Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): Two must-see exhibitions: The first is Material/Inheritance at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, a group show curated by Leora Fridman pulling together artists who have been fellows in the now four-year-old New Jewish Culture Fellowship. Full disclosure: Though I did not participate in the show, I was a fellow in the first cohort. Many NJC fellows have graced the pages of Jewish Currents over the years, and at least one work in the show—Elie Lobovits’s Fertility series—was first published in Jewish Currents’s Summer 2022 issue. So this is not an impartial review so much as an affirmation that, as I said in this newsletter a few weeks ago, and as JC contributing writer Sol Brager wrote in Artforum last summer, something is up right now in the world of Jewish art.
The fellowship and the show take as a galvanizing text JC contributing editor and NJCF co-founder Maia Ipp’s 2019 essay “Kaddish for an Unborn Avant Garde,” which lamented the communal disinvestment in arts and culture in favor of Israel-related projects and programming. In this regard, the show feels like a coming out of sorts for a group of mostly millennial Jewish artists that is beginning to see itself as part of a cohort, perhaps, engaged in deeper conversation with one another about Jewish politics and identity. For me, the show’s highlights included Nat Sufrin’s irreverent and provocative How to See the Shoah: Google Images Translation of Celan and Reznikoff, which breaks down two poems—Paul Celan’s “Ashglory” and Charles Reznikoff’s “Holocaust”—into phrases alongside their Google images searches, displayed in a grid. I also really enjoyed two dramatic audio works: Jay Eddy’s naturalistic three-channel installation The Death of Arthur, following three generations mourning the death of a grandfather, and Ben Gassman and Brandon Woolf’s playful, stylish Between the Bread, which focuses on the sandwich as a site of urban inter-ethnic encounter. But perhaps my favorite piece was Liat Berdugo’s performative slide lecture Seeing it for the Trees, performed live at the opening, which uses the JNF-KKL’s photographic archive alongside personal images as a way to understand the role of trees in the formation of ethnonationalist statehood. The room was packed during Berdugo’s performance—much of the audience, the silver-haired crowd you might expect at a Jewish museum on a Sunday afternoon—and I couldn’t help but notice that this was just the kind of work that would have been pushed out of mainstream Jewish institutions just a few years ago. It made me feel hopeful that, despite the pervasive sense of an ossified Jewish communal infrastructure, a shift might be underway. The show is up until June 11th, and will include another day of performances at the closing in Maryland as well as some “activations” in New York City.
I also cannot recommend enough Images on which to build at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in Manhattan, curated by (another NJC fellow) Ariel Goldberg, which focuses on photography-based art, activism, education, and media production within queer and trans communities in the 1970s to the 1990s. “Presenting trans and queer image cultures from this time creates spaces beyond the visual, where felt experiences of affirmation, recognition, and connection form legacies to shape our present and future,” Goldberg writes in their curatorial statement. The show is barely more than one big room, and yet it feels dense with a web of connections; each listed artist or collective brings with them an entire community—sometimes an entire lineage. The space is frankly packed with people, and I found myself incredibly moved by the project of identifying and uplifting one’s yikhes. Perhaps I’m a sucker for the performative slide lecture (what an amazing form!) but when you go, you must make time for The Dyke Show by JEB (or Joan E. Biren), which, among other things, recovers the images of lesbian photographers, most of whom could only be claimed as lesbians in retrospect. This act of looking queerly, uncovering what the straight world would prefer not to see, acts as an anchor for the exhibition as a whole. The audio was recorded in front of a live audience—JEB toured the show between 1979–1984—and we hear them laugh and sigh and hum with interest, recognition, gratitude, and relief. In this moment of renewed homophobic and transphobic backlash, I found a lot of strength in listening to the reactions of that room, in feeling for a moment like I was there with them. I felt anew the meaning of that old Yiddish adage, “We Will Outlive Them.”
David Klion (contributing editor): I just finished a used copy of Breaking Ranks, Norman Podhoretz’s second memoir, which was published in 1979, and which I stumbled upon at the Strand last week. The neoconservatives are a topic of obsessive study for me, and Podhoretz in particular is a guilty pleasure as well; in spite of his awful politics and equally awful personality, in his prime he was a wonderful writer. I’m a fan of Making It, his first memoir, which I wrote about for Jewish Currents in 2017, 50 years after its publication, and later discussed on an episode of Know Your Enemy with Matt Sitman and JC contributor Sam Adler-Bell. That book, which is only tangentially concerned with politics, is a shamelessly self-aggrandizing account of the author’s rise from working-class Brooklyn to the Upper West Side intelligentsia. Making It managed to piss off all of Podhoretz’s friends in the latter milieu, not with overt ideological heresies but with its heresy against propriety; middle-class intellectuals weren’t supposed to acknowledge their own ambition for prestige and material success, much less brag about how far they’d already come. But dishy, confessional memoirs are less scandalous now than they were then, which might be why Making It has developed something of a cult following in the past few years among precisely the kind of lefty New York writers whose forebears hated it.
Breaking Ranks is a more conventional book, and much less referenced nowadays, but it’s an essential text for understanding the rise of neoconservatism. (It’s also a key source for Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary, a favorite of multiple JC staffers that has been recommended here a few times already.) Loosely framed as a letter to his teenage son John, who would later inherit the editorship of Commentary that he still holds today, Breaking Ranks is an account of Podhoretz’s evolution from Cold War liberal to quasi-radical to reactionary over the course of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. The publication of Making It is a pivotal moment halfway through Breaking Ranks; it’s fun to consider whether Podhoretz’s alienation from his left-wing peers was more cause or effect of the controversy surrounding his previous memoir. Either way, the decade or so after Making It saw Podhoretz—and Commentary—embrace the right on nearly every major issue, triggering the Old and New Left alike.
From a contemporary vantage, what’s most striking about Breaking Ranks is how little the structure of elite political discourse has changed since the late ’70s. Today we have a surplus of writers making the pivot from left to right, always citing the same basic grievances: the rise of a new class of educated elites and a new dogma that betrays core liberal principles; the social advancement of marginalized groups to an extent that makes the author personally uncomfortable; the alleged hostility of university campuses and intellectual publications to open debate on hot-button issues. We hear this stuff all the time now, though rarely as articulately as Podhoretz put it when he established the template decades ago. Meanwhile, Podhoretz himself is still alive at 93; just last year, he told the Claremont Review of Books that he’s not sure Donald Trump actually lost the 2020 election. Everything old is neo again.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): Last week, I attended one of the final nights of Ryan J. Haddad’s “Dark, Disabled Stories” at the Public Theater in New York. It was a terrific performance. Haddad is a gay actor with cerebral palsy, and the play is made up of autobiographical vignettes about his dating life and his experiences navigating New York City—especially its transit systems—with his walker. Haddad’s humor guides audience members through each story—a skillful balancing act that makes the difficult parts bearable and prevents his exploration of being disabled in an environment structured by ableism from coming off as any sort of “tragedy.” He makes clear at the beginning—after a story that begins with him giving a blowjob to a cute date in a pub bathroom—that if anyone is there to pity him, they should leave.
The play not only tells nuanced, non-universal stories about living with a disability, but also models ways to produce accessible theater. Haddad performs alongside another actor, Dickie Hearts, who signs the monologues in ASL; both are costumed in shirts that say “Ryan,” and the two interact onstage in creative, funny, and lovely ways. A third actor, Alejandra Ospina, plays the role of “Descriptor,” intermittently verbalizing visual cues for blind and low-vision audience members, which are telecast on a panel above the stage. The narration is also projected in text form on the back wall of the set.
Hearts and Ospina each share one monologue from their own lives. (Haddad subs in as the narrator or Descriptor.) Hearts shares a story of being consensually hand-cuffed during sex by a stranger from Grindr: He moves from his initial terror at having his method of communication restricted into an experience that begins to feel hot. Ospina’s scene—discussing her predicament, as a person in a motorized wheelchair, when a subway elevator is broken—has no positive resolution. She shares her grief at missing professional and social appointments, and the terror and uncertainty of being trapped underground.
The play seems successful at providing value—in the form of recognition, insight, or a mix of both—to disabled and non-disabled audience members alike. (It was cool to be in an audience where many people were visibly using mobility aids.) Even though this run has ended, I recommend that you follow Haddad’s work and look out for his future projects, which I suspect will be just as incisive and moving.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Some of the French director François Ozon’s finest films, like Swimming Pool and Under the Sand, were co-written with the novelist Emmanuèle Bernheim, who died of cancer in 2017. Sadly, Americans who don’t read French have virtually no access to her remarkable and strange body of work. But with the American arrival of Ozon’s latest film, those who have been deprived of Bernheim’s company will now at least have a faithful film adaptation of one of her best books, the autobiographical Tout s’est bien passé (Everything Went Fine). The title refers to Bernheim’s father’s assisted suicide, and this jarring way of describing that event is a perfect example of Bernheim’s genius.
As the book and film make clear, Bernheim’s father, André, a wealthy retired industrialist and well-known art collector, was a very difficult man who treated his daughter coldly when she was a child. His marriage to Bernheim’s mother was a miserable one, not least because he was gay and deeply involved with a violent man who abused him. As the film begins, André has a stroke that leaves him severely diminished—his face twisted, his left eye drooping. Unable to do anything for himself, André announces that he wants to end it all, and it’s up to Emmanuèle (and not his other daughter, Pascale) to figure out how to get it done. Dutiful daughter that she is, she carries out her father’s wishes against her will.
Everything Went Fine’s exploration of aging succeeds on the strength of its actors. In his courageous performance as André, the usually vibrant and exuberant André Dussolier inhabits a character for whom sitting upright in a chair is a major accomplishment. Charlotte Rampling, whose performances usually burst with sexual energy, is trembling and grim as André’s ex-wife. Hannah Schygulla, once the iconic actress of the New German Cinema, plays the white-haired representative of the assisted suicide organization. The ravages of age are made all the more stark for those of us who knew these actors when they—and we—were young.
Emmanuèle and her sister hope that their father will change his mind—that as the day he calls “Le jour J,” meaning “D-Day,” approaches, André will realize that life is beautiful. But he remains stubborn. For him life is no longer beautiful, and he perseveres in his death drive, overcoming every last obstacle placed before him in his quest to end his days with a modicum of dignity. In the end, everything goes fine.