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Apr
12
2024

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Earlier this week, the translator, critic, and Jewish Currents contributor Lily Meyer published her engrossing debut novel, Short War, which spans two continents and nearly five decades to trace the entanglements of family, eros, and empire. The book begins in Santiago in the spring of 1973—just before the US-backed coup that deposed the socialist Chilean president, Salvador Allende, and inaugurated 17 years of right-wing military dictatorship—following American Jewish teenager Gabriel Lazris as he grapples with fascism’s rise. Brought to the country by his conservative father’s work as the Santiago bureau chief for an American newspaper, Gabriel has been radicalized by his friend’s militant dad, and is now a committed communist and self-loathing American. “He remembered walking around Chicago on his last visit to the States,” Meyer writes, “pitying everyone he saw for not having an Allende of their own on the horizon. Allende was possibility.” Gabriel’s reckoning with the crumbling of the nation’s socialist experiment intersects with his escalating alienation from his family, as he begins to suspect his father of collaborating with the CIA to sow discord in Chile. But even as the political situation deteriorates, he finds a new home for his idealism in a whirlwind romance with a girl named Caro, who joins him in a Communist Party farm labor program. When the novel later turns to Gabriel’s flailing daughter Nina, whose 2015 excursion to Buenos Aires to salvage her PhD dissertation is derailed for a quest to Santiago in search of information about her family, it becomes an intimate exploration not only of Chilean democracy’s tragic dissolution, but of the wrenching ways that historical trauma corrodes relationships down the generations. (If you happen to be in or near the Twin Cities next Tuesday, April 16th, come see me in conversation with Meyer at SubText Books in St. Paul.)

Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Today I read the Mondoweiss article “‘Come out, you animals’: how the massacre at al-Shifa Hospital happened” by Tareq S. Hajjaj, which uses eyewitness testimonies to reconstruct the two-week Israeli siege that killed at least 381 Palestinians (with over 1,000 others either dead, injured, or missing) at Gaza’s largest hospital complex.

The article recounts how Israeli soldiers entered the hospital on March 18th to break up a gathering of Gaza’s civil government employees, who had come to al-Shifa to receive their salaries. Framing the gathering as a meeting of “terror operatives,” the Israeli forces began to besiege the complex using tanks and drones. Those whom Israel deigned to consider civilians were asked to leave the hospital, and when “some of the staff members, including doctors, refused to leave . . . they were executed immediately and without argument.” Soldiers later went through the hospital compound in search of those who had not evacuated; these people, too, were executed, at least 22 of them in their hospital beds.

Afterwards, the Israeli army gathered the government workers in the hospital’s courtyard. I will quote what comes next: “It then proceeded to execute them, one after the other. When the slaughter was done, army bulldozers piled up their corpses in the dozens, dragging them through the sand and burying them.” In the weeks to come, photo after photo would show severed limbs covered in sand, being dug up by hand by the government employees who still remained.

I’ve found no adjectives to characterize Hajjaj’s report. “Horrific,” “harrowing,” “monstrous,” and “unbearable,” have long since collapsed under the weight of Gaza’s realities. But this piece demands to be read. These scenes cannot be allowed to go unseen. I invite you to read and bear witness, for whatever little witness is even worth anymore.


Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Thanks to the portability of books, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance are far better known than the movement’s visual artists. But the impressive new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism, will do much to right that imbalance. This exhaustive (but not exhausting) show reveals the breadth of the work of Black artists in the 1930s and ’40s, while examining the ways their output, so rooted in American reality, intersected with that of Europeans like Matisse, Picasso, and Man Ray. While many museum shows on Black art since the 2020 police killing of George Floyd have had a narrowly political focus, this exhibition presents an expansive view of Black American life and aesthetics. Each room corresponds to a theme, and the first two make the range of style and subject clear. The first room, titled “Thinkers,” includes formal, even stuffy portraits of Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson; the next one, “Everyday Life in the New Black Cities,” abandons formality and offers frames bursting with life, like Archibald Motley’s The Picnic and The Liar, Hale Wooodruff’s Cubist The Card Players, and Jacob Lawrence’s Pool Parlor.

I was particularly struck by Palmer Hyden’s The Janitor Who Paints, a lovely portrait of a man whose life is split between survival at a menial job and art; it’s a strong but subtle statement of persistence and strength. But the most interesting portraits are those painted by Winold Reiss, a German refugee who famously portrayed W.E.B. Du Bois and the aforementioned Alain Locke, presented with detailed heads and with bodies presented largely in outline. For me, though, the star of the show is unquestionably William H. Johnson. As I roamed through the rooms, I gravitated naturally to a number of colorful canvases painted in a deceptively simple style. In one, a colorfully dressed couple stand under a crescent moon; the man is wearing a yellow jacket with a long yellow feather in his fedora, and the woman dressed to the nines. In another, an elderly man in a vest sits casually, backwards, on a chair, the colors stark and clear. That these works stand out above the rest is no knock on the rest. This well-conceived, well-curated collection of paintings, drawings, photographs, and films pays homage to artists who have long deserved—and are finally receiving—the attention they merit.

Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): I want to recommend an indispensable report by Yuval Abraham, published by +972 Magazine and its Hebrew partner Local Call, on the artificial intelligence system—known as “Lavender”—that the Israeli military has used to compile its kill list in the Gaza Strip.

Theoretically, the role of the system is to identify suspected Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives—but in practice it has selected targets using a definition “so permissive [that] it loses all meaning,” one source told Abraham. Drawing on testimonies from six Israeli intelligence officers, the report explains how the AI program uses supposedly common “characteristics” of militants—flagging people who switch mobile phones, move between houses, or simply belong to certain WhatsApp groups—to rank the likelihood that an individual is affiliated with a militant organization on a scale from 1 to 100. As pressure to kill more militants mounted in the first weeks of the war, the threshold for defining targets fell, until Lavender’s kill list included some 37,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army recognized and accepted that the system made errors in approximately 10% of cases, marking individuals “who have merely a loose connection to militant groups, or no connection at all.” And yet, the military “gave sweeping approval for officers to adopt Lavender’s kill lists” without double-checking them.

As dystopian as this killing machine may be, I was even more struck by the article’s revelations about how, after October 7th, a prevailing atmosphere of “hysteria” and thirst for revenge propelled an unprecedented loosening of the rules of engagement. Once the AI had identified targets, the Israeli military attacked them in their private residences because, from an intelligence perspective, it was “easier” than locating them on the battlefield—if they were ever on the battlefield at all. This was done using unguided munitions known as “dumb bombs” that wiped out entire families and their neighbors because, as another intelligence officer explains, “you don’t want to waste expensive bombs on unimportant people.” Israel’s military also tore up its own rulebook for calculating “collateral damage,” giving itself permission to kill between 15 and 20 civilians in order to destroy a single low-ranking militants. As for senior militants, 100 civilians were knowingly killed in some attacks on the commanders of brigades or battalions. When read alongside Abraham’s past revelations on Israel’s military conduct—showing the targeting of high-rises and civilian infrastructure in order to try to pressure Palestinians to rise up against Hamas—the piece makes it clear how Israel’s war on Gaza has swiftly become one of the most deadly bombing campaigns in modern history.

***

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 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 Tazria

This week’s parshah, Tazria, picks up from last week’s discussion of the regime of tahara and tumah, often translated as “purity” and “impurity.” These are loaded terms, especially when applied to people and our bodies, as they are in both this and next week’s Torah readings. Tazria focuses on two of the main experiences that can make a person impure—childbirth and a leprosy-like skin condition known as tzaraat—while the surrounding parshiyot consider other instances like contact with a dead body; touching certain “creepy-crawly” creatures; and assorted genital emissions, including menstruation and ejaculation.

In her book Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature, scholar Mira Balberg argues that while in the Bible, impurity is acquired and ritually dispelled in specific moments, the rabbis of the Mishnah, a second-century codification of law and practice, transformed the system of purity and impurity into an ongoing process. Purity becomes about attempting to control an inevitably porous body by paying constant attention to it. Because some bodies—those that bleed monthly and lactate—are even more inevitably permeable than others, they are harder to control under this system of management, and are thus regarded as less ideal subjects of the purity regime. (According to Balberg, the rabbis, influenced by Greek medical thought, also saw women as less capable of the mental discipline required to pursue purity, just as menstruating people are unable to control their bodies’ “leakiness.”)

But this wariness about “leakier” bodies obscures the reality that we all live in bodies that are, as Balberg puts it, “extremely fluid entit[ies] whose boundaries are constantly transformed.” In her essay “A Question of Boundaries,” the Jewish feminist theologian Rachel Adler writes that the “patriarchal man points at the other as the permeable one. He portrays himself as sealed and impenetrable.” This impenetrability, which is a delusion at best, should not be an ideal. Rather, we should understand our inexorable permeability as providing occasions for holiness. Rituals around menstruation (known as niddah), for example, can be viewed as the menstruating body generating an opportunity for mitzvot. For Adler, the absence of a firm dividing line between the body and the world around it is linked to another form of porousness: the self’s reliance on others. The places where the boundaries between us are flexible are the loci of divine revelation; it is the attention to these places, rather than to the maintenance of ourselves as self-sufficient and impermeable, that creates a holy subject. Just as a niddah practice can lead practitioners to deeper embodied connection with the Divine, appreciating our interdependence can strengthen our sacred connections to one another.

The idealization of the impermeable body has also often been applied to the “national body,” as part of the reactionary worldview that regards borders as sacrosanct. Indeed, today the notion of defending the Jewish national body—which has been used for decades to justify a Jewish-supremacist state—is being mobilized to perpetrate horrors in Gaza. In this context, there is deep power in the potential offered by embracing impurity over purity, messiness over order, multivocality over coherence, porousness over borders.

—Avigayil Halpern


Apr
5
2024

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I loved Julio Torres’s My Favorite Shapes, a comedy special centered around his beloved collection of trinkets and objects, which arrive via a conveyor belt onto a set that looks like a gay futuristic dollhouse. So I was super excited to see Torres’s first feature film Problemista—if a little afraid of being disappointed. I am happy to report that it is a perfect entry in the nearly extinct genre of fun 90-minute movies.

Problemista is a story of an El Salvadoran immigrant, played by Torres himself, on a quest to get a work visa and a job designing toys for Hasbro. He links up with a pathologically difficult art critic (Tilda Swinton) who has promised to sponsor him if he can help assemble a show of her late husband’s paintings. (The Isabella Rossellini narration is a nice touch; I would guess Torres chose her because of her own charming and aesthetically-aligned DIY series about the sex lives of animals, Green Porno.) The movie’s fierce aesthetic dedication reminded me of Wes Anderson, but unlike Anderson, Torres’s world never feels twee or indulgent. Also contra Anderson, it never steamrolls the emotional content of the film. On the contrary, each shot—of garbage put out on a New York street or collected in a puddle; of shoes and various tech wires in the Swinton’s chaotic loft—is a rich still life, brimming with emotional information. Give Julio Torres all the money!

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): With The Old Oak, Ken Loach—the most uncompromising of left-wing directors—has likely ended a staggering filmmaking career that began in 1967. For nearly six decades, Loach’s focus has always been on the working class: its struggles, its failures, and its victories, which are more often moral than material. While his appreciation for workers has not made him blind to their flaws, he has been unwavering in his belief that there is only one revolutionary class, one force that can change the world. His final trio of films—I, Daniel Blake; Sorry We Missed You, and now The Old Oak—are all shot in the northeast of England, once a hotbed of radicalism and a center of Labour Party power. Loach shows us the tragic results of the death of the industries that made the northeast so vital: Demoralization, unemployment, poverty, and utter despair have replaced solidarity and hope, as much of working-class Britain has become a source of the xenophobia at the heart of Brexit.

The Old Oak, which largely stars non-professional actors, takes place somewhere near Newcastle and Durham, in a once-thriving mining village that died when the pits were shut down after the miners’ strike of 1984 was crushed. Syrian immigrants have been bused into the town, and at the center of their support network is a struggling, bedraggled pub owner named TJ. His desire to support the town’s new residents isn’t something he understands as political; he is simply a decent man who has screwed up his life and now wants to do the right thing. Taking on this role pits him against a small group of his regulars who spend their days inveighing against the foreigners, whom they claim get everything while they, the native-born, get nothing. With the help of his new friend Yara, an energetic young Syrian woman who learned English in a refugee camp, TJ does all he can to integrate the Syrians into the community. He even applies a solidarity-forging tactic from the miners’ strike by having refugees and locals eat together in his pub.

It’s an arduous struggle, and TJ must battle his own despair to carry on. But if in Loach’s most recent films the fight has been a futile one, it was always unlikely that he would end his career on a hopeless note. While the utopian finale scene is perhaps a tad too pat, it nevertheless succeeds in tugging at our heartstrings. And in an inspired move, Loach has the end credits play over footage of the annual march to Durham Cathedral to honor the miners’ legacy, which includes a blessing of banners. Among them is one made by Syrian refugees, proclaiming, “Strength, Solidarity, Resistance.” This beautiful image is the perfect visual shorthand for the locals’ acceptance of their new comrades.

With The Old Oak, Loach leaves filmmaking the way he came in: a fighter.

***

Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety. The text is divided into 54 parshiyot, or sections; given the idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew calendar and occasional doubling up of parshiyot, this works out to one parshah per week, which Jews around the world read concurrently on Shabbat morning. This universally regimented schedule is a foundation for Jewish communal discourse and interpretation, the text accruing ever-increasing strata of meaning over the course of generations. As the insights of each new year are layered on those that came before, every new reading of the parshah is also a re-reading. Each word, even each letter, points not to one stable meaning but to an endlessly generative world of signification.

Last week, we inaugurated 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. While it might seem strange for a historically secular magazine to embark on such a project, especially when we’re already in Vayikra, the third book of the Torah—rather than at the beginning of the year, with the opening verses of Breishit—we are trying this now because many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification. This is a deeply difficult moment to be in the wider Jewish world, as mainstream communities have by and large supported Israel without reservation while it has killed at least 33,000 people in Gaza. As pictures surface of soldiers celebrating Jewish holidays in Gaza and reading from the Torah using a military knife, it’s easy to feel that the tradition is theirs alone. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. 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 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 Shemini

In her landmark 1966 book Purity and Danger, the British anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that purity rituals and symbols uphold existing narratives and the hierarchies they ordain. The establishment of people, creatures, or behaviors as “impure” is a manifestation of the human impulse to reject “any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications,” she writes. This week’s parshah, Shemini, presents a complex system of purity and impurity that exemplifies her point.

The parshah offers a long and detailed list of impure creatures that are to be avoided through either consumption or contact. In verse after verse, the Torah identifies types of animals or scenarios in which one might encounter an animal’s carcass and declares: “it is tameih [impure] for you.” All of these laws, the Torah explains, exist so that the Jewish people can distinguish between that which is tameih and that which is tahor (pure), which makes them holy and uniquely set apart for God. As the parshah explains, “you shall not make yourselves impure with [impure animals] and thus become impure. For I, Adonai, am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. ” The parshah seemingly solidifies distinctions between pure and impure—and, consequently, between good and bad.

But the rabbis of the Talmud probe these ostensibly immutable categories and distinctions. If it is a desire for order that first brought these categorizations into the world, it is the pleasure of subversiveness and the rabbinic proclivity for gradience, expansiveness, and subversion that drives the rabbis to play with them. The Talmud, for example, praises Rabbi Meir because he could declare something impure to be pure and something pure to be impure, providing sound and convincing justifications for each ruling. We learn later in this passage that one of his students could, using his creativity and analytical reasoning, declare an animal explicitly described in the Torah as impure to be pure, citing 150 reasons that supported his argument. This analytically subversive ability later becomes a criterion for political leadership on the Sanhedrin, the highest court within the rabbinic frame. The medieval commentator the Meiri explains that such a requirement exists so that if a later generation encounters a difficulty with some aspect of Torah, they “will know how to renew, add, or remove that which was previously taught in order to create new essential teachings needed in this moment, all while finding support for their words from the Torah.” Rabbi Meir’s project and the lineage it establishes counters the Torah’s binary categorization of creatures as tameih and tahor, recognizing that purity and impurity are not static, but rather demand reinterpretation and readjudication.

Often, dominant narratives can become so deeply entrenched that they themselves are understood as tahor—unimpeachable and beyond reproach. But the rabbis’ ingenuity should inspire us to question stories we have inherited as fixed. Over the past years—and especially the past months—powerful organizing has done precisely this, troubling entrenched narratives about Jews, our safety, and our relationship to power and victimhood; what was once tahor now seems open to contestation. Despite the horror of this time, it is also a moment of profound possibility, as we glimpse the ways in which many of the schemas that appear to dominate our world can be upended.

—Laynie Soloman

Mar
29
2024

Jess Bergman (contributing writer): Alexandra Tanner’s debut novel Worry (2024) may be narrated by an aimless, mildly depressed, and precariously employed twenty-something in Brooklyn, but that is about the extent of its resemblance to the literature of millennial ennui. Rather than constructing a hermetic universe of one, as is the tendency in this subgenre, Tanner centers her novel on a dyad: aspiring writer Jules and her younger sister Poppy, who has moved to New York in the wake of a mental health crisis that included a suicide attempt and a temporary return to their parents’ home in Florida. And instead of formally imitating the listlessness of its characters, the novel is actually funny. In one scene, Jules goes on a Hinge date with a man who accuses her of ableism after she calls him “psycho” for throwing rocks at a squirrel: “I could be medically psychotic and that could be really offensive to me.” “I’m medically psychotic,” she retorts. There’s also a three-legged dog named Amy Klobuchar.

These antic scenes are thrown into sharper relief by an ambient unease that is characteristic of the period in which Worry is set: long enough after Trump’s election that the system has accommodated itself to him, with the psychic and physical shocks of the pandemic and the mobilization of millions by the police murder of George Floyd still on the horizon. One telling barometer is Jules’s obsession with what she calls her “mommies”: beautiful white Instagram influencers whose photogenic performance of motherhood runs parallel to their promotion of dubious wellness products and even more dubious conspiracy theories about vaccines and Jewish world domination. (Tanner published an essay about the mommies in Jewish Currents in 2020, perhaps a version of the one that Jules spends much of Worry failing to write.) Their fantasy Aryan families become a discomfiting foil to Jules and Poppy’s own, which deals hurt in roughly equal measure to love. Even from a distance, their mother, an almost parodically brusque Jew for Jesus, is constantly pulling her daughters into new constellations, whether aligned against her or divided against each other. However affectionately sketched, these relationships feel like one more idyll that might soon shatter.

Worry is largely plotless but ultimately gives way to a structurally elegant ending. In this way, it might share one more thing with its predecessors: like the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Jules’s anomie is punctured by a violent confrontation with the real. But the crisis is far more quotidian than in Moshfegh’s novel, which culminates in 9/11, and the experience does not so much cleanse Jules as drag her unwillingly into action. Whether or not she will be really changed remains an open question: In the midst of an emergency, she still needs a minute to scroll on her phone.

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I hate to recommend a play after it has closed, but in case it ever returns to the stage, I have to put in a word for Andy Boyd’s Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist, which ran this past month at The Tank in Manhattan. A character study of a Jewish leftist-turned-reactionary (think: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz), the show’s three acts drop in on Lev Trachtenberg (an absolutely electric Jeff Gonzalez) at three pivotal moments: in 1939, when he is a young, pugilistic Trotskyist at City College, arguing with the Stalinists on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland; in 1967, when he is a professor of modernist literature at Columbia who angers Black radicals on campus over his resistance to adding Black writers to his syllabus; and in 1980, when he reunites with a comrade from his youth at the offices of his conservative think tank just before the Reagan election.

It is difficult to overstate the pleasure and excitement of the first act in particular, which features a debate between Trotskyist Lev and a Stalinist rival, staged for the benefit of an undecided student. Though the young man—whose only thought is of becoming a lawyer to help Jews flee Europe before it’s too late—is turned off by the Stalinists’ intellectual rigidity and attracted to the Trots, who he says seem “smarter,” he is ultimately swayed by the Stalinists’ power analysis: They are the only ones, they claim, who can stop Hitler’s advance. But the debate is interrupted by bad news: The USSR has just signed a pact of nonaggression with Germany. The young men are so horrified they vomit in turns—everyone is seemingly Jewish, and before the debate had been discussing the fate of their European cousins. But Lev is elated; he has won the argument, cousins be damned.

I had a few quibbles with the play: Though the origin of Lev’s reactionary turn is appropriately situated in relation to Black radicalism, Israel and antisemitism are strikingly absent, which is curious considering the year (’67) and the centrality of these topics to those in our canon of Jewish reactionaries. And in the 1980 scene, I found myself wanting Lev to provide his own narrative about his transformation, however unreliable, instead of deflecting to a comment about the story being traceable “in his papers.” From a character who has built a life in grand ideas and theories, this lack of insight is unsatisfying. There are, however, some clues about what fuels Lev’s transformation, and astutely, they are not based primarily in ideology, but in what remains constant in Lev’s character: egotism and ambition, contrariness and thin skin. If these things made him an effective Trot in a time of Jewish weakness, they are also what keep him moving from strength to strength at a moment of Jewish uplift and conservative ascendance.

Our post-October 7th moment has provided another such opening for reaction in the sense of betrayal some Jews feel in relation to the “callous left.” These feelings can coexist with recommitment to our ideals, but can also harden into a totalizing grievance; Three Scenes offers a helpful study in who goes which way.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Books as important and thrillingly readable as Percival Everett’s James rarely cross a reader’s path. The novel is a retelling of Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, narrated from the point of view of Huck’s lovable partner in flight, the escaped slave Jim. By inverting the importance of the characters in a novel that’s so central to America’s self-image, Everett brilliantly illuminates how enslaved people inhabited an entirely different world.

In Twain’s original, Jim speaks in the caricatured Black dialect that was prominent in the white popular imagination; in Everett’s revision, Jim and other Black people still speak this way, but only in the presence of white people, as a ploy to appease them by playing to their degraded image of Black people. Left on their own, the Black characters speak no differently than anyone else—and when white people do hear Jim speak in perfect, normative English, they become frightfully aware that their world is being challenged. Language in James is thus a marker both of subordination and of rebellion. (Those familiar with Everett’s previous books—particularly Erasure, the basis for the brilliant recent film American Fiction—know how dear this idea is to him.) But the instability of identity does not play out only through speech. Much as Twain did in his own Pudd’nhead Wilson, Everett destabilizes the boundaries between white and Black. Jim is purchased by real-life entertainer Dan Emmett to become a member of his famous minstrel company, where one of the “white” performers is actually a light-skinned Black man who is described as “a light-brown black man painted black in such a way as to appear like a white man trying to pass for black.” Jim himself even wears blackface in order to seem like a white man passing for the Black man he really is.

The novel depicts slavery in all its horror: whipping, lynching, rape, the deprivation of personal will. Several times, being enslaved is described as being “dead,” and death itself as liberation. This frank portrait is part of the novel’s attack on white complacency and its critique of Twain’s original novel. Still, Everett’s affection for that work comes through in his sympathetic treatment of Huck himself—even as he again undermines our complacency with a plot twist I won’t reveal. The highest praise I can think of for James is that, owing to the boldness with which it confronts the ugliness of our past, it will almost certainly draw the fury of book-banners throughout these United States.

***

Introducing: Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety. The text is divided into 54 parshiyot, or sections; given the idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew calendar and occasional doubling up of parshiyot, this works out to one parshah per week, which Jews around the world read concurrently on Shabbat morning. This universally regimented schedule is a foundation for Jewish communal discourse and interpretation, the text accruing ever-increasing strata of meaning over the course of generations. As the insights of each new year are layered on those that came before, every new reading of the parshah is also a re-reading. Each word, even each letter, points not to one stable meaning but to an endlessly generative world of signification.

This week, we’re inaugurating 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. While it might seem strange for a historically secular magazine to embark on such a project, especially when we’re already in Vayikra, the third book of the Torah—rather than at the beginning of the year, with the opening verses of Breishit—we are trying this now because many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification. This is a deeply difficult moment to be in the wider Jewish world, as mainstream communities have by and large supported Israel without reservation while it has killed at least 32,000 people in Gaza. As pictures surface of soldiers celebrating Jewish holidays in Gaza and reading from the Torah using a military knife, it’s easy to feel that the tradition is theirs alone. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. 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 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 Tzav

In this week’s parshah, Tzav, God teaches the Israelites how to offer ritual sacrifices. In the parshah’s opening lines, God says to Moses, “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering” (Vayikra 6:2). These are not the first sacrifices Aaron has brought. Just a few parshiyot ago, he led the Israelites in constructing and worshiping the Golden Calf, a blasphemous idol. In light of that transgression, it’s unnerving that Aaron is placed at the head of the new, normative religion.

But perhaps Aaron is given this role specifically to allude to the links between these heretical and divinely sanctioned cultic rituals. Abravanel, a Renaissance-era Portuguese commentator, proposes that had it not been for the Golden Calf, Vayikra’s entire ritual edifice might never have existed. As evidence, he cites a perplexing line from this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies each weekly parshah) in which God says, “When I freed your ancestors from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice” (Jeremiah 7:22). The verse seems to ignore the entire book of Vayikra; Abravanel resolves the apparent contradiction by arguing that when the Israelites first left Egypt, God gave them a simple moral and theological legal code—a revolutionary break with past idolatry. But when they made the Golden Calf, God realized they were addicted to physical ritual. Belatedly and reluctantly, God prescribes the sacrifices as a ritual methadone, a concession to the Israelites’ need for material worship. Abravenel’s reading suggests to me that when each sacrificial instruction starts, “Command Aaron and his sons,” it emphasizes not only that Aaron is chosen to perform these sacred rituals, but also that they were only regrettably necessitated by his backsliding cowardice.

What are we to make of the inclusion of “his sons” in the directive? The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the Kli Yakar, notices that in Vayikra, Aaron is never invoked or addressed without his sons. Building on earlier rabbinic traditions, he suggests that after the Golden Calf, God wanted to prohibit Aaron from performing ritual sacrifice, since it was introduced to rectify his mistake, and assign it only to his sons. But Moses prayed to God on Aaron’s behalf. He drew an analogy to the legal ruling that we do not burn olive wood or grape vines in the Temple, preserving them out of respect for their products, sacrificial oil and wine. Can one hate a well, Moses asked in a second metaphor, and love its waters? God conceded the points, and the compromise produced this awkward pairing—the new, reparative generation, and the disgraced parent, saved on their account.

A shriveled grapevine with prized fruit—the image captured my attention as a figure for the current generational war among American Jews. Over the past decades, many members of my parents’ generation helped construct a Golden Calf, and here we are, figuring out what compensations are necessary, what substitutes might be possible. And yet, as Moses reminds God, best to think carefully before severing the failed past from the hopeful present. The Kli Yakar is recapitulating a motif found already in the Bible; back in Shemot, when the Israelites built the Golden Calf, God wanted to “dissolve the people and elect another,” but Moses fought to preserve communal continuity. In the moment of crisis, the radical and the liberal can seem to be mortal enemies; often enough, they are also siblings, or parent and child. God’s schismatic thinking is always tempting us with fresh beginnings, a history neatly perforated for the cutting, while Moses’s reply reminds us that the price is too high. Indeed, it’s imprudent to grab the grapes and chop down the vines—that’s not how you build broad-based power. Despite the cognitive dissonance and psychic pain, if we want a robust, formidable, and enduring Jewish left, we might need to learn, as God does, to hold together Aaron and his sons.

—Raphael Magarik

Mar
22
2024

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’ll get right to the point: Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World is a brilliant film by a brilliant director, featuring everything we’ve come to expect from the acerbic Romanian filmmaker—anger, cynicism, and uproarious humor. Jude has spent much of his career skewering his native country, examining its ugly history and rampant racism, especially toward its Romani residents. But while his latest likewise excoriates the country he calls home, its scope is more limited than usual.

The film’s events, which take place over the course of a single day, revolve around Anjelica, a young woman who used to be a porn actress and is now forced to work 16-hour days as a production assistant on a corporate safety video for an Austria-based firm while moonlighting as an Uber driver. Even with her crowded schedule, she finds time to make TikTok videos using a filter that turns her into “Bobita”—a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed man who, by the end of the film, is spouting pro-Putin and antisemitic sentiments. She spends much of the runtime behind the wheel of her car, tracking down work accident victims for the video. As the film builds up to the taping of the video, it highlights the cold exploitativeness and simmering rage of the “new Romania”—which is not so new at all, since communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu has been gone for decades—where even the truth about something as relatively minor as a work accident is suppressed. At one point, Anjelica tells an Austrian executive that her people’s nature is best expressed in their dangerously aggressive driving. In a typically wrenching Jude moment, after Anjelica speaks of an especially dangerous stretch of highway lined with 600 crosses commemorating people killed along it, Jude cuts away from her and, against a soundtrack of dead silence, we see more than a hundred of the crosses one by one with the names, dates, and even photos of the dead.

The opening credits note that Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World is “in conversation” with Angela Goes On, a Romanian film from 1981 about a female taxi driver. In fact, the link is quite literal: The Angela, played by the original actress, meets Anjelica, in the very same apartment depicted in the earlier film, and becomes involved in her project. Their encounter lays bare all that has changed between the Romania of 1981 and today—and all that remains the same.

Solomon Brager (director of community engagement): For anyone who isn’t familiar, zines are self-published magazines that usually come out of the do-it-yourself tradition, and are reproduced inexpensively so that they can be distributed freely or cheaply, often through trading or gifting. In 2011, I joined zine maker and librarian Jami Sailor to create one called Archiving the Underground #1, which included a collection of interviews with archivists and librarians who work thoughtfully with zines—including Milo Miller of the Queer Zine Archive Project, Jenna Freedman of the Barnard Zine Library (which hosts the NYC Feminist Zinefest, this year on April 6th), and the late feminist zine scholar Alison Piepmeier.

But the impetus for our zine came from the work of Lisa Darms of the Riot Grrrl collection at NYU’s Fales Library, and Teal Triggs, author of the book Fanzines: The DIY Revolution. We were deeply suspicious of these projects, both of which did things—locking zines away in an archive, or scanning their covers, without their insides, for an expensive coffee table book—that went against the ethos of zine culture. Now, 13 years later, the creators of the Brooklyn Museum show Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines have made the same mistakes by taking zines out of their punk and fandom origins and putting them into a museum art show.

Copy Machine Manifestos is full of really cool things that are not zines: drawings by queer punk icon G. B. Jones, paintings by Joey Terrill, embroidered canvases by Jordan Nassar. But when it comes to the actual zines on display by these artists, don’t try to read them! Even though there are multiple installations that look like interactive zine libraries, they sit behind little stickers on the floor that read “Help us protect the art. Please stand back.” This makes for a good art show, but a bad zine show. One of the exhibited zinesters, Mimi Thi Nguyen, posted a picture of herself giving the finger to the vitrine holding her work. “My true feelings about seeing my zines under glass,” she wrote.

Ultimately, I don’t think you could have a good zine show in a museum, unless you made it free, got rid of the private security, put a ton of zines out with a photocopier, and let anyone make copies to take home. Instead, the show literally puts glass between the zines and the audience, and endorses the idea that zines’ value derives from how much they’ll be worth once you’ve moved on to becoming a successful artist. Suddenly the zine is a part of your early oeuvre, the artist’s “punk period.” Rather than an object by and for the community around it, the zine becomes an investment: It has provenance, it needs to be preserved.

If you make it to the exhibition before it ends next week, I hope that it makes you want to read a zine, buy a zine, trade a zine, touch a zine, shove a zine in your back pocket, and most of all, make your own zine. But in order to do that, you’ll have to leave the museum and find a photocopier.

David Klion (contributing editor): The oldest Jewish Currents readers no doubt recall the 1960s as a formative decade in their lives; the youngest probably think of it as ancient history. For a 40-year-old like me, the ’60s exist in vicarious memory: in the pop cultural references and basic political assumptions handed down from boomer parents who actually experienced them. There’s a sense of the ’60s as an era of liberal idealism gradually giving way to revolutionary left-wing fervor, both of which were then crushed by the Nixonian right—all of which comes to mind filtered through a haze of secondhand cannabis smoke, accompanied by a classic rock soundtrack I’ve been hearing since I was a baby.

Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage is only one vantage on the decade, and it’s not a vantage everyone will find appealing. Gitlin spent the ’60s as a key figure in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the vanguards of the New Left, but by the time he published The Sixties in 1987, he was a middle-aged, jaded liberal trying to make sense of his youth. His biases—such as his palpable contempt for the Weather Underground, and his stubborn and misguided defense of Israel against left-wing critics—are undisguised. But Gitlin, who died in 2022 at 79, was a marvelous prose stylist and a shrewd observer of cultural and political trends, and The Sixties is as kaleidoscopic and compelling a single-volume account of an era as I’ve ever read.

I finally picked up The Sixties because I’m now spending much of my time researching the history of neoconservatism for a book project. I realized that in order to understand why some Jewish intellectuals broke right in the late ’60s, I needed to better appreciate why they were so revolted by the New Left. Indeed, while the foundational neocon figures only make a handful of appearances in Gitlin’s book, the often privileged young student activists who unsettled them are present throughout. Even Irving Howe—an Old Left stalwart who founded Dissent while peers like Irving Kristol embraced reaction—nonetheless saw leading figures of the New Left (like Tom Hayden, or Gitlin himself) as brash, romantic, and troublingly unconcerned with the intellectual debates over communism that Howe and his cohort had been grappling with since the 1930s. Hayden and Gitlin, in turn, found Howe and his fellow Dissent editors to be men of words rather than action, armchair intellectuals with no real-world strategy to end the war in Vietnam or to secure civil rights for Black Americans. There are echoes of that confrontation today. Gitlin and members of his SDS cohort would eventually take over and revitalize Dissent, and today some of them are just as skeptical of antiwar and anti-Zionist leftists of my own generation as Howe was of them back in the ’60s.

I’ve often felt since the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, and the subsequent right-wing backlash against them, that the millennial left is experiencing our own version of the aftermath of 1968. As we enter middle age, we are forced to reckon with our own youthful political ideals and how to reconcile them with our increasingly constrained reality. Eventually, we too may find that our sons and our daughters are beyond our command.

Before you go: Jewish Currents senior reporter Alex Kane will be joining IfNotNow’s Eva Borgwardt and Jewish Voice for Peace’s Esther Farmer for a screening and discussion of the movie Israelism at Brooklyn’s Starr Bar on March 23rd (tomorrow) at 7pm Eastern. Get your tickets here: we hope to see you there!

Mar
15
2024

Alex Kane (senior reporter): The central idea of Daniel Immerwahr’s book How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is clearly drawn out on its front cover: the familiar map of the United States along with the extra-continental possessions protruding out from the main landmass. The Northwestern University historian argues that the “logo map” cartography, as he calls it, elides the forgotten history and present of US control over places like Guantánamo Bay and the US Virgin Islands, among others, that are critical to understanding US and global history.

The first half of the book looks at how the US became a traditional colonial power through war and conquest: Firstly, by destroying indigenous peoples and taking over their land, and then by extending past its own land borders, towards islands such as Hawai’i. Yet Immerwahr also reveals how American expansionism was laden with demographic anxieties over admitting too many non-white people into the union. Some territories such as Hawai’i and Alaska became states nonetheless after the civil rights movement broke down Washington’s resistance in the 1950s. Others—Puerto Rico, for instance—became a “commonwealth,” with the ability to elect its own governor, but still inextricably tied to and shaped by the US.

The second half of the book reveals a shift in how the US empire operated. After World War II, the United States ruled over tens of millions people in countries under its occupation, including in southern Korea, Japan, parts of Germany, and Austria. But instead of taking permanent control of any of those territories, the US did something unusual: it “won a war and gave up territory.” The worldwide revolt against colonialism only partially explains this withdrawal, according to Immerwahr; the US also understood that it did not need official colonies in order to project its power. Instead, new technologies—including radio, air travel, DDT, and more—”gave powerful countries ways to enjoy the benefits of empire without claiming populated territories,” Immerwahr writes.

I’ll confess that I knew embarrassingly little about how the US came to acquire its extra-territorial possessions—and why those possessions matter—but Immerwahr’s detailed and wry book is the perfect introduction to the US’s hidden empire.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): For years now, there’s been a sense of mounting pressure on fiction writers not to tell the stories of people not of their own background or identity; if Flaubert lived today, surely Madame Bovary would have been excoriated. But in a recent column in The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg considers why, despite this climate, Adelle Waldman has not been pilloried for her new novel Help Wanted, which focuses on low-wage workers at a big-box store in Upstate New York. “Maybe the book’s early reception is a sign that authors have more latitude to explore all strata of society than many have feared,” Goldberg speculates. While I object to the notion that an author should be considered fortunate to escape condemnation simply for exercising her imagination, I hope Goldberg is right. Waldman, whose previous novel was set among a literary crowd in Brooklyn, has now produced a well-crafted and insightful journey into a world inhabited by struggling workers of diverse backgrounds, united by the rigors of laboring together in the early-morning hours before the store opens, unloading trucks and stocking shelves.

The book, informed by a period Waldman spent doing research by working this same job at a Target upstate, at times feels like an extension of Barbara Ehrenreich’s nonfiction classic Nickel and Dimed, which is not a bad thing. Help Wanted attentively portrays the arduous experiences of those at the bottom of the economic food chain, whose wages are less than $20 an hour and whose hours are intentionally kept low so they aren’t legally entitled to health insurance. Almost all of the characters need a second job to supplement their 4 am to 8 am shift, and exhaustion is endemic. The novel’s central drama unfolds as the workers see a chance to remove some stress from their lives: A hated boss is in line for a promotion that will get her out of their hair. So they unite and devise a plot to facilitate her exodus from their lives, which they carry out by leveraging the condescension of those above them in the corporate hierarchy, who see them as incapable of originality and initiative. I won’t spoil the engaging twists and turns the narrative takes from there.

Admirably, Waldman’s empathy extends not only to the workers at the story’s center, but also to middle and upper management, most of whom she grants the ability to see things clearly and fairly; after all, life in a big-box store is fun for no one. There is nothing facile in Help Wanted, which is both an astute documentary picture of Americans on the edge of a nervous breakdown and a sensitive study of morality as enacted in the workplace.

Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Over the past few months, I’ve found myself reading books about war—specifically, about armed freedom struggles and the genocidal responses they engender. Many of these stories have hit close to home in this moment, but none more so than V. V. Ganeshananthan’s new novel Brotherless Night, which follows teenage protagonist Sashi as she comes of age in a Sri Lanka riven by Sinhala-supremacist state violence and the Tamil insurrections that rise up to resist it.

The book begins in 1981, when Sashi is a 16-year-old high school student living with her parents and four brothers in the Tamil town of Jaffna. Sashi’s is a loving, happy family, always walking together to the local library, sharing dog-eared paperbacks, and playing cricket in the lane outside their house. These sepia-toned opening chapters only heighten the reader’s dread about what is to come when anti-Tamil pogroms inevitably move from the margins of the story to its center. It starts with small incidents, like Sri Lankan police beginning to detain Tamil boys as suspected militants simply for riding their bicycles. Then, the police begin rampaging, destroying Tamil businesses, killing citizens, and burning down Sashi’s beloved library: “Our past, but also—oh, the beautiful wooden tables where I had turned the pages of my textbooks, and my brothers’ textbooks!—the future. And it was gone.”

After the library burns, Sashi’s family decides she should move to her grandmother’s house in Colombo where, under the care of her eldest brother Niranjan, she might be able to let go of painful memories and better focus on her studies. But anti-Tamil riots follow Sashi to the capital, with Sinhalese mobs burning down her grandmother’s house and killing neighbors who are not quick enough to flee. Sashi and her grandmother are displaced to a Tamil refugee camp, where, shell-shocked, they wait for Niranjan—who left to try and find them another shelter. But he never returns, and after too many pages of awful anticipation, it is revealed that he was burned alive in his car by an anti-Tamil mob. The news devastates Sashi, as does the unwelcome return to normalcy that follows it as she moves back to Jaffna (“Ask the clock for mercy; I promise, there is none—only a day on which your loved one is dead, and another, and another, and another after that.”) Over the course of the book, Sashi loses all her brothers in different ways. Shattered by Niranjan’s death, two of them join the militant group the Tamil Tigers (with one of them later dying in the Tigers’ internecine feuds with other insurgents); the third is detained in the Sri Lankan army’s sweep of all Jaffna’s Tamil boys over the age of 12, and retreats into himself after he is released. Sashi also loses beloved teachers, friends, and countless community members in the violence of these years. It is a testament to Ganeshananthan’s skill as a storyteller that each blow wounds the reader anew: Even as the fact of loss becomes routine, the experience of it never does.

Yet for all its skill at portraying boundless grief, Brotherless Night is ultimately not a story of passive, suffering civilians. Instead, this is a book about the Tigers: their righteous beginnings, their increasingly corrupt trajectories, and their tragic ends. Like most others in Jaffna, Sashi supports the Tigers’ goal of ending Sinhala domination. But as the Tigers gain power—at one point, amassing enough fighters and weapons to liberate Jaffna from the Sri Lankan army altogether—she watches uneasily as they become more and more repressive, extorting supplies from Jaffna residents, silencing dissent, and even killing their own people: not just militants from other factions, but also Tamil civilians they deem insufficiently loyal to the liberation struggle.

As the story progresses, Sashi, now a doctor volunteering at a Tiger clinic, begins describing dynamics that are painfully resonant. She recounts how the Tigers rely on Jaffna’s civilians to provide cover for their operations; their gambit eventually fails as Sri Lankan soldiers (and self-appointed Indian “peacekeepers”) prove that they have no qualms about indiscriminately attacking Tamils, civilian or not. This deadly dance reaches one of its crescendos in a Jaffna hospital, where the reciprocal leveraging of doctors and patients culminates in an Indian massacre that kills 87 people. “You must understand: I hate this version of the story,” Sashi tells the reader. “To tell it I have to tell you how the Tigers abandoned the doctors who had helped them, and made them targets for the guns of others.” I, too, hate this version of the story, which leaves the reader nowhere to turn. And yet it is precisely this thankless, but urgent, task that Brotherless Night excels at, forcing readers to confront the cascading nature of colonial violence by training a critical eye on its freedom fighters even as it longs for the liberation they promise.

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