A quick note before we get to this week’s recommendations: The Jewish Currents staff takes the last week of August off to recharge, so there will be no newsletter next week. We’ll see you all in September!
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): Tara Booth (on instagram @tarabooth) is an artist whose work is full of color and has a subtly deadpan quality that is hard to explain: honest and a bit unruly, the drawings often portray experiences that most of us either gloss over or may hesitate to share publicly. In the self-portrait I have in my bathroom—a print called “Peeing in a Romper,” which I coveted for years before purchasing—Booth depicts the physical and emotional process of taking off a romper, showing herself wrestling with the garment until it’s eventually around her ankles as she sits, naked, on the toilet. In the final panel of the series, having succeeded at the task, she stares blankly at the viewer. It’s an ordeal that anyone who has worn a onesie, romper, or jumpsuit has gone through, a private moment of indignity or strangeness that typically goes unobserved. Happily for me, my roommates like—or at least don’t mind—looking at the drawing when they, too, are on the toilet.
I also have a slim book of drawings Booth and co-illustrator Jon-Michael Frank created as a way to “work through our own experiences with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation,” as they write in the introduction. Titled Things to Do Instead of Killing Yourself, the recommendations on each page are illustrated in a way that, as is typical of Booth’s work, invites a sense of the messiness and randomness of being alive. Some of the pieces of advice are genuine, like “change your sheets.” Some are whimsical: “Step on a jelly filled doughnut” or “borrow someone else’s baby and appreciate being alone.” Some are impossible: “Swap bodies with a mannequin”—or, conversely, widely relatable: “Get the most expensive and intensive gym membership and never go.” Other entries capture the mood of a heavy depression familiar to anyone who has experienced it, albeit with a bit of levity: “Make a quilt out of squares for each year in your life that was worth living,” or “float your birth certificate down a river in hopes that someone else will get more use out of your life.” This book sits on my night table, atop a stack of other art books and beneath a shofar. In recent years, therapy and medication have alleviated my own cycles of depression, but I still imagine a day when a friend or young cousin, whether they talk to me about their struggle or not, might come over, flip through its pages, and feel companionship.
Whether you purchase a print, book, or apparel for yourself or a loved one, or just follow her on social media, Booth’s artwork will add small doses of relief and intrigue into your routine.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): Last week, I caught the opening night of Annie Baker’s newest play, Infinite Life, which runs until October 8th at the Linda Gross theater in Chelsea. I was first introduced to Baker’s work in 2013, when I saw her Pulitzer prize-winning play The Flick, about three employees of a movie theater struggling to connect. I remember being almost confused by the amount of silence in the play but impressed by its willingness to lean into these pauses until they became chasms. Silence is a much-discussed feature of Baker’s work, and it’s often meted out in very specific increments in her stage directions. In the text of The Aliens, she specifies that nearly a third of the play should be silent, “uncomfortably so”; in The Flick and elsewhere, the stage directions note when a certain kind of silence becomes another kind (“A happy pause in which they realize they’ve broken the tension, and then an awkward pause following that happy pause.”) and stage directions often come with time markers, prescribing 20 seconds of this and then another ten seconds of that.
This impeccable sense of timing is on display in Infinite Life, which runs an hour and 50 minutes with no intermission. Like Baker’s other plays—which often take place over a longer period of time in a single location—the lens of Infinite Life is fixed on a row of reclining outdoor chaise lounges, like you might find poolside at a hotel. But there is no pool, and this is no hotel. Though the largely older women we’re introduced to first appear to be on some kind of vacation, we quickly learn that they are at a pseudo-health facility in a strip mall a few hours north of San Francisco. They are there to participate in “water fasts” of varying lengths, an unorthodox treatment for various painful maladies that the women—strangers to one another, but companions for the fast—are desperate to resolve.
I have talked about Baker’s silences, but not her dialogue. Her plays are as talky as they are quiet, and the conversation has that incredible quality of being believably naturalistic, as well as poetic, hilarious, and heartbreaking in turns. The sharpness of the dialogue is what saves this play, perhaps one of her funniest, from replicating for the audience the monotony of the women’s days and nights while on the fast. Slowly, in its own meandering way, the play begins to ask questions about the nature and meaning of pain—questions that are both existential and strikingly concrete for the women sufferers.
Baker’s plays are never big, dramatic affairs. The drama is in the peaks and valleys in conversation; the viewer recalibrates to find it there. This can be an extremely rewarding experience, as the viewer becomes attuned to the drama of everyday connections and misses. But Infinite Life, perhaps astute as a comment about the narcissistic qualities of suffering, features far fewer moments of genuine connection. And though I enjoyed it immensely—and particularly Marylouise Burke’s show-stealing performance as the frail, midwestern Eileen—in retrospect, I felt frustrated by how committedly withholding Baker was with her characters, especially because the closing scene, which features one such moment of connection and care, is so breathtaking.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Two very worthwhile—and wildly different—films on Jewish themes are opening today at Film Forum: Michael Roemer’s nearly lost comedy classic The Plot Against Harry and Israeli director Michal Weits’s documentary Blue Box.
Shot in 1969 and first shown in 1971, The Plot Against Harry initially played in a single theater for just one week. Forgotten for nearly two decades, it finally got a wide release in 1990 after appearing at the New York and Toronto Film Festivals. The film centers on Harry Plotnick—a member of a dying breed, the Jewish gangster—who has made his living in the numbers racket and is newly released from prison. At first, Harry works to re-establish his racket, but after encountering his ex-wife on the outside, he decides to abandon his life of crime and win her back. Roemer sets this comedy against a magnificent and riotous portrayal of middle-class Jewish life in the late ’60s, with its brassy marriage banquets and bar mitzvahs featuring swans made of chopped liver. May the film never fall into oblivion again.
Michal Weits’s Blue Box, first released in 2021, is an intensely personal film about the links between the afforestation of Israel—paid for by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which collected coins in the once ubiquitous blue boxes (pushkes, as we called them) in synagogues across the diaspora—and the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland. Much responsibility for both projects fell on one man: Yosef Weitz, the director’s great-grandfather. Blue Box, which is constructed around the director and her family members’ reactions to her great-grandfather’s activities, considers how generations of Israelis might reckon—or fail to reckon—with their ancestors’ crimes.
In the film, Weits speaks about how childhood visits to the forests planted by the JNF under her great-grandfather’s leadership were a source of great pride for her. But once she came to understand how and why the land on which they were grown was acquired, the trees no longer seemed to be cause for celebration. Her great-grandfather, Weits comes to understand, is known not only as “the Father of Israel’s Forests,” but also as “The Architect of Transfer.” Before Israel was founded, he arranged an overwhelming majority of the purchases of land from effendis (landowners under the Ottoman feudal system) that led to the exile of the fellahin (peasants) who worked them; and in 1948, he was a key player in the expulsion of the Arab population during the Nakba. After the war, the Israeli government sold now-unpopulated land to the JNF, which planted the famous forests in order to render the land uncultivable, to prevent the return of refugees. As Blue Box makes disturbingly clear, the trees planted in Israel in my honor over the course of my early life—when I was born in 1952, when I graduated from Hebrew school at Flatbush Park Jewish Center, and when I was bar mitzvahed—make me an accomplice in the dispossession of a people.
The film draws on archival discoveries and Josef Weitz’s voluminous diaries, which include naked admissions of the crimes he didn’t understand as such; presented with these, the director’s family members’ reactions vary greatly. The youngest generation is willing to listen to her, and sympathize with her perspective; her elders refuse to do so. After all, the myth of Josef Weitz is the myth of the purity of the founding of the Jewish state. Like all myths, it dies hard—or refuses to die at all.