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May
10
2024

Kathleen Peratis (co-chair of board of directors): I wanted to congratulate Nathan Thrall, a good friend of Jewish Currents, for winning the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy. This gorgeous and searing tale follows the personal tragedy of Abed Salama, whose child is burned to death in a bus accident along with five other children in the occupied West Bank. As much as the bereaved father can’t help doing what parents do—blaming himself—Thrall makes us understand that it was not merely a series of bureaucratic screw ups: the impenetrable thicket of rules and roadblocks can and does amount to death sentences for Palestinians. In weaving together these alternating strands—intensely personal, deeply political—Thrall is indicting the very system itself.

In an interview with Jewish Currents on October 4th, Thrall fatefully said that he was motivated to write the book to draw attention to the “daily violence and oppression” faced by Palestinians rather than only “when there is something like a war in Gaza going on.” This line now reads as strikingly prescient: To be attentive to this horrifying daily reality is to better understand the heightened conflict of the present.

Jonathan Shamir (fellow): Wim Wenders’ new film, Perfect Days, eschews the angels and assassins of his past films in favor of an unlikely protagonist, a diligent and taciturn Japanese public toilet cleaner named Hirayama. We are immediately brought into Hirayama’s world: his daily routine of pre-dawn rituals (trimming his mustache and watering his plants), the humming of the cassette collection on his morning commute, and the meticulous pride that he takes in his work.

Throughout these repeated sequences, and Hirayama’s long silences, we glean a deep sense of his interiority. The camera dwells on his face, and surfaces the subtleties of his inner life, such as an incipient smile at his growing plants, or his longing glance toward a woman on a park bench. In the absence of speech, we also hear the movements of his breath and the satisfied gulps of his vending machine coffee.

Along with the gorgeous shots of Tokyo—from Hirayama’s minimalist apartment to the canopies of hi-rises and trees—this all lends itself to a serene and almost meditative cinematic experience that relishes in the joys that can be unearthed from everyday life.

After a first half that is largely devoid of plot, Hirayama’s niece Niko turns up at his doorstep after fleeing his wealthy sister’s home after an argument. Her arrival doesn’t exactly upend his routine, but it does infuse the film with a different kind of emotional force that undercuts the stripped-down philosophy of happiness for which the film has been widely celebrated. Behind the choreographies of contentment, a loneliness also exists, and Hirayama’s emotional crests with his niece—and during a tender game of shadow tag with a terminally-ill stranger—reveal the exigency of human connection for even the most introverted characters.

Hirayama has an ability to keep relationships at arm’s length. We discover this in his emotionally fraught yet underdeveloped interaction with his sister when she comes to pick up Niko in a chauffeured BMW. But while Hirayama’s restraint may facilitate a quiet contentment, it also delimits what his life could be. At the end of the film, as Hirayama’s drives off in his van, Wenders returns to the protagonist’s expressive face, which contorts with joy and despair—at times, holding both feelings at once. And as Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ plays in Hirayama’s van, Wenders seems to be calling on us to revel in the ups, downs, and ambivalence itself.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Having recently traveled to Paris—a city I’ve lived in, visited countless times, and roamed thoroughly—and with summer vacations on the horizon for many, I thought I might use this space to recommend some places any Paris-bound readers might not have thought to visit. (First, a warning: This summer will be a terrible time to go. The Summer Olympics are being held there from late July to early August, so if you can book a hotel room it will be triple the normally high price, and getting around on the metro will cost you double through the first week in September. But there’s still some time before all that.)

Paris is unequaled when it comes to its dead, and sports marvelous cemeteries; I highly recommend Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall’s Permanent Parisians, an illustrated, out-of-print guide to all of them. I prefer Montparnasse to the more famous Père Lachaise, but both will give you hours of pleasure. While Pére Lachaise is prettier, Montparnasse is the final home of many if not most of the writers closest to my heart. There you can visit Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who share a site (now sadly defaced by people leaving outlines of kissy lips on the tombstone); Samuel Beckett; Susan Sontag, whose son once said he didn’t see her being laid to rest in a dismal cemetery in Queens, where she was born; the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar; the Peruvian revolutionary poet César Vallejo; and the misanthropic philosopher E.M. Cioran. Cinephiles can spend time with the founder of the Cinématheque, Henri Langlois, whose gravestone is decorated with stills from great films, as well as the famed director Éric Rohmer. I could go on. Maps of the most celebrated residents are available at the gate.

After visiting the remains of the singer Serge Gainsbourg (né Lucien Ginsburg), you can visit his apartment in the 7th arrondissement, which is now a museum, Maison Ginsbourg. (Tickets are extremely difficult to get, since there’s only room for about a dozen visitors at a time.) Gainsbourg was a famously dissolute and provocative character, known for burning a 500-franc note on live TV and, on another televised occasion, telling Whitney Houston that he wanted to “fuck” her. In contrast to his crassness, the museum is lovingly presented by his daughter Charlotte, with taped tours available in French or English; she explains the lives spent in the spaces we pass through, and there’s no need to be an especial fan of Gainsbourg to thoroughly enjoy this eccentric place. Stranger still is my favorite museum in Paris: the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (the Museum of Hunting and Nature). No, I’m not kidding. This is the weirdest and wildest collection of stuff you’ll ever see—a museum that doesn’t take itself overly seriously, and which provides laughs and amazement in every room. Unlike many of Paris’s museums, it is never packed with fellow tourists. Rather, it’s a favorite of Parisians and full of parents with their kids, who are all having a blast.

Skip the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Jeu de Paume, which are mobbed daily. Instead visit the places I’ve spoken of, plus the Maison Auguste Comte (the home of the philosopher who founded positivism), the Musée de la Franc-masonerie (the Museum of Freemasonry), the Musée Gustave Moreau (the studio of the symbolist painter). Finally, go to the Panthéon and pay your respects to Rousseau, Voltaire, Émile Zola, Jean Jaurès, and the latest honoree, the Armenian Communist Resistance leader Missak Manouchian. They’ll make you forget the wretched state of France today, in its final years before a Le Pen presidency.

***

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 Kedoshim

Over the past several months, I have struggled with the question of how to engage with people with whom I vehemently disagree: relatives, former classmates, members of my shul, the vast majority of passersby I encounter on the streets of West Jerusalem. While I sometimes argue with those who support the war on Gaza, I often avoid doing so, preferring instead to oppose the war through movement work, protest, writing, fundraising—most anything other than directly confronting people on a street corner or at a Shabbat dinner table. I find arguing to be woefully draining, and it so rarely changes people’s minds, resulting in little to show for the painful effort. But as I read this week’s parshah, Kedoshim, which details dozens of laws across various ethical and ritual spheres, I was struck by one particular commandment: “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” Does my hesitance to reproach war-mongers in my community, I wondered, put me in violation of God’s decree?

Some commentators might say that it does not, since I may have already fulfilled the terms of the obligation imposed on me. Although the Talmud states that rebuke must be carried out “even one hundred times,” it also recognizes its limits: According to one sage, one must only rebuke up to the point that one is physically hit in response; for another, the commandment applies until one is cursed at; for a third, only until one is reprimanded. All of these are reactions I’ve faced at local ceasefire demonstrations from cops and irate spectators; while I don’t believe this diminishes my responsibility to continue protesting, perhaps it relieves me of the duty to confront ordinary individuals. Other interpreters suggest that the law might not even apply to the cases I encounter. The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, a 19th-century legal text, uses a statement from the Talmud—“just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say something that will be heeded, so too is it a mitzvah for a person not to say something that won’t be heeded”—to rule that the commandment to rebuke applies only when there is reason to believe the transgressor will heed the admonition. In fact, the text states, “if one knows that the transgressor will not listen, it is forbidden to rebuke him.”

But even if I can technically justify not censuring those around me, I’m wary of dismissing the edict too quickly. This is a biblically-mandated commandment, the most serious kind in Jewish law. And if I am required to fulfill it and do not, I would be liable not only for that transgression but also, according to the Rambam, for the sin that I failed to protest. Finding a way out of this obligation may ultimately serve to indulge my own comfort, letting me off the hook for doing the work that might be necessary to help those in my community change. Indeed, although the Sefer HaChinukh, a 13th-century Spanish text that details and elucidates the reasoning behind the commandments, notes that one is not required to rebuke someone who will not listen, it also says that “every person of conscience must be very careful in these matters and think and see if there will be any use for his words to the sinner.”

Still, in the face of millions of Jews supporting or tolerating the horrors in Gaza, rebuking “the sinner” feels utterly insufficient. Perhaps it’s helpful to consider that the rabbinic investment in individual rebuke is rooted in an ethos of collectivity. The Talmud tells us that “Jerusalem was destroyed only because people did not rebuke one another.” The text backs this up by quoting a verse in Eicha that likens the Jewish people to deer who “found no pasture; they could only walk feebly before the pursuer.” The rabbis explain that “just as a deer turns its head toward the other’s tail [when grazing and eating], so too, the Jewish people of that generation lowered their faces to the ground and did not rebuke one another.” Rebuke here is not about expiating oneself as an individual or checking off a box of having registered dissent, but rather about a commitment to the moral conduct of the collective. Understanding the commandment in this way might help us not only to see the value in rebuking individuals for their part in communal sins, but also to develop a politics of collective rebuke more adequate to addressing national and systemic violence. In the Book of Isaiah, God implores through the prophet, “Declare to My people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin.” This is a call still waiting to be fulfilled.

—Maya Rosen


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