Children’s Books About Prisons

Friend, are you heading to a birthday or baby shower? If you like bringing books as gifts, and want the books to be meaningful, I’d steer away from tiresome sloganeering a-la-A-is-for-Activist and offer some actual content instead. I especially recommend two books I read with my son in recent years: The Gardener of Alcatraz and Milo Imagines the World. In case one wonders, why would I want to expose my kid to prison? it’s worth remembering that many kids are exposed to prison through the incarceration of family members and friends; that prison is constantly on the news, and so you’d be better off exercising some judgment over the narrative; and that, given that about 1 in 150 Americans is incarcerated, your child will come across prison or imprisonment at some point.

The Gardener of Alcatraz, written by Emma Bland Smith and beautifully illustrated by Jenn Ely (see cover image above), is a story that humanizes people in prison and offers hope without slipping into cheesy melodrama. It tells the true story of Elliot Michener, sentenced for counterfeiting in 1941 and put on a boat to Alcatraz after participating in a foiled escape plan from Leavenworth.

To Smith’s credit, she does not embellish or glorify Michener. The narrative follows his arrival in the gloomy prison and his plans to escape, and very subtly and intelligently shows (without telling) his internal transformation through his garden work. Michener’s labor of love, planting and cultivating flowers throughout the island, and his friendship with the warden’s wife, are gently and delicately handled. Smith also doesn’t gloss over the fact that Michener was transferred out of Alcatraz toward the end of his sentence, which was a true blow to him and his work. The book contains an appendix full of interesting information about Alcatraz and about the gardens. It offers a very special slice of history without hitting readers over the head with “mass incarceration is wrong,” but even young readers will get a sense of the complexity of having done something wrong and at the same time being harshly punished.

Milo Imagines the World, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, takes us into the present, with Milo and his sister riding the Subway. Again, no sloganeering or hitting you over the head with moralizing messages; instead, you get to learn about Milo’s world implicitly, through the way he imagines the lives of the people around him. In a particularly moving sequence, he sees a troupe of street performers on the train, and later his imagination takes a dark turn, implying that if these girls go to an electronics store, they might be stopped by the police for suspected shoplifting. The meaning of the story fully unfolds toward the end, when the reader realizes that Milo and his sister are on their way to visit their mother, who is incarcerated. To his surprise, Milo sees that another boy who was riding with them is also in line to see his own mother. Which is where Robinson’s illustrations complete what de la Peña only delicately intimates: the other boy seems white and well dressed. Realizing that things are not what they seem, Milo opens his mind to imagine other things beyond his assumptions (for example, the street performing girls living together in a big, lovely house; the bride on the train marrying another bride, rather than a groom; the gloomy man eating his dinner with a loving family, rather than just with cats), including a future where he, his sister, and his mom, now free, all sit in front of their building and eat ice cream together. I’ve been a fan of de la Peña’s work since I read the wonderful Last Stop on Market Street, which humanizes street people and shelter workers without being condescending or too explicit.

The more I see of my son’s educational journey at Red Bridge School, the more I realize that children are very smart and perceptive; teaching them stupid things and hitting them over the head with things they can discern from better crafted materials is a waste of their intellect and sensitivity. Gardener and Milo are two examples of how to thoughtfully introduce children to the painful topic of incarceration in a way that engenders empathy and complex reasoning.

Rainbow Brenner

Two friends, young, poor, bright, and full of promise, sit together in a shabby room in Warsaw. They are joyous, for not only do they have food and oil to light the furnace—a rare occurrence—but also a fresh-from-the-presses literary journal issue, containing a new poem by a famous poet they both admire. They recite the poem to each other, squealing, frolicking, then leap into each other’s embrace, as the fire burns in the furnace and a candle flickers on the table.

The two young men were Yosef Haim Brenner, among the most celebrated and appreciated Hebrew revival novelists and essayists, and Uri-Nissan Gnessin, a master of the short story in Hebrew and Yiddish. Intimate friends since their yeshiva days under the tutelage of Gnessin’s father in Pochep, Ukraine, the two ended up at the frontlines of literary innovation in Hebrew. They traveled across Europe fighting poverty and shirking military service. Brenner ended up living in a shabby room in East London, working long hours as a typesetter to fund his passion: his literary journal Ha’Meorer (“The Awakener”), a serial publication of Hebrew fiction, essays, and poetry. Gnessin edited Nisyonot (“attempts,”) a periodic collection of short stories. In 1907, after much deliberation, Gnessin joined Brenner in London, but the friends’ attempt at a shared life went sour within a few weeks and the two broke all contact. Brenner immigrated to Eretz Israel (then part of the Ottoman empire) in 1909 and, after a short and unsuccessful attempt at agricultural labor, moved to Jaffa and resumed his intellectual and creative career, venerated by members of the Yishuv for his originality and creative genius despite frequent controversies stemming from his controversial, strident writing. Gnessin returned to Pochep and in 1912 moved to Warsaw, already gravely ill with a congenital heart condition, a fact unknown to Brenner and to most, or all, of their circle of friends. On his deathbed he cried out Brenner’s name. The year was 1913, Gnessin was 33 old at his death, and when Brenner heard of Gnessin’s death, he was devastated. His moving eulogy to his intimate friend, “Uri-Nissan: A Few Words,” is at the heart of this paper.

Brenner married and fathered a child, whom he named Uri-Nissan and doted on, but divorced while his son was an infant. He then rented a room at a ranch in the outskirts of Jaffa, where he mentored an unknown young author, Yosef Luidor, and invited Luidor to live with him. In 1921, during a horrific pogrom in Jaffa, Brenner and several other authors, including Luidor, were horrifically brutalized and murdered at their lodging. The crime scene was so heinous, and reflected such atrocious slaughter and torture, that details were kept confidential even as the murder filled newspaper headlines, and many of the facts remain unknown to this day.

While Brenner’s books and essays are still regarded as the pinnacle of artistic merit in the Hebrew language, and his many novels, including his final masterpiece Skhol VeKishalon (“Bereavement and Failure”), are cited as inspiration by many Israeli literary giants, his works are no longer widely read beyond a small circle of literature connoisseurs. But in recent years, there has been a surge of interest in, and controversy around, Brenner—not for his literature and ideology, but for his personal, romantic, and sexual life.

The two works that sparked these controversies were literary critic Menahem Perry’s nonfiction work Sit on Me and Warm Up: The Homoerotic Dialogue of Brenner and Gnessin (Tel Aviv: The New Library, 2020), and novelist Alon Hilu’s speculative novel Murder at the Red House (Tel Aviv: Yediot, 2018). Perry’s book painstakingly recreates Brenner and Gnessin’s London misadventure, whereas Hilu’s book offers a shocking, lurid narrative that casts the murders of Brenner and Luidor as stemming from a doomed homoerotic triangle. The turmoil and heat generated by both books is the subject of this paper.

My interest is not in the was-he-or-wasn’t-he question; there is plenty in Brenner’s tortured personal life to suggest that he was a complicated man, and as to his suspected and confirmed romantic entanglements, we know that some were tragic (Gnessin), some tender (Luidor), and some, as we will see, unsavory, especially to a 21st century reader. We also know that Brenner was plagued by debilitating mental illness—perhaps depression, perhaps bipolar disorder—and it is not a stretch to hypothesize that his emotional suffering was related at least in part to his unconventional sexuality, as well as to the fact that such sexual feelings and desires, though certainly present and not uncommon, were deeply stigmatized and unspoken among the halutzim and absent from public discourse in Israel until the 1960s. What I do wonder about is the sudden cultural appetite for the sexual and romantic entanglements of a man murdered more than a century ago: What, beyond prurience, can explain this recent interest in Brenner’s sexuality? Does the speculation, investigation, and debate regarding Brenner’s queerness contribute to our understanding of his work or his death, and if so, how?

Perry’s Sit On Me and Be Warm: Investigating and Reading Between the Gaps

    Most serious Brenner biographers unflinchingly accept that Gnessin was his first and biggest love interest, and that the relationship, as well as Gnessin’s premature death, deeply impacted Brenner’s life and work. You can see some of these comments in Yair Kedar’s terrific documentary HaMeorer (2016), a beautiful film I recommend you watch in its entirety:

    Shai Zarhi comments:

    Gnessin was truly the love of his life; I really do think he was the love of his life. They emerged together and they started writing together. You know, they went through formative experiences together, that create a friendship… a very big love. And with difficulty, because both of them were very complicated people.

    The most harmonious and idealized expression of this relationship is an episode described in Brenner’s eulogy for Gnessin (1913), which centers around a poem by Haim Nahman Bialik titled “On a Sunny, Warm Day.” The poem proceeds in three parts, corresponding to three seasons. In the first, the narrator joyously a friend (“pleasant brother,” “blessed of God”) to his garden during the hot summer months. The second part, which is especially relevant to Perry’s inquiry, reads:

    When the black cold of a winter’s night
    bruises you with its icy pinch
    and frost sticks knives in your shivering flesh,
    then come to me, blessed of God.

    My dwelling is modest, lacking splendor,
    but warm and bright and open to strangers.
    A fire’s in the grate, on the table a candle –
    my lost brother, sit with me and get warm.

    When we hear a cry in the howling storm
    we will think of the destitute starving outside.
    We will weep for them – honest pitiful tears.
    Good friend, my brother, let us embrace.

    וּבְלֵיל חֹרֶף, לֵיל קֹר, עֵת מַחֲשַׁכִּים וּשְׁחוֹר
    יְשׁוּפוּךָ בַּחוּץ, הוֹלֵךְ סוֹבֵב הַקֹּר,
    וּבִבְשָׂרְךָ כִּי-יִתְקַע מַאַכְלוֹתָיו הַכְּפוֹר –
    בֹּא אֵלַי, בֹּא אֵלַי, בְּרוּךְ אֲדֹנָי!
    בֵּיתִי קָטָן וָדַל, בְּלִי מַכְלוּלִים וּפְאֵר,
    אַךְ הוּא חָם, מָלֵא אוֹר וּפָתוּחַ לַגֵּר,
    עַל-הָאָח בֹּעֵר אֵשׁ, עַל-הַשֻּׁלְחָן הַנֵּר –
    אֶצְלִי שֵׁב וְהִתְחַמֵּם, אָח אֹבֵד!
    וּבְהִשָּׁמַע מִילֵל סוּפַת לֵיל קוֹל כָּאוֹב,
    זָכֹר נִזְכֹּר עֱנוּת רָשׁ גֹּוֵע בָּרְחוֹב,
    וּלְחַצְתִּיךָ אֶל-לֵב, רֵעִי, אָחִי הַטּוֹב –
    וּרְסִיס נֶאֱמָן אוֹרִידָה עָלֶיךָ

    In the third part of the poem, however, describing the fall season, the narrator wishes for solitude, begging his “merciful brother” to leave him alone, away from others’ prying eyes.

    In his eulogy for Gnessin, Brenner reminisces about an evening in Warsaw, in which Gnessin returned from the printer with a fresh copy of the literary journal Luah Ahiasaf, containing the poem’s first-ever appearance in print, on an auspicious evening “when we had bread, tea, oil for the lamp, a warm fireplace.” By this time, Brenner and Gnessin were 19 and 21 years old, respectively, both out of the yeshiva and living secular lives. Brenner describes what happened next:

    We sat, both of us, during dinner, and began: “On a warm, sunny day, when high noon makes the sky a fiery furnace and the heart seeks a quiet corner for dreams”, etc., etc., – a song by H. N. Bialik!- and after a little while, when we finished our meal, we already stood facing each other, knowing the poem by heart.

    “A shady carob tree grows in my garden” – he emphasized every word with a sensuous, physical pleasure…

    “And when the black cold of a winter’s night” – I extended a howl toward him…

    “My dwelling is modest, lacking splendor” – he squealed, frolicking, and in his frolic “sat on me and got warm” while reciting “sit on me and get warm,” intoned “a cry in the howling storm,” imitated, with extended limbs, a “destitude starving outside,” jumped, shook, and then “pressed me to his heart,” his “brother, good friend” –

    And suddenly –

    The tear that had been sent in the letter from Pochep to Bialistok sparkled in his eye, and then another dropped –

    “honest, pitiful tears,

    Friend of my youth!”

    Our bones shook, and in the furnace a fire burned, and on the table the candle…

    Brenner’s description of the evening suggests harmony and mutuality, and his heartbreak over the rift with Gnessin is evident. Gnessin, however, never shared his own perspective on his relationship with Brenner, and though his biographer Anita Shapira observes that he sometimes expressed disgust with his friend, she still believes that they were “two opposites attracted to each other: Gnessin, tall, handsome, the Rabbi’s son, and Brenner, the plebeian, short, somewhat fat.” Shai Zarhi describes Gnessin as “completely different from Brenner. He was fastidious, delicate, a prince. But Gnessin’s special sensitivities, which created this deep connection—they were both people who were very sensitive to the soul.”

    Perry’s resulting literary investigation led him to posit a much darker, unsavory picture of the relationship, which Perry links to a cynical interpretation of Bialik’s poem. In a nutshell, Perry sees “On a Sunny, Warm Day” as a prime example of a typical Bialik semiotic device, which Perry refers to as a “reversing poem.” In such a poem, readers are led to interpret the song in a certain way, only to find themselves confronted, later in the poem, with new, contrasting information that sheds a new light on the earlier part. Perry believes that, in “On a Sunny, Warm Day,” this mechanism plays out to reverse our opinion of the protagonist’s desire to commune with his friend, suggested by the first two sections: the summer and the winter. When we discover that, in the fall, the protagonist wishes for solitude and distance, it casts doubt and undermines the credibility of his previously expressed enthusiasm for companionship and intimacy.

    Perry believes that Bialik’s reversing song is the key that unlocks Brenner and Gnessin’s relationship and also explains the rift that tore them apart during Gnessin’s stay in London, which is evident from Brenner’s words of despair in his friend’s memory:

    Neither him nor I expected anything from his arrival in London, and nevertheless we were both as if cheated… as if we both had hoped that our meeting would be different, that our relationship would be different, that our lives together would be different.

    And sometimes I thought: Everyone speaks of suffering. The word suffering is carried on every tongue. About us, as well—we are sufferers. Hebrew authors, exiles in East London, sickly, poor, etc. etc. But what could people know about the measure of suffering of this relation, that is between me and Uri-Nissan, my Uri-Nissan…

    In the few good moments, of which there certainly were some then, hearts were joined and purified from the impurities of resentment. Then we both understood, that I am not at fault, that he is not at fault, that we are not at fault, only disaster lies upon us.

    What was the “disaster”? To reconstruct those few fateful weeks, Perry engages in a maximalist reading of all documentary evidence of the London weeks, looking for details neglected or ignored by prior biographers, and “raising the concentration level” of the information about the relationship amidst the less important clues. He doggedly pursues clues in Gnessin’s letters to Brenner and others, painstakingly reconstructs the friends’ respective lodgings and employment situations in Whitechapel, and even travels to London to walk their paths and verify the feasibility of their intentional and accidental meetings. The resulting portrayal is one of a relationship that those of us inclined toward couples’ therapy (though not Perry) would easily armchair-diagnose as “anxious-avoidant.״ Gnessin, Perry believes, was always conflicted about his relationship with Brenner, fearful of him, and repelled by his exaggerated mannerisms and aggressive pursuit. His known romantic entanglements were with women, whom he treated shallowly and callously, and he teased Brenner with the same ambivalence that he teased some of his female lovers, including Yiddish poet Celia Drapkin, who attempted suicide after Gnessin rejected her. Perry documents Brenner’s repeated pestering and supplications that Gnessin, who was traveling throughout Europe, join him in London. After several evasions, Gnessin finally arrived in London in 1907, and during his stay there, for a few weeks shared close quarters with Brenner. Perry’s detective work suggests that the two shared not only a room, but a bed, and he hypothesizes that they also shared sexual intimacy. The experience was far from mutual and short-lived. Gnessin fled Brenner, quickly found a female lover and moved in with her, and never spoke to Brenner again. Perry carefully analyzes one of Brenner’s letters, in which he recalls walking to a public park and bitterly weeping there, and literally follows in Brenner’s footsteps in London, concluding that Brenner walked across the entire city to see Gnessin, who at this time lodged as far away from him as possible.

    Casting Gnessin as the solitude-seeking narrator of the “autumn” section of Bialik’s poem, Perry shows that, at the time of his London visit, Gnessin was already aware of his congenital heart disease and his impending death. It was due to this heavy emotional burden that Gnessin shied away from deep connections and commitment, and his disease was known to no one (Perry mines the autobiography of Asher Beilin, who lived near Gnessin and Brenner in London, and finds Beilin’s assertions that he knew of Gnessin’s disease unreliable.) Brenner’s deep grief at Gnessin’s passing, Perry surmises, stems from the fact that he finally understood the source of his beloved’s avoidance and hostility, and agonized over having judged him and snapped at him. In particular, Perry is attentive to an anecdote Brenner describes in the eulogy: Gnessin, who worked as a typesetter for Brenner’s journal Ha’Meorer, made a typographic error, and in Brenner’s apology for the late publication, set the editor’s note to read, instead of “please accept it [the issue] with my apologies,” “please accept me with my apologies.” Brenner’s recollection of how he fumed at Gnessin for the error is impregnated with guilt and anguish, and Perry believes that this might have been Gnessin’s subconscious effort to apologize to Brenner for his rejection, an effort that Brenner recognized only posthumously.

    Sit On Me and Be Warm became a lightning rod in the literary world. Perry is a venerated professor of Hebrew literature, the author of countless articles and essays, and the editor of several prestigious book series, and most of Israel’s literary circle consists of his former students. This hegemony has antagonized people who believe that their lack of fealty to Perry has harmed their careers, and that his work is unserious, as he is coasting on his earlier successes and established reputation. One of these critics, Ha’aretz literary critic Orin Morris, refers to Perry’s book as an “abject failure” (2017), and writes:

    This could have been an excellent book, had Professor Perry striven to do what is expected of a reasonable biographer. That is, to make do with existing materials. Instead, Perry decides to play the part of a detective, but he has to invent a mystery, because a mystery does not exist here at all, but Perry cannot let go of the glory of a land discoverer, even in a world in which all continents have been already found for quite some time. That’s why validating the mystery is so full of effort, puffing, and sweating.

    Morris rejects Perry’s “fanciful” interpretation of the Bialik poem as negating Gnessin’s attraction to Brenner. But more importantly, he expresses reservations about Perry’s project at all:

    [Brenner’s] ambiguous sexuality is among the most open secrets of Hebrew literary gossip. What was he? Celibate, monastic, shy, horny, a latent homosexual, a friend to children—what difference does it make. Like any person, he had an assortment of desires and abhorrences, and like any person, his sexuality was mostly his own business. Perhaps he tried to put order into his excitement over the touch of Gnessin, who was a known seductor. Perhaps, but that is not grounds for a book, and certainly for this kind of book. . . in addition, about a century after the acceptance of Freudian theory, we can easily leave the following question open: if any lengthy, strong male friendship, a youth friendship, carries the echo of homoerotic secrecy, what is the sensation here?

    A few days later, an irate Perry responds, also in a Ha’aretz article:

    Morris’ critique completely misses the quality of the story I’m telling, a story that I by no means claim to be true and final. The intellectual adventure in the book—which describes a multistage love story and not the story of acts, a story that centers a Bialik song and a famous typographical error. . . provides hypotheses justified by the fact that they accommodate an ocean of details that were either neglected or marginalized or unknown before, and allow them to coalesce. To undermine this narrative suggestion one has to propose a better counterstory, or to explain why this standard for deciding between stories—by examining them and comparing their capacity to make meaning of details that were left neglected in other readings—is farfetched.

    Yehuda Vizan’s ferocious critique of Perry’s work is of a different nature, and is titled “the fall of a giant”—referring, of course, not to Brenner, but to Perry himself:

    There’s an especially aggressive academic fad here, an additional layer to the “discourse,” not to say neoliberal propaganda masquerading as literary research, the fruit of French fornication that became further contaminated in the United States, and arrived here to us, unenlightened savages that we are, with fashionable tardiness—in which scholars compete, perhaps with homoerotic pleasure—whose is bigger, that is, who has identified a bigger author in whose work, or letters, or a note on the fridge of his former neighbor, there is a hint, vague as might be, that he considered flipping the table, or perhaps did not, but would have liked to. Or maybe did not consider, or wish to, but dissociated with all his might his homoerotic fleshly desires, which might explain his antipathy toward women in his adult life, and circularly then proves the homoerotic tone of his works, etc.

    Vizan is especially incensed by the fact that Perry himself, in an interview he gave to Vizan a decade earlier, decried the identitarian-ideological turn in literature and literature scholarship, complaining that ideology and gender theory “have nothing to do with literature” and are selectively deployed for the purpose of confirming theories of academics. He wonders about Perry’s megalomania and apparent change of heart about identitarianism, asking, “why, of all the topics in the world, would a liberal, Tel Avivi, enlightened author, in 2017, in the Eighth decade of his life, choose to write about “the homoerotic dialogue between Brenner and Gnessin? What is it good for? Whom, exactly, does it serve?”

    Vizan’s answer is that it serves mostly Perry himself:

    Perry’s new book, more than it is a story about “the homoerotic dialogue between Brenner and Gnessin, is the story of the fall of a giant who became, in his dotage, a hostage. His kidnapping finally confirms what has been known for a while: the changing of the guard in Hebrew academia, and the role flip between the former teachers (Perry) and their students (Gluzman), who now lead them, defeated and bludgeoned. . . mumbling others’ words with the heartwrenching, human, and understandable hope to remain relevant, to remain just a little bit loved, not necessarily homoerotically.

    Arik Glassner’s critique, far less vicious than Vizan’s, more constructively addresses the heart of the problem. Glassner admires Perry’s pedantic and dogged documentation, though he gently admonishes him for his “excessive appetite for piquancy,” and he highlights the complexity around the appropriateness of Perry’s inquiry:

    The question of “Brenner the fairy” is not mere gossip. Erotic distress is at the heart of the Brennerian creation, and therefore the question of the precise nature of the distress that preoccupied Brenner the person has deep meaning for the interpretation of his work as well. As opposed to Orin Morris’ critique in Ha’aretz, which sparked a heated debate on social media (including the brilliant argument that the conflicted relationship between Perry and Dan Miron as central to this book as the one between Brenner and Gnessin)—I think Perry represents a legitimate question here. Nevertheless, I do think that this position, the “Question of Brenner the Fairy,” which Perry sharpened and enhanced with the question of Gnessin’s reticence, does not quite hit the heart of the matter.

    Glassner leaves open the question of the literary relevance of Brenner’s sexuality, and we will return to it. But first, we turn to another recent treatment of Brenner’s biography that eclipses even Perry’s.

    Hilu’s Murder at the Red House: Sexuality, Mystery, Horror, and Thrill

      If Perry’s book provoked sharp critique, Hilu’s Murder at the Red House, a fictional, speculative novel, caused uproar. Hilu, no stranger to mining the biographies of historical figures, is known for playing fast and loose with the boundaries between fact and fiction. His previous book, The Dajani Estate (2008) is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which a Zionist agronomist, Haim Klorinsky (a real historical figure), starts an affair with a married Arab woman, Afifah, and takes over her estate after her husband suddenly dies. Afifa’s son, Salah, is convinced that Klorinsky murdered his father. The book made a splash,[1] and Hilu was praised for his virtuosic use of historical Hebrew and Arabic, but panned for his one-sided, villainizing perspective on Zionism. More importantly, Hilu was accused, by the Klorinsky estate, by author Aharon Meged and even by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, of deliberately misrepresenting the legacy of a man who was known for his friendly and cooperative approach to the Arab population and his firm commitment to peaceful coexistence. Hilu eventually admitted that his purported reliance on real personal diaries was fabricated, and that the diary pages he had supposedly reproduced in the book were forged; after a mediation process between him and the Klorinsky estate, Hilu changed the protagonist’s name in subsequent editions, and added a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning of the book.

      Either out of a sincere commitment to historical authenticity, or in a desire to avoid a second legal kerfuffle for maligning eminent cultural figures, Hilu equipped Murder at the Red House with two preemptive disclaimers. In a detailed afterword, he accurately and assiduously documented the known facts about the murder of Brenner and his companions. The trigger for the 1921 Pogrom was a violent clash between two May Day protests of rivaling Jewish political parties. The British police quelled the violence and pushed the communists to the Jewish neighborhood of Neve Shalom. The communists unleashed their furor against the police, the Jewish landlords, and their Arab neighbors, by continuing to provocatively wave red flags and sing the International in the vicinity of the Arab neighborhood of Manshiye. Fisticuffs broke, which escalated into a bloody armed conflict, in which hundreds on both sides were killed. The Hebrew authors’ murders occurred the next day and, save for the fame of the victims, would probably have been seen as one violence site among many. It is also known that, on the day before the murders, an Arab “lad” of an unknown age had disappeared, and his family had inquired after him at the Red House. Shortly before the murders, the neighboring Arab village held a funeral for a boy (it is unknown whether it was the same boy.) And it is unquestionably true that massive efforts were made to send a vehicle to Jaffa, to evacuate the house’s residents, and that they refused, sending some bee keepers who stayed with them, the Lerer family, in the vehicle in their stead. The Lerers attested that, the day before the murders, Luidor was sexually assaulted by a gang from Nablus and rescued by a Jewish man, and that he was deeply shaken by this experience. They also mentioned at the police inquest that there were hostilities between the residents of the Red House and an Arab gardner, Murad Alkarnawi, who cared for the nearby orchards.

      In the introduction, he flags the holes in the evidence, which he sets out to speculate about in the novel:

      What were the reasons that [Brenner and his author friends] gathered at the house on the day of the murder despite the turbulent political climate and despite the house’s dangerous location amidst Arab villages? What were the relationships between the residents? What was the reason for their incomprehensible (and ultimately fateful) choice not to get into the escape vehicle that arrived to pick them up the day before they were murdered? What were their connections with the Arab inhabitants of the nearby village, Abu Kabir? . . . Why were the bodies mutilated? What became of the body of Yosef Luidor? Was there a connection between the death of an Arab boy from the nearby village and the collective lynching?

      There could be numerous ways to bridge these narrative gaps, but Hilu chooses to augment and center the possibility that the murder plot was closely related to sexual conduct and misconduct by Brenner and Luidor. As we saw in Perry’s book, this possibility, while explored in deeply unsettling directions, is far from being out of character for Brenner. Even Brenner biographers and documenters far less prurient than Perry all accept as plausible that he was attracted to men. Haim Be’er documents his mentoring relationships with young men and suggests that future biographers might explore these through a homosexual lens. Moreover, there is at least one confirmed story of a close, intimate, physical friendship (hugging and kissing), between Brenner and his landlords’ twelve-year-old daughter, Rachel Katinkaץ In interviews decades later, Katinka remembered the friendship fondly, expressed unreserved affection and warmth for Brenner, and mentioned that they remained in loving connection throughout her young adulthood, marriage, and motherhood, until his murder. Nevertheless, the relationship seems deeply unsavory, even predatory, through the lens of 21st century sensibilities, and even at the time, Brenner himself must have felt ambivalent about its morality, and about his own sexual proclivities; as early as 1907, he commented in Yiddish to Hillel Zeitlin that “the difference between pure and impure hands regarding [sexual behavior] is unclear to me”, and he left the Katinka home in haste in 1909.

      Playing up the sexual possibilities to the max, Hilu’s Rashomon-style tale is narrated from three perspectives, starting with Luidor’s. Rescued by Brenner—the “Great Author”—from isolation and abject poverty, and invited to reside at the Red House, Luidor is initially grateful to Brenner and flattered by his attentions, until he learns that of Benner’s sexual interest in him. After initially rejecting Brenner’s unwanted advances, he succumbs, finding the experience traumatic and repellant. A lovesick Brenner promises to stop pestering Luidor if the latter refrains from having sex with another men. But unbeknownst to Brenner and others, Luidor meets and falls in love with an Arab “lad”, Abd’ul Wahab, and the two enjoy a beautiful, idealized romantic relationship in various hideouts around the neighboring Arab village, Abu Kabir. When Abd’ul Wahab disappears, Luidor frantically searches for him, coming upon what he believes to be a murder scene, and is immediately and brutally ambushed and sexually assaulted by a gang of Nablus men. Before he can compose himself, a group of beekeepers arrive at the house, alarming the inhabitants by telling them about a wave of pogroms against Jews in Jaffa and seeking shelter. The residents decide to leave the house immediately, and a rescue vehicle, procured with great effort, arrives to evacuate them. But Luidor has received a note from Abd’ul Wahab’s young sister, informing him that his lover is seriously ill and wishes to see him, and refuses to board the vehicle. Halfway to Tel Aviv, Brenner exits the vehicle and returns to the house, the others on his heels, and reunites with Luidor, explaining: “if I am unwilling to risk my life for my love, I do not deserve to be called a human, let alone a Hebrew author.” At night, news of Abd’ul Wahab’s death reach the house. It is too late to evacuate, but they decide to take shifts defending the house from a possible mob with the only rifle they have. A local cop, Ali Arafath, whom they consider an ally, offers to help, and they reveal to him their plan to flee through the back door during Abd’ul Wahab’s funeral.

      The second narrator is Murad Alkarnawi, an old gardener, reminiscing about the events forty years later. His special connection to the orchard trees is disrupted when the Red House’s owner, Mantura, leases the house to the Jewish ranchers, who frighten and repel him. He is especially unsettled by the Jewish authors—especially “the bearded one,” Brenner, and “the limping one,” Luidor—whom he catches lovemaking in the orchard and alarming the trees. After he complains about them to the rancher, the two steal a valuable ax from Murad’s shed, falsely accusing him of stealing it (the ax is a gift from German gardeners) and getting him in trouble with Officer Arafath.

      Murad is horrified to see “the limping one” grooming a young, dimwitted child (implied to be Abd’ul Wahab) and sexually assaulting him. The next day, the boy disappears, and his family frantically searches for him. The villagers are further alarmed by the May First labor parades and protests, in the ensuing violence, the dimwitted boy suddenly reappears, and is fatally shot in his stomach by a Jew. Murad, shoked and horrified, reports all he witnessed to Officer Arafath.

      During the boy’s funeral, the villagers carry improvised weapons, to defend themselves against Jewish attacks. Ali Arafath urges restraint, but the villagers are shocked to see “the limping man” peeping through the Red House’s second story window, threatening them with a rifle even as the funeral processes. The stress upsets  the donkey pulling the funeral cart, and when the boy’s corpse falls off the cart, “the limping man” deliberately shoots the innocent cart driver. The angry crowd storms the house, finding it empty, and then find the Jewish men—six of them, all armed—outside the house. The men shoot and kill many of the villagers.

      The third story, implied to be the true version, is narrated by Raneen, Abd’ul Wahab’s sister and the only fictional character in the book, in 1971 (on the fiftieth anniversary of the murder). In her recollection, Abd’ul Wahab is neither a child or dimwitted—he is a gentle, effeminate teenager. Raneen befriends the Jewish residents of the Red House, enchanted by the empowered women and the kind farmers, but mostly by a goodhearted man (Brenner), whom she calls “the bear.” Learning to sneak into the Red House, unobserved, Raneen notices that Bear is deeply in love with a man with manicured nails (Luidor), and then, with alarm, that Nails falls for her own brother—a love that becomes mutual. Ali Arafath finds out from Murad—known by the children to be frightening and mentally ill—about the affair, and shares his suspicions with Abd’ul Wahab and Raneen’s parents. After an ensuing conflict, Abd’ul Wahab leaves the home, asking Raneen to bring food for him to a hut where he intends to stay. When she delivers the food, she overhears Officer Arafath blackmailing her brother: if Abd`ul Wahab does not persuade the Jews to sell a cow and give Arafath five hundred francs, Arafath will reveal the illicit relationship to Abd`ul Wahab’s father. As the whole village searches for Abd’ul Wahab, Raneen arrives in the shed, finding her brother dying from a self-inflicted gunshot to the stomach. His last words are, “five hundred francs.”

      News of the death spread throughout the village. Amidst the collective horror and outcry, Ali Arafath orders Raneen to deliver a note to Nails (which we know is forged to appear from Raneen’s mother and claims Abd’ul Wahab is still alive). In this way, Arafath guarantees that Nails, and possibly the others, will choose not to evacuate, thus being present at the house when he orchestrates the raid during the funeral. Raneen, who does not know about the ploy, cooperates, and things unfold as Arafath had hoped: the officer exploits the funeral to incite the mourners against the Jews, falsely claiming that  Abd’ul Wahab was murdered by a Jewish officer, and pretending to help the Jews escape while directing the villagers to the back door. Arafath then orchestrates the Jews’ brutal massacre and torture, including the burning of Luidor’s corpse. At the criminal murder trial, Abd’ul Wahab’s father and Arafath are acquitted; the father flees the country, and Arafath is ambushed and murdered by the Haganah.

      Horrified and repelled by male violence, Raneen refuses to marry. Her eyesight, marred by the horrors she witnessed, deteriorates to almost complete blindness. Fifty years after the murder, she hears of a memorial for the murdered authors and attends it. She meets a Jewish woman of her own age, Rina, who is Yitzkar’s granddaughter. Raneen recalls meeting Rina at the Red House in their infancy, shares the full story of the murders wih her and, finally, finds peace.

      As the recipient of the Sapir prize for his previous novel, Hilu provoked a splash with Murder at the Red House, which was especially praised by queer critics. Filmmaker Gal Ohovsky’s laudatory review read:

      Despite the fact that it centers a love story between two men, this book cannot be described as a homosexual affair. As in [his previous books], Hilu uses homosexuality as a background for uncovering the subterranean currents between different cultures, opposing worldviews, and the documentation of human diversity. This is not a simple, beautiful, rewarding homosexual novel like “call me by your name.” What we do have here is a love-hate relationship between Luidor and Brenner who constantly desires him, and there is the complicated relationship between the Jewish intellectual and the Arab boy who, according to one of the versions, is a bit dimwitted. Homosexuality serves here as a way to examine prejudices and social taboos. With great delicacy, Hilu manages to tell a painful historical tale, and also to describe interpersonal sensitivity in an insensitive place. Whoever looks for an amiable telenovela featuring two men, in love and kissing, might be disappointed.

      Other reviews were far less sanguine. An editorial in Yisrael Hayom praised Hilu’s style of writing and his gift for intriguing the readers, but raised serious qualms about the ethics of Hilu’s creation:

      Is it appropriate to do so? Can a man produce a book that relates the fictional, or half-fictional, biographies of flesh-and-blood people and write in it whatever he fancies, tie to their characters any qualities, choices, deeds, and words that he wishes? Or should such freedom be limited to whoever writes on well-known people, who cannot hide in the shadow of their anonymity and their very celebrity kosherizes writing about them?

      An even more negative perspective was articulated by critic Maya Sela for Ha’aretz:

      The novel’s motto is “The early ones are not remembered” (Ecclesiastes 1: 11), as if the book intends to serve as a memorial. When I read it, a different biblical passage echoed in my ears as an alternative motto: “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4: 10). It was hard not to think of Hilu’s actions here as a sexual assault on history—a rather homophobic sexual assault, including completely stripping his characters of any humanity, thought or idea in favor of them being homosexuals and nothing else.

      But Sela’s main concern with Hilu’s work is with literature. She pans the way he crassly crafts the facts, admitting that many of the horrifying, gratuitously lurid details he revels in describing did not, by his own admission in the epilogue, actually happen. She then expresses grave concerns about the value of the literary exercise:

      The things the author wrote in the introduction and epilogue raise some substantial questions about literature and its role as intellectual amusement without any obligations—not to shaping, not to language, not to style, not to history, not to ethics, not to good taste, and not to the ancient, forgotten art of the storyteller. In that, the novel also exemplifies what can go wrong when authors do not write literature, but rather engage in sociology, gender, psychology, politics, and law. Maybe because this book was borne out of intellectual amusement, there is not a single moment where the reader can be sucked into the loose tale and find in it any logic, grace, or taste.

      Hilu tried to examine things that remained mysterious to him, but the truth is that there isn’t much of a mystery here. The six Jews were murdered because they were Jews who settled at a place where there were already people, as has happened since then to this day—Jews and Arabs fighting and killing each other in a war over the land.

      I fancied that I heard Brenner’s blood crying out to us from the Earth and begging that we stop sexually assaulting him, but it’s possible that he was crying the cry of literature. Perhaps he does not care about historical truth, perhaps he already understands postmodernism, he certainly understands melancholy and emptiness, but what will be of literature, he wonders, perhaps, still demanding the right to cry out.

      Is Brenner’s Work Queer Work, the Work of a Queer Author, Both, or Neither?

        Perry and Hilu critics seem to object to the use of Brenner’s sexuality as crass exploitation, wondering whether the two works are crafted to pander to the readers’ basest instincts, and wondering about the value of the exercise given what we already know, without such graphic elaboration on Brenner’s corporeality, about his conflicted sexuality. According to this critique, the blow-by-blow elaborations, fictional, speculative, or otherwise, contribute nothing to our lives beyond the satisfaction of prurient interests. But Arik Glassner, whose critique of Perry’s book I presented above, is willing to consider the questions of Brenner’s biography relevant to our understanding of his work. Elsewhere in his review he writes that the notion that the rift between Brenner and Gnessin stemmed from the latter’s “gay panic” and avoidance is “not preposterous, but it’s worth saying a few things about it”:

        First, it’s worth distinguishing between the question whether Brenner was attracted to Gnessin and the question whether Brenner was attracted to men at all. Regarding Gnessin specifically—perhaps. Regarding men in general, I’m doubtful. Shofman, a friend of Brenner’s and not at all a naïve man, wrote about Brenner that “his painful point” was the thought that women do not fancy him. In a critical essay about Poznansky, Brenner himself observes that Poznansky differs from others, and apparently from Brenner himself, “in that the erotic is not a touch of leprosy in the life [of Poznansky’s novel protagonists], but rather a welcome source of emotional glow, of magical ruminations, of lyrical sesntiments. ‘The worm of envy’ does not eat at the heart [of his protagonists]. Au contraire, may the senior student realists fraternize with the junior female students of the gymnasium—and all the power to them!” The implication is that the erotic is “a touch of leprosy” for those who envy others’ sexual successes. 

        I tend to think that the inner erotic world of Brenner’s protagonists is much closer to that of the protagonists of Ya’acov Shabtai and Hanokh Levine. In fact, Brenner, to me, is the one who made these protagonists possible in our culture. These are straight heroes who are haunted by sexual inferiority sentiments and envy of exploding virility, and the heartrendering esthetic treatment by the male triangle Brenner-Levine-Shabtai of these painful topics has made this theme central to Hebrew literature.

        Glassner’s point is well taken, but I submit that he does not take it far enough. While definitions of queer theory vary considerably, some suggest a broad understanding of the “queer gaze” (Burnston & Richardson 1995). According to these broader perspectives, one’s experience of being an outsider-looking-in, perennially feeling out of place in visible and invisible ways, code-switching, and sometimes furtively hiding in plain sight, in a heteronormative society where openness could sometimes result in serious life-threatening consequences, has the power of opening one’s eyes to many other displays of inequality, injustice, and exclusive assumptions—beyond those directly related to sexual identity or expression. The loneliness that can result from a closeted life could generate deep empathy for lonely people everywhere. Understanding how experiencing one’s own unconventional sexual attractions in a society where these things are unspoken (and would remain unspoken until the 1960s) can illuminate more general, and possibly coded, references to deep helplessness, a sense of “being stuck,” and experiences of shattered, fragmented identity.

        An instructive way to consider whether this perspective can add to our understanding and enjoyment of Brenner’s work is to see how he was read by critics and scholars of prior decades, for whom the personal/sexual biography aspect was inaccessible either because they had no idea of it or because it was taboo. In his 1977 book Brenner’s Art of Story, Yaacov Even, whose analysis never veers anywhere near Brenner’s interiority (sexual or otherwise), sees the central theme of Brenner’s work as the struggle of a complicated hero—usually a former yeshiva student turned secular, almost devoid of friendship and intimacy, and unmoored from his cultural context even as he strips off the suffocating confinement of the religious world—to survive in an ugly, unjust, alienated world that in need of urgent moral and spiritual repair. This general truth manifests in different ways in Brenner’s novels. In Winter (1904) the hero, departing the shtetl for a big Russian city and joining a circle of intellectuals, discovers that his new milieu is nothing more than a modern manifestation of the ghetto he left behind. In From Here and There (1911), the hero is similarly disillusioned with the New York City underworld (set in the Lower East Side and resembling Brenner’s Whitechapel’s experience). Several of Brenner’s novels—notably, Beyond the Border (1907)—paint the world’s oppressiveness and cruelty at its most extreme through descriptions of compulsory military service and various carceral settings for military defectors. And lest these appear to suggest that the answer to these conflicts is Eretz Israel, Brenner’s greatest work, Bereavement and Failure (1914), reveals the same oppression, indifference, and cruelty among Zionist immigrants of the first Aliyah.

        Bereavement and Failure is especially remarkable because, for many halutzim, who yearned to shed stifling religious environments and home lives, Zionist immigration held the promise of freedom: newfound connection to the land, new ways to literally embody their ideals through agricultural work, and an empowering rejection of the stereotypical exilic, effeminate weakling. Brenner was an enthusiastic believer in the Zionist dream and devoted his life to the revival of the Hebrew Language, and he was deeply committed to the success of the exercise, to the point that he was willing to walk away from his meteoric literary career and become a farm laborer. That someone in Brenner’s position, having been expelled from his only viable career path at the yeshiva, spent a coerced and frightening stint in the army, and lived in various European cities in abject poverty, would fully buy into the Zionist dream and yet, upon attaining that dream, bravely and perceptively indict his new environment for being as stifling and constrictive as all the other environments he previously occupied, is nothing short of genius, integrity, and true courage, and could be the product of two factors or both. First, as a deeply closeted man who experienced deep, unrequited love that truly could not say its name, with a traumatic ending, whose devastating psychological effects he could hardly keep from wearing on his sleeve but could openly discuss with no one, Brenner would carry his anguish and emotional suffocation with him wherever he went, for the rest of his life. It would be so central to his human experience that a geographic change, even dramatic and supported by exuberant ideological hope, would not enable him to shed it. Second, Brenner could be one of those rare people blessed with boundless sensitivity for the universal human condition, whose ability to identify invisible threads of human distress and suffering could transcend his personal experience. Given the artistry with which Brenner shaped his unhappy, stuck heroes, with both ridicule and empathy, I find both possibilities plausible, and perhaps more valuable than those offered by Perry, Hilu, and their critics.

        Personalizing Grief, Queering Mourning

          Another possible explanation for the recency of interest in Brenner’s sexuality could be the changing landscape of grief, mourning, and bereavement in Israel. Some of these shifts echo universal trends: the exhortation to avoid speaking ill of the dead has been deeply undermined by the gradual empowerment of victims of sexual assault and bullying to speak up, years before the #metoo movement but more extensively in its wake. Exposés of sexual misconduct—unethical or criminal—have provoked countless cultural debates about the need to reassess the public image and cultural contributions of people whose reputations are tarnished by accusations and, sometimes, by proven facts. At the same time, changing mores regarding the acceptability of unconventional identities have allowed fuller appreciation and mourning of people whose suffering in life and in death from a stigmatized disease was silenced or minimized, such as Rock Hudson and Ofra Haza.

          There are, however, aspects to the changing forms of bereavement that are uniquely Israeli. For a reader in 2024, the murders at the Red House strongly and keenly reverberate the October 7 massacre, provoking a well of horror and grief. But for people who read Brenner’s books in the 1950s and 1960s, the horrors of pre-World-War-II pogroms and killings paled in comparison to the all-encompassing horrors of the Holocaust. Shocked locals, meeting Holocaust survivors for the first time in the late 1940s and unable to make sense of the horror, reacted with guilt, shame, and mistrust: “How come you survived and so many died?” “Why did you go like sheep to the slaughter and did not try to fight?” In the early years of Israel’s existence, therefore, the collective memory of the Holocaust was characterized by the schism between the Holocaust martyrs and heroes, emphasizing the bravery and revolt of the few while neglecting the physical suffering of the victims. Gradually, as Holocaust survivors found their voices and their testimonies were deemed valuable, Holocaust memory became collectivized, to the point that it is now widely experienced and felt as a national trauma, regardless of family connection to the Holocaust, ossified through the rituals of Holocaust Day, and marshalled to convey the message of commitment to ensure the future of the Jewish people, closely entwined with the project of realizing Jewish life in the State of Israel.

          Similarly, the collective commemoration of military deaths in Israel was initially crafted in two ways that Liat Granek (2014) refers to as “mourning sicknesses”: the urge for parents to display bravery and resign and refrain from showing emotion, and the political manipulation of grief as justification for war, aggression, and violence. As with Holocaust remembrance, the emphasis on bravery and the worth of sacrifice normalized the distinctions made between whose lives were deemed grievable and whose lives are considered worthless and unmournable.

          Since the 1980s, this hegemonic pattern of mourning has been gradually eroded and undermined. The eroding political consensus led to the eschewing of collective, official narratives of death, in favor of an expansion of individualized, personal remembrances. Udi Lebel (2011) exemplifies this process through an analysis of the bereavement models of parents of fallen soldiers. Before the Yom Kippur war, the activities of bereaved parents were channeled by the state to public sites and commemoration practices, and bereavement was, in effect, nationalized. However, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War fiasco, complete with widespread political protest and the Agranat Inquiry Board, and following the Lebanese incursion of 1982, a political bereavement model became dominant. Parents blamed the government for the death of their children and engaged in media and political protest activities. This trend intensified in the 1990s when, against the backdrop of human rights legislation and the prospect of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, bereaved parents whose sons had been killed in training accidents and military failures adopted a model of civilian criticism of the army. This alienation from hegemonic rituals, which increasingly clashed with the standard commemorative practices, was especially striking for families whose political views did not align with government policies, and for families whose sociocultural and economic circumstances disconnected them from the national ethos, such as new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia.

          The model of individualizing death and mourning, as well as mourners’ protest against governmental ineptitude or violence, continues to characterize bereavement in Israel. Among the most outspoken critics of the 2024 war in Gaza are family members of soldiers and civilians slaughtered in the October 7 massacre, who see Netanyahu as the chief culprit in the country’s unpreparedness for the massacre and the war as a self-centered distraction from the desperate need to redeem the hostages through diplomatic means. The families of the hostages use social media to publish their loved ones’ images, telling stories about them and their lives, and introducing the Israeli public to their family members, pets, hobbies, and contributions to their local communities.

          This individualized model of bereavement has bled over to less recent losses. Holocaust education in Israel is now far more individualized than it was decades ago. Israeli textbooks no longer deal in abstract numbers (“the six million”), opting instead to tell individual stories about children in the Holocaust. Military mourning has also changed, not just for recently bereaved parents, but also to those who lost loved ones in wars decades ago.

          More than a century has passed since Brenner’s murder. Perhaps the surge of interest in his personal life suggests that the horror of his murder, silenced by the media in the 1920s and unspoken for years, subsumed into the horrors of the holocaust, is finally ready for processing, through the current bereavement model: a celebration of Brenner as a private person, rather than merely as a national hero, and an openhearted look into the lights and shadows of his psyche.


          It’s important to keep thingsi n perspective, though. Despite the open secret of Brenner’s complicated sexuality—many of the facts about his personal life are either known or surmised—it has taken more than a century for two books to center these issues and marinade in them, and even that encountered fierce resistance. The fact that this issue still generates considerable heat in literary circles shows that, despite the rise in identitarian approaches to literary criticism and in wresting control of tragedy away from hegemonic patterns—or maybe because of them—some aspects of Brenner’s life are still controversial, though perhaps not to the extent they were in his lifetime.

          Whether one sees merit in the exercise of revisiting the personal and embodied lives of cultural giants, every human being is more than a sum of their group identities. Brenner might have wrestled with silenced and unrequited desires, and he was far from a perfect, “put together” person. At the same time, he was blessed with a rare, sparkling intellect, and with a heart open to identifying and protesting injustice and cruelty. Those unique gifts are what made him a literary luminary, and will hopefully continue to be guide our path when we lionize literary heroes, in all their remarkable flaws and beautiful imperfections.

          The Magic of Characters

          Agatha Christie novels have such convoluted plots that they sometimes feel like protracted solutions to SAT questions. Sometimes I wonder why they’ve been so successful and continue to be so. This morning, at about 4am, a piece of the answer came to me.

          I was listening to a terrific audiobook, narrated by the gifted Emilia Fox, and it was to her great credit (and perhaps my great detriment) that the narration was so fantastic that I could not go back to sleep. In the first few chapters she describes the train voyage of Mrs. McGillicuddy, in which she witnesses a horrible crime through the window near her seat.

          I really recommend listening to the whole thing, but especially to the first few chapters:

          The solution, etc., is interesting, but what I find really grabs my attention is Christie’s sensitive and deeply relatable description of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s frustration at not being believed. She doesn’t have to spell out “ageism” and “sexism” for the reader (or listener) to be irate on Mrs. McGillicuddy’s behalf, as she is being pooh-poohed by various railway employees who think she is fantasizing. The relief you feel when she gets to her destination–her old friend Jane Marple’s home–and is finally believed, her evidence taken seriously and respectfully, and her mind set at ease as Miss Marple takes over the investigation. Whether or not one loves the usual Christie machinations that follow, those first few chapters are such a gem.

          Series Review: HaShotreem (“The Cops”)

          Our family tragedy kept me in Israel for three and a half months, during which my weekly escape was the second season of HaShotreem (“The Cops”) on Israel’s Channel 12 (all episodes available on the Mako website.) The show’s first season closely followed real-life events that occurred in Nahariya in 2006. At that time, northern seaside city Nahariya was controlled and terrorized by mob boss Michael Mor, whose stronghold on drugs, protection money, etc., extended to the city’s legitimate businesses and political structure. By contrast to the U.S., Israel has a national police force, rather than independent units for different municipalities. Nonetheless, the Nahariya police could not take on Mor and his organization; national headquarters refused to offer them help, because Mor was perceived to be a local threat, rather than someone serious on a national scale; and, consequently, their intelligence and covert operations units fell apart. Major Yaniv Ashur was summoned to rehabilitate the unit and confront Mor’s organization. Ashur’s invigorated, aggressive investigation saw some success: Mor was sentenced to seven months in prison for criminal threats.

          But the retaliation from Mor’s side took a sinister turn: his people targeted the investigative detectives and threw grenades into their home, and even tried to kill the current mayor, vice mayor, and former mayor. The inability to protect themselves and their families, and Mor’s impunity, brought the cops, who received no backing or protection from the station or from headquarters, to hatch a desperate plan: they decided to shake up Mor’s confidence in order to push him to make a mistake. After consulting with an explosives expert, they laid pipe bombs under Mor’s vehicle and close to a home he owned. No one was hurt, and the investigating officers initially suspected Mor’s underworld competitors. Eventually, however, through an informant, the police arrived at the truth and managed to turn one of the “avenging cops” state witness against the others. The officers were tried, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison.

          The whole affair was silenced, but somehow, the names of the suspected cops leaked to the newspaper in the form of a fictitious obituary. Mor and his associates were suspected of paying for the ad, but have declined. In any case, even after the cops’ release from prison, they continued to be targeted by Mor, until his recent arrest.

          The second season of HaShotreem, which ended last Tuesday, was fictional, but shared some elements with the first. In the series, the cops, recently released from prison thanks to a campaign spearheaded by their families and generally regarded as heroes in Nahariya, are unable to return to the force because of their criminal record and face dangerous retaliation efforts from the underworld. In their despair, they take a deal offered by their colleague who turned state witness (and, in the show, remained a cop): they agree to become undercover agents working for the crime boss’s competitor and bring him down in return for restoring their efforts. In the meantime, an anti-corruption candidate challenges the current mayor (who is mixed up with the underworld). The cops engage in dangerous missions as double agents, sometimes exceeding the framework and permissions of their jobs, and end up bringing down both their nemesis and his competitor. Here’s the first episode of the second season:

          Commentators and reviewers have praised the acting and action scenes and the show’s riveting plot, but complained that, beyond that, it does not offer a moral center. They make a valuable point. At no point during the narrative are the viewers conflicted about the goodness or moral validity of the cops’ actions. They say to their commander, “we’ve learned from our mistakes,” but have they? No one makes any convincing argument that crossing the line like this could be problematic and, in the long run, erode what little legitimacy the police still has in high-crime neighborhoods. In that respect, the cops are quintessentially Israeli heroes: good guys fighting bad guys with the end justifying any means, and with no questions about shades of gray in “goodness” and “badness.”

          Admittedly, I too have empathy for the show’s protagonists and for their real-life counterparts. They were placed in an impossible situation, with serious life threats against them and their families, with no backup or protection from their superiors, and later faced a thankless system. But one does not have to eschew this narrative wholesale to ask more difficult questions about how such events can affect the legitimacy of the police overall, or about whether we truly believe that, whenever the police crosses the line, it’s for a laudable goal and against a deserving target.

          It’s been especially demoralizing to think about this slippery slope in light of what is happening as the show is broadcast: the increased military and border patrol support for horrendous settler violence in Palestine; the deliberate boundary-blurring similarities between police officers and rightwinger goons beating up protestors; deliberately sloppy police investigations leaving rightwing murderers free; and the constant talk of creating right-wing militias that will further blur the line between goon and lawman. How could the show’s producers not notice that this issue raises concerns that every Israeli should be pondering in 2023?

          Film Review: Holding It In

          Filmmaker Omer Yefman and I went to school together and, after wanting to see his films for years, yesterday I finally had an opportunity to attend a screening of Holding It In (2020), his film with his partner Chen Rotem, an honest, no-barred-holds window into their surrogacy journey.

          I’ve been interested in Omer’s work since hearing about All Happy Mornings (2012), in which he and Chen opened up about Omer’s bisexuality and their complicated journey into nonmonogamy (something I had written about from a legal and sociological perspective.) I remembered him vividly from our school days as an authentic, real person, who met the world around him with humility and curiosity, and it was a pleasant discovery (though not at all a surprise) that Chen is also a fantastic and openminded person. I especially appreciated the film’s entry into a fraught conversation in Israel about surrogacy. Israel’s limited adoption market, a product of its decided natalism, means that people aggressively pursue IVF treatments with enormous social backing, and that queer couples and people for whom IVF is not an option pursue surrogacy. This has produced a ferocious debate in the queer community about the power differential and exploitative potential of surrogacy, as well as legislation that excluded same-sex couples from surrogacy in Israel (surrogacy is still an option for opposite-sex couples and single women.) Some surrogates have spoken up against the assumption that they are exploited or powerless in the relationship, while other commentators have dismissed their perspective as privileged and not representative of the overall population of surrogates.

          Issues of money and power are not at the center of Chen and Omer’s journey–they are frank and vulnerable about conversations of partnership, giving, children, family time, and camaraderie before and during Chen’s pregnancy–but they are not far from the surface. In one scene, Chen and Omer’s two young kids are asleep in the back seat of the car while the parents discuss Omer’s discomfort using “surrogacy money” to go on a family vacation abroad. Earlier in the film, discussing their decision with friends, Chen is adamant that she would insist on paying for surrogacy, and there’s an agreement that payment is fair and important given the sacrifice and risk. “It’s our money,” Chen says. “I’m still uncomfortable,” Omer replies.

          Surrogacy and adoption are distinguishable in important ways: by contrast to surrogacy, which is a service from the get-go (in one touching scene, Chen explains to her young kids that the baby is “a guest in our family” who “will return to his parents” after he is born), the decision to place a child for adoption can only be made after the child is born, no matter what theoretical agreements birthparents and adoptive parents reach before the birth, and therefore there is no compensation, as such, beforehand, which could be constituted as bribe. But to say this is to some extent hypocritical. I’ve written before about the fact that, like surrogacy, adoption is a situation in which a baby usually passes from poorer hands to wealthier hands, while money changes hands in the opposite direction. The meticulous limitations on what is, and is not, remunerable, obscure this important point–an effort to quantify the unquantifiable. Regardless of the legal or ethical taxonomy of payments (support? compensation?) the quantification of such a fundamental and immense human process is at the heart of the discomfort.

          Because of this deep truth, people on both sides of either adoption or surrogacy relationships would do well to remember that there are some things that this money should not buy. One of the most stunning moments in the film, for me, was when Chen returned from a medical checkup and told Omer that the prospective parents discussed a C-section with the doctor–without having discussed it with her first. Here’s the scene:

          I felt rage bubbling in me while watching this scene. I’ve been in a similar situation from the opposite side, I thought. Someone else gave birth to my child. And it would never occur to me to make any demands, requests, suggestions anything at all about the birth. I feel very strongly that the only person who should be entitled to make decisions about a birth (what form it would take and who would be in the room, to name just two factors) is the person giving birth. As the scene progressed, Omer’s resentment toward the parents was palpable, while Chen explained that she did not want him to be angry on her behalf and that she was listening and trying to see things from their perspective (in the conversation we had after the movie, some details emerged that somewhat ameliorated, though did by no means eliminate, my deep concerns about the parents’ stance.) I had to actively remind myself that it was also Chen’s choice whether to feel resentful or not, and that adoption was fundamentally different from surrogacy. A birthmom gives birth to her own child and therefore makes her own decisions. A surrogate gives birth to someone else’s child. But a birth is a birth, I thought. What can be more personal than giving birth, regardless of the genetics of the child? The greatness of the film is that it is willing to ask these difficult questions without giving pat answers that rely on definitions and self righteousness.

          And this is at the heart of my deep appreciation for the film: more than a film about an unusual, deeply stirring journey, it was a film about two incredibly brave and honest people, who are willing to confront not only complicated social and psychological questions, but their own demons, and to do so authentically in front of a camera. Their struggles and epiphanies are never self-serving, and never take the form of the all-too-common “lived experience” narrative one encounters all around us, where people marinate in their own goodness publicly. We’re flawed, just like everyone else, they seemed to say, and we want to share our process with you. In our conversation after the show, the filmmakers mentioned that, while documenting their experience, they weren’t thinking “people will be seeing this later”, but I think that there is a profound act of service in making this film that parallels the profound service of surrogacy. By opening a window into their personal life, far from generalizing their experience or making ethical proclamations, Chen and Omer are offering me and you an opportunity to engage with our own sense of ethics and question even the assumptions we clutch most tightly. What more can one possibly want from a film?

          Hypocrisy is the Mother of Innovation

          Michal Kravel-Tovi, When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017

          Mattir Agunoth (Television mini-series), Kan 11 (Yossi Madmoni, Tamar Kay, David Ofek, creators), 2019


          The opening scene of Kan 11’s dramatic series Mattir Agunoth[1] feels more like a spy thriller than a drama about religion. The hero, Rabbi Yosef Morad, is conducting a wiretap in a hotel, monitoring a diamond purchasing deal. The buyer is enthralled by the diamond’s clarity and beauty; imagine his astonishment when, as soon as he makes an offer, the seller, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew, says, “sure, as soon as you give your wife a gett.” At that instant, Rabbi Morad bursts into the room, ktav gett in hand, explaining that the deal can go through only after the recalcitrant husband releases his wife. The buyer tears up the ktav gett; Morad, undeterred, produces a copy. Cut to a Rabbinical court, in which three rabbis and various witnesses watch Morad—now delegated the gerush authority by the husband—hands the gett to the elated wife. She is finally free. The rabbis chant in unison: “Megoreshet, megoreshet, megoreshet!”, and then burst into joyous congratulations: “Mazal tov!”

          In any secular, modern country, the position of a mattir agunoth – part rabbi, part psychologist, part private eye, entrusted with the authority and resources to pursue deadbeat husbands and persuade them, gently or not-so-gently, to grant their wives a divorce—would be entirely unnecessary. But in Israel, all matters of marriage and divorce between Jews are adjudicated through the rabbinical courts and subjected to halakhic law.[2] Consequently, rabbinical authorities are bound by the requirement that divorce be by mutual consent. Halakhical solutions for men who are denied a divorce by their recalcitrant wives are easier to find (as are the rare, but by no means nonexistent, permissions to remarry without obtaining a divorce); women can be financially extorted by stubborn husbands in exchange for a gett, sometimes for decades.

          In the last few years, as religious scholar Masua Sagiv explains,[3] some refreshing solutions have emerged outside the confines of Jewish Orthodoxy. Private batei din, established with the goal of helping women in these desperate situations, sometimes rule for a gett when the Orthodox establishment would not. This provides respite for women who feel bound by the halakha, but does not remedy the situation for women who need to prove their divorce so that they can remarry without committing bigamy. In some cases, as Shlomo Riskin explains,[4] the rabbinical courts can engage in “hafka’at kiddushin” as a workaround. But these remedies are few and far between. Consequently, and under pressure to resolve these problems, rabbinical courts find themselves twisting the halakhah to permit the impermissible: forcing the husband to sign the gett.

          As Mattir Agunoth evocatively portrays, and as experienced by Morad’s real-life counterpart, Rabbi Eliyahu Maymon,[5] this is not an easy task: divorce withholding is an obvious and frustrating act of pettiness and bad faith, motivated by greed, spite, or both. However, since the gett must be given in free will, rabbinical authorities throughout Jewish history have struggled to find ways to kosherize the coercive methods sometimes necessary to bring the gett quest to a successful close. In Mishne Torah, Maimonides tackles this problem with considerable interpretive gymnastics:

          When a man whom the law requires to be compelled to divorce his wife does not desire to divorce her, the court should have him beaten until he consents, at which time they should have a get written. The get is acceptable. This applies at all times and in all places.

          Similarly, if gentiles beat him while telling him: “Do what the Jews are telling you to do,” and the Jews have the gentiles apply pressure on him until [he consents] to divorce his wife, the divorce is acceptable. If, however, the gentiles compel him to write [a get] on their own initiative, the get is [merely] unacceptable. The rationale is that the law requires him to give a divorce.

          Why is this get not void? For he is being compelled – either by Jews or by gentiles – [to divorce] against his will [and a get must be given voluntarily].

          Because the concept of being compelled against one’s will applies only when speaking about a person who is being compelled and forced to do something that the Torah does not obligate him to do – e.g., a person who was beaten until he consented to a sale, or to give a present. If, however, a person’s evil inclination presses him to negate [the observance of] a mitzvah or to commit a transgression, and he was beaten until he performed the action he was obligated to perform, or he dissociated himself from the forbidden action, he is not considered to have been forced against his will. On the contrary, it is he himself who is forcing [his own conduct to become debased]. [6]

          Mishne Torah laRambam

          This sense of deep hypocrisy, hopeless entanglement in dogma, and interpretive gymnastics to resolve the resulting intractable problem, permeates Michal Kravel-Tovi’s book When the State Winks[7] in the same suffocating way. Tovi opens the book by presenting the halakhic challenge: Orthodox conversion erects thresholds and barriers aplenty in the path of people seeking conversion to Judaism, which can feel mandatory to non-Jewish women who seek to marry Jewish men. Converting through alternative denominations (Reform, Conservative, Renewal) may feel more meaningful and less oppressive to non-Orthodox women.[8] But therein lies the rub: the State of Israel only recognizes as Jewish those born to a Jewish mother or converted through Orthodox Rabbinical channels. The Rabbinate must, therefore, exert its authority on women who are not religiously observant, often new immigrants removed from the Israeli experience and thus not accustomed to the commingling of church and state, who need their seal of approval so that they can marry Jewish men. Ironically, as Tovi explains, many such women are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and while they are viewed as non-Jews by the Israeli state apparatus, they do self-identify as Jewish—partly due to the Soviet Government’s patrilineal systems of recognition,[9] and partly through their secular integration into Israeli society.[10] Piling difficulties in their path also stands in the way of preserving a Jewish demographic majority—perceived as an essential condition for Zionist prevalence—[11] which creates surprising collaborations between the Ministry of Religious Services and nonreligious bodies such as the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, and the Israeli army.[12]

          Tovi recounts how these conflicting goals—striving for halakhic purity and maintaining a Jewish majority—played out in a religious scandal involving a woman who had undergone conversion by Rabbi Chaim Druckman. Thirteen years later,

          [a]fter filing for divorce at the regional rabbinical court (staffed by Ultra-Orthodox rabbis), her conversion was annulled retroactively by one of the rabbinic judges on the panel. The rabbinic judge, who had interrogated the woman about her religious observance, ruled that her level of observance was inadequate and that her conversion was therefore invalid, By implication, the ruling invalidated both her marriage and her children’s Jewish identities. . . [on appeal, the Great Rabbinical Court] not only upheld the lower court’s ruling but also appended another general ruling that sweepingly undermined Rabbi Druckman’s halakhic authority to convert.[13]

          Tovi reviews the aftermath: Druckman, motivated by a desire to advance the Zionist agenda, had presided over thousands of conversions. The scandal pitted him and his counterparts against the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who dominated the rabbinical courts. The conflict deepened two years later, when these rabbinical courts looked askance at conversion by military rabbis: “The latter spoke of national and moral responsibility, while the former chastised the army’s winking conversation.”[14]

          Steeped in this dilemma, rabbinical courts look for ways to facilitate conversions that will conform to halakhic rulings while, at the same time, accomplishing the demographic objective. Tovi’s ethnography follows women who immigrated from the former Soviet Union from their journey to a conversion Ulpan—whose endorsement of the prospective convert “carries a lot of weight”[15]—through the rabbinical courts, to the mikvah. Akin to Mattir Agunot and Maimonides, the whole journey might feel coercive and oppressive—which, let’s face it, it is, given the need to satisfy the religious requirements to get the required credential—but the converts must show to the court that they are sincere, as free will is one of the conditions for a halakhically proper converstion. Tovi examines how the women are tutored in the legible performance of sincerity: they are warned against lying, even as their teachers admit that the “don’t have x-rays for examining souls.”[16] She recounts an especially excruciating dialogue between Kati, a prospective convert, and Rabbi David, who questions her motivation in converting, accusing her of seeking Judaism solely because of her boyfriend:

          Rabbi David: Who changed your fate?

          Kati: I did, but through him.

          Rabbi David: Should everyone convert?

          Kati: Everyone should make their own decision.

          Rabbi David: What, anyone who was badly off and now is better off should convert?

          Kati: We weren’t badly off there. We came to be in Israel.

          Rabbi David: Most olim don’t convert and aren’t religious.

          Kati: I am. This reflects my decision to be at one with the Torah and the commandments.[17]

          Rabbi David is suspicious of the sincerity of this performance because it is “too sweet. . . on the surface, everything is fine, but I felt something.”[18]

          These performative contortions continued in the rabbinical courts. Tovi recounts incidents in which boyfriends, who felt themselves and their non-Jewish girlfriends obligated to participate in a religious charade, rebelled before the court, negotiating the extent to which they could present their genuine, secular life. In one memorable exchange, an Israeli boyfriend, Motti, is furious that his girlfriend’s application is rejected for lack of religiosity when he himself is not observant:

          Motti: So I should have come here a liar? Come with a skullcap and say amen and promise to observe everything? How should I have felt about this? “Ah, I tricked you.” I would have turned out a liar but I don’t want to. I am a truthful man. I came from a religious home, but I chose to be a secular Jew.

          Rabbi Blau: Everything you say is true. But I cannot help you. I want to help you, but can’t.

          Motti: What do you want from me? Do you want me to come here with a mask?

          Rabbi Blau: It is not a mask.

          Motti: It is because I am not a religious person.[19]

          The irony of Motti’s position is completely lost on him when, later, he comments: “I want Orly to immerse [in the ritual bath] before the baby is born.”[20]

          Both When the State Winks and Mattir Agunoth center around the frustrating entanglement of hypocrisy and invention in Orthodox Judaism. In both cases, religious authorities, holding the reins to secular state bureaucracy, face a halakhic uphill battle in the quest to do what at least some of them might feel is fair: liberate long-suffering women from the extortion of the scoundrels they married and promote Jewish families and Jewish life through conversion. In both cases, the halakhic problem, when viewed from within its own confines, is intractable: they must follow halakhic gett and conversion proceedings. But these prescriptions are impossible to follow in the face of immoral extortionists and people who refuse to lie about keeping kosher and Shabbat when they don’t. And in both cases, complicated halakhic workarounds allow them to proceed with their eventual objectives while ostensibly staying within Jewish law: forcing men to sign the gett “out of their own free will” through trickery and violence, and forcing women to perform piousness they don’t actually feel in an accepted, legible manner.

          As a secular Jew, my indignation about this system prompts me to view the solutions outside the halakhic box, but I know this is far less simple than it seems. Ostensibly, both of these problems would be solved if the state of Israel, formed with an identity both Jewish and democratic, took religious purity off the table for divorces and made them an entirely secular, no-fault proceeding, or granted equal rights to all its citizens regardless of their religious identity. The problem is that halakhic purity laws are so entrenched in Israeli society that even secular people like Motti find themselves attached to the idea of having their girlfriend immerse herself in the mikvah before giving birth, and even the secular women seeking Morad’s help in Mattir Agunoth feel a sense of revulsion and dread at the prospect of giving birth to a mamzer (bastard) because their divorce was not properly completed. The power of these religious taboos will not be swiftly undone through state action, and will require the courage of progressive, pragmatic rabbis to transform. Such courage is, sadly, in short supply in Israel’s current religious establishment. But works such as When the State Winks and Mattir Agunoth may help awaken in the secular public a sense that their personal integrity requires forging their own virtue ethics, unencumbered by centuries of misogyny.

          [1] Mattir Agunoth (Television mini-series), Kan 11 (Yossi Madmoni, Tamar Kay, David Ofek, creators), 2019

          [2] Isaac Shiloh, Marriage and Divorce in Israel.  Israel Law Review , Volume 5 , Issue 4 , October 1970 , pp. 479 – 498.

          [3] Sagiv, M. (2017). The State and New Religious Movements. In: Feraro, S., Lewis, J. (eds) Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel. Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

          [4] Riskin, Shlomo. “Hafka’at Kiddushin: Towards Solving the Aguna Problem in Our Time.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, vol. 36, no. 4, 2002, pp. 1–36. 

          [5] Sherry Makover-Blikov, “Every man has a key. And if you can’t get the key, you must break the lock.” Yedioth Acharonoth, Nov. 12, 2019.

          [6] Mishne Torah LaRambam, Hilkhot Gerushin 2, 20 (trans.

          [7] Michal Kravel-Tovi, When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017

          [8] Chaim Waxman, “Multiculturalism, Conversion, and the Future of Israel as a Modern State,” Israel Studies Review 28(1) 1-21 (2013).

          [9] Tovi, 59.

          [10] Asher Cohen & Bernard Susser, sher Cohen & Bernard Susser (2009) Jews and Others: Non-Jewish Jews in Israel, Israel Affairs, 15:1, 52-65.

          [11] Michal Kravel-Tovi (2012) ‘National mission’: biopolitics, non-Jewish immigration and Jewish conversion policy in contemporary Israel, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35:4, 737-756

          [12] Tovi, 65.

          [13] Tovi, 122.

          [14] Tovi, 123.

          [15] Tovi, 143.

          [16] Tovi, 153.

          [17] Tovi, 156.

          [18] Tovi, 157.

          [19] Tovi, 189-190.

          [20] Ibid.

          How True Crime Podcasts Diversify and Decentralize the Victims’ Rights Movement

          In the last few months, due to a combination of insomnia and long workouts, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, many of which are true-crime themed. Some of these are long-form podcasts, which follow an individual case, and some feature numerous cases, devoting an episode or two to each. This has led me to rethink about the victims’ rights movement and consider how the new landscape of crime podcasting has changed its focus.

          The criminological literature tends to paint the emergence of the victims’ rights movement in the U.S. as a monolith: comprised primarily of white, middle- or upper-class people whose relatives were victims of stranger homicide, pioneers in victim advocacy have tended to advocate for harsher punishments, the death penalty, abolition of parole, harsher prison conditions, etc. In some cases, as Josh Page documents in The Toughest Beat, they partnered with California’s prison guards union. In other cases, as I documented in Yesterday’s Monsters, they pioneered victim presence at parole hearings, with the only possible approach being clamoring for parole denial. Our harsh habitual offender laws were largely the product of Mark Klaas’ advocacy, in the aftermath of the murder of his daughter Polly.

          And yet, evidence abounds to the fact that victims are not, actually, a monolith. In my partnership with violence prevention coalitions, I’ve met many victims’ families–mostly black, working-class people–who don’t feel at home with this punitive approach, and call for social change instead. We’ve seen some stunning examples of victim forgiveness (even as know-it-alls on the Internet tell them how to mourn their relatives.) It looks like victims of acquaintance homicide, rather than stranger homicide, are less punitive, and that punitiveness declines when victims and offenders encounter each other.

          My extensive, though unsystematic, course of listening to true-crime podcasts suggest that today’s true-crime media lends its voice to multiple victim perspectives, incorporating some critiques of punitiveness, excessive policing, and mass incarceration, and rejecting the victim/offender dichotomy that characterized so much of the early days of the movement. Many episodes include frank descriptions of victims’ lives, including their criminal records, drug abuse, and mental illness–not to blame them, or cast a negative light on them, but rather to point out that even people who struggled in their lives deserve to be found and for their fate to be discovered. Many episodes explicitly feature victims of color, victims who worked in the sex industry close to their demise, and victims who had complicated relationships with their suspected killers or abusers. In many of these episodes, the podcasters explicitly point out that they are looking to bring attention to these left-behind cases.

          I’m also noticing that the podcasts feature plenty of rage over inappropriate policing, such as the forceful extraction of confessions or sloppy forensic works. This falls in line with much of what I’ve been thinking about recently: that the problem is not so much overpolicing or underpolicing, but rather the wrong kind of policing altogether (more focus on stop-and-frisk harassment and humiliation than on, well, solving crimes.) Podcasters’ voices become emotional not only when describing the victims’ plight, but also when describing harsh incarceration conditions suffered by wrongly convicted suspects. Notably, podcasters feature ambivalence toward family members who (wrongly) maintain that someone cleared of all connection to the crime (through DNA and, say, proof that a confession was coerced) is guilty: they offer empathy but, plainly and politely, state that they disagree.

          Because podcasters have to provide what their public is interested in hearing, one can tell that criminal justice issues percolate from public debate into these programs–first among which is the issue of racial justice. I’ve seen extensive coverage of hate crimes, complete with fundraisers for racial justice organizations, and in cases that involve black perpetrators and victims the focus is on getting justice and attention for the victim, rather than punishment for the offender.

          Relatedly, these podcasts also choose to feature a variety of different victim voices. Some families, you’ll hear, are staunch supporters of the death penalty, wishing for the murderers of their loved ones to suffer. Others say that they don’t much care about the punishment, but rather about solving the crime. Many podcasts offer no judgment, letting the victims be themselves rather than the world curators of criminal justice. I really appreciate this perspective.

          Much of this pluralistic, multifaceted approach relates to the fact that many true crime podcasts focus on unsolved crimes. The main question driving the narrative is what happened, rather than what the sentence will be. This, to a great degree, depoliticizes the content, focusing it on something we presumably all want: to solve serious crime cases.

          This change of focus reminds me of something different, but related. In a really interesting, clear-eyed piece, Keith Findley argues that the emergence of innocence as a topic of conversation has, to some extent, broken the impasse between crime control and due process enthusiasts. Even the staunchest crime control proponent would not like to see an innocent person behind bars; even the scrappiest due process advocate wants solid proof of a crime at trial. I think a similar maneuver happens with these podcasts. The idea that we need to find out what happened eclipses the focus on retribution, just deserts, and what happens later, breaking the impasse and finding some depolicitized commonality among victims of unsolved crime.

          I may write something about this at a later date; I think that these podcasts offer an interesting counterpart to the usual crime daytime TV, reviewed by Danny LaChance and Paul Kaplan in their book Crimesploitation. Let there be no mistake: true-crime podcasts crimesploit to the Nth degree. But I think they do it in a different way that is worth exploring.

          Rise of the Innocence Podcast

          A short while ago, I chaired a panel to celebrate Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s new book Crimesploitation, which examines the lowbrow and middlebrow shows that shed glamorous and lurid light on crime: Cops, To Catch a Predator, etc. As I wrote in my review of the book, this read coincided with the week in which Adnan Syed, whose case was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial, was set free by a Baltimore court after serving 23 years of incarceration. Here is a timeline of Syed’s case, which clearly indicates that the push to exonerate him came from the investigation in the podcast. Following in Serial’s footsteps was Undisclosed, a more pro-defense oriented podcast, which highlighted more discoveries.

          In the book, Kaplan and LaChance examine a TV show that came out more or less when Serial emerged on the scene: Making a Murderer, which followed the murder case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s hard to argue against anything that creates a push for justice, and the authors don’t do that, but they do voice a critique against these wrongful conviction media products: by singling out specific cases of injustice, Kaplan and LaChance argue, they “fail[] to achieve the goal of critiquing the substance and structure of the criminal justice system and the bigger picture of hegemonic power relations in the United States that supports it” (94). In other words, “the protection of factually innocent people from the devastation of incarceration. . . becomes the most pressing criminal justice policy imperative, leaving untouched the question of why such a devastating punishment is so easily and readily meted out.” 

          Kaplan and LaChance’s critique is well taken. The concern is that the focus on innocence will gloss over the fact that guilty people, as well as the innocent ones, don’t deserve neglect, sadism, cruelty, incompetence, and other cruel and, sadly, not unusual aspects of incarceration. I saw some of this play out in the conversation about vaccines, when jail vaccine advocates referred to the presumption of innocence to make a bid for vaccines that everyone, guilty and innocent alike, should have received immediately simply by virtue of being human and in a congregate setting with little control over their surroundings (and said so here.) But wrongful convictions are their own genre of awfulness, and while we need to support everyone who is incarcerated, I don’t think that infighting between innocence projects and prison advocacy projects helps the overall goal of making the world a better place.

          Moreover, I think I am more optimistic than Kaplan and LaChance about these shows. For every person who might watch them and think, “wow, this is a unique instance of miscarriage of justice” there must be several who walk away from it thinking “if this atrocity happened in a case that was highlighted by a podcast, imagine how many more people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit who haven’t been featured in podcasts yet.” I said as much in my commentary on the podcast and on the radio.

          Happily, the high-profile success of the vanguard shows of this genre led to a whole slew of podcasts seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted. Just recently, the podcast Proof led to the exoneration of two men in Georgia. At the same time, a seemingly contradictory trend is visible: podcasts that reopen cold cases and present theories of the case can help revive interest in unsolved murders and sometimes put terrifyingly violent people behind bars, as well as highlight atrocious behavior that might or might not be criminally defined in an effort to get justice for the victims. I say “seemingly” because, in both cases, the underlying assumption seems to be: podcasters can grease and speed up the wheels of justice faster and better than, say, Innocence Project lawyers.

          Why is that? Consider what might be the first example of this genre: Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, the documentaries about the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the convictions of Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. The documentaries evoked enormous interest in the cases, and with the weight of celebrities and advocates, within a few years, everyone who knew something about these cases became convinced that the three were wrongly convicted. This newly fueled interest led to some movement in the case, ending in a new trial for Echols and, eventually, in an Alford plea for all defendants that set them free. Shortly after the plea, understanding the power of media, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis produced a documentary of their own in 2012, which featured better forensics and more novel analyses of the evidence.

          What happened with the West Memphis Three case is instructive. The media can bring to the public voices form the scene. Unbound by technicalities and rules of evidence and of legal ethics, they can reinterview witnesses, examine forensic evidence with improved technologies, and have candid conversations with legal actors (some of whom might be retired at that point.) They can tell a story in emotionally artful ways that can persuade the public that an injustice has been done. I’m beginning to think that the Innocence Project might want to invest a considerable part of its budget in podcasting.

          One argument against the use of podcasts in this way might be that they draw arbitrary, sporadic attention to certain cases at the expense of others. That is surely a problem. But isn’t sporadic, arbitrary attention that corrects injustice better than no attention at all?

          The other challenge might be that the proliferation of these podcasts, with every fresh journalist or journalism aspirant hoping to be the one to stand on the courtroom stairs and celebrate, their impact will become marginally smaller, to the point that we will stop paying attention. I don’t think we’re at that inflection point yet. Moreover, the exoneration technologies (primarily the improvement and lower costs of DNA testing) are exposing more and more of these cases (there are also stark racial patterns) and I think we still need all the podcasts we can get.

          TV Review: Murder, Mystery, & My Family

          “The British justice system is the envy of the world; but, in the past, mistakes have been made.” So begins every episode of the British series Murder, Mystery, & My Family. It has an interesting, if formulaic, premise: in each episode, a relative of a deceased person who had been convicted of murder (most often hanged, but sometimes imprisoned and later died) seeks to revisit the circumstances of the crime and the trial and, possibly, obtain a judicial decision that the conviction is “unsafe” (i.e., reversible on the basis of a legal error or insufficiency of evidence.) The featured crimes are murders and serious felonies from 1970 and earlier, in which there is a question mark over the conviction.

          That the investigation is initiated and driven by a family member, rather than by the legal officials–barristers Sasha Wass, QC, and Jeremy Dein, QC, as well as Judge David Radford–provides a curious emotional hook to the narratives. Even for crimes committed more than a hundred years ago, the relatives begin each episode deeply invested in “clearing the family name”–as if their dead relatives’ crimes can blemish later generations–and become even more convinced of their relatives’ innocence as the investigation progresses. When they speak of their deceased ancestors, they sound like someone testifying for a relative at a sentencing hearing today; in one case, in which several sailors were accused of harassing and raping a woman before driving her to jump off a vessel and drown, the relative referred to one of the sailors, who was hanged before she was born, as “a bit of a lad, but he couldn’t have done this.” Family ties and family shame run deep, and the relatives speak to social historians and crime writers who illuminate some of the period details: why people were having frenzied extramarital affairs shortly after the war, how poverty would have impacted family dynamic, why a doctor’s word about the medication of a patient would matter more than a nurse’s, etc. The relatives also visit the courts and prisons in which events unfolded, invariably exhibiting deep grief and distress when finding a grave or a place of execution.

          While this emotional journey unfolds, Wass and Dein investigate the legal aspects of the case. They consult forensics specialists–usually pathologists and ballistics experts–as well as forensic psychologists, who read letters by the victims and perpetrators and opines as to their state of mind. They also take a close look at the court transcript. Their conversations about the evidence are a great display of the ideal roles of prosecutor and defense attorney: Dein zealously searching high and low for reversal grounds, Wass an impartial officer of the court who sometimes agrees with Dein about due process violations but whose prosecutorial lens is unmistakable in her descriptions of events (“and after they got the victim to transfer her estate, they figured they’d bump her off.”) The standard for declaring an historical conviction unsafe, per Judge Redford, seems to resemble the U.S. standard for reversal on collateral review: either a blatant legal error or new evidence that could not have been (and was not) exhausted in the proceedings many decades ago.

          In both cases, they face problems of anachronisms and retroactivity. In many of the featured cases, the forensic evidence itself has long been destroyed or lost, and all the experts have to go by are reports written by doctors and scientists who might have been the luminaries of their time, but had to contend with their contemporary methods and technologies (in one memorable episode involving arsenic poisoning, we learn that arsenic occurs naturally in the body, a fact unknown at the time that the victim’s body was exhumed and examined due to uproar and conjecture.) On their face, the reports sometimes show biases (the deceased is said to have been poisoned, when the poison may well have been self-ingested.) In other cases, some forensics remain, but are difficult to analyze because their condition has deteriorated. One is left with the uneasy feeling that hundreds of cases, now final, involving less zealous relatives (and perhaps less made-for-TV facts) could be reversed on the same grounds.

          As to the legal grounds, Judge Radford is put in the complicated position of calibrating what counts as due process today with the standards of yesteryear. It’s easier to find legal errors when procedure would have been unacceptable at the time as well as now, such as when the accused was not represented. One example involves the repeated uncovering of what Dein refers to as “police verbals”–unverified paraphrases of what the suspect supposedly said by investigating officers–which seem absurdly unreliable in the face of today’s UK practice of recording all police interrogations. But what about judicial remarks to the jury that would be considered biased today, and merely reflected prevailing values and mores at the time? Many such remarks feature references to gender and class that would have seemed natural and proper to judges in the late 19th century but today are beyond the pale. How Judge Radford dukes this out remains somewhat opaque because, by contrast to the approachable, TV-friendly self-presentations of Wass and Dein, the judge remains in character throughout, and is not part of the debrief at the end of the episode. Nor does his reasoning always satisfy the relatives who, when the conviction is upheld, vow to continue digging into the case.

          Anyone interested in legal history, postconviction remedies, and forensics would find this show, despite its contrivances, interesting and well worth watching.

          Series Review: Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

          Netflix’s new docuseries about the hunt for Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, comes to our computer screens at an interesting cultural moment, in which national and state responses to heinous crimes are in flux. As the bicameral Democratic legislature of the Biden administration prepares to get rid of the federal death penalty, the Trump administration finishes its four-year tour of gratuitous cruelty with gratuitous executions happening at the eleventh hour with the blessing of SCOTUS and to the horror of the court’s progressive minority; several people have observed the irony of lethal injections happening at the federal level just as death row people here in CA get the first injection of the COVID vaccine. This throwback to bloodthirstier decades comes as a majority of Americans, for the first time since the sixties, now support life imprisonment over the death penalty. Half the states retain the death penalty and half (growing since the recession) have abolished it or placed moratoria upon its use; if Virginia moves forward with abolition, not only will it be the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, but also a majority of states will have abolished/sunset the death penalty. Here in California, more people have died on death row from COVID-19 under Gov. Newsom’s moratorium than we have executed since the return of the death penalty in 1978. Ramirez himself–the subject of the new docuseries–was the 85th person to die on California’s death row of natural causes in 2013. And just recently, Joseph DeAngelo, whose horrific crimes as the Golden State Killer are eerily similar to Ramirez’s, was sentenced to life imprisonment, raising the fair question–if not him, then who?

          Against this backdrop, the choice to focus now on Ramirez and his heinous crimes is a curious one, and the series does not offer a lot in the sense of narrative or cinematic innovation to justify the subject. The story is told from the perspective of two intelligent and sympathetic LAPD detectives–then-newcomer Gil Carrillo and veteran Frank Salerno–and several retired crime scene technicians, who in four episodes follow through the trail of horrific murders. The still shots from the various murder scenes are enhanced through cinematography that somewhat brings them to life and accompanied by chilling music. Thankfully, at least the victims themselves–both those deceased and those who survived–are portrayed with restraint and respect, and on occasion (albeit not always, which struck me as somewhat distasteful) their relatives comment on their lives, evoking sympathy and humanity. These graceful interview scenes lift the series from a sequence of excessive gore, and I wish there were more of them.

          As to Ramirez himself, the show does not delve much into his own mind beyond short, clichéd quotes about the “inherent evil in all human kind” and “Satan [as] a stabilizing presence” displayed between scenes. Having read and watched a lot of the Manson literary and cinematic canon, I think a deliberate choice was made here not to glorify Ramirez in a similar way. At some point, one of the detectives even said that they considered whether Ramirez was a Manson copycat, which strengthens my belief that this approach was carefully considered. The choice not to follow the legacy of Mansonist efforts to delve into the minds of heinous murderers a-la Dahmer, only recently continued with Aquarius and Mindhunter, means the focus of the show is mostly on the police investigation.

          But even here, the show’s coverage of the LAPD’s eponymous “hunt” offers some contradictions. Carrillo and Salerno are sympathetic, interesting interviewees; Carrillo’s background is explored in depth, including his early prescient conclusion that seemingly unrelated crimes were perpetrated by the same person. He attributes this insight to a class he had taken, in which Robert Morneau referred to “a deviancy that says, ‘I like to see the frightened look on your face.'” Rather than digging into the motivation, this illuminated Carrillo’s crime scene analyses and explained why the murders were perpetrate in a particular way (i.e., why the killer had waited for the victims to see him, rather than kill them from behind or in their cars.) But at the same time, we get glimpses into what appears to be epic incompetence in interagency collaboration. A golden opportunity to zone in on the killer through a distinctive sneaker shoeprint was wasted, even though only one pair of black sneakers of that brand had been shipped to Los Angeles. Similarly, the opportunity to fingerprint a car that the suspect had touched in the course of a traffic stop was squandered. And amazingly, a clever trap at Ramirez’s dentist’s office did not function. Eventually, Ramirez was caught not by police officers, who allowed him to walk before them unnoticed after his appearance was already well known, but by alert members of the public. The focus on Carrillo and Salerno’s solid crime scene investigation draws attention from the sad conclusion that, had the LAPD had their act together and collaborated, Ramirez would have been caught earlier and lives would have been saved. Having studied the Manson murders in detail, it seems that little was learned since the fiascos of the Tate-LaBianca investigations, which were also characterized by department siloing and insularity (Bugliosi is full of braggadocio about his own heroic role in the case and very eager to throw blame onto the LAPD, but at least in that instance the objective facts seem to support his perspective.)

          Even as the focus on audacity, deductive work, and targeted legwork draws attention away from omissions and organizational hurdles, Night Stalker is a reminder of what good policing should be. It is poignant to watch an investigation in the 1980s, with 1980s technology, as the FBI pieces together last week’s insurrection at the Capitol and attempts to track down the perpetrators, a job much easier than Carrillo and Salerno’s because of the plethora of social media evidence and the availability of facial recognition technology. It is also poignant to think about the most recent example of excellence in policing: Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman’s clever, creative, and courageous act of baiting and tricking the mob away from the unguarded door behind which the legislators hid, armed only with a nightstick and facing dozens of angry insurrectionists yelling racial epithets at him. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the problem is too little or two much policing; it’s the wrong kind of policing altogether, which relies on crude, humiliating, and ineffective methods like stop-and-frisk at the direct expense of the classic crime solving work features in the Night Stalker. Give me a police force full of Eugene Goodmans, Gil Carrillos, and Frank Salernos, and I’ll be a happy camper. If the show reminds us (and the FBI, and the LAPD) that good policing is valuable and scarce, then it has been a worthwhile endeavor.

          Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is available on Netflix.