Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): HBO is currently streaming a documentary called The Janes, about the Chicago-based underground abortion service Jane that began in 1969 and formally disbanded with the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. While HBO has advertised it over the past month, you will not find it anywhere on the landing page of the streaming service, and instead will have to search for it. This seems apt for a lot of discourse around abortion—we have yet to see action match words from Democratic leaders.
In any case, you should search for and watch this documentary. I went into it already knowing a fair bit about Jane thanks to my friend, Jewish Currents contributor Madeleine Schwartz, who early in the Trump years arranged a screening of Jane: An Abortion Service, a documentary made in the mid-90s about Jane, and then published an oral history in Harper’s. The new HBO documentary goes into greater contextual detail than the 90s doc—for example, I didn’t know that there was a service run by clergy that existed simultaneously with Jane dedicated to helping women access abortion care.
The women who ran Jane were primarily white and upper-middle class, in college or in their 20s, and in many cases students at the University of Chicago (my alma mater; I wish I had known this history when I was a student). Frustrated with antiwar organizing dominated by male blowhards and wanting to do something (a frustration that still resonates today), what started out as one woman arranging abortions for friends and then friends of friends grew into an entire service of women arranging abortions and caring for the women undergoing them. After a few years, they realized they could do the abortions themselves, so the man who had been doing the abortions trained a few of them, and then they took on the whole operation.
One aspect of the post-Roe conversation has been focused on the issue of surveillance, which was at the front of my mind as I watched the documentary. Jane advertised publicly in small newspapers, bulletin boards, and other such forums, while being as careful as possible to hide their tracks—they had two locations that changed every week, and designated drivers that changed routes constantly to ferry women between the two locations. This seems so quaint now, and yet for the time it was a pretty sophisticated and successful operation. (To what degree the Chicago mob and law enforcement may have turned a blind eye until a woman purposefully ratted them out is also raised in the documentary).
There’s more to learn and understand about Jane than what I’ve mentioned above, so do watch the films and read about that history. And if you are in a position to provide support, financial or otherwise, please seek out abortion funds, not Planned Parenthood.
Mari Cohen (assistant editor): The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nuñez is a book about two young women who first meet as freshmen roommates at Barnard in 1968. Georgette is trying to escape the poverty and violence of her upstate hometown; Ann is determined, by any possible means, to repudiate and recompense for her rich WASP background. Throughout the following years, Georgette observes Ann closely, as if taking in a museum exhibit. Never simplistic or reductive, Nuñez paints the curious Ann in multiple dimensions: utterly maddening, problematic, and exhausting—and yet often admirable, principled, and fixated, unreservedly, on the truth. Then the two have a falling out, and Georgette loses track of Ann until, after a tragedy, she suddenly resurfaces as the tabloids’ cautionary tale for polite society as to what might “go wrong” with the white radical. The novel considers what it means to live through a period of backlash, repression, and disillusionment following a moment of revolutionary possibility, and how our duties of justice toward individuals close to us don’t always gel with our duties of justice to the broader world. It’s gripping, thought-provoking, and beautiful.
Separately, if you’re a Jewish Currents reader based in the Midwest with a passion for hardcore music, I have just the upcoming shows to recommend to you. A few years ago, my friend Aaron Meyer and his bandmates Sam Macinnes and Molly Berkson formed the anti-Zionist Jewish hardcore punk band Acid Mikvah. (James Walsh recently joined as drummer.) Just before the pandemic forced us all inside, I saw them bring down the house at a Chicago leftist Jews’ Purim party with their trademark hits like “Outlive Them” and “Jewish Standard Time.” (Sample lyrics from the latter: “Late to klezmer / Late to mitzvah / JST / Late to brunch / Late to Torah / JST / Early bed / Early TV / JST) I can’t claim any hardcore expertise, but even to a novice like me the music is cathartic and catchy, with infectious guitar riffs and drum licks surrounding Aaron’s emphatic, echoey vocals. Now, Acid Mikvah is taking the show on the road for a six-stop tour, with their last few dates in St. Louis, Iowa, and Minneapolis this weekend. Listen to their four-track demo and see all the tour dates and info on their Bandcamp page.
Alice Radosh (co-chair, JC Council): The Lost Women of Azalea Court, by Ellen Meeropol, is a multi-layered novel that, at first glance, focuses on the residents of a neighborhood association who are searching for an elderly, possibly demented missing neighbor. Meeropol’s choice of the name Azalea for the community is probably not inadvertent; thousands upon thousands of strains and breeds of azalea have been named and registered, and a commonality binds them together, but within that, each displays unique features. As one door after another opens in Azalea Court, stories of rape, family secrecy, loneliness, racism, dementia, poverty, anger, and torture spill out and intermingle with political and social differences. Meeropol manages to present these individual storylines and to find the commonality that binds them. While the focus remains on the residents’ stories, the specter of two issues are entwined throughout the book and almost serve as meta-characters. One is the familiar history and trauma of the Holocaust; the other is the less familiar history and trauma of “insane asylums” in the United States. The questions raised by these themes should be familiar to Jewish Currents readers and to anyone with left politics: Does a personal experience of the Holocaust provide a lifelong explanation for what can only be described as horrific behavior? And does the realization that active political opposition to the state is capable of destroying a person’s life allow loved ones to perform whatever acts are perceived as necessary to protect the family?
The Lost Women of Azalea Court raises issues worth thinking about and struggling with. It will be released in September and is available for pre-order.
Mitch Abidor: Werner Herzog has long since lost his gift for directing fictional films of any worth. In the past few decades he has made many excellent documentaries, but his touch for fiction has failed him, with the exception of 2019’s Family Romance, LLC.
Happily, his first foray into literary fiction, The Twilight World—which, like Family Romance, LLC, is a hybrid of fact and fiction—reveals him to be an extraordinary talented writer, applying the same eccentric worldview, and the same attraction to men at the extremes, that we find in his best films.
The Twilight World is the true story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier stationed in the Philippines during World War II and ordered to hold the island on which he was stationed in the expectation that the retreating Japanese forces would return. Faithful to his charge, Onoda and three comrades (later two, then one, then none) roam the island, keeping track of the days (at the end of 29 years of isolation Onoda was only five days off in his calculation of the date), unaware the war is over. When, after years of hiding, he is being sought by Japanese authorities, he refuses to believe that his rescue is anything but an enemy ploy.
This is a mangy and mad tale of fidelity. Onoda and his comrades didn’t only roam the island or settle in a camp. Thinking they were at war, they engaged in gunfights with local residents and troops, which resulted in the deaths of two of Onoda’s fellows.
It’s not only Onoda’s almost insane stubbornness that makes this a natural Herzogian project. After the difficulties he experienced during the shooting of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog grew to hate the jungle, and this hatred is shared by Onoda. The soldier had only one uniform, which he constantly had to repair, and Herzog tells of how it wasn’t constant movement or thorns that damaged it, but “the rot in the jungle, the humidity that erodes all materials.” The jungle is hell, for “there is one unvarying constant: everything in the jungle is at pains to strangle everything else in the battle for sunlight.”
If Onoda was able to keep track of time, he was ignorant of what occurred within it, and Herzog explains that there was no present for Onoda, only a past and a future (then again, it is like that for all of us). But events occur in a broad present, and Onoda is limited in how he is able to interpret anything. Planes from different eras fly overhead, all signs of the ongoing World War he is still serving in. He is unaware that other wars are going on, that planes are flying to Korea and Vietnam, which as far as he knows are still occupied by Japan. Onoda is only convinced the war is over when a Japanese man sent to retrieve him brings his former commanding officer to tell him it’s time to come home. A good soldier of the Emperor, he obeys his commander.
Herzog’s mastery of language (in Michael Hoffman’s impeccable translation), the brilliance of his descriptions, and his insights into Onoda’s character are stunning. There is only one moment when we regret this wasn’t a film: when Onoda visits a memorial to Japan’s war dead which includes his own name, since he had been declared dead in 1959.