Monday, September 12, 2005

Walking in Philadelphia

A couple of months ago, I posted a rant about bad driving behavior. I suggested that drivers were bad everywhere. After two weeks back in beloved Philadelphia, and having processed how much our car insurance premium will go up for the 4 months we are (yes, I know we could have not told the insurance company but we have many moral scruples), let me amend that post: I had forgotten how bad Philadelphia drivers were. And by bad, I do not mean that they do not have control over their vehicles or mastery of the technical skills involved in braking, steering, or accelerating. No, I mean that they are evil.

Here is one of the many elements of sociopathic behavior I noted in Pittsburgh:
"Not yielding to pedestrians at intersections. (How many of you remember from driver's ed that the pedestrian has the right of way at every intersection, not just controlled ones?)"

When I wrote that post, I should have been clear: many drivers in Pittsburgh fail to yield to pedestrians at intersections. But not all. Indeed, the majority stop, especially when turning. Not in Philadelphia. Not one. Never.

Signs of the times

The following caught my eye while traveling to the foreign lands of the Newark airport and Israel:

a) Sign noticed in Newark airport: “Ground Transportation. Información sobre Autobuses.” Part b is not a literal translation of part a.

b) In the new Ben Gurion Airport, probably 80% of signs are in Hebrew and English without Arabic. The remaining are in Hebrew and Arabic without English. I could discern no pattern.

c) A banner hanging from a building at the corner of Ha-Histadrut and Ben Yehuda streets in Jerusalem (at the top of the Midrachov): “Cannabis for a Peaceful Disengagment.” In Hebrew: Ha-am im Gush Hashish.

d) A banner hanging from an apartment balcony at the corner of King George and Agron streets in Jerusalem: “Ask me [picture of American Indian] about land for peace.”
I assume this was put up by an opponent of the withdrawal from Gaza. But, um, is this really an analogy that works in favor of Israel and Zionism?

A little about the Jerusalem trip

I divided my work-time in Jerusalem between the Jewish National and University Library on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University and the Humanities and Social Sciences campus of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. In 93-94, I was a student taking classes at Mount Scopus and formed a great antipathy to the physical environment. Since 1996, when most of my time in Jerusalem has been devoted to library research rather than taking classes, I’ve spent my time on Givat Ram. While the campus plan on Mount Scopus seems to be based on the blueprints for something out of Star Wars, Givat Ram is an adaptation of Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia adapted to a desert.

As much as I prefer Givat Ram to Mount Scopus, it does seem a bit quiet and lonely sometimes. The science departments are on the Givat Ram campus but the larger number of students in humanities, social science, law, and education as well as the many overseas students makes Mount Scopus a more bustling place. Reading Batya Gur’s Literary Murder on the plane on the way to Israel, I came across these passages describing the thoughts of her protagonist, Michael Ohayon, police detective and M.A. in History from the Hebrew University, as he visits Givat Ram:

“He walked slowly through the gate and stared at the well-tended lawns where no one sat anymore, and the old pictures rose before his eyes--the dozens of liberal arts students who used to be sprawled on the grass between lectures or who were on their way from the library to the cafeteria, the green grass dotted with their bright clothing, the paths where everyone would stroll, as if there was all the time in the world then. Then, before they moved the humanities to Mount Scopus. Only five years ago, thought Michael, you never saw science students here on the lawn, they were all in the back wing of the university, poring over their experiments in the laboratories. And now that all the buildings had been turned into laboratories, the science students walked on the paths with a brisk, purposeful efficiency that made Michael wonder what purpose people could have in a world that no longer seemed to have purpose. He stopped to look at the new name on what had once been the Lauterman Building: it was now the Berman Building. There were piles of broken chairs in the entrance lobby, but he didn’t go inside, remembering that on a previous visit he had seen that the rooms had been converted into offices. What had been wrong with this campus that they found it necessary to build the monster on Mount Scopus and turn Lauterman into a ghost building? What kind of generation was growing up inside that stone fortress? he asked himself again, and then he shook himself and hurried toward the National Library building.” (Batya Gur, Literary Murder: A Critical Case; A Michael Ohayon Mystery, trans. Dalya Bilu, HarperCollins, 1993, p.219).

The book is set in 1985. In 2005 science students do sit on the lawn sometimes. The broken chairs have been removed (although I seem to recall a lot of junk in the lobby of one of the buildings as recently as 1998). Otherwise, Gur could have put these thoughts in her character’s mind just last week.

Earlier comes this description of Mount Scopus:
“The lab crew were still busy with the fingerprints, and then, in flagrant violation of the unwritten rule that demanded his presence at the scene of a crime as long as the forensics people were still there, Michael went out to the corridor. where he leaned against the wall and waited them to finish their job. Actually he hoped that outside the wall room with the corpse in it, he would be able to breathe. But the long, angular hallway was airless. He walked along it until he came to a juncture of three corridors, which, like a traffic island, constituted a kind of little square surrounded by purple walls, and he sat down on a wooden bench, on the other end of which set Ariyeh Klein, his head buried in his hands.
“Klein raised his head and looked at the policeman..... It was surprisingly quiet. There were no doors in the purple walls, only mailboxes, bulletin boards, and two benches...” (pp.72-73).

On the other hand, my visit to Mt. Scopus last month was relatively pleasant. The organizers of the World Congress of Jewish Studies cleverly set up a tent in the outdoor courtyard of the Humanities building with a refreshment stand and vouchers that could be redeemed only at this refreshment stand. Aside from the damage to my body of eating 10 burekas (burekasim if you wish) washed down by 10 iced coffees in the space of 4 days, it was quite pleasant and provided a nice place for socializing during the conference. I avoided all angular hallways and had a nice time.

I also heard some interesting lectures but you can read the proceedings of the conference in a few years. Meaningless thoughts on the physical environment of Hebrew University campuses have to go on the web now, however.

Yo, the blog returns

I thought I would blog a bit from Jerusalem, but I was too busy. I thought I would blog a bit when I got back to Pittsburgh but I was too busy packing for our temporary move to Philadelphia and getting our house ready for our tenants. I thought I would blog a bit while on vacation but I was on vacation. Who blogs on vacation? I thought I would blog a bit when I got to Philadelphia but we were too busy settling in.

But now we’re settled in and now I’m really back at work and so now the blogging urge returns.

Yes, we are in Philadelphia for a semester. I have a fellowship at a research institute for Judaic Studies located near Independence Hall and affiliated with a major university founded (sort-of) by Ben Franklin. Again, I am not announcing my last name on the blog but if you can’t figure out who I am or what the research institute is, your Google skills are really weak. Again, nothing I say on this blog represents the opinion of either the University of Pittsburgh or the University of Pennsylvania. (And by the way, in case the question arises, I don’t blog from office computers or over internet connections provided by either university. Always on the personal machine via slow, slow dial-up that I pay for myself.)

I sent a change of address to relatives and friends and included a FAQ that some people said was funny. Here’s an excerpt (names of wife and children and other identifiers related to them changed):

Why are you going to Philadelphia?
--Adam has a fellowship to do research at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn. This is a post-doctoral research institute where junior and senior scholars come for one or two semesters to do research on individual projects centered on a common theme. The theme for the 05-06 academic year is “History of the Jewish Book.” Adam’s research project is on the impact of print on the transmission and reception of medieval Jewish texts in Renaissance Italy.

What will Wife be doing?
--Wife is taking a 4-month leave from Wife’s Place of Employment and will be taking a temporary job in Philadelphia.

What will the kids be doing?
--Daughter and Son will be attending the excellent day care/pre-school at Un-Disclosed Philadelphia Synagogue. They will also be learning the difference between “water ice” and “Italian ice”.

Are you coming back to Pittsburgh?


Could this turn into a permanent job in Philadelphia for Adam?

So you’re coming back to Pittsburgh?

And you’re not staying in Philadelphia?

Why Philadelphia?
--Good library; good research institute; Wife doesn’t need to apply for an unnamed professional license from a different state; and we only have to file one state tax return for 2005.

4 months in Philadelphia--was that first prize or second prize?
Ha. Ha. Actually we like Philadelphia a lot. We’re excited to be going back for a little while.

So you might stay in Philadelphia and not come back to Pittsburgh?
No. We like Pittsburgh too. See above.

Eagles or Steelers?

Pirates or Phillies?

Penguins or Flyers?