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

Jun
10
2022

Ari Brostoff (senior editor): There is a long-running joke in my family that my grandma—who passed away peacefully at 94 at her home in Van Nuys, California, last week—wasn’t funny. It started several years ago when my grandpa, the funny one, was dying; we were gathered at the hospital when my mom casually demeaned my grandma’s comedy chops. To this, my grandma responded with a face of utter indignation that not only proved once and for all just how funny she was, but also pointed to the particular character of her funniness: her role as the family straight man. So on the night of her funeral, having already made our way through a stack of home videos, we watched Funny Girl.

As a total failure at Jewish homosexuality, I had not previously seen Barbra in her breakout film role, and…it’s no joke! She’s divine. Streisand first developed the part of the celebrated Ziegfeld girl, comedian, and actress Fanny Brice when Funny Girl appeared on Broadway in 1964 (the show was revived this spring, with Beanie Feldstein, and has received tepid reviews). In 1968, William Wyler, the director of classics like The Best Years of Our Lives and Roman Holiday, made his sole musical theater foray with an adaptation of the play, with Streisand, then 26, again taking the lead.

In the film’s telling, Brice struggled at the start of her career with what a lyric in an early number, “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” bluntly identifies as her “frumpy faces that could cause ya/to have temporary nausea.” The movie both knows that this is absurd (Barbra’s Fanny is painfully gorgeous) and also has to insist that it’s true—not so much in a spirit of Jewish representational politics, which remain implicit if hilariously obvious (“I’m a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls!” she gripes), but to underscore the fact that Brice, a Lower East Side loudmouth, is a comedian. It really is her faces (she boasts of “36 expressions”) rather than her face; it’s not the “skinny legs” she’s accused of dancing on, but the fact that she’s blithely out of step with the choreo. In a moment that I experienced with intense pleasurable longing as the grown-up incarnation of a child who desperately wanted to be on stage despite lacking any discernible performance skills, a nightclub manager who has just fired Brice from his chorus line walks in on her mugging for a nonexistent audience and matter-of-factly diagnoses her with main character syndrome: “You’re no chorus girl, you’re a singer, and a comic.” He rehires her immediately, as a star.

Many of the best scenes in the rest of the film involve Barbra goofing around onstage with an increasingly professional cast of back-up performers around her as she ascends to real celebrity. As the movie progresses, however, it closes in on Brice’s doomed relationship with her real-life husband Nicky Arnstein, a suave international playboy, high-stakes gambler, and white collar criminal played by Omar Sharif, whose star flames out terribly as hers rises. The second-act drama lacks the energy of the first-act romp, and I found myself wishing Barbra would get back on stage—which she finally does, closing out the film with “My Man,” one of Brice’s most famous numbers, nearly broken but in total command, neither a character actor nor an ingenue but a full-fledged performer at last. I think my grandma would have approved.

Siddhartha Mahanta (editor): “‘Like, I’ve decided, is the cruelest word … We should be able to see something as it is, even if it is unfamiliar to us, without resorting to comparisons to what we know.’”

This line appears in Customs, the second poetry collection from Solmaz Sharif, a 38-year-old Iranian writer profiled by Rozina Ali in the April 2022 issue of Lux. “It’s this challenge to herself as a writer and to her readers — to not resort to the comfortable — that allows her more control over language,” Ali writes. “More deeply, though, it challenges her readers to think about themselves as political subjects, and to think about what they owe one another.”

Filled with probing insights like this, Ali’s piece presents Sharif, a National Book Award finalist for her first collection, as an artist in constant negotiation between the political and the aesthetic, form and function. As Ali writes: "The book is about customs and borders (visas and airports and immigration officers), about customs in America (obsessions with self-care, lifestyles that desire the fake over the authentic — soy creamer over dairy, a photo of the view over the view itself) — and further still, it is about the customs we lose, those that disappear from our tongues and flesh when we are exiled from home." Solmaz’s subject, it seems, is America at quiet, devastating war with its own Americanness, and the casualties of that war.

The artist at work, interrogating their own style and truth for a deeper meaning—this can be stuffy stuff. But Ali, a journalist whose enviable body of work includes deep reporting on immigration, the war on terror, and the role of American military power around the world, understands Sharif’s ultimate destination as a poet and a thinker:

One of the oft-repeated misconceptions of Sharif as a political poet is that she is not as concerned about aesthetics as she is about the message. She rejects this. For Sharif, language and liberation are tied, but if that was all there was to her work, she told me, she would have been an orator. She may resist aesthetics de rigueur, but form is a primary consideration for her. Revisiting her poems, it becomes obvious that the length of the white space on the page and specific punctuation, or lack thereof, are careful choices. The repetition of closed brackets in “Without Which,” for example, evokes a sense that something is being inserted “that doesn’t belong there, or is trying to correct what is being said,” she explained. If metaphors limit moral vision, for Sharif, form offers a way to expand it. If there is no turning back to the lost past, she seems to say through Customs, there is no giving up either. One must use what one has, to scrutinize, insert, and cross thresholds toward different imagined futures.

Ali’s close reading of Solmaz’s work and itinerant life suggests poetry’s potential to reveal power, as experienced by much of the rest of the world, to an audience often blissfully unaware or unbothered by the exertion of power and all its consequences.

Speaking of those bothered by the unbothered: Make time for Rebecca Panovka and Kiara Barrow’s not-little—in fact, quite epic—interview with essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, published in The Drift, the big-brained, big-hearted, spunky little magazine beloved by those with a pulse and conscience (Panovka and Barrow are co-editors of the publication). They conduct the interview with an openness and curiosity about the world as it is today and how it emerged from the world before they came of age. The result is thrilling.

Mishra offers a sweeping indictment of America in the post-Cold War world era, a time of missed opportunities, neoliberal excess, galling arrogance, catastrophic violence, the return of autocracy, generation-pummeling upward redistribution of wealth, and soon-to-be boiling oceans. I found myself struck by Mishra’s description of “the pathology of belatedness in history — what really happens when you’re from a poor country, not fully industrialized, trying to catch up with the modern West.” The consequence, he tells The Drift, is a suffering that arises from “constantly comparing yourselves to the richer, more powerful people in the Western countries,” and the painful awareness of your own inferiority. “These feelings can become very deeply grounded in national psychology, and … the peculiar evil talent that demagogues possess is to bring them out into the public sphere and make them potent again.” For a largely (excuse the term) Western audience still living in blithe ignorance that there is a world out there that you affect, whether you choose to know it or not, I suspect he could come off as accusatory. Or, short of that, just very charismatic and annoyed. Either way, a win.

Throughout the interview, Mishra pulls no punches. He reminds us that operating in any other mode just isn’t worth it, particularly where the future of American prestige is concerned:

Whatever happens in Ukraine, de-Americanization is going to accelerate. And by that I mean something other than moving away from American financial and payment systems. The United States once represented for many people — and I would include my younger self in that category — different kinds of possibility for emancipation. All of us had grown up in post-colonial societies that were flailing, that were not really delivering on their original promise of equality or stability, let alone prosperity. We thought of globalization as a wonderful thing.
The American ideology, the global ideology that replaced so many different postcolonial projects of national dignity, of collective welfare, was a highly individualistic ideology of meritocracy, individual prosperity, self-fulfillment, finding yourself, expressing yourself. All these notions were quite alien to many of us in conservative, hierarchical, and stagnant societies, and very thrilling, and they became truly global in the 1990s. That American ideology really collapsed in the last decade. And a lot of what we’re seeing today, whether it’s Modi’s Hindu chauvinism, Chinese supremacism, or Russian imperialism, is an attempt to resurrect or recreate or forward some kind of ‘indigenous’ ideology.
Because there’s a big vacuum there, left by a catastrophic loss of faith in America. The American ideology of empowerment, of self-improvement, of meritocracy and prosperity has been revealed as utterly hollow — as much a trick played by American elites on the American people as on the rest of the world. So there is this other thing being offered to people now: go back and find some Russian essence or Hindu essence, different ways of acquiring power. Power is really the name of the game here, whether we are speaking of Putin, Modi, Trump, or the liberal cold warriors. That said, I worry more about the countries that possess supreme power, cultural as well as military and economic, but continue to misuse it. Macron said in 2019 that NATO is brain-dead. I worry that, and we don’t discuss this as much as we should today, future historians will marvel at how the brain-dead institutions of the West led us all into catastrophe.

Mishra is, I suspect, right about what has precipitated the resurgence of various indigenous ideologies around the world. I differ on the question of the loss of faith in America. Maybe a certain version of America and its place in the world must die for a new one to take its place. When and how that may happen, of course, feels unnervingly difficult to predict.

The interview is grim but urgent, necessary stuff that really lights my fire.

Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): I read Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, over the course of May. It is a gorgeous novel, tracing the lineage of one family through the eyes of different members, across a smattering of ages—ranging from a preteen girl of 11 to a matriarch at 75. The character who opens the novel was a young mother when she and her family were displaced from Jaffa to Nablus in the Nakba; we first meet her over a decade later as she prepares for her daughter’s wedding. The story travels on from there, unfurling further generations and geographical upheavals.

I was traveling with a friend when I began reading it, and I kept saying to her, “this is so devastating.” But two aspects of Alyan’s writing soften the experience of following along with the family’s intermittent tragedies and hardships: the poetry of her prose and the rich inner lives of the characters. I fell in love with several of them, and they linger. We move in time from mosques and outdoor courtyards in the 1960s to malls and apartments in the 2010s, and what remains constant is the presence of war and how life continues, in its miracles and mundanity, despite.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I despise costume dramas and avoid all the supposedly high-class, mostly British narishkeit that infests our cinemas like the plague. But I have no hesitation about recommending Xavier Giannoli’s film Lost Illusions, set in Restoration France and as costume a drama as one could wish for. Not only is it an engaging film, one that holds you in its power for its full two-and-a-half hours, but aside from some minor annoyances (like the occasional gratuitous presence of naked people) it is a vibrant adaptation, faithful to the spirit of one of the great novels of a writer I cherish, Honoré de Balzac.

Part of Balzac’s multi-volume Comédie Humaine, which in length at least far surpasses Proust's untouchable À la recherche du temps perdu, Lost Illusions is the tale of Lucien de Rubempré, who leaves his native Angouleme for Paris and the literary life he craves.

He aspires to love, to rank, to aristocracy, and to literary glory, about all of which he harbors great illusions. But he also harbors illusions about himself, about his ability to conquer the many worlds he wants to enter. All of these illusions will be lost, crushed coldly and cruelly by those around him. It is not only cliquishness, romantic and artistic rivals, backstabbing, and greed that get in the way of Lucien’s sincere desire to create great works of literature (his sole published book is a slim volume of poems dedicated to the married woman he loves, and then as now, poetry is not the entryway to fame and fortune). Lucien actively participates in the derailing of his own career. He’s a liberal opponent of the monarchy (for pay) one moment, and an ardent supporter (from ambition to confirm his right to an aristocratic name) another. His blind ambition not only destroys his own career, but that of the young actress he loves and who loves him. The hatred he inspires by his hypocrisy and greed for advancement splashes onto her and crushes her acting career.

Lost Illusions is showing at New York’s two essential theaters: Lincoln Center and Film Forum. Here’s one more recommendation: the brothers Paolo and Vittoiro Taviani, over the course of many decades, made some of the most important Italian films, works like Padre Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars. Vittorio died in 2018, and the now 91-year-old Paolo has directed his first solo feature, Leonora addio. Proof that great age is not an obstacle to reaching out in new directions, Leonora addio is a stunningly beautiful and original film, shot, in the first section, in brilliant black and white before switching to color in its second chapter.

The film is Pirandellian in the purest sense. The first section tells the story of Pirandello’s remains. The great author had requested that his ashes be laid to rest in his native Sicily, ensconced in a rock, but the fascist government disobeyed his wishes and buried him in Rome. At war’s end, he was finally transferred to Sicily, though it took years for his site to be prepared. The scene then switches to Brooklyn and an adaptation of a Pirandello story set among Italian immigrants, a tale of murder and perhaps madness.

The sum of this is a moving and occasionally humorous portrait of Italy and Italians in the 20th century, of fascism and the fight against it, of superstition, religion, culture, and adaptation to new circumstances and the new world. It is rich, it is beautiful and provoking, and it is showing at Lincoln Center as part of its Open Roads festival on June 14th and 15th.

Subscribe