Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is now writing about his last days. I have always found his insights to be fascinating. Recently in the New York Times, he wrote an op-ed titled "Sabbath" where he describes his lifelong feelings about his Jewish identity -- as an adult and as a public figure, he's always been a secular Jew.

He begins with his early years, growing up in an Orthodox family in England, his separation from all Jewish practice after his Bar Mitzvah, and his current thoughts on his Jewish identity. He wrote:
I chanted my bar mitzvah portion in 1946 to a relatively full synagogue, including several dozen of my relatives, but this, for me, was the end of formal Jewish practice. I did not embrace the ritual duties of a Jewish adult — praying every day, putting on tefillin before prayer each weekday morning — and I gradually became more indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents, though there was no particular point of rupture until I was 18. It was then that my father, inquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.
His family were totally unaccepting, especially his mother, and he cut himself off from them, mostly.

He moved from England to the US in 1960. Eventually: "Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct. This did not dissuade me, for I felt my roots lay in the great neurological case histories of the 19th century ... . It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years." 

Under the influence of a religious relative, he maintained a certain amount of Jewish consciousness as the years past. In 2014, he describes, he traveled to Israel, where he had last been 60 years before. He wrote: 

I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.  
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

In conclusion:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Friday, April 24, 2015

To Remember the Armenian Genocide

"Armenia, on Day of Rain and Sorrow, Observes 100th Anniversary of Genocide" in the New York Times today describes the commemoration of the terrible events which began 100 years ago today.

The article quotes the speech of President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia.The killing,  he said, was “unprecedented in terms of volume and ramifications” at that point in history.
"'The western part of the Armenian people, who for millenniums had lived in their homeland, in the cradle of their civilization, were displaced and annihilated under a state-devised plan,' Mr. Sargsyan said, 'with direct participation of the army, police, other state institutions, and gangs comprising criminals released from the prisons specifically for this purpose.' 
"'Around 1.5 million human beings were slaughtered merely for being Armenian,' he said."
From a NYT article published August 18, 1915:

How shameful that the Turkish president and its official policy still deny these facts of history!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Passover: Hardships of the Past

"My Father's Shtetl Passover Table" by Chaim Goldberg (1917-2004)
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. 
On Passover I think about our grandmothers and great-grandmothers and all the work they did to prepare for the festival, especially during the early years when Jews were new immigrants to the US. Women cleaned their houses compulsively. They put away every-day tableware, cookware, and dishes and washed and prepared their Passover equipment. They had to learn or invent recipes that followed the special added dietary laws of Passover in addition to the rules of kosher food they followed the rest of the year. Often, they were already struggling to feed and care for large families living in poverty. Obviously, some Jewish women still observe all of the dietary laws on Passover and every day; they still struggle with poverty; and so on, but I think the past was really more difficult.

I also think about how lucky these ancestors were to get to America, and how glad I am to live here. Scarcities of food in early spring were a yearly burden to Jews in rural Europe. Passover came at the most difficult moment of the year for people living close to the land. Around the Equinox (that is, at Passover), months have gone by since the fall harvests. Markets offer no fresh vegetables, as none are yet growing. A household larder might still have a small store of produce that was carefully put by last fall, like dried fruit and root vegetables. In early spring, there would also be fewer eggs available, as most hens probably hadn't started laying. Meat would also be seasonally expensive, though for people living on the edge it's virtually always unaffordable.

With all these scarcities, Passover requires Jews to give up bread, which for most people in poor villages such as shtetls provided most of their nutrition. So Passover in the past demanded a very stringent commitment to abstain, not like anything we do now with our supermarkets full of special products that are created for the holiday -- if we decide to abstain at all. Needless to say, the social and communal pressure to remain faithful to dietary laws was also far stronger in the shtetl than in most modern communities. The consequence of deviation from the rules could be overwhelming.

In Eastern Europe, Jewish people experienced all these difficulties. Furthermore, Christian antisemitism and government persecution threatened them more at Easter time. Christian belief was that Jews killed Jesus, and Christians in earlier times often identified the Jews that were alive and living in their neighborhoods as responsible for this atrocity. Since the crucifixion was the central theme of Easter, and Easter and Passover almost always fell during the same week, the worst attacks of antisemitic violence often took place at Passover. Sometimes attacks were fueled by the false accusation that Jews used Christian blood to make matzo.

As a result, Passover in Europe became a season of fear and worry that a pogrom would break out or that any Jewish individual could become the target of accusations and violence. The "blood libel" and other anti-Jewish customs associated with Holy Week and Easter throughout European history are the subject of much research and many books; I've only done a very brief summary here.

Negative experiences from our Jewish past rarely come to the surface during modern Passover celebrations. We do think about the Holocaust, and we think about the many dangers to surviving Jews in modern Europe and Arab countries, and about rising antisemitism in many parts of the world. However, most of us happily ignore the real hardship of giving up bread if it was your main food. We may never have known of the old seasonal scarcity of food, and would rather forget the old season of violence that our ancestors endured.

Chagall: The Exodus
Remembering these things is an important part of my identity as a secular Jew. For me, the idea that all Jews stood at Mount Sinai when Moses gave them the Ten Commandments, that all Jews suffered in the Holocaust, that all Jews have a common past, has a symbolic value even if I do not have a strong religious sense to go with this symbolism.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

New in the World of Golems

I've been reading about the history of golem stories in fiction and popular culture. Besides looking into some serious literary history and criticism, I have checked amazon.com for recent publications in popular lit including some sort of golem. Science fiction, thrillers, literary rehashes of the Golem legends, and more are being written all the time.

Below is some information about a selection of these works. There are many more, including iPhone covers, music, jewelry, and so on.

Clay Lord: Master of Golems,
Volume 1, April 21, 2015
by Jun Suzumoto.
It appears that some type of golems have a role in Japanese manga and games. Clay Lord: Master of Golems is described thus:
"An all new manga series about alchemy and adventure for fans of Full Metal Alchemist. The young and impressionable Clay is nothing short of enthralled by the outside world. Finding interest in the most mundane of details, Clay is a young man with a mysterious past and an awesome power to boot: he has the ability to create and shape golems."

There's evidently a Pokemon character of a golem, as reflected in the trading card above.

About Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman's thriller The Golem of Hollywood, Steven King blurbed:
“An extraordinary work of detection, suspense, and supernatural mystery. I spent three days totally lost in the world Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman have created. This is brilliant, page-turning fiction with mythic underpinnings that give it a special resonance; a rare collaboration where the sum is truly greater than the parts. The book is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It sort of took my breath away.”
The two Kellermans have also written a sequel to this titled The Golem of Paris, which is scheduled for publication next November.

I bought this graphic novel. It's
very disappointing.
An unofficial Minecraft book:
Diary of a Mincraft Golem.
A Minecraft
Golem Action Figure
Not to mention the Minecraft Golem tee shirt!
And finally: a Golem Game for PC
My pick for strangest item: a golem on a pillowcase. I guess it would be good for a kid who wants to have nightmares:

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Paul Erdos (March 26, 1913)

Haaretz today commemorated the birthday of Paul Erdos: "This Day in Jewish History / An eccentric mathematician who spent a lifetime crashing with friends is born: A friend, on Paul Erdos: ‘A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.’" by David B. Green.

From the article: Erdos with Terrence Tao in 1985.
A little more about Erdos, who was born in Hungary, and lived an eccentric nomadic life, despite offers of permanent jobs in mathematics:
"In 1984, when he won the prestigious Wolf Prize in Mathematics, he used nearly all of the $50,000 award to endow a prize in memory of his parents, which is presented by the Israel Mathematical Union. 
"Although Erdos lacked many social graces, he had an innocence and generosity that brought him countless friends and collaborators – more than 500 different people co-authored papers with him. Hence arose the concept of an “Erdos number,” by which people denote the degree of separation between them and Erdos, beginning with one degree for those who actually worked directly with him. Some 200,000 mathematicians are said to have assigned themselves Erdos numbers." -- from the article.

Monday, March 23, 2015

S.Y.Agnon (July 17, 1888)

I don't know how I missed S.Y.Agnon in my list of heroes! He won the Nobel Prize in 1966 for a lifetime of writing fiction.

From the Nobel Prize Committee website:
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970) was born in Buczacz, Eastern Galicia. Raised in a mixed cultural atmosphere, in which Yiddish was the language of the home, and Hebrew the language of the Bible and the Talmud which he studied formally until the age of nine, Agnon also acquired a knowledge of German literature from his mother, and of the teachings of Maimonides and of the Hassidim from his father. In 1907 he left home and made his way to Palestine, where, except for an extended stay in Germany from 1913 to 1924, he has remained to this day. 
At an early age, Agnon began writing the stories which form a chronicle of the decline of Jewry in Galicia. Included among these is his first major publication,Hakhnasat Kalah (The Bridal Canopy), 1922, which re-creates the golden age of Hassidism, and his apocalyptic novel, Oreach Nata Lalun (A Guest for the Night), 1939, which vividly depicts the ruin of Galicia after the First World War. Nearly all of his other writings are set in his adopted Palestine and deal with the replacement of the early Jewish settlement of that country by the more organized Zionist movement after the Second World War. The early pioneer immigrants are portrayed in his epic Temol Shilshom (Only Yesterday), 1945, considered his greatest work, and also in the nightmarish stories of Sefer Hamaasim (The Book of Deeds), 1932.
While these and other works such as Pat Shlema (A Whole Loaf), 1933, andShevuat Emunim (Two Tales), 1943, are enough to assure his stature as the greatest living Hebrew writer, Agnon has also occupied himself with commentaries on the Jewish High Festival, Yamin Noraim (Days of Awe), 1938, on the giving of the Torah, Atem Reitem (Ye Have Seen), 1959, and on the gathering of Hassidic lore, Sifreihem Shel Tzadikim (Books of the Tzadikim), 1960-1961.

Recent Golem Reading

  • Benjamin Ivry, "How the Golem Got Hist Groove Back," Forward, Mach 5, 2015.
  • Elizabeth R. Baer, The Golem Redux, Detroit, 2012.
  • Cathy S. Gelbin, The Golem Returns, Ann Arbor, 2014
  • Gershom Scholem, "The Idea of the Golem" in  On The Kabbalah and Its Symbolism," New York 1965.
  • S.Y.Agnon, To This Day, Transl. Hillel Halkin, New Milford CT, 2009. (Original publication in Hebrew, 1952)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Secular Family Values

A report on 2012 study by the Pew Research Center and additional research by the author of the article describes the values that secular, or non-religious, families impart to their children. Quote:
"Nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of 'questioning everything' and, far above all, empathy. 
"For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule. Treating other people as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs. As one atheist mom who wanted to be identified only as Debbie told me: 'The way we teach them what is right and what is wrong is by trying to instill a sense of empathy ... how other people feel. You know, just trying to give them that sense of what it's like to be on the other end of their actions. And I don't see any need for God in that.'" -- L.A.Times, "How secular family values stack up" by Phil Zuckerman

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Golem Stories

Two famous books about the golem of Prague:
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1914), translated by Mike Mitchell
  • The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague by Yudl Rosenberg (1909), translated by Curt Leviant.
Pursuing my fascination with the development of the golem story, I've recently read both of these books. Each one has an extremely useful and fascinating introduction, offering insights about the authors' originality and background.

I believe that both books had great influence on the huge number of adaptations and appropriations of the Golem story during the last 100 years -- a history that's documented in detail in Wikipedia (accuracy as always unknown and stability of the article unpredictable).

Meyrink's Golem tale is phantasmagorical. The narrator sees words in a book emerge like living creatures. The houses of Prague appear to him to squat like animals. The narrator is never even certain of his own identity.

The appearance of Meyrink's golem is preceded by "eerie portents which presage the irruption of that spectre into the physical world." (p. 59) And people who see the golem are paralyzed with fear at the sight of the hulking figure with a smooth, round head. They are never sure they have witnessed its presence, which manifests only every 33 years.

You can read Meyrink's book as one of those dreams where you keep waking up but you wake up into another dream, becoming more and more disoriented and frightened, and indeed the character of the Puppetmaster, a tale teller in the story, says: "dreams carry within them dark truths, which when I am awake, glimmer faintly in the depths of my soul like the after-images of brightly coloured fairy tales." (p 42)

Yudl Rosenberg's Golem is narrated by an eyewitness to the legendary events in Prague in the days of Rabbi Judah Loew. Rosenberg invented many of the now-classic heroic deeds in which the Rabbi outsmarted the antisemites of Prague by using the Golem to do his bidding. The golem had an invisibility cloak and massive strength, two features that made him especially effective in carrying out his trickster duties and revealing the machinations of Jew-hating evildoers to the more sympathetic authorities. Rosenberg was so effective at making his original tales sound like old legends that most people attribute his creations to folklore.

These two approaches to the Golem as either a figure of fearful danger or as a helpful tool in protecting the Jews are both very fascinating. The straightforward folkish narrative style of Rosenberg contrasts to Meyrink's unreliable narrator: a man who isn't sure of his own identity, much less capable of really explaining what's happening to him. So many other approaches to the idea of a Golem have followed, from serious treatments to those bordering on silliness -- a literary history to savor, I think.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"On the Eve"

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein is a magnificent book but almost unbearable to read. Organized in a fascinating way, the book documents the disintegration of Jewish life in Europe. Each topic is handled brilliantly, in my opinion. The sketches of life in cities with important Jewish populations, the description of the lives of the religious and the assimilated, of luftmenchen, of women, of young people, of various political sides, of scholarly organizations and secular organizations, of social life and work life, and of many other trends are all fascinating. But in each case, the promises of belonging to the greater European society, the promises that Jews had believed in earlier in the twentieth century, were all betrayed as antisemitism took over European thought -- and not solely in Germany.

The Jews' growing consciousness of what was coming, and their ineffective efforts to escape, as well as of the efforts of Jews elsewhere (and the indifference and hostility of so many non-Jews) are harrowing. Wasserstein quotes a number of poems and statements showing how aware and desperate the Jewish people became. For example, a 1938 poem titled "Unser shtetl brent" -- Our town is burning." He quotes both the Yiddish and the translation:
"Everything around is on fire!
And you stand and stare
with folded arms,
and you stand and stare.
Our town is burning."
-- Mordkhe Gebirtig (p. 50)
The last two paragraphs of the book -- unbearable:

"They might be captains of their souls but they were not masters of their fate. Theirs was, for the most part, the agitated ineffectuality of flies sealed in a bottle, slowly suffocating. 
"Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the even of their destruction, waited for the barbarians." (p. 436)
I knew the outlines of this horrific part of history. But the details are important, if you can stand to learn about them.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Nobel Prize

Patrick Modiano has won the Nobel Prize. Although I try to follow French literature a little bit, I had not heard of him. His novels are often set in World War II era France and "themes of memory, alienation and the puzzle of identity." Modiano's father was Jewish, and many of the novels include the big issues of how the French treated the Jews during the war. I plan to read some of his works.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Spinoza House, Rijnsburg

Spinoza's book collection, reassembled by the museum.
During our recent trip to Holland, we visited the Spinoza House in Rijnsburg, near Leiden where we were staying. Spinoza lived in this house from 1661 to 1663; for centuries this bit of history was forgotten, but the connection was rediscovered in 1896, and the museum was established. The Spinoza Society, founded to maintain a museum here, have collected contemporary copies of the books that were listed among Spinoza's possessions.

A corner of the room where
the library is located.
A lens-grinding apparatus, supposedly like that of Spinoza.
Spoon rack from that era.
Portrait of Spinoza, presumably a copy.
Tiled floor and baseboard in hall of the house.
Statue of Spinoza in the garden.
Outside the house -- our friends are getting ready to ride bikes
back to Leiden; we took the bus.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Angel of History

Angelus Novus, or
"The Angel of History" by Paul Klee, 1920
The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem by Stéphane Mosès is a challenging book about the concepts of historical time in the works of three German-Jewish philosophers/historians. "The Angel of History" in the book title refers to the painting Angelus Novus by Paul Klee. The work was alternately owned by Benjamin and Scholem, and is now owned by the Israel Museum.

The Angel of History
by Stéphane Mosès (1931-2007)
Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) are three writers that I find very fascinating, though their works are very difficult. Thus I was tempted by this book, and I found it very interesting. I enjoyed the comparison of the philosophic views of time and how they are reflected in Jewish history, as well as the biographical details that the author provided. I was interested in the comparison of their perspectives with some of the ideas expressed by Kafka. However, I'm not up to attempting to summarize the complex views of history that are covered in the book.

Out of pure laziness, I'm going to violate my usual principles and copy the relevant Walter Benjamin quote from Wikipedia!

"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." -- Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History", p. 249

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why is anti-Zionism racist?

A great article here about the debate on boycotting Israeli academics, by Robert Fine, Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Warwick University. He read this during a debate on the boycott at Leeds University this month.

A very interesting paragraph from the article:
"I am not against all boycotts, but I am against an academic boycott linked to a political doctrine that treats Zionism as a dirty word. Zionism is a kind of nationalism. Like other nationalisms it has many faces – at times socialist, emancipatory, in search of refuge from horror; at other times narrow, chauvinistic, exclusive and terroristic. It depends which face we touch. For most Jews, Zionism simply means commitment to the existence of a Jewish state and is compatible with a plurality of political views. Zionism is not fundamentally different in this respect from other national movements born out of opposition to colonial and racial forms of domination. Most show the same Janus-face. Consider, for example, the ANC’s African nationalism: on the one hand, it has overthrown apartheid and achieved constitutional revolution; on the other, it reveals its own proclivity to authoritarianism, corruption, violence and class politics. The murder of 34 mineworkers at Marikana was only the most visible sign of a new order in which profits are still put before people. What I object to is heaping onto ‘Zionism’ all the wrongs of nationalism in general, as if this nationalism were all bad while other nationalisms are off our critical hook. It is deeply regressive to turn ‘Zionism’ into an abstraction — abstracted from history (the Holocaust in Europe), abstracted from politics (conflict over land with Arab countries and Palestinians), abstracted from society (including the exclusion of most Jews from Middle East and Maghreb societies). It seems to me that there is some line of continuity between the abstraction of ‘Zionism’ today and the abstraction of ‘the Jews’ in the past."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Defending Free Speech

I recently read the banned-in-India book on Hinduism. I can see why some Hindus are offended, but each time I mentioned this book, I also mentioned that I don't believe in banning speech no matter what the content, even if it offends me. I haven't recently re-thought my commitment to free speech, which I feel is part of my American identity. Since many other countries do criminalize some speech, the concept receives plenty of attention, however, and I just read a very good article explicating why arresting people for the content of their speech is objectionable and also why it's less effective than answering them.

"If You Want To Combat Hate, Don’t Outlaw Hate Speech—Counter It With Better Ideas" by James Kirchick was recently published in Tablet magazine. Quote: "by marking certain speech as politically taboo, the European political establishment has strengthened marginal voices. 'Outlawing the NPD will spare German society having to confront right-wing extremism,' Anetta Kahane, an anti-fascist activist, told the German magazine Der Spiegel last year. 'You won’t get racism out of people’s heads by banning the NPD. You’ve got to confront their attitudes.' In other words, the best weapon to combat offensive and stupid speech is intelligent, nuanced speech."

In the context of the jailing of Holocaust denier David Irving in Austria, Kirchick says: "banning Holocaust denial and throwing those who espouse it into jail hasn’t diminished the political inheritors of Austrian fascism. In fact, prohibiting public expression of neo-Nazism comfortably coexists with widespread nostalgia for Nazism."

I'm very convinced that besides the reasons above, free speech also means that no one gets to determine which ideas are acceptable, and which ones are taboo. In Arizona now, there's an effort to allow the owners of public establishments like bakeries, bars, and motels to discriminate against groups like gays if they claim that their religious ideas dictate this bigotry. Of course this is one step beyond speech, but I think banning speech would only encourage such violations of other people's rights.

Update February 25:
From Facebook

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Anniversary of Gustav Meyrink's "The Golem"

One hundred years ago, Gustav Meyrink began serialized publication of his fantasy novel The Golem. I haven't read it, but I've seen a very bizarre film based on it.

Both the novel and, briefly, the film are discussed in today's Guardian,in an article titled "Meyrink's The Golem: where fact and fiction collide." The author, David Barnett, calls Meyrink's book "one of the most absorbing, atmospheric and mind-boggling slices of fantasy ever committed to print." Some of the interesting material in Barnett's article:
"Although Meyrink's Golem is part of a long line of Prague golem stories which begins with Rabbi Loew in the 16th century, the legend of the golem goes back to Biblical times, the word appearing in Psalms to mean an "unshaped form" in God's eyes. According to the Talmud, Adam was the original golem, created from mud and 'kneaded into a shapeless husk'. The myth of the golem was prevalent in the Middle Ages, and Jakob Grimm of the fairytale brothers fame also wrote on them. 
"In Meyrink's hands, the Golem becomes a strange recurring presence, a being which manifests in Prague every 33 years. It appears with the face of Pernath, a doppelganger who adds to the increasingly unreal quality of the story. There is the sensation of secret machinations in the darkness; of being watched by persons unknown and for reasons unknowable. Events are being directed and shaped by powers beyond our perception."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing (October 22, 1919 - November 17, 2013)

Among the many obituaries for Doris Lessing, who died yesterday, I found the one in the Forward very interesting, "Doris Lessing and the Jews: Charting the Influences of the Beloved Nobel Prize Winner" by Benjamin Ivry. I was always interested in the many and varied Jewish characters in her novels, especially the earlier ones before she began writing tales of distopian futures and other themes from fantasy or genre literature. The Jewish presence was not surprising in novels about communist and other left-wing organizations in the mid-20th century. After all, there truly were many Jews involved in these movements. Her treatment of them was always interesting. I wrote a little about that yesterday on my other blog here: Doris Lessing.

According to Ivry's article, Lessing's fictional characters were based, she said, on real individuals she had known. He identifies many of them specifically in his article; for example: "In 'Martha Quest,' Lessing writes of Joss and Solly Cohen, a shopkeeper’s sons of a shop-owner who send the heroine books, which help her attain a 'dispassionate eye' on her country’s misfortunes: 'This detached observer, felt perhaps as a clear-lit space situated just behind the forehead, was the gift of the Cohen boys at the station.'"

Even in some of her later fiction, after she broke with the communists and Stalinists, she retained interest in Jews. According to Ivry:
From Communism’s failure, Lessing drew the conclusion: “We need to learn to watch our minds, our behavior. We need to do some rethinking. It is a time, I think, for definitions.” 
This prudent, watchful stance was further expressed in a series of futuristic dystopias, five novels grouped as “Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979–1983).” The critic Robert Alter has praised them as a “combination of fantasy and morality.” The first volume, Shikasta, is presented as a documentary account of a planet in danger. In a preface, Lessing describes her inspiration from the Old Testament, adding with understatement: “It is possible we make a mistake when we dismiss the sacred literatures of all races and nations as quaint fossils from a dead past… It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah, or Jahve, does not think or behave like a social worker.” Such narratives as the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah are paralleled, albeit with the addition of spaceships and other sci fi-style paraphernalia.
 Ivry writes: "Throughout her long life, Lessing maintained a genial bonhomie towards Jews, telling the Associated Press in 2006 that when the American Jewish feminist Betty Friedan visited her in London, Lessing found her to be a 'good Jewish mother, we got on like anything.' She had a more mixed view of Allen Ginsberg and his Beat Poet pals, whom she found 'extremely likable, but this isn’t how they wanted to be seen… they weren’t as frightening and as shocking as they wanted to be. They were mostly middle-class people trying to be annoying.'”

Friday, November 8, 2013

DIaspora Museum

I've been to the Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University, though I haven't thought about it much recently. This article in "More Intelligent Life" about a visit to the museum is very thought-provoking:


Authors on Museums: at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, the novelist Adam Foulds could be one of the exhibits. Going back there for the first time since his gap year, he finds it forces him to think again about who he is.
The author describes the museum in great detail, along with his thoughts as a not-very-religious British Jew. He writes of his visit:
"I am a party of one. I have arrived at opening time when the museum is pretty much empty apart from a group of schoolchildren, seven-year-olds in bright yellow polo shirts being arranged cross-legged on the floor by their teacher, ready for their early induction into Diaspora history. I feel a twinge of affectionate sympathy for them: I know the weight that will shortly be settling on their small shoulders. The Jewish world has for some time been committed to teaching children about the Holocaust both as a proper memorial and to inculcate vigilance. What you have drummed into you as a Jewish child is that it has happened once and can happen again. You are introduced at an early age to some of the most horrifying crimes of violence and degradation ever perpetrated. Inevitably, they haunt you. More than that, they come to structure your imagination and moral understanding. You grow up asking questions about how you might have acted in the ghettos or camps, or who among your friends could be trusted to hide you in their attic if push came to shove. Moreover, you are left with the conviction that, in extremis, this is how humans are: a little hyperinflation, some food shortages, and man will be a wolf to man. This is what these seven-year-olds are about to learn—and who is to say, as the bodies pile up in Syria and the Congo and elsewhere, that it is wrong?"
And he draws these conclusions from one of the final exhibits --
It's a relief to move on to the endearingly outmoded displays on family and religious life with their plaster-cast models of studious children, festive meals and rites of passage. The coherence of Diaspora life that kept it robust enough to survive for 2,000 years is located here, in piety, recitation and repetition, the daily prayers, the dietary restrictions, the bar mitzvahs and marriages under ceremonial canopies, the funeral rites. For many who define themselves as cultural Jews, this raises a question. How can this identity be preserved in the absence of religious observance? The museum doesn't have an answer. I walk through the dimly lit displays among new arrivals at the museum, drifting between wall displays and glass cases. In a later gallery, I see celebrated Jewish contributors to science, music and literature. I watch the faces of Saul Bellow, Nelly Sachs, Nadine Gordimer and other Nobel literature laureates flash up on a screen. Leonard Bernstein waves his baton, Freud looks grave, Kafka haunted, and Einstein turns his dopey face to yet another camera. Figures from the great flourishing of assimilated, post-Enlightenment Jewish life, they are almost all of them non-religious. Consequently they disrupt, even terminate, the story that the museum tells."
A big conversation is going on in the Jewish press and sometimes more in public these days, between the rabbis and representatives of various traditional Jewish lifestyles and Jews who are forging new identities, particularly about the choices made by mixed-background families. Example, Being 'Partly Jewish' in the New York Times. What strikes me about them is that the traditionalists seem so focused on convincing the others to change, to dictate the choices of those who have taken a different path. This author is interesting in how he doesn't pay any attention to what they say.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Paul de Man, Antihero for our Times

Paul de Man was essentially a con man, one of the mid-20th century "inventors" of deconstruction. It's been known for a while that in the 1940s he wrote antisemitic propaganda for the Nazis -- but that's ok says his version of deconstruction, words are only words -- or whatever the deconstructionists exactly say that gets a person out of being responsible for what he publishes.

A new biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish, has documented that he not only was a hypocrite, but also a convicted criminal (some sort of financial cheat), a bigamist, and a liar about his academic credentials. Who knows if this discredits his notorious philosophy -- as far as I know the initial revelation of his early propaganda articles had no particular effect on those who still adhere to his "principles."

To quote a review of this book in the Chronicle of Higher Education (with my red emphasis):
"'I would suggest that de Man was the antihero for our times,' Barish writes in the epilogue, 'and his pattern of secrets, crimes, flights, and self-reinventions is the stuff not just of drama, but of the madness that convulsed his own life and that of Europe in the era of Nazism.'
De Man's stance, the stance that made him famous, was that facts were unreliable, language was slippery. For a fugitive running from unpleasant facts, and one for whom lying was second nature, such a worldview was both natural and useful. 'The people that love de Man and continue to support him fundamentally say that there is no necessary connection between what a person does or says in his or her private life and what his or her ideas are,' said Barish. 'I'm not of that position.'"

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jewish Food in Poland

Reposted from my food blog post Polish Dinner, I thought this would be relevant to the theme of this blog.

Sunday we had dinner at  the Senator Restaurant in the Old City of Warsaw. We were invited by our friends Renata, Marek, and Michal, after a day at the new Jewish Museum and a splendid castle. (I'll be writing about them on Maetravels.)

First we walked through the Old City at sunset.
The inviting restaurant doorway was a bit past the main square ... 
And inside the entrance: collections of decorative items
(you can see Renata and Michael just barely reflected in the mirror).
The traditional style of the restaurant's decor and furnishings is in keeping with the very traditional Polish menu.
Renata behind the Belle-Epoch-style lamp
Pickles and a meat spread preceded our first course 
We chose two appetizers to share: potato pancakes with smoked salmon
and pirogis garnished with onions, both served on large platters. Above: my plate.
Most of us had roast duck with apples, cranberries, and roasted potatoes.
You can see that Renata's beer has a deeper color than mine: she chose the option of having
a small glass of raspberry juice to pour into it.
I was interested in the choice of cranberries, which are one of the few widely-used foods native to North America.
There were several similarities between the Senator Restaurant, where we ate on Sunday, and the Jewish-style restaurant where we ate in Krakow Saturday. For example, both served duck in a similar style, but their pirogis and several other dishes were subtly different.

The historic food styles of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles had many similarities and mutual influences, as well as influence on the evolution of American Jewish food in the early 20th century. The excellent, crisply-fried potato pancakes at this old-style restaurant, for example, were totally familiar to me -- similar to those I make but I think they were better than mine. In America today, chicken is far more common than duck or goose, but both were frequently raised and eaten in former times in Eastern Europe, so they still appear on traditional menus, both Jewish and not. I don't know if they are also common in modern Polish home cooking.

Naturally, one wonders about how faithfully these flavors and recipes reflect the cuisine of a by-gone era when most of the Jewish population lived in poverty. Most importantly, cooks in the Jewish restaurants of Krakow obviously are reconstructing the world of a people that was annihilated. They are cooking for tourists from a variety of places, not for locals who experienced an unbroken tradition. Some of the restaurants are even frankly Israeli, advertising such specialities as hummus. Certain dishes, one suspects, are more in a Polish than in a Jewish tradition. The nature of the restoration of "Jewish culture" in Krakow leads to lots of questions.

Royal Castle Warsaw, 1945 (Wiki Media)
The entire city was reduced to rubble.
The issue isn't limited to Jewish cultural restoration, however. In the past century the entire Polish population, including the vanishingly small number of Jewish survivors, have experienced several ruptures with their past. World War I, the reverberations of the Russian Revolution, and the independent Fascist years until 1939 when the Nazis invaded repeatedly shook up the country. World War II was incredibly destructive to Warsaw -- the entire old city where the Senator Restaurant stands was nothing but rubble in 1945, and had to be rebuilt based on photos, memories, and a few paintings by the Italian artist Canaletto.

Under communism, the Poles experienced severe shortages of all basic foods and commodities. These conditions obviously affected the types of recipes that people could make at home as well as what could appear on the menus of restaurants during those years up to 1989. Perhaps some traditions survived in the cuisine of the privileged communist authorities. But to a large extent, the cuisine and the restaurant interiors of today are restorations, based on memories and records -- perhaps with input from some of the Polish cooks who lived outside of Poland, especially in the US, during the 20th century.

All that said, I'm reluctant to make any judgements about authenticity of the food. It tasted very good to me -- in Krakow, the cooking met my expectations for Jewish food as I know it. (I've written a lot about it, but especially see this blog post about a pre-war book on Polish-Jewish cuisine.) Polish people including our hosts find this old-style cuisine, both Jewish and non-Jewish, appealing and perhaps nostalgic of some time that they remember or have heard about. And that's what counts, I think.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Spiritual but not Religious"

In the New York Times today: an article about mainstream Christianity vs. Evangelical Christianity, "A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered" by Jennifer Schuessler. The article explains that "a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing 'spiritual but not religious' demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say."

I recognize that many of the trends that I've perhaps naively reflected in collecting my "hero or anti-hero" choices are the same as those described in the article. Judaism has undergone a parallel change, though I suspect that some of the social justice trends in Jewish life may have been a little ahead of the Protestant curve.

Interesting passage about the numerous books being reviewed in the article:
“At the end of the second Bush term, there was widespread interest in thinking about a religious left,” said Leigh E. Schmidt, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis, and the editor, with Sally M. Promey, of the recent book “American Religious Liberalism.” “The idea was, surely there is something besides simply a secular left.” 
That something often does not look very churchlike. The Smith and Promey volume, which collects papers delivered at the Princeton and Yale conferences, includes essays on Bahaism among early-20th-century artists and the “metaphysical liberalism” of the U.F.O. obsessive and cult writer Charles Fort, among other far-flung subjects. 
Conservative believers “may think this isn’t religion,” said Jon Butler, a Yale University scholar who is working on a history of religion in modern Manhattan. “But religion comes in an incredible number of forms.”

Monday, July 15, 2013

Abraham Sutzkever (July 15, 1913)

Haaretz has an article today -- "This day in Jewish history / A preeminent Yiddish poet is born" --commemorating the 100th birthday of AbrahamSutzkever, the Yiddish poet. I know very little about him, and found the article very fascinating. A few quotes:
"Abraham Sutzkever was born in Smorgon (today Smarhon, Belarus), a small industry city in what was then White Russia. During World War I, when their town was on the front line between German and Russian forces, the family took refuge in Omsk, Siberia. When his father died, his widow took the family back to Vilna, some 100 kms to the northwest, in 1921. It’s there that Abraham attended the Herzliya Jewish high school and audited classes at the local university: In both places he studied Polish poetry and literature.... "
"In June 1941, the Germans invaded Vilna, and Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke (whom he married in 1939), were herded into the newly created ghetto. He was assigned by the occupying force to catalog Jewish books and other works that were intended for shipment to Frankfurt for a planned Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. He used the opportunity to hide away and thereby save drawings by Marc Chagall and a diary of Theodor Herzl’s, as well as other literary treasures from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (which after the war reconstituted itself in New York). Sutzkever was also active in the Jewish underground, and smuggled guns into the ghetto.... " 
"In 1946 Sutzkever testified at the Nuremberg Trials, and after moving around, from Moscow to Warsaw to Paris, he and Freydke came to Palestine. He was to remain there until he died, in Tel Aviv, on January 20, 2010."
Sutzkever won the Israel Prize in 1985. According to the article, his greatest work is titled “Lider fun Togbukh” (Poems from a Diary, 1974-1981), and he is recognized as a preeminent poet of the Holocaust. As usual, I intend to read some of his work or maybe more about his life; we'll see if I get around to it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Yoram Kaniuk (May 2, 1930 - June 7, 2013)

From Ha'aretz:
"Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv on May 2, 1930. The list of people associated with his early childhood reads like a who’s who of the early days of Tel Aviv’s cultural life and society. His father, Moshe Kaniuk, was the personal secretary of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and became the first curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. His godfather was the poet Haim Nahman Bialik; his kindergarten teacher was the wife of pioneer and poet Joseph Haim Brenner; his school doctor was the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky."
Kaniuk wrote 17 novels and participated in many events as notable as the people he knew in his childhood. Also see this from the New Yorker which calls him "one of Israel’s greatest and least celebrated writers, and with each of his seventeen novels and seven short-story collections he died of being neither loved nor read, died the slow and painful death of rejection, poverty, and obscurity."

An editorial in Ha'aretz gives a number of interesting facts about Kaniuk including this:
"Around two years before his death, Kaniuk petitioned a district court demanding that he be 'released from the Jewish religion' and be registered with the Interior Ministry as having no religion, which is exactly how his grandson is registered since the boy's mother is not considered Jewish. In his petition, Kaniuk explained that he didn't want to be part of a 'Jewish Iran.' His struggle was successful and he was registered as having no religion."
The article concludes: "More attention should have been paid to him during his lifetime, and his struggles dare not be forgotten after his death."

I tried to read one of his novels -- must try again!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Frank Lautenberg (January 23, 1924 - June 3, 2013)

Senator Frank Lautenberg has died at the age of 89. I have admired his stands on many issues, but the obituary in the New York Times reminded me of his wide-ranging liberal achievements. Years ago, I worked for the company he ran -- ADP. At the time, I had no idea that its owner was such an exceptional example of a very successful businessman who stuck to his early ideals, perhaps because of his Jewish, working-class background (though I'm only guessing at the reasons).

From the Times  article:
"A freshman senator in the minority party [1984], he pushed through a provision to establish a national drinking age of 21, a measure that threatened to cut 10 percent of a state’s federal highway money if it did not comply." ...  
"In 1989, he led a successful fight to ban smoking on all commercial airline flights." ...  
"Mr. Lautenberg’s other legislative achievements include a 1996 law denying gun ownership to people who have committed domestic violence. He was also the author of legislation requiring that by 2012 all cargo destined for United States ports be screened for nuclear material, a requirement that both the Bush and the Obama administrations said could not be met." ...  
"Another Lautenberg measure gave refugee status to people from historically persecuted groups without requiring them to show that they had been singled out. The senator estimated that 350,000 to 400,000 Jews entered the United States under that 1990 law. Evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union also benefited from the law."

From the Forward obituary: Frank Lautenberg, Dead at 89, Recalled as Jewish Senator Who Never Ran as One:
"The last World War II veteran in the Senate, Lautenberg was born into poverty in Paterson, N.J., before amassing enormous wealth as the CEO of Automated Data Processing, which he joined when the payroll-processing firm was a three-man storefront operation. 
"Though identifiably Jewish, and active throughout his life in Jewish causes, Lautenberg’s political achievements were largely not in areas of particular Jewish interest. At times, particularly early in his Senate career, he seemed to take pains not to be reduced to being simply a Jewish senator. 
"'He is a representative of the greatest generation and their values, which for many of us in the Jewish community are the values we subscribe to,' said Joel Rubin, a former aide to Lautenberg, speaking days before the Senator’s death.'"

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Amos Oz and the Posen Library

Amos Oz in collaboration with his daughter has written a new book titled Jews and Words, which discusses the topic of Jewish identity through questions of language and reading traditions. The book is concerned about some of the traditional Zionist ideas and about whether Jewishness resides in belief or belonging, according to a review in Tablet published a couple of days ago. After describing this book, the article proceeds to discuss the new Yale-Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.

From the article in  Tablet:
"What the Posen Library represents, then—at least when it deals with the near-present—is a canon defined by anxiety about whether it constitutes a canon. A certain anxiety is, perhaps, implicit in the very idea of a “Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.” The sheer completism of the project, the desire to get everything from recipes to choreography to novels to prayers between two covers, makes the reader think of the Posen Library in apocalyptic terms, as a kind of Noah’s Ark of Jewishness. Indeed, the making of anthologies is often the sign of a civilization in crisis: Think of a figure like the seventh-century Christian bishop Isidore of Seville, whose major work (aside from his bitter polemics against Judaism) was the Etymologiae, a 20-volume compendium of everything the Roman world knew about history, which served as a time capsule against encroaching barbarism.  
"Or, to use a more appropriate example, think of the Mishnah—a traditionally oral body of law that was written down around 200 CE in order to preserve it through an era of Jewish dispersion and decline. It is possible to see the Posen Library as a kind of secular Mishnah, an attempt to capture the core of Jewishness in a huge but finite number of pages. The difference is that while the rabbis knew what constituted that core—it was the Oral Law, the accumulated practice of centuries—the editors of the Posen Library cannot be so sure."
If I obtain either of these new books I will report further!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"The Blessings of Atheism"

Susan Jacoby writing in the New York Times:
"It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.  
"It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion. 
"The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth."
I found the entire article enlightening.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Scientific Exploration of Religious Belief

In the current online New York Times (Dec. 13, 2012) I read an op-ed by T.M.Luhrmann about evangelical Christians, including Catholics, and their sensory imagining of Biblical events. It starts with citation of the Pope’s recent book, where he talks about the importance of understanding exactly what the Biblical text says and does not say; for example, the account of Jesus in the manger doesn’t mention singing angels or lowing animals. The pope finds nothing wrong with imagining their presence, but warns about keeping perspective on reality.

Luhrmann describes how important these imagined extensions are, especially where evangelicals imagine a personal relationship with God: “…evangelicals talk about the Bible as if it is literally true, but they also use their imagination to experience the Bible as personally as possible.”

In a fascinating article about out-of-body and near-death experiences and their neurology, published in the Atlantic this week, Oliver Sacks commented about Luhrmann’s book on the same subject as her article. Sacks, who has been writing about his experiences treating people with odd brain problems for many years, explores the whole topic of such religious revelations in the context of exactly what’s going on in the brain.

As a determined secularist, believing only in the material world, I find the examination of religious beliefs and their origins very interesting. I am really interested in learning about the origin of sprituality, and both articles addressed exactly the kind of understanding I would like to have.

Here’s a longer passage from Luhrmann’s article that explores the topic:
I am no theologian and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that anthropology offers some insight into why imaginatively enriching a text taken as literally true helps some Christians to hang on to God when they are surrounded by a secular world.

First, this way of knowing God involves what social scientists would call “active learning.” These evangelical churches invite worshipers to enter Scripture with all their senses. …  To Christian critics of these practices, they are a distortion of the Scripture, because they add to the text more than is actually there — your own memories of a summer by the seaside, the feel of heavy robes. To a social scientist, these practices ask that the learner engage in the most effective kind of learning: hands on and engaged.

Second, these practices make the experience of God personally specific. Vivid, concrete details help people to get caught up in a world that is not the one they see before them — and the more particular the details, the more powerful the involvement. Richly described settings — Narnia, Middle-earth, Hogwarts — become places that people can imagine on their own. Of course someone like J. K. Rowling might be horrified that readers have written tens of thousands of stories that carry on the lives of her characters, just as some evangelicals are horrified by other evangelicals who cozy up to God over a beer and chat with him in their minds. But social science suggests that details like these do make what must be imagined feel more real. -- “Hark! The Herald Angels Didn’t Sing” by T.M.Luhrmann, in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/opinion/what-didnt-happen-in-bethlehem.html?hp

As a longtime fan of Sacks, I was especially happy to learn his explanation of the biological basis for religious experiences. He explains that religious people of the sort Luhrmann described are sometimes able to reproduce the pathological experiences of brain crises by vividly imagining religious experiences. Here is a passage from his article:

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route -- the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization -- imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:

Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind's eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of "presence" are accompanied by intense emotion -- emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one -- but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.) -- “Seeing God in the Third Millennium” by Oliver Sacks, in the Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/seeing-god-in-the-third-millennium/266134/