Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I’ve been watching the fabulous second season of Reservation Dogs, about four Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation in eastern Oklahoma. Meanwhile, my husband has insisted we rewatch Transparent, a show that debuted in 2014 about a Jewish family in Los Angeles whose patriarch comes out as a trans woman late in life. It’s been an interesting experience watching these shows side by side; both are dramedies that portray their subjects’ milieus with striking, in-group specificity and verisimilitude. To be sure, these are very different milieus: If the architectural centerpiece of Transparent is the spacious, multimillion-dollar mid-century Pfefferman family home in Pacific Palisades (with a pool that is the centerpiece of some of its most memorable scenes), the centerpiece of Reservation Dogs might be the squat, boxy waiting room of the Indian Health Service (IHS) clinic, where slumped bodies wait endlessly under checkered ceiling squares of fluorescent light.
And yet, there is a common thread running through both shows, a shared anxiety about the erosion of tradition and cultural authenticity over time. Both the Pfefferman kids and the kids on the rez are culturally marked in dozens of different ways—in their speech and their foodways and their common referents, they are not entirely assimilated. And yet, they are not altogether comfortable with their own rituals and traditions either. In Reservation Dogs, lines from Star Wars end up in the before-meal grace. In Transparent, a Yom Kippur break-fast ritual begins with everyone holding a bagel over their heads (?) as they fumble toward the motzi. In a particularly resonant scene in Reservation Dogs, Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis, who continually steals the show) enlists two old-timers to reverse some “bad magic,” a curse she put on the head of a rival teen gang that is coming back to her threefold. The old-timers know the shape of the ritual, which unfolds alongside a river, but when it comes time to chant, they end up belting Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” Across the river, the spirit of a fallen Native American warrior (the hilarious Dallas Goldtooth, actor and activist), who often appears as a spirit guide to the teens, chants along to the music in the traditional style. The wind in the reeds picks up. It’s working. The scene reminded me of Transparent’s portrayal of ancestors sharing physical space with the living—as when Ali Pfefferman, wandering around a “wimmin’s festival,” stumbles through time to 1933 Germany, to the looting and destruction of Magnus Hirschfeld’s visionary Institute of Sexology, where she watches her great-aunt Gittel’s arrest by Nazi-supporting youth. There are other ways to know things, these shows seem to be saying. We know even without knowing.
Dana Bassett (development director): Have you ever thought about what your dreams sound like? I had not, until I read Transcendent Waves: How Listening Shapes Our Creative Lives by Lavender Suarez, which bills itself as a manual for artists to learn about and get in touch with their ability to listen as an aide to the creative process, but which might as well be subtitled “How Listening Shapes Our Lives” for a general audience. I believe that listening—or perhaps more accurately, hearing—is an aide to anyone who wants to connect deeply with other people and the surrounding world. As someone who identifies as “not an artist,” connecting with people through conversation is the spice of my life. I loved how this book paired technical information about how the ear works with practical advice on how to be a better listener. I did not particularly love the New Age-y tone, but was able to suspend my skepticism in this case. I am also the type of person who buys wine bottles based on what the label looks like, and similarly I bought this book because the cover jumped out at me. It is a lovely object: The text is large and the pages feel satisfyingly thick, like construction paper. The cover is marbled blue, green, and purple, and the pages of each section of the book correspond to those colors, with darker, monochrome, also marbled “Sonic Inquiry” pages interspersed throughout, as well as delightful illustrations and quotes by the likes of Pauline Oliveros and Sun Ra.
I bought Transcendent Waves more than a year ago on my first trip back to my favorite Miami bookshop, Dale Zine, just after becoming fully vaccinated. It’s traveled with me on various trips, languishing in my backpack from Miami to Chicago to New York and back. Once I finally cracked it open and read the foreword, a charming story about the sound of conch shells by Beck’s mother, the artist Bibbe Hansen, I was hooked, and read the whole book in one sitting. The first (blue) section is titled “mind/ body” and outlines how listening works by detailing the complicated and beautiful mechanisms that enable us to hear. It also explains what sound waves are, as well as various phenomena of hearing and feeling sound and rhythm. I was particularly fascinated by the concept of brainwave entrainment, which is basically the idea that we naturally synchronize with our surroundings, like when you feel literally “moved” by the rhythm of a song.
The second (purple) section is titled “creation/ expression” and is about the communication and absorption of sound. This section is the most specifically addressed to creative practice, though I think it is much more widely applicable. I particularly appreciated the discussion of sound’s relationship to “flow” and how we might change our relationship to the world around us based on our response to what we hear. I enjoyed thinking about listening as an active effort we make, rather than a passive activity we cannot control. One aspect of listening this section alludes to, but does not directly discuss, is patience. Recently, I watched a series of short videos produced by James Robinson called “Adapt-Ability” for The New York Times, and after I read Transcendent Waves I happened to watch the one on stuttering, which is a condition I am intimately familiar with through a very close friend who was also my college roommate. I highly recommend watching this and all of the “Adapt-Ability” videos (start with the whale eyes one), but the relationships between time, sound, and empathy were particularly interesting in light of Transcendent Waves. I realized communicating with my friend both through and about his stutter has taught me how to be a better listener and more sensitive to the diverse ways in which we communicate.
The last section of the book (green) is titled “internal/external” and discusses things like noise pollution and the impossibility of true silence. As for the inquiry pages, many of them present dichotomies, like “what do you think the first sound you hear when you’re born is?” or “… when you die?”, but the one I can’t stop thinking about reads “are there any recurring sounds in your dreams?” It had never before occurred to me to listen to my dreams, and I had no relationship to the sound of my subconscious. Do I listen to music in my dreams? Do people’s voices sound the same as in my waking life? Every morning since the book posed the question to me I’ve been waking up trying to recall the sounds in my dreams: What was the conversation like? Did those ocean waves make a sound? What does it sound like when I’m dreaming in some version of Spanish?
All and all, this book is a short and easy read that I would recommend to anyone who cares about self-improvement—or who is just looking for a fun and engaging book that looks good on your shelf and offers a pleasurable and practical reading experience.
Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Every once in a while, an excellent short story collection comes along to wake you up from the reading doldrums and to be read in a handful of days (or even in one sitting, depending on the luxury of your time). Hilma Wolitzer, now in her nineties, published such a collection last year: Yesterday a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket. The majority of the stories were written in the 1960s and ’70s; some of them follow the same married couple over time, while others stand alone, but all are tales of domestic life, ranging from the deeply moving to the quite funny. The last story was written in 2020, and is some of the best writing about the early months of the pandemic in New York that I have read to date.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): When we finished watching Mathieu Amalric’s dizzying, dazzling new film, Hold Me Tight, which opens today in New York and next week in Los Angeles, my wife asked: “Did you get it?” I did. What I didn’t say was that halfway through the film—which jumps back and forth in time and between geographical locales with no explanations or signposts—I was certain of what it all meant, and that certainty was, it turned out, totally groundless.
This is a film in which the ground is never solidly planted beneath the viewer’s feet. The motivations and actions of the main character, Clarisse (in a remarkable performance by the Luxembourgeoise actress Vicky Krieps), are either inexplicable or simply off. Perhaps Clarisse is even mad. As the film begins, we see her walking out on her family in the early morning hours, getting in her car, and telling a friend who works at a gas station and who asks if she is fleeing that she needs to see the sea. This, then, is a film about a woman in an unhappy marriage, and the subsequent scenes showing her husband to be obtuse and angry about her flight confirm this. Or do they merely seem to confirm this?
The film advances and Clarisse’s abandoned family goes on with its life, as the children grow up and Clarisse’s husband slowly comes to terms with his wife’s departure. But there are signs that something else is actually going on. Some of them seem significant as they occur, but of what? Is Clarisse remembering these events or is she imagining them as a way of justifying her abandonment of her family to herself? Or is it something else entirely?
Amalric, one of France’s most important actors, has directed his sixth film in so gripping a fashion that when the final reveal comes a few minutes before the end, all the clues suddenly explode into daylight. Hold Me Tight initially could have meant many things, but in the end it only could have meant one. I’ve watched the film twice, and the second time I was shocked by how subtly Amalric parcels out the solution throughout the film—a solution we refuse to accept because it’s too horrible.
This week, Julie R. Enszer, the editor and publisher of Sinister Wisdom, has a remembrance of Elana Dykewomon, who ran the journal from 1987 until 1994:
Novelist, poet, playwright, activist, lesbian, feminist, and proud Jewish dyke Elana Dykewomon died from cancer on August 7th, 2022. Elana lived a life that centered lesbians and valued their lives and perspectives.
Her creative output was substantial. Her 1974 debut novel Riverfinger Women is a classic among lesbian readers. Her double award-winning novel Beyond the Pale (1998) tells the transnational story of Gutke and Chava, highlighting lesbians in Jewish history. She also wrote a short story collection, Moon Creek Road (2003), and numerous poetry collections.
Wide-ranging coverage of her death—from her local East Bay Times to The New York Times to The Times of Israel—would have surprised Elana. These obituaries provide a narrative of her life, but they do not highlight the politics of her adulthood: solidarity with Palestinian people and a critique of the Israeli government.
Elana grew up in a Zionist family, as many news outlets reported, and identified as a Jew throughout her life. As an adult, Elana separated her Jewish identity from her family’s Zionism and remained committed to Jewish culture, history, and identity. In Evelyn Torton Beck’s iconic collection Nice Jewish Girls, Elana wrote, “it is crucial to say, yes, I am a lesbian and I am a jew whenever it is necessary to be counted.” Elana was present and counted in many places, including The Tribe of Dina, edited by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz, and numerous issues of Bridges, a vital Jewish feminist periodical. Most recently with Judith Katz, she edited Sinister Wisdom 119: To Be a Jewish Dyke in the 21st Century (2021). Elana also made significant contributions to fat studies in her work.
In the 2002 poem “My Mother and the Wars,” Elana gives her mother an article by Letty Cottin Pogrebin “critical of Israel government policy.” Her mother responds: “Anything Israel does / to defend itself is necessary,” while she searches “through her clippings file for columns on the other side.” The familial dance continues, and Elana muses:
Am I still in adolescent rebellion, could I be among
the self-hating? Don’t I remember how she and my father fought for Israel,
and why? “They want to drive us into the sea.”
Mom, you can swim.
Elana’s wry humor brings levity to the serious and difficult conversations.
In Milk and Honey, the 2011 collection I edited, Elana’s poem “An Eastern/Western Country Song,” carries the epigraph, “for my mother with whom I can discuss almost anything.” It begins:
We don’t talk about Zionism any more
because I say
we’re on the wrong side of a brutal war
and you say
the Arabs would push us from the shore
The poem continues in that dialogic fashion, ending where it began: “let’s not talk about Zionism any more.”
Other Jewish lesbian-feminists joined Elana in her critiques of war, nationalism, and Zionism, including Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Irena Klepfisz, and Clare Kinberg. Together with Elana, they provide a rich legacy for resistance today.
Elana was always fierce in her politics, which, over the years, were wide-ranging. She articulated a vision of lesbian separatism that was as equal in its power to mobilize and inspire as it was to alienate other lesbians. For all her political ferocity, she was generous and kind and caring.
The only balm I find in imagining a world without her is knowing that we continue her work.
Before you go, one last thing: this coming Monday, September 12th, Jewish Currents Executive Editor Nora Caplan-Bricker and Contributing Writer Linda Kinstler will be discussing Linda’s new book, Come to This Court and Cry, at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Linda also recently discussed the book with Contributing Writer Helen Betya Rubinstein for this newsletter.) You can sign up for the Harvard event here.