Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I got Covid two and a half weeks ago; it was more substantial than the first bout and I’m still sort of recovering. The worst of it now is a lingering brain fog, once described by my colleague Jacob as the feeling of having drunk one PBR at all times, which seems right to me in its implication of mild dissociation. It’s lifting day to day but nonetheless, I’ll keep this short! The only upside of Covid was the permission to stay in all day watching movies. Perhaps the best thing I watched was a delightful Japanese classic called Tampopo (1985) about a widow haplessly running a crappy roadside ramen joint who is inspired to improve by a truck driver with a discerning palate. Juzo Itami’s camera has a roving eye—or perhaps a roving nose: He is not afraid to move away from his central characters and their pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles to other rooms and other dishes (a particularly wonderful tangent—and an indelible image involving an egg that would be criminal to spoil—arrives as hotel room service to a gangster and his paramour). But the heart of this film is the ramen itself, and the relationship between the widow Tampopo and the rambling truck driver Goro. It’s not quite a romance; one senses the complications of real love might have spoiled the broth, so to speak. And yet it’s not not one; the movie spins out like a top on the energy of a person who has been inspired by another. “Everybody has their own ladder,” Tampopo says to Goro on their only night out alone together. “Some climb the rungs to the top. But some don’t even know they have one. You helped me find my ladder, Goro.”
I feel compelled to add that as soon as I started testing negative, I went and saw Everything Everywhere All At Once in the theater. It’s an instant classic, a totally original crowd pleaser. Go see it!
David Klion (newsletter editor): I recently started Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, an acclaimed 1,000-page historical tome with a very cool cover that’s been taunting me on my bookshelf since its publication five years ago. It’s a multigenerational saga about an enormous Soviet-era housing complex on an island in the middle of the Moskva River opposite the Kremlin that was home to some of the most elite Communist Party members and their families, including quite a lot of ethnic Jews and many of the eventual victims of Stalin’s purges. I’m not very far in, partly because I spent much of the past week in the DC suburbs and it seemed like too much trouble to bring this one down from New York (instead I brought Serhii Plokhy’s brisk, readable The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, which is great if you’re looking for an introductory survey of the country dominating international headlines this year), but what I’ve read so far of The House of Government is vividly written and captures the almost apocalyptic cult-like atmosphere of the generation of Russian left-wing intellectuals that would eventually overthrow the Provisional Government. As a longtime fan of Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, I’m excited to spend some more time in his singular reimagining of the Soviet world.
Ari M. Brostoff (senior editor): I can’t remember anymore whether I’ve always thought Sam Cohen, whose first book, Sarahland, came out last year, was named Sarah. I’ve met Sam a few times through mutual friends (she’s great) and am pretty sure I make this mistake every time. Has that really happened, or did Sam’s name simply get overwritten in my mind when I learned she was coming out with a short story collection about a whole world of Sarahs? In any case, the die has been cast; Sarah it is. This is not a book for people with strong boundaries.
Every story in Sarahland features a Sarah of some kind, from a girl growing up in a midwestern suburb “who feels basically and secretly interchangeable with all teenaged Sarahs” to the biblical Sarah (whose story centers on a pulpy romance with Abraham’s concubine Hagar) to the Sarahs produced by a mall arcade game where you can map your features onto a digital Sarah of your choosing (the narrator and her friend become Sarah Schulman and Sarah Silverman and speak in their voices for several pages). The Sarah universe reminds me of the slippery worlds in the stories of Aimee Bender (who is thanked in the acknowledgments): Sarahs are always becoming other things—cats and eels, girls they’re in love with, other Sarahs. Bodies turn into each other or fall apart. In one story, the especially surreal “Dream Palace,” the narrator (a second-person Sarah, this time) runs into a long-haired butch who used to bully her in elementary school, but this time seduces her. “When she drops her pants you’re confused by her cock because you feel sure she didn’t have one as a kid when she peed on you at recess,” Cohen writes. “‘Where’d you get it?’ you whisper. ‘That kid in our class who died left it to me in his will,’ she explains. ‘He was a feminist, it turned out.’”
My favorite story is the first one, which gives the book’s title and conceit a different, unsettlingly realistic resonance: Here, “Sarahland” is the impenetrable bubble inhabited by Jewish girls passing through sorority life on their way from summer camp to an MRS degree. “We lived in a privately owned off-campus dormitory where 90 percent of the girls were named Sarah,” explains a narrator known as Dr. Sarah (she’s pre-med) to differentiate her from her best friends, Sarah A. and Sarah B. Dr. Sarah continues:
The whole dorm was Jewish. I never understood how these things happened. Nowhere on any of the dorm’s advertising materials, which had succeeded in making me so excited to live with no parents in a building of studious 18-year-olds with a frozen yogurt machine, did it say the word Jewish, but it seemed wherever I went in my life, everyone was Jews. While I might think I was making independent choices and moving around freely in the world, it was as though a secret groove had been carved, and some invisible bumpers were going to push me gently back into that groove, the Jew groove, Sarahland, and Sarahland would trick me into thinking it was the entire world.
Someone really needed to give this extremely familiar phenomenon a name and I’m so pleased Sarah Sam Cohen did it: Sarahland it is.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): April is the month of cinematic biblical epics, and along with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s non-epic The Gospel According to St. Matthew, I’d like to advocate for The Robe. This grandiose account of early Christian suffering stars Richard Burton as Marcellus, an imperial Roman officer who pays the ultimate price for adopting the new faith. My reason for recommending it has little to do with its cinematic or historical qualities, though. It is worth watching for one of the film’s villains, a slimy character who betrays the Romans to the Christians and the Christinas to the Romans. His name is Abidor.
Abidor is indeed a Hebrew name, meaning “father of the generation,” but it’s not of biblical origin: it was devised in the modern era. Moreover, the name does not appear in Lloyd C. Douglas’ bestselling novel, which inspired the film. How, then, did my family of Russian Jews get dragged into ancient Rome and become a player in the rise of Christianity?
Since the name Abidor only appears in the film, I researched the screenplay. It was written by Albert Maltz, the Communist screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, who refused to rat before HUAC. Informing was a major concern of Maltz’s, and Abidor had a much larger part in the original screenplay than in the finished product. The drafts expand his awfulness greatly, an awfulness which in the film finally leads Richard Burton to tell him “Go back to Damascus, Abidor.” Abidor was a symbol of evil for Maltz. Why “Abidor,” though?
Maltz was a Jew from Brooklyn, and his family had connections to Brownsville, once the second-largest Jewish community in America. Brownsville was the home of the Abidors, my grandfather Louis and his two brothers, who along with their families were then the only Abidors in America. Maltz’s family were builders or, as some reports have it, house painters. So were the Abidor brothers. That they would have competed or had dealings with each other is almost certain, and that they would have bumped heads is also easy to imagine. The Abidors were not all easy men to get along with. One of my great-uncles left his family, took up a drifting existence, and was murdered at a boarding house in Queens, his head smashed in by his roommate when he and his girlfriend were making too much noise during activities we can easily imagine. My grandfather was a landlord with a roving eye, a fact I only learned when I was 50, decades after his death. When my grandmother got wind of this, she wanted to throw him out, but her sisters told her: “He’s got money, he’s got property. Stay with him and make his life a living hell.” And she did.
These difficult immigrant Jews would not have been nice people to know, and the archivist in charge of Maltz’s papers told me that my hypothesis was probably correct: Revenge is a dish best served cold, and Maltz waited for the right moment to take revenge on his family’s former foes. And so it is that if you watch The Robe, you’ll find the ancestor of a contributing writer to Jewish Currents influencing world history.