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Jun
28
2024

Raphael Magarik (contributing editor): At a moment of excitement about radical unionism, and since the United Auto Workers (UAW) seems to be emerging from a half-century stupor, I’ve been reading about leftist and labor movements. Last year, I read Detroit, I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, an excoriating account of Black workers rebelling against the UAW’s racism and complacency in the late sixties and early seventies. The book is remarkable for the Black Marxist tradition it chronicles, which differs considerably from the more media-friendly (and nationalist) Black Panthers; for its prophetic linking of deindustrialization and militarized policing; and for the spunk of its protagonists, as when they take over the student newspaper of Wayne State University and convert it into a radical medium.

Perhaps less famous, if only because newer, is Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge, a comprehensive and moving history of the Farm Equipment Workers union (FE)—a brilliant and brief-lived experiment in radical unionism. Though formally organized in the 1930s, the union derived its militant traditions from the deep hatred workers at International Harvester felt for their managers, and especially the McCormick family of robber-baron owners. Indeed, Gilpin’s title comes from Nelson Algren’s phrase for the subterranean resentments that lingered in Chicago after the Haymarket affair: in 1886, after Chicago police killed strikers at the McCormick reaper plant, at an otherwise peaceful labor rally, someone threw a bomb at the police; the anarchist August Spies and three of his comrades were framed for the crime and executed. The FE drew on these longstanding grievances, partly because its leadership (including the author’s father, DeWitt Gilpin) were mostly committed, if hardly doctrinaire Communists, who understood unionism as class struggle.

In its brief institutional existence, the FE’s militant striking exacted remarkable concessions from International Harvester: contracts with good wages, an impressive system of shop-stewards who addressed workplace grievances, and all without making many concessions on the union’s right to strike. Moreover, as early as the 1940s, the Communist organizers insisted on racial equality within the union: this having Black union leaders, bargaining for Black workers’ interests, and, in the case of the Louisville local, even making daring attempts to integrate public parks and hotels.Sadly, the FE was crushed in the anti-Communist repression of the late forties and early fifties—targeted for “raids” by Walter Reuther’s much larger, much less radical UAW. The union was eventually summoned before the House Un-American Committee and forced to testify as they were waging a 1952 strike, during which they faced an ugly, falsified murder charge against one of their Black leaders in Chicago. By the 1950s, they had given in to Reuther and were folded into the UAW, where staff organizers were permitted to hold their positions so long as they renounced their links to the party, and the the tradition of unremitting war against the boss gave way to a top-down, liberal, and bureaucratic union.

The Long Deep Grudge ends on a plangent note: even in the fifties, IH was starting to close its Midwest plants to move to cheaper and less unionized locales. By the seventies, the liberal UAW’s dream of shared prosperity gave way to a long, slow series of union concessions, and the mismanaged International Harvester was sold off to private equity as part of the long dismantling of American industry. Despite this bitter ending, the book is nonetheless a delightful read. Gilpin thoroughly revised her decades-old dissertation into zippy, narrative history, rich with colorful characters. By writing labor history as a tense drama of class struggles, Gilpin lets us feel the power and excitement of radical ideas. And most importantly, she shows how the disciplined, Communist thinking of the FE’s core leadership and a more diffuse, anti-authoritarian anarchism that suffused the base delivered material victories for workers.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Across her lengthy career, the great French director Catherine Breillat has had one great theme: sex. While cinematic depictions of sex have usually focused on men’s experiences, Breillat is unflinching in her portrayal of the act—and the relationships around it—from the woman’s point of view. The ironic title of her 2002 film Sex Is Comedy fits precisely nothing in her catalog, which spans five decades. Her approach is more fittingly summarized by the title of her 2004 film Anatomy of Hell, in which she underlined both the centrality of sex and her refusal to prettify it by giving the lead male role to a porn star, Rocco Siffredi. Sex in Breillat’s work is sometimes ugly and clumsy, as we see in her early films about young women entering the sexual fray like 36 Fillette (1988), and even more so in more recent work like Fat Girl (2001). After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 2004, Breillat was sidelined for several years; during her recovery she was victimized by a con man, an experience that became her 2013 film Abuse of Weakness. Her weakened state has slowed down her production. But in Last Summer, her first film in a decade, Breillat’s vision has not in any way softened.

Anne, played by the radiant Léa Drucker, is a successful lawyer married to a successful businessman, living in a palatial home with their two adopted daughters. The husband’s troubled teenage son, Théo, moves in with them; he’s a typically hostile adolescent who is also—not incidentally—quite handsome, in a rather bedraggled way. This being a Breillat film, we know what to expect: The teenager and the woman twice his age soon move from hostility to an affair. Breillat understands her characters and their motivations perfectly. In addition to Théo’s unsurprising attraction to the beautiful Anne, he hates his father, so what better way to strike out at him than sleeping with his wife? And while Anne loves her husband, the affair offers a respite from a life that has come to bore her. The morality of it all never enters into anyone’s considerations. The play of these various elements is skillfully executed, and the way Breillat represents the headlong nature of their affair—as well as its conversion into anger and hatred and then back again—is both troubling and natural.

The film is full of perfect Breillat moments, exemplary of what makes her and her films so extraordinary. The first time the couple has sex, for instance, the camera focuses on Théo’s face and its contortions; this is sex from the woman’s point of view. When we see them together the second time, the camera is in an extreme closeup on Anne—but it’s not from the man’s point of view. Rather, it shows the woman taking pleasure in her own pleasure.

Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): Stage lore has long maintained that all theaters are haunted by the spirits of deceased performers. They come out and play to empty houses in the wee hours by the glow of the “ghost light”—a single-bulb floor lamp left on for them in theaters all night. (A duller interpretation insists these lights are there to prevent folks from tripping on the scenery.) In my adolescent stage-struck, Hebrew-school years, I conflated the ghost light with the ner tamid, the eternal flame that hangs above the Torah ark in synagogues across the world. To me, both represented spiritual connection with my far-flung peoples—past, present, and future.

The performance artist/comedian/songwriter Morgan Bassichis made that connection flesh in their poignant and hilarious show, Can I Be Frank?, which channels, claims, frames, and honors the performance artist/comedian/songwriter Frank Maya, who died of AIDS in August 1995 at age 45. Best known as the first out gay comic to have a half-hour special on Comedy Central, and for his chill responses to cringey questions about “homosexuals” on The Dick Cavett Show in 1991, Maya fronted a band, performed streamy “rants” and comic bits in mainstream gigs and in downtown spaces like Dixon Place, PS122, the Kitchen, and the very stage at La MaMa where Bassichis just conjured him. I saw Maya–and so many artists lost to AIDS, who also haunt these venues–perform there decades ago. Ever since, I have been scampishly quoting his joke about Anne Frank–which I won’t spoil here–and was delighted that Bassichis landed it, and that an audience still guffaws at its truthy irreverence.

Bassichis opens his show with one of Maya’s rants on the reverence owed to the dead, but stops and starts over several times, cutting in to offer commentary, some of which purposely misses the point, in a droll demonstration of both the necessity and impossibility of summoning up one’s ancestors. In presenting some of Maya’s material, refashioning his routines, and performing a couple of his songs alongside their own, Bassichis exposes the distance between Maya’s world and today’s, and tenderly builds a queer bridge across them.

I hadn’t remembered that so much of Maya’s material was about death, ghosts, afterlives—maybe because everything was about death in those terrible times. I did remember how much was about sex, an aspect Bassichis also grabs onto. How inspiring, they suggest, that even as ACT UP was lying down in the streets to protest the state’s murderous indifference to AIDS, Maya was ranting about a guy too tired to have sex with him or joking that if it hadn’t been for his scout leader “I wouldn’t have had sex till I was 16.” Insisting on life’s lusts and joys–everyone, everywhere, even in the direst circumstances—Bassichis shows, is what keeps the lights on. Bassichis played a handful of sold-out performances earlier this month, but keep an eye out: I can’t imagine they won’t land a longer run somewhere soon.


***

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 Shelach

Over the past nine months, I have returned again and again to a phone conversation I had with my mother-in-law in May 2021, amid a major Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. Sitting in Jerusalem, I couldn’t stop thinking about the rising death toll, or how the violence unleashed against the growing protest movement in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah was spreading across the country. When my mother-in-law—who left northern Israel for New England in the late 1990s—asked how I was doing, I responded with despair. “Well, of course,” she replied, “it’s a land that devours its inhabitants.”

She was quoting a verse that appears in this week’s parshah, Shelach. When Moses sends 12 spies from the desert to scout the Land of Israel, they return in unanimous agreement that the land is “flowing with milk and honey,” just as God promised. But ten of the spies caution against entering the region, regaling the terrified Israelites with tales of the giants who dwell in this “land that devours its inhabitants.” The people, doubting God’s plan for them, propose a return to Egypt. Enraged by the spies’ report and the Israelites’ lack of faith, God threatens to wipe out the entire people and start over with a new nation descended from Moses alone. Only after Moses begs for mercy does God curtail the punishment, proclaiming that while this generation will die in the desert, their children will enter “the land that you have rejected.” The traditional commentators see the ten spies’ actions as sinful, and even as the cause of future devastation. The Mishnah, for example, claims that the spies “have no share in the World to Come.” And according to the Talmud, the day the spies returned to the camp was the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, or Tisha B’av, a date that marks the destruction of both Temples, along with other calamities. In fact, as one midrash relates, it was at the very moment that the spies delivered their report that the Temple’s fate was sealed and the Jewish people doomed to exile.

But elsewhere in the Talmud, the sinning spies appear in a quite different light. We’re told that a minyan—the quorum of Jews necessary to pray collectively and say specific blessings—requires ten people because this was the number of the naysaying spies. Why would our model of communal assembly, for gathering together to sanctify God’s name, derive from these spies of ill repute, from a bitter communal rift? Notably, the ten spies who sought to dissuade the people from entering the Land agree with the other two about the factual report; they simply disagree about the inevitability of devastation. Perhaps, our tradition is trying to tell us, being in a collective requires being able to look catastrophe in the eye. This suggests that the ten spies went wrong not in their grim assessment of the nature of the Land, but in their desire to turn back from it rather than confront its calamity. Indeed, the Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, links the phrase “a land that devours its inhabitants” to a description of God in the book of Devarim as “a devouring fire.” Despite this devouring quality, the Sefat Emet notes, we are still told to cleave to God.

In this respect, the spies may only be a partial model. Yet they still show us that holy assemblies are formed in relation to cataclysm and communal schism. Our task, it seems, is to be resolute where they wavered—to turn fully toward the current catastrophe and the work of ending it. Like the generation of the spies, we may not be the ones who reach the Promised Land. But by joining together in this minyan of dissent, our wandering can begin to chart a way there.

Maya Rosen is the Israel/​Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.