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Jun
14
2024

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): On the street, my husband found Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diaryassembled from notes he began taking the day after his mother’s death in October 1977—and he brought it home to me, a chronicle of grief to place alongside my own. Barthes hand wrote on slips of typing paper cut into quarters and piled on his desk; the dated entries are short, often devastating. “This morning, thought continually of maman. Nauseous sadness. Nausea of the Irremediable.” Simple entries like this one sit alongside more abstract attempts to capture the terrible, ineluctable feeling: “What affects me most powerfully: mourning in layers—a kind of sclerosis. [Which means: no depth. Layers of surface—or rather, each layer: a totality. Units.]” Yet Barthes soon rejects the word “mourning.” “Too psychoanalytic,” he writes. “I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.” I recognize from my own diary the selection of a simple, personal metaphor to signal the recurrence of acute emotion. For Barthes, it is a “stone (around my neck, deep inside me).” For me, it is a well. “I am in the well,” I write, again and again, a shorthand, a marker.

In the weeks after my father died, I was terrified by my inability to conjure him. It was as though he had been flattened like paper, cut into a million pieces and scattered to the wind. Flesh was the whole of reality; it was all or nothing. I see myself in Barthes who, within a week of his mother’s death, is unable to hear her voice, “the very texture of memory . . . like a localized deafness.” But within a few months, she returns to him. In watching a film, he notices a lampshade similar to ones that she made of batik, and “all of her leaped before my eyes.” Indeed, five months in, I can hear my father again. I can almost speak with him. Sometimes it is too much, and I have to leave the bar or the party early. To capture this sensation, Barthes—eight months into his grief—writes in his own hand an excerpt from a letter that Marcel Proust wrote to a grieving friend in 1907. I, in turn, copy it into my own journal:

“Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you would not fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire place, beside you. At the present time, this is not yet possible. Let yourself be inert, wait till the incomprehensible power . . . that has broken you restores you a little, I say a little, for henceforth you will always keep something broken about you. Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more.”

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In 1934, H.G. Wells published his two-volume Experiment in Autobiography, an examination of his own life that takes over 800 detailed pages to get the job done. Novelist Jill Ciment has now written two memoirs—Half a Life (1996) and the newly published Consent—that, in barely 400 pages combined, constitute the most daring experiment in the genre I’ve ever read.

Half a Life tells the story of her family and her efforts to free herself from them—especially her father, a man so odious that he almost defies belief—as she finds her own way as an artist. This journey led to a disastrous move from California to New York, where she lived in a squat and was forced to work in a photo studio where she posed nude. But the book is also the story of her meeting and affair with Arnold Mesches, her art teacher in California. When they met, he was 47 and she 16; when they began having sex, she was only 17. (She calls it a May-December romance, but in this case April-December seems more appropriate.) Shortly thereafter, Mesches left his wife for her, and they soon married. When that book appeared, they had lived together for more than two decades, and they remained married until his death in 2016, at the age of 93.

In her new memoir, Ciment boldly returns to the story she had told positively, which she now views with new eyes formed by a new era. There’s no doubt that the couple had a happy life together, but huge questions hang over it. “Does a story’s ending excuse its beginning?” she asks in Consent. “Does a kiss in one moment mean something else entirely five decades later? Can a love that begins with such an asymmetrical balance of power ever right itself?” In 1996, she painted their relations with a certain glow; she now admits that the whole thing was more than slightly off. Consent rigorously reexamines the beginning of their relationship and her portrayal of it, considering not only ethical questions but the basic details of her experience. She writes, for instance, that the way she described their initial lovemaking hid the disgust she felt for her lover’s flabby, middle-aged physique. She also revises Half a Life’s account of their first kiss, writing that it was he rather than she who initiated it. (This remained in dispute between them throughout the decades they were together.)

Reading the two memoirs consecutively—so the feelings evoked by the first volume are fresh and then immediately challenged in the second—was one of the most thrilling and unsettling reading experiences I’ve had since I started reading 66 years ago, when I was six. These books are a brilliant proof that there is no mystery greater than the internal world of a couple, and a moving testament to the instability of memory and self-knowledge. As Climent writes in Consent of her earlier book: “I had intended to write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but I could not find it, or else I found it everywhere.”

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Lately at bedtime, my twin toddlers ask me to sing them the same song over and over; their new favorite is what they call “Back of Me” (Guided By Voices’ “Game of Pricks,” a perfect pop song). Sometimes I miss the days when they would snuggle up happily for whatever series of tunes I’d select from the repertoire of those I have memorized, entertaining myself with the variety as they began to drift off. But there’s also something powerful in the repetition, as I try to inhabit and express the same words and melody differently with each iteration.

A new record by Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham), Tyler Trotter, and Nathan Salsburg—a Jewish Currents contributor and the musician behind the song that opens and closes our podcast—draws from this same experience. Hear the Children Sing the Evidence was inspired by Salsburg’s practice of soothing his daughter to sleep with a rendition of “The Evidence” by the post-punk band Lungfish, repeated for as long as an hour. The album features this song and another Lungfish track, “Hear the Children Sing,” each performed enough times to fill one side of a vinyl record. The experiment beautifully weds the gentle intimacy of a lullaby—a communion between parent and child at the precipice of sleep—with the lively camaraderie of a jam session. The strict, ritualistic structure allows the songs to open up and transform. In a recent interview about the project with Aquarium Drunkard, Oldham explains, “I know I’m going to be strict with the lyrics. I’m not going to improvise . . . If my mind is changing and my perspective is changing about what I’m saying, I always have to go back and find it in the lyrics.” The songs’ abstract, ambiguous poetry perfectly serves this purpose. As the repetitions unfold, they begin to seem like commentaries on the recursive process itself: “What’s taking form / is not a lifetime . . . What’s circling / is not circular . . . What’s coming into view / is not old or new.”

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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 Naso

Anti-Jewish Christian theologians often claim that Judaism is based on a casuistic legalism that demands rote ritual performance, leaving no room for love. But in this week’s parshah, Naso, we find that law and love are not opposing categories, but can coexist within ritual practice.

Naso contains instructions for the priestly benediction with which Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons are commanded to bless the Israelites. The blessing reads: “May the Lord bless you, and keep you; May the Lord make God’s face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up God’s face to you, and give you peace.” Unlike most rituals performed by the priestly class in ancient Israelite worship, which have not taken place since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, this benediction is still practiced in many traditional Jewish communities today by those considered to be descendants of the biblical priests. With its prescribed Hebrew liturgy and legal requirements dictating when and by whom it is recited, it might seem that this blessing is one of the rote rituals maligned as loveless legalism. But the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mysticism, insists in a comment on this week’s parshah, “a priest who does not love the people or is not loved by the people should not raise his hands to bless them.” This stipulation is echoed in the formula the priests recite before offering their benediction, thanking God for “commanding [them] to bless God’s nation with love.”

The words “with love” at the end of the blessing could be read as a description of the benediction’s content, meaning that love is what the priests are bestowing upon the people. But the 20th-century Talmudist and theologian Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik interprets the phrase as describing the manner in which the priests must offer their blessing. “Love is in fact a stated pre-condition for the fulfillment of this commandment,” he writes; in other words, love is a mandated requirement of this legal observance. Here love and law are not opposed but intertwined.

Rabbinic commentators also understand the physical choreography with which the priests are required to perform this ritual as an expression of love. According to later commentators, the priests should offer this benediction while spreading their fingers in a particular gesture (the basis for Star Trek’s Vulcan salute), which a midrash reads as analogous to a passage in the Song of Songs: “My lover stands behind the wall, gazing through the window, peering through the lattice.” The priests’ spread fingers, the midrash explains, form a lattice through which God gazes lovingly at humanity. Perhaps this lattice, a kind of physical scaffolding, is analogous to the legal structures of ritual practice that allow love to exist tangibly, instead of as a spiritual abstraction. Even this seemingly arcane and arbitrary rite is not merely a legalistic requirement but is also the embodiment—in this case, quite literally—of divine love.

In the priestly benediction, we thus find a law that can only be fulfilled through love and a love that can only be enacted through the minutiae of legal observance. Through this example, our parshah reminds us that obligations are unique opportunities to express love. This is true not only of rituals that demonstrate care in obvious ways—like the traditional Hebrew formulation one says to mourners, stating a hope that they find comfort—but also of much more mundane duties, even (and sometimes especially) when they are tedious and seemingly arbitrary: When I put away clean dishes in the precise patterns that my partner prefers, even though it feels illogical to me, I can understand the activity of placing mugs in the cabinet just so as an embodiment of the love I feel. Repeated consistently, these minor, methodical acts can become a grand architecture of intimate devotion.

Daniel Kraft is a writer, translator, and educator living in Richmond, Virginia.