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May
24
2024

Mari Cohen (associate editor): Even without the slight twang of its strings, “But Daddy I Love Him,” the sixth track on Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, would recall motifs from the pop megastar’s early career. The retelling of a forbidden romance forged against a family and community’s wishes seems to nod to Swift’s breakthrough hit “Love Story”—but this time with an f-word and a more embittered tone. And as Swift breaks into the exuberant chorus—“But I’m running with my dress unbuttoned/screaming ‘But daddy I love him’”—I find myself thinking most of “The Way I Loved You,” a deep cut favorite of mine from her 2008 album Fearless about wanting to ditch a sensible and chivalrous partner for a toxic but intoxicating ex. “The Way I Loved You” succinctly captures the “thesis” of Taylor Swift as a songwriter: that romantic love, at its apex, is a dangerous and all-consuming force that embodies the opposite of rationality. After the limp disappointment of her 2022 album Midnights—which lacked any narrative thrust, and seemed designed for TikTok snippets—Swift is back to probing every corner of a doomed romance. “I’m tellin’ him to floor it through the fences / No, I’m not coming to my senses,” she sings with a wink in “But Daddy,” and Swift the songwriter seems to have returned in all her disturbed glory.

If “But Daddy” encapsulates the promise of this new entry in Swift’s catalog, it also contains many of the flaws that have given this record such a mixed reception. As has been typical in her recent work, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner’s production have softened her vocals, muting the song’s emotional catharsis. It’s not clear why the track has to go on for so long. And in several lines, Swift is simply overwriting, a problem that has dogged her since 2020’s evermore but has become especially clear on this sprawling 31-track double album. It pains me to say that this song marks only one of the times the words “precocious” and “empathetic” each appear on the album; don’t even get me started on “sanctimonious performing soliloquies.” Almost every song on the record has a few imperfections that ought to have been sanded down. “Guilty as Sin,” a daring infidelity fantasy that’s probably her sexiest track since 2017’s Reputation, is hampered by a few too many adverbs in the bridge. “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” builds to an all-time wallop of an outro, in which a palpably furious Swift excoriates an ex-lover: “Were you writing a book? Were you a sleeper cell spy? In 50 years will this all be declassified?” But to get there, you have to make it through the song’s tuneless and clichéd verses. Still, at this point I’m relieved that, unlike on Midnights, she sounds like she feels something. On “Down Bad,” a pulsing bop that likens an ill-fated whirlwind romance to an alien abduction, content easily gels with form: Her vocals float up (“For a moment we had cosmic love”) and then crash down into a low, self-aware deadpan (“Now I’m down bad crying at the gym . . . Fuck it if I can’t have him/I might just die it would make no difference”). On “The Black Dog,” about an ex who’s still sharing her location, Swift’s vocals are especially plaintive as she finally makes use of her skill of trapping novel-length narratives into concise phrases: “And I still mean it / Old habits die screaming,” she wails in the earworm chorus.

I’ve never had much interest in Taylor Swift’s romantic escapades. Both stans’ and haters’ obsessive interest in matching her songs to her exes—admittedly egged on by her own PR— undermines how her storytelling plays with subjectivity and authorship. For some critics, TTPD is unbearably weighed down by its lore: namely, the fact that rather than the expected album about long-term ex Joe Alwyn, Swift dropped more than two dozen tracks apparently about her brief tryst last year with The 1975 frontman and edgelord Matty Healy, an association that many fans found dismaying. (Hence the rebuke of tongue-clucking “Sarahs and Hannahs” on “But Daddy I Love Him.”) I too am fatigued with Taylor Swift the personality, but TTPD has given us more reason to see her as amicably divorced from Taylor Swift the artist. On the campy delight “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart,” she sings about plastering on a fake smile to perform her stadium megashow. To add another layer, she’s now started performing the song live on tour. When she’s hitting her marks while singing about hitting her marks, but wanting to die inside, who can say what’s real? Taylor Swift the personality has been doing an All-American victory tour with NFL boyfriend Travis Kelce, but the speaker on much of TTPD has no qualms about appearing raw, unlikeable, and even pathetic. You don’t know me at all, the album seems to say. And isn’t it liberating that we don’t have to? After all, we’re just here for the music.

Cynthia Friedman (managing director): A few weeks ago, I went to see Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature film, I Saw the TV Glow, with a close group of friends. They had reassured me that, while sometimes classified as horror or thriller, this would not be a film with jump scares or dripping suspense. Rather, it’s in part an artistic portrayal—with flickers of the supernatural—of a teenager struggling to inhabit his own life, steeped in the unsettled feelings, murky confusion, and detached numbness that define his adolescence. The lighting, cinematography and score bring the audience into the realm of his emotions in ways that language alone would fail to do.

As a seventh grader, Owen is drawn to a TV show called The Pink Opaque, which follows two girls who, from different sides of town, fight evil together—and is rendered in the cheesy, low-tech style of TV shows that ’90s kids will feel nostalgia for. The late-night show airs after Owen’s strict curfew, but he is persuaded to evade his parents’ restriction after connecting with an older student, Maddy, who he finds sitting alone in the gymnasium, hair covering her eyes, reading the episode guide. Throughout high school, the TV show is more real to Owen and Maddy than life outside of it. When she eventually leaves their town, Owen stays behind, wandering through the years with a lingering sense that something may be wrong. He is made to confront possibilities that blur reality and his beloved TV show, and I followed the trajectory of his choices with a genuine uncertainty of where they would lead.

Schoenbrun is a trans filmmaker, and this film is a deeply personal one; it’s worthwhile to read about the “soon to be cult-classic” in their own words. In interviews with Jezebel and Polygon, they speak about the relationships between queerness, dissociation, and the outlet for belonging and love that was available to them: television. Following Owen through his youth makes me think about how, growing up, we gravitate towards the friends we do; even when we only have a nascent sense of ourselves, and who we might become, we sometimes signal hidden depths to one another in ways we don’t yet understand. Leaving the theater with friends, the mood was delicate but heavy. We have each made it into adulthoods of our choosing—with their own tumults, certainly, but with friendships and romance, self-knowledge and self-expression. We stood outside on the steps, inwardly reflecting on the pain of searching for that freedom and the heartbreak of wanting someone to find their way towards it.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In June of 1858, Edgardo Mortara—a six-year-old Jewish boy living in Bologna—was taken from his parents by the police and delivered to the Catholic Church in Rome. The basis for this state-sponsored kidnapping was that the young Jew had been secretly baptized by the family’s Christian maid; the baptism was considered valid, and the Church could not allow a Catholic to be raised by Jews, even if the Jews in question were his own parents. This infamous incident is the subject of Marco Belocchio’s brilliant new film, Kidnapped: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara. Belocchio, who has been one of Italy’s most important filmmakers for five decades, has always demonstrated a blazing hatred for the Catholic Church, and in the Mortara story he has ample material for condemnation of that institution. Indeed, the film presents us with an unrelentingly depressing spectacle. The obvious injustice of Mortara’s fate is of no concern to the Church, which maintains that the saving of his soul matters more than anything else—and in any case, his parents could always regain custody by converting. Priests, inquisitors, and even Pope Pius IX himself are all complicit in the crime, and insist that their actions are in keeping with god’s will. Mortara became the Catholic the Church made him into: He joined the priesthood at the age of 21 and remained a faithful member of the clergy until his death in 1940.

At the time of the abduction, Italy was not yet a unified nation, and large portions of the territory called Papal States were under the political and religious control of the Pope. Priests thus had a free hand to control the lives of those who lived in these states. Jews had few rights, and it was considered a blessing to rescue them from their ancestral religion, so cases like Mortara’s were not unique. His stood out not for the fierceness with which the family fought to regain their child, but for the international scope of the movement to reverse the kidnapping. Jews around the world leapt to the family’s defense, and were joined by liberals everywhere. But to no avail. The powerlessness of the Jews who attempted to rescue Mortara is exemplified by a chilling scene in the film. Official representatives of the Roman Jewish community, the privileged and sole Jewish interlocutors with the Pope, make their case; the Pope is enraged by their temerity, and every member of the delegation is made to crawl up to his feet and kiss his shoes.

Kidnapped is a tragic tale of an arrogant Church and its powerless victims. After you watch it, seek out the historian David Kertzer’s excellent account of the case, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which makes it clear that with some exceptions, the events in this film occurred as depicted, however outrageous they appear.

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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 Behar

Parshat Behar begins at Mount Sinai, with God sharing a series of instructions about core agricultural practices: Shmita, the sabbatical year, observed every seven years, in which loans are canceled and all land must lie fallow, and Yovel, the jubilee year, observed every 50 years, in which all indentured servants are set free and land is redistributed. The parshah also offers a series of directives pertaining to just practices in labor and business, which has led many commentators to argue that these legal spheres are related. All of them, according to this line of interpretation, are meant to make us vulnerable; rather than relying on our own production or acquisition, these laws require us to deepen our trust in God.

The Kli Yakar, a 16th-century commentator, offers one articulation of this line of thought, writing that when the Israelites entered the Land of Israel, God worried that they would be so successful agriculturally that they would forget about God’s power: “They would think that ‘their might and the power of their hand have made them this wealth’ [Devarim 8:17] . . . The people would think that the land is theirs, and that they are its masters and no one else.” According to the Kli Yakar, God therefore required them to let their land lie fallow during the Shmita year, as a reminder that the earth ultimately belongs to God. Reading the text through this lens might lead us to believe that these mitzvot are directed only toward land-owning people who benefit from the labor of others. In this understanding, Shmita and Yovel correct a human impulse to dominate, to seek mastery and ownership of the world around us.

But the Torah’s language troubles the idea that these mitzvot are merely about humans abstaining from domination. Even before elaborating on the human role in Shmita, God tells the Israelites: “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.” According to the verse, the land itself observes Shabbat. It is a full subject and actor, an equal participant in Shmita. Only then does the Torah elaborate on the human role in the land’s rest. The laws of Shmita are thus not a set of commandments to humanity alone; rather, they dictate a mutual rest undertaken by people and the land together. As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, wrote in his 1909 work Shabbat Ha’aretz, “the people and the land both need a year of Sabbath!”

When we understand Shmita exclusively as a tool for cultivating our own humility, moral consciousness, and trust in God, we paradoxically perpetuate the very instrumentalization of land that this mitzvah subverts. While embodying a way of being that eschews mastery is an essential element of Shmita and Yovel, to truly counter impulses of domination and commodification, these practices must be accompanied by an earnest, authentic commitment to understanding the land’s need for rest on its own terms.

With this shift away from an anthropocentric perspective, Parshat Behar invites us to consider what other hidden subjects in the more-than-human world might require our attention, and to ask: What good are mitzvot to burning forests, acidifying oceans, or land ravaged by genocidal war? What would it take to extend our sphere of obligation to a world beyond us for its own sake?

—Laynie Soloman

Laynie Soloman is a teacher and associate rosh yeshiva at SVARA.