David Klion (contributing editor): Just over a year ago, my colleague Nathan Goldman wrote in the Shabbat Reading List that he was reading Moby-Dick to his infant twins, who were born premature and were still in the NICU at the time. “Now that the boys are in separate rooms, I read each chapter to one and then the other, so we can all share in the same surges of language seeking the unspeakable,” Nathan wrote. “I hope by the time we reach the final page, we’ll all be home together.”
It was a lovely sentiment, and it stuck with me, though I had no idea that in less than a year I would become a NICU dad myself. I didn’t end up reading Moby-Dick out loud to my daughter until after we took her home, 11 weeks after her premature birth, and with many medical challenges still ahead of us. The wonderful thing about newborns is that you can read anything to them; they aren’t listening for the story or the characters or the themes, but for the cadences of their caretaker’s voice. We read her children’s books too, of course, but personally I find that I come alive as a reader when I try to channel Melville’s 19th century prose, even if that means stumbling over the occasional antiquated word. At five and a half months, our daughter doesn’t need to know anything about the New Bedford whaling industry or veiled homoerotic themes or biblical allusions to register her father’s intensity when recounting all of the above. For my part, this strange, lyrical novel (which I started years ago but never finished) is best appreciated out loud, with a captive listener—ideally one whose mind is still taking form. I don’t expect she’ll remember any of this when she’s older, but I have faith some of it will linger deep in her subconscious, and that someday she’ll be able to revisit it on her own terms.
This week, I’m exiting the role of newsletter editor, though I will remain with Jewish Currents as a contributing editor and will continue to write for the magazine. When I launched the Shabbat Reading List three years ago, it was my hope that readers would get to know the people who make up the Jewish Currents family as human beings, beyond our most considered editorial output. That goal has been fulfilled many times over, and I’ll always be proud to have built this newsletter and its ever-expanding audience. This isn’t goodbye, because I’m not going anywhere, but I do want to thank you all for returning to the newsletter week after week. It’s been an honor; let’s keep in touch.
Jessica de Koninck (member, JC Council): One of the things I love about reading poetry is that it encourages me to view different aspects of my own life in new ways––a secret pleasure that sometimes feels deliciously indulgent. As a gift to myself, I first read Hila Ratzabi’s new poetry collection, There Are Still Woods, for Tu B’Shevat, and I have since read it several times more. Her poems pay close attention to all that lives, and I have felt my own perspective enriched by that close attention. In the poem “End of the Anthropocene,” Ratzabi writes, “There is a way to be an animal on earth”; that phrase appears to be at the heart of her project, as she proceeds to study that way of being. The poem continues:
I’m surviving, I’m branching
The leaves are t-t-t-t-tapping
The poet becomes the tree. For Ratzabi, everything living––including leaves––is capable of speech. Even in Ratzabi’s most dystopian moments, she is able (to borrow a phrase from the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski) to “praise the mutilated world.” In “Goodnight Earth,” she writes:
How the new species
crawl out of broken cells,
hatched chicks, new eyes
all over their fur
glowing in a thousand directions.
Whatever terrible things we humans may do to the planet, these poems seem to say, life will still somehow win out. She finds even in plant life the qualities she both admires and would like to see in people. For example, in “Forest Arrangement” she writes:
The trees are so good at waiting
I forget they are alive.
They watch me. I insist on it.
How could they not, being everywhere?
The clear sense of unity among and all living things animates her writing. To read Ratzabi is to remember that life around us can be a source of abundant inspiration; and to connect with that sense of awe and wonder reminds us to do a better job of stewarding our planet. Filled with poems of love and grief for the earth, There Are Still Woods makes urgent the truth that the planet is ours for the saving and may yet be saved.
Helen Betya Rubinstein (contributing writer): I spent a few hours this past weekend reading Your Hearts, Your Scars, a slim, potent collection of essays by the writer Adina Talve-Goodman (z”l) about the fullness and the complexities of a life lived with “two hearts in my possession: one inside, and one out.” The first is the donated heart she received at age 19; the second, the single-ventricle one she was born with, which led her to experience heart failure at age 12. “Is your suffering dear to you?” she asks herself three times in the opening essay, quoting a story from Talmud. There and elsewhere, Adina treads through questions of ableism, strength, and shame with lightness and humor. In another essay, she entertains a suitor’s suggestion that there might be something zombie-like about living in a body containing a dead stranger’s heart, admitting there were days when she “did walk about the world feeling a lot like death in drag”—but ultimately she finds the greater horror lies in being cherished for her scars.
The collection itself is unfinished—Adina died of a rare and swift cancer caused by post-transplant immunosuppressants in January of 2018, 11 years after she received the donor heart. It’s easy to lose sight of the specific gifts of this book within the many layers of her living legacy: In a postscript, Hannah Tinti, the One Story magazine editor who helped edit this collection, characterizes Adina as “a hero in colorful scarves and overalls” with “a weakness for glitter and Cher.” Adina was the managing editor of One Story, a performer and trained clown, and the daughter of two rabbis. (Her mother, Rabbi Susan Talve, is known for opening her St. Louis synagogue to BLM protesters in 2014 and 2017.) Even after the transplant, Adina held on to the heart she was born with—not, she tells a nosy doctor, because it’s “a Jewish thing to take your organs home with you,” but because she wanted to keep what was rightfully hers and maybe to find out what a “dying heart” contains. The heart was released to her “in an urn through a funeral parlor,” she recounts drily, “as my own ‘remains.’”
The essays here deal in a troubled economy of gratitude and gifts, where one person’s death becomes another person’s life. But they are populated with the seemingly lightweight details of young adulthood: makeout sessions in basements and in cars, awkward breakups, too-long conversations with strangers, encounters on late-night subway platforms. On a walk to an Iowa cemetery on the ten-year anniversary of her transplant, where she means to pray but realizes she cannot recall the words, Adina remembers that the second-century miracle worker Shimon bar Yochai is said to have lived with “one eye laughing and one eye crying.” These essays devote themselves to living in this space, refusing the ostensible weight of their subject with a bright, insistent humor.
Adina was a new friend the year we both lived in Iowa (her first and my last), warm and sharp and generous and funny. Reading these essays lent new valences to my memories of hiking with her in the woods near my house, of sharing cocktails one night at a dance party that turned out not to be dance-y enough, of burning intentions in her backyard under a new moon. I was moved by the way a voice really can stay alive in print, how encountering Adina in these pages made her briefly, vividly present. There’s a moment in one essay when she bristles at being called “pretty” by a nurse, and concludes that what the nurse must mean is that she looks “a lot like life.” It’s a phrase I want to use to describe this book, which is too brief, and incomplete, but full of life regardless.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Mark Mazower’s history of Greece during World War II was, for me, a great revelation. The story of the killing fields of Eastern Europe is well known, told over and over again from every conceivable angle. Mazower’s account of the less familiar horrors of the Nazi war in Greece can only leave the reader with unbounded respect for the Greek people, who fought first against the Italians and then against the Germans. Mazower has since written an excellent history of Salonika and, most recently, of the Greek Revolution of 1821, which led to the Greeks’ liberation from Ottoman rule.
My knowledge of the Greek Revolution was severely limited—mainly to the story of Lord Byron and the philhellenes (foreign admirers of Greece who joined the fight)—and given Mazower’s particular affection for the Greeks, I was expecting a tale of heroism against all odds. But The Greek Revolution is a story with few real heroes, and certainly not one of unblemished freedom fighters standing up to oppression. The reality is far more interesting and far more human.
Initially launched by a group of idealists, the revolution soon became a swirl of many wars, all of them marked by brutality. As part of the Ottoman Empire, Greece had a sizable Turkish community, and the revolution was an ethnic and religious war as well as a war for independence. There was no Greek nation, Mazower makes clear, and regional ties to local notables—local bandits, even—were stronger than bonds with any of the men who posed as political leaders of the struggle. Civil war within the Greek camp was constant, as were assassinations. Plunder was a strong if not principal motivation for many of those who fought the Turks, and accounts of looting fill the pages of Mazower’s book. Murder of civilians was carried out by both sides. This situation was a shock for the hundreds of philhellenes. Many, Mazower tells us, wondered who were the oppressed and who the oppressors; on the ground, things were not as clear as they had seemed from a safe distance. Mazower makes this tale of crossed loyalties and constant back-stabbing vivid and exciting.
On another note: There’s a film opening this weekend at Film Forum—and running for one week—that I wasn’t all that happy with, but which I’m certain will interest many readers of Jewish Currents. Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45 documents the amazing accomplishments of the Labour government that trounced Churchill in the election of 1945 and proceeded to carry out a program unimaginable in today’s UK, or anywhere else. In just a couple of years, under the leadership of Clement Attlee, and the truly great Nye Bevan, Labour created the National Health Service; built decent public housing; and nationalized the mines, as well as the rails, the airlines, and transport of all kinds—upending the world as it was. It’s a marvelous story, told by men and women who lived through it. But Loach, ever the Labour leftist, is unable to explain how it all came crashing down, except by resorting to the simplistic explanation that it was all top-down and the workers didn’t control industry. Loach’s picture of a socialist Britain will inspire hope in many, if not in me.