Jess Bergman (contributing writer): At the end of Philip Roth’s 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater, the titular sex pest and erstwhile puppeteer, Mickey Sabbath, has lost virtually everything: two wives, a beloved mistress, his artistic practice, his job, his home. In exile from his life, Sabbath returns to the beach town where he grew up and pays an impromptu visit to his senile cousin Fish. Inside Fish’s untidy house, he finds “his own mother’s treasured sideboard,” and inside that sideboard, a carton of items that once belonged to his older brother Morty, a pilot who died in 1944 when his plane was shot down over the Pacific. To Sabbath, these material traces—an electric shaver studded with hairs, a red-white-and-blue yarmulke, a miniature ceramic fish—are shattering: “Just things. Just these few things, and for him they were the hurricane of the century.”
I thought of this melancholy encounter with a life’s detritus last weekend, on a visit to the Newark Public Library, where Roth’s personal library and other archival objects are on permanent display. The exhibit, located at the top of the palatial marble stairs that Roth immortalized in Goodbye, Columbus, consists, as you might expect, mostly of books. But alongside the inscribed galleys from admiring peers and a fat second edition of Webster’s unabridged Twentieth Century Dictionary you’ll find the sleek Eames Chair and ottoman where Roth sought relief from chronic back pain, a wastepaper basket and felt-tip pens from his study, a pennant from Weequahic High School. My favorite item was a worn-looking Mets cap with a dusty smudge on its brim.
I stopped by the exhibit while in Newark for Philip Roth Unbound, a three-day festival held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. It was a celebration of what would have been Roth’s 90th birthday—and a kind of reclamation after the disastrous rollout of his authorized biography in 2021. On Saturday morning, I took a seat at the back of a packed auditorium for “Letting the Repellant In,” a panel featuring the novelists Susan Choi, Gary Shteyngart, and Ottessa Moshfegh, moderated by Ayad Akhtar. The conversation explored the provocations in Roth’s work, both the deliberate and the artless, from his defiance of Jewish respectability politics to his frequently (but not, in my view, uniformly) misogynistic characterizations of women. While each panelist had their own unique relationship to Roth, they were largely in agreement that disgust, discomfort, and the expression of subterranean desires are essential ingredients of quality literature. Choi movingly defended the occasionally grotesque sexuality in Roth’s oeuvre as part of a vulnerable dedication to depicting embodiment: not just the irrepressible libido of the young man, but also the infirmity of the old. (This insight prompted minor disagreement from Moshfegh, who self-identified as “a prude.”) After a quick lunch break at the wood-paneled deli Hobby’s—where every table is set with a complimentary ice bucket of pickles—I caught an afternoon reading of Roth’s 1959 story “Defender of the Faith” by Morgan Spector, star of HBO’s 2020 adaptation of The Plot Against America, whose actorly yet restrained performance was almost as impressive as the fact that he took a single sip of water while speaking for an unbroken hour and a half.
Attending only a small slice of events in the very middle of the festival, I was mostly spared from the kind of portentous remarks usually saved for opening and closing ceremonies. But there was a moment during the audience Q&A portion of “Letting the Repellant In” when a familiar flicker of anxiety emerged: Given the debates about representation, likeability, and “problematic” authors roiling liberal college campuses and MFA workshops, one attendee wondered, would Roth’s work continue to be taught? As someone who came to his novels outside of the classroom, and who has always understood his reputation as owing more to ordinary readers and literary critics than any scholarly edifice, I confess I found the question a little beside the point. Looking around at the rapt audience—which skewed older, but included a decent smattering of my generational peers—it was hard to muster too much fear about the durability of Roth’s legacy. At the very least, I thought, the proceedings would have flattered his insatiable ego.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I’m not sure what’s going on: Usually I walk around like Jay Sherman in the 90s animated cult classic The Critic (catch phrase: “It stinks!”). But lately I’ve seen so much good art—and even more surprising, a lot of it Jewish. Are these the fruits of mid-pandemic? Are we entering a more fertile phase in Jewish art? (If you think the answer to the latter question is “yes” and have theories about why this may be, reply to this email and let me know.) Either way, last Friday night, I attended one of the sold out performances of Alexandra Tatarsky’s solo show Sad Boys in Harpy Land at Abrons Art Center, which I loved. From the first sequence, in which Tatarksy is a cartoonish lounge singer, wriggling behind the mic while performing a song about death by canned fish—a number she follows up by cracking a can of anchovies in oil and stuffing them into her mouth with her fingers—I was equal parts captivated, confused, and almost pleasurably repelled.
Tatarsky is a clown—that’s how she defines her otherwise difficult to describe practice of being weird onstage with props. For almost a decade she has been working on an interconnected series of absurd existentialist performances about nothing that she calls Seinfeld (get it?), and which takes as a loose text Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 18th century artist bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. (She mocks the sound and pretensions of this word, bildungsroman; she often makes words physical in this performance, processing them through the body like a ball traveling a Rube Goldberg machine.)
The headline for Talya Zax’s piece about the show in The Forward (which I would be surprised if she chose) proclaims that the show is “about” the Holocaust. I don’t think that’s right, but it does seem that Tatarsky has found the object she needs for her ongoing performance of painful, meaningless (hilarious) nothing by leaning into the contours of a kind of mid-century Jewish trope. I’m reminded here of the Jews that surround Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer: grotesque, lecherous, dramatic, with an almost primordial relish—a talent, perhaps—for suffering. (“Gentiles have a different way of suffering,” Miller writes. “They suffer without neuroses and, as Sylvester says, a man who has never been afflicted with a neurosis does not know the meaning of suffering.”) It is a very old Jewishness, a nod to the history of Jew-as-onstage-metaphor for all of suffering humanity—made new and strange by the sheer extent of its strangeness. The show has finished its run, unfortunately, but since it seems that Tatarsky is committed to keeping up the bit indefinitely, there will undoubtedly be another chance to catch her.
Alice Radosh (co-chair, JC Council): Before I read historian and museum curator Richard Rabinowitz’s new book, Objects of Love and Regret: A Brooklyn Story, Edmund de Waal’s memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance was the example that came to mind of a narrative that uses inherited objects to tell a family’s story through the generations. But I suspect very few Jewish Currents readers are walking around with netsuke—the tiny wood and ivory sculptures centered in de Waal’s narrative—in their pockets. And de Waal’s family, the cosmopolitan Ephrussi clan whose wealth was rivaled only by their co-religionist friends, the Rothschilds, may feel a tiny bit out of reach for most of us.
From more familiar objects, Rabinowitz weaves together what, for many Currents subscribers, is probably a more familiar story. Using the skills he cultivated in his curatorial work for New York City’s Tenement Museum, Rabinowitz brings alive the non-religious but strongly Jewish world of early 20th-century immigrant Brooklyn. Each chapter of Objects of Love and Regret is structured around an ordinary item once found in the Rabinowitz family home in East New York. Each object’s history explores a different dimension of his family’s early struggle to hold on to tradition and community while becoming “American.” In examining a simple bottle opener, for instance, Rabinowitz recounts the story of his then-teenage mother teaching his grandmother how to use the tool as part of an American kitchen. In another chapter, Rabinowitz honors a wooden cigar case that housed rarely useful but never-to-be-discarded odds and ends. Beach chairs, first used for homemade picnic lunches in local parks, became used for stoop sitting as the family left the tenements and moved to a neighborhood of attached houses. The history of the chairs says all that needs to be said about the loss of community. As stuff, the objects might seem like nothing special, but over the course of Rabinowitz’s storytelling and research, they come to feel very special.
The book is a lot more than a walk down memory lane. Rabinowitz sensitively tracks the upward mobility of his parents alongside the social fragmentation and physical decay that reshaped Brooklyn between the 1930s and 50s. As he investigates these changes, he presents both what happened in his family’s neighborhood as well as a vision of what could have been, a parallel that is simultaneously heartbreaking and thought-provoking as Brooklyn continues to evolve. Long-time readers of the magazine will recognize and appreciate being immersed in a neighborhood that has long since disappeared; newer Currents subscribers will be introduced and welcomed into that era.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): While watching the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s latest film, Rimini, I wracked my brain trying to come up with another filmmaker with as grim a vision of humanity. Lars von Trier—whose shamelessness in degrading his actors, particularly women, puts him and Seidl in the same class—comes close. But in Seidl there is less aestheticizing of humanity’s sorry state. He is not only a filmmaker who sees us as morally and emotionally fallen beings, but one for whom our physical ruin is omnipresent. His cruelty to his characters isn’t physical; rather, it consists in casting an unflattering gaze on human bodies and their desires. His films are so many portraits of Dorian Gray—he puts the hidden image of Wilde’s classic repeatedly on display.
Like much of Seidl’s oeuvre, Rimini—which continues its run in New York at the Quad this week and will open in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal on March 31st—seems to be a documentary, and if you go into it accepting that premise, you’ll wonder at every moment how the participants agreed to take part. But it is, in fact, a carefully constructed fiction film, tracing the extremely plausible downward trajectory of Richie Bravo, an Austrian easy listening singer, played with chilling realism by Michael Thomas. Once a big star, he has now landed in Rimini, a city on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where he performs in hotel dining rooms before crowds of middle-aged, German-speaking tourists, all reliving their lost youths through this rather absurd-looking schlockmeister in his sub-Elvis costumes. Earning almost nothing from his shows, Bravo supplements his income by sleeping with female admirers, who pay for the very dubious pleasure of doing so. Rimini itself is as broke as Bravo: The film, which takes place in winter, shows a desolate resort city in its off-season, the streets and beaches covered in snow, the empty hotels looking as rundown as the people, many of whom are refugees from Africa sleeping outdoors or killing time waiting for nothing.
Bravo’s life is shaken out of its pathetic rut by the appearance of an attractive young woman who he attempts to pick up. But he soon learns that she is his long-lost daughter, who has come to claim years of unpaid child support. In a typical Seidl touch, Bravo accepts that he owes the money and promises to turn it over—but in order to do so, he must commit the basest act of a very base life.
I fear I might have made Rimini sound like an unattractive experience, and it’s certainly not a date movie. But it is an exhilaratingly clear-eyed portrayal of human sadness and delusion.