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May
17
2024

Josh Lambert (contributing writer): On October 7th, I was about halfway through reading Jess Row’s novel The New Earth. At the best of times, it would’ve taken me a long time to finish a novel so huge, demanding, and ferociously distressing, but the awfulness of that day, and what we immediately knew would follow, made it even more daunting.

The emotional and narrative core of the novel is the murder of an American Jewish Palestine solidarity activist, Bering Wilcox, by the Israeli military. The initial reviews rightly name-checked Rachel Corrie—who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer when protesting a house demolition in the Gaza Strip in 2003—but Row’s character is very specifically herself: a Jewish child of the Upper West Side, the sometimes-white-passing grandchild of an African-American physicist, a member of a family of extravagant achievers who seem to have achieved exactly nothing. Their professional commitments reflect the novel’s post-2016 specificity: Bering’s mother, Naomi, is a climate scientist who studies the warming oceans and knows there’s no hope, while Bering’s sister Winter, an immigration attorney, tries to keep her clients, and then her partner Zeno, from getting deported. The only centripetal force across the novel’s many digressive scenes, flashbacks, and interpolated texts—unsent email drafts, dark-web message board chats, the transcript of an interview with the Israeli sniper who shot Bering—is Winter’s request that the family gather for her wedding, despite the way they’ve been spinning out in their unceasing grief.

Because it is a lengthy and maximalist swing at the Great American novel in the Trump era, I had the sinking feeling that The New Earth might disappear into semi-obscurity. I doubted that anybody will ever put it on a college syllabus, but the recent events on college campuses—with students and professors putting themselves on the line for justice in Gaza—have given me hope that some readers might find their way to a novel dedicated to those “who work every day, against the world’s cynicism, against seemingly impossible odds, for a just, free, and peaceful future for Palestine and Israel.” After all, as Laura Tanenbaum noted, in her New Republic review, the question at the core of Row’s novel is “not, why would Bering, or why did Rachel Corrie, take a radical leap toward solidarity, but, rather, why don’t more of us?”


Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Hilla Medalia’s Mourning in Lod, which is streaming on Paramount+ starting today, traces a web of violence in the “mixed” Jewish–Arab city of Lod in central Israel. It begins in the home of the Palestinian widow and daughter of Mussa Hassouna. His wife shows the filmmaker a video from May 2021, of a settler shooting and killing her unarmed husband, who had arrived at a roundabout as right-wing Jewish Israelis rampaged; we see the victim’s family reckoning with their grief over the cold-blooded murder. Soon after Hassouna’s death, the young man’s funeral would turn into a demonstration, which would turn into rock-throwing, part of the 2021 intifada—and this opening chapter not only sets the scene for all that follows, but also demonstrates the director’s great skill at melding the intimate and personal with the world-historical.

The scene shifts to a Jewish mother and son in their apartment, who are also grieving. The husband and father in this case, Yigal Yehoshua, was driving home from work when he encountered the Palestinian rock-throwers, and a slab of concrete went through his window and struck him; he was declared brain dead at the hospital, where his family consented to donate his organs. We then meet Randa Owies, an ailing Palestinian woman who’d desperately needed a kidney, and whose unexpected rescue came from Yehoshua. But this is not the happy ending it might be elsewhere: When the story of the cross-community transplant spreads, Israeli Jews are incensed and express their rage on social media. While Yehoshua’s family remains proud of their decision, and invites the recipient and her daughters to an event commemorating his death a month later, deep tensions remain. Most of the attendees are yarmulke-wearing Mizrahi Jews; the Palestinians are uncomfortable and fearful, feeling the hatred of some in the crowd, whom they say look like settlers, not like “ordinary Jews.” And much later, when Hassouna’s father—who, along with his son’s widow, has been pursuing justice for that murder—meets with Yehoshua’s brother, telling him that he knew and liked Yehoshua and has always gotten along with Jews, his words ring hollow, the mouthing of clichés after the anger he had already expressed. After all, the suspects in Yehoshua’s murder have by then spent years in jail, though not formally charged, while the man who murdered Hassouna has walked off scot-free.

Medalia doesn’t shy away from this complexity, or from the reality that fundamentally undermines any hope of a redemptive arc—that Randa’s life with her new kidney was only made possible by death and injustice. And tragically, the killings associated with Mourning in Lod didn’t end in 2021: The sound engineer of the film was murdered on October 7th.

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Last week, the world lost music legend Steve Albini, who died of a heart attack at the age of 61. Though an influential musician in his own right—his punk band Big Black is one of the ’80s indie underground groups chronicled in Michael Azerrad’s classic book Our Band Could Be Your Life—Albini is best known for recording the work of other major artists. I first encountered his name as a 13-year-old falling in love with the Pixies’ 1988 record Surfer Rosa. The album has a singular, otherworldly sound; the mix is somehow both crowded and spacious, with the gnarled guitar tones ebbing and flowing and the drums cranked strangely high. Reading about the making of that record is the first time I can remember being aware of or interested in not just the artist behind an album, but the producer—a label Albini himself strenuously resisted, preferring the term “engineer.” “A producer is someone who is completely responsible for a session,” he said, “but in my case those decisions are made by the band . . . Ultimately what I’m trying to do is satisfy the band.” His self-deprecation was refreshing, and speaks to something real about his method; other distinctive producers whose work I seek out, like David Fridmann or BJ Burton, clearly apply a heavier hand. But despite his effort to undersell his own influence on the records he engineered, Albini is obviously partly responsible for a sound—raw, noisy, propulsive—that indelibly marked the history of American indie rock.

The range of artists he worked with was staggering. “I’ve recorded 1,500 to 2,000 records, and I know they are all quite different,” he said in 2005; the count is now surely hundreds higher. My own favorites run the gamut. In addition to Surfer Rosa, I adore early works in that abrasive mode, like The Breeders’ Pod (1990) and Nirvana’s In Utero (1993), in addition to more recent iterations of that style like Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory (2012). But other albums I especially treasure sound little or nothing like those records: the somber, simmering slowcore of Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire (2001); the haunted, jangling country of Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. (2003); the delicate, orchestral grandeur of Joanna Newsom’s Ys (2006). In the days since Albini’s death I’ve returned to these albums and discovered many I’ve never heard—not only the work he recorded, but also his own music with the band Shellac, which just released its final album with Albini today. Part of the pleasure of following Albini’s output has always been the sense of an abundance that feels infinite—and even now that his life has been cut short and his oeuvre completed, I take solace in the fact that there’s always more to encounter.

***

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 Emor

These days, I am counting. The Torah commands us to count 50 days, from Pesach to Shavuot, from Egypt to Mount Sinai, from getting free to getting the Law. This period of “Sefirat ha-Omer,” or “counting of the sheaf,” also spans the yearly shift from last year’s grain to the new crop, binding history and nature in a quantitative bouquet. The directive occurs in our parshah, Emor, which mandates: “you shall count off seven weeks; they must be complete.” The reasoning for the practice is obscure, one of many mysteries in this enumeration—beginning with the start date, the object of sectarian strife at least since the Second Temple period. Today, as if reckoning the cacophonous syncopation of Jewish collectivity, Rabbinic Jews, Karaites, and Samaritans each count a different Sefirah, like stubbornly misaligned hands in an ancient clock, its movement subtly but irreparably deranged, the secret of its repair long lost.

Indeed, even the Sefirah’s mood is debated. Some rabbis view it as a somber period: Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri, a Mishnaic sage, suggests that the wicked are punished in the underworld between Pesach and Shavuot, while a Talmudic legend tells us that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in this period, “because they did not treat each other with respect.” In light of these texts, Jews traditionally observe mourning practices during this time, refraining from weddings and haircuts. On the other hand, the medieval Spanish commentator Ramban argues that just as Pesach and Sukkot, which begin and end with feast days, contain intermediate days (the paradoxically named chol hamoed, or “secular festival”), the Sefirah is a mundane interlude between the exodus and the giving of the Torah—less sacred than the events that bookend it, but still celebratory, a blending of ordinary, workday time and holiday convocation.

Most years, I find the Sefirah’s ambivalences mildly mystifying but ultimately uninspiring. I simply count the days, ticking off boxes of obligation on a mental calendar. This year, though, the Sefirah makes a weird sense, because it uncannily parallels my experience of the pro-Palestine encampment in my neighborhood, at the University of Chicago. I visited the encampment on the seventh day of Pesach, dropping off borscht and hard-boiled eggs for observant student-protesters. I went back twice, drawn by ethical obligation but also by the odd, stirring mixture of grief and joy: face painting for children, students eating matzah and chicken salad, the Muslim call to prayer and a Maariv minyan, photographs of Palestinians martyred in Gaza, protesters basking in the long-awaited spring sunshine, a friend teaching about Jews occupying Columbia buildings in the ’60s, defiant chants about genocide and divestment, and endless aluminum trays of donated food. I am writing this a few hours after the university police, at 4:50 am, raided and “cleared” the encampment. Already it seems sad and sweet, like a dream from which one reluctantly awakes.

For me, the encampment and the Sefirah have been mutually illuminating. Now I see how one might celebrate the connection between new knowledge and liberation while simultaneously mourning tens of thousands. (The Talmud’s cryptic report about Rabbi Akiva’s dead students has led some to speculate that they were killed by occupying Roman troops during Bar Kokhba’s disastrous anti-imperial revolt in 132 CE—a fanciful but presently poignant conjecture. That 24,000, which in most years seems an absurd exaggeration, is now outstripped by the grim figures from Gaza: at least 34,789 killed as I write and, as they say, still counting.) I also understand how the mere marking of time acquires meaning. In an email, University of Chicago president Paul Alivisatos wrote, “the disruption becomes greater the longer the encampment persists,” which at once made no and perfect sense, since what was disrupted was not classroom instruction (which continued unimpeded), but the administration’s symbolic control. And I understand what the Ramban was driving at in evoking the oxymoronic fusion of the secular workday with festival interruption, the struggle to synchronize the quotidian, reassuring cycles of academic life with the jarring traumas of history.

Here’s one last wrinkle I understand better. The tradition, playing on Devarim’s command to begin the Sefirah “when the sickle is first put to the standing grain,” is to count standing up. I have often wondered about this odd injunction to imitate the proud, upright stalks in the field, at precisely the moment they are being mowed down in the harvest. As cops around the country descend in riot gear to arrest and raze, I think I get it. We stand with those cut down, not with the reaper. And though an individual stalk can never resist the scythe, neither can any blade cut through a tightly bound, organized sheaf. Separately, our strength is feeble; in solidarity, we count.

—Raphael Magarik


Raphael Magarik is an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois Chicago and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents.