Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Before 2020, I went to see live music as often as possible. When the pandemic arrived, canceling tours and shutting down venues, it resulted in the longest stretch I’ve spent away from shows since I was 14. After catching two concerts in late 2021—when widespread vaccine availability made packing into a room of strangers feel reasonable again—I went back into lockdown at the beginning of 2022, with the premature arrival of my twin sons. Since then, I’ve settled for the occasional livestream, biding my time until I could return to the real thing.
I finally ventured out to a show on Monday night, when I caught Sunset Rubdown at the Fine Line in my home city of Minneapolis. One of my favorite bands since high school, Sunset Rubdown began in 2005 as the solo project of Spencer Krug, one of the two main singers and songwriters in Montreal indie rock mainstays Wolf Parade—he’s the one with the warbling voice you’ll hear leading songs like “I’ll Believe in Anything” and “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son.” Krug, along with Jordan Robson-Cramer, Michael Doerksen, and Camilla Wynne Ingr (of the underappreciated indie pop band Pony Up!) made three excellent albums of increasingly elaborate art rock, marked by intricate, often bombastic compositions and Krug’s dense, surreal lyrics. The group disbanded unceremoniously in 2009, before I ever got a chance to see them, and reunited at the end of last year. (Fittingly for a band whose songs often traverse mystical terrain, Krug says the reunion was inspired by a dream.)
After more than a decade of hoping I’d have this opportunity and years of nearly no live music, my expectations were high, but the show exceeded them. The sound was pristine and the performers’ enthusiasm clear as they rocketed through a set list of tracks that spanned their brief catalog, from the anthemic desperation of “Stadiums and Shrines II” to the manic jubilation of “The Mending of the Gown.” The audience’s energy matched the band’s, as attendees bounced and swayed, mouthing or shouting along with Krug’s knotty lyric; it seemed that nearly everyone else had also been eagerly anticipating this day. Standing in the crowd, catching glimpses of those around me, I had the strange sense that something latent had been activated in all these neighbors I’d never met—that this band’s return from the dead had assembled a community that had been there all along, waiting.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): A few weeks ago—seemingly out of nowhere—I had the thought, “I’d love to get high and watch Fantasia.” I am an infrequent smoker, and I had not seen the animated classic since I was a kid, but I remembered loving it. Fantasia is a series of seven orchestral arrangements accompanied by cartoon vignettes, and the only dialogue in the film comes in between scenes, when the silhouette of a conductor, flanked by his orchestra, earnestly provides context for each piece in the program. I had not realized that it was first released in 1940, and that it was Disney’s third-ever animated feature (Snow White and Pinocchio were the first and second). Rewatching it now, it feels clear that Fantasia was created during a special, early period of experimentation in commercial studio animation. It’s artwork created for art’s sake, brought into the world simply because a group of people thought it would be beautiful.
I gathered a small group of friends to watch the movie last weekend. If you have seen Fantasia before and are planning a rewatch, I can’t recommend enough doing it with people who have never seen the film! It was fun to witness their joy at the moving images on the screen. One friend had been scared of it as a child, citing the violence of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the canonical vignette where Mickey Mouse, as the titular apprentice, brings a broomstick to life to help him fill a well—only for everything to go terribly awry. Truthfully, that’s my least favorite piece of the bunch; the logic of the story feels more disciplinary than compassionate. The group also agreed that it might have been more enjoyable had Mickey not been the lead. (Eighty years ago, his inclusion may have been a cute or winking addition; today, his figure feels overdetermined with the power of the multi-billion dollar Disney empire.)
My fond memories of the movie largely held up, and it was interesting to revisit some of my early impressions. My absolute favorite vignette remains the penultimate “Dance of the Hours,” which features hippos who, clad in ballet flats and tutus, daintily, playfully pirouette and drowsily float on bubbles. I have an analysis now for why I love it—having to do with the intersections of fat positivity, bodily autonomy, and gender performance—but I had none of that language then; I just knew that I loved it. Similarly, the gracefulness of the fairies in “The Nutcracker Suite”—as they turn the green leaves into autumn hues and, later, light their surroundings with frost and snowflakes—is as visually stunning as I remember. However, now that I’ve migrated from the West Coast to the East, the changing leaves are no longer an abstract concept, but a referent to part of my experience of the world.
There were places, too, where the film showed its age. In a piece set in prehistoric times, the music climaxes just its characters—a set of imposing dinosaurs—die out from a series of natural disasters, including a widespread drought. It had never occurred to me, really, that there was a time before scientists understood that it was a meteor strike that catalyzed prehistoric mass extinction. In a more damning mark of its era—as one of my friends showed us, pulling up images on his phone—the original film included a caricatured Black centaur in “The Pastoral Symphony,” who serves the other (lighter-skinned or pastel hued) centaurs, as they primp and preen in preparation to meet potential mates. According to our research, she was excised from the film as of the 1969 re-release. I feel my review would be incomplete without mentioning this, and pointing out the subsequent absence of any Black representation. The centaurs’ storyline was also, unsurprisingly, completely heteronormative, but that didn’t stop my friends and I from lovingly chatting about the trans and lesbian couples we spotted among them.
Overall, it’s incredible that the film remains legible and a pleasure to watch. Next up: Fantasia 2000, the sequel produced for the 60th anniversary of its predecessor’s premier. I remember adoring the vignette set to “Rhapsody in Blue,” which includes characters colliding with each other as they traipse and skate through a bustling New York City. Now, having lived here for almost a decade, I still catch myself enchanted by the dynamism and chaos of the urban landscape. I’m looking forward to seeing what feels familiar and what resonates anew.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In 2011, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr retired from filmmaking after completing The Turin Horse, a brilliant account of the later life of the horse Friedrich Nietzsche embraced as he descended into his final madness, a film Tarr co-directed with his wife, Ágnes Hranitzky. Tarr was only 56 when he left cinema for good, and his final films stand at the heights of 21st-century cinema—among them Werckmeister Harmonies, also co-directed by Hranitzky. Originally released in 2000, the film is now showing at Lincoln Center in a newly restored version.
Like all of Tarr’s most important works, Werckmeister Harmonies was co-written by the novelist Lászlo Krasznahorkai (and is based on his book The Melancholy of Resistance). Their collaboration is perhaps the most important one between a great writer and cineaste there has ever been, except for the brief partnership between Peter Handke and Wim Wenders. In Werckmeister Harmonies—as in Tarr’s 1994 adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s classic novel Sátántangó—their visions blend perfectly. Tarr’s cinematic aesthetic is a correlative of Krasznahorkai’s literary one, and vice versa; they are artistic twins separated at birth. Both men are preoccupied with the brutal conditions of the Hungarian countryside and those who inhabit it, and Krasznahorkai’s bleak, winding prose matches Tarr’s visual style—his long takes, the stark chiaroscuro of black-and-white cinematography—as each portrays a desperate, degrading world.
In Werckmeister Harmonies, the main character, János, is a kind of naïf, a man who lives in an unnamed town in which he is clearly not accepted by those around him. His uncle György, the local intellectual, is a composer obsessed with the horrors inflicted on humanity by the imperfection of the musical scale. A circus arrives, displaying a preserved whale, which enthralls János and no one else. While he waits to be the first to visit the specimen, hostile locals—followers of another member of the circus, The Prince—fill the square, and we soon learn that they are bent on the destruction of their town.
The ignorant masses’ blind following of ignoble leaders is a theme dear to Krasznahorkai, and Tarr deepens the darkness of his own vision to accommodate it: Joyless, intoxicated revels feature prominently in his films, but here the scale is expanded from the usual crowd of local drunks at a bar. The centerpiece of the film is a lengthy shot of the residents marching together to sack the town, and as the camera moves along with the crowd, Tarr portrays them as a body acting as one, with their cries adding to the terror they inspire. (Sound is always brilliantly manipulated in Tarr’s films.) Inexplicably, the townspeople attack the local hospital, beating up patients and destroying equipment, before returning home sheepishly, their senseless dreams fulfilled. This violent outburst drives János—the representative of decency—mad, and his uncle abandons his war on classical tuning. Goodness and thought have been vanquished.
Before you go: Our Spring issue will be arriving in mailboxes soon! We’re offering a special promotion for newsletter readers: Receive 50% off the cover price when you use the code “SPRING23” at checkout. Subscribe now to receive our award-winning magazine. You’ll receive 3 quarterly issues, and our winter gift, delivered to your door.
And Jewish Currents contributor and nightlight producer Fancy Feast is co-hosting an all-star, anything-goes, highbrow-meets-lowbrow burlesque and variety extravaganza on Sunday, June 4th at 7:30 at the Abrons Arts Center headlined by Drag Race winner Sasha Velour! The Fuck You Revue’s JEWTOPIA is co-produced by the New Jewish Culture Fellowship and the Jewish Museum of Maryland as part of “Material/Inheritance,” an exhibition of boundary-pushing, community-building contemporary Jewish art. You can buy tickets here, and if you’re in New York, you should check it out!
Joshua Leifer (contributing editor): When I first read Adam Shatz’s essay “Writers or Missionaries” in The Nation, I was a 21-year-old intern at Dissent. It was the summer of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza. The carnage wrought by the Israel Defense Forces was shocking; whole neighborhoods, like Shejaiyah, were obliterated. The activist part of me, which was still much more active at the time, demanded that I—that we—do something. Yet I was also learning to be an editor and a writer, and at a place like Dissent, that meant thinking long and hard about the meaning of political commitment and about how to be a Jewish critic of the occupation and Israel policy.
Shatz’s essay provided the language for a dilemma that I had felt but had not been able to express: “the tension between the writer, who describes things as he or she sees them, and the missionary or the advocate, who describes things as he or she wishes they might be under the influence of a party, movement, or cause.” At the time, only nine months removed from a year of living in Israel, I did feel myself part of a movement—the Jewish anti-occupation movement. I was only beginning to understand, though, that if I wanted to be a journalist or a writer, I could not write firstly or primarily as a partisan: reality, eventually, would prove too complicated for that.
Published earlier this month, Shatz’s new book, a collection of pieces, shares the title of his 2014 essay. Shatz is a master of the intellectual profile—if you haven’t read his recent article in the London Review of Books on the storied counterfeiter and résistant Adolof Kaminsky, you should. Nearly all of the chapters in Writers or Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination center on thinkers, writers, and artists, and most (but not all) of them are on the left. There is, for instance, Shatz’s elegant sketch of Roland Barthes, and his heartbreaking piece on Juliano Mer-Khamis, the assassinated founder of the Jenin Freedom Theater. Israel/Palestine, France, and the scars of French imperialism in the post-colonial world—these are, roughly, the coordinates of Shatz’s subjects. I found it illuminating to read across the contexts, say, of Algeria and Israel/Palestine, and to see the divergences as well as the similarities.
Writers or Missionaries is a study of political writing as expressed within the unit of a human life—not just of Shatz’s subjects, of Shatz’s own. It is indispensable for anyone trying to think seriously about the ethical demands of writing and journalism against the backdrop of dark and even catastrophic times.
Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): One of the perks of working at a magazine is that you can request copies of as-yet-unpublished books. The Late Americans, by Brandon Taylor—whose debut, Real Life, about a biochemistry PhD student drowning in loneliness at a midwestern university, was one of my favorite novels of 2020—doesn’t come out until Tuesday, but I got to spend last weekend ensconced in its world. I love the way Taylor captures the charged spaces that exist between friends and lovers, showing how incommunicable needs and resentments can cohere into something almost corporal, a third body in the room. In his latest novel, the characters who form the coordinates in such a force field are mostly graduate students at the University of Iowa (where Taylor received an MFA at the famed Writers’ Workshop); they include a poet, a pianist, a painter, a group of dancers, a business student driven to quit dance by his bad tendons, and a logician and his blue-collar boyfriend, who works (to his partner’s chagrin) at a meat-processing plant. Most of the members of this loose friend group are gay men who slip in and out of romantic entanglements with one another; many are Black or biracial, navigating experiences of race that differ starkly from one another’s.
More than perhaps anything else, every character in The Last Americans wrestles with questions of money and class. Most are in the position of struggling to make ends meet while they strive to prove themselves as artists—pulling long days at a coffee shop that leave them achy by the time they hit dance class, or avoiding unfinished poems by taking extra shifts in a nursing home kitchen. (Taylor is an excellent chronicler of the body; the book’s best passages include descriptions of what the much-hated job at the meat-processing plant does to the character’s skin, to his fingernails.) A few members of the group feel conscious of having too much money relative to the rest; relationships founder on asymmetrical backgrounds or unequal abilities to cover the rent. Through this broad cast, Taylor delivers a prismatic portrait of artistic ambition refracted through 21st-century precarity. Occasionally, the crushing conditions of American late capitalism produce unexpected results: Among the best artworks created in the novel, for example, are the elliptical, enigmatic pornographic videos that one character records for paying subscribers, to free himself from reliance on his rich, imperious boyfriend.
Unlike Real Life, which tunneled deep into its emotionally isolated protagonist, The Late Americans jumps from one point-of-view to the next; rarely does more than one chapter feature the same central figure. I occasionally found this frustrating—I fell in love with some of Taylor’s creations only to barely see them again. But I also appreciated the way that the constellated form of the novel pushed subtly against the logic of scarcity that dominates the lives of its characters. No matter how alone they feel, we encounter them embedded in one another’s stories. And even in a book pervaded by lack, love and connection blossom spontaneously. (It’s worth saying that Taylor sits alongside Sally Rooney on my very short list of novelists who are good at writing sex scenes.) Characters share a surprise kiss in a grocery store that acts as an apology for a day of unkindness, or fall into bed together out of sheer wonder at managing to write a truly good poem—or at finding such a poem amid the dreck of the workshop packet. They may be exhausted by their efforts to keep a foothold in what one wryly calls the last days of the bourgeoisie, but their world is not without a sense of possibility. As the group disbands in the novel’s final pages, I too felt wistful for a little more time together.
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): Los Angeles—where I’m from, and where I have spent the past few months—is often described as an industry town, a place centrifugally organized around its best-known commodity: entertainment. I’ve always thought my childhood illustrated this well, not because my family worked “in the industry,” but because the industry was omnipresent despite the fact that they didn’t: Simply by virtue of proximity, child actors and personal assistants and set designers made regular cameos in our lives, a presence both persistently glamorous and totally banal.
This month, which began with the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) calling a strike of film and television writers, I’ve been excited to witness how powerful that omnipresence can be in the context of a labor struggle. It’s easy, outside LA, to forget where television comes from. Here, though, the Netflix building with its big red logo looms over a stretch of Sunset Boulevard, and for the past few weeks, anyone driving by—or passing the Amazon building in Culver City, the Disney headquarters in Burbank, or several other film and TV complexes—has encountered the picketing writers, who are calling for these media companies to stop shrinking writers’ rooms, whittling down the screenwriter payments known as residuals, threatening to outsource scripts to AI, and generally turning their livelihood into miserable gig work. I’ve joined the Netflix picket twice with some screenwriter friends, and every time someone honks in solidarity, which happens constantly, I’m pleasantly shocked—they like us? They really like us?
I am being somewhat appropriative when I say “we,” since I have never set foot in a writer’s room, but on several accounts, I’ve felt an easy identification with the screenwriters on the picket line. For one thing, we share a union: Most members of WGA’s East Coast branch work for publications from Good Housekeeping to Jewish Currents, but some write for TV companies like HBO. For another, the first time I arrived I was delighted to find that there was an unofficial dress code—an open shirt over a closed shirt—and that I was already following it. Picketing is exhausting, yet everyone seemed sort of high on the novelty of being outside. Finally, it is perhaps an aspirational relationship, as I would one hundred percent take a screenwriting job if anyone offered me one in the glorious future once WGA members win a fair contract. In any case, I am excited to spend more time on the line, borrowing a charmingly high-concept sign quoting Michael Scott from The Office or threatening to “spoil Succession.” When we are there it feels true that, as the chant goes, “LA is a union town.”
This week, then, in lieu of recommending a movie or TV show, I encourage you to check out what the WGA is doing to make life better for the writers creating them.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Victor S. Navasky’s brilliant history of the Hollywood blacklist, Naming Names, is still in print more than 40 years after its original 1980 publication not only because it’s a thorough history of that wretched time (which one of its victims, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, aptly called “the time of the toad”), but also because it’s a magnificently thought-provoking study of morality. Through his examination of how those involved in the Red Hunt of the decade following World War II—from the studios to writers to lawyers, unions, and Jewish organizations—Navasky demonstrates how even good intentions can be perverted to serve evil ends, how readily we can give our worst acts a positive coloration, and how fluid our notions of heroism and cowardice can be.
Navasky’s stance is clear from the start: The notion that in this time there were no “heroes or villains,” but “only victims”—the title of actor and scholar Robert Vaughn’s book on the blacklist, borrowed from a speech Trumbo gave decades after the events—is not to his taste. For Navasky, there were plenty of blameworthy perpetrators, who devised elaborate or simplistic justifications for informing on their peers, and he shows them all to have lacked any moral grounds for their actions. If they were motivated by political principle, why did they wait to attack communists until the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) called on them to do so, threatening their jobs? Many thought that by giving HUAC a finger they would prevent it from taking an arm. But all learned that in conceding something, they ceded all—not least their honor and dignity.
Naming Names tells these moral tales through the experiences—and in the voices—of both the blacklisted and the informers. With a few notable exceptions, like director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, the informers came to feel some shame for their betrayals. (Kazan and Schulberg, for their part, made art out of their excuses; their 1954 film On the Waterfront is the greatest defense of snitching ever produced.) But even among the ashamed, most viewed themselves as the ones who suffered most through ostracism, which they painted as worse than the poverty, ruined careers, exile, and even deaths of those on whom they informed.
One of the highlights of Navasky’s book is his extensive and open-minded treatment of the debate between Trumbo and screenwriter Albert Maltz—two of the Hollywood Ten, a cohort of unfriendly witnesses who were jailed for refusing to answer HUAC when asked whether they were communists. Trumbo’s “only victims” line found no favor with his former comrade. In their lengthy correspondence, Maltz put forth a position that Navasky summarizes nicely: “that it is our duty to the ‘real’ victims of the blacklist . . . to honor their martyrdom by carrying on their fight. People who commit crimes, even moral ones, must be punished, and if the punishment is merely social ostracism, then all the more reason to maintain it.”
Before you go: Our Spring issue will be arriving in mailboxes soon! We’re offering a special promotion for newsletter readers: Receive 50% off the cover price when you use the code “SPRING23” at checkout. Subscribe now to receive our award-winning magazine. You’ll receive 3 quarterly issues, and our winter gift, delivered to your door.
Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Recently, I’ve been talking to my therapist about how the coming of the summer evokes intense feelings of “fomo,” or fear of missing out. Everything outside comes into bloom, but I’m still stuck indoors doing paid work, or house work, or care work, or just catatonic after all the working. But this year, I found myself with two weeks of precious personal time right before I (re)started at Currents, just as warm days were beginning to outnumber cold ones here in Boston. “How do I make the most of this time?” I asked my therapist. And like any good mental health practitioner, she helped me problematize my desire to optimize even this period of rest, asking me to explore the origin of the imperative to craft the perfect staycation. But along the way, she also gave me a decidedly mundane piece of advice, one that ultimately helped more than all the rest: get a guidebook. After all, what better way to assure myself that I would not miss any of the “best” spots to bike, walk, hike, eat, or lounge?
As soon as she suggested it, I knew the book I would get: A People’s Guide to Greater Boston by Boston natives and urbanists Joseph Nevins, Suren Moodliar, and Eleni Macrakis. While it’s still a guidebook—it’ll give you directions to Fenway Park, the Boston Harbor, and the Revolutionary War monuments that plague the city—A People’s Guide offers a very different experience of the Boston area than your standard tourist handbook. The authors seek to look at the city “from below,” in a perspective that privileges “the desires, hopes, and struggles of those on the receiving end of unjust forms of power.” To that end, even when the guide takes you to the usual tourist haunts, it’ll help you look at those spots differently.
So when I found myself once again at Boston Common, a park in the heart of downtown Boston, I walked in knowing the struggles that had forged the space. The Common was where Quakers, witches, and criminals were executed; it was also where 45 Native Americans were killed when 17th century English settlers annexed their land. Alongside religious and racial repression, the park was a site of class policing: working people who picnicked, gambled, and beat rugs at the Common throughout the early 18th century were soon driven away by the area’s wealthier inhabitants, who wanted parks to be for civilized leisure, not the lowly processes of social reproduction. Nevertheless, the rabble did not retreat quietly—the Common remained the place they gathered to protest the high cost of bread and the profiteering of merchants, and after the French Revolution, the streets around the park witnessed the largest victory celebrations anywhere outside Europe (much to the chagrin of the city’s ruling elite).
Despite my initial misgivings, I found that seeing the city through A People’s Guide didn’t just serve to depress me and make me hate all the spots I would otherwise have enjoyed (although it did so some of that—it’s hard to pick seashells on Castle Island, a beachy peninsula in south Boston, knowing that its titular “castle” was a prison for dispossessed Native Americans who were en route to enslavement in the Caribbean). Instead, the stories in the guide served to root me in place, and give me the sense of traversing time as well as space. I read the guide’s history of each spot on the train or bus ride over, then wandered around looking for signs of that past, and read the aftermath once I left: things like, that abolitionist meeting house is now a hotel; the bookstore that printed that bestseller of its time is now an office plaza; a parking garage now stands atop the headquarters of that socialist newspaper. Some of the places my eye would have just slipped by in the present seemed to have teemed with possibility once, and that made even a walk down a standard commercial street interesting.
I was only semi-faithful to my guidebook—ultimately, there were times I just wanted to get on a bike path and fly through the soft summer breeze for 10 miles without a thought in my head. What the guidebook did, though, was make the city around that bike path a mystery to me, something to wonder about and return to rather than just zoom by, a future destination rather than just scenery. One day, I’m going to do the book’s thematic tours to unravel some of those stories. There’s the “One Percent Tour” devoted to taking you to the shittiest rich people and places around (the stock exchange, Harvard Business School, art museums full of loot); on days you’d rather not be furious, you could opt for the “Bread and Roses Tour” of working class history landmarks, or the “Malcolm and Martin Tour” of the civil rights past and present, or the “Nature Tour” where you’ll see wooded trails as well as the city’s worst polluter (Logan Airport) and its most evil agro-capitalist enterprise (United Fruit Company).
I finished my staycation as much more of a Bostonian than I had been at the start, which (to my surprise) is a change for the better. And thankfully, this is not just a resource available to Boston residents! There’s A People’s Guide to New York City, of course, and there are guides to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, and even Central Virginia. Whether you’re just visiting and want directions, or are looking to deepen your rootedness in time and place, these guidebooks are well worth a try.
Alex Kane (senior reporter): One of the key subplots in Israel’s horrifying bombing campaign in Gaza is Israeli officials’ insistence that their target is not Hamas, but rather another, smaller Palestinian militant group called Islamic Jihad. Nevertheless, in an attempt to project political and military importance, Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that is currently responsible for collecting taxes and providing services, is emphasizing that they are in fact full participants in this round of fighting, even though they don’t appear to be firing any rockets. Hamas seems to want to have it both ways—by allowing Islamic Jihad to lead the firefight, they avoid direct retaliation from Israel, and by taking credit for participating in armed struggle, they preserve their own political legitimacy as the vanguard of the Palestinian armed resistance.
To the average American Jew who only pays attention to Gaza when there’s an armed conflict, this dynamic might be bewildering. American Jewish leaders have spent years calling Hamas an antisemitic terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction. But this kind of rhetoric does absolutely nothing to further understanding of who Hamas is, the social context from which they emerged, and the political reasons for which they may be sitting out the fight right now.
To understand the full context behind why Hamas isn’t firing rockets, I recommend turning to Tareq Baconi’s 2018 book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. The book is a deeply researched chronicle of Hamas’s rise from Islamist social movement to a pioneer of armed resistance against Israel and manager of a Gaza under blockade. Well written, concise, and informed by a political commitment to justice and freedom for all, Hamas Contained provides an antidote to the American Jewish establishment’s hysterical renderings of Hamas and returns the group to the realm of politics, showing how Hamas is caught between the desire to hold on to power in Gaza and the necessity of being seen as a resistance movement. As more than two million Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer from a devastating Israeli blockade that has only entrenched Hamas’s rule while further dividing the West Bank and Gaza from each other, these are critically important dynamics to understand. Baconi’s work is one of the best ways to start getting a grasp on the complicated entanglement of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Israel, and what it means for Gaza.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): I’m a big fan of cartoons. If I’m being honest with you, I’ll admit that I spend most of my lunch breaks rewatching episodes of a handful of shows that I’ve seen dozens of times over. Of late, I’ve been enjoying The Lucas Bros. Moving Co., streaming on Prime Video. Created between 2013 and 2015 by Kenny and Keith Lucas, two Black identical twin brothers who are comedians in Brooklyn, the show follows two Black identical twin brothers who are furniture movers in Brooklyn, also named Kenny and Keith Lucas. Each episode of the show’s two seasons is only 11 minutes long, and starts off in the regular world, such as in their truck, at their friend Jerrod’s bar, or out and about in the neighborhood. Then, over the course of the story, things get increasingly more otherworldly and fantastical. For example, in one of the initial episodes, a haunted AC unit turns their apartment building into an icy tundra, and they need to find a way to turn on the furnace in the basement to melt the ice.
The animated Kenny and Keith often move in lockstep rhythm together, and they are very chill. In dangerous situations or moments where a positive outcome seems hopeless, they are still level-headed and have made peace with any outcome. Even if this may in part be because they’re stoners, it’s honestly instructive to have an example of what it could look like to remain steady and calm—and even have a laugh—in the midst of a crisis. And across twists and turns, the show always lands them gracefully on their feet.
This is far from the only TV show—or the only cartoon show—in which the majority of the characters are Black: the leads, the side characters, and the “extras” who populate the background. But for the specific joy of its style of animation, its focus on insignificant, everyday encounters, and its casual forays into the mystical, The Lucas Bros. Moving Co. is a rare find and a lovely watch.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): As I grow older and older, and believe less and less in anything possibly changing for the better, I am more and more drawn to books on the heroic period of the Comintern—or more specifically, on the men and women who devoted themselves to the Third International. These radicals, believing global revolution was imminent, devoted their lives to the communist cause, traveling wherever they were ordered, plotting and organizing, training and leading expeditions and military forces. How glorious they were in their youthful madness, compared to the draining, hopeless slog of politics today.
Christian Salmon’s The Blumkin Project: A Biographical Novel is the sweeping tale of the short but fascinating life of the Russian Jewish revolutionary Yakov Blumkin. The book—based on years of research Salmon did after being inspired by mentions of Blumkin in Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary—makes clear that Blumkin’s path was a dizzying one. He started out as a yeshiva bocher and student of the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, but by his mid-teens he had become a member of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries. At 18, after the iniquitous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, he and a comrade assassinated Germany’s ambassador to Russia. Here his life became truly bizarre: Lenin told the Germans that the Bolsheviks had executed Blumkin, but in fact they had shipped him to safety. One day, he appeared in a café in Moscow; upon seeing him, the great poet Vladimir Mayakovsky exclaimed, “Zivoi!” (“He’s alive!”)—which became Blumkin’s nickname. (He was a friend of many of Russia’s finest poets, and a mediocre one himself.)
Blumkin became a member of the Cheka—the first Soviet secret police, led by the inflexible Felix Dzerzhinsky—and during the Russian Civil War he traveled in Leon Trotsky’s armored train, serving as his aide. But even this wasn’t enough activity. He attended the first Congress of the Peoples of the East in Azerbaijan, crossing paths with American journalist John Reed, author of the classic account of the October Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, just before the latter’s death from typhus. And on a mission to Turkey in 1929, Blumkin went to the island of Prinkipo, near Istanbul, where he visited the now-banished Trotsky and agreed to deliver a message to his family. After Blumkin’s lover informed on him that same year, he became one of the first to meet his end by way of a bullet in the back of the head in the cellars of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police.
Near the book’s conclusion, Salmon explains his interest in Blumkin, offering a moving tribute and a sad diagnosis: “I know now that I was clinging to Blumkin in an era that was so unheroic, the 1980s, an era of abandonments and betrayals of socialism’s ideals. That’s why this book is also the story of a failure: that of a generation, my generation, that wanted to change the world.”
Mari Cohen (associate editor): In the stories I hear from the incarcerated writers and sources I work with, the prison guard is a ubiquitous figure: As the representative of the carceral complex who most frequently confronts prisoners, the guard’s abusive actions exemplify the arbitrary cruelty that defines incarceration. It’s a delicate task, then, to argue that the plight of the low-paid and overworked correctional officer also deserves our consideration.
The investigative journalist Eyal Press takes on such a task with care in his 2021 book Dirty Work. In an intrepidly reported study, Press argues that the task of guarding prisons, like other morally compromised occupations from meat slaughtering to oil rigging, tends to fall to America’s marginalized populations. Working class people of color with limited job prospects bear the brunt of society’s moral disapproval, while the bourgeois consume the oil, eat the chicken, and vote to build new prisons, keeping their hands clean all the while. Press effectively contrasts the position of dirty workers—who often hail from small towns where the prison, the chicken plant, the military base, or the oil rig are the primary economic engines—with that of those in comparably compromised white collar industries, like tech or finance. These white collar workers, we come to see, have the economic leeway to quit in protest of invasive surveillance or financial corruption, but even if they don’t, they’re rewarded with social status for their work, not opprobrium.
Press takes the concept of “dirty work” from the sociologist Everett Hughes, who, after an impactful trip to postwar Germany, noted in a 1948 lecture that many well-heeled members of German society had publicly disavowed the shameful work of Nazi soldiers while remaining quietly grateful that someone was on hand to take care of the “Jewish problem.” Today’s dirty work, Press argues, also has an “unconscious mandate” from society’s “good people” who prefer not to have to know too much about the unpleasant tasks carried out in their name—tasks that are “necessary to the prevailing social order, solving various ‘problems’ that many Americans want taken care of but don’t want to have to think too much about, much less handle themselves.” The dirty workers, meanwhile, are left to experience “moral injury,” a term coined to describe combat soldiers’ trauma from committing acts they believe to be deeply unjust. A fitting rejoinder to the way that such work has been shielded from public view, Press’s book shines as a feat of reporting, entering the lives of the workers with novelistic detail and drawing the reader into the reality of the ethical binds they face, not to mention the illness and trauma they suffer from their workplaces.
At times, Press’s concept of “dirty work” feels a bit broad, straining under its imprecision. To what extent can the position of an undocumented immigrant who takes a meatpacking job after fleeing her abusive stepfather be compared to that of a young intelligence worker whose idealistic motivations for abetting the “War on Terror” fall away during his time as a drone operator? Press’s book highlights both stories, and successfully describes the real suffering both have experienced due to moral injury, but Flor, the slaughterhouse worker, appears to have been far more materially constrained into her position than Chris, the college-grad drone operator—not to mention that the factory farm slaughter of chickens, while appropriately condemned by animal rights activists, is a different matter than the extrajudicial assassination of humans. The story of Heather, another drone operator who joined the military as a way of escaping her economically depressed hometown, mirrors Flor’s a bit more closely. Nonetheless, such questions only illuminate the ethical challenges of determining individual accountability for harm for structural ills. (Could we go so far to say, for example, that cops are dirty workers? Press doesn’t take up the question directly, but I think he’d say no, given their high wages and historically high social status.)
The labor journalist Alex Press (no relation), in a thoughtful review in Jacobin, makes a fair point that by focusing on the “unconscious mandate” that society gives dirty workers, Eyal Press is too vague about the specific perpetrators of injustice: powerful bosses and politicians who often don’t represent the public will. Still, his framework does provide a hopeful jumping off point for broad solidarity. The many people implicated in the day-to-day operation of violent systems might be considered potential partners in dismantling them, rather than automatic gatekeepers of the status quo. And those of us observing such work while typing comfortably on our laptops ought to consider who in the system should bear the brunt of our political energies.
Josh Lambert (contributor): Part of what it means to be an American, lately, is to be a subject of curiosity and concern for people from elsewhere. Friends in Canada and Europe often ask me how I live under the threat of gun violence or accept the loss of what they consider basic human rights. Louis-Phillippe Dalembert’s 2021 novel Milwaukee Blues, out this week in Marjolijn de Jager’s English translation, makes me feel the same way those inquiries do. Dalembert is a Haitian writer who has lived all over the world; his novel—which circles an act of police brutality against an African American man in Wisconsin, modeled explicitly on the killing of George Floyd—strikes me as his attempt to explain to a Francophone reading public what the hell has been going on here.
The novel’s primary subject is Emmett, a former college football star, father of three, and Whole Foods security guard who has been murdered by the police outside of a convenience store. (Yes, Emmett like Emmett Till: His parents, Dalmbert writes, “must have been activists.”) To tell his story, the novel shifts perspectives, chapter to chapter, from the Pakistani Muslim clerk who regrets calling the police over a counterfeit bill, to various people, white and Black, who knew Emmett as a child and in college—a teacher, friends, ex-girlfriends, a coach. These sections deliberately swing from precise observation to cliché, reflecting the way that people’s profound experiences get flattened into hollow slogans as they circulate on social media.
The last third of the book swerves in an unexpected direction, focusing on two activists—a young Haitian American woman, Marie-Hélène, and a dreadlocked white American Jew, Dan—who work together with a local religious leader to organize a march in Milwaukee in Emmett’s memory. Dalembert spends a striking amount of time on Dan: “a vegetarian like many true Rastas, and an Ashkenazi Jew,” with grandparents who were “civil rights activists” and “early members of the local NAACP” who now decry “those fascist wheeler-dealers leading Israel today.” Dan is more comfortable with radical protest actions than Marie-Hélène; when she calls him “Ogou Feray with kosher sauce,” referencing “the Vodou spirit of war,” he’s delighted: “That’s brilliant, it suits me.” The novel ends by imagining Dan and Marie-Hélène, many decades in the future, each telling the story of the march and protests they led to “their grandchildren . . . who would be human beings first before being Americans, Jews, Haitians, Blacks, Whites.”
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Two terrific political films are opening this weekend in New York, both at Lincoln Center.
Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest is as radical a film as has been released in many years. It follows revolutionary writer Pyotr Kropotkin’s 1876 visit to the anarchist watchmakers of Saint-Imier, a Swiss town in the Jura Mountains. (The title refers not to political turbulence, but to the heart of a watch, the unrest wheel.) It was among these workmen that Kropotkin first saw the benefits of mutual aid and found proof of people’s ability to organize themselves outside all relations of power and authority, and became convinced of the justice of anarchism. Schäublin’s film depicts all of this, showing the workers’ support for each other, their internationalism, and their organizations, including a collective that refuses to produce timepieces for the military.
But Unrest’s radicalism goes far beyond the doctrines expressed on screen. Borrowing a page from filmmakers like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Schäublin has made a movie in which every element is an expression of its politics. Saint-Imier had four time zones in this era, and this fact is never far from the forefront, as the film highlights the question of who controls time. Language, too, is contested; there is no dominant tongue in Unrest, which slips between French and German and Russian. The cast is made up of non-professionals, most of them friends of Schäublin, who bring their own life experiences to their roles. Even the camera placement and shot framing are political: By putting a tree in the center and the people off to the side, for instance, Schäublin demonstrates the unfreedom of most cinema. Unrest is a film about anarchism that is itself proof of anarchism’s viability.
In Manuela Martelli’s debut, Chile ’76, Augusto Pinochet’s murderous military dictatorship is three years old. If life goes on as normal for Carmen, the film’s protagonist, it’s a fragile normalcy. As the film opens, she is having paint custom blended for the redesign of her family’s summer home when paint falls on her shoe; some activity on the street has distracted her and the shop owner. While the commotion is kept from our view, it’s clearly an opponent of the regime being disappeared, as he shouts his name and ID number to all who can hear him.
Carmen—chain-smoking, well-dressed, the wife of a successful surgeon in Santiago—does charity work with her family priest, reading stories to the blind. Though she has no medical training, she has worked with the Red Cross in the past, and the priest asks her to treat a common criminal he’s sheltering who was wounded by the police. But she soon realizes that the criminal, Elias, is actually a member of the resistance. Carmen agrees to assist him in contacting his comrades, and this elegant, bourgeois grandmother is soon walking the streets of poor parts of the region, holding a loaf of bread or a lightbulb, signs to Elias’s comrades that she is carrying a message.
Chile ’76 is dominated by an atmosphere of dread. Carmen is ever on the alert, worried she is being followed—and when her car is broken into, she knows she is. And yet she continues. At the film’s end, we’re left to think that the fear engulfing Chile has finally gotten to Carmen, and that her journey out of her own world is over. Perhaps it is. But perhaps not.
Libby Lenkinski (member, JC Board of Directors): This week—the first week of the Jewish month of Iyar—always runs heavy on nationalism in Israel, with the official holidays of Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day, following in quick succession. Counter the official government calendar, many citizens of Israel—Jewish and Palestinian alike—opt to commemorate the Nakba on Israeli Independence Day. In honor of that sentiment, I wanted to recommend a new video series from the Australian Jewish website Plus61J, titled “From Their Perspective: Palestinian Citizens of Israel.”
The series was produced and directed by Ghousson Bisharat, a Palestinian citizen of Israel herself, and features some of the most insightful voices on the issues and challenges facing the community, whose families survived the Nakba but did not leave the land within ’48 borders. Part One features veteran media and policy professor Amal Jamal explaining the development of Arab politics within Israel; Part Two is a sit-down with veteran feminist activist Nabila Espanioly, who talks about social issues affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel—like housing, crime, and poverty—and their disproportionate impact on women; Part Three focuses on Dr. Amal El-sana A’ H’Jooj, author and founder of a Jewish-Arab NGO (AJEEC-NISPED), who outlines the prospects and difficulties of intercommunal solidarity in Israel; Part Four offers a glimpse into the balancing act Palestinian Israeli identity entails with journalist, filmmaker, and anchorman Rami Younis; and Part Five follows the musings of Arab hip-hop pioneer, actor, activist, and poet Tamer Nafar, who doubles down on the importance of cultural production, despite the lack of any institutional infrastructure for Arabic-language media.
As an Israeli American who works to further justice, equality, and freedom throughout Israel and the territories it controls, I know that the only way of reckoning with Israeli Independence/the Nakba is to talk about what happened in 1948 from multiple perspectives. But I also know we can’t stop there. As we see from the afterlives of South African apartheid, American slavery, and European imperialism, legally and socially entrenched systems of oppression never completely end—they shapeshift. The same is true for what is an ongoing Nakba for the Palestinian people. But if there is any hope of a positive future for Israelis, Palestinians, and both peoples’ diasporas, we have to go beyond simple recognition of contemporary injustice’s historical roots. We need a sense of what true equality would mean for those who are today disenfranchised, and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute 21% of the country’s population, here offer nuanced, painful, and complex perspectives on this system of dispossession. This series is just a taste of their reality.
I’m lucky to call some of those featured in this series friends and colleagues. Their views represent an entry point to a more profound set of ideas about equality, partnership, and the importance of addressing the past.
Daniel May (publisher): For weeks, I’ve been waiting—with an embarrassing degree of fanboy excitement—for Alisa Solomon’s review of the current production of Loraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which just moved to Broadway this week. Solomon is, to my mind, one of the great theater critics in the country, and I knew that whatever she had to say about Hansberry’s rarely-produced masterpiece would prove more insightful, informative, and moving than anything else I could read about the show, which has haunted me since I saw it a few weeks ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And Solomon does not disappoint. I sent her review to the friend with whom I saw the show, who wrote back: “This made me cry.”
If you’ve read anything about the play, you probably know that it is, as the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins put it in The New York Times, a “study of liberal self-delusion and whiteness as an existential crisis.” Solomon cites Jacobs-Jenkins’s description approvingly but notes that the play hones in on a particular kind of liberal self-delusion: namely, a Jewish one. For Solomon, Hansberry’s portrait offers a searing indictment of a personality familiar to anyone who has spent time in the world of American progressive Judaism—a person caught between confidence in their own unique capacity to transform the world, a desperate need for the recognition of that capacity, and the brutal insistence of the world to both resist that transformation and refuse that recognition. As Solomon reads it, the play is a story of what happens to such a person when those delusions fall away, and for Hansberry’s Brustein, that is both a tragic and redemptive story; as the delusions crumble, so does the man. But only when those delusions or pretenses fall away can they be replaced with the commitment to other human beings that is ultimately at the root of any struggle for justice.
Solomon is undoubtedly right about all of this, but her review also helped clarify what I found so moving about the play, which isn’t quite captured by descriptions of it as a searing indictment of white liberalism, or even more particularly white male Jewish liberalism. It is that, to be sure—Brustein’s casual misogyny and offhand racism made the Brooklyn audience around me gasp—but in her own discussion of the play, Hansberry wrote that, “the silhouette of the Western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement was an accurate symbolism of some of my closest friends, some of whom crossed each other leaping in and out, for instance, of the Communist Party. Others searched, as agonizingly, for some ultimate justifications of their lives in the abstractions flowing out of London or Paris. Still others were contorted into seeking a meaningful repudiation of all justifications of anything and had, accordingly, turned to Zen, action painting, or even just Jack Kerouac.” In her self-description, it was “the climate and mood of such intellectuals which constitute the core of a play called The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.”
The various avenues Hansberry lays out here amount to a concise account of most, if not all, of the paths that Brustein travels in the play as he struggles to align his commitments with the world in which he finds himself. But what most stands out to me in this quotation is the context: The silhouette she details is that of some of her closest friends. Brustein is a monstrously self-absorbed misogynist unaware of the status his whiteness confers. He is also brilliant, imaginative, and—above all—unwilling to live a life that does not align with his deepest commitments. That leads him to enormous naivéte and self-involvement and despair; it also provides the possibility of his redemption. What makes the play great, to my mind, is that it conveys the love, impatience, fury, and ultimately hope that Hansberry clearly had for those “closest friends.”
While the show may land with particular force for those white, male Jews raised to regard their own ideas with wonder, Hansberry is, I think, ultimately speaking to anyone that has found themselves run aground by the gulf between their sense of justice and truth and the machinations of a world that seems uninterested in either. In the play’s final lines, Hansberry has Sidney offer words that extend to the audience that has spent the last several hours watching his undoing. “Let us both weep,” he says gently. “That is the first thing: to let ourselves feel again . . . then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.”
Dana Bassett (director of finance and outreach): Basketball is great for many reasons, but one of them is that, unless you work for the NBA, it’s a great non-work topic to discuss with anyone and everyone. And because we’re deep in the playoffs, it’s all I’m talking about.
I, myself, am a lifelong Miami Heat fan. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting between my dad and my uncle and my uncle’s giant bag of giant green seeded grapes and watching Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway in the paint. When my family gathers on holidays, the Heat or the Dolphins (or college football—but never, ever the Marlins), are always playing somewhere in the background. But my interest in the Miami Heat really hit a fever pitch at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I, like so many people, became obsessed with the NBA bubble (and Anna Karenina, but that’s a different Shabbat Reading List rec altogether). I was enthralled not just by the gameplay (which many have argued was of an overall higher quality than usual) but also the minutiae, the stories, the drama. I was fascinated by who players brought with them to the bubble, how the food service worked, how the reporters had to live on site, the political outspokenness of WNBA and NBA players, group economics, the endless protocols and testing cycles, et cetera. More so than usual, the NBA was a microcosm of our society at large, with all its segmentation, hierarchy, and human intrigue. Most importantly though, it gave us (fans) something to talk about! I grew close to people who also followed the league, and the respite from all-to-common conversations about death and disease felt precious and important.
Anyway, I could go on and on and on about my personal interest in the NBA. I, like my mother, am the type of fan who is not actually enjoying themselves unless my team is holding a comfortable lead. But for the casual spectator, now is the absolute best time to get into the game. It’s the veritable World Series of basketball, our Super Bowl, if you will. It’s the NBA playoffs.
As I’m writing this, the first round is about to finish, and we have another to get through until we arrive at the conference finals, the penultimate round of the tournament. While there are a few second round matchups we could discuss, I want to highlight the impending battle between two scrappy, lovable underdogs: my beloved Miami Heat, who upset the Milwaukee Bucks (the highest seeded team in their conference) this week and what is (surprisingly) now the best team New York has to offer, the Knicks, who will meet at Madison Square Garden for the first game of their second round series this Sunday.
It’s the playoffs, so any matchup is exciting, but little is better than competing with a much-hated and long-standing rival. The Heat and the Knicks have a storied history, facing off in the playoffs four consecutive times during the 1997-2000 NBA seasons (including the infamous “leg game” during the first round of the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs. Google it.). There is even a Wikipedia page titled “Heat–Knicks rivalry.”
Couple that history with both teams’ excellent rosters, and, my friends, we have a series. Miami’s star, Jimmy Butler, scored a historic 56 points in Game 4 against the Bucks, and Knicks point guard Jaylen Brunson has been punching well above his 6-foot-2 frame, scoring over 40 points in the last two games of their first round series against the Cavaliers.
I’m afraid that this series will have a lasting impact on my friendship with various Knicks fans in my life (I have received more than a few menacing texts), but I’m sure it’ll be an exhilarating match up either way. Can’t wait to see what Spike Lee wears to the game. Heat in 5.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): When Jews and fabulous wealth are linked, it’s usually the Rothschilds and their European financial empire that come to mind. Far less known are the Sassoons, the extraordinarily prosperous Iraqi Jewish family who rose to the highest ranks of the English aristocracy. This family, sometimes called “the Rothshilds of the East,” are the subject of a fascinating exhibit at the Jewish Museum simply called The Sassoons, on display until August 13th. (I also highly recommend its catalog, written by Esther da Costa Meyer and Claudia J. Nahson, which is as sumptuous as the show it documents.)
Though The Sassoons focuses on all that was splendid and splendorous about the titular family, it doesn’t ignore the mundane matter of the source of their riches. David Sassoon, the already wealthy paterfamilias, fled Iraq in 1832 to escape persecution by the Mamluk rulers and established himself, his family, and his businesses in Calcutta and Bombay, and later Shanghai. Unlike the Rothschilds, banking was not at the heart of the Sassoon portfolio; their fortune was made in the manufacture and trading of real objects—principally cotton, textiles, and opium. When the British government finally moved to ban the opium trade, the Sassoons fought the proposal tooth and nail, presenting use of the drug as a positive good. They lost, but by that time their wealth was so enormous, and its sources so varied, that this barely made a dent in their lifestyle.
The Sassoons does not question the morality of the family’s involvement in the opium trade or their lobbying against its prohibition; indeed, it is not particularly interested in examining capitalist business practices. Instead, it considers how a Jewish family from the Western world’s imperial colonies managed to reach the very heights of the British upper crust, presenting their history as a tale of the conflicting pulls of assimilation and tradition. The exhibit traces the family’s ascent through objects, photographs, and the conservative Western art they collected as larger and larger branches of the family left the colonies for life in England, abandoning the magnificent imitation British homes they built in India and China—well represented at the show—for mansions in London and the English countryside. It also includes a generous selection of family portraits painted by some of the most important portraitists of the time, like John Singer Sargent.
Though assimilation into the highest ranks of the British elite led some of the Sassoons—including the most famous member of the family, the poet Siegfried Sassoon—to abandon their religion, others remained true to their ancestral roots. The show displays the Judaica the family members collected, as well as Karaite and Samaritan documents. Notably, the family did most of its philanthropic work through Jewish institutions, which they established and supported. And their origins also made a mark in other ways: For many years, for instance, their business correspondence was written in Baghdadi Jewish dialect, which became a form of code used to keep its contents hidden from prying eyes. But for the most part, especially from the early 20th century on, the Sassoons became more British than the British. The exhibit demonstrates just how easily and successfully they negotiated this shift.