Behind Ancient Bars: Daniel’s Diet

This month I started working on what will eventually become my next book, tentatively titled Behind Ancient Bars. In this book I hope to illuminate the Biblical and Talmudic incarceration experience, and hopefully put to bed some misconceptions held by modern penologists and some held by historians of antiquity. Every penology textbook I’m familiar with speeds through punishment in antiquity, retrenching the common assumption that prison is a product of modernity and contrasting it to its predecessor, corporal punishment.

In an environment saturated with incarceration, it’s hard to see it as anything but modern, but once you start looking for it, you can’t unsee it: the Hebrew bible and the Talmud are filled with references to prisons and jails, and while nothing in antiquity would have come close to resembling our modern correctional apparatus, confinement was very much present in the sociopolitical arena. Moreover, what we’ve been educated to see as a rift is more of a continuum: not only does the variation in carceral experiences today echo the variation in antiquity, but the boundary between prison and corporal punishment is very, very blurry, if it even exists (working on FESTER was the starkest confirmation for me that prison IS corporal punishment.)

There’s not a shred of archaeological evidence of prisons and jails from empires thousands of years ago, and the texts we have are not trustworthy descriptions of confinement. Rather, they tell us something about what would have been within the realm of the imaginable for their authors, and in the process, have something to say about politics, personal transformation, and fatalism.

The story of Daniel and his three friends, Hananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah, is a case in point, and you can find it in Daniel ch. 1. The book opens with Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s victorious siege on Jerusalem, during which the Babylonians captured the implements of the temple into the land of Shinar, where they were deposited into the divine treasury. The king then ordered his high minister, Ashpenaz, to bring forth young Judahites of noble descent, teach them Babylonian literature and language, and feed them at the king’s expense, intending to incorporate them into the Babylonian administration. One of these children, Daniel, resolved not to defile himself (“lo itga’el”) with the Pat Bag and the wine, and after Ashpenaz expressed concern that his own life would be at risk if the children appeared poorly, appealed to the server/bursar to feed him and the other Judahites legumes and water. After a ten-day trial period, Daniel & Co. looked haler and healthier than the kids who fed on the path bag. The bursar continued to “carry” (remove? Keep for himself?) the king-allotted rations for the four and to serve them seeds instead. The kids are told to have done very well at the training, and when they came to the king, they were found to excel far beyond members of his senior administration.

Much of the exegetic chatter about this curious story focuses on Daniel’s refusal of the “path bag,” trying to establish precisely what was wrong with it. This is of deep interest to me, because I’ve been long interested in the awfulness of prison food, and Chad and I devoted much of the second chapter of FESTER to the horrific FUBAR of prison kitchens during COVID-19 (some of this story, complete with original emails, is here.) Of course, most religious commentators are not quite interested in that: rather, they spend their exegetical energy on explaining that Daniel et al. were trying to adhere to kashruth laws, the provenance of which is the ritual slaughter instruction in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, but which were far from developed in the early exilic period. Other commentators hypothesize that the four young Judahites were concerned about the possible use of the king’s meat and wine as libations to foreign gods. The dietary discussion among commentators then becomes a halakhic “hook” for backdating cleanliness and kashruth to the biblical text, thus creating linkages between the Torah prohibitions and the meticulous kashruth industrial complex of later periods. There’s a broader context to all this: revulsion at another nation’s food is often a proxy for differentiation, separation, setting oneself apart. As Daphne Barak-Erez explains in Outlawed Pigs, disgust of pig flesh has deep roots in Jewish tradition, and its implications persist to this day, and it could explain why this diet thing might have resonated as much as it has (it’s also worth considering, as I’m reminded by Rabbi Adam Chalom, that the Book of Daniel was likely composed during the Hellenistic period, when swine sacrifices and diet-based persecutions would explain the central role of diet in this story). As a secular humanistic Jew interested in penology, though, I find these particulars ancillary to the much more fundamental question about this curious story: what sort of facility, regime, or program, was this, exactly, and how does it relate to the overall Babylonian colonial project?

The exposition to the story places it in the context of the conquering of Jerusalem and seems to suggest an administrative response straight out of the playbook of colonial governance: identify potential leaders among the nobility of conquered population, remove them from potential leadership positions among their populace, bring them to the metropole, and coopt them into the colonial scheme through middle-management positions within the metropolitan government apparatus. Where this program lies along the continuum between benign and sinister, empowering and coercive, is fairly unclear. What we do know is this: Daniel, Hananya, Mishael, and Azarya are still children when the story takes place, and alongside them there are many other children subject to the same regime, most of which are not Judahites. The quartet (perhaps like all children in the program) is given Babylonian names (Belshatzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed Nego), a practice reminiscent of the “entry rituals” that Erving Goffman describes in Total Institutions. They are entrusted to the care of a high official (perhaps a minister, perhaps a eunuch), and their period of confinement, as explained above, includes an educational/vocational component: they are to learn Babylonian and the art of Babylonian governance, and when their three years of training conclude, they are expected to take a role in the Babylonian administration. They receive state-provided rations (“Path Bag HaMelech”) that are uniform for all residents of the facility. There is a special functionary who is responsible for the provision of foods, and he is identified as the “meltzar” (a word that will come to mean “waiter” or “server” in modern Hebrew.) It is also made clear that this is a high-stakes program: Ashpenaz himself—marked as a high administrator in Nebuchadnezzar’s court and clearly the chief administrator of this course or facility—is personally responsible for the welfare of his wards, to the point that his own head might roll should the king see that the children are upset, and that he feels comfortable enough with his wards to confide in them regarding this concern—a high official fostering amity with captive children who feel empowered enough to complain about their diets (and even to propose what might be the first Biblical experiment that has a valid control group!), presumably trying to get on their good side and eliciting their sympathy against the king. That the children’s welfare (not just their health, but their satisfaction) rates so highly with the king seems to speak well of his colonial enterprise, though the later stories in Daniel will do much to blemish his character. In any case, the fact that an entire story is devoted to the diet incident reminds me so much of what I know about the culinary aspect of CDCR administration, that I can only imagine the paper trail of the whole thing looking more or less like this:




Subject: Pat-Bag Supplies

Hey Saga how’s your night going.

Well as for here, it’s not going too good. I got four kids here starting to act out over the food and I don’t blame them. We’re now giving everyone the King’s Path-Bag and wine and four kids are asking for special vegetarian ratios. Right now we don’t have special meals for anyone. They say eating our food defiles them. Hope there is something we can do. I think it’s going to get really bad really fast around here if other kids start asking for vegetarian food. Any help in this matter would be greatly appreciated.





Subject: Re: Pat-Bag Supplies

Hey Pahas, that’s the correct meal. Everyone gets the same meal, no special problems because of “defilement.”

Sir Ashpenaz, anything we can do to improve upon this meal? The fellas aren’t enjoying it much and I worry.

Thank you




Subject: Veg Meals

Beltis, can you find out if we can order legumes cost-effective for four inmates for a few days? The king’ll have my head if he sees they’re unhappy. –Ashpenaz




Subject: Veg Meals

Minister Ashpenaz, my cousin Babasu works for Balasi Beans. They have a ten-day special for a bean and seed combo I can order per person. Pls confirm.




Subject: Veg Meals

Conf’d. Pls liaise directly with Pahas-Bel on next steps.





Subject: Order Confirmation

Order no. 1:14

Balasi Beans – Quality Legumes for a Great Price

Order Confirmation

Hi Beltis,

Thank you for your purchase!

We will send you another email once your order ships.

Many Thanks,

Balasi Beans

Bean and Seed Combo: Ten-day special  x 4





Subject: Beans

Dear Dr. Shala,

  1. Inmate no. 49596 Muhibu is suffering from uncleanliness and inflammation. He is due for his alcohol, honey, and myrrh preparation. Can you grind it here for him?
  2. Kids no. 30303, 23041, 30453, and 30340, Shadrach, Mischach, Abed-Nego, and Belshatzar, have been approved a diet of bean and seed combo. If effective in maintaining participants’ health, Minister of Eunuchs says we might reorder for the whole prison. Can you check how they are doing after ten days?





Subject: Beans

Just did initial assessment on the four kids you specified and a few kids receiving the usual rations. Will report back in ten days. –Dr. Shala





Subject: Beans Follow-Up

Pahas-Bel: I just stopped by the prison to take vitals and metrics from the four seed-eating kids and the control group. The seed-eating children seem to be doing better than the control group. If the king is so inclined, I would recommend ordering from Balasi Beans for the entire facility, but I won’t push it. In any case, there is no medical reason to prevent the children from eating seeds and beans.




Subject: Participants no. 30303, 23041, 30453, and 30340

Dear Sir Ashpenaz,

In anticipation for the appearance of Participants no. 30303, 23041, 30453, and 30340 (Shadrach, Meschach, Abed-Nego, and Belshatzar) before His Majesty the King, we have conducted exit interviews. The children wish to thank you for accommodating their dietary requests and to especially commend Pahas-Bel for his cooperation.





Subject: Path-Bag Discrepancy

Hi Pahas,

I’m looking at the books in preparation for the exit interview of the Judahite kids with His Royal Majesty and have to account for the Path-Bag rations they did not consume. I see three years’ worth of legume orders from Babasu, but I don’t see that the overall amount of path bag was reduced accordingly. What did you do with the meat and wine? Pls advise.


As some of you may know, the diet story is only the first of six court stories that found their way into the first half of the Book of Daniel. One of the more famous ones involves Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed Nego thrown into a furnace and emerging hale and healthy, which inspired this awesome gospel song:

Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed Nego, sung by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet

Another famous one involves Daniel, whose fortunes rise and fall quite dramatically in the first half of the book, being thrown into a lion’s den, inspiring works like this:

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Rubens

That the diet story was important enough to be a precursor to these dramatic tales tells me two things. First, that the confinement regime in Chapter 1 is being seen as part and parcel of the overall political/administrative arsenal at Nebuchadnezzar’s disposal: classic corporal punishments, like the furnace and the lions, do not exist to the exclusion of confinement, but rather alongside it. One wonders whether the spectacularly corporal punishments of Daniel & Co. are unique to them, in the sense of singling them out of the other young people, while the confinement regime was everyone’s baseline in the program, or was everyone in the program at risk of ending up “down in the hole” with the lions if they fell out of favor.

Relatedly, that all these royal reactions are being deployed is designed to paint a story of fractured, erratic, capricious governmentality. Not unlike the Pharaoh we meet in Joseph’s incarceration story (which will also be extensively told in the new book), Nebuchadnezzar runs the sort of administration where the fates of his underlings–especially his foreign subjects–widely swing up and down. This either reflects the erratic nature of these monarchies, or adds to the fairy tale aspect of the story by exaggerating the mobility and changing fortunes of the protagonists. It’s also notable that, like in the Joseph story, there’s very little in the way of institutional memory: if the confinement form ch1 incurred stigma, it hasn’t impacted Daniel’s fate later. This wild reversal of fortune continues throughout the stories: after a meteoric rise in the Babylonian administration, Daniel’s prospects seem to have changed for the worse in chapter 4, only to dramatically rise again when he interprets the king’s dream (this and other aspects of the story are why some commentators think that the Daniel and Joseph stories are versions of the same tale, and thus date Joseph’s prison story to the exilic period as well). There’s also a lot of elasticity in the use and misuse of power. We see exalted people afraid their heads will roll if some foreign kid complains to the king. And on the other hand, it looks like Daniel & Co., who are kids–and foreign kids, at that–feel comfortable not only complaining about a diet that does not work for them (quite rudely, too! Imagine telling an Emperor that his royal banquet fare defiles you!), but also proposing an experiment to gauge the health benefits of the diet they demand. They also seem to possess real savvy about who to deal with, and how, in a total institution: when negotiations with the higher-up authority hit a hurdle, they make a deal with the bursar on the sly. Not only that, but they are taken seriously enough that, even when the experiment succeeds, they are served legumes and water until their time is up.

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.

          #FacultyVigil Tomorrow Night at My Office

          My colleague and new friend Ron Hassner, who teachers political science at Berkeley, has been sleeping in his office for more than a week. Ron is protesting against the university’s failure to protect Jewish students from violent antisemitic behaviors, like the horrifying attack of last week. His list of demands is fairly modest: he wants Sather Gate opened, protection for speakers assaulted by students with opposing views, and campus-wide education on antisemitism and Islamophobia. Julia Steinberg reports for The Free Press:

          “This is a campus known for its protest,” Hassner says. “Put up propaganda! Hang it everywhere! But don’t physically block students from walking. Don’t harass them. Please don’t strangle them. I think it’s possible to advocate for the Palestinian cause without strangling people.” 

          I agree, which is why I will join Ron and several of my colleagues at the UC system to stage a #FacultyVigil tomorrow night. We all want to work and study safely. The boundaries of free speech in the US are wide enough to include lots of ways to disagree and express conflicting opinions without resorting to violence and terrorizing. If anyone wants to visit on Tue, I’ll likely be at the office (333 Golden Gate #320) from 7pm until my 9am class the next morning. If anyone shows up, maybe we can do a movie night (I propose Footnote) or we can just have a nice chat.

          Hat er gesagt

          A few years ago, during a summer visit to Israel, we took my then-toddler to the beach. He waded and splashed and, at some point, when the elastic on his swimsuit bothered him, he took it off. A man on the beach took great offense to this and came over in a huff to give me a talking-to about the lack of modesty of my three-year-old. “You have no dignity! There are women here!” Etc. etc. I was quite shaken. My dad was sitting nearby and I told him, “did you hear this guy! What a dirty mind he has if he sees sexuality and indecency in little kids!” etc. etc. My dad chuckled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “hat er gesagt.” It is a Yiddish expression that means, “so, he said.”

          I think about this vignette a lot when I see the enormous graphomaniac outpour on issues of campus speech. Group A put up a flyer! Person B tweeted a thing five months ago! Administrator C censored student organization D for a thing they said! University administrator E said something about faculty member F who said something about group G’s heckling of speaker I! Endless recursive applications of the First Amendment to endless interactions. It seems like we pay so much attention to what this person or that group said that we have no energy left to find out what it is that they even spoke about. Instead of feeling the anguish of war and loss, we drown it in righteous anger over what has been said about war and loss or, worse, what has been said about what was said about war and loss. Perhaps feeling righteous anger is easier than feeling fear and groundlessness. Perhaps being removed from a perilous, terrifying situation urges people to find some connection to the situation, so they tangle themselves in some speech imbroglio. I don’t know.

          Here’s what I do know: many opinions about political matters are espoused around me. Some of them I find reasonable. Some of them I disagree with but learn something from. Some of them are stupid or ignorant. Other people’s opinions, if they are not expressed directly to me and ask for my response or are in my field of expertise, are not espoused at me, nor are they necessarily my business unless I choose to make them my business. How much of other people’s opinions I choose to make my business is a function of how knowledgeable I am in that area, whether or not I have energy to spare, and what good I think will come of it. Sometimes, when campus speech veers toward hatred and discrimination that I find acute and dangerous, I say something. Sometimes I let it go because I have bigger fish to fry or because I don’t see the upshot of speaking up. There are short term and long term considerations, all of which are mine to make.

          I am not going to singlehandedly improve the quickly eroding standard for civil discourse. Neither are you. We do what we can, where we think it will make a difference, and we dole out our energy wisely.

          Arresting Folks with Unsettled Lives

          I recently came across an interesting Fourth Circuit case dealing with a situation that is probably quite common: what sort of constitutional protection do people have when their living situation is not clear-cut?

          According to Fourth Amendment case law, the police need an arrest warrant in order to arrest A at home (Payton v. New York, 1980), but no warrant is necessary to arrest A in public (U.S. v. Watson, 1976). But there is a third situation: what to do when A is in B’s home? Under Steagald v. United States (1981), an arrest warrant is necessary but not sufficient in this situation: the warrant protects A against unreasonable deprivations of freedom, but does not protect B against the invasion of their premises. So, to arrest A at B’s home, the police need to have two documents in hand: an arrest warrant for A and a search warrant for B’s home (with A listed as the person to be seized therein.)

          This is all fine. But it turns out that some people’s situations do not map neatly unto this framework. Enter U.S. v. Brinkley (2020), a 4th Circuit case dealing with a not uncommon person with an outstanding warrant: the international man of mystery with a woman at every port.

          Law enforcement agents formed a federal-state task force to execute an outstanding arrest warrant against Brinkley. ATF Agent Murphy received intelligence of two possible addresses for Brinkley, one on, let’s say, Oak Street, and one on, let’s say, Elm Street. Because the water bill for the Oak Street address was in Brinkley’s name, Agent Murphy initially believed that address was Brinkley’s most likely residence.

          Detective Stark from the local police force looked on the state law enforcement database and found that Brinkley’s many traffic citations were associated with several addresses. The newest citations referenced the Elm Street address, and Detective Stark reasoned that the older addresses were “probably family addresses” where Brinkley did not reside. He looked up Brinkley’s Facebook page and found pictures of Brinkley’s girlfriend, Marnie, who was also associated with the Elm Street address. Based on this information, Detective Stark concluded that Brinkley and Marnie lived together on Elm Street.

          Detective Stark reported his conclusion to Agent Murphy, who came to agree that Brinkley probably resided in the Elm Street apartment. Neither officer was certain that they had uncovered Brinkley’s address, and Agent Murphy later testified that, in his experience, it was “common for someone like Brinkley… to have more than one place where they will stay the night.”

          The next morning, Agent Murphy and Detective Stark went to the Elm Street apartment to conduct what both Agent Murphy and Detective Stark characterized as a “knock-and-talk” to “start [their] search for Brinkley.” The officers intended to “interview the occupants to find out if [he] was indeed there,” and to arrest him if he was. Agent Murphy acknowledged that he “had no idea if Brinkley was going to be there that morning,” but thought the Stoney Trace apartment was the “most likely address” to “find Brinkley or evidence of his whereabouts.”

          Detective Stark knocked and announced, and after a few minutes Marnie, wearing pajamas, slowly opened the door. The officers could hear movement in the background. Detective Stark informed Marnie that the officers were looking for Brinkley and asked to enter the apartment. Marnie denied that Brinkley was there, and according to Detective Stark, she grew “very nervous”; her “body tensed” and her “breathing quickened,” and she looked back over her shoulder into the apartment. Detective Stark asked for consent to search the apartment and Marnie said she did not consent and asked to see a search warrant.The entire exchange with Marnie lasted a few minutes. Both officers testified that, based on Marnie’s demeanor, the movement they heard in the apartment, and the morning hour, they believed Brinkley was inside.

          At this point, the officers decided not to follow the original plan to secure the area and wait to see if Brinkley left the home. Instead, Agent Murphy told Marnie that he believed she was hiding Brinkley and that the officers were going to enter the apartment to serve an arrest warrant on him. They walked around the apartment, found Brinkley in the bedroom, and arrested him. The officers proceeded to conduct a protective sweep to check for others hiding in the apartment. They did not find anyone else, but they did find several firearms and seized them.

          On appeal from a conditional guilty plea, Brinkley argued that he did not reside on Elm Street and was there as Marnie’s guest, and that the officers’ warrantless entry was unconstitutional.

          The Fourth Circuit sets up the problem as if it is about classifying Brinkley’s situation as a Peyton or a Steagald scenario. But what they actually end up doing is asking two questions that differ from each other. The first one is: how certain do the cops have to be that Brinkley both resides, and is currently present, at Elm Street to walk in there without a warrant? The Fourth Circuit panel concludes that the cops would need to have more than they did in order to walk into the Elm Street address with only an arrest warrant.

          But the second question has to do with a different set of concerns: for a guy like Brinkley, who has four or five cribs in town, and lives an unsettled life, where is home? Do you forego the special protection that the Fourth Amendment awards to the home if you have several places you call sort-of-home? Do you have standing in each of these places? What makes home home?

          The Elusive Body Recomposition Quest

          The vegan fitness world is aflutter and atwitter about a new documentary miniseries on Netflix called You Are What You Eat: A Twins Experiment. The show follows a recent Stanford experiment in which pairs of identical twins were randomly assigned vegan and omnivore diets and their metrics were followed for eight weeks. Everyone I talk to about this is a certifiable fitness nerd–including myself–so here is the link to the actual JAMA publication and here is the write-up from the Stanford comms department. In the areas of cardiovascular health and telomere length, the subjects on the vegan diet did better than their omnivore twins:

          At three time points — at the beginning of the trial, at four weeks and at eight weeks — researchers weighed the participants and drew their blood. The average baseline LDL-C level for the vegans was 110.7 mg/dL and 118.5 mg/dL for the omnivore participants; it dropped to 95.5 for vegans and 116.1 for omnivores at the end of the study. The optimal healthy LDL-C level is less than 100.

          Because the participants already had healthy LDL-C levels, there was less room for improvement, Gardner said, speculating that participants who had higher baseline levels would show greater change.

          The vegan participants also showed about a 20% drop in fasting insulin — higher insulin level is a risk factor for developing diabetes. The vegans also lost an average of 4.2 more pounds than the omnivores.

          But when it got to weight and body composition, things got a lot trickier. A big challenge in comparing weight loss and muscle gain has to do with the distribution of macronutrients across the two diets: a higher consumption of protein supports muscle growth. I fished out the table from the supplement comparing the macro contents of the diets, which shows that protein provision and consumption among the vegan group was significantly lower than among the omnivorous group. This was true both for the Trifecta meals and for the self-provided ones.

          On one hand, this sets up the vegan group to fail: they had fewer muscle building blocks than their omnivore counterparts. On the other hand, this situation may not be all that dissimilar to how vegans and omnivores eat in the wild. For all the good times we have mocking omnivores who inquire “where we get our protein,” when someone is actively strength training and striving to build muscle the quest for protein feels a little bit like nutrition Tetris. I should know: last year I read Stacy Sims’ wonderful book Next Level, about women athletes in perimenopause and menopause. Sims, who studies exercise physiology and is a leading voice in the quest to recognize the uniqueness of female physique (“women are not small men”), emphasizes the importance of lifting heavy, eating protein, improving explosive power through sprints and HIIT, and building strong bones through plyometric sets. It was because of that (and with the help of coach Celeste St. Pierre, as well as coaches Karina Inkster and Zoe Peled) that I changed my training regime quite dramatically. With the new emphasis on strength, I’ve joined the ranks of vegans who are strategic about the protein content of their meals. Sadly, the nutrition breakthrough study we are all waiting for, which will uncover the life-giving properties of pasta with tomato sauce, is not in the cards, and in addition to a lot of protein in my meals, I’m also emphasizing it in my snacks (more on that in a bit.)

          But the problem of body composition is by no means endemic to vegans. As Prof. Gardner explains on the show, nutrition studies are notoriously untrustworthy because they require human compliance in areas that are difficult to measure. To try and counter this problem, the research team provided the twins with prepared meals from Trifecta for the first four weeks. The twins also received terrific strength coaching. But it turned out that the twins did not follow these plans to the letter. The subjects who were interviewed said that they skipped carbs (the meals seemed “too carby” to them) and added a lot of cardio to the strength workouts; the nutritionist scolded them for “wasting all that beautiful muscle” that they were building on the diet. Other subjects really struggled to eat enough to build muscle. This fantastic article by powerlifter and strength training coach Casey Johnston explains what’s what. If you’ll look at her avocado diagram, you’ll immediately grasp the problem with conventional dieting: one wants to lose fat, so one cuts calories, but in the process loses muscle as well. When one despairs of the diet and regains the weight, that weight is fat–so now one is bigger but has lost muscle. The next diet will lead to more loss of fat and muscle combined, followed by regaining fat but not muscle, etc. etc. In other words:

          What I learned from the twins experiment is that reversing this trend by eating very little or by doing heaps of cardio is a quest destined to fail. For a while, at the beginning of a quest journey, beginners might see a change in body composition that encompasses both muscle gain and fat loss. But after that magical “newbie gains” period, body recomposition becomes much more elusive, and the only way to accomplish it is by periodizing one’s goals: spending a few months bulking (eating more, building more muscle *and* fat) and then a few months cutting (eating less but still strength training to lose the fat):

          I know people whose lives revolve around lifting and the gym, and who can devote a considerable portion of their brain space to grams of protein and weightlifting sets. And if I had more time, I might become one of those people; as it happens, I’m working *and* studying full time, which is why I have paid people to do the thinking for me (I just follow the workouts on the app and try to watch my macros). Thankfully, we live in the future: some of my new snacks include conveniently packaged lupini beans and the most wonderful vegan Italian prosciutto and carpaccio (these are not cheap treats, alas. I really hope to see high quality vegan meats, etc., become less expensive in the very near future). The more profound aspect of this is that it is hard, but essential (I think), to leave behind the vacuous appearance-related aspirations and to make the journey about function: gaining muscle and becoming stronger is its own reward.

          Here’s how I know: when my beloved father got ill, when I was training regularly, I flew out to be with him at the hospital, and packed a bunch of stuff in my wheelie bag, as I didn’t know how long I was going for. Or was it a trip to a conference? Anyway, it was when I was still increasing weights quite frequently from workout to workout. When I got inside the plane, I braced myself for the dreaded lift of the wheelie bag into the overhead compartment (“lady, do you need help?”). Reader, IT WAS CHILD’S PLAY. I was truly amazed at how much spending 20 minutes in my garage a few times a week improved my quality of life.

          I’ve now spent a few months sitting on my butt and doing nothing in the exercise and fitness department: I’ve been busy with my new scholarly pursuits, and the grief and horror have been too great. But I’m not helping anyone, least of all myself, by eating things that make me unwell and letting go of my strength, mobility, and agility. So, it’s back on track for me. The dream of a dramatically chiseled and trim appearance is over. I’m going to focus my attention on aggressively improving my quality of life, so that I can continue to productively contribute my efforts to the world–raising my son, finishing my new schooling, launching a new scholarly adventure, forging a fresh career path, building new community–for many years to come.

          AJS Annual Meeting, Day 3

          What a wonderful day I’ve had at the AJS meeting today! I highly recommend that every academic attend an annual meeting as if they were attending a science fiction or anime conference, and go to panels that strike their fancy and are interesting to them. Today I gave myself license to attend panels on topics that interest me deeply, including art and music, and learned a lot.

          I arrived late this morning for the Jews Imagining Empire panel, and so missed Yaniv Feller’s presentation, in which he proposed to frame early modern Germany as a real or (after Anderson) imagined empire. I did, however, enjoy the Q&A, in which people asked whether there were features that distinguished empires from nation states, and in what ways are there empires without colonies. Yaniv said something interesting: empires support the nation state by defining the “other”.

          Then, Roger Lernon talked about Franz Kafka’s writing about imperial scenarios from faraway lands (“The Great Wall of China,” “The New Advocate” about Grece, and “The Hunter Gracchus” about Rome), to express his ambivalence toward the Habsburg empire, as a Jew in the crux of emancipation and nationalism. Finally, Katalin Rac introduced us to two people I had never heard of before: the Turkologist Ármin Vámbéry (1832–1913) and the Islamicist Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), both of whom were Jewish and whose travels and studies raise interesting questions about the relative liberalism of different empires.

          The next panel, Jewish Art and Architecture, opened with Daniel Stein Kokin’s presentation about Perli Pelzig‘s prolific artistic career. Pelzig was a sculptor and muralist, whose work can be seen all over Israel. I’ve seen his gorgeous mosaics in kibbutzim and also at the Dan Acadia hotel in Herzliya and it was so well integrated into the space that it didn’t occur to me to inquire after the artist! But it turns out that Pelzig also designed the wonderful Holocaust Memorial Wall at Los Angeles’s Temple Beth Am, which looks like thousands of fingers scratching, and its complement–Pelzig’s evocative sculpture for Yad VaShem, which features hands reaching upward.

          This was followed by Carolyn Beard’s presentation about the crucifixion as a motif in Mark Chagall’s paintings. White Crucifixion (1938) is the most famous among Chagall’s 80 (!) crucifixion paintings and, interestingly, eight of them are self-portraits depicting Chagall alongside a Jewish Jesus, wearing a tallit and sometimes tefillin, and images of suffering Jews. Chagall’s Artist with Yellow Christ is a reference to Paul Gauguin’s picture of the same name (1890), and in Christ with the Artist (1951) he depicts angels on the left of Jesus and Chagall on the right. The cross bursts out of the canvas. In another image, Chagall depicted Jesus’ head as a clock, and replaced the INRI script with his own signature.

          Then, Fani Gargova introduced a new framework for analyzing women’s contributions to European Synagogue Design. The tendency among scholars of historical architecture is to regard women’s contribution to synagogue architecture as marginal, considering their location (separate and removed) in the synagogue itself. But it turns out that women played an important role contributing essential artifacts, such as menorot and parokhot, to the synagogues, which have been (mis)analyzed as Judaica objects, rather than as what they are: part of what makes the synagogue a synagogue.

          After lunch, I went to a fantastic musicology panel. Gordeon Dale introduced the emerging and wildly successful genre of “Pop Emuni,” presenting artists who are and present as Orthodox and engage openly with biblical themes. We listened to, and analyzed, four songs: Ishay Ribo’s Hine Yamim Baim , Akiva (Turgeman)’s Lekh Lekha, Hanan ben Ari’s Holem Kemo Yosef, and Narkis’ Avi Lo. Despite the sharp polarization in Israel, these artists have been able to break boundaries and enjoy wide public appeal.

          Then, Ann Glazer Niren exposed the liturgical roots of Leonard Bernstein’s psalms work. Ann hypothesizes that Bernstein was deeply influenced by Solomon Braslavsky, a gifted musician, who was the cantor and musical director at Bernstein’s home temple Mishkan Tefila. Indeed, Bernstein returned to religious themes in many of his compositions, including Jeremiah, Haskiveinu, Mass, and Kadish. We got to hear excerpts from his Psalms–Psalm 148 (1935) and his Chichester Psalms–and learn about some of the wonderful musical devices he used: echoes of Beethoven’s Pathetique and text pairing (which is a huge part of Bernstein’s genius and which I’ve appreciated every time I’ve sung or listened to his work.)

          Finally, Amanda Ruppenthal-Stein introduced us to the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, sharing and analyzing the wonderful polyphonic interpretation of “Ha’Azinu” (Deuteronomy 32).

          A great coda to the conference was a panel about gender and queerness in Jewish ritual spaces, which opened with Morey Lipsett’s analysis of the “Agaddic element” in the liturgy at my local synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (CSZ). I’m an occasional visitor there (one of my goals in the new year will be to become a more regular attendee) but Morey grew up in the congregation and, relying on Walter Benjamin and Judith Butler, he looks at how the synagogue’s founders and leaders have transformed the Kabbalat Shabbat ritual to encompass dynamic ideas of gender and sexuality, beyond just pointing out the patriarchal aspect of orthodox tradition, and toward creating an affirming and accepting space.

          Then, Shlomo Gleibman led us through an investigation of the havruta (a long-term committed religious study partnership) as a queer space, starting with one of my favorite pair: Rabi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, from their erotically charged encounter in the river to what is arguably the most epic, dramatic breakup ever. We followed other havruta queer pairings, in the literature of S. An-sky, I. B. Singer, S. Y. Agnon, Tony Kushner, Michael Lowenthal, and Evan Fallenberg.

          Finally, Isabel-Marie Johnston surveyed and interviewed Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews about their mikvah immersion practices. Her data indicates that the Mikvah offers relief and healing properties to many of the respondents, but especially to those with complicated micro-minority identities: people in intermarriages, people of color, people of complex sexuality, etc. But it turns out that exclusive practices in many Orthodox-run mikvaoth, including innocuous-seeming screening practices, are a real turn-off to these people.

          I learned a lot and have tons of wonderful ideas for future research, and feel professionally energized for the first time in many months.

          AJS Annual Meeting: Day 2

          Another fascinating day at the AJS Annual Meeting, in which I learned a lot – including about issues surprisingly close to home.

          The first panel, Holocaust in Art and Literature, opened with Roy Holler’s talk about Yoram Kaniuk’s book Adam ben Kelev and its film adaptation starring Jeff Goldblum. Of all Israeli authors, Kaniuk is one of the most difficult and least accessible for me, so I was grateful for Roy’s take: rather than seeing the book as a story of human-animal transition, he reads it as a story of “passing” across species and of a commitment to avoid joining a species capable of atrocities. As Roy said, “Instead of ‘God created man’, it’s ‘man created himself in the image of a dog.'”

          Next, we heard from Angelica Maria Gutierrez  Ravanelli, who studies Argentinian holocaust remembrance and spoke of a graphic anthology called Camino a Auschwitz y Otras Historias de Resistencia. It’s a controversial, edgy, and sometimes queer take on holocaust survival, which draws inspiration from both Maus and Fun Home: the story of a prostitute who dies in the gas chambers; the exploits of a gay partisan and his sexual escapades in the forest; and an ambivalent, conflicted story about Eichmann’s capture. Angelica walked us through the timeline and plot of the stories, the graphic motifs, and the controversy that their publication stirred in Argentina.

          The panel ended Anne Rothfeld’s talk about a fascinating investigation conducted by Evelyn Tucker into several wonderful paintings by Egon Schiele. It turned out that Egon Schiele was treated by a dentist called Rieger and, short on cash, paid him in fantastic paintings, including Wayside Shrine, Cardinal and Nun, and Harbor of Trieste (all of which can be found now in the Dorotheum). Welz, a member of the Nazi party, got the paintings from Rieger. Tucker suspected that Welz had flourished by spreading a tale of benefitting from American looters. Welz’s version was that he helped Rieger escape (he had not; Rieger died in Theresienstadt.) Eventually, Tucker was relieved of her position after a conflict with the army. The whole thing was fascinating.

          The second panel, Negotiating Danger, Difference, and Death, had assorted rabbinical commentary that I found interesting. The highlight for me was Mika Ahuvia’s talk about Angels in Late Antique Conceptions of Death, because some of the images she analyzed came from sarcophagi in Bet Shearim, which is right next to my home town and where I run when I visit my mom. While rabbinic texts identify only male angels (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Bney ha-Helohim from Enochic texts), piyyut and midrash (Bereshit Raba) identify some feminine angels. And, a sarcophagus image depicts a winged female figure. In addition, murals in the Dura synagogue depict a similar figure descending to the underworld.. Where did it come from? Mika identifies the similarities between the figure and the Greek figure of Psyche (Suke in Greek) and investigates artistic copying and common influences.

          Shulamit Shinaar uses lenses from critical and queer disability studies, as well as from medical sociology, to examine biblical and rabbinic prohibitions on, and dispensations for, people with disabilities and their caregivers. She relies on Mike Bury’s concept of “biographical disruption”–the impact of a diagnosis on the person’s now threatened identity, their plans for the future, and their daily life. In light o this framework, Rabbinnical literature views people’s lives as disrupted, including their ability to work, dependency on others, and illness impacting witnesses and legal proxies. This lens explains the exemptions for sick people and for their caregivers: Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and seeking healing using objects that are prohibited (except for the “big three”: avodah zarah, incest, and bloodshed).

          Finally, Gal Sela turns to Ta’anit 24a-b to discuss theurgic perceptions in the Babylonian Talmud. The story has to do with Rava, who unsuccessfully tries to bring rain through a fast, and when people complain that in the days of Rabbi Yehuda this was easily done, recurs to explain that the more rigorous learning of this generation is insufficient and that the previous generation had a more direct connection to the divine. We talked about the power of the sage, through the ritualistic act of removing his shoes.

          The methodologies that were most familiar to me were in full display at the Haredi sociology panel. I learned a lot! First we heard from Dikla Yogev and Nomi Levenkron, who have studied the Meron disaster using information from government meetings, observations and interviews with the police and the public, and an “urgent ethnography” of online data collection (WhatsApp groups and a website.). The Meron celebration, which became Haredi-dominated from around 2000, raises various problems involving transportation, site management, lost children, and the like. Social network analysis shows that the most prominent people to discuss and address the event were the haredim themselves, including the Meron Committee head and the Holy Sites CTO. Dikla and Nomi conclude that Meron suffers from government instability; the police struggle to establish public safety, which is low on the priority list and managed through a network of informal connections that prioritize Haredi brokers and deprioritize the police.

          It was interesting to see this unfold in light of Nomi’s other paper on the panel, hilariously titled “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and recounting the regulation of the 1956 Meron celebration. Her point of departure is that police work in holy places calls for negotiation, which has both symbolic and practical aspects. The three parties to the negotiation wanted different things out of it. The father was Ben Gurion, the prime minister, whose establishment of Israel was accomplished through difficult compromises with the Haredim, and therefore needed to give in to them on the celebration; his son, Amos Ben-Gurion, who was a senior police officer, was concerned about the site’s safety risks and demanded to cancel the event; and the Holy Spirit, the Ministry of Religion, needed the Ultra-Orthodox as part of the coalition. To some extent, the 1956 paper provides an omen/explainer of the 2020 paper.

          Miriam Moster talked about the ocioeconomics of Haredi Divorce in New York, which used to be fairly common but is now extremely rare. By contrast to divorcées in the general population, among Hasidim, education and home ownership actually make leaving the marriage easier. Miriam also pointed out that finances tied to the husband, especially in cases where the whole extended family is financially entangled–and especially in illegal/under the table dealings–make leaving more difficult. The fallout of divorce can be harsh from an informal social control standpoint.

          Finally, Hannah Lebovits discussed the housing patterns of Haredim in American municipalities, showing how leadership deals with housing and contrasting two models: “housing at all costs” (cutting corners, informal economic workarounds) versus “pragmatic skepticism” (representation, legal cases, civil rights action, etc.) She used the term “ritual urbanism” to describe, among other factors, how some spiritual leaders (“rebs”) of the community present themselves as messengers of God when advocating for spatial design or land use.

          I was going to stay for more, but instead opted for catching up with Dikla and Nomi and then had to replace all my bicycle gear, which was filched from my pannier by someone who probably needed raingear and a Narcan kit more than I did (but did he really have to steal my helmet and gloves, too? Grrrr.) Very eager to return to the conference tomorrow!

          Association of Jewish Studies, Day 1: Dreyfus Postcards, DEI and Antisemitism, and Daughters’ Inheritance

          As hinted in various posts, my big professional pivot has been in the works for a while. This year I started my rabbinical studies at the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ). IISHJ requires all its rabbis to complete an advanced degree in Jewish Studies, which brought me to the Graduate Theological Union’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies. In addition to my full-time work, I’m studying full time for a masters degree, and this week I finished the first semester. My plan is to pivot my scholarship at UC Law SF toward Jewish law and Jewish studies, and I have big plans for fostering and encouraging a vibrant academic Jewish legal experience on campus. After retirement from legal academia, I plan to turn to rabbinical work full time.

          Today marks an important milestone: I attended my first-ever annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies which, conveniently, is being held in San Francisco. I’m not presenting anything–my two brand-new papers haven’t been submitted for publication yet–and it’s been a great experience to listen, rather than talk! Getting into a new field requires quite a bit of humility, and I confess to being overwhelmed when I visited the huge book exhibit and saw the vast wealth of knowledge and original research. It’s daunting and, at the same time, exciting to join such a prolific enterprise, and I wonder what I can contribute to this flourishing field.

          I started my day with a panel on visual representations of violence, in which Louis Kaplan introduced us to the work of photographer John Guttman. Trained as an expressionist painter, Guttman switched to photography when he figured that he would not be able to leave Berlin with money, but would be allowed to take expensive equipment out of the country. He bought a wonderful camera and somehow persuaded a German news agency to be their foreign correspondent in San Francisco… and ended up in a gorgeous apartment in Russian Hill. From Tara Kohn we learned about how archival gaps and absences affect our ability to learn about photography–in this case the work of Alter Kacyzne, who documented Jewish life in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s. Only 700 of Alter’s many photographs are in existence–but evidence of their existence exists in copies and references, as if they were fossils. But the most interesting bit, to me, was Karine Macarez’s presentation of… postcards, posters, and trading cards about the Dreyfus Affair! In my work on true crime podcasts, I always think about Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message reminder, but here is proof that participatory, sensationalist true crime engagement–complete with wrongful conviction activism–existed through the creation, sale, and exchange of these postcards, which are rife not only with antisemitic tropes (used both straightforwardly, as in the case of Dreyfus’s maligners, and ironically, by the Dreyfusards) but also with actual forensic evidence: people would buy and collect postcards bearing Dreyfus and Esterhazy’s handwriting.

          After lunch, I attended a panel in which Amy Simon (Michigan State), Greg Drinkwater (Berkeley), Nathan Paradise (Minnesota), and Lauren Strauss (American) spoke of their activism–unpaid, emotionally taxing, and exhausting work–to include Jewish concerns and marginalization in the academic curriculum, especially after the Hamas massacre and the eruption of the war. The session was very well attended–standing room only–and offered some thoughts about whether, and to what extent, Jewish issues (including antisemitism) can and should fit in a DEI framework. Lots of useful takeaways, including the huge variation among campuses not only in policies and curricula but also in the interpersonal relationships between the different personages: campus administration, ethnic studies folks (often, but not always, a department devoid of Jewish voices), Jewish studies departments (which are not supposed to be advocacy centers but sometimes become such), Islamic studies departments and colleagues (who sometimes form great coalitions) and the student body (including a big conversation about the extent to which TikTok and the like shape young minds before they even come to college.) It was a great conversation which, while not offering a ton of hope, offered some interesting perspectives and ideas to try, and made me feel a lot less alone than before. I also plan to read Kenneth Stern’s The Conflict Over the Conflict (and will post a review soon.)

          I then got to hear a fabulous roundtable about women and biblical law, featuring several interesting projects. Yael Landman, who uses a law-and-literature lens, discussed women’s property rights, especially regarding daughters’ dowries and inheritance; Samantha Rainford, who also studies inheritance roles, highlighted how the the daughters of Zelophechad had to be legally “made into men” in order for their inheritance to fit into the patriarchal lens. GTU’s very own Jennifer Lehmann studies maleness and masculinity in the Bible; as she explains, while men have been the focus of Biblical literature, only recently have they been studied through a gendered lens. She discussed two fascinating examples: Jacob’s sexuality in the Leah/Rachel bait-and-switch, and Joseph’s sexual victimization at Potiphar’s house (including issues of sexual servitude–and comparisons with Hagar.) And Sarah Shechtman discussed embodiment in biblical ritual.

          I learned a ton, bought a heavily discounted set of the Bavli with English translation, and I hope made some new friends. Back tomorrow for more!

          Happy Hanukkah! Components of a Religious “Package”

          This week I had two remarkably similar conversations, one about Judaism and one about Buddhism, which revolved around the ingredients of religious identity. The first conversation came about when my Modern Jewish Thought class (taught by the one and only Sam Shonkoff) used traditional havruta study methods to study an unusual text: sections 48-49 of the Brandeis Center lawsuit I mentioned here. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

          1. The Jewish people share not only religious laws and traditions, but also a deep
            historical sense of Jewish peoplehood. The Jewish people’s history, theology, and culture are
            deeply intertwined with the land of Israel, the birthplace of Jewish religion and culture, and the
            place to which Jews have expressly yearned to return across centuries of forced diaspora.
            Throughout millennia of exile and persecution, the Jewish people have continued to recognize
            Jerusalem (also known as “Zion”) and the land of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland. To this
            day, Jews pray facing toward Jerusalem. The Jewish calendar, Jewish life cycle events, Jewish
            law, and Jewish prayer reflect the deep historic and ancestral connection of the Jewish people to
            the land of Israel. For example, more than half of the 613 commandments included in the
            Pentateuch relate to, and can only be fulfilled in, the land of Israel. YOTAV ELIACH, JUDAISM,
            ZIONISM AND THE LAND OF ISRAEL 5-6 (2018).
          2. For most Jews, Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath
            or maintaining a kosher diet. Of course, not all Jews observe the Sabbath or keep kosher, but
            those who do clearly are expressing critical components of their Jewish identity. Similarly, not all Jews are Zionists, but for those who are, the connection to the Jewish state is integral to their Jewish identity.

          There is a lot to unpack here, first among which is the question whether Zionism is part of the Jewish religion or part of Jewish peoplehood or part of something else. Paragraph 49 seems to package Zionism alongside Shabbat and kashrut, and parts of Paragraph 48 tie Zionism to Israel-related mitzvot. But the beginning of Paragraph 48 suggest that, even for non-religious Jews, Zionism is a fundamental part of their identity–if they are Zionist. Which leaves me and, I assume, others, with the question: are there some things that are essential to every Jew’s Jewish identity? It looks like the assorted ingredients change from person to person: a secular Israeli might be completely alienated from Shabbat, mitzvot, kashrut, and all that jazz (perhaps through bitterness over the religious orthodoxy) but has strong ties to Israel and familial heritage. A convert to Judaism as a consequence of marrying a Jew might live in Atlanta or Paris, have no relationship with Israel whatsoever, but has a deliberate commitment to the faith through its intentional adoption. A member of a New York Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva might or might not have a link to Israel but does have the heritage and orthodoxy tie. Is there any ingredient of this package that seems to be at the core of Judaism for all these people? Strip away all the components that any one person might have and others don’t, and what’s left? Judaism becomes elusive and slips through your fingers.

          We had a similar conversation today in my Buddhism in the West class, taught by the incomparable Scott Mitchell. Throughout the semester, a big part of what we did was collapse categories often assumed by people about Buddhism, some of which involved a taxonomy of Buddhisms that distinguishes between “Asian Buddhism” (assumed to have been imported from its countries of origins and thus supposedly pure/unspoiled) versus “convert Buddhism” (assumed to reflect modern sensibilities and be practiced by white people, who focus on what the Buddha taught on the basis of a canon of classical texts without “ethnic trappings” like chanting or making offerings). As Natalie Quli argues,

          I suggest that, by beginning with an essentialized Asian Buddhist “tradition,” many scholars have become preoccupied with protecting authentic, “traditional” Asian Buddhism from the contamination of Western-influenced “Buddhist modernism.” This simplistic model of Asian versus Western, traditional versus modernist, repeats the stereotype of a passive Asian and an active Westerner, perpetuating the researcher’s inclination to “save” Asian (and by extension, Asian American) Buddhism from the West. Others have used this dichotomy of the passive Asian/modernist Westerner to promote a new, supposedly “culture-free” form of Buddhism in the West that is unlike the traditional, conservative Asian Buddhism against which they paint it.

          To more deeply understand Buddhists in the global ecumene, we must abandon nostalgic notions of “pure” cultures and traditions and recognize the presence of multiple and hybrid identities—such as both Asian and American, or Asian and Western. Many Buddhist scholars have relied on an unarticulated Western Self/Asian Other dichotomy, manifesting in a “hierarchy of field sites” that discourages studies of Western Buddhism, including both Asian Americans and non-Asian American converts, continuing to cultivate those old colonial fantasies of pure cultures and pure traditions.

          Natalie Quli, Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition” in Buddhist Studies, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 16 (2009).

          The existence of many hybrid Buddhisms, and the futile quest for unattainable “authenticity,” raises another question: Is there anything at the core of Buddhist identity? Friends in class, who belong to various Buddhist traditions, tried to come up with something and came up rather short. Someone suggested the Lotus Sutra (but what about Theravada Buddhists?); another suggested the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha); another suggested chanting; I proposed the Eightfold Path; someone else said maybe the Bodhisattva vow. Many of these would be familiar to many Buddhists, but the emphasis would be different; and then there are people born to Buddhist families and surrounded by Buddhists, who are Buddhists themselves but do not actually practice. Strip the components that are not shared, and what’s left of a Buddhist identity is as elusive as what’s left of a Jewish identity.

          This is an especially important question to those of us seeking a spiritual life in a secular humanistic community. Without commandments, without a God, without necessarily a connection to Israel, what is Jewish about a secular humanistic Jewish congregation? The IISHJ has an answer to this, and here it is from Rabbi Adam Chalom:

          Why Be Jewish? Rabbi Adam Chalom

          The answer to the question “why be Jewish?” is going to be different for different people. For me, tonight, the answer is lighting candles with my son, my mom, and my partner, singing Hanukkah songs, and finding some extra light in the darkness, especially if it comes from a dinosaur-shaped hanukkiah.