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Jul
22
2022

Mari Cohen (assistant editor): As the latest phase in my quest to learn more about Marx and Marxism from various angles while my reading group works through Capital: Vol. 1 (We’re almost done!!! Hope I don’t jinx it by saying that…), I’m reading Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, a concise and accessible biography by Shlomo Avinieri from Yale’s Jewish Lives series. Part of the conceit of the book is to better understand and contextualize Karl Marx’s relationship to his Jewish heritage—Marx’s grandfather was a rabbi, while his father was forced to convert to Lutheranism to be able to practice as a lawyer in the Rhineland. While Avinieri reminds us of Marx’s support for Jewish political emancipation and offers an analysis of how his essay “On the Jewish Question” has been frequently misunderstood, most of what he offers on this topic is speculation—a reminder of how little we can actually know about how Marx understood his family’s Jewish history, since he almost never wrote or spoke of it.

What I’ve found most compelling in the book is the description of Marx’s engagement with political developments and leftist struggle in his lifetime. While Marx was primarily a writer and not a prominent organizer, and his role in political struggles of the day has been frequently exaggerated, he did have some involvement in leftist groups like the International Workingmen’s Association. Avinieri describes Marx engaging in careful calculation and modulation to aim his work toward certain audiences for certain political purposes. At times, he clashed with anarchist opponents over his argument that it was possible for socialist transformation to take place in certain contexts through peaceful, even electoral, means, rather than violent revolution. Frequently, Marx disdained the revolutionary efforts of his contemporaries, arguing that a true revolution could not come about until the proper conditions were in place; sometimes, he supported social democratic reforms for the time being. Marx’s debates with his comrades over revolution, reform, and pragmatism will be familiar, and interesting, to anyone engaged in leftist conversations at the present moment.

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I’m not much of a podcast person, but I’m listening to one right now—Foreign Agent, distributed by Novara Media—that is right up JC readers’ alley (and also, full disclosure, happens to be co-produced by my husband, JC contributor Michael McCanne, as well as former media producer at The New Yorker and the Forward, Nate Lavey). It’s about Irish American support for the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary group that sought to unite Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom when the Republic of Ireland secured its independence in 1921, with the rest of Ireland. It’s partly a narrative history of the Troubles—the bloody, decades-long, ultimately unsuccessful struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland, which began in the late 1960s—but at heart, it’s the story of an American diaspora community seeking self-definition through political support of an armed nationalist movement across the sea. If that sounds familiar, know that Irish America did look to the American Jewish organizing work around the Zionist cause as inspiration for their efforts (see this documentary about NORAID, an American support group for the IRA, at around 12:00 for a really choice quote).

This detail ended up on the cutting room floor, but the podcast is jam-packed with stories of gun smuggling, courtroom drama (including one truly unbelievable defense strategy), a suspicious bank robbery, and more. Some of the most interesting bits regard the ideological splits within Irish America and the IRA itself. It’s commonly understood that although they aligned on the question of Irish republicanism, the IRA—an anti-imperialist group which had many socialists within its ranks and was inspired by Black liberation movements like the Panthers—were largely politically alienated from the more conservative, and often very racist, Irish American community. (One anecdote, in which Irish Americans chanted IRA slogans while protesting bussing efforts to integrate schools in South Boston, reminded me of Ari Brostoff’s vivid reporting on a housing fight in Crown Heights in which yeshiva bochers supporting the landlord chanted “Death to Arabs” amid clashes with Black tenants and their supporters.) But the podcast also introduces us to committed Irish American Communists like George Harrison who worked across stark political divides for the sake of Irish republicanism.

The Troubles are long over, and this issue has receded in the minds of many Irish Americans. But they do retain a place in Irish American memory and self-conception. Perhaps the most sympathetic thing Joe Biden said to or about Palestinians during his recent trip to the Middle East ran through his Irish American identity: “The background of my family is Irish American. And we have a long history not fundamentally unlike the Palestinian people, with Great Britain and their attitude toward Irish Catholics over the years for 400 years.”

David Klion (newsletter editor): I have a lifelong and unfulfilled dream of visiting Tokyo, and I still have no idea when I’m going to get around to it. Some of it stems from a specific fascination with Japanese culture, but I also study the history and development of cities globally and feel like I can’t really understand urbanism without visiting the largest conurbation in the world and seeing how it actually works.

A friend of mine who shares both interests, has spent plenty of time in Japan, and knows Japanese recently co-authored a new book, Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, which is the next best thing to an actual trip across the Pacific. There’s a lot of interesting text-based analysis inside, but what really sets this book apart is the illustrations, which peel back the facades of Tokyo at the block and neighborhood level and reveal the intricate ways that good urban design facilitates human-scale spaces. I’ve seen photos and film clips of Tokyo’s narrow alleyways lined with tiny, intimate bars, but Emergent Tokyo makes clear how such spaces are organized, how different kinds of people make use of them, and incidentally why—to use an urbanism Twitter cliche—they would be illegal to build almost anywhere in the United States. This isn’t just a book for Japanophiles, after all; it’s for anyone who wants to make the place they already live denser, cleaner, healthier, and livelier.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer: One way to describe Jono McLeod’s documentary My Old School, opening today at Film Forum, is as a true crime film—where the crime is to pose as a teenager, to return as a student to one’s former school 20 years after graduation, to become popular and inspirational, to display wisdom beyond one’s years and, acting in a school performance of South Pacific, to kiss a fellow student who isn’t aware that the man kissing her is twice her age.

Brandon Lee, arrives one day as a new student at Bearsden Academy in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow. He seems to look more mature than his fellow students, and his face is strange, leading some to wonder if he hadn’t had plastic surgery. He immediately conquers the school, its administrators, his teachers (one of whom comments she often learns from him), and most of all the other students.

His backstory as a well-traveled Canadian (he is good at copying accents), his intelligence, his charm, and his knowledge of music all make him a center of admiring attention. He defends a Black student, earning his protégé’s eternal gratitude, and takes kids for drives (claiming he has a license despite being only 16 because they get them earlier in Canada). Kids are invited to his house, where they are greeted and treated by his grandmother. He goes on vacation to Tenerife with some other teenagers. He’s even granted early admission to medical school.

But his charade falls apart and the truth is revealed. He is actually Bruce MacKinnon, who had attended Bearsden in 1975, where he was a good if unremarkable student, was virtually friendless, and had been admitted to medical school but later flunked out. Dwelling on this failure, which deprived him of the future he felt was his, he returned to high school 20 years later in an effort to get his life right, become popular, return to medical school, and actually become a doctor.

Lee/MacKinnon agreed to be interviewed for My Old School, but not to appear in it, so instead we have the wonderful trick of actor Alan Cummings lip-syncing Lee’s account of his adventure, to which is added events recounted through light-hearted animation. The students from his second stay are interviewed and they are all, without exception, funny, charming, amused and amusing about this strange case.

If My Old School is about anything more than one man’s scam, it’s about how willing people are to accept a story sincerely told. Looking back at footage and photos of Lee, the now adult students are struck by how old he looked, something they sensed at the time but shrugged off.

It is also a striking case of how memory can play you false. The incident of the kiss during South Pacific is handled brilliantly. It’s recounted several times, the kiss described by all, including Brandon’s partner in the smooch, as “a peck,” as “avuncular.” And then the filmmaker plays a video cassette of the actual kiss, which was long, deep, and repeated. The shocked expressions on the students’ and actress’ faces say all you need to know. Suddenly, for a moment, the story for them is less charming. A 32-year-old man kissing a 16-year-old girl that way is just wrong. He’s a less charming eccentric now.

And a sadder one. We learn he continues, decades later, to apply unavailingly to medical schools, trying to set his life on the path it was supposed to take. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second acts in Scottish life.

Before you go, a few quick things!

-The Forward is hosting a live event next Thursday, July 28th, at 7 pm Eastern called “Hineni: Now Where Do I Go?”—an evening of conversation about how millennial American Jews are building community in, and outside of, traditional spaces. The panel will feature Jewish Currents Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel, among others, so be sure to sign up!

-Jewish Currents Board Vice Chair Lauren Goldenberg has an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books this week with Isaac Butler, the author of The Method, a critically acclaimed new history of the development of method acting that should be of great interest to anyone who cares about Russians, Jews, the 20th century left, or Hollywood.

-Sasha Senderovich has a new book out that can serve as further reading for anyone who enjoyed our recent Soviet Issue, which was edited with a special advisory board that included Sasha. How the Soviet Jew Was Made offers “a close reading of postrevolutionary Russian and Yiddish literature and film recasts the Soviet Jew as a novel cultural figure: not just a minority but an ambivalent character navigating between the Jewish past and Bolshevik modernity.”

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