Libby Lenkinski (member, JC Board of Directors): This week—the first week of the Jewish month of Iyar—always runs heavy on nationalism in Israel, with the official holidays of Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day, following in quick succession. Counter the official government calendar, many citizens of Israel—Jewish and Palestinian alike—opt to commemorate the Nakba on Israeli Independence Day. In honor of that sentiment, I wanted to recommend a new video series from the Australian Jewish website Plus61J, titled “From Their Perspective: Palestinian Citizens of Israel.”
The series was produced and directed by Ghousson Bisharat, a Palestinian citizen of Israel herself, and features some of the most insightful voices on the issues and challenges facing the community, whose families survived the Nakba but did not leave the land within ’48 borders. Part One features veteran media and policy professor Amal Jamal explaining the development of Arab politics within Israel; Part Two is a sit-down with veteran feminist activist Nabila Espanioly, who talks about social issues affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel—like housing, crime, and poverty—and their disproportionate impact on women; Part Three focuses on Dr. Amal El-sana A’ H’Jooj, author and founder of a Jewish-Arab NGO (AJEEC-NISPED), who outlines the prospects and difficulties of intercommunal solidarity in Israel; Part Four offers a glimpse into the balancing act Palestinian Israeli identity entails with journalist, filmmaker, and anchorman Rami Younis; and Part Five follows the musings of Arab hip-hop pioneer, actor, activist, and poet Tamer Nafar, who doubles down on the importance of cultural production, despite the lack of any institutional infrastructure for Arabic-language media.
As an Israeli American who works to further justice, equality, and freedom throughout Israel and the territories it controls, I know that the only way of reckoning with Israeli Independence/the Nakba is to talk about what happened in 1948 from multiple perspectives. But I also know we can’t stop there. As we see from the afterlives of South African apartheid, American slavery, and European imperialism, legally and socially entrenched systems of oppression never completely end—they shapeshift. The same is true for what is an ongoing Nakba for the Palestinian people. But if there is any hope of a positive future for Israelis, Palestinians, and both peoples’ diasporas, we have to go beyond simple recognition of contemporary injustice’s historical roots. We need a sense of what true equality would mean for those who are today disenfranchised, and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute 21% of the country’s population, here offer nuanced, painful, and complex perspectives on this system of dispossession. This series is just a taste of their reality.
I’m lucky to call some of those featured in this series friends and colleagues. Their views represent an entry point to a more profound set of ideas about equality, partnership, and the importance of addressing the past.
Daniel May (publisher): For weeks, I’ve been waiting—with an embarrassing degree of fanboy excitement—for Alisa Solomon’s review of the current production of Loraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which just moved to Broadway this week. Solomon is, to my mind, one of the great theater critics in the country, and I knew that whatever she had to say about Hansberry’s rarely-produced masterpiece would prove more insightful, informative, and moving than anything else I could read about the show, which has haunted me since I saw it a few weeks ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And Solomon does not disappoint. I sent her review to the friend with whom I saw the show, who wrote back: “This made me cry.”
If you’ve read anything about the play, you probably know that it is, as the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins put it in The New York Times, a “study of liberal self-delusion and whiteness as an existential crisis.” Solomon cites Jacobs-Jenkins’s description approvingly but notes that the play hones in on a particular kind of liberal self-delusion: namely, a Jewish one. For Solomon, Hansberry’s portrait offers a searing indictment of a personality familiar to anyone who has spent time in the world of American progressive Judaism—a person caught between confidence in their own unique capacity to transform the world, a desperate need for the recognition of that capacity, and the brutal insistence of the world to both resist that transformation and refuse that recognition. As Solomon reads it, the play is a story of what happens to such a person when those delusions fall away, and for Hansberry’s Brustein, that is both a tragic and redemptive story; as the delusions crumble, so does the man. But only when those delusions or pretenses fall away can they be replaced with the commitment to other human beings that is ultimately at the root of any struggle for justice.
Solomon is undoubtedly right about all of this, but her review also helped clarify what I found so moving about the play, which isn’t quite captured by descriptions of it as a searing indictment of white liberalism, or even more particularly white male Jewish liberalism. It is that, to be sure—Brustein’s casual misogyny and offhand racism made the Brooklyn audience around me gasp—but in her own discussion of the play, Hansberry wrote that, “the silhouette of the Western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement was an accurate symbolism of some of my closest friends, some of whom crossed each other leaping in and out, for instance, of the Communist Party. Others searched, as agonizingly, for some ultimate justifications of their lives in the abstractions flowing out of London or Paris. Still others were contorted into seeking a meaningful repudiation of all justifications of anything and had, accordingly, turned to Zen, action painting, or even just Jack Kerouac.” In her self-description, it was “the climate and mood of such intellectuals which constitute the core of a play called The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.”
The various avenues Hansberry lays out here amount to a concise account of most, if not all, of the paths that Brustein travels in the play as he struggles to align his commitments with the world in which he finds himself. But what most stands out to me in this quotation is the context: The silhouette she details is that of some of her closest friends. Brustein is a monstrously self-absorbed misogynist unaware of the status his whiteness confers. He is also brilliant, imaginative, and—above all—unwilling to live a life that does not align with his deepest commitments. That leads him to enormous naivéte and self-involvement and despair; it also provides the possibility of his redemption. What makes the play great, to my mind, is that it conveys the love, impatience, fury, and ultimately hope that Hansberry clearly had for those “closest friends.”
While the show may land with particular force for those white, male Jews raised to regard their own ideas with wonder, Hansberry is, I think, ultimately speaking to anyone that has found themselves run aground by the gulf between their sense of justice and truth and the machinations of a world that seems uninterested in either. In the play’s final lines, Hansberry has Sidney offer words that extend to the audience that has spent the last several hours watching his undoing. “Let us both weep,” he says gently. “That is the first thing: to let ourselves feel again . . . then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.”
Dana Bassett (director of finance and outreach): Basketball is great for many reasons, but one of them is that, unless you work for the NBA, it’s a great non-work topic to discuss with anyone and everyone. And because we’re deep in the playoffs, it’s all I’m talking about.
I, myself, am a lifelong Miami Heat fan. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting between my dad and my uncle and my uncle’s giant bag of giant green seeded grapes and watching Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway in the paint. When my family gathers on holidays, the Heat or the Dolphins (or college football—but never, ever the Marlins), are always playing somewhere in the background. But my interest in the Miami Heat really hit a fever pitch at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I, like so many people, became obsessed with the NBA bubble (and Anna Karenina, but that’s a different Shabbat Reading List rec altogether). I was enthralled not just by the gameplay (which many have argued was of an overall higher quality than usual) but also the minutiae, the stories, the drama. I was fascinated by who players brought with them to the bubble, how the food service worked, how the reporters had to live on site, the political outspokenness of WNBA and NBA players, group economics, the endless protocols and testing cycles, et cetera. More so than usual, the NBA was a microcosm of our society at large, with all its segmentation, hierarchy, and human intrigue. Most importantly though, it gave us (fans) something to talk about! I grew close to people who also followed the league, and the respite from all-to-common conversations about death and disease felt precious and important.
Anyway, I could go on and on and on about my personal interest in the NBA. I, like my mother, am the type of fan who is not actually enjoying themselves unless my team is holding a comfortable lead. But for the casual spectator, now is the absolute best time to get into the game. It’s the veritable World Series of basketball, our Super Bowl, if you will. It’s the NBA playoffs.
As I’m writing this, the first round is about to finish, and we have another to get through until we arrive at the conference finals, the penultimate round of the tournament. While there are a few second round matchups we could discuss, I want to highlight the impending battle between two scrappy, lovable underdogs: my beloved Miami Heat, who upset the Milwaukee Bucks (the highest seeded team in their conference) this week and what is (surprisingly) now the best team New York has to offer, the Knicks, who will meet at Madison Square Garden for the first game of their second round series this Sunday.
It’s the playoffs, so any matchup is exciting, but little is better than competing with a much-hated and long-standing rival. The Heat and the Knicks have a storied history, facing off in the playoffs four consecutive times during the 1997-2000 NBA seasons (including the infamous “leg game” during the first round of the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs. Google it.). There is even a Wikipedia page titled “Heat–Knicks rivalry.”
Couple that history with both teams’ excellent rosters, and, my friends, we have a series. Miami’s star, Jimmy Butler, scored a historic 56 points in Game 4 against the Bucks, and Knicks point guard Jaylen Brunson has been punching well above his 6-foot-2 frame, scoring over 40 points in the last two games of their first round series against the Cavaliers.
I’m afraid that this series will have a lasting impact on my friendship with various Knicks fans in my life (I have received more than a few menacing texts), but I’m sure it’ll be an exhilarating match up either way. Can’t wait to see what Spike Lee wears to the game. Heat in 5.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): When Jews and fabulous wealth are linked, it’s usually the Rothschilds and their European financial empire that come to mind. Far less known are the Sassoons, the extraordinarily prosperous Iraqi Jewish family who rose to the highest ranks of the English aristocracy. This family, sometimes called “the Rothshilds of the East,” are the subject of a fascinating exhibit at the Jewish Museum simply called The Sassoons, on display until August 13th. (I also highly recommend its catalog, written by Esther da Costa Meyer and Claudia J. Nahson, which is as sumptuous as the show it documents.)
Though The Sassoons focuses on all that was splendid and splendorous about the titular family, it doesn’t ignore the mundane matter of the source of their riches. David Sassoon, the already wealthy paterfamilias, fled Iraq in 1832 to escape persecution by the Mamluk rulers and established himself, his family, and his businesses in Calcutta and Bombay, and later Shanghai. Unlike the Rothschilds, banking was not at the heart of the Sassoon portfolio; their fortune was made in the manufacture and trading of real objects—principally cotton, textiles, and opium. When the British government finally moved to ban the opium trade, the Sassoons fought the proposal tooth and nail, presenting use of the drug as a positive good. They lost, but by that time their wealth was so enormous, and its sources so varied, that this barely made a dent in their lifestyle.
The Sassoons does not question the morality of the family’s involvement in the opium trade or their lobbying against its prohibition; indeed, it is not particularly interested in examining capitalist business practices. Instead, it considers how a Jewish family from the Western world’s imperial colonies managed to reach the very heights of the British upper crust, presenting their history as a tale of the conflicting pulls of assimilation and tradition. The exhibit traces the family’s ascent through objects, photographs, and the conservative Western art they collected as larger and larger branches of the family left the colonies for life in England, abandoning the magnificent imitation British homes they built in India and China—well represented at the show—for mansions in London and the English countryside. It also includes a generous selection of family portraits painted by some of the most important portraitists of the time, like John Singer Sargent.
Though assimilation into the highest ranks of the British elite led some of the Sassoons—including the most famous member of the family, the poet Siegfried Sassoon—to abandon their religion, others remained true to their ancestral roots. The show displays the Judaica the family members collected, as well as Karaite and Samaritan documents. Notably, the family did most of its philanthropic work through Jewish institutions, which they established and supported. And their origins also made a mark in other ways: For many years, for instance, their business correspondence was written in Baghdadi Jewish dialect, which became a form of code used to keep its contents hidden from prying eyes. But for the most part, especially from the early 20th century on, the Sassoons became more British than the British. The exhibit demonstrates just how easily and successfully they negotiated this shift.