Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Since Sunday morning, when I heard the news of the death of Mimi Parker, half of the legendary indie rock band Low, I’ve listened to little else. For nearly three decades, singer and drummer Parker, who died of ovarian cancer at the young age of 55, made hauntingly beautiful music with her husband, singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk, and a rotating cast of bassists. On their 1994 debut album I Could Live in Hope, Low emerged with a slow, singular sound whose cavernous sleepiness—anchored in Sparhawk’s shimmering chords, Parker’s minimalist percussion, and the couple’s gentle harmonies—cut against the volume and velocity that governed alternative rock.
The band subtly and patiently developed this style over their next three records, finding a space in it for achingly melodic pop as well as washes of droning noise. They began to expand their aesthetic on albums like 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire and 2005’s The Great Destroyer, partnering with producers Steve Albini and David Fridmann—paragons of the very sound the band had initially abjured—to push their style to accommodate a brisker pace and more traditional uses of distortion without abandoning their distinctive, otherworldly haziness. The band continued to experiment; on their most recent trilogy, a collaboration with experimental pop producer BJ Burton, they truly made distortion their own, embracing a transcendent cacophony. The last two records, 2018’s Double Negative and 2021’s HEY WHAT (which I wrote about for this newsletter last year), have been rightly hailed as late period, out-of-left-field masterpieces on the level of ’80s auteurs Talk Talk.
Last year, when asked what unifies Low’s sound across this evolution, Parker responded, “Well, the vocals. No matter what we throw them on top of, the vocals keep it what it is.” This is what anchored the band’s exploration of their signature constellation of feeling: sorrow, yearning, desperate desire. The couple made their home in Duluth, Minnesota—just north of Minneapolis, where I’ve lived since 2015—and I’ve come to think of Low as the sound of Minnesota winter, brutal yet immaculate. From the glacial spaciousness of I Could Live in Hope to the barren ruins of HEY WHAT, their music conjures a forbidding, foreboding terrain, a lonely place where sad souls can find each other. The sound of Parker’s and Sparhawk’s voices is the sound of this desolate communion.
In a remembrance for The Guardian, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced Low’s 2013 album The Invisible Way, discussed the inimitable beauty of Parker’s crystalline soprano. “There’s something truly sacred about the way she sang and savoured notes,” he wrote, “almost as a form of meditation—the way that she and Alan could breathe together and make this music that was secular church music, or something.” I love the way Tweedy falters here: or something. It points to the tensions that live in Low’s music, which is not exactly secular; Parker was, and Sparhawk remains, a devout Mormon, and much of their oeuvre is rooted in their religion. But they never seem dogmatic, never evangelize (not even on the lovely 1999 Christmas EP); rather, they articulate faith as an embrace of the mystery tied to the uncertain hope of redemption. In his story “A Report,” the ex-Mormon writer Brian Evenson articulates a vexed relationship to religious tradition by imagining a prisoner attempting to transmit an inscrutable code between the cells. “I am part of a chain conveying a message that I cannot understand,” he says. “But perhaps someone understands it.” It reminds me of Low’s song “DJ,” on which Sparhawk sings: “Our fathers said what their fathers said / Our mothers did what their mothers did / We find each other on the edge of it.” Between each line, Parker’s ghostly voice joins his for a wordless response, the warmth of its infinite fragility a kind of company in the unknown.
May her memory be a blessing.
Aparna Gopalan (outgoing JC fellow): In June, as I was crafting and praying over my Jewish Currents job application, I haunted the “Editor’s Picks” section of the website to try and understand this magazine’s world. I read and re-read the pieces listed there, trying to puzzle out what that list, as a curatorial artifact, could tell me about the people behind Currents and what they were proud of—what they understood as stories particularly well-told. At the time, I didn’t know that my prayers would soon be answered and I’d get to spend the rest of the year working with and learning from those very people.
As I transition out of my fellowship and on to a new job this week, I’m thinking back to my time poring over “Editor’s Picks” and coming to the realization that the list did carry clues about the story of these people: what they cared about, what they had labored over in the past few years, and where they hoped to go in the future. Their act of curation itself told a story, both of experiences & memories, and of political hopes & dreams.
If I were to experiment with form in trying capture the story of my time at Currents in a “Fellow’s Picks” list, then, what would be on it? I’d definitely start with something like Naftuli Moster’s piece, which, besides being a classic Jewish Currents story aimed at holding the reactionary tendencies in one’s own community to account, was the first thing I “mock-edited.” Ari reviewed my edit with me, and my notes from our conversation begin with “WHAT ARE THE STAKES OF EACH LINE?” in all caps—a question this team asks itself every day. Then there would be Mari’s investigation into Israel Studies, which I helped do pull-quotes for. Even in such a “small” task, Currents’ attunement to political stakes did not diminish—just as the piece itself modeled journalistic integrity, Arielle taught me, so too must our representations of it, which meant foregoing some of the more “spicy” quotes in favor of quotes that stayed true to the fullness of the story being told. I learned this lesson again when crafting my own explainer on inflation with Nora and Dave, who helped me move through my rejection of “balance” as a fake political neutrality towards finding a new “balance” which deepened and broadened my critiques so I could speak to those who don’t agree but are nevertheless willing to listen.
Helping Claire with Yiyun Li’s powerful, meandering book review and listening to the poetry she curated over the months had me suspecting that there might actually be value in having a reader work to glean meaning rather than in providing them with an unearned, unfulfilling clarity. But I also did get to work in the more comfortable (to me) ‘cultural materialism’ vein with Nathan’s interview on literary conglomerates, in the process learning to ask not only “does this line belong” but also “does it belong here?” To balance out the interventionist editing instincts such questions strengthened in me, I had the truly singular and humbling experience of helping contextualize Edward Said’s letter to American Jewish intellectuals, a piece where the author’s words were what they were and any additional clarity had to be achieved around them.
I could go on, but in the interest of brevity, the rest of my “list” would probably be populated with the ‘bread and butter’ of Currents’ political journalism. As I helped edit Alex’s weekly newsletters on increasingly terrifying assaults on Palestinian rights (and increasingly militant resistance) alongside Arielle, Nora, Mari, and others, it became clear to me that this is a magazine grappling with the question of how to keep on speaking about increasingly unspeakable tragedy, and to do so in ways that intervenes in the world rather than just represent it.
This was the ethos—one of a perpetual attunement to stakes, an unwavering gaze trained on injustice others may or may not find “newsworthy,” and a careful craftsmanship brought to bear on the every word whether prosaic or poetic—that I can retrospectively say characterized “Editor’s Picks,” and has characterized my time with this community of incredible mentors and comrades which I hope to belong to for a long time. In the meantime, I hope to keeping poking my head in here every now and then!
Helen Betya Rubinstein (contributing writer): I’ve been shy about approaching these recommendations because my friends are constantly publishing books, and it’s hard to recommend just some. But I would be hoarding important pleasures if I didn’t mention a few beloved new ones.
Alice Dark’s novel Fellowship Point is a portrait of a whole community via two women in their eighties who are lifelong friends, one a thoroughly devoted wife and mother, the other a solitary and secretive writer. The book became my social life during an isolated week of late summer (and it reminded me, through its counterexample, how dreadfully thin most contemporary American fiction is). That said, Anna DeForest’s A History of Present Illness is an artfully slim portrait of the medical industrial complex that is as much poem as novel. And Leigh N. Gallagher’s Who You Might Be manages at once to be both extremely cool and the most compassionate novel I’ve read in ages: in a tightly knit collision of characters that moves across California, Detroit, and New York, it taught me a ton about graffiti, reacquainted me with the tenderness and terrors of young love, and made me cry. I’ll add one slightly-less-recent novel rec that might interest readers here: Zaina Arafat’s fast-paced queer coming-of-age You Exist Too Much. Apparently she was recently introduced at a reading as “the Palestinian Larry David.” I can’t disagree.
I also loved Kendra Allen’s memoir Fruit Punch, a lament about growing up in a girl-turned-woman’s body, with rhythms that stick in your ear, sentence after sentence hanging in disharmony until, finally, silence demands we hear resolution where there can be none. Sofi Thanhauser’s deeply researched book Worn: A People’s History of Clothing begins with the realization that “clothes are made,” and then takes us through history and around the world to show us how. Finally, I’m thrilled that Tanaïs just won the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction for their book In Sensorium. You can get a taste of the book and their brilliance in my interview with them in Literary Hub back in February.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): This year’s DOC NYC festival, which opened Wednesday and runs through November 17th in-person, with streaming options available until November 27th, includes almost 200 films and events. Though they’re not the only worthy ones, I’d like to recommend two must-see documentaries playing at the festival.
The first is Valerie Kontakos’s Queen of the Deuce, a film about gay porn, ethnic cinema, the Holocaust, and Times Square as it once was. The combination might seem impossible, but Kontakos weaves these strands together seamlessly and entreatingly as she tells the story of Chelly Wilson, the “queen” of the title. Chelly was a larger-than-life figure: brash, brassy, boisterous, and a businesswoman through and through. After immigrating to America from her native Greece, she eventually found her way to the movie business, and ended up running and living above the Eros, the Times Square gay porn theater, while also owning others, including the Adonis, also a famous gay site of the ’60s and ’70s. (Chelly, though married to a man, was herself a lesbian—and, like her husband Rex Wilson, a closeted Jew.) Kontakos, a Greek American filmmaker who has lived in Athen for the past 20 years, uses Chelly’s past as an entry point to tell the too-often-ignored horror story of the fate of the Jews of Salonika, Chelly’s hometown, 95% of whom perished during the war. The Queen of the Deuce lovingly tells Chelly’s tale through the voices of her daughters, friends, and collaborators, all of whom adored this extraordinary woman.
In Closed Circuit, Israeli director Tal Inbar has constructed a chilling documentary of a 2016 terrorist attack in a Tel Aviv restaurant that resulted in the deaths of four customers. Inbar documents the entire course of the attack, from the moment the killers crossed over from the Occupied Territories to their arrest, made possible by the closed-circuit cameras that are an omnipresent aspect of daily life in Israel. Their images are captured in their ill-fitting suits entering Israel, crossing Tel Aviv, reaching the restaurant, chatting with staff, and then taking out machine guns and attempting to kill as many diners as possible. The ubiquity of these cameras means that we see not only one of the killers shot and lying wounded on the street, but the other hiding in an apartment building lobby, where he is then invited up to the apartment of an off-duty policeman and offered tea to help him calm down. Inbar interviews people who were there—among them a young woman whose father was killed, who has never fully recovered from the loss. Others simply went about their business after the shooting stopped. This return to normalcy is also seen in the closed-circuit footage: After the dead and wounded have been removed from the restaurant, we witness the staff return, clear the tables, and wash down the counters.
I’ll recommend one more film that opens today in New York, though not at DOC NYC. Shlomi Elkabaz’s Black Notebook: Ronit is a labor of love, beautiful and tragic. The director, the brother and collaborator of the Israeli actor Ronit Elkabaz, demonstrates his affections and admiration for his brilliant sister in every shot. The documentary first covers the making of one of the greatest Israeli films—Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the story of an interminable religious divorce trial—which the siblings co-directed. But it also follows Ronit’s path after the completion of the film as she struggles with cancer, demonstrating perseverance and optimism all along the way—an optimism that will sadly be betrayed by the reality of the disease. It’s a courageous and heart-rending film.