The short story for July/August
Every night he reads to his beloved dead brother. Reads poetry, reads stories, and, accompanying himself clumsily on guitar, sings Jacob’s own songs to him. The odd thing about this is that Michael is a non-believer. Or no; he’s a believer all right—but in nothing—he has certainty that there is nothing beyond or within the material world. The material world is not a veil masking a deeper reality. It’s just what is. Not that Michael believes only in what we can see. He believes in a world best explained by impossible-to-see quantum mechanics and string theory, best described by equations—problematic, quirky, even irrational. He was a double major at Cornell, marketing and physics. Now he’s a successful businessman and a confirmed skeptic. However strange the world might be, it is not holy, not partaking of spirit, whatever that word means. And when we die, we die. Jacob is dead. That’s it, and he’s sure. He’s sure. Michael mourns, he weeps when he can’t stop himself—only when he’s not observed. But he doesn’t want to lie to himself. There are no bridges to another world and no other world to reach.
So why read to a non-existent Jacob? And why, before he goes to bed, does he sit on the end of his bed across from the…“memory shelf” (as he calls it so he can’t accuse himself of considering it an altar) and talk to Jacob’s picture and read to his brother, who he knows can’t hear him. Michael has never particularly liked poetry, yet every day Michael reads aloud, reads Jacob’s favorites, reads Yeats, reads Donne, reads Whitman, reads Lawrence.
Michael and Jacob were always close, very close. From the time they were little children—Michael the older by three years—they loved each other, and loved to battle. But only with words. And each would have been upset if the other had given in, changed his position. It was sparring, play fighting. As an adult, Jacob played the contemplative, ingenuous one, in touch with spirit. He would, if Michael was there to observe, put his hands on the trunk of a tree, and draw energy from the earth or pass negative energy into the earth. And Michael would roll his eyes. “Jacob! What’s your theory about this tree thing? You think it’s got magical powers or something?”
Jacob hit back his brother’s serve—“This maple tree? Well kind of actually. I’m kind of respectful of trees. A tree is energy turned into bark and leaves and such, a pretty damn magical process you gotta admit, but Mike, it’s not a question of trees. There’s energy everywhere. All around us. Me, too, I’m energy going in, energy going out, changing and changing. We’re made of it—of energy. You took physics. Energy can never be lost. Right? ‘Conservation of energy.’ Like when we die, we just change forms. So I lift up my hands to the tree and I touch this eternal energy. Adonoy Echad: God is One.”
Michael didn’t believe that for a moment. He still doesn’t. Jacob is conflating different meanings of energy. When Jacob says energy, he doesn’t mean the energy of the physicist; it’s energy seen by mystics. Isn’t it enough, this amazing world of ours, without all that about holiness and God? Ah, give your brother a break.
Jacob felt the Divine Presence around him. He sang about it in his songs. He raised his hands, palms up, as if to gather it in and offer it to Michael. “The world is grounded in God,” Jacob said, looking around him as if everywhere he could see the signature of God. “It throbs with God. Like a divine pulse. If you’re quiet, you can hear. Ahh, Mikey. You—you just pretend to be a materialist.”
“Why is materialist a dirty word? A sailboat is a material thing, but it makes you feel free. Now, that’s the kind of spirituality I can understand.”
Michael has been, financially, a lot more successful than Jacob, who struggled to get by as opening act on the tours of the famous, as “recording artist” making a pittance, in spite of great reviews; from solo gigs at small clubs and the sale of CDs or downloads. Michael was also more wealthy than their parents, Naomi Schulman, the head of the language department at Newton North High, and Nathan Schulman, a professor of Judaic Studies at Brandeis. Not a problem. Their dad didn’t at all mind driving a used Prius while Michael drove a BMW. Michael had, by thirty-three, built and sold a business, was growing another. Nathan, Naomi, Jacob cheered.
And then one night, between sets, Jacob took a breather out the backdoor of the small Boston club where he was playing, wearing an embroidered blousy pirate shirt his girlfriend had made for him, a pretty shirt he used on stage. He was sharing a beer with his bass player when a couple of nasty drunks came down the alley and started heckling, putting him down. “Yo! Faggot in that faggot shirt. You come here and blow me.”
Jacob waved them away and headed for the backdoor of the club. The bass player, a big guy, wasn’t going to take shit. He pulled out a long-bladed knife. “Please, Danny, put that away,” Jacob said. “Let’s get back inside.”
The bass player backed away, waving the blade side to side. They were almost to the door when one of the drunks pulled a gun tucked in his belt and shot twice—one shot hitting Danny in the belly. He dropped, bunched over, screaming. Jacob tried to get inside but the two guys charged, and he was shoved to the ground and kicked in the head, kicked again and again. They took turns and he was unconscious. Danny, the bass player, was writhing in pain.
“C’mon, c’mon!”—the guy with a gun said. And they ran down the alley. Now the club’s bouncer came out and, seeing what was happening, dialed 9-1-1, took off his shirt and wrapped it around Jacob’s head.
Jacob lived for three days. Before he dropped into a coma, he mumbled to his brother, “Mike? I’m not going to die, am I? I feel like I’m sometimes in another world.”
“Don’t be an idiot. You’ll be fine.”
But he wasn’t fine. A cerebral hemorrhage no one anticipated, and he was gone.
Now comes the grieving. Michael and Naomi comforting and taking comfort, though there is no comfort. It’s spring in Boston; the trees are blooming. That only makes it harder. After the funeral, for almost a week they sit shiva in the family home, mirrors covered. The first night, Rabbi Fogel comes to the house to lead a service. He knows Jacob well—has known both Michael and Jacob as children, officiated at the big conservative synagogue when they became bar mitzvah. Friends, family speak. It seems like group therapy. Michael doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t want to cry.
But the next morning, the next night, it’s a very different rabbi, Rabbi Alter, who comes to the house. He leads services, says little. A peculiar, dark figure, not old, maybe forty, forty-five, the rabbi of a tiny basement shul and house of study—a shtiebel. He seems to Michael the last rabbi on earth to have inspired his passionate brother. The nephew of a well-known rabbi in Brooklyn, who leads a minor Hasidic sect—unlike this uncle he has little charisma and less of a congregation. Yet Jacob had grown close to him. He used to tell Michael about Rabbi Alter. And knowing that the rabbi was important to Jacob, Nathan Schulman, himself perfectly capable of leading a service, permits Alter to lead. Nathan sits holding Naomi’s hand—two children, eyes closed, hardly paying attention to the quiet chanting.
Jacob, singer-songwriter of love songs human and divine, used to attend, when he was in town, Rabbi Alter’s side-street congregation in Brookline, a gathering of men, only men. Mostly in black. Now, after the family has stopped sitting shiva, Michael attends one weekday morning. It’s not a question of belief. Michael simply wants to get it right, somehow, for his beautiful dead brother—though Jacob won’t know one way or the other. At the shtiebel he attends morning service and says Kaddish. He’s not the only one.
The shtiebel is in a basement. Rough reading desks were hammered together out of recycled, oiled wood by one of the men who prayed and studied there. There are some wooden chairs, some folding chairs, a beautiful, tarnished lamp from the remains of a synagogue in Prague hanging from the ceiling. Wire is stapled down the wall. Light in the rest of the room is from sickly yellow energy-saving bulbs. It’s a small room, cement-block with a painted cement post in the middle, an ark with two small Torah scrolls, wooden shelves with shabby commentaries and prayer books given by a big synagogue that’s been updating their editions, a leather-bound set of Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic with English translation. In the dim light of the narrow basement windows at head level, Rabbi Binyamin Alter is as gray as his beard, matter-of-fact, drab, slight, eyes cast down, quiet to the point of seeming depressed. He’s mildly asthmatic, and the asthma seems like a condition of his being, as if to breathe in this world were problematic. And he seems so separate from other people.
He looks at Michael for a moment, then looks away. Why did Jacob think this guy was so holy? And now Michael is amused: The rabbi’s polyester coat is so clean and pressed, the beard trimmed and with no crumbs of food. Meaning, for Michael, that Alter doesn’t even have the crumples and grease stains of imagined old-world wonder-rabbis.
Even Jacob, Michael remembers, was a little embarrassed by all the black. “But it’s a custom, Mikey. And Rabbi Alter doesn’t mind if I get more colorful. Rabbi Alter, he’s the real thing. You see it when he smiles at you.”
But Rabbi Alter doesn’t smile.
So why does Michael come back? He’s busy, especially mornings, and not only for his work. He and his parents have to dismantle Jacob’s rented apartment and to store or take his things. Michael takes a few shirts that feel like Jacob to him, takes a pair of worn sneakers, photos, Beatles CDs, a T-shirt advertising Jacob’s own music. He takes a notebook with the lyrics of half-written songs, a cassette recorder with Jacob humming melodies. He takes a few well-thumbed books.
So much to do, and he’s so filled with the absence of Jacob. Still, he drives to the shtiebel on weekday mornings. Standing, feet together, trying to read the Aramaic smoothly, he recites the Mourners’ Kaddish.
Some nights Michael and his fiancée, Renee, have dinner with his parents. Renee wants to be a part of their life, especially now, to offer comfort, though she’s often too busy to join him. She’s on a state senator’s staff part-time and studying at the Kennedy School of Government for a master’s in public policy. To see his parents is to amplify his pain, to bring his mourning to a higher pitch, but he needs them and they need him.
One night when Renee is there and he’s washing dishes while she straightens the dining room, he catches her standing in the doorway and staring at him, and he realizes—oh!—I’ve been talking aloud to myself, and she’s been hearing. “Hey!” he laughs. “I’m not crazy, Renee. It’s just that some-times, especially lately,” he says, lifting his hands in surrender, “I talk to myself. Okay?”
“I know. I know, honey. But Michael, this is different. Do you realize you’re not just talking to yourself? You’re talking to Jacob.” She waits for him to take this in. “And Michael? Sometimes it’s like Jacob is talking back to you. It’s his voice talking. You imitate him. There’s a dialogue.”
“It’s just a hard time, honey. Like, you won’t believe this. Know where I went this morning? To services. I’ve been going.”
“You went with your father? To services at Brandeis?”
“No. To that little guy in black who led services here.”
Back home alone in his apartment in the South End, he examines the pile of books on the side table by his bed and chooses what to read to Jacob. Is it Rumi tonight? Or Szymborska? A short story by Chekhov? What’s your plea-sure, Jacob? He sits at the end of his bed across from the memory shelf. So foolish, to think—if that’s what he thinks—he can channel Jacob by this reading. Jacob would laugh, Read for yourself, Michael. What do you want to read? But this way of reading to Jacob soothes Michael. It makes him read very differently. It’s not that the gap disappears—the gap between the living and the dead. If anything, it makes him look down dizzily into the gap—it’s bigger than the Grand Canyon.
He tries reading a chapter from Walden—reads in Jacob’s own voice. Since Renee made him aware, he’s been hearing that voice of Jacob’s. Because Jacob loved words, because he wrote songs and poems, Michael can hear just how Jacob’s voice would sound, reading. The rhythm of his speech. And then the reading turns to conversation.
-I saw your friend Rabbi Alter. I said Kaddish for you again this morning.
-That’s great, Mike. The big secret is that the Kaddish is for you.
-Don’t you think I know that?
But does he know that? Is it true? He thinks—for me? For me? Next morning Michael goes back to the shtiebel in Brookline—between service and driving he loses an hour and a half of his morning. Maybe that’s why he does it—to give up something for his brother, not do mourning by rote.
He notices that again he’s the tenth man, the one who makes it possible for there to be a minyan, to have organized prayers. The day before, the day before that, he’d been the last to arrive; today, he was one of the first—but each day, without him there’d have been no minyan. He mumbles as much of the text as he can; he was good in Hebrew as a child, but oh, it’s just sound now. He really doesn’t know much of what he’s praying. Yesterday one of the younger men led services; this morning the rabbi is leading—murmuring, murmuring.
What the hell am I doing here? I’m being so phony. But as the congregation chants the Shema, he finds himself heaving hot breath and tears, as if tears were burning in his chest. And he can’t stop. He keeps his face turned from the others, he wipes his cheeks with quick motions of the back of his hand. But the rabbi sees. Michael sees that he sees. Now he feels shame, as if he’s weeping in order to impress Rabbi Alter.
The service goes on; he collects himself. Last night he practiced saying the Mourners’ Kaddish. This morning he recites it smoothly, as if he suddenly understood the Aramaic. He glances across the page to the translation…May His great name grow exalted...Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, mighty, upraised, and lauded....What can all that mean? It’s not even about the dead—about his lost brother. But he finds himself hungry to speak the words.
Michael removes and folds away his tallit, hangs it on the rack. He thanks the rabbi and turns to leave. Rabbi Alter says, out of the blue, “Michael? I think when you weep, you’re weeping not just for your beloved brother, may his memory be for a blessing.”
“Oh?” Michael’s hackles go up. “You’re saying it’s for me, then? For myself?”
“I wonder. Do you see?”
“Rabbi? You’re saying that maybe—well, maybe I’m mourning an empty place in myself?”
“That I can’t know. I can’t know that. Forgive me for being so direct, but I feel I know you. When I see you, I see your brother.”
“Oh! We’re so different, me and Jacob. You wouldn’t believe. Jacob was so good. So much better than me.”
The rabbi doesn’t answer. Michael takes this as an answer. He’s annoyed. What am I doing this for? To hell with him. He vows not to return. I don’t need that guy’s judgment.
But two days later, he does return. He tells himself, well, it’s for Jacob.
It’s a Thursday. On Mondays and Thursdays they chant three passages from the Torah portion of the week. A congregant comes up to bless the Torah for each passage. Today, Michael is the third. He stumbles over the blessing; it doesn’t matter. The rabbi drones Torah so that the words stream together: pure sound. Not that Michael would understand the Hebrew if Rabbi Alter chanted it like some great cantor. Michael’s mind floats off and off.
Somehow, in the gap, he’s aware that he’s aware of the presence of Jacob. Jacob is not in one single place in the shtiebel; but he’s really here. Michael knows. Oh, not that he’s present as a ghost, a spirit in pants and shirt. No. Simply, he’s here. Michael closes his eyes. He thinks of this as absolute craziness, it’s grief talking. God, I do need help. But he doesn’t want to lose it, this presence, crazy or not.
No Jacob, of course, during the rest of the day—his time at work. He’s busy; it’s not till 9:30 he can get home with a couple of slices of pizza. In his apartment, protected from anyone overhearing, Michael sits on the end of the bed and talks to Jacob. Not that Jacob is present as he was at the shtiebel. Michael asks,
What kind of brother are you?
What are you doing to me?
Are you doing?
“Read to me,” Michael’s Jacob whispers. “Read me a psalm.”
“You say that because you know that the psalms are hard for me. You know I don’t have faith.”
Jacob, who isn’t there, whose presence isn’t even invoked by his memory shelf, just laughs—of course only in Michael’s head. Michael sits across from the shelf and reads.
When he returns to the shtiebel the following week, he’s wearing Jacob’s favorite shirt—not the pirate shirt Jacob sometimes wore on stage and wore the night he was beaten, but the light blue silk shirt with broad open collar he wore the last few years on family occasions. In the car Michael has left a business suit, a shirt and tie, for when he goes to his office.
During the service he tries to make the Hebrew words invoke the spirit of Jacob. Of course nothing happens—nothing. Jacob’s absent. It’s a dreary, dusty room with a bunch of religious guys, some in black, some in jeans, praying. Only when he gives up all attempts to contact Jacob and, along with the rabbi, chants what he can of the eighteen blessings of the Amidah, and when, along with one other man, he recites the Mourners’ Kaddish, recites it for its own sake, not as magic spell but as testament, only then does Jacob slowly come to Michael. No—not exactly “come”—Jacob simply permeates the room again. He’s in the musty smell of old books. Michael senses him in the odors of the room, in sweat and mold, in the dust caught in two parallelograms of sunlight that come down into the shtiebel through the dirty basement windows. Michael opens his hands and, in a sense, touches his brother. Well, something hovers between his hands; there’s warmth in his fingers and on his cheeks. He wouldn’t dare say any of this to the rabbi; he’d be ashamed. It would sound like sorcery, witchcraft, which is, Michael remembers, cursed in Torah. May his memory be for a blessing implies that he’s gone—as much according to Torah as for a skeptic like me. He’s here only in memory.
He doesn’t want to leave the shtiebel after services, doesn’t want to go to work. If this is where Jacob is most present, this is where Michael wants to be. A young boy, surely one of the rabbi’s many children, comes in and puts scattered prayer books on a shelf, then goes off to school. A young man in black sits murmuring, barely audibly, in sing-song, a passage of, maybe, Talmud.
What am I doing here? When I’m so busy downtown.
The rabbi stands by Michael and puts a hand on his shoulder. “The Kaddish, you should know, it’s not just for you. It may comfort you, but it’s not just therapy. Some say that for the first eleven months, when you recite Kaddish you are giving comfort to the soul of your departed; after, that soul can win you favor in heaven. Do you believe that?”
“No. Not at all. Sorry, Rabbi.”
“No, you don’t believe. I know. That’s all right. Belief doesn’t matter.”
“Rabbi? I have to tell you—I’ve been sensing his presence, Jacob’s presence.” He waves his hand in the air. “Here, right here.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” the rabbi says, and finally smiles—smiles at Michael. Jacob was right. It’s unexpected. A loving smile. Michael stares; does the rabbi notice?
The rabbi goes to his office at the back of the shtiebel. Michael isn’t ready to leave. As an excuse for staying, he finds a pail and sponge in the cement-block bathroom, finds a ladder, cleaners and paper towels, and, before he goes to work, he washes, rinses and dries the two basement windows and puts the ladder back. He does it as unobtrusively as he can, then puts away the cleaning supplies. He looks at what he’s done and is pleased. Through the window, above on the street, a tree is in its last days of flowering.
Now he goes to the rabbi’s office. “I just want to thank you for morning services. The Kaddish—See, I don’t believe it, what it’s saying, but it turns out to speak to me. It catches me in the chest,” he says, thumping, thumping. “But I notice,” he says, “you’ve got barely enough to make a minyan—just ten men, including me. We’ve been lucky the past few days. If you like, email me your contact list, I’ll make calls to build up your minyan. I’m a pretty good organizer. It’s my way of paying you back.”
The rabbi reaches into a drawer and stirs the papers within. He comes up with a two-page handwritten list. “Active congregants,” he says, handing it to Michael. “And men who study here. Not so active except for ones I’ve starred. I’m not good at making calls. Thank you.”
“I’ll scan the list into my computer.”
“Perhaps you’d like to learn with us?—I teach Talmud Wednesday evenings.”
“Rabbi—what we were talking about the other day. About some missing part of myself? It was alive in Jacob. That’s what I need to learn. I don’t think it’s something you can teach in a class.”
I’m calling for Rabbi Alter. My name is Michael Schulman. We need you whenever you can make it in the morning for services. 7:30. But even part of the service—a few minutes—would be great. I need to say Kaddish—others, too. We’d really, really appreciate it.
Again and again and again for half an hour.
Renee sits at her computer in his living room. When he’s done, when he comes to sit by her, bringing her a glass of wine as guilt offering, she says, “Mike? You don’t expect me to cut my hair and wear a wig?”
“Oh, Renee. You know I’m not like that.”
“Oh—I do know. I’m joking. But lately I’ve been wondering. Reading to him? I dearly love you. I love your devotion to your brother. But should I be worried?”
Next morning there are twelve at minyan; the next morning, fifteen. As services begin, the rabbi simply nods to Michael in acknowledgment. It’s not a question of belief, Michael says and says again. Then of what is it a question? As the men unstrap their tefillin, Rabbi Alter reads quickly through a few psalms. From the facing page Michael whispers the English translation to Jacob. I search for You, / my soul thirsts for You, / my body yearns for You, / as a parched and thirsty land that has no water.
And he gets it. Oh.
Tonight, alone, Michael sits across from his memory shelf and reads a few psalms to Jacob. He reads tonight with a whole heart.
“You see, Jacob, it’s not a question of faith. I understand. The psalmist has plenty of faith—sometimes so much you want to say, Stop, enough already! But he’s a troubled guy, this psalmist. Like me. We haven’t got the Word. All we’ve got is our longing.”
“The psalmist is hungry for justice. Why, he asks, do You hide Your face from me? Or why, he asks, do the wicked triumph? I saw the wicked at ease....It’s true. It’s true. Lawlessness enwraps them as a mantle. The wicked run from the alley, leaving you to die. You lie beneath the ground, while your killers go free. How can we handle that, you and I?”
Michael reads to Jacob of pain, he reads to Jacob words of longing—the longing of some-one long ago, yet not so different from now, from himself.
Not so different from you, Jacob.
Let me read to you our longing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Reading to Jacob
Must-Reads from Magazine
Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.