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May
3
2024

Laura Elkeslassy (contributor): A couple of years ago, I called the piano virtuoso and composer Maurice El Médioni. I was working on my project Ya Ghorbati—a multimedia album that excavates my family’s roots in Morocco, France, and Israel, weaving together the stories of Jewish Arab divas from the last century with new performances of folk and sacred music—and I wanted permission to record El Médioni’s classic song “Ahlan wa Sahlan.” When he picked up the phone, my breath caught in my chest: He sounded just like my great uncle, who had been like a grandfather to me and who, like El Médioni, had left the Maghreb in the 1960s and spent most of his life in Marseille. El Médioni laughed and told me I didn’t need to pay him for the rights; credit would be enough. It was a testament to a universe of folklorists where music was part of a world to be shared.

Since his death at the end of March, I’ve been listening once again to El Médioni’s music. Born in Oran in 1928, El Médioni grew up in a Jewish family of musicians and café owners. (His uncle Saoud l’Oranais was a renowned master of Arab Andalusi music. At an early age, he began teaching himself piano, riffing on popular Arab and French tunes. As a young adult, he worked as a tailor by day and played in cabarets at night. He often entertained the soldiers who had landed in Algeria as part of Operation Torch—the 1942 Allied invasion of French-occupied North Africa—some of whom were accomplished musicians in their own right. From African American soldiers, El Médioni learned jazz, boogie-woogie, and fox trot; from Puerto Rican soldiers, he learned rumba. In 1962, following the War of Independence, El Médioni emigrated to France, first to Paris and then to Marseille. It was in the latter city, where he would spend the majority of his life, that he composed “Ma guitare et mon pays”—a heart-wrenching song that captures the pain of a generation of North Africans in exile—for the great Jewish Algerian singer Line Monty. El Médioni’s son Yaakov recalls Monty visiting his home and singing, as enraptured listeners swayed back and forth, eyes closed, hands to their cheeks, longing for their beautiful childhood days in Oran, Tunis, or Casablanca.

Over the course of his life, El Médioni composed dozens of hits. One of the last heirs to the formidable lineage of Jewish Andalusian music, he was also a great innovator, creating a wholly original sound fusing Andalusi nubas (classical music from medieval Al Andalus) and rai (20th-century popular Algerian music) with global influences from boogie-woogie to rumba to French cabaret. He collaborated with many of the greatest musicians of his era, including Reinette l’Oranaise, Lili Boniche, Lili Labassi, Blond-Blond, Sami El Maghribi, Mahieddine Bachtarzi, Blaoui Houari, Ahmed Wahby, Fadhéla Dziria—as well as with younger musicians, such as Khaled, Roberto Rodriguez, the Klezmatics, mixing what he called “pianoriental” riffs with Rai, Cuban grooves, and Klezmer. In 2012, he reunited with long-lost collaborators thanks to the El Gusto project, an initiative imagined by the Algerian filmmaker Safinez Bousbia, which brought together the Jewish and Muslim musicians who had been part of the Hadj Mohamed El-Anka ensemble in the 1950s. Toward the end of his life, El Médioni emigrated to Israel, where he participated in the revival of Jewish Arab music, notably on the Andalusian orchestra scene. Generations of listeners will remember him for his rich musical contribution, his innovative talent, his technical prowess, and his sense of hospitality. To me, he represented one of the last living links to my grandparents’ world—a world at once Jewish and Arab, where lullabies, weddings, songs, and ballads were sung seamlessly in Arabic, French, and Hebrew, and where Jewish and Muslim life were profoundly intertwined. He carried a cultural torch that is now our inheritance. Allah yerhamak ya maalem.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Slow, the new film by Lithuanian director Marija Kavtaradze, is a fascinating examination of a rather unique couple: a self-proclaimed promiscuous woman and an asexual man. Elena, a modern dancer, is rehearsing with a group of young deaf people in preparation for a performance when she meets Dovydas, who will be her sign interpreter. Their mutual attraction is immediately clear, and they seem to be heading to the inevitable consummation until Dovydas informs Elena of his disinterest in sex. This notion baffles Elena: What is a relationship without sex? Can the first stages of intimacy, like making out, really suffice? Why do they for him, but not for her? She attempts to seduce him and is put off by his refusal to bend—even as there are signs that he might. Kavartadze’s boldness lies in her frank depiction of the adamancy with which both characters cling to their views of sex, as well as their real affection for the other.

Dovydas’s life is a truncated one in Elena’s eyes, but not in his. By attending thoughtfully to their relationship, this moving film puts in question the nature of our romantic entanglements, and of our very identities. Freud and countless others have posited sex as one of humanity’s basic needs, along with food and shelter; what’s left of that idea when there are those who reject sex as a need, and not for reasons of physical infirmity or religious belief? (Elena’s childhood best friend appears as a representative of religious celibacy, but because she lives in a social world that also rejects sex—the convent—it is not an issue in the same way.) In a society in which the accumulation of sexual partners is a significant marker of masculinity, how does asexuality shift the meaning of being a man? Slow leaves these and other questions open, integrating them in a non-judgmental way that draws us in emotionally and intellectually. It is an extremely adult film.

Briefly: Another worthwhile and open-ended movie premiering today is Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist. It’s a languid, novelistic film, in which every shot is a paragraph. While it initially seems to be a straightforward work about the intrusion of the wealthy into a backwoods community, it plays with our expectations and leads us in a direction we’d never have expected. The ending left me stunned, as it will you.

Mari Cohen (associate editor): On Tuesday night, when I began receiving a barrage of texts and Slack messages announcing that the NYPD had descended on Columbia University’s campus to break up the Gaza solidarity encampment and remove the students occupying a campus building, I turned on the university’s student radio station, WKCR. Soon, a reporter at the station, Teddy Wyche, was updating listeners on the whereabouts of several field reporters who had been barricaded into campus buildings by the police. A young woman came on the mic to brief us on the latest news about whether—as Columbia University President Minouche Shafik, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper had all claimed—most of the protestors were “outside agitators” who had come to menace Columbia’s students. So far, there was no evidence anyone arrested was not a student, the reporter clarified. Shortly after a jazz break, they began to report that the campus state of emergency had been called off, and then that the police were releasing the other reporters to move freely. One of them was patched in to describe the scene at no-longer-occupied Hamilton Hall (named “Hind’s Hall” by the students after six-year-old Hind Rajab, killed in Gaza), which he said had almost all of its first floor windows smashed out. Wyche, back at the mic, gave a birthday shout out to one of the reporters, who, now that it was midnight, had turned 20 years old.

It’s clear that I’m not the only one who was enraptured and even emotionally moved listening to WKCR that night. They sounded so young, but they knew what they were doing. They said what they knew when they knew it; when they didn’t know, they said that, too. When they were overwhelmed, or scared, they didn’t hide it, but they kept going. Sometimes, they spoke candidly from their own perspectives: “I don’t know if I’m going to feel safe on campus with the police here until May 17th, after what I’ve seen tonight,” said the reporter who had described the post-raid scene at Hamilton Hall. When I checked in on the station over the next few days, I remained impressed. Yesterday, they aired a nearly hour-long interview with one of the students who had been arrested in Hamilton Hall, who gave the most direct account I’ve heard so far of what happened in the building: a vivid play-by-play of the officers’ actions, including what she described as police using excessive force, kicking students and slamming them to the ground.

Anyone who goes into journalism professes to be motivated by the familiar platitudes about “speaking truth to power.” But journalism as a form has no inherent nobility: The tools of reporting, writing, and publishing confer a subtle authority that can just as easily be employed to marginalize and malign as to elucidate and expose. Journalism also includes the work of CNN anchor Dana Bash, who, the morning after the Columbia police raids, aired a segment that flipped the entire course of events on its head, casting the police as liberators freeing the campus from—once again!—“outside agitators” who had created an environment for Jewish students akin to Germany in the 1930s. But the WKCR students—along with their reporter peers nearby at City College—offered a reminder of what journalism can be in the right hands: rigorous, careful, and dogged; willing to track the riot police across campus until they physically block you in; conscious of the reporter’s own responsibility and role in the story—and in history. If only more of their all-grown-up colleagues could follow their lead.

***

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 Acharei Mot

Death appears twice in the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading, Acharei Mot: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before the Lord, and died” (Vayikra 16:1). Following the traditional interpretive axiom that any redundancy in the Torah must be meaningful, the Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch (1860–1920) reads this repetition as revealing that Aaron’s sons didn’t simply die for the sin of coming near the Lord unbidden. Rather, they deliberately invited death; they entered the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle and the place of most intimate proximity to God, to indulge in a premeditated experience of mystical death.

“Death,” says Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo, “is the separation of soul and body. The philosopher desires such a separation.” As the scholar Michael Fishbane writes in The Kiss of God: Spiritual and Mystical Death in Judaism, what is true for the philosopher is also true for “the God-intoxicated soul.”

To feel the weight of our corporeality—to experience the lonely individuation of bodily existence, the limits of our physical capabilities, and all the many failures and tragedies of earthbound human life—is to be estranged from the soaring ideas and ideals of our own souls. For Aaron’s sons, apparently, the painful estrangement of embodiment was acutely felt. They sought to abandon this-worldly failure and embrace the idealized divinity of the soul instead. “While the kiss of death generally draws near to the righteous,” writes the Moroccan Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar (1696–1743), Aaron’s sons “drew near to the kiss of death . . . Although they sensed death coming, they did not withhold themselves from drawing more intimately into embrace, delight, affection, love, dearness, longing, sweetness until their souls expired from within them.”

Can such surrender to the embrace of God also be a sacrilegious act? For Rashab, the answer is yes. Even if Aaron’s sons welcomed death as the culmination of spiritual rapture, the Torah is quite clear that they also suffered death as punishment for sin. “Their fundamental sin,” writes Rashab, “was precisely that they died through divine intimacy.”

In speaking of death and its meaning, we are always already talking about life, and vice versa. So perhaps we can better understand the sacrilegious yet sacred nature of mystical death through a verse about life, which we encounter close to the end of this week’s reading. “You shall guard my statutes, and my judgments,” God instructs. “Man shall enact and live in them” (Vayikra 18:5). The famous imperative to break Shabbos when necessary to preserve life derives from this verse. But the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740–1809) interpreted that same verse in light of the Talmudic injunction that “whoever wishes to live should kill himself.” He writes, “Whoever wants to live shall disregard his bodily concerns and, instead, cause his thought to cleave to the Creator, blessed be He. And this is the meaning of ‘kill himself’—he shall ascend from his own egocentrism, and as an automatic result he shall live, for he shall cleave to the Life of all life.”

For Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, metaphorical rather than literal death is the condition of true life. Transcendence of bodily selfishness frees the soul to act in accord with God’s will, transforming the body into a vehicle for the revelation and actualization of divine vitality. From this perspective, the sense of existential estrangement between body and soul is not to be overcome through the soul’s release from the body, but redirected into the body’s rejuvenation by the soul. Indeed, Rashab emphasizes, soulful “ascent” is justified precisely to the degree it motivates a “return” to the embodied praxis of mitzvot—of making this world a home wherein God and humanity can live together.

—Eli Rubin