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Josh Lambert (contributor): The discourse around the recent series finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm was pretty predictable: proclamations of the end of Jewish comedy, or at least the end of an era, nostalgic lists of old Jewish comedians, or laments that it is “hard to think about the finale of ‘Curb,’ or rewatch the ‘Palestinian Chicken’ episode, amid the cruelty and carnage of the past six months.” Jews have always told jokes during periods of horror, though—see, for example, the Warsaw ghetto jokes collected by Shimon Huberband. What’s more specifically painful right now is the unease of laughing when Jews are perpetrating atrocities, day after day, and when there’s so much fundamental disagreement among Jews about whether they constitute atrocities at all.

This brokenness has been captured by the comedian Antonia Lassar, who gives me the tiniest sliver of hope that we can rebuild a more loving and just Jewish community in the U.S. Lassar is the kind of queer Reform Jew who prays most comfortably at Evangelical churches and Chabad houses. On TikTok, she’s got hundreds of thousands of views for her take on Reform synagogue décor, plus all the IBS content you could want. She’s performed sketch comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade and a one-person show about sexual violence on college campuses, and she recently started co-hosting a podcast “sometimes about Jews, sometimes about comedy, and always about gossip.” Her new tour reminds me a bit of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in its ambition: Lassar wants her audience to laugh, but also to confront the loneliness of the moment we’re in. I would rather not describe precisely what you’ll be getting yourself into, if you see one of her upcoming shows in Boston and Atlanta, but you can expect discomfort, group singing, and the possibility that you’ll walk out feeling a tiny bit less despair.

Cynthia Friedman (managing director): I’ve been watching the fourth season of The Great North, a cartoon that follows the Tobin family in the fictional town of Lone Moose, Alaska. The show’s charm hinges on its rich set of characters. The family is a mix of grounded and eccentric: The eldest, Wolf, and his fiancée-then-wife Honeybee Shaw exchange movie quotes and creative business ideas; 16-year-old Judy is passionate about drama and the arts; Ham, a sweet soul, bakes cakes and casually re-comes out as gay every once in a while; and the youngest, Moon, lives for the outdoors and wears a bear onesie as his primary outfit. Their caring and attentive dad, Beef—voiced by the fantastic Nick Offerman—does the parenting solo. In the first episode, we learn that his wife ran off years ago, and was not a responsible mother even when she was around. (In one scene, the kids reminisce about when she named their childhood dog “Grandma,” so that when she was out partying, she could truthfully say that the kids were home with Grandma.) Alongside the family, we get to know the cast of folks about town: straight-faced Mayor Peppers, a member of the Sugpiag tribe; Santiago, a gentle and contemplative man; Alyson Lefebvrere, who runs the point-and-shoot photography store at the mall.

Watching The Great North is a wholesome and funny experience, yet its adult themes (and sometimes adult language!) ensure the show never reaches a saturation point of feeling sappy. There is a comforting reliability about the show: not only does Hulu release one episode a week—a throwback to TV schedules before streaming—but each episode ends with lessons that invoke humility, kindness, generosity, and being true to oneself for kids and grown-ups alike. On days when those qualities feel painfully absent from the political stage, it’s a welcome respite to enter the world of the Tobins for a spell, before going back out.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Don’t be put off by the monstrously trivializing title of Tricia Romano’s oral history of The Village Voice. The Freaks Came Out to Write—a more appropriate name for an empty-headed chronicle of hippie life—is in fact an important book about a once-great newspaper. This depiction of New York’s storied alt-weekly, stitched together from the accounts of hundreds of those who participated, is at once totally familiar and full of surprises, and serves as a reminder of the value of oppositional journalism.

The Voice was born in 1955. Its founders included Norman Mailer, and while the celebrity novelist never played more than a marginal role, he is credited with coming up with its iconic name. The Freaks Came Out to Write reacquaints us with many of greats from the past of New York journalism: The paper’s news section included Jack Newfield and his annual lists of the ten worst landlords and the ten worst judges; Wayne Barrett and his dogged investigations into crooked and venal politicians and developers (including Donald Trump); Nat Hentoff and his fervent civil libertarianism; and the immortal, unreconstructed communist Alexander Cockburn. The culture pages featured film critics like Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and the music writers Robert Christgau, Richard Goldstein, Gary Giddins and, before he was fired for punching a coworker, Stanley Crouch. For a time, The Voice even had one of the best sports sections ever to appear in a non-sports periodical. This sparkling cast of writers all appeared at the same time; those of us who read it faithfully knew just how lucky we were.

But the stories of life at the weekly told by the former writers show us a side of the paper not obvious to its readers. Egos were difficult to control, and battles over space were constant. (One must admire the editors who had to herd what one participant calls “a herd of ocelots” to produce a paper that was essential reading for so many years.) The Freaks Came Out to Write also illuminates the way political shifts roiled the publication. The growth of the feminist movement was not greeted warmly by The Voice’s core cadre of white men, like Hentoff and Barrett. The same held during the rise of the fight for gay rights, and for efforts to acknowledge the importance of Black culture. This part of the story is not a pretty one, but it’s to Romano’s credit that she tells it warts and all.

While The Voice still exists today (after a few-year hiatus), it is a shell of its former self. This book shows that the paper did not simply die, but was deliberately killed, as the writers who were at its heart were fired one by one, and the focus shifted away from rigorous investigative journalism. Remembering how vital The Voice once was, and the role its reporters played in uncovering corruption and general sleaziness in city government, I couldn’t help but think of the dreadful moral state of New York today, rudderless under an untrustworthy mayor. This abominable status quo is partly owed to the absence of a paper like The Voice was in its heyday, which held our elected and unelected rulers’ feet to the fire.


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 Metzora

Following last week’s discussion of leprosy, this week’s parshah, Metzora, begins by detailing the ritual response to this affliction before turning to a related but more puzzling phenomenon: leprous houses. G-d tells Moses and Aaron that when the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, G-d will “place an eruptive plague” upon their houses (Vayikra 14:34). While most of us can imagine scaly or discolored eruptions on the skin, it is harder to envision what leprosy looks like on the walls of a home, or understand how it might occur. The rabbis were also perplexed by the language G-d employs to introduce the phenomenon: “Venatati,” the verb meaning “I will place,” is commonly used when referring to the bestowing of divine blessings. But the Torah states that a house afflicted incurably with leprosy must be dismantled; how, then, could such a state be construed as something positive? And how does this relate to the common rabbinic understanding of leprosy as a punishment for sin?

Some midrashim and commentators nevertheless understand the phenomenon as unambiguously good, arguing, for example, that G-d created it in order for people to find treasure buried in the walls of their homes upon tearing them down. Other commentaries, however, take a more ambivalent approach, casting the leprous house as a warning. For instance, Midrash Tanchuma argues that G-d created leprous houses to give the Jewish people greater opportunity to repent. These manifestations, the text claims, are indeed the result of sin. But rather than immediately afflict a sinner’s body as punishment, G-d benevolently begins by afflicting their home. The hope, according to the midrash, is that these alarming splotches on the wall will prompt an offending individual to reflect, realize the harm they’ve done, and repent. If this doesn’t work, the disease moves closer, to the sinner’s clothes; if a person still does not do teshuvah, the impurity clings to their very skin.

However, this understanding of the leprous house make it unclear why the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin mentions the affliction along with the biblical legal categories of a “rebellious child” (whom the Torah states must be stoned) and an “idolatrous city” (which must be put to the sword and razed) as phenomena that have never occurred, and indeed “never will.” This claim reflects the fact that the rabbis had so thoroughly restricted the legal definition of these phenomena that no instance could ever meet their stringent requirements. In the case of the rebellious child and the idolatrous city, this declaration has often been interpreted as arising from a moral judgment about the categories themselves: Because they necessitate the death penalty, the Talmud implicitly states that these cases never should exist. The rabbis could not bear to enact the requisite punishments for these categories, so they legislated them out of existence. But that explanation seemingly falters when it comes to the leprous house. If this is a tangible warning of our transgressions—an opportunity to assess our deeds and repair the harm we have caused—shouldn’t we want to receive it? Isn’t this a moral good?

The medieval commentator Sforno offers an alternative way of understanding the idea that the leprous house has and will never occur: These warning signs do not appear when the Jewish people are in a state of such spiritual numbness that they would not even recognize them as such. Taking the Talmud in Sanhedrin and Sforno together leads to a darkly comical reading of the Midrash Tanchuma—G-d’s great love for the Jewish people would have been manifest in multiplying our opportunities for repentance, but we are so shut off from an awareness of culpability that this gift has never been bestowed. According to this view, the rabbis’ statement in Sanhedrin that there “never will be” a leprous house is a not a moral rejection of the phenomenon but a bleak prediction based on a pessimistic view of their own community; they could not envision a world in which we would heed G-d’s warnings, and therefore merit them.

While this reading may be grim, it is helpful in articulating both the magnitude of the task we face and the urgent initial steps that must be taken. Those of us committed to building a liberated world must begin by striving to enable our communities—and ourselves—to see the rot all around us. To inspire both an individual and collective reckoning, we must first be able to materially and viscerally recognize the illness, and feel the desperate need for repair.

—Lexie Botzum