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


Aparna Gopalan (news editor): This month, as I was traveling to Chennai—the city of my birth and early childhood—for the first time since before the pandemic, I started reading Ling Ma’s Severance. I’ve come late to Ma’s novel about a fungal zombie apocalypse, which was released in 2018 but rose to fame after Covid-19 rendered it prophetic. In addition to relishing the book’s all-too-relevant setting in post-contagion New York City, critics also raved about the potent critique of late capitalism Ma presented in the form of the book’s twenty-something protagonist Candace Chen—who decides to keep clocking in to her job in the Bibles department at a publishing company long after the rest of the world has caught Shen fever, the fungal infection that turns people into mindless, homebound zombies before killing them.

I was certainly gripped by Ma’s tense unfolding of disaster, which too closely mirrors what we saw in the past few years. Shen Fever spreads quickly, and by the time Candace’s publishing house provides the employees paltry PPE and people start going to parties decked out in stylized masks, it is too late. The other shoe drops quickly. One week, Candace is getting offered a massive bonus after agreeing to become one of the few in-person employees at the quickly-downsizing firm; the next week, her fellow in-person employees have left and her remote managers have eerily stopped asking for reportbacks. The few people she still interacts with advise Candace to go spend the end of days with her family, but having no relatives in the US—her parents died when she was in college—Candace thoughtlessly keeps to her work routine even as the world stops spinning. Mercifully, she does eventually stop trying to publish Bibles (if only because the supply chain breaks down) and instead starts using the office to follow her passion of becoming a photo-blogger, but she nevertheless keeps commuting morning and evening through the ghost town that is now New York. She even moves into the office after enough people die that the city’s transit systems fully shut down—all of which has the reader questioning if, even though she isn’t technically infected, Candace hasn’t become her own kind of zombie.

But through it all, what really plagues Severance isn’t the zombies or even the disaster capitalism; it’s the unreachable homeland. When she was a small child, Candace and her parents emigrated to the US from Fuzhou, a city in southeastern China that continues to loom large in their lives long after they’ve left. In chapter after chapter, Candace recalls the dense familial networks; the sprawling markets; the “hysterical, uncontrollable” world beyond her grandmother’s balcony. It is in her descriptions of Fuzhou that we first glimpse the emotional morass animating the otherwise robotic character of Candace; it is also here that Ma’s sparse, restrained prose takes on an almost hypnotic fervor. Indeed, one of the most haunting passages in the novel occurs not during the apocalypse but when Candace recollects “Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling,” the sensation of being in her birth city after dusk. “It is not a cohesive thing, this feeling,” she thinks. “It reaches out and bludgeons everything. It is excitement tinged by despair. It is despair heightened by glee. It is partly sexual in nature, though it precedes sexual knowledge. If Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling were a sound, it would be early/mid-nineties R&B. If it were a flavor, it would be the ice-cold Pepsi we drink as we turn down tiny alleyways where little kids defecate wildly. It is the feeling of drowning in a big hot open gutter, of crawling inside an undressed, unstanched wound that has never been cauterized.”

Severance’s two plotlines—the zombie capitalism and the migrant trauma—run on parallel tracks for most of the novel, but Ma expertly brings them into collision near the end as Candace begins to suspect that Shen fever is not just a fungal illness but also a disease of the memory. Candace recalls how infected people live their last days carrying out repetitive motions: serving dinner over and over, unceasingly changing channels on the TV, driving a zombie cab around New York City. More strikingly, this repetition of comforting routines seems not only to be the symptom of the disease, but also its cause. Candace works this out when she sees one of her friends immediately become fevered after trying on clothes from her childhood wardrobe on a visit to her family home, and again when she sees a nemesis become infected as he prowls the halls of a mall he used to seek refuge at as a teenager escaping a dysfunctional home.

But Candace herself remains tellingly immune to this malaise of memory. Even as she vividly remembers her mother, her uncles, and all her other links to Fuzhou, it is she—the orphaned migrant—who escapes infection, perhaps because her permanent severance from China renders her memories ineffectual, unable to infect her with any comforting nostalgia. Ma seems to be suggesting that the migrant, especially one raised by anxious, aspiring parents fleeing the Global South, cannot reach such complacency—a feeling of home so complete she can sink into it—and can thus never be in danger of putting her desire for belonging ahead of her immediate survival. Fuzhou nights may well haunt her. But the migrant cannot afford to act on the indulgence of such remembrances; there is, after all, too much work to do.

Helen Betya Rubinstein (contributing writer): I’ve listened to the November 2023 On the Nose episode with Naomi Klein more than once now, fortifying myself with the notion, as Klein articulates it, that to cede narrative territory on grief, trauma, or the Nazi genocide to the right or to the Zionist project would only empower those projects. In the wake of October 7th, Klein’s argument that we must write and insist upon our own narratives of these subjects offered me a kind of path forward. But I only just got around to the episode of David Naimon’s literary podcast Between the Covers where he interviews Klein on the Jewish aspects of her new book Doppelganger.

Between the Covers isn’t where I’d typically go for history and politics, which might be why it took me so long to listen to this episode, which was recorded on November 28th. Once I did, though, I immediately wanted to pass it on. Naimon and Klein discuss their long personal histories of organizing as Jews in solidarity with Palestine and offer a compact rendering of the past and present of the Zionist and anti-Zionist projects. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour conversation, at once inviting and forceful, that encompasses a wide range of topics: trauma’s transmutation into violence in Exodus (Klein calls the film our “homework”); the relationship between Canada’s book market and the IDF; Marx’s antisemitism; the potentially supremacist thinking inherent (or not) in “chosenness”; and Roth’s Operation Shylock (discussed at length in Doppelganger). They draw on thinking from Viet Thanh Nguyen, Fred Moten, Nadine Gordimer, Edward Said, and many others.

Over the past few months, I’ve often wished for a single piece of media to share with Jewish family and friends who have politics adjacent to mine but don’t quite share my perspectives. Around 52 minutes into the podcast, as I listened to Naimon’s gentle narration of the history of Israeli statehood, I realized I had found it. About ten minutes later, Klein’s persuasive discussion of “the antisemitism at the heart of the idea of Zionism,” affirmed this impression. Those who find the facts familiar will nevertheless appreciate hearing the two well-informed superstars think collaboratively about this history. Klein points out that the horrors in Gaza show us that “the horrors of the Second World War did not end”; they are only a new chapter in the same “annihilatory logic.” Naimon continues, pointing out that the typical memorialization of “the Holocaust” as the murder of 6 million Jews rather than 11 million people is a grave missed opportunity for building solidarities.

The two chapters of Doppelganger addressing “Israel, Palestine, and the Doppelganger Effect” are available to read online via Klein’s website. On the podcast, she adds some ideas she’s thought about since writing them. “Doppelganger stories,” she says, “often end with the annihilation of the other, but then the other turns out to be us. That’s when you’re stabbing your doppelganger, but you end up stabbing yourself.” Klein sees this phenomenon in the escalating horrors in Palestine, she says, where in an attempt to “destroy the body of the other we, we as Jews end up destroying . . . our spirits, our principles.” Because she’s referring here to “we Jews,” I can’t help thinking she might also be referring to the communal discourse surrounding these horrors, to the difficulty of changing recalcitrant perspectives across even smaller doppelganger-like differences. A conversation like this one—expansive, exploratory, and quietly persuasive—feels like it could actually shift someone’s views, and so offers a potential antidote to destroying ourselves.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): If the films of the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan have had a flaw, it’s what the French call “nombrilisme”—literally “navel-ism,” but best translated as “navel-gazing.” Though Ceylan’s cinema is remarkable for its intelligence, its formal rigor, and its plastic beauty, I’ve always found myself admiring his films more than loving them. But his latest work, About Dry Grasses (now playing at Lincoln Center in New York), breaks new ground by finally bringing politics into the frame.

Like most of Ceylan’s films, About Dry Grasses is set in the country’s hinterlands, where his characters confront their own failings and miseries. The main character, Samet, is a schoolteacher working in Turkish Kurdistan. He hates the “shithole”—his word—in which he has landed. Consumed with disgust at the locals and disinterested in the ongoing political struggles around him, he wants nothing more than to get out and teach in Istanbul. In a brilliant set piece that lasts over 20 minutes, Samet discusses the matter of political and social engagement with the leftist feminist Nuray, a teacher in a larger town with whom a friend sets him up. “Comrade Nuray,” as he calls her, lost a leg in a political bombing and remains politically active, and she comes down hard on the solipsistic Samet for his nombrilisme, though she sleeps with him all the same. Samet—a photographer, like Ceylan—is likely a stand-in for the director, and the film’s mercilessness toward him reads as self-criticism. Samet is selfish, temperamental, and disloyal; he thinks himself superior to his surroundings, but is he really?

Throughout the film, images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—the nation’s founding father—hang in every room where people gather, just as they actually do throughout Turkey. If his face, always gazing into the radiant future he hoped to inaugurate, were to come to life, it would only be able to show disappointment.