Unknown Unknowns

Then Saul said to his courtiers, “Find me a woman who consults ghosts, so that I can go to her and inquire through her.” And his courtiers told him that there was a woman in En-dor who consulted ghosts.

Saul disguised himself; he put on different clothes and set out with two men. They came to the woman by night, and he said, “Please divine for me by a ghost. Bring up for me the one I shall name to you.”

But the woman answered him, “You know what Saul has done, how he has banned [the use of] ghosts and familiar spirits in the land. So why are you laying a trap for me, to get me killed?”

Saul swore to her by the LORD: “As the LORD lives, you won’t get into trouble over this.”

At that, the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.”

Then the woman recognized Samuel, and she shrieked loudly, and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”

The king answered her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up from the earth.”

“What does he look like?” he asked her. “It is an old man coming up,” she said, “and he is wrapped in a robe.” Then Saul knew that it was Samuel; and he bowed low in homage with his face to the ground.

Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” And Saul answered, “I am in great trouble. The Philistines are attacking me and God has turned away from me; He no longer answers me, either by prophets or in dreams. So I have called you to tell me what I am to do.”

Samuel said, “Why do you ask me, seeing that the LORD has turned away from you and has become your adversary?

The LORD has done for Himself-e as He foretold through me: The LORD has torn the kingship out of your hands and has given it to your fellow, to David,

because you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His wrath upon the Amalekites. That is why the LORD has done this to you today.

Further, the LORD will deliver the Israelites who are with you into the hands of the Philistines. Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me; and the LORD will also deliver the Israelite forces into the hands of the Philistines.”

At once Saul flung himself prone on the ground, terrified by Samuel’s words. Besides, there was no strength in him, for he had not eaten anything all day and all night.

The woman went up to Saul and, seeing how greatly disturbed he was, she said to him, “Your handmaid listened to you; I took my life in my hands and heeded the request you made of me.

So now you listen to me: Let me set before you a bit of food. Eat, and then you will have the strength to go on your way.”

He refused, saying, “I will not eat.” But when his courtiers as well as the woman urged him, he listened to them; he got up from the ground and sat on the bed.

The woman had a stall-fed calf in the house; she hastily slaughtered it, and took flour and kneaded it, and baked some unleavened cakes.

She set this before Saul and his courtiers, and they ate. Then they rose and left the same night.

I Samuel 28

Many of us remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Now that I’ve spent the worst three weeks of my life absorbing people’s espoused online opinions about this catastrophe, I think I have a sense of what’s happening.

Let’s set aside the piles upon piles of opinionated idiots from faraway lands. I’ve said all I have to say to them and all I can add, following Caitriona Reed’s inspiring ritual, is that I’m grateful for the gift that colleagues are offering me by showing me who they truly are, sparing me the need to ever again breathe the same air with a not-insignificant number of people in my professional circles.

Among Israelis, I’m seeing two tropes: the bomb-them-all folks and the let’s-make-peace folks. Both are persuaded that they know what they know. In both cases, people have fallen prey to the Rumsfeld fallacy. They don’t realize–or don’t want to realize–how little they know.

Bomb-them-all Israelis assume that they know a ground offense will successfully finish off Hamas, assume that they know what impact this will have on the hostages, assume that there’s a victory to be eked here (there isn’t), assume that they can assess (morally + strategically) and calibrate the horrid humanitarian price this will exact on Gazans and Israelis alike, assume that the numbers of casualties reported on the other side are exaggerated. They don’t know any of these things.

Make-a-peace-agreement Israelis assume that they know how much support Hamas does and does not have among Gazans, assume that there’s a kernel of good government there that can be cultivated, assume that they can get back the hostages without a ground war, assume that ground offense and hostage recapturing are a zero sum game, assume that the numbers of casualties on the other side are accurate. They don’t know any of these things.

I think people are holding on to these unchecked assumptions for dear life because they feel helpless in the following triple bind:

(1) They cannot accept the fact that this is not about “preventing a catastrophe”, either through a ground offense or through diplomatic channels. THE CATASTROPHE HAS ALREADY HAPPENED AND IT IS IRREVERSIBLE. And we do not have pertinent knowledge that move A on the chessboard will lead to more horror while not-A will not. For any value of A.

(2) We are driven to despair and madness because of how little control we have over the horrific hostage situation. We all want them back and WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO IT.

(3) Finally, people are driven to come up with plans because they have zero trust that Netanyahu has one. They’ve seen their poor excuse for a government completely bankrupt and inept. Whatever is happening, it’s being done by volunteers and by competent people from civil society (many of them from the protest movement) who have stepped up. 

All I’m seeing are people grieving, shocked, mourning, terrified, angry, shaken to the core, who are projecting their confirmation biases on an untenable situation. Do I understand why they do it? Of course. We are completely groundless. We’re broken into a million pieces. We want to lead with our hearts, we abhor the loss of innocent life, we are terrified about the hostages (see the above pictured protest on their behalf). So we treat our own typed words, our own convictions, our own confirmation biases, as if they were our personal sorceress, pulling an answer from the cauldron. We cling to it as we tremble, we talk to drown it, lest the ghost of Samuel apparate, telling us that we’re already goners. It’s so hard to accept that we have no idea what is going on or what we’re doing, what the objectives are, what will lead to the least amount of unfathomable pain. But we must accept it. Because, to our great tragedy and horror, the only thing that is true is that we. just. don’t. know.

Is Pidyon Shevuyim – Hostage Negotiation – A Jewish Value Or a Humanist Value?

Today I received an email from T’ruah, an organization I like quite a bit, inviting me to sign a letter from North American rabbis and cantors. T’ruah’s mission is to “bring[] the Torah’s ideals of human dignity, equality, and justice to life by empowering rabbis and cantors to be moral voices and to lead Jewish communities in advancing democracy and human rights for all people in the United States, Canada, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.” The letter was a call to stop the violence, and it included a denouncement of the murderous Hamas attack as well as a warning about the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Among other things, the letter said:

Pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives, is one of the most important mitzvot. Sadly, there is a long history of Jewish communities being forced to practice this mitzvah over the centuries and across continents — from Egypt to Poland to Russia and beyond. We call on Hamas to release the hostages immediately, on Israel to prioritize negotiations for the captives above all else, and on the international community to do everything possible to secure their release. 

I agree with this sentiment completely–you’d have to be a psychopath not to–but as I read it, I wondered: Is it really the case that Judaism prioritizes Pidyon shevuyim? Or, more generally, nonviolent negotiation? Do we endorse the important goal of bringing the hostages home because we’re Jewish, or because we are humans with a feeling, crying heart?

Jewish texts usually credit Abraham with the importance of releasing hostages. This shows up in two important texts from this week’s parasha. The first relates Abraham’s fairly peripheral involvement in what perhaps is the first world war in the Old Testament. The parasha describes a violent struggle between a coalition of four kings and a coalition of five kings who rebelled against them. The four kings resisted the rebellion and pursued the rebels, and here’s what happened next:

[The invaders] seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.

When Abram heard that his kinsman’s [household] had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.

When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to יהוה, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ For me, nothing but what my servants have used up; as for the share of the parties who went with me—Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre—let them take their share.”

Genesis 14:11-24.

In other words: Abraham, badass as he was, mounted a courageous military offensive to rescue the hostages, and then declined to partake in the loot.

The second story is also Sodom related. God, appalled by the despicable people of Sodom, determines to ruin the entire city. Abraham gathers the courage to negotiate with him, to ensure that, if there are innocents to be found in Sodom (notably, his own nephew, the aforementioned Lot), he won’t obliterate them–even if there are very few–along with the wicked ones:

And Abraham drew near and he said: Will You also cause to perish the righteous one with the wicked one? Perhaps there are fifty righteous ones in the midst of the city — Will You also cause to perish — and will You not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous ones in its midst? It is profane in You to do such a thing, to kill a righteous one with a wicked one, rendering the righteous one like the wicked one. It is profane in You. Will the Judge of all the land not do justice?

And the L-rd said: If I find in Sodom fifty righteous ones in the midst of the city, then I shall spare the entire place for their sake.

And Abraham answered and he said: I have now willed to speak to the L-rd when I should have been dust and ashes. Perhaps there shall lack of the fifty righteous ones, five. Will You destroy the entire city because of the five [and not add Yourself as a “righteous One” to each district to save the whole]? And He said: I shall not destroy if I find there forty-five.

And he ventured to speak more unto Him and he said: Perhaps there will be found there forty. And He said: I shall not do for the sake of the forty.

And he said: Let not the L-rd be wroth and I will speak. Perhaps there will be found there thirty. And He said: I shall not do if I find there thirty.

And he said: Behold, I have willed to speak to the L-rd. Perhaps there will be found there twenty. And He said: I will not destroy for the sake of the twenty.

And he said: Let not the L-rd be wroth and I will speak but this time. Perhaps there will be found there ten. And He said: I will not destroy for the sake of the ten.

Genesis 18: 23-32

This is often presented as grounding military ethics and, arguably, the edicts of international law, in text. And so, we have T’ruah, and many other progressive Jewish denominations, organizations, and institutions, making a plausible impassioned argument against the impending humanitarian disaster in Gaza, not as an implementation of humanist principles, but as manifestation of Jewish principles.

It just so happened that, just as I was thinking about this, I was reading a terrific article by Amod Lele, called “Disengaged Buddhism” (you can find it here.) Lele’s point of departure is the common tendency, throughout various Buddhist denominations, to practice “engaged Buddhism”, i.e., to interpret Buddhism as requiring political activism, most commonly in support of social justice and human rights. An emblematic articulation of this trend is a statement attributed to Thich Nhat Hahn, according to which “Buddhism is already engaged Buddhism. If it is not, it is not Buddhism.” Lele disagrees, both factually and normatively. His article sets out to show that disengaged Buddhism is a coherent, thoughtful position to be found across a variety of at least classical Indian Buddhist texts. But he also makes normative claims: scholarship and advocacy by engaged Buddhists, primarily Western ones, should not ignore these valid sources advocating for disengaged Buddhism, but rather defend their position. He even signals his agreement with an idea that I’ve always found compelling whenever I spent time in Buddhist or mindfulness spaces: namely, that “engaged Buddhism” in the west is less about Buddhism and more about American lefty culture surrounding Buddhism.

I found this last comment incisive and persuasive. Lele critiques Nelson Foster, who argues (either mistakenly or disingenuously, I think) that “the values that have cropped up in the American sangha are
hardly those that prevail in the population of the United States” (52). To this, Lele responds:

American engaged Buddhists’ values may be at odds with those that prevail in Alabama or rural Michigan, but they are not easily distinguished from the values of their non-Buddhist fellows in Berkeley and Vermont and Boulder. Indeed, some of the characteristics Foster attributes to engaged Buddhists are stereotypically so, like “recycling, gardening, and organic farming”. Such values appear far closer to those of their non-Buddhist neighbors than they do to the values in the classical Buddhist texts we have considered.

I think the same story applies to progressive Jewish organizations. Since this horrid tragedy struck, in an effort to process my shock and grief amidst people who are not hostile/antisemitic, I’ve attended services in various synagogues around the Bay Area. What I see, in terms of scripture interpretation, evinces the same maneuver that Lele identifies: the idea that avoiding horrendous war crimes, seeking hostage release as a priority, and caring for the innocent are quintessential Jewish values. Of course I share these values. But are they really the be-all, end-all of what Judaism has to say on the topic? Or can one scour the Old Testament for counterexamples of massive cruelty? Abraham, the righteous protagonist of the two sections from this week’s parasha that I quoted above, was also an absolute monster (by today’s lefty sensibilities) on more than one occasion: his willingness to sacrifice his own son to cement his covenant with God, his despicable banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, his shameless and self-serving pimping of Sarah when availing himself of food available in foreign lands. Not a uniformly commendable character from a progressive standpoint, I think. So, picking and choosing which Abrahamic behaviors are congruent with human rights perspectives when seeking justification in sacred texts is a quintessentially modernist approach to religion, one we find among engaged Buddhists as well as among progressive Jews.

You might say: well, if one wants to prioritize the release of the hostages, what difference does it make if one argues it’s a Jewish position as opposed to a humanist one? Because positing this position as the only possible Jewish position (a-la “this is not who we are”) is factually misleading, the only honest position is that it is a possible Jewish position (this horrendous government is rife with people who, as Jews, are pushing the hostages down the list of priorities and drowning that, and their own incompetence, in abominable rhetoric justifying all the horrors they want our friends and relatives to perpetuate in Gaza. This is not a true-Judaism-versus-false-Judaism scenario. This is a scenario where each side can dig dip into the Jewish bookcase and find plenty of justifications for and against humanitarian action.

It seems like these organizations believe that there is strategic value in staking this position as a Jewish position, because it is held in a debate among Jews, some of them big believers in messianic, aggressive action in Gaza; these folks would undoubtedly find religious argumentation more persuasive than lefty the-occupation-is-evil argumentation. Still, I very much doubt that Ben Gvir et al. are amenable to a good faith conversation about the theological advantages and drawbacks of hostage negotiation. Which is why, I think, there should be no shame–and plenty of integrity–in saying: A position that prioritizes hostage negotiation is a humanist Jewish position, a progressive Jewish position, a peace-and-safety-seeking Jewish position. And that’s a position I would gladly share if I were feeling calm enough or resolute enough to form an opinion. I’m shaken and horrified to my core by the massacre. I tremble and weep at the thought of further horrors: to Gazans, to our soldiers, and above all, to the hostages. I don’t claim any authoritative military expertise on whether peace or negotiation are still viable, nor am I sure that my personal revulsion at violence toward civilian populations necessarily means that one can obliterate Hamas without obliterating Gaza. I hate this whole thing and can’t see anything good coming out of it. And all I want, all I’m ever going to want, is to live to see a news report in which a little boy like mine is returned, alive and unharmed, to his mother’s arms. I can almost see it in my mind’s eye: the running, the crying, the smiles and the applause and the outpouring of love. Pidyon shevuyim. My dream.

News! FESTER Available for Preorder

Fester Book Cover

We’re live! FESTER, my book with Chad Goerzen about the COVID-19 catastrophe in California prisons and jails, is available for preorder on the UC Press website and on Amazon. The official publication date is March 2024.

From the back jacket:

The mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in California’s prisons stands out as the state’s worst-ever medical catastrophe in a carceral setting. In Fester, socio-legal scholar Hadar Aviram and data scientist Chad Goerzen offer a cultural history of the COVID-19 correctional disaster through hundreds of first-person accounts, months of courtroom observations, years of carefully collected quantitative data, and a wealth of policy documents. Bearing witness to the immense suffering wrought on people behind bars through dehumanization, fear, and ignorance, Fester explains how the carceral system’s cruelty threatens the health and well-being not only of those caught in its grasp, but all Californians—and stands as a monument to the brave coalition of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, family members and loved ones, advocates and activists, doctors, journalists, and lawyers who fought to shed light on one of the Golden State’s correctional system’s darkest times.

If you’d like us to come to your campus or bookstore in Spring 2024 and beyond, please contact us and we’ll make it happen.

I Was Right About Recession-Era Decarceration: Population Has Decreased and So Have Racial Disparities

It’s always complicated to write what David Garland calls a “history of the present“, especially in criminal justice, where trends can become visible only years after the fact. And yet, that’s what I tried to do in Cheap on Crime, which was published in early 2015 but completed in 2013. The impetus for the book was the change in direction in incarceration rates: 2009 was the first year in 37 years that saw a decline in incarceration rates. I thought that was important, and observed that the change in direction was accompanied by a host of policies and rhetorics that focused on “justice reinvestment” and trimming the expensive correctional apparatus in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

The book was well received and won a nice award, but some folks in the discipline found it too optimistic. It didn’t fit in neatly with the pessimistic slant of the discipline as a whole, where we can critique mass incarceration (especially, though not exclusively, from a racial standpoint) by showing that things are progressively getting worse, not better. At one of my book events in 2015 I said that I worried that our love for critiques of neoliberalism might be leading us to ignore the data, or at least to pretzel ourselves with complicated rationalizations for why an incarceration picture that seems to be getting better is actually getting worse. Or something.

Last week, the Sentencing Project published an interesting report looking at incarceration trends from the recession–the peak incarceration year–to 2023, and the picture is quite encouraging. The report, titled One in Five: Ending Racial Iniquities in Incarceration shows the still-extant racial disparities within prison and jail populations and, of course, emphasizes these in the title, but does not shy away from providing important descriptive data showing that, not only is the decline in prison and jail populations the mirror image of the rise that preceded the Great Recession, but it is also accompanied by a significant decline in racial disparities. Here are some of the highlights.

First, there’s this. It might be optimistic, but it does predict the decline in prison population based on the current rate of decline. In other words, if the trends set during the recession continue, we might be heading to pre-1970 incarceration rates. This is fanciful, and things can change for the worse the way they did in the 1970s, but we can dream.

Let’s leave conjecture behind and talk about facts. Here are the declines in prison populations by race. As you can see, decarceration across the board is mitigating the disparate racial effects that characterized the incarceration boom:

The effect is most pronounced for women, but it is significant for men as well:

And similar, though not identical, trends are present for county jail populations:

Lest you think that all is well with the world, we’re still seeing big sentencing disparities. 1 in 5 Black men (compared with 1 in 8 Latino men and 1 in 20 White men) born in 2001 is likely to be incarcerated at least once in his lifetime.

There is still plenty of work to do until we can look at a graph that looks like the conjecture above and congratulated ourselves. But things are definitely looking up, significantly so, and it’s okay to point out positive developments when they happen rather than try and come up with stories with why they are actually negative. Or something. And while I’m pleased to have been right, I’m even more pleased to see that, at least in this area, we’re on the right path.

מידע וחומרים לקבורה אזרחית – Info and Materials for Secular Burial (in Hebrew)

חבריםות יקריםות – אם איבדתםן אדם יקר ולא מתאים לכםן חברה קדישא וטקס אורתודוכסי, אולי בגלל שיקירכם או יקירתכם לא היו רוציםות בכך או בגלל שהמשפחה מעוניינת בטקס חילוני, אני מקווה שהמידע בעמוד זה יעזור לכםן. אנא דעו שבבתי עלמין חילוניים קוברים בארונות והמשפחה קובעת מה יהיה בטקס. אפשר לשיר ואפשר להשמיע מוסיקה מוקלטת ולא תצטרכו להקשיב לאנשים זרים מדקלמים בארמית אם אין רצונכםן בכך. ריכזתי עבורכםן מידע בעניין עמותות קבורה אזרחית, סידורים ראשונים שצריך לעשות, וגם תכנים וחומרים ללוויה ולשלושים.

עמותות קבורה אזרחית

מנוחה נכונה באר שבע

מנוחה נכונה כפר סבא

מנוחת עולם בנתניה – בית עלמין אלטרנטיבי

מנוחה נכונה קרית טבעון

מה לעשות

מיד כשיודיעו לכםן על מות יקירכםן או יקירתכםן, לברר היכן הם נמצאים והאם אתם יכולים להתחיל לארגן את סידורי הלוויה. לשאול מיד האם אתם יכולים לקבל רשיון קבורה, כי תיזקקו לו מול העמותה.

להתקשר לעמותה הרלוונטית. הם יתאמו עם האמבולנס הפרטי (בררו בבקשה שזה אכן כך). הם גם יתאמו עמכםן מועד להלוויה. הם ירצו מכםן את התשלום הבסיסי עבור השירות, שמכוסה על ידי הביטוח הלאומי, ואת רשיון הקבורה והטופס לאמבולנס.

איך להודיע

הכי טוב להודיע ברשתות החברתיות ולבקש מאנשים להודיע זה לזה.

אם יקירכםן או יקירתכםן היו בלימודים או בעבודה, או היה להםן ספורט או תחביב עם חברים, בחרו באיש קשר בכל אחד מהמקומות ובקשו ממנו להודיע לכל הקהילה הרלוונטית.

התקשרו לעירייה או למועצה המקומית שלכםן והם יתלו מודעות אבל מטעמם עבורכםן בקרבת ביתכםן.

במודעות אבל לא לשכוח פרטים על בית העלמין, היום והשעה, ואם אתםן מתכנניםות לשבת שבעה- גם הכתובת לשבעה.

אם אתםן לא רוצים שבעה, כתבו ״נא להימנע מביקורי תנחומים״. אם לא בא לכםן תחנת רכבת אבל כן רוציםות לראות חברים, כיתבו ״ביקורי תנחומים בתיאום מראש בבקשה״.

מודעת אבל בעתון הארץ

חומרים להלוויות אזרחיות-חילוניות ולשלושים

קדיש יתום חילוני (אני כתבתי, אתם מוזמנים לשנות כפי שתרצו ולהשתמש)

אל מלא רחמים חילוני (אני כתבתי, אתם מוזמנים לשנות כפי שתרצו ולהשתמש)

רקמה אנושית אחת

שיר ללא שם


עצרו את כל השעונים

עוד חומרים להלוויות ואזכרות חילוניות

מה אחר כך

לצרכים ביורוקרטיים שונים תיזקקו לתעודת פטירה. היא בדרך כלל מגיעה בדואר כחודש-חודש וחצי לאחר הלוויה. כדאי לצלם או לסרוק אותה לטלפון כי תצטרכו אותה.

אם ליקירכםן היתה צוואה, תיזקקו לעורכת דין לשם הוצאת צו קיום צוואה. אם לא, הרכוש מטופל על פי חוק הירושה.

If You Are Cheering Or Rationalizing a Pogrom, I’m Done With You: An Open Letter to My Colleagues

It’s not news to me that my line of work is an antisemitic Petri dish. For a profession full of folks of Jewish descent, it delivers plentiful opportunities to realize how alienating and silencing the progressive conversation in the field is to Jews and especially to Israeli Jews. This stuff often masquerades as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism, but it looks, walks and quacks like what it is. My entire career in the United States, starting with the first year at Berkeley as a grad student, was suffused with antisemitism. In 2001, fresh in the United States for grad school, I rode a bus from campus to my home, and Students for Justice in Palestine took over it and shook it. The whole bus. They took over the Wheeler building. On Holocaust Day.

That same year we brought in a new roommate from Taiwan – a PhD student – who was surprised that my nose wasn’t bigger and that I didn’t look like the people from Fiddler on the Roof.

A few months before I took my current job, in 2007, someone who would be my colleague for over a decade published an op-ed calling to expand the boycott of Israeli academics to the United States. That colleague was later asked by the person in charge of my tenure file to sit in my class and write a report of my pedagogy for the file. I was the one who had to go to that person and, politely smiling and with a friendly tone, advise him to be more cautious as they could end up with lawsuits on their hands due to carelessness. “You people are so political all the time,” was the response.

Students whom I taught using diagrams from a human rights report from B’Tzelem about outrageous torture in interrogations of Palestinians contacted the dean and the chair of my tenure committee, lying that I “trivialized Palestinian suffering with a cartoon.”

My first, award-winning book Cheap on Crime, which has nothing to do with Judaism or Israel, has lots of excellent reviews on Amazon… and one bad review. The bad review, written by a man who doesn’t know me or my opinions about Israeli politics and has not read the book–he saw an ad for a talk I gave, which had a short bio of mine–is titled “Israeli militarist on the loose.”

I’ve had to sit through countless panels in which anyone cheering Palestinian terror is met with snapped fingers and applause.

I’ve had a law review editor ask me to excise my military service from my CV, so that his friends might agree to publish my paper.

I’ve had to listen to people with graduate degrees and publications espouse ignorant, sophomoric opinions about a conflict on which they have no expertise, that were drilled into them, using the right vocabulary and getting the right nods.

I’ve seen colleagues who are Jewish authoring earnest op-eds extolling the virtues of rude and violent students to make their campuses inhospitable for their Jewish and Israeli colleagues.

I’ve had to endure idiotic explanations by fashionable anti-Zionists, many of them Jewish, who have no idea what Zionism is, are utterly unacquainted with its many strains, and cannot name a single Zionist philosopher or thinker.

I’ve had to sit through a hiring meeting and listen to a colleague who insisted that we have no one on the faculty from the Middle East. When a colleague and I said that we were from the Middle East, she explained that she meant “real Middle Easterners.”

I’ve seen people paint Israel with a broad brush stroke, as if there aren’t millions of Israelis, me included, fighting against the occupation and against the Netanyahu government. As if my friends aren’t protecting Palestinian farmers against armed settlers. As if it is impossible to believe that Jews must have a safe place on Earth and at the same time work for the human rights of Palestinians.

But today I’ve seen colleagues sink to a new low. One published an antisemitic caricature that would not be out of place in Der Stirmer (the message was that Israel is pretending to be a victim while being the aggressor. What?) Another unabashedly is advertising an event on “Palestinian resistance” in the Law & Society group. I wrote back. She doubled down, as she’s promoting her book. I would name names, but why? You know exactly who you are and you’re not ashamed of it, apparently, because you know enough of your professional connections will cheer you on. People have made very successful careers in this field out of being shameless. I doubt that this post will earn me anywhere near that acclaim, but if that means not being invited to have coffee with antisemites at a conference, I can live with the deprivation.

I shouldn’t have to explain why this is appalling, but for those who have managed to avoid the pictures of sobbing hostages, kibbutzim burned to the ground, and terrorists celebrating and throwing candy as they mangle their victims’ naked bodies, here’s my friend Tal Guttman:

For all of my non-Israeli friends, who might think this is another round of tango between Israel and the Hamas: This is much closer to 9/11 than anything we have experienced here in Israel in the last 40 or 50 years. This was an invasion. Hamas terrorists went house to house, murdering children in front of their parents, abducting 70 year old grandmothers and 12 year old schoolchildren to Gaza. 260 people were butchered in a rave. The coverage in official news channels focuses on the big buildings going down in Gaza, but I urge you to go to twitter and read the (translated if needed) testimonials, sometimes live, of people who are tweeting from their safe rooms as the terrorists are outside, telling their kids it will be all right.

Imagine that in 9/11, terrorists would invade the US, shoot 33,000 (1000) civilians dead, wound 60,000 (2000), and abduct 3000 (100) American citizens, and held them hostage in Afghanistan. Adjusting for country size, this is what happened in Israel yesterday. This is going to lead to a long, and painful war. It breaks my heart.

I despise Netanyahu, and believe his current coalition of alt-right jewish supremacist firestarters is the worst in the history of the nation and the biggest threat to Israel’s existence. However, I hear people saying how the attack yesterday was a result of recent Israeli provocation. A coordinated, large scale and surprise attack of this kind takes months to prepare and train for. This was pre-meditated, pre planned. The Israeli provocations were only an excuse. This is what pure evil looks like.

Today I’m done with professional hypocrisy, with sitting quietly in rooms where unbelievable things come out of people’s mouths. I will leave conversations that deny my humanity, respond publicly on mailing lists to people whom I emailed privately before so as not to shame them. I will not shrug off situations that evince an astonishing level of cultural and academic gaslighting. If you have ill-informed opinions that celebrate or rationalize pogroms, that explain away rape and murder of children, women, and elderly people as “resistance”, or espouse some nonsense that tries to graft this conflict onto your parochial perspectives on race in America, I am officially done with you in any professional and personal capacity. If you cannot tell the difference between resistance and mass atrocity, your humanity is so compromised that I don’t know where to even begin to educate you. Nor would you be interested in being educated.

In the days to come, this will naturally become muddied. This war will claim civilian casualties on both sides, air strikes are already devastating Gaza, and none of this is bringing the hostages any closer to home. The villains on both sides will capitalize on it. And as we all know, the more morally questionable the retaliation, the more antisemitism will flourish online. A lot of this critique will be understandable and much of it will be justifiable. But it’s telling that the backlash started *before* the retaliation, which has exposed people’s true colors.

I honestly don’t know where to go from here in this line of work. I have zero motivation or desire to work or interact with anyone whose moral compass is so compromised, and these opinions are so entrenched in my profession that I doubt I can find an environment where I feel like I can breathe. The alternative is to go back home, to a country so degraded by Jewish religious messianism and so at risk from Muslim religious messianism that I can’t in good conscience raise my son there. Our great Yiddish authors called it: there’s nowhere for Jews to put their heads down.

Murderous Hamas Attack on Israel: How to Help

On October 7, Hamas terrorists launched a large-scale murderous invasion of Israel from the Gaza Strip, slaughtering at least 700 Israelis, injuring thousands, and taking at least 100 people–women, children, elderly folks–hostage. I am beside myself with horror and in constant touch with my family.

No explainers, as this is unfathomable, nor should you trust anyone already dispensing hot takes. Actual combat is still very much taking place in the streets.

Here’s how you can help (and thank you):

Unxeptable have a linktree with information and resources, and they have also provided verified links for financial assistance. You can also volunteer to host Israelis who have been stranded abroad due to flight cancelations. Click here if you need a place to stay.

The protest organizations in Israel are collecting funds for all affected communities here.

Israel Trauma Coalition will need all the funds they can get to help build resilience for the many thousands of affected families.

Kibbutz Nir Oz underwent a horrible massacre. Dozens were murdered or kidnapped in front of their families, and homes were burned. They can use your help.

Please do not share horror pictures and videos on social media, even for supposedly constructive ends such as “educating” or “raising consciousness.” I should not have to explain why not.

Please do not get pulled into political arguments on social media and comments sections. You are likely wasting your time and exhausting your precious energy arguing with hostile bots.

If you need an uplifting community experience, numerous Jewish congregations are holding special services that can help your morale and make you feel less alone (such as the one I attended this morning at Temple Emanu-El, depicted above). These events are held with heavy police security for obvious reasons.

Stay safe, watchful, and proactive.

Book Review: American JewBu

The prevalence of Jews among certain American Buddhist communities has provoked lively research and commentary, from Rodger Kamenetz’s classic The Jew in the Lotus to David Bader’s irreverent Zen Judaism which hilariously recounts how “[t]he Buddha’s parents, Max and Helen. . . would describe the miraculous, god-like powers of their ‘little Buddhaleh’” (11-12). Emily Sigalow’s American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change is an innovative socio-historical and ethnographic contribution to this literature, based on extensive archival work, participant observation, and eighty interviews with Jewish practitioners of Buddhism (all detailed in the book’s superb methodological appendix).

Prior inquiries into the Jewish-Buddhist connection examined the appeal of shared values and ideals (a focus on suffering, text-based theology, attraction to intellectual and bohemian pursuits). By contrast, Sigalow examines the JewBu phenomenon sociologically. Reclaiming the concept of syncretism from its conventional usage (a trifling mix-and-match of religious practices found in traditional societies), Sigalow takes syncretism seriously, showing that interreligious exchange between minority communities is “a process shaped by their specific social locations in society” (8), which has allowed “middle and upper-middle classes (including American Jews). . . [to] appropriate and recontextualize [Buddhism]—and arguably exploit as well as fragment it too—in order to commodify it and place it at the service of their needs” (10-11). American Jews and convert Buddhists, she explains, “share a remarkably similar sociodemographic location in society. . . urban, educated, upper middle class, and liberal. . .  thus facilitating the mixing of the two groups” (182). Moreover, Buddhism appeals to Jews as “it [does] not have a legacy of persecuting Jews” (183); and “the flexibility and permissiveness of. . .  Buddhist centers enable [Jews] to maintain and preserve their inherited religion, and take from Buddhism the practices and wisdom that support it” (183).  This multifaceted appeal of Buddhism to Jews is enhanced through the role Jewish pioneers and teachers played in modernizing Buddhism, and through the wide availability of Buddhist teachers of Jewish heritage.

Sigalow’s book begins with a historical-chronological account of the Jewish-Buddhist encounter. This account begins with the conversion of Charles Strauss, a Jew “brought up the liberal way” (20), to Buddhism on stage at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. The first Buddhist convert on U.S. soil, Strauss practiced and promoted what he considered a pure version of Theravada Buddhism, unadulterated by cultural and ritual trappings and entirely in harmony with science, reason, and social justice. Other prominent Jewish thinkers admired and appreciated Buddhist concepts, downplaying Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics and highlighting their compatibility with science and modernist ethics. While some extolled the romantic interest of Jews in Buddhism, and their fascination with Buddhist public speakers, as a mark of intellectual curiosity, others criticized them for seeking spiritual harbor outside their own faith. Sigalow ascribes Jewish interest in Buddhism in this era to Buddhist modernization in general, as well as to Jewish assimilation in urbane, educated, and bohemian circles, facilitated by the permissiveness and openness of Reform congregations.

This romantic interest in Buddhism, which dwindled somewhat in the early 20th century due to rising anti-Asian sentiments, was replaced by the prominence of solo American Jews trained by Asian teachers who participated in Asian Buddhist groups. In Chapter 2, Sigalow follows three such practitioners. Julius Goldwater was a mystics enthusiast whose family’s relocation to Hawaii led him to Jodo Shinshu and, upon his return to the U.S., to ministry and mentorship at the Nishi Hongwanji Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. During the wartime persecution of Japanese Americans, Goldwater advocated on behalf of the Buddhist community and procured essential supplies for people in internment camps. Samuel Lewis studied Zen with Senzaki and Sokei-An, introduced Senzaki to Sufi leader Pir-O-Murshid Inayat Khan, and pioneered an ecumenical art form, the Dances of Universal Peace, which “set sacred scriptures, poetry, and chants from the world’s spiritual and religious traditions to music and movement” (49). And William Segal, a successful self-made magazine executive, studied the Gurdjeff system of thought alongside Zen, and became a prolific artist and Asian art collector. All three, Sigalow explains, “crafted their own modernized versions of American Buddhism that sought to reconcile it with the central liberal religious perspectives of their time: universalism, perennialism, and romanticism” (45), whether by fostering nonsectarian Buddhism or interfaith dialogue.

Chapter 3 turns to Jewish participation in countercultural Buddhist practices between the 1960s and the 1990s. Opening with Allen Ginsberg and the Beats’ flocking to Suzuki Zen, Sigalow recounts Mel Weitzman’s leadership of the Berkeley and San Francisco Zen Centers and Blanche Hartmann’s adaptation of Zen Doctrine to the interests and needs of women practitioners. Jewish seekers on pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya encountered Theravada teacher S. M. Goenka, and some of the attendees of his first vipassana retreat– Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz, Wes Nisker, Barry Laping, Stephen Levine, Ram Dass, and Jack Kornfield—established insight meditation traditions in the United States upon their return. Goldstein and Kornfield, extensively trained in Thai and Burmese monasteries, took advantage of the paucity of institutional constraints on U.S. Buddhism, and their innovative teachings “minimized the elements of Buddhism associated with the wider religious tradition of Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism in favor of the simple practice of seated meditation that they thought would seem less ethnic and more appealing to US society” (64). This period saw the establishment of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California; and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, established by Chongyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa’s notable Jewish students included Sam Bercholz, the founder of Shambhala Publications, the foremost publishing house for American Buddhism, and Pema Chodron, author of many books that universalize Buddhist ideas and practices for Westerners. Jewish-Buddhist innovators of this period Westernized Buddhist practices in three important ways: “For one, these teachers elevated the importance of the privatized experience of silence and meditation. Second, they emphasized the ethical pursuit of social justice. And third, they also cast Buddhism with a distinctive psychotherapeutic orientation” (68).

Chapter 4 examines the convergence of Buddhist wisdom seekers with the neo-Hasidic Jewish Renewal movement. It proceeds to discuss the contribution of Jon Kabat-Zinn to the medicalization of mindfulness meditation through MBSR training, and the work of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, an organization “rooted in the Jewish tradition and committed to democratic values and social justice, including fairness, diversity, and community” (86), and its promotion of dialogue between Buddhist leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, and Jewish rabbis and scholars, emphasizing Jewish activism on behalf of the Tibetan people. This chapter—and Part I of the book—closes with the emergence of contemplative traditions and practices within Jewish congregations.

This overview leaves open the question of what, precisely, was distinctly Jewish in these enterprises—or, at least, how the contributions of Jewish liberal intellectuals and scientists differed from those of their non-Jewish counterparts. Much of this history dovetails with more general scholarship on Buddhism and modernity (see here, here, and here, to name just a few examples) and is clearly in line with McMahan’s identification of the three characteristics of Buddhist modernity: detraditionalization, demythologization, and psychologization. Although Sigalow identifies some parallels between the elevation of metta (lovingkindness) and the Jewish tradition of gemilut hasadim, and between the new emphasis on engaged Buddhism and the activist background of many Jewish Buddhist leaders—and although she lists some explicitly syncretic spiritual leaders—she admits that “[i]t is difficult to determine if and how the Jewish upbringings of these Buddhist teachers influenced their decisions to abandon many traditional elements of Buddhism and emphasize the centrality and universality of the practice of meditation” (73).

The second part of the book, however, identifies more salient themes of syncretism. In Chapter 5, Sigalow relies on interviews and participant observations to investigate how meditation teachers diffused contemplative practices into Jewish communities in a way that was “compatible with as well as culturally accessible to liberal American Jewish culture” and at the same time “selected elements from Buddhism that were distinctly Asian” (e.g., no bowing and no Buddha imagery) “and elements from Judaism that were sometimes distinctly Kabbalistic and mystical” (e.g, prayer flags emblazoned with hamsas, language from Jewish prayer as mantra) “so that this new practice of Jewish meditation would feel different, new, and perhaps even exotic or romantic to American Jews” (105-106). The teachers Sigalow interviewed felt empowered to choose elements from Buddhism that they felt benefitted Jews and made them “wiser, kinder, and more compassionate” (117). But beyond these personal factors, the teachers felt that meditation revitalized Jewish communities, and legitimized it by historicizing it within the Jewish contemplative tradition.

Chapters 6 and 7 turn to Sigalow’s interviews with American JewBus. Few of her interviewees identified equally with both traditions (and embracing a JewBu identity was more evident in younger generations), so Sigalow’s findings mostly address two other groups. The first, the “spiritually enriched”, are observant Jews from liberal denominations, about a third of them holding clergy positions, who consider Buddhist practices beneficial but are not officially affiliated with a Buddhist center. These respondents extol the value of spirituality through meditation practice (a shared aspect of Judaism and convert Buddhism). They speak of spirituality as universal and ecumenical. They seek spirituality that is personally nourishing and connected to their hearts—providing comfort, healing, and relief—and Buddhist mindfulness illuminates those aspects in their Jewish practices. Finally, they emphasize the importance of choosing spirituality voluntarily and intentionally. In these spiritual discourses, Sigalow finds echoes of more general themes in American liberalism.

The second group consists of people committed to organized Buddhist institutions who see themselves as cultural Jews. By contrast to traditional scholarship about converts eschewing their former identities, the interviewees retain their Jewish identity and perceive it as innate, through family- and heritage-based connections, connected to the history of the Jewish people and to the experience of being non-Christians in a Christian-majority country; their Buddhist worldview and practices, by contrast, are “an achieved identity” (159): deliberative, reflective, and “welcome[ing] and cultivat[ing] the liberal values with which they were raised” (164).

Sigalow’s reflection on these findings reflects remarkable nuance on the themes of power and privilege. While Jews did not intend to exploit Buddhism, she explains, “their distancing of Buddhism from its Asian cultural systems and ethnic identities—and recasting it in a socially active and psychotherapeutic framework—effectively ‘whitened’ it in order to make it more appealing to a broad American audience. . . a quintessential tactic of colonization” (190). Moreover, “[t]he construction of Jewish meditation thus began with a radical secularization of Buddhism and ended with a resacralization in Jewish forms. One could argue that this was a Jewish appropriation of the cornerstone practice of the Buddhist tradition” (189). Nevertheless, Sigalow observes, syncretism is “an inevitable outcome of sustained religious contact. Religions continually remake themselves in response to changing historical as well as social conditions and interaction with other traditions, adopting elements from each other that enhance their durability, and shedding those that no longer remain compelling or resonant. This process of religious reconfiguration allows religions to survive and carry forward into the future, remaining relevant to future generations” (190).

Within this conversation lies what I think is missing from Sigalow’s sociological analysis: Jews’ marginalized position precisely within the privileged, educated, white, lefty social locus they occupy. Antisemitism is alive and well, and in the context of the progressive milieus that are the socio-political home of many JewBus, it is inextricably linked to strident political critiques of Israel, which tend to lack the nuance these milieus reserve for other “isms”. This can make life in the intellectual left uncomfortable and burdensome for Jews—considerably more burdensome than coping with questions of cultural appropriation for Buddhist converts. This makes the JewBu experience quintessentially American and raises the question of a possible comparison with Jewish-Buddhist syncretism in Israel, where Buddhism seekers, sympathizers, and adopters’ relationship with their faith of birth might be complicated by an Orthodox, rigid, and exclusionary relationship with the state apparatus, rather than with a contested minority status. This Israeli American JewBu would like to read (or write) a comparative piece along those lines someday.

This minor quibble aside, Sigalow’s book paves a fresh empirical path for scholarship on the Jewish-Buddhist encounter. Her survey instrument reflects deep understanding of, and empathy for, her subjects’ spiritual identities and practices; her participant observation reports ring authentic and perceptive. Her conclusions are a valuable reminder that no spiritual, religious, or ethnic community is a monolith, and that religions and customs change and evolve, diverge and converge. These lessons will gain even more importance as the next generation of JewBus—perhaps the children of Jewish-Buddhist families—turn to shape their own identities and create their own meanings.

The Fluidity of Jewish Denominations

Yesterday, in my Modern Jewish Thought seminar, we covered the birth of Jewish denominations, starting with the establishment of the first reform community: the Hamburg Temple. Seeking to move away from what they saw as alienating, distasteful, or removed from their reality as German citizens aspiring to be emancipated, the founders of the new temple changed the liturgy: services would be held only on Saturdays and holidays and would include an organ and a choir. Men and women could sit together. Prayer would be conducted in German, not in Hebrew (then a dead language none of them could imagine would be revitalized). This revolution caused immense consternation, occasioning passionate commentary (all documented in primary sources you can find here), leading to a splintering of the community into what we now understand as orthodox, conservative, reform, and ultra-orthodox denominations.

The excitement of the people who initiated this new mode of prayer was palpable: they were creating a spiritual home in which they could be comfortable, of which they could be proud, to which they could invite their gentile friends. And yet, when we discussed this in class, my fellow students were deeply derisive. I could not understand why, so I asked, and as I suspected–my confusion reflected cultural ignorance. The other students explained that they experience reform Judaism as a namby-pamby, stodgy, assimilationist and flavorless Judaism. They also associated class snobbery with reform.

From a statistical perspective, their position makes sense. This descriptive analysis from Pew shows that, in the United States, reform is the largest Jewish denomination.

Eliminating the “no denomination” folks–there is a huge population of disengaged Jews in the United States, and we’ll talk about them in a different post–Reform encompasses the majority of practicing Jews. More than three times the number of Orthodox Jews. And the edgier, more “ethnic”, more mystical denominations–including Renewal and Reconstruction, which one sees a lot of here in the Bay Area–are quite minuscule by comparison (the data is from 2013, but I would be surprised if things changed much in the last decade).

Understanding the statistics is valuable, because in Israel, the picture of denomination is very different. For one thing, there is a state-sponsored religion: Orthodox Judaism, and now a particularly virulent, xenophobic, messianic version of it. Orthodoxy is the default for the entire Jewish life cycle because that’s what’s on offer by default: Just gave birth and in a fog of joy, postpartum depression, and/or overwhelm? the default is a big party in which a guy with a beard will cut off your son’s foreskin and everyone will enjoy the buffet. What are you going to eat? The accessible foods at your local supermarket are all kosher. In love? Congratulations! To have your wedding recognized by the state without taking a protracted bureaucratic journey, you marry orthodox. Registered as married? Only way out is a gett ceremony at the (Orthodox) rabbinate. Just lost a loved one and are too confused to come up with creative options? Orthodox men in black suits will mumble in Aramaic over your parent or spouse and then hold their palm out to the bereaved for a tip.

Other types of congregations exist and flourish in Israel, but they receive zero acknowledgment by the state apparatus, to the extent that even educated secular people don’t register their existence. Going to a reform service is a novelty. I remember how impressed I was one Yom Kippur when I attended the local reform congregation with a friend and saw that her whole family could sit together. I’m still in deep awe of Women of the Wall and female rabbis in Israel, both of whom are assailed. Had it not been for their heroic efforts, girls would not be able to have their bat mitzvah, complete with Torah reading, at the Western Wall (or anywhere else, for the matter.) It’s easy for my fellow students to deride these efforts in the same way that umpteenth-wave intersectional feminists deride first-wave feminists and forget they stand on the shoulders of the giants whose efforts granted them not only a voice, but a vote.

But this also reminded me that the idea of feeling “at home” “with my people” can be largely fiction if I assume that broader social trends do not influence what “my people” even means. We’re in an identitarian moment; splintering is happening all over the place, as is dumping on those not seen as edgy and interesting. Moreover, Jews tend to occupy an urban, educated, intellectual, bohemian place in American society and, in this milieu, accentuating any part of your identity that makes you “not white” is de rigeur. Since I, too, am a product of what’s happening around me, my own foray into Jewish Studies and the secular humanistic rabbinate comes from a sense that “my people”, whoever they are, need something enriching and affirming, something they can be proud of, as Israel implodes. I can try and put myself in the shoes of my 1818 ancestors, who probably felt the same way. A German churchlike venue is not what I have in mind when I think “comfort” and “feeling at home”, but they did–it’s what was around them at the time.

Film Review: 26.2 to Life

I still remember the incredible emotions that choked me as I took the last steps of the Oakland Marathon and realized that, yes, I was going to finish. Even with lots of experience racing endurance events, including some very long marathon swim, there was nothing quite like it. And the faces of everyone around me reflected that we had all undergone a very special experience, stretching body, mind and spirit to their limits, and that we would forever share that experience.

It is this direct appeal to common humanity that drives Christine Yoo’s fantastic documentary 26.2 to Life, which is now playing in select theaters and winning all sorts of incredible awards at film festival. With unparalleled access to the inside of San Quentin–the yard, of course, 105 laps of which add up to 26.2 miles, but also other areas of the prison, including the cells–this documentary has the potential to go where no work of advocacy has gone before.

Lots of tired, jargony academic pieces about carceral geography and mass incarceration blather about “bodies” and “embodiment”, but nowhere is the somatic experience of an incarcerated body more visceral than in this film. We see people living under the horrid conditions that are only too familiar to regular readers of this blog and using endurance running–their own bodies, pushed to their limit–to sublimate and divert anger, to release stress, to find liberation, to imagine commonalities and brotherhood with people running on the outside. In one memorable scene, runner Jonathan Levin talks of running as a physical form of doing penance for his crime, reminding me vividly of the incredible ending scene of the Buddhist film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.

Other runners feature more prominently, and we get to learn their personal stories. Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor, the fastest runner of the club, dreams of qualifying for the Boston Marathon and running it if he makes parole. Rahsaan “New York” Thomas finds his voice as a journalist and leader in prison (his work for the San Quentin News and for Ear Hustle is also featured in Adamu Chan’s recent documentary What These Walls Cannot Hold. Tommy Wickerd works hard to redeem himself from a life of violence and be as much of a good husband to Marin and father to Tommy II as he can from behind bars. These folks, and many others featured in the film, are people I know. Some of them I met in person, though most of them I did not; I did spend many many hours with their loved ones, and hearing from them, in the weekly #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition meetings that we document in FESTER. There was something heartbreaking in watching these very familiar people in footage from before the calamity would strike and terrorize them and require them to develop new forms of courage and work new psychological muscles.

What stands out in the movie is how it lends itself to bridges of empathy and perspective taking. Not pity–though the men’s stories are contextualized in a way that does not absolve them from accountability and yet evinces profound understanding of their circumstances–but the same sense that every one of us has felt upon embarking on a huge athletic undertaking. The same sense of exhilaration and terror that is evident in the first steps of the protagonist of Brittany Runs a Marathon; the same trepidation and enormous effort of the swimmers in Driven; the sense of dread, then relief, accompanying Alex Honnold’s heroic climb of El Capitan in Free Solo. Christine Yoo has elevated Taylor, Thomas, Wickerd and the other runners to their rightful place along these cinematic athletic heroes by bringing her viewers into communion with the most basic things we all share: our bodies and our striving to make something of our lives within them.

You must see this movie. And you also must consider financially helping some of the film’s heroes. As pioneering research by Alessandro de Giorgi shows, the first and foremost challenges for anyone on the outside involve their basic survival: finding a place to live and a job. Even phenomenal athletes are not exempt from this. Markelle sells amazing athletic gear you can wear in pride for your training and racing, and Rahsaan is doing wonderful journalistic work that requires support.. Too often we expect formerly incarcerated folks to hit the ground running with activism for their friends still on the inside, discounting the importance of getting their own lives in order. Let’s lend our fellow athletes a helping hand.