New Traditions for Turbulent Times
2022 04 04
From Outside the Circle
Review in the Jewish Socialist (Spring 2022) by Gabriel Moshenska (@GabeMoshenska) of There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Jewish Anarchists, edited by Cindy Milstein (AK Press, 2021)
“Cindy Milstein is a long-time activist and organiser, and the author or editor of several excellent books including Anarchism and its Aspirations, a short and engaging primer of anarchist thought. There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Jewish Anarchists is an edited anthology of essays, rants, poems and artworks – there’s even an annotated Purim spiel and a rabbinical rumination on Jewish time.
“At the core of this book there are two powerful, consistent threads. The first is positive: the emergence (or, better, resurgence) of openly, distinctively Jewish dimensions within contemporary anarchist communities, primarily in the US. Milstein and the contributors to the book identify trends in this resurgence including celebrations of Yiddish and Ladino languages and cultures, religious practices reshaped around feminist and queer identities, and a focus of anti-Zionist and antifascist organising. This last trend points towards the second powerful thread that runs through this book: the murder of 11 Jewish congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist in October 2018.
“The shock, grief and rage at these murders flows out from chapter after chapter. The responses are as disparate as you might expect: the Rebellious Anarchist Young Jews (RAYJ) Collective created artworks and held an antifascist shabbat to mark the anniversary of the killings; Jordana Rosenfeld joined the Pittsburgh Chevra Kadisha; they and many others come together to hold a radical shiva in the street to prevent President Trump’s motorcade from reaching the synagogue. In the chapters and artworks of this book, the Tree of Life massacre becomes a thing to be held up, remembered, sung about, and cried over. In this, Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart seems a very fitting follow-on from Milstein’s 2017 book Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, another anthology of essays, artworks and creative writing from AK Press.
“In the current book, Milstein reflects on Joe Hill’s defiant ‘don’t mourn – organize!’ and the sense of futility around both of these actions: ‘Given the magnitude of the new forms of brutality that we face, there’s a palpable sense of despair about the possibility of organizing. … And even if we wanted to mourn, we come up against another contemporary conundrum: the theft of our traditions around grief— whether from colonialization and capitalism, or relatedly, Christian dominance—and thus the loss of knowing how to grieve well or at all, much less in community with others.’
“At the end of Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart one is left with a powerful impression that for many Jewish anarchists, primarily but not exclusively in the US, the reclamation of Jewish rituals and the building of open, loving communities around these practices and calendars has opened up spaces for both mourning and organising.
“Amongst many other things, Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart is a powerful defence and celebration of ritual – both Jewish and anarchist. As Jay Tzyia Helfand writes, ‘Our rituals are tools to carry culture. They offer technologies for us to wield our power, channeling legacies of resistance. They invite us to drop into our feeling and longing, moving with precision and spirit toward the world that we’re fighting for.’ For the contributors to this anthology, rituals are tools to build and sustain communities, to circumscribe spaces and times, to experience with the body, and to build into memory. And rituals, like traditions, can be created and recreated to serve new purposes: in the chapter ‘Ritual Technology for a Liberated Future,’ Jay Tzyia Helfand offers a ritual for transgender Jews to follow when taking estrogen or testosterone, including lighting a candle and reciting Shehecheyanu. There is radical potential in old rituals too, like the messages of liberation in the Pesach story. Yael Leah and Yaelle Caspi describe a seder held outside the offices of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection. rosza daniel lang/levitsky lists additions to the traditional seder plate: the beetroot, the orange, the crust of bread, and olives to represent Palestinian solidarity.
“There are too many wonderful stories and treats in this book to do justice to them all. Ali Nissenbaum’s ‘Ghosts of Lublin: Memory and Grief’ is an engaging tale of contemporary Holocaust tourism, Zionism and Polish nationalism, heritage and diasporas. Milstein’s own ‘Antisemitism Hurts’ reads like a punch in the gut. Ami Weintraub’s reflections on the shootings at the Tree of Life – where he worked – draws on his family history in Russia at the time of pogroms, to recognise that beneath the thin veneer of assimilation in American Judaism there remains a rarely acknowledged cultural resilience to violence and trauma. The papercuts, posters and paintings by artists including Jay Saper and Wendy Elisheva Somerson pepper the book with new and old Jewish image-making traditions, turned to radical ends.
“How refreshing it is to read a book in which Palestinian solidarity is assumed, if not taken for granted. In which left antisemitism is treated as an unpleasant everyday reality rather than a divisive political football. Most powerfully, this is a book that illustrates a few dozen different ways of living an angry, ambiguous, difficult relationship with Jewishness and the defiant pleasures of conjuring up distinctively Jewish atmospheres within or adjacent to radical spaces. I cycled across town in the rain to buy Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart from the Amsterdam anarchist bookshop, and read it more rapidly and hungrily than any book I can remember. I lent it to a Jewish anarchist friend with the sense that I was prescribing a cure for something. I have recommended it to anarchist friends who are not Jewish and now I would like to recommend it to Jewish comrades who are (perhaps) not anarchists.”