Shabbat Reading List
Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content


Aparna Gopalan (news editor): At an anarchist book fair last fall, I got my family a gift that I can’t stop thinking about recently: a marathon of a board game called “Bloc by Bloc: Uprising.” The game’s protagonists are four oppressed blocs—workers, neighbors, prisoners, and students—and each player plays one of these on a board made up of areas like “overcrowded jail,” “gentrifying residential zone,” “garment sweatshop,” and “privatized university.” The blocs’ shared goal is to revolt: organize new members, build barricades and encampments, evade or clash with police, and eventually, liberate entire swathes of the city.

I’ve played radical games before—Paul Peterson’s hilarious “Guillotine” is a particular favorite—but Bloc by Bloc is not so much a board game as a training manual for revolutionary street politics. As police deployments intensify and the 10-day countdown to the National Guard’s arrival ticks up each round, players are faced with the urgent tactical questions that dog real movements: Which zones are going to be easiest to liberate (public park, plaza, street market), and which the most necessary (interior ministry, telecom network hub)? Is the subway open or closed today, and how is that going to affect our ability to reinforce our encampments around the city? Should I spend my turn planning new escalations with other blocs, or focus on growing the size of my own bloc first? Should I be building a new encampment at the bankrupt junior college, or travel to defend comrades about to face a police sweep at the smartphone factory instead? The last of these questions is particularly pressing because the game immediately ends if one of the four blocs is fully defeated. As a result, solidarity is not an option but an existential need. I often found myself abandoning my own plans and dashing across the board to protect other players, using my special powers—if I was playing as “students,” I could sneak past police; as “prisoners” I could beat them up—for collective defense, and often sacrificing my encampments and even bloc members for the survival of the whole.

The game is set up like the real world in that there are countless police and yet their numbers keep growing. Often, it felt less like we were building a movement than simply trying not to be eliminated. The challenge then became to figure out what strategies—the gambits, the feints—would enable us to break that holding pattern. In our case, the strategy that eventually worked was going on the offensive. Once we burned down our first police van, the tide turned: soon we were hemming the cops into ever-smaller parts of the city as we built camp after camp. When we liberated our first zone, around four hours into the game, we could have cried. The board began changing color as we flipped each tile to its “liberated” version, and slowly the city turned into a landscape of mutual aid centers and graffiti and street parties, with no police in sight.

When I played the game to stave off feelings of left futility in late 2023, I couldn’t imagine that similar struggles would materialize again so soon. As encampments spread across university campuses, we are living through the reality Bloc by Bloc so effectively simulates—the violent ubiquity of police raids, the difficult tradeoffs of collective action, and the thrill of small liberations. When you’re taking a break from reinforcing the real encampment near you, or maybe while you’re hanging out at that encampment, do check out Bloc by Bloc!

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The Iranian film Terrestrial Verses, directed by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatam, could not be more simply made. In nine scenes, each of which unfolds in a single shot, an ordinary Iranian negotiates with some authority figure off-screen, heard but never seen. The directors have spoken of their debt to the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, and formally their film is really an homage to his brilliant Ten (2002), which takes place entirely in a car, the camera trained on the driver and passenger as the passengers talk about their lives. Terrestrial Verses likewise has no real plot: The only connection between the various supplicants and authorities is the intrusiveness of the latter and the powerlessness of the former. By bringing together these disparate vignettes, Asgari and Khatam portray the cruelty of Iran’s repressive regime—not through the spectacular brutality of Revolutionary Guards beating or shooting people, but through the mundane indignities of daily life.

The film opens with a new father standing at the window of a government office, where he is attempting to register his baby’s name: David, after his wife’s favorite author. While the banter about the eccentric choice of a Western name is almost lighthearted, as the registrar suggests more typically Iranian names, the ultimate result is chilling—the parent’s choice is deemed unacceptable. The second chapter begins with a carefree little girl, Selena, dancing before a mirror in a clothing store to what is clearly Western music played through her headphones. She’s there for her mother to purchase the proper Islamic attire mandated for a school ceremony, and she’s soon buried beneath robes, veils, headbands, and flowers. The scenes that follow play out further dynamics of restriction. We see one young woman accused of immorality by her school principal, another propositioned by a potential boss, yet another whose car has been impounded because a traffic camera showed her driving without a head scarf. A man trying to get a driver’s license must take off his shirt to show the clerk his tattoos and justify them; a filmmaker has to tear pages from his script before a culture ministry official will allow it to be made.

The understatement of the mise-en-scène makes the characters’ degradation all the more terrible, and the stationary camera makes the people’s silent anger scream. Shot over seven days with no permits, Terrestrial Verses is an act of political courage. But it is above all a brilliant film.

Jonathan Shamir (fellow): I didn’t realize how weary I’d grown of the detachment and ironizing that is so prominent in contemporary fiction until I recently read Garth Greenwell’s 2020 novel Cleanness, which dives headfirst into the extremities of human feeling. Following a gay American teacher in the twilight of his tenure in Sofia, Bulgaria, the book is told in a gorgeous and breathless first-person voice that is like a hoover for every crumb of experience. The term “stream-of-consciousness” feels too cerebral for this novel, which seems more interested in tracing the motions of the body and the heart.

This surfeit bubbles up most often through the narrator’s romantic and sexual encounters; three of the book’s nine chapters are dedicated to his relationship with a young Portuguese student named R., while two chapters relay his intense experiences of BDSM with other men. Greenwell’s depictions of sex are not only vivid with visceral detail, but also attuned to the ways that sex functions as a site of both self-abnegation and self-realization. In Cleanness, desire has an unstable relationship to language—the “blunter instrument” of the narrator’s imperfect Bulgarian means that he can express himself sexually “without self-consciousness or shame”—and to the self, as the narrator grapples with how to even recognize the authenticity of the feeling.

Across the full range of the novel’s scenarios, Greenwell treats the narrator’s other emotions with no less depth: his subtle sadness as he moves through the crowd at anti-government protests, his inebriated tenderness toward a local dog, his stunted attempt to comfort a heartbroken student.Cleanness perceptively illuminates the similarities between these ostensibly quite different categories of experience. After failing to provide meaningful mentorship to his student, the narrator reflects on how he has “worn [him]self down to a bearable size”; when he spits the word “faggot” as he steps uneasily into the role of a dom in the penultimate chapter, he finds himself moved to tears by the dignity of his submissive partner. The narrator’s constant self-doubting highlights how relationships as apparently rigid as teacher-student or dom-sub roles are much less stable than expected. By troubling such dichotomies, the novel depicts a life lived fully in the uncertainty and richness of the in-between. As the narrator tells the campus dog at the novel’s end, breaking the rules to let her inside: “You’re filthy . . . but I love you.”


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.

Chol Hamoed Pesach

This week, Passover interrupts the normal sequence of Torah readings, and we return to the Book of Shemot. But rather than read about the miraculous redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, or anything else obviously tied to Passover’s narrative of liberation, we instead step into the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses, anxious about his leadership role and his people’s future, begs to see God: “Show me, please, Your presence” (Shemot 33:18). In this moment of profound upheaval and uncertainty, he yearns for an intimate vision of divinity, for a glimpse of absolute truth and ultimate meaning. Yet Moses’s desire cannot be fulfilled. “A human being cannot see Me and live,” God responds. Instead, God places Moses in the cleft of a rock, where he is covered by God’s hand, blocking his sight until God walks away.

This non-fulfillment of Moses’s desire has its own distinct power. In his commentary on the reading for this Shabbat, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889–1943) links God’s hand obscuring Moses’s view to a statement God makes to the Jewish people in the Book of Isaiah: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:16). Shapira explains, “Even when God’s hand conceals, we are still ‘engraved on the palms of God’s hands,’ with the utmost intimacy.” For him, the very mechanism that conceals God from Moses—the barrier between divinity and humanity—is, paradoxically, the site of an intimate union with God.

This teaching comes from a sermon that Shapira delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto on April 27th, 1940, speaking to a community for whom God surely felt agonizingly hidden. During Passover, Shapira must have wondered how to help his congregation experience the holiday’s insistence on freedom when their own liberation seemed so distant. Instead of calling for the optimism of the biblical past or surrendering to the despair of the historic present, he spoke to both by suggesting that we can find God not despite God’s hiddenness but within it. He thus invited his community to experience the grief of God’s absence—in which, he writes, “we suffer physically and spiritually”—as an encounter with God, and an opportunity to find agency within the most helpless circumstances. Facing God’s concealment forces us to consider how a world in which we clearly see God’s presence would look different from this one, and how our longing might spur action to manifest that absent divinity.

In this moment of suffering and hopelessness, when God seems so hidden that even to speak of God can feel absurd if not callous, Shapira reminds us that God’s apparent concealment creates an occasion to become living channels of the divinity we long to see. We can discover, like Moses, that the barrier preventing us from glimpsing God is at the same time a space of intimacy with God, and that the agony of divine absence is an invitation to transform that absence from within.

—Daniel Kraft