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Jul
5
2024

This week, we welcome Naomi Gordon-Loebl in her new role as the deputy publisher at Jewish Currents.

Naomi Gordon-Loebl (deputy publisher): I first met Alessandra Lacorazza a few years ago when she directed my friend Julia Weldon’s music video, “Til the Crying Fades,” honoring the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. I remember her telling me that she was writing a film about the summers she spent with her father as a child. That film is finally out, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

In the Summers, which I saw last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows two sisters as they visit their loving, adventurous, and also flawed father in New Mexico every summer. The sisters are played by several actors who shift as the characters age; the father, Vicente, is played by René Pérez Joglar, who incredibly has never acted in his life—though he has spent quite a bit of time on stage as the Grammy-award winning musical artist Residente. The acting is one of the film’s several strengths; the intimacy, pain, and at times rage on screen is so tangible that it is hard to believe that these people were ever strangers to each other.

In the Summers is also visually stunning; the haunting landscape of Las Cruces is almost a character in and of itself, and the film is full of slow, artfully lit scenes whose emotional weight lingers. The image of Pérez Joglar’s shaking fingers, lighting a cigarette as he waits for his daughters, will live in my mind for a long time. But the biggest reason that In the Summers has stayed with me is that it is a portrait of human complexity. Vicente is the consummate fun, playful father; when he challenges his daughters to a hands-free spaghetti-eating contest, or teaches them to play pool at the local bar, there’s something almost pure and innocent about him. At other moments, he is cruel, callous, even terrifying, as is the case on one nighttime drive that I won’t spoil here. Lacorazza has said in interviews that she made the film for “children of complicated but beautiful parents,” and it feels as though the film embraces both versions of Vicente as wholly true, neither canceling out the other. It’s the kind of complexity, and even paradox—cruelty and innocence, intimacy and distance, love and harm—that, when words fail us, art gives us a way to understand.

Marc Jonathan Costello (art and design director): Marshall McLuhan’s decisive treatise on media has a long tail. Published in 1967, The Medium is the Massage has its Cold War anchors, but it still feels like it could have dropped on the eve of 2024. The book anticipates the seismic change brought on by our digital age—centering on mediated life, but ultimately discussing cybernetics and computing as well. The strategic misspelling of “message,” functioned within the new era McLuhan was theorizing. The misspelling gave the book a decisive something “off,” and operated to psychically fill the book with meaning, giving it a memetic quality. (Charli XCX is cashing in on precisely this memetic effect, using intentionally distorted and blurred typography from a cool Type Foundry in such a way that it just looks like condensed Arial. The move is impressive, and I expect at least 70% of our core audience are enjoying Brat summer.) Quieten Fiore’s editorial design is the perfect fit for McLuhan’s text: The book feels like a zine, composed of considered graphic layouts, each simultaneously a cultural referent and clip art. The work makes use of contrast to communicate confidence in its irony, accompanied with repeating thumbnail art, and strong yet self-aware modern typography. As the title suggests, the work of the author, editor, and designer blurs thanks to the new technologies which McLuhan, Fiore, and the producer, Jerome Agel clearly demonstrate.

There’s always something eerie about seeing the cultural and technological soothsayer’s prediction from the past reflected in the present. In the section titled “your neighborhood,” we see the arrival of the global village, a term analogous with globalization: “Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all men.” Simultaneously, we see within that statement the conventional critique of social media. What is often missed is the bluntness of electric circuitry. The virtual global village lives in fiber optic cables and remote data centers, rendering affects, and assuring the smooth flow of supply chains with a complex series of zeros and ones.

In the section titled “your job,” McLuhan asks, “When this circuit learns your job, what will you do?” He’s a tad optimistic about the potential of this new regime to free labor from work. The creative industry is currently holding its breath about artificial intelligence (AI). A perverse anxiety flows across LinkedIn dot com, as well as the creative studios, mapping Soho and Dumbo. Some creative directors see the potential of AI—maybe, as McLuhan suggests, as a way to overcome being forced to “do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old,” or as a progression of the tendency of authorship to dissolve against the tide of technology. But for the rest, the stakes are more existential: Can taste really just be reduced to data points? I say that with a tinge of irony because the regime of zeros and ones already has more sinister consequences than making bad advertisements. McLuhan’s cold war foresight that “real, total war has become information war” aligns disturbingly well in our social media landscape constituted in a frictionless scroll of real and fake atrocities, customized to your silo. Likewise, algorithmically-generated kill lists in Gaza, executed by unmanned drones, show us the military version of making work at the intersection of art and technology, that McLuhan, concerned with nuclear winter, didn’t anticipate.

Perhaps McLuhan and Fiore have a debt to pay for their role in aligning counterculture to cybernetics, but their work reading the tea leaves, and ultimately acting on a collective intelligence, can’t be denied. McLuhan’s most prescient proposition is that the global village created by the market and its electronic circuits established a new figure of youth that flees its individualism, and is drawn to roles over goals or specialized jobs. He saw this in the growth of the counterculture and its rejection of a mass subject. We see the evolution of this pattern today in the rise of so many niche subcultures, driven by memetic language and attended to by parasocial relationships—each with their own evolving niche markets. Here we come full circle to our era. If we’re all just data points, it’s a losing game, and all our dystopian fears are probably true. The puke green background could be filled with whatever charli-meme generated type you want—it could be an atrocity, a scene from a porn, or your favorite recipe. It doesn’t matter. However, if we can see in McLuhan’s predictions what is yet incomplete—the potential of cracking open the tools of culture, of technology, and the self—then maybe we can see what is possible when we all have our fingers on the pulse.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The dreadful spectacle that is American politics today can be traced to many different moments in our nation’s past. Was it the ’60s and the reaction to the anti-Vietnam War movement, or perhaps the Goldwater candidacy? Was it McCarthy in the ’50s, or the isolationists and America Firsters of the ’30s and ’40s? Or should we seek the source further back still, in the Civil War era? After all, reading William Freehling’s magnificent two-volume opus on the secession crisis, The Road to Disunion, reveals that many then felt the same paranoia about federal designs on freedom that haunt us still. Or should we go even further back? If we read Freehling’s Prelude to Civil War—his history of the Nullification Crisis of 1832–1833—we have to ask how much of our system’s rot is owed to John C. Calhoun.

John Ganz’s brilliant and compelling debut, When the Clock Broke, focuses mostly on more recent precedents for the present insanity. The book centers on the early 1990s and the policies, people, and ideas that exploded into prominence during those years. Some of the individuals discussed are more familiar or obvious than others; Ganz’s originality and intelligence is manifest in his ability to make us see that the cult of the Mafia boss John Gotti represented as important a cultural and even political inflection point as Rush Limbaugh, whom he also discusses. Little-known thinkers like the fascist-leaning Sam Francis and the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard are shown to be important and influential thinkers: To read Francis’s fulminations against modern culture and democracy and his advocacy of the cause of “middle-American radicals,” and Rothbard’s critique of government involvement in our lives as a form of tyranny, is to confront the politics of the modern Republican Party. Ganz gives a detailed recounting of the 1992 campaign of Ross Perot, in which an inchoate, incoherent rage at the political class found its perfect representative in a man who had no real program, demonstrated authoritarian tendencies in his professional dealings, and had nothing to boast of but a largely bogus reputation for campaigning to save POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War. Angry middle-class middle Americans needed no more than that to choose him to show their discontent.

The Gotti chapter, which also outlines the beginnings of Rudy Giuliani’s career, places the popularity of Gotti and of the fictional Corleones in a social context that explains not only their popularity, but a widespread sense of the degeneration of America. For the right, Ganz argues, “the famiglia in The Godfather stood for an earlier, more wholesome and integrated social form fighting to keep itself intact in an American culture that threatened to dissolve it.” The supposed superiority of the Mafia to the American government is demonstrated in the first scene of The Godfather, when the undertaker Bonasera turns to Don Corleone for assistance. Ganz cites the aforementioned Francis, who wrote that “America, as the Don describes it and as Bonasera has experienced it, does not behave like the Corleone family after all, and the differences between the two societies do not favor America.” The Mafia, Francis argues, is what sociologists call a gemeinschaft, a society based on honor and deference, while America is a sterile gesellschaft based on cold rationality. For the insurgent far right, the former is always to be preferred.

To speak of the degeneration of America assumes it once had a certain majesty. But America is not France; we never had a moment as sparkling as the French Revolution, or the Popular Front of 1936, or May ’68, and so its descent into political idiocy has been a steep one. Our history has played out against a backdrop of economic and racial inequality, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and boobocracy. The fall Ganz describes in When the Clock Broke, which indeed accelerated in the 1990s, was thus a fall from a height that was never more than ankle-high.

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’s meaning 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.

Parshat Korach

Faced with so many of my Jewish communities excusing or endorsing Israel’s relentless destruction of Gaza, I’ve returned again and again to an essay by the 20th-century pacifist and anarchist Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares. In “The Liberation of Hebrew Thought,” Rabbi Tamares contends that critiquing one’s community often involves a tacit moral compromise. Most of those who engage in such rebuke, he argues, are not actually prepared to sever themselves from the community in the almost inevitable event that their efforts are unsuccessful. If anything, by taking on responsibility for the collective, critics tend to reaffirm their communal ties, making them more susceptible to being “dragged along by the collective’s crooked ways.” Therefore, he cautions, rebuke is “only appropriate for radicals of great spirit, like the early Prophets. Whether or not the community turned toward them, they would never join the community.” For Rabbi Tamares, only one who has totally spiritually disconnected themselves from a community can critique it without fear of inadvertently binding themselves more deeply to its wickedness. Anyone who hasn’t reached this level of moral “independence” should invest their energy in mentally separating themselves from the collective rather than attempting to transform it.

The question of how to relate to a sinful community stands at the heart of this week’s parshah, Korach. When Korach, a rogue Levite, leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron to usurp their power, only a small band follows him at first. Soon, though, the entire Israelite people has risen up in sin. “Stand back from this community,” God tells Moses and Aaron, “that I may annihilate them in an instant!” Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, crying out, “When one member sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”

At first glance, God’s instinct to destroy the Israelites and Moses and Aaron’s plea operate according to a similar logic: The pure and impure, good and evil, can be easily separated. They simply disagree about who falls into which category. God sees the entire people, save Moses and Aaron, as wicked, while Moses and Aaron see the ringleaders of the rebellion as evil and the rest of the Israelites as blameless, if misguided. Instead of destroying the entire community, they argue that God should only destroy the ones leading the sinful uprising.

But Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, a 19th-century Hasidic master, offers a different understanding of Moses and Aaron’s response to God. When the two brothers throw themselves on the ground, this is not, he argues, merely a desperate appeal for God’s mercy. Rather, it is an act of admission that, as Rabbi Tzadok imagines them saying, “We are no better than they are.” In casting themselves down physically, Moses and Aaron symbolically affirm the fact that they too are bound up in the Israelites’ sin. To accept God’s verdict of innocence would be dishonest: They are tied to the community, and if the community has sinned, they insist that they are necessarily also implicated. This is not a devolution into moral relativism; Moses and Aaron still see Korach and his core followers as wicked and deserving of punishment. But there is no neat division between guilty and guiltless. They are not asking God to save the innocent—for there are none––but rather to spare those who are “merely” complicit, themselves included. Moses and Aaron, as Rabbi Tzadok imagines them, thus offer a model of moral accountability that runs counter to Rabbi Tamares’s vision of rebuke. In Rabbi Tzadok’s rendering, there is no position outside of the community: We are always already implicated in broader communal wrongs, so the only question is whether we work to change the communities to which we are tied. Ironically, our complicity can be the basis of guiding them toward teshuvah.

For the past nine months, I have found myself publicly framing most of my critiques of my own communities in ways that reaffirm my connections to them—leaning on my position as a rabbinical student, the fact that I spent the past two years in Jerusalem, our shared grief in the wake of October 7th, and the language of Torah. Time and again, I have insisted that I see my fate as bound up in the fate of my community, and that my critiques of Zionism and Israel’s war crimes are also motivated by concern for our collective safety. I imagine that Rabbi Tamares would insist that such critiques are a grave moral danger: By reiterating my identification with these communities, I only become more invested in them and more likely to stray from my own principles. But like Rabbi Tzadok, I’m skeptical that it’s possible to evade complicity by walling myself off. Even if I cut my material, relational, and spiritual ties to those communities, would I not still be bound to them by virtue of our shared commitment to Jewishness? And if I somehow entirely dissolved my commitment to Jewishness, would I not still be implicated in innumerable horrors as an American citizen, a participant in a violently avaricious capitalist economy, and a beneficiary of numerous structures of supremacy? Perhaps the greater risk is not of being “dragged along” by my communities’ sinfulness but of refusing to take responsibility for them. I share Rabbi Tamares’s despair: I do not know that they can be changed. But my entanglement with them at least allows me to try.

Aron Wander is rabbinical student, organizer, and writer.