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Jess Bergman (contributing writer): Alexandra Tanner’s debut novel Worry (2024) may be narrated by an aimless, mildly depressed, and precariously employed twenty-something in Brooklyn, but that is about the extent of its resemblance to the literature of millennial ennui. Rather than constructing a hermetic universe of one, as is the tendency in this subgenre, Tanner centers her novel on a dyad: aspiring writer Jules and her younger sister Poppy, who has moved to New York in the wake of a mental health crisis that included a suicide attempt and a temporary return to their parents’ home in Florida. And instead of formally imitating the listlessness of its characters, the novel is actually funny. In one scene, Jules goes on a Hinge date with a man who accuses her of ableism after she calls him “psycho” for throwing rocks at a squirrel: “I could be medically psychotic and that could be really offensive to me.” “I’m medically psychotic,” she retorts. There’s also a three-legged dog named Amy Klobuchar.

These antic scenes are thrown into sharper relief by an ambient unease that is characteristic of the period in which Worry is set: long enough after Trump’s election that the system has accommodated itself to him, with the psychic and physical shocks of the pandemic and the mobilization of millions by the police murder of George Floyd still on the horizon. One telling barometer is Jules’s obsession with what she calls her “mommies”: beautiful white Instagram influencers whose photogenic performance of motherhood runs parallel to their promotion of dubious wellness products and even more dubious conspiracy theories about vaccines and Jewish world domination. (Tanner published an essay about the mommies in Jewish Currents in 2020, perhaps a version of the one that Jules spends much of Worry failing to write.) Their fantasy Aryan families become a discomfiting foil to Jules and Poppy’s own, which deals hurt in roughly equal measure to love. Even from a distance, their mother, an almost parodically brusque Jew for Jesus, is constantly pulling her daughters into new constellations, whether aligned against her or divided against each other. However affectionately sketched, these relationships feel like one more idyll that might soon shatter.

Worry is largely plotless but ultimately gives way to a structurally elegant ending. In this way, it might share one more thing with its predecessors: like the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Jules’s anomie is punctured by a violent confrontation with the real. But the crisis is far more quotidian than in Moshfegh’s novel, which culminates in 9/11, and the experience does not so much cleanse Jules as drag her unwillingly into action. Whether or not she will be really changed remains an open question: In the midst of an emergency, she still needs a minute to scroll on her phone.

Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I hate to recommend a play after it has closed, but in case it ever returns to the stage, I have to put in a word for Andy Boyd’s Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist, which ran this past month at The Tank in Manhattan. A character study of a Jewish leftist-turned-reactionary (think: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz), the show’s three acts drop in on Lev Trachtenberg (an absolutely electric Jeff Gonzalez) at three pivotal moments: in 1939, when he is a young, pugilistic Trotskyist at City College, arguing with the Stalinists on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland; in 1967, when he is a professor of modernist literature at Columbia who angers Black radicals on campus over his resistance to adding Black writers to his syllabus; and in 1980, when he reunites with a comrade from his youth at the offices of his conservative think tank just before the Reagan election.

It is difficult to overstate the pleasure and excitement of the first act in particular, which features a debate between Trotskyist Lev and a Stalinist rival, staged for the benefit of an undecided student. Though the young man—whose only thought is of becoming a lawyer to help Jews flee Europe before it’s too late—is turned off by the Stalinists’ intellectual rigidity and attracted to the Trots, who he says seem “smarter,” he is ultimately swayed by the Stalinists’ power analysis: They are the only ones, they claim, who can stop Hitler’s advance. But the debate is interrupted by bad news: The USSR has just signed a pact of nonaggression with Germany. The young men are so horrified they vomit in turns—everyone is seemingly Jewish, and before the debate had been discussing the fate of their European cousins. But Lev is elated; he has won the argument, cousins be damned.

I had a few quibbles with the play: Though the origin of Lev’s reactionary turn is appropriately situated in relation to Black radicalism, Israel and antisemitism are strikingly absent, which is curious considering the year (’67) and the centrality of these topics to those in our canon of Jewish reactionaries. And in the 1980 scene, I found myself wanting Lev to provide his own narrative about his transformation, however unreliable, instead of deflecting to a comment about the story being traceable “in his papers.” From a character who has built a life in grand ideas and theories, this lack of insight is unsatisfying. There are, however, some clues about what fuels Lev’s transformation, and astutely, they are not based primarily in ideology, but in what remains constant in Lev’s character: egotism and ambition, contrariness and thin skin. If these things made him an effective Trot in a time of Jewish weakness, they are also what keep him moving from strength to strength at a moment of Jewish uplift and conservative ascendance.

Our post-October 7th moment has provided another such opening for reaction in the sense of betrayal some Jews feel in relation to the “callous left.” These feelings can coexist with recommitment to our ideals, but can also harden into a totalizing grievance; Three Scenes offers a helpful study in who goes which way.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Books as important and thrillingly readable as Percival Everett’s James rarely cross a reader’s path. The novel is a retelling of Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, narrated from the point of view of Huck’s lovable partner in flight, the escaped slave Jim. By inverting the importance of the characters in a novel that’s so central to America’s self-image, Everett brilliantly illuminates how enslaved people inhabited an entirely different world.

In Twain’s original, Jim speaks in the caricatured Black dialect that was prominent in the white popular imagination; in Everett’s revision, Jim and other Black people still speak this way, but only in the presence of white people, as a ploy to appease them by playing to their degraded image of Black people. Left on their own, the Black characters speak no differently than anyone else—and when white people do hear Jim speak in perfect, normative English, they become frightfully aware that their world is being challenged. Language in James is thus a marker both of subordination and of rebellion. (Those familiar with Everett’s previous books—particularly Erasure, the basis for the brilliant recent film American Fiction—know how dear this idea is to him.) But the instability of identity does not play out only through speech. Much as Twain did in his own Pudd’nhead Wilson, Everett destabilizes the boundaries between white and Black. Jim is purchased by real-life entertainer Dan Emmett to become a member of his famous minstrel company, where one of the “white” performers is actually a light-skinned Black man who is described as “a light-brown black man painted black in such a way as to appear like a white man trying to pass for black.” Jim himself even wears blackface in order to seem like a white man passing for the Black man he really is.

The novel depicts slavery in all its horror: whipping, lynching, rape, the deprivation of personal will. Several times, being enslaved is described as being “dead,” and death itself as liberation. This frank portrait is part of the novel’s attack on white complacency and its critique of Twain’s original novel. Still, Everett’s affection for that work comes through in his sympathetic treatment of Huck himself—even as he again undermines our complacency with a plot twist I won’t reveal. The highest praise I can think of for James is that, owing to the boldness with which it confronts the ugliness of our past, it will almost certainly draw the fury of book-banners throughout these United States.


Introducing: Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety. The text is divided into 54 parshiyot, or sections; given the idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew calendar and occasional doubling up of parshiyot, this works out to one parshah per week, which Jews around the world read concurrently on Shabbat morning. This universally regimented schedule is a foundation for Jewish communal discourse and interpretation, the text accruing ever-increasing strata of meaning over the course of generations. As the insights of each new year are layered on those that came before, every new reading of the parshah is also a re-reading. Each word, even each letter, points not to one stable meaning but to an endlessly generative world of signification.

This week, we’re inaugurating 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. While it might seem strange for a historically secular magazine to embark on such a project, especially when we’re already in Vayikra, the third book of the Torah—rather than at the beginning of the year, with the opening verses of Breishit—we are trying this now because many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification. This is a deeply difficult moment to be in the wider Jewish world, as mainstream communities have by and large supported Israel without reservation while it has killed at least 32,000 people in Gaza. As pictures surface of soldiers celebrating Jewish holidays in Gaza and reading from the Torah using a military knife, it’s easy to feel that the tradition is theirs alone. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. 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 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 Tzav

In this week’s parshah, Tzav, God teaches the Israelites how to offer ritual sacrifices. In the parshah’s opening lines, God says to Moses, “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering” (Vayikra 6:2). These are not the first sacrifices Aaron has brought. Just a few parshiyot ago, he led the Israelites in constructing and worshiping the Golden Calf, a blasphemous idol. In light of that transgression, it’s unnerving that Aaron is placed at the head of the new, normative religion.

But perhaps Aaron is given this role specifically to allude to the links between these heretical and divinely sanctioned cultic rituals. Abravanel, a Renaissance-era Portuguese commentator, proposes that had it not been for the Golden Calf, Vayikra’s entire ritual edifice might never have existed. As evidence, he cites a perplexing line from this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies each weekly parshah) in which God says, “When I freed your ancestors from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice” (Jeremiah 7:22). The verse seems to ignore the entire book of Vayikra; Abravanel resolves the apparent contradiction by arguing that when the Israelites first left Egypt, God gave them a simple moral and theological legal code—a revolutionary break with past idolatry. But when they made the Golden Calf, God realized they were addicted to physical ritual. Belatedly and reluctantly, God prescribes the sacrifices as a ritual methadone, a concession to the Israelites’ need for material worship. Abravenel’s reading suggests to me that when each sacrificial instruction starts, “Command Aaron and his sons,” it emphasizes not only that Aaron is chosen to perform these sacred rituals, but also that they were only regrettably necessitated by his backsliding cowardice.

What are we to make of the inclusion of “his sons” in the directive? The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the Kli Yakar, notices that in Vayikra, Aaron is never invoked or addressed without his sons. Building on earlier rabbinic traditions, he suggests that after the Golden Calf, God wanted to prohibit Aaron from performing ritual sacrifice, since it was introduced to rectify his mistake, and assign it only to his sons. But Moses prayed to God on Aaron’s behalf. He drew an analogy to the legal ruling that we do not burn olive wood or grape vines in the Temple, preserving them out of respect for their products, sacrificial oil and wine. Can one hate a well, Moses asked in a second metaphor, and love its waters? God conceded the points, and the compromise produced this awkward pairing—the new, reparative generation, and the disgraced parent, saved on their account.

A shriveled grapevine with prized fruit—the image captured my attention as a figure for the current generational war among American Jews. Over the past decades, many members of my parents’ generation helped construct a Golden Calf, and here we are, figuring out what compensations are necessary, what substitutes might be possible. And yet, as Moses reminds God, best to think carefully before severing the failed past from the hopeful present. The Kli Yakar is recapitulating a motif found already in the Bible; back in Shemot, when the Israelites built the Golden Calf, God wanted to “dissolve the people and elect another,” but Moses fought to preserve communal continuity. In the moment of crisis, the radical and the liberal can seem to be mortal enemies; often enough, they are also siblings, or parent and child. God’s schismatic thinking is always tempting us with fresh beginnings, a history neatly perforated for the cutting, while Moses’s reply reminds us that the price is too high. Indeed, it’s imprudent to grab the grapes and chop down the vines—that’s not how you build broad-based power. Despite the cognitive dissonance and psychic pain, if we want a robust, formidable, and enduring Jewish left, we might need to learn, as God does, to hold together Aaron and his sons.

—Raphael Magarik