American Jews Stop Smiling For Netanyahu’s Israel (What is the “Genesis Prize” That Natalie Portman Turned Down?)

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(Jacob & 12 Sons) Savage Jews (Francisco de Zurbarán)

zurb JacobZurb ReubenZurb SimeonZurb LeviZurb Judah-cc-1zurb DanZurb Naphtali_(Francisco_de_Zurbarán)Zurb GadZurb Asher

Zurb Zebulun-cc

4-6-17-Zurbaron-Zabvlon2, 4/6/17, 1:18 PM, 16C, 8000×10407 (0+252), 100%, Repro 1.8 v2, 1/8 s, R53.7, G27.8, B40.5

zurb issacharZurb joseph-ccZurbaran-Benjamin-cc-225x445

What the hell kind of Jews are these? Am not sure I’ve ever seen anything like Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle, which were on view at and soon to leave the Frick. Painted in between 1641 and 1658 by the second best painter in Spain at the time. There’s nothing Mediterranean, nothing smooth skinned and Italian about these big blokes, each painting measuring in at a massive, over-life sized eight feet tall. More like some kind of mountain Jews, hirsute and muscular they make Michelangelo’s Moses look like a weakling. I wonder where he took these models from. I have no idea who these are supposed to look like.

The digital images I grabbed online are misleading insofar as they make the figures and the painting look equal in power and quality. On view at the Frick, they were anything but. The first four sons (Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Judah) are particularly imposing in ways that their brothers are not. They represent, respectively, primogeniture, martial violence, priesthood, and kingship. The others pale in the authority of their painting. Their color is more pallid in color, less grandly attired, less dramatically figured. Even Joseph fails to impress. On view at the Frick, you approach the painting up close, their feet being there at eye level; they loom over you, so you better stand back.

Here’s what I grabbed from the website at the Frick:

The iconography of Zurbarán’s remarkable series is derived from the blessings of Jacob in Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis, a poem that has significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. On his deathbed, Jacob called together his sons, who would become the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He bestowed on each a blessing, which foretold their destinies and those of their tribes. Jacob’s prophecies provide the basis for the manner in which the figures are represented in Zurbarán’s series. For his compositions, the artist drew inspiration from northern European prints.

The series was likely intended for export to the New World. In seventeenth-century Spain, it was commonly believed that indigenous peoples of the Americas were descended from the so-called “lost tribes of Israel.” The paintings, however, did not come to light until the 1720s in England when they appeared at auction and were purchased by a Jewish merchant. In 1756 they were acquired by Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham, a supporter of Jewish rights. Trevor hung them in the dining room at Auckland Castle, where they have remained for over 250 years. A two-year restoration of Auckland Castle presents this extraordinary study and exhibition opportunity.

Alluded to in only vague terms at the website is what went mentioned on the wall texts at the musuem. They tell us that Trevor supported the so-called Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 allowing for naturalization of foreign-born Jews, primarily merchants. It was passed against Tory opposition and then revoked in 1754 in response to an outburst of anti-Semitism on the part of the public.

According to the reviewer at NYT, “In 1756, Bishop Trevor hung them in Auckland Castle’s dining room, where they had more than decorative impact. The bishop was a keen defender of English Jews, who were enfranchised by an act of Parliament in 1753, only to see the act repealed a year later amid anti-Semitic public protest. Diners at the bishop’s table would have sat under the reproving gazes of these Old Testament figures, Jewish forefathers of the church’s good fortune.”

But I’d have to say, if I had these Jews arrayed over my dinner, I’m not sure I’d have wanted them in my country either. These paintings are magnificent creatures, beyond good and evil.

This clip, which you can see here from the Meadows Museum, is superb


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Israel-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony (Guest Post by Meirav Jones)

yom zikaron

Independence Day in Israel always follows Yom Ha’Zikaron or Memorial Day, a somber, affectively charged day on which, primarily, the Jewish tribal majority in Israel mourns its fallen soldiers. Between thoughtlessness and thoughtfullness, this is a highpoint in Civic Religion in Israel. Viewed one way, the coupling of the two days represents an ideologically mindless and automatic sanctification of death, in particular the death of young people, and the sanctification of the State. Viewed another way, the coupling of the two days highlights the Akeidah character of the Zionist project, how grave human and moral costs complicate the reality and the celebration of political independence. About this year’s alternative joint Israel-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony, you can read here this article at Haaretz. With her kind permission, I am posting this personal reflection from Meirav Jones which she posted at Facebook about the event, her participation, and the significance of the event as it relates to creating a shared human space in the climate of hatred, fear, and incitement now so much part of and even dominating the public sphere in Israel.

What follows are her words:

Last night I was at the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony, and I feel the need to share what I felt with those who wish to read, even though it was a very personal experience and strikes really at the essence of my being, and my being here. I admit to being a little afraid to go. Incitement to violence against “traitors” is part of mainstream discourse right now, and I have small children (who stayed home). We knew there were thugs arriving in buses to protest, and last year they had thrown urine. We could hear their protests from 600 meters away. The ceremony which has been running for 13 years couldn’t hire a venue this year because no one would rent to them. Performers cancelled their performances because they had received threats. But we went. And so did over 6000 other people. To me it was clear to me that I had to go. That this is how I remember. Not in a bubble or with self-righteousness, but with an honest reflection on the price of ongoing war and with compassion for those who have lost their loved ones. Over 6000 people had walked past calls that they were traitors and haters into a peaceful space. We did it to BE in a peaceful space while we remember. Not a space of us and them, but a space of humanity which was tangible. Some would call the presence I felt there, divine. The call was to end the cycle of violence. To insist on Israel being a home, not a fortress. To encourage us never to be bolts in the system. To remember where we’ve come from and where we are going. To be a nation that wakes up as a human. David Grossman, the Israeli author who lost his son in the army, dared us to hope that in the next 70 years, whatever the words of the anthem are for whichever group in the population, we will together – Israelis and Palestinians and those on the land – sing “lihiyot am hofshi be’artZeinu”, “to be a free people in our land”, because we will be, free in our land. The ceremony ended with an all-womens group singing had Gadya in Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. I will look for the rendition to post in a comment. With this end to pesach, I finally feel ready to celebrate freedom; what we’ve achieved of it so far.

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Affect + Cognition = Affecognitive (Gail Hamner)

Gail Affect

Affect and cognition would seem to be an oxymoron. Colleague and friend Gail Hamner thinks otherwise, coining the term affecogitive to get at the imbrication of these two phenomena, namely the imbrication of affect into cognition and cognition into affect. For Hamner, affect is always a “disturbance” in thought and of thought.

The neologism has gotten attention and it is deserving of more. Citing Hamner, the term figures prominently in the introduction by John Corrigan to the edited volume Feeling Religion, an important contribution to the study of religion by way of affect theory, and in Hamner’s reading there of three films, Trembling Before God, For the Bible, and Jesus Camp. The relation of affect and (rational) cognition is also explored in the essays there by Diana Fritz Cates and Mark Wynn on Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, respectively, but without the moniker.

Hamner’s primary concern with affect is in the intersection between hegemony, commonsense, and ideology in the public sphere. In her contribution to Thinking Religion, affects are triggered in response to “unexpected disturbance” in expected norms (p.111, cf. 102). Hamner identifies three distinct moments in the operation of affect: [1] There is the affective register operative in relation to particular public cultures. (Hamner captures keenly the “sensorial presentation of the warm communal aesthetic of Jewish family life in Trembling Before God {p.106}), [2] displays of emotional impropriety that break with the general norm, and [3] the way an enacted disturbance elucidates primary operative norms while sustaining the potential to alter the very form of public culture (p.95).

I was unable, however, to find a succinct and more technical definition of the term, although I was sure I had seen one somewhere. Hamner suggested that it was somewhere in this essay in Feeling Religion or perhaps in her blog Affecognitive: religion, film, affect, academia (see the link below).  But it didn’t seem to be there. Eventually she found her mention of the term in an as-yet unpublished paper, which she then posted at her blog, and which I want to copy here.

This is what Hamner means by the affecognitive:

Put succinctly, affecognitive posits that all cognition embeds affect. As C. S. Peirce would say, all Thirdness includes Firstness, that is, all concept, generality, or law embeds quality, intensity, and possibility—and all affect arises out of a streambed of existing and sedimented thoughts and feelings.* The term is phenomenological and critical; it does not enter cognitive science debates about the origins and causes of cognition (thoughts) and feelings (named affects).


In considering familiar twentieth-century analyses of hegemony, commonsense, and ideology, it is clear that the success of these cultural and economic critiques lay in part in their agile attention to the powers of the ordinary and the everyday to thread together the habits of thought and feeling within communities, societies, and nations. Hegemony, common sense, and ideologies are particular social fabrics that constitute the comfortable vestments of quotidian social interaction, and critiques of them are critiques of those patterns of comfort and those vestments of power.


My contribution to this line of thinking is the term affecognitive, by which I intend to encompass the social nexus of sensation and understanding, like Rancière and Foucault, but in ways that stress the biological channeling of this nexus through the impulses and intensities of affect (e.g., chemicals, electricity, pheromones, subconscious awareness). Rancière and Foucault emphasize the social distribution of human sensation and practical reason, but my term inverts the lens and emphasize the biological condensation and flashpoint of the social. Affecognitive is about bodies; it refers to the ways in which the social circulation of affect (re)settles in a body and weaves into that body’s extant physical and psychological makeup. In referring to the biological, I do not claim it as a dimension of life cleanly separable from the social (epigenetics newly clarifies this imbrication), but neither is the biological simply reducible to the social. My premise is this: If in today’s world of intensifying social media and media prosthetics, the social comes to biological bodies predominantly through visual and sound images, the fabric of social life—biological, technological, institutional, and temporal—requires the actions and reactions of affecognitive circuits to generate, sustain, and (also) interrupt social consensus.

For the genealogy of this term in her thinking, see here the complete blogpost. Affect saturates her reading of film in Imaging Religion in Film as well as in her two essays on the Coen Brothers in Elijah Siegler (ed.), Coen: Framing Religion in Amoral Order.

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What in the Hell is The Death of Stalin?

Death of Stalin

Wow! What in the hell was that? And what was it supposed to be? The Death of Stalin was billed as a comedy, but that’s not what it was. Sure there was slapstick, jokes, and one-liners, and bumbling idiocy. But that is not what propels the film, which is not funny, not really. Nor, frankly, was it really about “the death of Stalin,” with whom the film is done relatively early going in. Post-genre, The Death of Stalin mixes comedy into horror, into satirical farce, into the cinema of cruelty that was socialist realism. Slapstick is the least of the film. Not about the death of Stalin, the telos of the film lies in the execution of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the secret police and chief executioner, the burning of his corpse, and the disposal of the ash. The mirth is mirthless.

How one gauges the comic in all this will depend in part by how one understands comedy. Let’s assume for the moment that Aristotle was right in part. The characters in a comedy are, indeed, mean or base persons, not noble persons, but not as in The Death of Stalin, actually the meanest and basest ones, played up here as primarily ludicrous.  “Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type, not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain” (Poetics, chapters 4 & 5).

Where does this leave The Death of Stalin, a not-funny comedy about total brutality and the brutalization of people? Is the film an “uproarious, wickedly irreverent satire” as per the blurb at Rotten Tomatoes? Has evil been made funny, as per the headline for the review at the New Yorker? There Anthony Lane called the film “dumbfounding,” without plumbing deeply what that might actually mean. Again, as per Aristotle, comedy represents people as worse than they are in actual life, whereas The Death of Stalin puts us at the bottom of human depravity. In comedy, enemies become friends. According to Aristotle, they leave the stage with no one killed and no one killing, whereas The Death of Stalin is nothing but about the pain of killing and being killed.

Speaking personally. In the last of a long series of executions, by the time Khrushchev and Marshall Zhukov execute Beria, I was just gasping for air, glad to be done with the these violent people and their satirical caricature, finished with a genuinely and brilliantly “dumbfounding” film that should leave you unsure what precisely to think about the utterly mordant spectacle and utterly atrocious people played for a not-so-cheap laugh.

About the film I’m not being completely disingenuous. In fact, we know that The Death of Stalin is primarily a sub-species of comedy. But how do we “know” that? How is that comedic impulse maintained? It does so by keeping up its guard. For all the killing in the film, Iannucci only shows two corpses, Stalin’s and Beria’s. It is around their bodies that the movie pivots and pitches. What keeps the slapstick in its constant and dizzying motion is the degree to which this is not, after all, a “serious” movie, despite the fact that there is not a shred of cuteness about it. To maintain the genuinely comic momentum, the camera never stops to dwell upon the corpses of the victims. That’s what I mean by non-serious. The camera shows us killing, not death. I don’t mean by this remark an ethical indictment of the film, which is, indeed, something of a masterpiece, but only to suggest that “the corpse” might be the limit that defines the genre of mordant or so-called “black comedy.”

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(Syracuse University) Jewish Studies Fall 2018 (Looks Like)

POS REL 131 Great Jewish Writers_KF_MCRPOS REL 114 2018 Fall_JWWPOS REL 135_Intro to Judaism_2018 flyer_ZB_MCRFall 2018 COURSES -JSP FlyerPoster HON 340POS REL 300_Holocaust-Memory-Visual-Arts_SGruber_Fall'18_3POS REL 435_Modern_Jewish_Thought_distrib_ZB_MCRPOS REL 333-Yiddish Lit in Trans_KF_MCR_Fall'18

A small program, we take visual presence with a lot of seriousness in the Department of Religion and in the Jewish Studies Program. Jewish Studies should look like something. It should have a look, projected out into the public sphere. One thing for sure. We have a serious gender problem that needs to be fixed seriously. Working on it asap.

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LSD & Religion (Teaching Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz at Syracuse University)


In class today talking about Richard Rubenstein’s After Auscwitz (1966), I suggested to the students that the turn away from a personal God towards the impersonal God of mysticism was a hallmark of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is to say, that what Rubenstein early on called “paganism” turns out to be just mystical, which today is more or less common, even banal, but which wasn’t then, at least not yet or only as an emergent phenomenon. I claimed further that LSD had no small part to play in this transformation of religious consciousness at that inflection point in time. Innocently, I then recommended to my students that they actually ask their rabbis, priests, and ministers, assuming that they were my age or just a bit older, if they dropped acid when they were their age and how that may have influenced the way they thought about God, spirituality, and religion. I got a very good rise out of them. Animated but naive, my students know nothing about even the near past. What’s funny is that they can neither believe nor imagine that their rabbis, priests, and ministers did drugs, and that this may have had some important influence on the way they understand the world about them. The question itself, in turn, turned on the questioner.

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