah was spreading across the country. When my mother-in-law—who left northern Israel for New England in the late 1990s—asked how I was doing, I responded with despair. “Well, of course,” she replied, “it’s a land that devours its inhabitants.”

She was quoting a verse that appears in this week’s parshah, Shelach. When Moses sends 12 spies from the desert to scout the Land of Israel, they return in unanimous agreement that the land is “flowing with milk and honey,” just as God promised. But ten of the spies caution against entering the region, regaling the terrified Israelites with tales of the giants who dwell in this “land that devours its inhabitants.” The people, doubting God’s plan for them, propose a return to Egypt. Enraged by the spies’ report and the Israelites’ lack of faith, God threatens to wipe out the entire people and start over with a new nation descended from Moses alone. Only after Moses begs for mercy does God curtail the punishment, proclaiming that while this generation will die in the desert, their children will enter “the land that you have rejected.” The traditional commentators see the ten spies’ actions as sinful, and even as the cause of future devastation. The Mishnah, for example, claims that the spies “have no share in the World to Come.” And according to the Talmud, the day the spies returned to the camp was the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, or Tisha B’av, a date that marks the destruction of both Temples, along with other calamities. In fact, as one midrash relates, it was at the very moment that the spies delivered their report that the Temple’s fate was sealed and the Jewish people doomed to exile.

But elsewhere in the Talmud, the sinning spies appear in a quite different light. We’re told that a minyan—the quorum of Jews necessary to pray collectively and say specific blessings—requires ten people because this was the number of the naysaying spies. Why would our model of communal assembly, for gathering together to sanctify God’s name, derive from these spies of ill repute, from a bitter communal rift? Notably, the ten spies who sought to dissuade the people from entering the Land agree with the other two about the factual report; they simply disagree about the inevitability of devastation. Perhaps, our tradition is trying to tell us, being in a collective requires being able to look catastrophe in the eye. This suggests that the ten spies went wrong not in their grim assessment of the nature of the Land, but in their desire to turn back from it rather than confront its calamity. Indeed, the Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, links the phrase “a land that devours its inhabitants” to a description of God in the book of Devarim as “a devouring fire.” Despite this devouring quality, the Sefat Emet notes, we are still told to cleave to God.

In this respect, the spies may only be a partial model. Yet they still show us that holy assemblies are formed in relation to cataclysm and communal schism. Our task, it seems, is to be resolute where they wavered—to turn fully toward the current catastrophe and the work of ending it. Like the generation of the spies, we may not be the ones who reach the Promised Land. But by joining together in this minyan of dissent, our wandering can begin to chart a way there.

Maya Rosen is the Israel/​Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.

Jun
21
2024

Josh Lambert (contributing writer): About 15 years ago, when I was researching my book on Jews and obscenity law in the United States, a kind historian told me about a Polish Jewish immigrant to the US, Chava Zlotchever, who changed her name to Eve Adams, ran a lesbian tea house in Greenwich Village, privately published a book called Lesbian Love in 1925, was entrapped by the New York police and deported to Europe, and was finally murdered at Auschwitz. I spent a decade searching for Adams’ book, scouring archives and contacting rare book dealers, and the only copy anyone had heard of was the one at Yale that had gone missing in the 1990s. I gave up hope. Then, miraculously, the historian Jonathan Ned Katz convinced a woman in Albany, who had discovered a copy of Lesbian Love in her apartment building, to share it. As an appendix to his excellent book on Adams, Katz published the complete text of Lesbian Love in 2021.

I’ve been thinking about this story recently because it helps to explain why I am so very excited about Hannah Levene’s debut novel, Greasepaint, a quasi-historical, experimental novel about lesbian bars in midcentury New York. To my utter delight, Levene’s fiction reads like what we might have gotten if Eve Adams had lived in New York into the 1950s, staying involved in the lesbian bar scene while getting into jazz and experimental poetry, maybe even started slicking her hair back and wearing white t-shirts. The novel wheels wildly through the lives of the people she could have met, including the daughter of a Yiddish poet, a “butch belle juive,” and many “Jews whose anarchism was like a layer of grease on them, like it’d come from cooking.” (Levene has said, about her research, “I couldn’t see the difference between butch and Yiddish anarchist after a while.”) Embracing these characters, Greasepaint worries very little about plot or how to get from one scene to another, and much more about folks making music, eating food, and talking, talking, talking.

It would be easy to situate Levene’s book within a recent wave of LGBTQ+ fiction that recovers and reimagines the lives of queer Jews in a variety of historical settings. But unlike many other historical fantasias of queer yiddishkayt, Greasepaint doesn’t feel creakily nostalgic, but rather deeply and sweetly alive. As Agnes Borinsky noted in the latest issue of The Anarchist Review of Books, Levene understands that “it is in the shuffling, fumbling, unfolding tenderness and conversations that accompany any larger political project that some version of a new world gets built.” With her winning characters and her electric, inconsistently punctuated prose style, Levene offers hope that such new worlds might still be possible for us, and redresses, a little, what we’ve lost in centuries of brutal suppression of writers like Adams.

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I recommend the documentary film Queen of the Deuce, a modest, engrossing portrait of the larger-than-life, chain-smoking, hard-gambling, deal-making Chelly Wilson, who owned most of the porno theaters on 42nd St.—known as “the Deuce”—during its heyday in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Wilson, born Rachel Serrero in the Greek port city of Salonika, escaped to New York City before the Jews were deported to death camps, leaving her young children in hiding with gentile neighbors. Her rags-to-riches story starts with selling chestnuts and ends with a porn empire that sees the industry through its explosion—from “soft core” to “beaver” to “beaver and pickle” to “hard core.” The business is not altogether legal—Wilson’s daughter, Bondi, who works in distributing their films, is eventually arrested on felony obscenity charges. But Wilson, a twice-married lesbian who lived with her lovers but kept her husbands in the family, remains uncowed and unapologetic, holding court from her packed apartment above one of her theaters.

My grandparents were also Saloniki; they did not get out and were deported to Auschwitz. I always wondered, more so after their deaths, if we were reducing them to their tragedy, if we forced them to wear their “survivorship” like a forever hospital gown. It is for this reason that I appreciated the treatment of the Holocaust in the filmmaker’s telling of Wilson’s story—a significant part, but not the whole; neither the beginning, nor the end. In Queen of the Deuce, Wilson gets to be all of who she was.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Green Border, the new film by the veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland, wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s a cri de coeur and a call to action in the face of European indifference to the fate of the refugees who attempt to immigrate to the continent, a flight that has cost 30,000 people their lives since 2014. A film with so clear a message is bound to be flawed, weighed down by an excess of good sentiments—and to be sure, at almost two and a half hours, Green Border goes on a tad too long. But its excesses are almost justified by the scale and severity of the horrors—the baseness, cowardice, and racism—of the crisis. The film is set largely at the border between Belarus and Poland in 2021, when the vicious governments of both countries were treating refugees like ping pong balls, expelling them back and forth across the border; Belarus, certain that Poland and its ruling far right Law and Justice Party would refuse to respect European Union laws governing the acceptance of asylum seekers, had the express aim of embarrassing the EU. The callousness of both countries—and specifically of their border forces—is represented precisely as it played out then and continues to this day. We see the refugees beaten, robbed, and abused as they wait on one side of the border to be sent to the other, only to be beaten, robbed, and abused.

The film unfurls in chapters. We first travel with a group of mainly Syrian refugees as they fly into Minsk and are transported to the border, where they expect to cross into the freedom of Europe. But they have no such luck, and every glimmer of hope is crushed almost as soon as it appears. Holland then switches focus to Janek, a border guard whose wife is expecting a baby, and who clearly has no stomach for the dirty work he’s been given. And yet he carries it out all the same. We then meet a group of good-hearted Polish activists attempting to assist the refugees while respecting the laws not respected by the government. Their moral and strategic dilemmas are perhaps the strongest element of Green Border: Doing what’s legal might save a life here and there; breaking the law might do more, but could jeopardize everything. Just when the film seems to have gone on too long, Holland finds a striking new way to express the brutality and hypocrisy of what we’ve seen: The same Poles who could find no room in their hearts or their country for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or Africa welcome 2 million Ukrainians in 2023.

Green Border is a very European film. But any American viewing it can only think of the cruelty of ICE during the Trump regime—much of which has remained with Biden’s own border restrictions, and will surely worsen should the felon-candidate be elected again. So far we haven’t reacted much better than most Poles.

***

Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety—covering one parshah, or section, every week on Shabbat morning. In this moment when many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification, we’ve begun a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text’s meaning is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Behaalotecha

This week’s parshah begins with God’s instructions regarding the menorah that stood in the biblical Tabernacle: “When you light the lamps,” God commands Moses to tell his brother Aaron, the High Priest, “the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.” The parshah is named after the word for “when you light”—“behaalotecha”—which literally means “when you raise up.” This may seem like a surprising term to describe the kindling of the menorah, suggesting that this act is an aspirational endeavor. The menorah’s flames are not simply lit; rather, they must be raised up and nurtured, encouraged to ignite and shine.

A subsequent verse implies that while lighting the menorah is less than straightforward, making it was especially challenging: “The menorah was made of beaten gold, from its base to its flowers, it was beaten.” A midrash recasts the repeated word “mikshah” (“beaten”) as “mah kashah” (“how difficult”), thus rereading the verse as proclaiming: “How difficult was the making of the golden menorah, from its base to its flowers, how difficult!”

Was this difficulty merely technical, or might it point to a weightier and more existential problem, in which we too are implicated? Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, writes that the menorah represents “the Jewish collective.” Just as the menorah is formed through a hammer beating the gold “so that the higher becomes lower and the lower becomes higher, and all is intermixed, the higher in the lower and the lower in the higher, likewise, all Jews are intermixed, meaning interdependent on one another.” Yet this interdependence, Rabbi Shneur Zalman admits, is not uncomplicated. In the exilic and unredeemed present, he notes, it remains compromised by impurities. Only in the messianic future will the Jewish people be, as the prophet Zechariah sees in a vision, “a menorah entirely of gold.”

Indeed, the Jewish collective is not monolithic, especially when considered in all its historical diversity. To participate in this community means embracing a mutuality that might feel ambiguous and uncomfortable. This unease feels particularly acute right now: In the wake of October 7th, the political and cultural lines along which Jewish identities are currently construed have morphed from cracks into chasms. We find ourselves disagreeing with fellow Jews with a vehemence that might seem insurmountable. To face these fissures is to experience the pain of living in a yet unredeemed world, where we are always complicit in our own exile, the exile of others, and even the exile of God.

The menorah as a symbol of the Jewish collective suggests a way to think through this pain. Though hammered from a single block of gold, its seven branches extend in opposing directions and are adorned with assorted cups, knobs, and flowers. Difference and collectivity, in other words, are maintained in difficult tension. To belong to the Jewish collective is to be existentially enmeshed with Jews of all persuasions, in the past, present, and future. But it doesn’t mean being in agreement with them, even when it comes to principles that we might regard as fundamental. On the contrary, the critical value of collectivity lies in the sharp differences it forces us to confront. As individuals, we can too easily persuade ourselves that righteousness is already ours. As part of a collective—diverse, divided, and yet unfinished—we can better see how righteousness remains our unrealized aspiration.

But Jewish collectivity is not simply a check against the hubris of the individual. Rabbi Shneur Zalman adds that the menorah also represents the entirety of the Torah and its mitzvot, citing the book of Proverbs: “the lamp is the mitzvah, and the light is the Torah.” This indicates that Jewish collectivity is constructed through participation in Judaism’s transhistorical tradition of learning and practice, which has hosted innumerable debates on the most significant matters. Its framework might not provide resolution, but it encompasses and exceeds the irreducibilities of our current disagreements, situating us in the eternal project of messianic aspiration whose flames we are always enjoined to “raise up.”

Eli Rubin is a contributing editor at Chabad​.org and the author of Kabbalah and the Rupture of Modernity: An Existential History of Chabad Hasidism, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.

Jun
14
2024

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): On the street, my husband found Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diaryassembled from notes he began taking the day after his mother’s death in October 1977—and he brought it home to me, a chronicle of grief to place alongside my own. Barthes hand wrote on slips of typing paper cut into quarters and piled on his desk; the dated entries are short, often devastating. “This morning, thought continually of maman. Nauseous sadness. Nausea of the Irremediable.” Simple entries like this one sit alongside more abstract attempts to capture the terrible, ineluctable feeling: “What affects me most powerfully: mourning in layers—a kind of sclerosis. [Which means: no depth. Layers of surface—or rather, each layer: a totality. Units.]” Yet Barthes soon rejects the word “mourning.” “Too psychoanalytic,” he writes. “I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.” I recognize from my own diary the selection of a simple, personal metaphor to signal the recurrence of acute emotion. For Barthes, it is a “stone (around my neck, deep inside me).” For me, it is a well. “I am in the well,” I write, again and again, a shorthand, a marker.

In the weeks after my father died, I was terrified by my inability to conjure him. It was as though he had been flattened like paper, cut into a million pieces and scattered to the wind. Flesh was the whole of reality; it was all or nothing. I see myself in Barthes who, within a week of his mother’s death, is unable to hear her voice, “the very texture of memory . . . like a localized deafness.” But within a few months, she returns to him. In watching a film, he notices a lampshade similar to ones that she made of batik, and “all of her leaped before my eyes.” Indeed, five months in, I can hear my father again. I can almost speak with him. Sometimes it is too much, and I have to leave the bar or the party early. To capture this sensation, Barthes—eight months into his grief—writes in his own hand an excerpt from a letter that Marcel Proust wrote to a grieving friend in 1907. I, in turn, copy it into my own journal:

“Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you would not fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire place, beside you. At the present time, this is not yet possible. Let yourself be inert, wait till the incomprehensible power . . . that has broken you restores you a little, I say a little, for henceforth you will always keep something broken about you. Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more.”

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In 1934, H.G. Wells published his two-volume Experiment in Autobiography, an examination of his own life that takes over 800 detailed pages to get the job done. Novelist Jill Ciment has now written two memoirs—Half a Life (1996) and the newly published Consent—that, in barely 400 pages combined, constitute the most daring experiment in the genre I’ve ever read.

Half a Life tells the story of her family and her efforts to free herself from them—especially her father, a man so odious that he almost defies belief—as she finds her own way as an artist. This journey led to a disastrous move from California to New York, where she lived in a squat and was forced to work in a photo studio where she posed nude. But the book is also the story of her meeting and affair with Arnold Mesches, her art teacher in California. When they met, he was 47 and she 16; when they began having sex, she was only 17. (She calls it a May-December romance, but in this case April-December seems more appropriate.) Shortly thereafter, Mesches left his wife for her, and they soon married. When that book appeared, they had lived together for more than two decades, and they remained married until his death in 2016, at the age of 93.

In her new memoir, Ciment boldly returns to the story she had told positively, which she now views with new eyes formed by a new era. There’s no doubt that the couple had a happy life together, but huge questions hang over it. “Does a story’s ending excuse its beginning?” she asks in Consent. “Does a kiss in one moment mean something else entirely five decades later? Can a love that begins with such an asymmetrical balance of power ever right itself?” In 1996, she painted their relations with a certain glow; she now admits that the whole thing was more than slightly off. Consent rigorously reexamines the beginning of their relationship and her portrayal of it, considering not only ethical questions but the basic details of her experience. She writes, for instance, that the way she described their initial lovemaking hid the disgust she felt for her lover’s flabby, middle-aged physique. She also revises Half a Life’s account of their first kiss, writing that it was he rather than she who initiated it. (This remained in dispute between them throughout the decades they were together.)

Reading the two memoirs consecutively—so the feelings evoked by the first volume are fresh and then immediately challenged in the second—was one of the most thrilling and unsettling reading experiences I’ve had since I started reading 66 years ago, when I was six. These books are a brilliant proof that there is no mystery greater than the internal world of a couple, and a moving testament to the instability of memory and self-knowledge. As Climent writes in Consent of her earlier book: “I had intended to write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but I could not find it, or else I found it everywhere.”

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Lately at bedtime, my twin toddlers ask me to sing them the same song over and over; their new favorite is what they call “Back of Me” (Guided By Voices’ “Game of Pricks,” a perfect pop song). Sometimes I miss the days when they would snuggle up happily for whatever series of tunes I’d select from the repertoire of those I have memorized, entertaining myself with the variety as they began to drift off. But there’s also something powerful in the repetition, as I try to inhabit and express the same words and melody differently with each iteration.

A new record by Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham), Tyler Trotter, and Nathan Salsburg—a Jewish Currents contributor and the musician behind the song that opens and closes our podcast—draws from this same experience. Hear the Children Sing the Evidence was inspired by Salsburg’s practice of soothing his daughter to sleep with a rendition of “The Evidence” by the post-punk band Lungfish, repeated for as long as an hour. The album features this song and another Lungfish track, “Hear the Children Sing,” each performed enough times to fill one side of a vinyl record. The experiment beautifully weds the gentle intimacy of a lullaby—a communion between parent and child at the precipice of sleep—with the lively camaraderie of a jam session. The strict, ritualistic structure allows the songs to open up and transform. In a recent interview about the project with Aquarium Drunkard, Oldham explains, “I know I’m going to be strict with the lyrics. I’m not going to improvise . . . If my mind is changing and my perspective is changing about what I’m saying, I always have to go back and find it in the lyrics.” The songs’ abstract, ambiguous poetry perfectly serves this purpose. As the repetitions unfold, they begin to seem like commentaries on the recursive process itself: “What’s taking form / is not a lifetime . . . What’s circling / is not circular . . . What’s coming into view / is not old or new.”

***

Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety—covering one parshah, or section, every week on Shabbat morning. In this moment when many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification, we’ve begun a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text’s meaning is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Naso

Anti-Jewish Christian theologians often claim that Judaism is based on a casuistic legalism that demands rote ritual performance, leaving no room for love. But in this week’s parshah, Naso, we find that law and love are not opposing categories, but can coexist within ritual practice.

Naso contains instructions for the priestly benediction with which Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons are commanded to bless the Israelites. The blessing reads: “May the Lord bless you, and keep you; May the Lord make God’s face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up God’s face to you, and give you peace.” Unlike most rituals performed by the priestly class in ancient Israelite worship, which have not taken place since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, this benediction is still practiced in many traditional Jewish communities today by those considered to be descendants of the biblical priests. With its prescribed Hebrew liturgy and legal requirements dictating when and by whom it is recited, it might seem that this blessing is one of the rote rituals maligned as loveless legalism. But the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mysticism, insists in a comment on this week’s parshah, “a priest who does not love the people or is not loved by the people should not raise his hands to bless them.” This stipulation is echoed in the formula the priests recite before offering their benediction, thanking God for “commanding [them] to bless God’s nation with love.”

The words “with love” at the end of the blessing could be read as a description of the benediction’s content, meaning that love is what the priests are bestowing upon the people. But the 20th-century Talmudist and theologian Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik interprets the phrase as describing the manner in which the priests must offer their blessing. “Love is in fact a stated pre-condition for the fulfillment of this commandment,” he writes; in other words, love is a mandated requirement of this legal observance. Here love and law are not opposed but intertwined.

Rabbinic commentators also understand the physical choreography with which the priests are required to perform this ritual as an expression of love. According to later commentators, the priests should offer this benediction while spreading their fingers in a particular gesture (the basis for Star Trek’s Vulcan salute), which a midrash reads as analogous to a passage in the Song of Songs: “My lover stands behind the wall, gazing through the window, peering through the lattice.” The priests’ spread fingers, the midrash explains, form a lattice through which God gazes lovingly at humanity. Perhaps this lattice, a kind of physical scaffolding, is analogous to the legal structures of ritual practice that allow love to exist tangibly, instead of as a spiritual abstraction. Even this seemingly arcane and arbitrary rite is not merely a legalistic requirement but is also the embodiment—in this case, quite literally—of divine love.

In the priestly benediction, we thus find a law that can only be fulfilled through love and a love that can only be enacted through the minutiae of legal observance. Through this example, our parshah reminds us that obligations are unique opportunities to express love. This is true not only of rituals that demonstrate care in obvious ways—like the traditional Hebrew formulation one says to mourners, stating a hope that they find comfort—but also of much more mundane duties, even (and sometimes especially) when they are tedious and seemingly arbitrary: When I put away clean dishes in the precise patterns that my partner prefers, even though it feels illogical to me, I can understand the activity of placing mugs in the cabinet just so as an embodiment of the love I feel. Repeated consistently, these minor, methodical acts can become a grand architecture of intimate devotion.

Daniel Kraft is a writer, translator, and educator living in Richmond, Virginia.

1 2 3 4 5