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May
31
2024

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Over the holiday weekend, I spent every spare moment alone buried in Patrick Nathan’s The Future Was Color, out next Tuesday from Counterpoint Press. This rich, scintillating novel—the follow-up to Nathan’s debut, Some Hell (2018), and his essay collection, Image Control (2021)—traces the life of György Kertész, a queer Jew who abandons Budapest for New York as a teenager in 1944, just ahead of the German occupation of Hungary. When we meet György in 1956, he has transformed himself into George Curtis, a Hollywood hack churning out scripts for monster movies, treading lightly in an era and industry when letting the wrong person in on any aspect of his identity, with their‘ associations with communism, might imperil him. In Los Angeles, he has successfully disguised himself and sublimated his artistic ambition to capture the violence of modernity into the debased container of popular film, transmuting the horrors of the 20th century into giant radioactive spiders and other such ciphers. (He takes care not to violate the mandated patriotism of Cold War cinema, but a rare slip-up earns him a rebuke from studio executives: “Before the script that would become Death from Above!,” Nathan writes, “he’d proposed a film about an ancient monster deep beneath the Nevada desert, awakened by radiation. Why, they’d demanded, wasn’t the monster hidden beneath Siberia?”)

As the Hungarian Revolution erupts a world away, George begins to despair at the triviality and insufficiency of his work, what he calls “his bedtime stories.” So he takes an opportunity to hide out at the offensively lavish home of his friend Madeline, a famous actress who collects “interesting” people like curios, to hammer away at a sprawling essay on destruction, hope, and the meaning of the moment. But George is soon distracted from his writing and from events back home. He finds himself swept up—along with with a studio colleague he adores and a young lover he met manning the ticket booth at a film screening, both named Jack—in a life of endless leisure manufactured by Madeline and her husband Walt, and gradually torn apart by the dissonance between the sunlit facade and the darkness roiling beneath it. In lush and achingly precise prose, drenched in loneliness and longing, Nathan masterfully renders George’s struggle to reckon with the relationship between spectacle and violence, artifice and self-knowledge, remembrance and possibility.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Open Roads—Film at Lincoln Center’s annual festival of new Italian cinema, which began yesterday and runs through June 3rd—is always a welcome event. But this year it’s especially so, as the schedule includes the latest work by Nanni Moretti, one of the greatest Italian filmmakers of the last 50 years. A Brighter Tomorrow, showing on June 1st and 5th, revolves around two of Moretti’s main concerns throughout his oeuvre: as described in the film, “the death of art and the death of communism.”

Moretti stars as Giovanni, a director who is making a film about a Hungarian circus troupe’s visit to Italy in 1956, at the invitation of the local section of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). During the shoot, his longtime wife and producer declares that she has had enough of his difficult personality and is preparing to leave him. To make matters worse, she is producing someone else’s movie for the first time—a ridiculously violent gangster film. Giovanni is horrified that his wife would participate in the further degradation of the cinema, and in a brilliant scene that only Moretti could imagine, he interrupts the filming of the final shot—the image of a man with a gun pointed at his head—for eight hours, deconstructing the ethical values contained in it and calling in a varied cast of intellectuals for support (among them the architect Renzo Piano). But Giovanni’s case for a real art of the cinema falls on deaf ears. Later, his—and Moretti’s—despair at the state of film and the public is underlined when we see the final scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), watched by a mostly young, indifferent audience.

Of even greater importance to Moretti is the death of communism, which plays out in Giovanni’s film. Shortly after the Hungarian performers’ arrival in Italy, the uprising against communism breaks out in Budapest, the Soviets invade, and the local PCI comes out in support of the uprising, attempting to convince the national party to do the same. They fail, and the crisis that swept world communism at the time hits Italy as well; the PCI is discredited and the local communist paper editor commits suicide. Moretti’s attachment to the PCI has been clear for decades: In 1990, he released La Cosa, a heartbreaking documentary about the party’s auto-dissolution. Within Italy, the PCI was an alternative to the dominant culture, rooted in justice and solidarity. But that glorious past is now all but forgotten, as demonstrated in A Brighter Tomorrow by the young actor who thinks that when Giovanni says there were once 2 million communists in Italy, he means there were that many Russians.

A Brighter Tomorrow ends with Giovanni determined to exhibit a more positive attitude by concluding the film he’s making with a great hypothetical: What if the national PCI had opposed the Soviet invasion of Hungary? The film—and the film within the film—thus ends with masses of Italians marching behind red flags, flags bearing the emblem of the PCI containing the hammer and sickle, and a huge portrait of Trotsky. In Giovanni’s and Moretti’s imagined perfect world, the PCI’s position paves the way for Italian socialism, with the party remaining in power to realize the “communist utopia” of Marx and Engels. In the grim times in which we live, there’s almost no other way to be optimistic than to imagine such a counterfactual.

Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Living with a kid for the past decade, I’ve colored in my fair share of coloring books, from cute animals to complex mandalas. Like much parenting, these coloring sessions required tuning out from work and organizing—in other words, my real and enduring concerns—to inhabit a space of childlike fantasy. That escape has at times been relaxing, but it has also been exhausting, especially at moments (like this one) when real world horrors become unrelenting and unforgettable.

That’s where From the River to the Sea: A Colouring Book comes in. Beautifully illustrated by Soweto-based artist Nathi Ngubanem, the book—aimed at kids between ages six and 10—depicts the story of Palestine from the early 20th century all the way to the present. The illustrations include iconic Palestinian symbols like the Dome of the Rock, olive and fig trees, and keffiyehs; maps that show the erasure of the Palestinian presence between 1946 and 2012, juxtaposed with a Palestinian elder holding a key; images of Palestinian icons past and present (including Edward Said, Ghassan Kanafani, Shireen Abu Akleh, Wael al-Dahdouh, Lama Abu Jamous, and Refaat Alareer); scenes of resistance from the Intifadas; and drawings of Nelson Mandela and George Floyd which try to capture Palestine’s resonances with global anti-colonial struggles. Each image is accompanied by a short caption, a coloring scheme that can help you along, and a blank box where you can draw out your own understandings of home, exile, resistance, and solidarity. While I have not yet colored in it, I can already envision that this book will provide a way for me to still spend time with little family members while still thinking, talking, and teaching about Palestine and all that it represents.

Predictably, the book has already drawn backlash from pro-Israel groups, including the South African version of the Anti Defamation League, over the charge of “indoctrinating” children with pro-Palestine messaging; mainstream bookstores in that country have also refused to stock the book for these reasons. The least we can do to resist this silencing—and to pass on the truth to the next generation—is to order a copy today.

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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 Bechukotai

This week’s parshah, Bechukotai, introduces the practice of the neder (vow), a legally binding spoken commitment. As a first and paradigmatic case, the Torah describes “a person who makes an explicit vow to God for the value of a human being”—that is, pledging one’s monetary worth, quantified based on a scale laid out later in the parshah, to the Temple. Why make such an oath? The commentators point to the example of Jacob, who promises a portion of his possessions—and his wholehearted faith—to God in return for sustenance and protection during his desperate flight into exile, and to the medieval practice of Jews pledging to offer themselves to God if they overcome a particular hardship. This kind of neder is a sort of last-ditch gamble with one’s entire soul as the ante; in Hasidic terms, it is an act of “the giving over of the self,” a fiery devotion born of desperation.

Ten years ago, as a somewhat self-serious, lonely college student, I experienced the onset of severe, unremitting chronic pain, a condition that endures to this day. I had no hope of divine deliverance, but I entertained a spell of magical thinking: If I only could find something to believe in that could give my pain meaning, I would devote myself to it. I had loved the world of academia—and to some extent still do—but it was a place where earnestness was embarrassing and commitment distrusted, where we couched even our deepest confessions in half-apologetic ironies. The critical lenses at the heart of our education justified our reflexive refusal to take any ideal too seriously. But in the face of my suffering, my skepticism turned to ash; it is hard to scoff when you are crying out in pain. So I cast about for other consolations, and found them in religion and in organizing. Each offered a framework for making sense of my pain: Torah offered me a vision of suffering as spiritually and morally redemptive, while the left invited me to see the stigma of my condition as a point of entry into the broader struggle against oppression in all its forms. In exchange, each asked for my entire desperate soul—in our parshah’s terms, for the “value of a human being.”

In the rabbinic tradition, just such unreserved, unqualified commitment grants the neder an almost mystical power to create norms—what the sages call hitchayvut. Nedarim defy the ordinary rules of halachic gravity. If, for example, I take a neder not to eat meat, even kosher meat becomes as unkosher to me as hametz on Passover. Moreover, a collective vow taken by a Jewish community can actually override other commandments. Vows, in other words, can transform the rules of daily life that we had thought to be rigidly fixed.

But if offering one’s self to an ideal can be liberating, it is also undeniably dangerous. I think of friends who, fed up with the shallowness of American suburban culture, moved to settlements in the West Bank, where they dedicated themselves to right-wing religious Zionism, or of countless lonely teens radicalized by the online right’s grand narratives. The rabbis understood the hazards inherent in nedarim: One haunting midrash portrays Joseph’s guilty brothers, who have just conspired to fake his death and sell him into slavery, taking a vow to conceal their deed from their father Jacob and “including God as one of the partners.” As a result, the midrash explains, God is compelled to withhold the news of Joseph’s survival, subjecting Jacob to years of needless grief. Here, the neder takes on a theurgic power; the brothers twist the will of God to fit their fratricidal logic, and even God must comply. Small wonder, then, that some authorities forbid the making of vows altogether, or at least severely circumscribe them.

The fires of commitment can burn out of control. But in a world crumbling around us, the alternative—blanket skepticism and irresolution—is really no choice at all. For those of us working for justice, then, the question is not whether to commit ourselves, but to whom and to what—and how to do so generously, earnestly, with all we have to give.

—Allen Lipson

Rabbi Allen Lipson is a community organizer at the Essex County Community Organization.