Nathan Goldman (managing editor): While I expected that fatherhood would dramatically alter my reading life, I didn’t anticipate becoming a father in exactly the way I did—spending the first months visiting my sons, who were born 14 weeks premature, at the hospital. The current structure of my life means that aside from the time I spend reading to my kids, I’m not reading as much or as well as I’d like. This disruption has made me all the more grateful for the Between the Covers podcast, hosted by writer David Naimon. The premise of the show is simple and familiar: Naimon talks to the author of a recently published book. But the resulting discussions are truly singular. Naimon’s questions, often multifaceted and thick with allusions to other interviews and texts, reveal the depth of his forethought and preparation. His own subtle and attentive close readings draw listeners into the writer’s work while leaving space for his interlocutor’s answers to carry the conversation forward. Like the best criticism, the exchanges are grounded in the particularities of literary technique and in touch with art’s most fundamental questions. Listening to them has helped me keep my reading mind alive. (The recent episodes with Sheila Heti, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Solmaz Sharif are all fabulous places to start.)
Nora Caplan-Bricker (web editor): This spring, I’ve been slowly making my way (delayed by a recent bout of Covid) through Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel The Unpossessed, published by New York Review Books, which follows a group of self-sabotaging leftist intellectuals as they attempt to fulfill a longtime dream of starting their own little magazine. I was inspired to read it by Vivian Gornick’s appreciative essay in The New York Review of Books about Slesinger’s collection of short stories, Time: The Present, which will be reissued next month by Boiler House Press. As Gornick explains, Slesinger, the daughter of an affluent and assimilated Jewish family, gathered the material for The Unpossessed during her marriage to Herbert Solow, “an intellectually rigorous man on the left” and an editor of Menorah Journal, a Jewish intellectual and literary magazine of the 1920s and ’30s “among whose editors and contributors could be counted Elliot Cohen, who, years later, became the first editor of Commentary, and Lionel Trilling, who, years later, became, well, Lionel Trilling.” (After the end of their marriage, Slesinger moved to Los Angeles and pursued a successful career as a screenwriter before dying of cancer at only 39.) How could an editor at a Jewish intellectual and literary magazine of the 2020s not be tempted to dip into a novel inspired by such obvious forebears—especially one that Gornick describes as both satiric and tragic, and “often brilliantly original”?
The Unpossessed, which is full equally of razor-sharp bons mots and tediously repetitive passages, both does and does not live up to that recommendation. An endless scene set at a fundraiser had me wondering where Slesinger’s many editor friends were when she needed them. Gornick acknowledges that “many on the left have deplored The Unpossessed for what was said to be Slesinger’s unknowing presentation of the politics undergirding its story,” and though she considers this beside the point in a book that is really about the tortured marriage of the central couple, I would argue that the characters’ propensity for lines like “it’s all, as you say, e-co-nom-ic” is not exactly irrelevant to the integrity of the novel’s world-building. (Though this is a commentary on Slesinger’s era rather than her abilities, the book is also littered with asides like the following, from the mind of the magazine’s blue-blooded potential funder: “Funny thing about Jews: you met them downtown and wanted to cut their throats; you met them at home in the evening and found yourself telling them your troubles.” The novel seeks to skewer prejudices that it has evidently also internalized, which can be queasy-making as well as sociologically interesting.) All in all, The Unpossessed lacks the ruthless, bullseye accuracy of a novel like Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, to which it is often compared, but which pins its subjects with a far more elegant shrewdness. (“Scratch a socialist and you find a snob,” McCarthy writes archly.)
That said, I’ve enjoyed my hours with Slesinger’s circle of downhearted socialists. The book’s strongest portrait is of Miles and Margeret Flinders—the former the true-believer of the “triumvirate” of old friends behind the new magazine, the latter his sensitive and adoring wife. Miles fears that finding happiness with Margaret could sap his passionate commitment to politics; Margaret seeks, with an excruciating carefulness that Slesinger renders with pitch-perfect poignancy, to coax him into permitting himself a personal life. The depiction of Miles’s friendships with the rest of his triumvirate—Bruno Leonard, a professor who commands a following of collegiate communists, and a handsome and flaky novelist named Jeffrey Blake—has its own subtle pathos, as each confronts the danger of staking his identity on the cohesion of their group as a “heroic whole.” The reader has to laugh at the way the three friends talk about their magazine—as if it might save them, or save the world. “The magazine to end all magazines—or no magazine at all,” they insist. Maybe it’s obvious which of those two ends up happening, but Slesinger captures the thrill of the lofty hopes that can spring from the smallest literary enterprise.
Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): I haven’t been reading too much recently, but I have been enjoying the new HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, based on the book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman. For me, it’s the prologue to the NBA of my youth: the Pat Reilly I think of as the slicked-back-haired, Armani suit-wearing coach of the New York Knicks and then the Miami Heat is presented here as scrappy and unkempt, trying to reboot his stalled career by forcing his way back into the Lakers organization. The Magic Johnson I know of mostly since his 1991 HIV diagnosis is shown as young and cocky and ready to win games, hearts, and women. The cast is just a pleasure to watch—including Quincy Isaiah as Magic, John C. Reilly as the sleazy but charismatic and successful team owner Jerry Buss, Adrien Brody as Pat Reilly, and Gaby Hoffman as Claire Rothman, general manager of the Forum arena, among others. There’s not so much to laugh about these days, so I’ve appreciated the pure entertainment of this series so far.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): It was 1981, and my then-wife and I were meeting friends at the restaurant in the Ukrainian National Home on 2nd Avenue in the East Village. We were waiting inside the front door when I saw a notice on a bulletin board announcing a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Ukraine. Though a product of the New York City public school system, I can subtract 40 from 1981: 1941! They were celebrating the invasion of the USSR by the Nazis. Even so, we liked the restaurant, whose entrance featured a bas-relief of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Ukrainian national hero and Jew-killer.
I bring this up not to justify Vladimir Putin’s insane claim that he is seeking to “denazify” Ukraine, but in the context of the brilliant, horrifying and essential new film, Babi Yar. Context, by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, which opened last week at Film Forum. Babi Yar. Context is a film that fits in with the director’s most recent works, films I have recommended highly here: State Funeral, a documentary about the crowds at the funeral of Stalin, and The Trial, the account of a show trial at the beginning of the Stalinist purges. As he did in those and other films, Loznitsa has assembled archival footage with no omniscient voiceover and little explanatory text. The images are the story.
Presented here is life in Ukraine as the Nazis invaded it on June 22nd, 1941 and conquered and occupied it shortly thereafter. Loznitsa’s aim is to present life under Nazi occupation and the reaction to it as it was, not as a gilded legend would like it. The insane brutality of the Germans is on display, as they fire flamethrowers into peasant homes and bombard cities. The enemy has made himself known.
But on the Ukrainian side, the reaction is disturbing. Loznitsa shows us the enthusiastic greeting given Governor-General Hans Frank when part of Ukraine is joined to his Polish Nazi fiefdom. German troops entering Ukraine are greeted with flowers, and as they march through Lviv they are greeted with arms raised in the Hitler salute. Crowds gather to attach portraits of Hitler to the front of trams, with Nazi flags added to the display. And everywhere there are posters hailing Hitler as the “liberator”—a view still shared by some when I went to that East Village restaurant 40 years later.
To my knowledge, Loznitsa has never before engaged in any form of visual trickery. But in Babi Yar. Context he wants his Ukrainian audience to be forced to look long and hard at their predecessors’ actions, which he does by slowing down or magnifying shots of a series of brutal attacks on Jews in Lviv, of Jews being made to walk naked down the streets, and of a Jewish woman dragged by her hair across the cobblestones. There is no footage of the killings at Babi Yar, though Loznitsa includes footage he discovered of the explosions in the center of Kyiv that served as the pretext for the murder of over 33,000 Jews in a ravine outside the capital. Photos in both black and white and in color tell us all we need to know. But Loznitsa also includes footage from the trials of the perpetrators of the massacre, with survivors recounting the events in Babi Yar and elsewhere in occupied Ukraine.
By the end, only the most hardened anti-death penalty advocate could avoid feeling sympathy with the 200,000 spectators of the hanging of 12 Nazi war criminals in Kyiv. And no viewer, not a one, can feel anything but disgust at the final scenes of the film: sewage pipes emptying industrial waste into the ravine of Babi Yar, burying the murdered Jews a second time, this time under a sea of sludge.
Before you go: The artist Jenny Yurshansky, whose work is featured in the Jewish Currents Soviet Issue, has an exhibition, A Legacy of Loss: There Were No Roses There at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles on display through May 12th. Curated by fellow Soviet Issue contributor Rotem Rozental and including the work “Hide and Seek” featured in the issue, the exhibit has been written up in the Los Angeles Times,
and you can join Jenny for walk-throughs on any of the following Sundays: April 10th, 1–3 pm; May 1st, 10 am–12 pm; and May 8th, 4–6 pm.
Also, fun fact: This is the 100th Shabbat Reading List! We introduced this format at the start of the pandemic as part of an expanded email newsletter, and it’s been published virtually every Friday since. Here’s to the next 100...