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Jun
21
2024

Josh Lambert (contributing writer): About 15 years ago, when I was researching my book on Jews and obscenity law in the United States, a kind historian told me about a Polish Jewish immigrant to the US, Chava Zlotchever, who changed her name to Eve Adams, ran a lesbian tea house in Greenwich Village, privately published a book called Lesbian Love in 1925, was entrapped by the New York police and deported to Europe, and was finally murdered at Auschwitz. I spent a decade searching for Adams’ book, scouring archives and contacting rare book dealers, and the only copy anyone had heard of was the one at Yale that had gone missing in the 1990s. I gave up hope. Then, miraculously, the historian Jonathan Ned Katz convinced a woman in Albany, who had discovered a copy of Lesbian Love in her apartment building, to share it. As an appendix to his excellent book on Adams, Katz published the complete text of Lesbian Love in 2021.

I’ve been thinking about this story recently because it helps to explain why I am so very excited about Hannah Levene’s debut novel, Greasepaint, a quasi-historical, experimental novel about lesbian bars in midcentury New York. To my utter delight, Levene’s fiction reads like what we might have gotten if Eve Adams had lived in New York into the 1950s, staying involved in the lesbian bar scene while getting into jazz and experimental poetry, maybe even started slicking her hair back and wearing white t-shirts. The novel wheels wildly through the lives of the people she could have met, including the daughter of a Yiddish poet, a “butch belle juive,” and many “Jews whose anarchism was like a layer of grease on them, like it’d come from cooking.” (Levene has said, about her research, “I couldn’t see the difference between butch and Yiddish anarchist after a while.”) Embracing these characters, Greasepaint worries very little about plot or how to get from one scene to another, and much more about folks making music, eating food, and talking, talking, talking.

It would be easy to situate Levene’s book within a recent wave of LGBTQ+ fiction that recovers and reimagines the lives of queer Jews in a variety of historical settings. But unlike many other historical fantasias of queer yiddishkayt, Greasepaint doesn’t feel creakily nostalgic, but rather deeply and sweetly alive. As Agnes Borinsky noted in the latest issue of The Anarchist Review of Books, Levene understands that “it is in the shuffling, fumbling, unfolding tenderness and conversations that accompany any larger political project that some version of a new world gets built.” With her winning characters and her electric, inconsistently punctuated prose style, Levene offers hope that such new worlds might still be possible for us, and redresses, a little, what we’ve lost in centuries of brutal suppression of writers like Adams.

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I recommend the documentary film Queen of the Deuce, a modest, engrossing portrait of the larger-than-life, chain-smoking, hard-gambling, deal-making Chelly Wilson, who owned most of the porno theaters on 42nd St.—known as “the Deuce”—during its heyday in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Wilson, born Rachel Serrero in the Greek port city of Salonika, escaped to New York City before the Jews were deported to death camps, leaving her young children in hiding with gentile neighbors. Her rags-to-riches story starts with selling chestnuts and ends with a porn empire that sees the industry through its explosion—from “soft core” to “beaver” to “beaver and pickle” to “hard core.” The business is not altogether legal—Wilson’s daughter, Bondi, who works in distributing their films, is eventually arrested on felony obscenity charges. But Wilson, a twice-married lesbian who lived with her lovers but kept her husbands in the family, remains uncowed and unapologetic, holding court from her packed apartment above one of her theaters.

My grandparents were also Saloniki; they did not get out and were deported to Auschwitz. I always wondered, more so after their deaths, if we were reducing them to their tragedy, if we forced them to wear their “survivorship” like a forever hospital gown. It is for this reason that I appreciated the treatment of the Holocaust in the filmmaker’s telling of Wilson’s story—a significant part, but not the whole; neither the beginning, nor the end. In Queen of the Deuce, Wilson gets to be all of who she was.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Green Border, the new film by the veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland, wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s a cri de coeur and a call to action in the face of European indifference to the fate of the refugees who attempt to immigrate to the continent, a flight that has cost 30,000 people their lives since 2014. A film with so clear a message is bound to be flawed, weighed down by an excess of good sentiments—and to be sure, at almost two and a half hours, Green Border goes on a tad too long. But its excesses are almost justified by the scale and severity of the horrors—the baseness, cowardice, and racism—of the crisis. The film is set largely at the border between Belarus and Poland in 2021, when the vicious governments of both countries were treating refugees like ping pong balls, expelling them back and forth across the border; Belarus, certain that Poland and its ruling far right Law and Justice Party would refuse to respect European Union laws governing the acceptance of asylum seekers, had the express aim of embarrassing the EU. The callousness of both countries—and specifically of their border forces—is represented precisely as it played out then and continues to this day. We see the refugees beaten, robbed, and abused as they wait on one side of the border to be sent to the other, only to be beaten, robbed, and abused.

The film unfurls in chapters. We first travel with a group of mainly Syrian refugees as they fly into Minsk and are transported to the border, where they expect to cross into the freedom of Europe. But they have no such luck, and every glimmer of hope is crushed almost as soon as it appears. Holland then switches focus to Janek, a border guard whose wife is expecting a baby, and who clearly has no stomach for the dirty work he’s been given. And yet he carries it out all the same. We then meet a group of good-hearted Polish activists attempting to assist the refugees while respecting the laws not respected by the government. Their moral and strategic dilemmas are perhaps the strongest element of Green Border: Doing what’s legal might save a life here and there; breaking the law might do more, but could jeopardize everything. Just when the film seems to have gone on too long, Holland finds a striking new way to express the brutality and hypocrisy of what we’ve seen: The same Poles who could find no room in their hearts or their country for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or Africa welcome 2 million Ukrainians in 2023.

Green Border is a very European film. But any American viewing it can only think of the cruelty of ICE during the Trump regime—much of which has remained with Biden’s own border restrictions, and will surely worsen should the felon-candidate be elected again. So far we haven’t reacted much better than most Poles.

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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 Behaalotecha

This week’s parshah begins with God’s instructions regarding the menorah that stood in the biblical Tabernacle: “When you light the lamps,” God commands Moses to tell his brother Aaron, the High Priest, “the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.” The parshah is named after the word for “when you light”—“behaalotecha”—which literally means “when you raise up.” This may seem like a surprising term to describe the kindling of the menorah, suggesting that this act is an aspirational endeavor. The menorah’s flames are not simply lit; rather, they must be raised up and nurtured, encouraged to ignite and shine.

A subsequent verse implies that while lighting the menorah is less than straightforward, making it was especially challenging: “The menorah was made of beaten gold, from its base to its flowers, it was beaten.” A midrash recasts the repeated word “mikshah” (“beaten”) as “mah kashah” (“how difficult”), thus rereading the verse as proclaiming: “How difficult was the making of the golden menorah, from its base to its flowers, how difficult!”

Was this difficulty merely technical, or might it point to a weightier and more existential problem, in which we too are implicated? Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, writes that the menorah represents “the Jewish collective.” Just as the menorah is formed through a hammer beating the gold “so that the higher becomes lower and the lower becomes higher, and all is intermixed, the higher in the lower and the lower in the higher, likewise, all Jews are intermixed, meaning interdependent on one another.” Yet this interdependence, Rabbi Shneur Zalman admits, is not uncomplicated. In the exilic and unredeemed present, he notes, it remains compromised by impurities. Only in the messianic future will the Jewish people be, as the prophet Zechariah sees in a vision, “a menorah entirely of gold.”

Indeed, the Jewish collective is not monolithic, especially when considered in all its historical diversity. To participate in this community means embracing a mutuality that might feel ambiguous and uncomfortable. This unease feels particularly acute right now: In the wake of October 7th, the political and cultural lines along which Jewish identities are currently construed have morphed from cracks into chasms. We find ourselves disagreeing with fellow Jews with a vehemence that might seem insurmountable. To face these fissures is to experience the pain of living in a yet unredeemed world, where we are always complicit in our own exile, the exile of others, and even the exile of God.

The menorah as a symbol of the Jewish collective suggests a way to think through this pain. Though hammered from a single block of gold, its seven branches extend in opposing directions and are adorned with assorted cups, knobs, and flowers. Difference and collectivity, in other words, are maintained in difficult tension. To belong to the Jewish collective is to be existentially enmeshed with Jews of all persuasions, in the past, present, and future. But it doesn’t mean being in agreement with them, even when it comes to principles that we might regard as fundamental. On the contrary, the critical value of collectivity lies in the sharp differences it forces us to confront. As individuals, we can too easily persuade ourselves that righteousness is already ours. As part of a collective—diverse, divided, and yet unfinished—we can better see how righteousness remains our unrealized aspiration.

But Jewish collectivity is not simply a check against the hubris of the individual. Rabbi Shneur Zalman adds that the menorah also represents the entirety of the Torah and its mitzvot, citing the book of Proverbs: “the lamp is the mitzvah, and the light is the Torah.” This indicates that Jewish collectivity is constructed through participation in Judaism’s transhistorical tradition of learning and practice, which has hosted innumerable debates on the most significant matters. Its framework might not provide resolution, but it encompasses and exceeds the irreducibilities of our current disagreements, situating us in the eternal project of messianic aspiration whose flames we are always enjoined to “raise up.”

Eli Rubin is a contributing editor at Chabad​.org and the author of Kabbalah and the Rupture of Modernity: An Existential History of Chabad Hasidism, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.