Sunday, December 23, 2007

End of Semester Update

Very little blogging for the last couple of months as I finished revisions to a book manuscript. Look for a weighty tome on the reception of Judah Halevi's Book of the Kuzari sometime next year.

I finished the revisions just before the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies but didn't have a chance to print and mail before heading to the conference. So I was in a bit of a quandary when people asked whether the book was done. Saying yes but it still needs to be mailed to the publisher didn't convince anyone, least of all my editor. So it was a relief to get back from Toronto and actually mail it off.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

a URL in Yiddish?

Catching up with a stack of Wall Street Journal's, I find an article from Thursday October 11: "What's the Hindi word for Dot-Com?" about a pilot program to create Internet addresses using non-Roman alphabets. The examples given in a box on the front page of the "Marketplace" section: Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Greek, Korean, Yiddish, Japanese, Tamil. One of these is not like the others! Michael Chabon must be pleased.

And yes, I know that this is still available for sale.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

More Irrationality from USAirways

USAir just announced a drop in service levels at Pittsburgh International Airport which was once their largest hub. In contrast to the reactions to previous rounds of cut-backs, most Pittsburghers seem to be just shrugging their shoulders and moving on.

I do like that Southwest has come here and that I can fly to Chicago and Philadelphia for very little. I also like that other airlines have ratcheted up service a little.

But I also miss being able to fly direct almost everywhere in the US. It's becoming nearly impossible to fly direct from Pittsburgh to the West Coast. Toronto is also out which I think may be the end of the "International" in Pittsburgh International.

And I still don't understand USAir: I've already mentioned that 9 flights a day from Philadelphia to La Guardia seems absurd. Today I learned that one can fly on USAir from Pittsburgh to White Plains, NY through Charlotte or Philadelphia (although one might not be able to pay utility bills for a few months after paying the fare). Again, this means that USAir flies from Philadelphia to White Plains.... why?

I certainly understand why USAir concentrated on Philadelphia as an international hub. But why all these short routes to other spots in the megalopolis? Why does the federal government allow this when air traffic around New York and Philadelphia is out of control?

And who flies from Philadelphia to New York?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Advice on Escaping the Spanish Inquisition

If you want to escape from the Spanish Inquisition (and you are a fifteenth-century Spanish Jew), here's my advice: don't convert to Christianity. See, this will actually put you under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.

But today's New York Times reports that apparently some people think that Columbus' "parents converted [from Judaism to Christianity] to escape the Spanish Inquisition." There were lots of reasons to convert to Christianity in fifteenth-century Spain and lots and lots of Jews did so. However, none of those reasons involved escaping the Inquisition.

Clearly nobody at the Times (or at the Post-Gazette which reprinted the article) was reading this blog back in May of 2005 where I thought I made this point pretty clear.
(Actually I'm pretty sure nobody at the Times or the Post-Gazette reads it now.)

(Would it be too pedantic to also point out that Columbus was born circa 1450 and the Inquisition was founded in Spain in the late 1470s? Yes, I thought so. )

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Books I read in 2006

removed from the sidebar because it is getting too long:

  • December 2006:
  • Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors
  • Richard Kalmin, Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine
  • Laurie R. King, A Grave Talent
  • Laurie R. King, To Play the Fool
  • Laurie R. King, With Child
  • November 2006:
  • Laurie R. King, Locked Rooms
  • David Mamet, The Wicked Son
  • October 2006:
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
  • Nils Roemer, Jewish Scholarship and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Germany
  • Paul Griffiths, Religious Reading
  • September 2006:
  • Henry Adams, Mont St. Michel and Chartres
  • Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, part 1
  • Leslie Fiedler, The Last Jew in America
  • August 2006:
  • Laurie R. King, The Game
  • The New Yorker, May-July 2006
  • Daniel Dennet, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
  • Laurie R. King, Justice Hall
  • July 2006:
  • Brian Leiter, ed., The Future for Philosophy
  • George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture
  • Manfred Unger et al., Juden in Leipzig: Eine Dokumentation
  • Colm Toibin, The Master
  • James Ault, Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church
  • Laurie R. King, The Moor
  • June 2006:
  • Susan Allen Toth, Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East
  • P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins
  • William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem
  • Zachary Schrag, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro
  • May 2006:
  • Laurie R. King, A Darker Place
  • Myla Goldberg, Bee Season
  • Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites
  • Laurie R. King, A Monstrous Regiment of Women
  • Magda Teter, Jews and Heretics in Catholic Poland
  • April 2006:
  • H. Goldberg, ed. The Life of Judaism
  • Carl Knappett, Thinking Through Material Culture
  • The New Yorker, September 2005-April 2006
  • March 2006:
  • I. Hodder, ed. The Meanings of Things
  • S. Lubar and W. D. Kingery, eds. History from Things
  • February 2006:
  • Haym Soloveitchik, Yaynam [Jewish Trade in Gentile Wine in the Middle Ages
  • Marvin Lowenthal, The Jews of Germany: A Story of Sixteen Centuries
  • January 2006:
  • Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary
  • Susan Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Books I read in 2005

removed from the sidebar because the page is getting too long:

  • December 2005:
  • Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper's Apprentice
  • Michael Sells, Approaching the Quran
  • Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
  • William Bayer, Pattern Crimes
  • November 2005:
  • Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli
  • M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, trans. The Qur'an
  • Batya Gur, The Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case
  • Gigi Anders, Jubana: The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cubana Goddess
  • October 2005:
  • Linda Woodhead, An Introduction to Christianity
  • Leon Batista Alberti, The Use and Abuse of Books
  • September 2005:
  • Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, trans. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran
  • John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path
  • Michael Kurland, ed. My Sherlock Holmes: Untold Stories of the Great Detective
  • Willard Oxtoby, ed. World Religions: Western Traditions
  • August 2005:
  • Batya Gur, Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case
  • Lev Grossman, Codex
  • Abraham Melamed, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Debate between Moderns and Ancients in Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Thought
  • David Liss, A Spectacle of Corruption
  • T.M. Luhrmann, Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry
  • Jane Smiley, Moo
  • E.B. White, Stuart Little
  • The New Yorker, December 2004-August 2006
  • July 2005:
  • Ronald Schechter, Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815
  • Aaron Hughes, The Texture of the Divine
  • David Myers, Resisting History
  • Robert Eisen, The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy
  • Batya Gur, Literary Murder: A Critical Case
  • Michael Chabon, The Final Solution
  • June 2005:
  • C. Helmer and C. Landmesser, eds. One Scripture or Many? Canon from Biblical, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives
  • Gershon Hundert, The Jews of Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century
  • James Hynes, The Lecturer's Tale
  • May 2005:
  • Peter Ochs and Nancy Levene, eds. Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century
  • David Katz, God's Last Words: Reading the English Bible from the Reformation to Fundamentalism
  • Robert Chazan, Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes. Selected Stories
  • E. Benbassa and J-C. Attias, The Jews and the Other
  • Ernst Cassirer, The Logic of the Cultural Sciences
  • April 2005:
  • Jon Stewart, America
  • Russell McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia
  • Joseph Rykwert, The Seduction of Place: The History and Future of the City
  • March 2005:
  • Judith Frishman et al., Religious Identity and the Problem of Historical Foundation
  • Reinhart Kosseleck, The Practice of Conceptual History
  • Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture
  • Edward Shorter, A History of Psychiatry
  • Herbert Davidson, Moses Maimonides
  • Yvonne Petry, Gender, Kabbalah, and the Reformation
  • Jane Leavy, Sandy Kaufax: A Lefty's Legacy
  • February 2005:
  • Roni Weinstein, Marriage Rituals Italian Style
  • Christopher Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance
  • Matt Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets
  • Ivan Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle

Thursday, September 06, 2007

When is Art Finished? A not so deep question

I passed a bank branch in my neighborhood this morning. The side wall was painted with what could only be described as a kind of abstract expressionist mural. When I went inside to tell the tellers that I thought it was really interesting, they told me it's not finished and that the finished mural will be a kind of tableau of different houses and buildings in the neighborhood.

So is an unfinished mural art if people see and respond to it as art? If it were a text, I can imagine the debate between Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, and E.D. Hirsch, but I don't know enough about art criticism to imagine who the relevant art critics would be.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Unions and Cities

This is really interesting. Quick: before you follow that link, which metro area has a lower rate of unionization in the work force: Pittsburgh or Las Vegas?

You're wrong (unless you guessed where I was going with this and switched to the other answer).

Cities Big and Small

I tend to be interested in things Springfield (Mass), because my in-laws live there, and also in things New Haven, because I went to college there. So I found this article by Mark Oppenheimer, "Medium Town: On Living in A City Smaller than New York" interesting. (I got to it via this post at the Pittsburgh blog, Antirust.)

Oppenheimer basically argues that there are pleasures in living in small cities--like New Haven or Springfield--rather than in New York or other very large cities. Oppenheim writes well even if his arguments are not startlingly original: the quality of life is better; the cost of living is lower; people are more normal and life is more well-balanced, etc. In the second part of the essay, he turns to an argument that not all writers need to live in New York in order to be successful. I suppose this is necessary because he is writing in the New Haven Review of Books (a new journal that he founded; I guess the New Haven Register Literary Supplement just didn't sound right).

Anyway, the thought struck me that the piece is particularly New England-centric. Although he does mention Des Moines, his frame of reference is clearly the industrial (or post-industrial rather) New England small city or big town: New Haven, Springfield, Worcester, Hartford, Providence, etc. Although there are other sorts of places where one can have a nice quality of life outside of the really big metropolitan areas (college towns, medium-sized metro areas--e.g. Pittsburgh) and although there are some metro areas/small cities in other parts of the country that have similar demographics to a New Haven or a Springfield, those cities offer a particular advantage. Due to the short distances in New England from one metro area to the next (indeed, is there any part of southern New England not included in an MSA or a CMSA?), these cities are not free-standing entities in the middle of nowhere. Rather, they are part of a kind megalopolis that stretches from Boston to New York and have close connections--in both a figurative (cultural and economic) and a literal (train lines, highways) to both. So it's a little disengenous to pose New Haven as an alternative to New York when in many ways it functions as a kind of urban exurb in the mega New York.

But the evocations of his neighborhoods, past and present--Forest Park in Springfield and Westville in New Haven--are worth the price of admission.

It's also interesting how one's perspective changes:

When I lived in Philadelphia (the 6th largest metro area in the United States), I got tired of explaining to friends in New York (the largest metro area) that Philadelphia was, in fact, a pretty big city with a lot of culture and big-city amenities (restaurants, public transit, etc.) But I would get irritated with Philadelphia's provincialism and wonder why the residents of the nation's 6th largest metro area weren't more assertive about their big-city-ness.

Now that I live in Pittsburgh (the 22nd largest metro area), I am more willing to accept my status as a provincial, but I still tend to boast to non-Pittsburgh about all the wonderful aspects of Pittsburgh.

But I can now recognize that my civic boosting is actually a form of provincialism. And I can now see that my boasting/pushing Philadelphia was also a form of provincialism. (So in a sense Oppenheimer's piece can be read as a kind of praise for civic modesty--taking pride in one's town or city but with a proper perspective on it.)

In between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I lived in Boston. Boston is my own counter-example that nonetheless somehow proves the rule. I never liked Boston as much as Bostonians thought I should like it. And when I lived in Boston, I was constantly annoyed by the "Hub of the Universe" and "Athens of America" mentality. Didn't Bostonians realize that Boston is only the 7th largest metro area? (Then I read E. Digby Baltzell's Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia and it all made sense.)

So the constant collective need to see Boston as part of a holy triumvirate of the East Coast (money in NY, politics in DC, and culture and science in Boston) is perhaps the greatest provincialism of all.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

More song lyric confusion...

For the last few weeks, our kids have been requesting that we sing "Country Roads" at bedtime.

(The other favorites right now are "Sweet Baby James" and "I'll Walk in the Rain By Your Side." This is the fault of a certain aunt with whom we visited in June and July and the people behind the Rise Up Singing songbook. That's right Pete Seeger: you and your buddies have made our bedtime a rather drawn out affair.)

The first stanza of "Country Roads" drives me crazy, because I can't figure out what the subject of "blowing like a breeze" is:

This site has this for the lyrics of the first stanza:

"Almost heaven, west virginia
Blue ridge mountains, shenandoah river
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze."

I have trouble imagining how mountains can blow like a breeze. But this is how I have always heard it in my head:

"Almost heaven, West Virginia: Blue Ridge mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees; younger than the mountains, blowing in the breeze."

I can almost get my head around mountains blowing in the breeze. Really the trees on top of the mountains would be swaying a bit in the breeze which might give the impression of the mountains moving a bit in the breeze.

So perhaps my mishearing the lyrics was my way of correcting the imagery for myself.

Trees can blow in a breeze (but can they blow like a breeze?) more easily (or more litarally I should say) than mountains. However, I don't see how the last phrase can really modify the trees unless you allow for shifting the phrases to fit the rhyme scheme. I guess this would have sounded awkward:

"Life is old there, older than the trees blowing in the breeze, but younger than the mountains which give off the effect of blowing in the breeze because of the trees on them"

My wife insists that proper parsing is:

"Life is old there. [Life is] older than the trees. [Life is] younger than the mountains. [Life is] blowing like a breeze.

This interpretation has some merit (although I was dubious about it when she first proposed it) especially if we consider an important folk music intertext : if the answer can be blowing in wind, I suppose life can blow like a (or in the) breeze.

(Don't get me started on how little sense "Sweet Baby James" makes. But there is nothing cuter than my three-year-old belting out "There is a young cowboy..." at the top of his lungs.)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

How to Drink Coffee in Pittsburgh

(The title is borrowed from a friend who once taught the world “How to eat dinner in Princeton.” The coffee situation in Pittsburgh is much better than the dinner situation in Princeton. Read on.)

I recently discovered this website, run by Ariel Rubenstein of Tel Aviv University, which lists good cafes in university neighborhoods around the world. I then contributed 2 places in Pittsburgh. Following his guidelines, I only sent in places in Oakland, adjacent to Pitt and CMU.

So here is my more detailed list of places that I drink coffee (or tea) in Pittsburgh. It’s idiosyncratic, but I try to explain what I like about each place below:

in Oakland (home to Pitt and CMU):

Kiva Han at Forbes and Craig:
This website says the coffee is bad, but I disagree. It’s not the best in the world, but it’s fine. And the snacks and lunches are good. Except on the very hottest days, it’s a nice place to sit and work. They have some tables outside also, but most summer mornings one of them is occupied by a man smoking a rather awful smelling cigar. Kiva Han has another location down Forbes Ave (in the direction of downtown). I don’t like it as much as the Craig Street location.... it’s usually too hot inside and the tables and chairs aren’t as comfortable.

Crazy Mocha, 207 Oakland Ave:
This is around the corner from the Panera on Forbes. Central location on the Pitt campus. The coffee here is a little better than Kiva Han; the food selection is not as broad. Not many tables here so not a great place to work, but it’s a nice place to meet someone for coffee. And there is almost always a New York Times on the newspaper rack.

[Update 8/31/07: For the first time, I was here in the late afternoon--very hot from the exposure to the sun. So pay attention to the timing if you want to sit here in the afternoon.]

Crazy Mocha in the Carnegie Library:
Another outlet of this local chain. The tables here are nice and it’s fun being inside the library but more limited hours (only open when the library is). Same food and drink selection as the other branch. (There are also branches downtown, in Shadyside, and Bloomfield.)

Here’s another reason I often go to Crazy Mocha: For $30, I got a Donor Plus Carnegie Library card which gives me a 20% discount at all Crazy Mocha locations (not only the one in the library). If you drink coffee a lot, you will make back the $30 quickly and the library gets a donation. This is almost too good of a deal and I am probably ruining it by sharing the news.

You can also find Starbucks and Caribou Coffee in Oakland if you really want. Inside Hillman Library is Cup and Chaucer which is a pleasant place to sit. Like most Pitt campus dining outlets, it serves Starbucks coffee.

If you want to sit outside in Schenley Plaza, you can get coffee at the Bagel Factory kiosk. However, you will most likely wait in a long line and your small coffee will come in a cup bigger than your head. (Ask for ½ decaf unless you have high caffeine tolerance.)

I don’t pay attention to WI-FI at coffee places in Oakland because I have an office there with an internet connection or I use WI-FI in the library. But I think Schenley Plaza has WI-FI also.

in Squirrel Hill, from the top of the hill down:

Coffee Tree Roasters, 5840 Forbes Ave
This is right in the middle of the fancier shopping street and was the favorite of the late Mayor Bob O’Connor if that matters to you. Good coffee plus a free refill on the brewed stuff plus free WI-FI for 2 hours makes this a good place to plant oneself for a while. Limited food choices—mainly sweets. Always a NYT and almost always a Wall Street Journal, plus the local papers, lying around. My only complaints are that there are almost always smokers at the 2 outside tables, one of which is right next to the door and that the place is sometimes over airconditioned.

61C, 1839 Murray Ave (at Bartlett)
Decent coffee (although Coffee Tree is better) and pastries. Lots of tables. This is the place that mid-morning will have almost every table taken up by someone with a laptop. Also the place for Squirrel Hill power coffees. A nice outdoor space around the corner (i.e. off the main street), but again smokers flock to it and you have to go out the main door and walk around to get to it. A bit loud when someone orders a smoothie. They also have a lot of teas but if you are a serious tea-drinker you will keep walking a block to the next place on my list.

Te Cafe, 2000 Murray Ave (at Beacon)
Go here to drink tea. They also serve coffee and take great pride in the fancy glass brewing thing they have but it tastes no better than anywhere else and they charge more. This is a tea place and there’s a very good selection. Also some nice sandwiches. WI-FI and usually a NYT lying around. Not that many tables but enough.

Aroma/Rolladin, 2120 Murray Ave. (below Hobart)
This used to be my favorite place in Squirrel Hill: a great Israeli bakery, a very generous “double” espresso, and a nice atmosphere. The burekas are still good but they have cut way back on the other baked goods (now they are bringing in a lot of packaged stuff from NY) and the challah was kind of strange last time we got it. But you can still get a decent cup of coffee and there are plenty of tables and the staff is friendly. The name changes back and forth but I think they may now be sticking with Aroma.

Tango Coffee, 5806 Forward Ave.
Best Argentinean coffeehouse in Pittsburgh. Not a place to linger for hours but a good place for a cortado and a pastry after a movie. They did just add WI-FI so maybe it will be more of a place to work now.


I’ve blogged about my visit to Mt. Lebanon and to Aldo Coffee here. And as my update indicates, I am told that Uptown Coffee is better.

If you are in the Strip District and just want coffee, you go to La Prima. If you want to sit somewhere and work for a few hours, leave the Strip District. Downtown is not a great coffee area: the Crazy Mocha in the Allegheny Building is a welcome addition and apparently they have added one in the Gateway complex—this covers the two ends of downtown, I suppose. The Symphony store, Curtain Call, also has a coffee bar. I’m sure there are other places also but I don’t know about them. There is a Crazy Mocha in Shadyside on Ellsworth Ave. In the heart of Walnut Street, there is a place called Jitters. I haven’t been there in five years but I used to stop every morning when I lived in Shadyside for a year.

If you want to tell me about other places, leave a comment.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Upcoming Events in Pittsburgh Jewish community

Two things on the horizon look interesting. I learned about both in the Jewish Chronicle:

Sunday, August 26, the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association will have a public ceremony for burial of worn-out texts with the name of God in Hebrew and other ritual objects. 11 am at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery. The Association holds an annual burial but this year, for the first time, they have decided to hold a communal event. This was reported in last week's issue of the Chronicle. Good luck finding an on-line version.

Sunday November 4, 1 pm: Rodef Shalom will hold a symposium on the history of the congregation as part of its celebration of its 150th anniversary. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis is scheduled as the keynote speaker. This was reported in today's issue. Rodef Shalom is one of the oldest and most significant congregations in the American Reform movement and was the host for the rabbinical convention that ratified that "Pittsburgh Platform" in 1885, the defining documents of Reform Judaism for about 50 years.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Two Ironies in Hispanic-less Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is not without Hispanics, of course, but it does have one of the smallest percentage of Hispanics of any major US metro area and, as Pittsblog and Nullspace have just reminded us, it is one of the few major TV markets without a Univision station.

Two things strike me as ironic given this situation.

1) The Steelers are among the two or three most popular NFL teams among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. (See here for a discussion.)

2) The University of Pittsburgh is a major center for Latin American studies, through its Center for Latin American Studies, its Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, and Hillman Library's Lozano collection. Pitt also hosts the Latin American Studies Association and one of the major scholarly journals in Latin American history, the Hispanic American Historical Review, moved to Pitt last month.

Literary Critics on the Move

According to this New York Times article, James Wood, a long-time literary critic at The New Republic, will now be playing staff writer for The New Yorker. (Although since this comes in August, I guess he won't be eligible for the playoffs.)

It's really only of passing interest to me since I read both magazines, but I can't think of the last time I laughed out loud while reading an article in the NYT Arts section:

"Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at The New Republic, said, 'The New Republic plays many significant roles in American culture, and one of them is to find and to develop writers with whom The New Yorker can eventually staff itself.'"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Back to Deep Creek

We spent our annual weekend in Deep Creek last weekend.

The lake is beautiful, but the real reason I love Deep Creek: 4-newspaper Sundays.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Musical Miscellany

I'm glad to see here that at least one of the two PSO concerts in Western MD sold out and that the one that didn't (Friday night) had a respectable showing. (I wonder if 7:30 is too early for a Friday night concert in the summer--you would have to leave DC, Baltimore, or Pittsburgh by 4 to make it and more like 3 to be comfortable and have time for dinner. Maybe try for 8:30 next time?) And I'm glad to see that talk about a PSO residency at Deep Creek continues.

In other classical music news, I have to admit that I've never heard of the New York Philharmonic's choice of music director. But reading about the decision in this New York Times article makes me think it's an interesting and bold choice. Interesting to appoint Ricardo Muti at the same time as principal guest conductor (or the equivalent). In many ways, I think this is similar to what the PSO has just done: appoint the up-and-comer as the music director (Manfred Honeck) and the veteran who has already been a music director at a major American orchestra as the principal guest conductor (Leonard Slatkin). Curious that the parallel did not occur to the NYT writer.

My wife has always made fun of me for mishearing a line in "Sound of Silence" as "Hear my words that I'm an angry Jew." But this article in today's Post-Gazette tells me that I'm not alone in being unable to decipher the sung word. And a quick Google search for "Simon and Garfunkel" AND "Angry Jew"* turns up this comprehensive site for misheard song lyrics including this very mistake and gives me a comfort that I'm not alone on this one.

*I tend to put in the Boolean operators even though Google has helpfully reminded me many times that they are not needed.

Monday, July 09, 2007

PSO in Deep Creek: The Details

Go here.

And look at these ticket prices! This is a huge bargain:


Ticket prices: $25 Adults, $7 Students and
Free for children five years and younger."

(Compare to Tanglewood prices here).

If these concerts are not sold out, there is no hope for classical music in America.

Culture in Deep Creek

Immediately after the last posting, I thought: maybe I'm being unfair to Deep Creek on the culture and entertainment front. So I looked and found "Deep Creek Blog." I'll stick to the view that there's more going on in the Berkshires (in an absolute sense), but next time I'm in Deep Creek I'll pay attention to this site and patronize what looks like a pretty decent arts scene (per capita).

PSO in Deep Creek: Tanglewisp?

Soon after we moved to Pittsburgh, we discovered the Deep Creek Lake area of western Maryland. 2 hours from Pittsburgh, 2 and a half hours from Washington and Baltimore. Since I have family in DC, it's a perfect meeting place for a family vacation.

But there was one thing we noticed right away. We also vacation a lot in the Berkshires, and while Western MD can compete with Western MA on the outdoors stuff, there's not nearly as much going on in the culture department in the former.

So the first time I went there, I said: this is where the Pittsburgh Symphony should make its summer home. Our favorite place in the Berkshires is Tanglewood, the premier summer music festival in the US. While it would be very difficult to replicate Tanglewood (without a few tens of millions of dollars and a resurrected Leonard Bernstein), I have often thought that a good part of Tanglewood's success is that it is close to two major metro areas (NY and Boston). Thus, Deep Creek seemed like a good spot for the PSO to develop a summer home, drawing on not only a Pittsburgh audience but also DC and Baltimore. And just as there are a good number of New Yorkers who donate to the BSO (instead of, or in addition to, the NY Philharmonic), I thought the PSO could gradually build a base of Washingtonian supporters and that this would be a good long-term move for the orchestra.

So I am very glad to see this report that the PSO will play at Wisp Resort at Deep Creek this summer.

The PSO will play indoors at Wisp. But maybe if all goes well and the PSO becomes a regular summer part of the Deep Creek scene, the Bashford Amphitheater at Mountain Lake Park could be rebuilt with a shed (a la Tanglewood) but open to the fresh summer air?

On the other hand, maybe the all-indoor venue is smarter given the problems Tanglewood has been having with the weather in the last few years. Lots of rain last summer and a general trend of declining ticket sales have a lot of people up in the Berkshires asking "whither Tanglewood?" (See this editorial in the Berkshire Eagle.) So of course, the PSO will have to tread carefully financially (as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story linked above makes clear).

But I can have my dream, can't I?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stuff I do not fully understand

British academics have apparently voted to promote a campaign to boycott Israel or to promote a campaign to discuss boycotting Israel or to talk more about whether to boycott Israel or something like that. See here for a news report and here for commentary by opponents of the boycott.

Ironic that the vote to boycott Israeli academics (or to move forward with discussions of boycotting Israeli academics or something like that) came on the day that Iranian academics were told by their government that they would be considered spies if they have contact with foreign academics, as reported here.

Mutatis mutandi, of course. The supporters of the boycott are not asking the British government to enforce it and they would say that they are only targeting contact with certain "foreigners." But the present Iranian situation ought to serve the "republic of letters" as a reminder of the importance--and power--of the free interchange of ideas.

Speaking of British academics, I do not understand why readers of the Guardian should be interested in Richard Dawkins' travel diary.

Speaking of British atheists, I think I would rather hang out with Christopher Hitchens than Richard Dawkins.

Speaking of Christopher Hitchens, I think I understand why this reader of the Washington Post Book World might think that assigning a book criticizing religion to a religion professor might be wrong. But I still lament the ignorance of academic religious studies that the writer reveals. Obviously she didn't read my post on the various kinds of religious studies professor. I don't know which sort Stephen Prothero is but one cannot assume that the chair of the religion department at Boston University is ipso facto an apologist for religion or an enemy of atheism as the letter-writer implies.

Speaking of the Washington Post Book World, I just don't understand this review of Al Gore's book. The reviewer seems to be saying that it's nice when a politician is intelligent and erudite enough to write his own book but if that politician demonstrates intelligence and erudition, he's an annoying pedant. This kind of thing is why Al Gore can't catch a break from the media which seems stuck in junior high school mode, making fun of the smart kid.

Speaking of strange reviews of Al Gore's book, David Brooks seems not to have paid much attention to the on-going discussions of the Internet and the printing press and their roles, past and present, in creating spaces for public debate. Instead, he finds it easier just to trot out tired stereotypes about blogs and e-mail.

There are plenty of tired stereotypes about e-mail and the Internet here as well, but at least some of the participants in that discussion try to grapple with the more complex and important issues related to preservation of communications in this digital age.

Speaking of archives, let's not forget the richness of older, paper-based archives. It's nice that the Central Archives of the Jewish People may get a permanent home if a National Library is built in Israel, as reported in Haaretz.

And speaking of archives finding a home, I'm glad to see this EU collection going to Pitt. Pitt's library system is usually under-appreciated but has made enormous strides over the last few years. I don't usually blog about Pitt-related issues, but I will say that I'm glad that Rush Miller responded in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to this editorial whose animus toward Hillman Library was never clearly explained. The main criticism seems to be that the building "dates to the Johnson administration." I look forward to future calls from the Post-Gazette to replace the Cathedral of Learning which was completed during the Roosevelt administration and the Allegheny County Courthouse which was completed during the first administration of Grover Cleveland. I'm not a huge fan of 1960s modernist architecture either, but is it such a terrible thing to renovate buildings instead of tearing them down after one generation?

Plus, how can one tear down a Pittsburgh landmark that has been immortalized in Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh? Why, that would be like tearing down that Greyhound station mentioned in Simon and Garfunkel's "America."

(I wish I hadn't had that last thought because that song is now going to be stuck in my head for about a week.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Does the ice cream man want our business?

Another ice cream truck just went by our house playing the traditional ice cream truck melodies and not stopping. This happens once or twice a week all summer. Presumably the thing to do if you want to sell ice cream is to go down a block playing the melodies and stop at the end of the block for a moment to see if anyone emerges from their houses. For some reason, the ice cream men in Squirrel Hill seem to want to let us know that ice cream is driving by us but that we cannot purchase it.

Is it my imagination or is it becoming more difficult--not less--to complete certain kinds of cold summer treat related transactions these days?

Do you know what an "international money order" is?

See here.

And did you know that it is now impossible (so far as I have been able to determine) to obtain one that is denominated in foreign currency (also called a "foreign currency bank draft") in Pittsburgh?

Until a couple of weeks ago, one could do this at Citizens Bank (for a fee of $5.00). I learned that one could no longer do this when I went to my local branch this morning to try to get said item in British pounds to purchase some reproductions of a manuscript from a library in London. My local branch manager called around and found no other bank in Pittsburgh that does this. The post office across the street informed me that they haven't done foreign currency money orders "in years and years." Travelex--the money exchange folks at the Pittsburgh International Airport--told me that I could call one of their Philadelphia offices and have a bank draft issued and sent to me within 2 business days--how convenient!

I can send a wire transfer (for a fee of $30) so I can still get what I need here. But it will be more expensive for me and less convenient since I have to have further correspondence with London asking for bank branch information, bank account number, etc. I imagine that for some purposes-- E-bay?-- sellers may be reluctant to give out this sort of information. I know I would.

Is it my imagination or is it becoming more difficult--not less--to complete certain kinds of transactions at banks?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Did you vote?

I did. Today is primary day in Pennsylvania (and perhaps some other states as well).

I voted at 9:05 am after dropping my daughter off at school. I was voter #13 in my precinct. According to Allegheny County, there are 648 registered voters in my precinct (as of the 2006 general election). Polls opened at 6 am. You do the math.

Chances are you didn't vote. See Chris Briem's analysis here.

Chabon concluded

I put on the t-shirt at the top of the pile in the drawer this morning. It was a t-shirt with Hebrew type for the "University of Alaska" that I got as a gift about a decade ago. That reminded me that I didn't return to the subject of Michael Chabon. I finished the novel over the weekend and can now definitely say that I am in the camp of those reviewers who liked it.

The main thing is that Chabon imagines an entire world out of an alternate reality scenario. For the most part it works.

Three comments for the naysayers:

(1) There are a couple of things I would have imagined differently, but hey, when I write about what I imagine the Jewish autonomous region of Alaska would be like, I get to change things to my liking. And when you imagine your own "cloud cuckoo land" you can do it your way.

(2) Imagining a scenario in which Israel was destroyed in 1948 is not the same as wishing that it had happened. I don't really know what Chabon's politics are but it's hard to read this novel as anti-Zionist. Warning, spoiler ahead: you might read it as anti-"Temple Mount Faithful" but that's a far cry from seeing this as Chabon's manifesto against Israel.

(3) You might not like mixing "[noir] genre" and "literary" in novels. But it's not like Chabon woke up one morning and said let's throw them together ("you've got your peanut butter in my chocolate") and see what happens. He seems pretty committed to a project of breaking down--or at least playing with--such boundaries/labels.

My Day in the South Hills

UPDATE, 5/25/07: Back in Dormont this morning. I did notice a "welcome to Dormont" sign heading south on West Liberty Ave. And I had some good coffee at Fredo's on Potomac Ave in Dormont.

UPDATE, 5/24/07: A friend who lives in Mt. Lebanon tells me that she prefers the coffee and pastries at Uptown Coffee.

Or, Being a Tourist in the Suburbs.

Twice a year I take the car for service at a dealership on West Liberty Avenue in the South Hills section of Pittsburgh. West Liberty Avenue is the main drag that divides two Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Beechview to the west and Brookline to the east. Not much happens along West Liberty Avenue except for car selling and car repair so my usual practice is to leave the car and walk about a mile up the road to the suburban borough of Dormont. Dormont is a typical inner-ring streetcar suburb. Not the most exciting place in the world, but, as I've said before, Dormont has a nice little business district along Potomac Avenue and West Liberty Avenue with a newly re-opened movie theater, a couple of restaurants and delis, and a used bookstore. So my usual practice is to take a walk, buy a couple of cheap mystery novels, and sit down for a late breakfast at the Dor-Stop diner. The car place calls, tells me about some mysterious problem that will cost me a couple of hundred dollars more than I thought I would spend that day, I approve it, finish my breakfast, and take a walk back down hill to get the car. A pleasant way to waste half a day. (I used to leave the car, take the bus downtown, transfer to a bus to Oakland, go to my office at the university, work for a few minutes, and then reverse the process to try to pick up the car before rush hour. An unpleasant way to waste half a day.)
Yesterday, however, one thing led to another and I didn't get the car up there until 10 am and they were backed up so they said the car wouldn't ready be before 3.

What to do?

I decided to keep walking up West Liberty Avenue until I got to the fabled borough of Mount Lebanon and its famous Washington Road business district. Mount Lebanon has the reputation for having one of the best school districts in the area, a nice shopping district, and the second-largest Jewish community in the area (after Squirrel Hill). I stopped in at Aldo Coffee, which some people say is the best in town, for a double espresso and a pastry, and enjoyed an hour or so there reading the book I had along with me. (By the way, I thought the espresso was good but nothing special which means that a) those who says it's the best are wrong; b) my tastebuds aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate the best coffee in town; or c) the barista had an off day. The pastry was ok.) Then I hung out in the Mt. Lebanon Public Library where I caught up on the last six months of the New York Review of Books. After this, I browsed for a few minutes in Rolliers, a good hardware and houseware store whose Shadyside branch (actually the original) is missed.

Then I headed back down the hill to Dormont, bought my used books and had lunch at the Dor-Stop, got my phone call from the car place and headed back down the hill all the way back to the car dealer. (After I picked up the car, I took another detour to the South Side on my way back to Squirrel Hill. But that wasn't on purpose. I forgot to get in the left lane before the Liberty Tubes and had to exit to the South Side when I came out of the tunnel.)

A couple of observations:

1) Washington Road has some fancy shops, but (unless I missed them) no bookstore (there must be one in a mall nearby) or movie theatre (ditto) in the center of Mount Lebanon's business district. So score one for Dormont (and two for Squirrel Hill) over Mount Lebanon. On the other hand, Mount Lebanon (like Squirrel Hill) has multiple nice places to sit for a long time over a cup of coffee (see above), and Dormont could use a nice coffeehouse. And the presence of a place in the central shopping district where one can buy a hammer, a spatula, a lightbulb, and a hanging plant at the same time (e.g.) is much appreciated (see above), so score another one for Mount Lebanon.

2) The legend has circulated among my crowd of young parents in the city of Pittsburgh--did you hear that in Mount Lebanon they still have half-day kindergarten? Although I have had confirmation of this from a colleague who lives in Mt. Lebo, I can now say that I have seen evidence of this with my own eyes: as I walked up to the public library a little after eleven, there were the moms and dads (only a couple of dads) waiting for their kindergartners to emerge from Washington Elementary school. Someone is going to write in and tell me how great half-day kindergarten is and how kids that little are too small to be in school all day, etc. I'm not judging, you understand--I'm just surprised that a "good" school district in 2007 doesn't have full-day kindergarten.

3) The Mount Lebanon municipal building is nice. I like the art deco design. I hope that they find a good use for it when the messiah comes and municipal functions are transferred to the new metropolitan Allegheny County government.

4) I saw no signs welcoming pedestrians and motorists to Dormont or Mount Lebanon, so I wasn't quite sure where Dormont ended and Mount Lebanon began. Also not sure where West Liberty Ave turned into Washington Rd. There was a sign at one point indicating the change in street name, but then there was a church on what was supposed to be Washington Road with a West Liberty Ave address on the sign in front. (The only "Welcome to" sign was welcoming me to Pittsburgh when I was walking north on West Liberty Avenue back to the car dealer. ) And the "South Hills" post office with a "Pittsburgh, PA" address on the front seemed to be in Dormont while the Duquesne Light "Dormont" substation was in Pittsburgh. And there were hardly any signs on West Liberty Avenue pointing pedestrians and motorists to the T (light rail) stops which, in both Mount Lebanon and Dormont, were off the main drag a block or more.
In other words, if you don't know where you are, you shouldn't be here? (I will blog another time about what I find to be the strange practice here of using a "Pittsburgh, PA" mailing address outside the city.)

5) A Boston analogy just occurred to me and might make sense to about six people: Dormont is Arlington--with businesses and commercial activity spread out all along West Liberty Avenue/Massachusetts Avenue. Mount Lebanon is Lexington with a much more clearly defined center that stretches for only a few blocks along the main drag (Washington Road/Massachusetts Avenue).

Attention Marketing People Using Google

The phenomenon of "Blogola" has recently come to my attention (thanks to this morning's Wall Street Journal). If you are involved in marketing for publishers or booksellers, I would be happy to accept old books, or new books related to old books, regarding the subjects listed at the top of this page. A trip to a venue such as the Frankfurter Buchmesse (e.g.) also accepted.
If you represent the tea or lemon industries, we can discuss other possibilities. In return, I will consider mentioning your product to my readers, who currently number in the seven figures (assuming the first six figures are 0). Thank you.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Some (old) book notes

I learn from Chicago Public Radio, via Rare Books News, that the Newberry Library and the Spertus Institute have jointly acquired a copy of the 1481 edition of Nicholas of Lyra's Postilla Litteralis super totam Bibliam . More information here. According to the press release, there are only 3 known copies in the U.S. In Pittsburgh, the earliest editions of Nicholas' Postilla can be found in this 1508 Basel printing at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a 1588 Venice printing at Duquesne's Hailperin collection.

Meanwhile, I learn from this article in Haaretz that Hebrew and Arabic books from the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem will be included in Worldcat.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reviews of Chabon

I don't think I've ever seen a more negative review in a newspaper than this review of the new Chabon novel by Kris Collins in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times reviewer, was much more positive. (Warning: spoilers in both reviews. Hey reviewers: it's fine to think the ending is contrived, but it's not cricket--or kosher--to reveal key aspects of the solution to what is, after all, a mystery novel.). I'm only half-way through the book so I'll reserve full judgment, but so far I'm agreeing with Kakutani in the Times. Collins seems to have missed the point. More when I finish.

Do people change political affiliation when they move?

This article by Michael Barone in yesterday's Wall Street Journal is interesting. Barone suggests, as have others, that population increases in Republican-leaning areas will increase Republican political strength. E.g.: "...within California, House seats will shift from the Democratic coast to the Republican Inland Empire and Central Valley."

But if the increase in population in these areas come from immigrants (who lean Democratic, as Barone acknowledges) and from domestic migration from what he calls the "Coastal Megalopolises" and the Rust Belt, it seems that the only way Republicans gain strength is if the domestic migrants are Republicans or if they are Democrats who change their political affiliation when they move to Sacramento or Dallas.

So, is there any evidence that Republicans move from the big cities on the East and West Coast and the Rust Belt cities in greater numbers than Democrats? Are more Republicans than Democrats moving from Pittsburgh and Boston to Charlotte?

If this is not the case, is there any evidence that Democrats turn into Republicans when they move from San Francisco or Detroit to Las Vegas?

A sidenote: Barone notes what Chris Briem has been trying to get people to notice--that the rate of domestic migration from cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit is quite similar to that of metro areas like Washington, DC. And the Rust Belt, on average, is doing better than New York and San Francisco in terms of keeping the US-born in town. As everyone has noted, it's the lack of immigration that poses demographic problems for Pittsburgh et al.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Difficulty of Religious Studies

When I attended my new faculty orientation, one of my lunch table-mates, a scientist, asked me whether my department trained people for ministerial careers. Yesterday on the bus I got to talking to the lady next to me who--when she found out that what department I'm in--asked me about how we taught religion in a public university. When people find out I teach about Judaism in a department of "Religious Studies," they often ask if I'm a rabbi. Almost anyone who works in my field can tell similar stories. Generally, when people ask what I do, I say I'm a historian. This is true on a number of levels--my Ph.D is in History and methodologically, what I do is exactly what my colleagues in the History department do. But I really say it to try to forestall questions like these.

People are confused about what "Religious Studies" is and I can see why.

"Religious Studies" is one of the common names for departments and programs in North American academic institutions that study religion. The people in those departments break down into a few broad types. Some are religious people and study their own religious tradition and often "represent" that tradition in some ways (as theologians, as church historians). That is to say this group often speaks as "insiders" (in Religious Studies parlance). Members of a second group may study their own tradition or not or not (or may or may not be religious), but have some sensibility that "religion" represents some kind of "real" thing out there in the world. They don't necessarily believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, but they often speak of the field of Religious Studies in terms of studying the "really real" or the "numinous." Russell McCutcheon calls this second way of speaking the "sui generis" discourse on religion, i.e. the notion that the way one studies religion should be different somehow than the way one studies other cultural and social phenomena. (I should also say that sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the first type and the second type. The first type tend to be clergy and the second type tend not to be, for one thing; the first type is more often at church-related or other sectarian institutions and the second type more likely at non-sectarian private or public universities. But these generalizations don't always hold.)

McCutcheon is one of the main proponents of a third type of Religious Studies, one that I would identify myself with. We see "religion" as a human cultural and social product that should be studied using the same tools that historians or social scientists use to study other aspects of the human experience. Folks in this group often get called nasty things like "reductionist" or "naturalist" but in our (or at least my) view this approach is what separates "Religious Studies" from Theology or religious practice (in the sense of study as ritual in the rabbinic Jewish tradition).

Institutionally, this is all very confusing because departments and programs that study religion come under lots of different names in the English-speaking world: "Religious Studies," "Religion," "Study of Religion," "Divinity," "Theology," "Comparative Religion," etc. And people who practice all three types of scholarship can be found in all of the variously named entities.

Perhaps the fact that most English universities include the study of religion primarily in faculties of "Divinity" is is part of what confused Mary Beard when she went off to a graduate student conference in Religious Studies and discovered that not all the PhD students were religious or stodgy.

Meanwhile, I've just read an article in The American Scholar by Robert Orsi (who I would place in the second group above) arguing a position with which I simply can't agree, and which I am loathe to call a historical argument:

"It is customary in the study of religion when we encounter people who have had experiences like this to say that these people believe what happened to them to be real and their belief in its realness is all that interests us. But belief has nothing to do with it, and in any case I want to move across this border in order to think about how the really real becomes so. The challenge is to go beyond saying “this was real in her experience” to describe how the real—whether it’s the Holy Spirit at a Pentecostal meeting or the Virgin Mary on a hillside or a vision of paradise so compelling that people will kill for it—finds presence, existence, and power in space and time, how it becomes as real as guns and stones and bread, and then how the real in turn acts as an agent for itself in history."

Why does "belief" by the human actor have nothing to do with it? (Also, what is "it"?) When John Doe acts after having experienced the Holy Spirit at a Pentecostal meeting, does Orsi really mean to say that God acted? If not and he simply wants to emphasize that John Doe acts because of an experience that feels quite real to him, the point is banal. But if John Doe's "beliefs" are said not to matter, then just what does Orsi mean by saying that the "real in turn acts as an agent for itself in history"?

A non-banal interpretation of Orsi gets us awfully close to providential history. Now, I don't begrudge anyone who wishes to argue a theological point or any journal that wishes to publish it. But when one of the leading journals in American intellectual life publishes this sort of thing from a "professor of the history of religion at Harvard" it tends to reinforce the notion that the first and second groups speak for all historians of religion. And it makes it much harder for those of us in the third group to explain ourselves to faculty colleagues and to the wider public (that perhaps wishes to know why a public university has a department of "Religious Studies").

(A response by Russell McCutcheon to Robert Orsi on related matters can be found here, by the way.)

UPDATE (May 11): While googling something else, I ran across this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education from January whose author offers a similar tripartite division of Religious Studies scholars. His criteria has a little less to do with the the working definition of religion that scholars employ and a little more to do with the institutional issues that I touch on above.

Monday, May 07, 2007


Three exclamation points in the previous two posts. What's wrong with me?!

Back from Chicago

I spent three days in Chicago last week at the wonderful Newberry Library, looking at tracts from the Council of Trent printed by a Jewish physician and other old books, mainly from 16th-century Italy. I also participated in a workshop on the Italian book trade led by Angela Nuovo.

And I drank good coffee and ate nice pastries at "Bombon Americano," a little cafe behind the Newberry. I also ate excellent Indian food at the curiously named "Gaylord's Indian Restaurant," on Clark Street about 7-8 blocks south of the Newberry. I bought a sweater on Michigan Mile (at Filenes' Basement, you understand), and I had a view of the world's largest McDonalds from my hotel. All in all a good trip.

There was so much new construction--mainly high-rise condo buildings--in the Newberry's neighborhood ("Near North" I think they call it) that one might have thought the Chicago fire was in 1996!

Finally, I was one of at least three people on my flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh reading Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I felt so trendy!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Get me to the airport on time!

"In my vast experience with relationships, it is not money, nor sex, nor raising children that causes the bitterest disputes between couples, but how early you really need to get to the airport."

Have truer words then these ever been found in the pages of The New York Times?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Yale Alumni Trustee ballot

I got my electronic ballot for the alumni trustee to the Yale Corporation today.

Here is my rough breakdown of the corporation membership

8 business/finance types
1 academic
1 techie entrepreneur
1 scientist
1 artist
2 jurists
2 journalists.

On the ballot:

1 art historian/museum director
1 business/finance type

I'm voting for the art historian.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Boston and Pittsburgh: banking edition

Here are some more ways that Boston and Pittsburgh are alike.

See this earlier post for the beginning of this thought.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fact in Fiction

I'm sure literary critics have written a lot about the status of inaccurate but purportedly factual information in fictional works. It seems like a simple question with a simple answer in many ways, right? Fiction is fiction hence Dorothy Sayers' "Author's Note" prefacing Gaudy Night:

"It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book.... Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935, but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King's Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon's changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist's only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world."

Of course the question is a bit more complicated and can seem relevant in terms of poetry as well as prose, as this exchange among fictional characters in David Lodge's novel Nice Work suggests:

"Marion began reading her paper in a low monotone. All went well until she observed that the line from 'Locksley Hall,' 'Let the great world spin for ever, down the ringing grooves of change,' reflected the confidence of the Victorian Railway Age. Vic raised his hand.
"'Yes, Mr. Wilcox?' Robyn's tone and regard were as discouraging as she could make them.
"'He must have been thinking of trams, not trains,' said Vic. 'Train wheels don't run in grooves.'
"Simon Bradford gave an abrupt, high-pitched laugh; then, on meeting Robyn's eye, looked as if he wished he hadn't.
"'D'you find that suggestion amusing, Simon?' she said.
"'Well,' he said, 'trams. They're not very poetic, are they?'
"'It said the Railway Age in this book I read,' said Marion.
"'What book, Marion?' said Robyn.
"'Some critical book. I can't remember which one, now,' said Marion, riffing randomly through a sheaf of notes.
"'Always acknowledge secondary sources,'* said Robyn. 'Actually, it's quite an interesting, if trivial, point. When he wrote the poem, Tennyson was under the impression that railway trains ran in grooves.' She read out the footnote from her Longman's Annotated edition...."
(Penguin paperback edition, 1990, pp.242-243).

So what would the annotated edition to Carole Nelson Douglas' Sherlockian/semi-Sherlockian novel Castle Rouge say about this passage in which the possibility that a Jew was Jack the Ripper is discussed?

"Irene [Adler] supported Bram [Stoker] as well. 'That is one fact [apparently ritualized arrangement of the victims' bodies] that made the Jews suspect of the crime: they perform ritual sacrifice of animals, and so were favored suspects because the women were killed as if in a ritual." (Forge Books, mass market edition, 2003, p.281)

In my imaginary landscape of the Sherlock Holmes world, Irene Adler is Jewish** but that may not be how Carole Douglas conceives the character. But earlier in the novel an indisputably Jewish character says:

"He shrugged. 'Who am I to judge ways of worship? At Passover we celebrate with the sacrifice of the lamb. Christians do not understand that, yet they worship a sacrificed man." (Ibid., p.73)

The convoluted plot of this "novel of suspense featuring Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes" is not too important here. I won't reveal the plot but suffice it to say that it turns out that Jack the Ripper is not Jewish.

I can think of a few scenarios here, all of which are perplexing and a bit weird:

1) Carole Nelson Douglas, an actual person living in the 21st century, thinks that Jews in the 19th century engaged in animal sacrifice.

2) Carole Nelson Douglas knows full well that actual (real) Jews in the 19th century did not engage in animal sacrifice but has invented a Cloud-Cuckooland of 19th-century Europe that maps onto historical 19th-century Europe in some respects and not others. In this fictional version of 19th-century Europe, Jews engaged in animal sacrifice.

3) Carole Nelson Douglas knows full well that actual Jews in the 19th century did not engage in animal sacrifice. But she has invented fictional characters who know that Jews did not engage in animal sacrifice but who, for whatever obscure fictional motives, wish to suggest to their fictional interlocutors that Jews in the 19th century do engage in animal sacrifice. [This one seems highly implausible as the plot is not furthered by any such devious scheme.]

Given that the Jewish Jack the Ripper theory is introduced in this mystery mainly as a red herring, #1 seems most likely. One could argue that the Jewish Jack the Ripper theory functions as more than a red herring since Irene Adler is initially set on the case by the Baron de Rothschild who is concerned about antisemitism. Thus anything that makes the possibility of a Jewish Jack the Ripper more plausible does serve the plot and thus #2 may be the answer. Arguably, however, this rather subtle plot point would be established more effectively (and way less subtly) by putting these notions only into the mouths of non-Jews.

Perhaps Robyn Penrose would tell me that it's a "trivial" point, but nonetheless, I would like to know whether a popular American mystery writer does or does not think Jews in the 19th century engaged in animal sacrifice.

*Good advice.
**I have no good Sherlockian evidence for this, either from within the canon or from pastiches, but it just seems like she ought to be Jewish.

Non-Jews at Jewish Schools

It's old news but someone forwarded this interesting article from The Independent (UK) to me. And just a few weeks someone asked me why non-Jews cannot attend Jewish day schools in the US. It's a good question, actually.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How the future looked in 1982

I accidentally stumbled across this, an essay that Jim Morris of CMU wrote in 1982 about what a campus computing system should look like. Fascinating. Everyone knows that we have lived through an unbelievable amount of technological change in the last 25 years, but reading this brings it home, and like some kind of bloggy madeline makes me think about what I was doing with computing technology in 1982:

By 1982, I had been exposed to the personal computer: we had some Tandy computers (TRS 80's) at school and I spent the summer of 1982 at a day camp where we swam in the morning and in the afternoon, we learned to program the computer to do such important tasks as drawing cubes and writing "My name is..." in an infinite loop. Our middle school math skills were limited and one couldn't do that much with BASIC (or at least we couldn't), so the head counselor (who was a math and English teacher at my middle school) spent most of the time teaching us algebra and reading us O.Henry stories.

1982 was also the year that my family entered the home computer era when my parents opened up a big box on the first night of Hanukkah and took out a Commodore Vic-20. We hooked it up to the TV and away we went. I recall that we had a Centipede game and a word processor called "Quick Brown Fox." Data storage was a tape recorder.

Meanwhile up in Pittsburgh, Jim Morris was wondering whether or not the campus computers could be hooked up to something called "ARPANet."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday Musings: Special Spring Break Edition

Normally, I'd be teaching this morning, but since it's spring break:

This morning's Post-Gazette has an interesting article about arts funding in various cities, including Pittsburgh. Once again, I wonder if some of the statistics cited--for example regarding educational levels--don't tell the full picture because they don't account for the demographic history of the region. Chris Briem has blogged about this question at Nullspace.

I just read the Sunday section from the Post-Gazette ("On the Arts") over breakfast (I parcel out the Sunday paper--actual paper--for the rest of the week's breakfasts) and found this article about Bessie Bramble interesting. The PittGirl of her day? (Yes, I know the "blogger" label applied to pre-Internet writers is getting tiresome.) And yes, I have read one of the Carole Nelson Douglas novels that mention Bessie Bramble, although the reference passed right by me at the time.

Via the Hirhurim blog, I got to this interview with four scholars of early Christianity and ancient Judaism in the Biblical Archaeology Review. This is an issue that comes up frequently for my students in Religious Studies classes, particularly introductory ones and ones that deal with antiquity. Less of an issue when I teach on the medieval and modern periods. For discussion (from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism), see Hirhurim, Dov Baer , and Wolfish Musings. I assume some Christian bloggers are discussing this, but I haven't checked.

Regarding "old books": a review in Haaretz alerted me to a new book on Jewish booksellers and the booktrade in 19th-century Eastern Europe by Hagit Cohen.

In this week's Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, two stories about important resources for researching Pittsburgh Jewish history (and American Jewish history writ larger as well): a cemetery database and digitization of the Pittsburgh-based Jewish Criterion.

And in the category of totally pointless trivia: I have often assumed that the Springfield in "The Simpsons" must be Springfield, Mass. This article from the Boston Globe cites some of the reasons, but it leaves out what I consider the clincher: Mr. Burns takes the train to the Harvard-Yale game. (This is in the episode where Rodney Dangerfield guest start). I suppose one could take the train to New Haven from Springfield, VA; Springfield, NJ; or Springfield, PA (suburban Philadelphia?). But Springfield, Mass. to New Haven is perfect train distance. And the other northeastern Springfields are all suburbs of big cities and not central cities. It's clear that the Springfield in "The Simpsons" is the central city of a small metro area.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Boston and Pittsburgh

I used to live in Boston and now I live in Pittsburgh. Overall, I prefer Pittsburgh, but I'm often struck by how similar the two cities are. In many ways, Pittsburgh is a smaller version of Boston. (I can elaborate at length if you would like me to.)

A few weeks ago, we heard about Bostonians in the robotics industry upset that "Roboburgh" is stealing their thunder. Now a report that Boston should not be complacent about its leadership in health-care and biomedical research. Pittsburgh is listed as one of the smaller cities nipping at Boston's heels. But some of the same issues that have Boston worried--healthcare as an outsized percentage of the local economy and a decline in NIH funding--should have Pittsburgh worried as well.

Where is the 4200 block of Murray Ave?

According to the Post-Gazette today, there were 3 hold-ups "in Squirrel Hill" yesterday morning in the 4200 block of Murray Ave after which the robber "ran toward Greenfield." This caught my eye and not only because I live a few blocks from that stretch of Murray Ave.

Mainly, I was interested in the neighborhood label: I had always thought of the 4200 block of Murray Ave as lying in Greenfield. Everyone I know calls the Giant Eagle on that part of Murray the "Greenfield Giant Eagle." Indeed, I had thought of all of Murray Ave from the bridge over Beechwood Blvd to Hazelwood Ave as part of Greenfield. I had thought of the border between Squirrel Hill and Greenfield as the section of Beechwood Blvd running from Hazelwood Ave and Brown's Hill Rd north to the parkway entrance and beyond to the Greenfield Bridge over the parkway--Squirrel Hill east of Beechwood and Greenfield west of Beechwood.

On the other hand, I checked the zip code directory and 4200 Murray is indeed in the 15217 zip code. 15217 is normally associated with Squirrel Hill and the post office goes so far as to list "Squirrel Hill, PA" as an acceptable alternative to "Pittsburgh, PA" for mail addressed to the 15217 zip code. And the shopping center at the intersection of Murray Ave and Hazelwood Ave is called "Squirrel Hill Plaza."

But check the Pittsburgh city official neighborhood maps and one finds that "Greenfield" extends east as far as Saline St and makes a weird jog around the triangle park at Hazelwood Ave, Saline St, and Beechwood Blvd such that the triangle is part of "Squirrel Hill South." This is consistent with the signage put up by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy ("Welcome to Squirrel Hill") on that triangle. But it puts "Squirrel Hill Plaza" as well as the
victimized businesses in the 4200-block of Murray squarely in Greenfield.

Let Them Go to Kansas City

Update: I guess we have Scenario 3 and I can live with it. It looks like no local tax revenue (city, country or RAD) will go to this. And if we are to have casinos in Pennsylvania, I suppose diverting some of the profits to this is ok. According to Gov. Rendell, some of the casino funds were already dedicated to economic development and the state money for the arena will come from that. Most interesting is the plan for economic development rights around the arena: the Penguins get them parceled out year by year and then lose them each year if they do nothing. But I can still fantasize about Pennsylvania politicians singing Rodgers and Hammerstein can't I?

Let me get this straight:

Scenario 1:
The Penguins can pay no rent to Kansas City and the citizens of Kansas City and Missouri can shell out the money to run the arena there and we can ask Mr. Barden to spend $7.5 million a year on community development instead of a hockey arena. Maybe he can even renovate Mellon Arena and turn it into something like a big concert hall with a retractable roof.

Unhappy people: Penguins fans in Pittsburgh.
Happy people: Taxpayers in Pennsylvania and Penguins owners.
Stupid people: Taxpayers and officials in Kansas City and Missouri who are giving away millions to a for-profit business.


Scenario 2:
The citizens of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and Pennsylvania shell out lots of money
for a new arena and/or forego the use of tax revenue and casino profits for other purposes. The Penguins spend money that they wouldn't have to spend in Kansas City. Kansas City continues to look for someone to occupy their new arena for nothing.

Unhappy people: Penguins owners; taxpayers in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania; Kansas City officials and residents.
Happy people: Penguins fans in Pittsburgh.
Stupid people: The people in Kansas City and Missouri now joined by the people of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

I might see this differently if I were at all interested in hockey, but it looks like a no-brainer to me. If I were Ed Rendell, I would call Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle and start singing a certain Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite through the phone.

Monday, March 05, 2007


I've been having trouble logging into blogger and google recently so I haven't been posting. But here's a sampling of some of my musings over the last few weeks:

Some of you may have noticed this New York Times article about the Texas lawmaker who got some flack for characterizing modern science, including the Big Bang and evolution, as kabbalistic and rabbinic. But he was simply offering the non-philo-semitic version of what has long been a trope among kabbalistically inclined Orthodox Jewish scientists. If one googles "Kabbalah and Science," the first result is for something called "" and which includes this short story on its website. An interesting case of Jewish apologetics (our holy rabbis discovered the Big Bang before modern physics)? Of course if one thinks modern physics is a great threat to one's own religion (fundamentalist Protestant Christianity), one might accept this claim and see it as further evidence of Jewish (or "Pharisaic") perfidy. The best line in the NYT article refers to a characterization (by the website that served as source material for the Texas representative) of Albert Einstein as a "Kabbalist physicist."

One of my actual physicist friends got a kick out of that when I mentioned it to him yesterday at a Purim carnival. He's been reading Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion--dare I say spreading the good news about this book? In the meantime (via Leiter Reports), I just read this interesting article in the Guardian about a kind of anti-Dawkins backlash in England. And the letters in response are equally interesting. The impression one forms from the reviews of Dawkins is that he is quite aggressive about countering rather simplistic belief in a supernatural God whose followers often take violent actions against those who do not share the same belief. Presumably Dawkins would say that the fact that this critique does not take into account sophisticated liberal theologies, naturalistic as well as supernaturalistic, is beside the point since the "liberals" (broadly speaking) in whichever religious tradition one focuses on are not the ones doing violent things to other people in the name of "God." But I will say no more until I have read his book.

Meanwhile, I have been thinking some about religious violence in my own religious-ethnic tradition of late, given that Purim was yesterday and my friend Elliott Horowitz (author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence) spoke last Monday at Pitt. I could not help pay attention to the stories about Ariel Toaff's now-pulled Pasque di Sangue over the last two weeks. Without reading the book (and it looks like that will not be a possibility for the foreseeable future unless anyone in Italy has a bootleg copy they would like to send me), I won't offer any historical judgement on Toaff's claims since I'm not really sure what those claims are (were?). However, one issue strikes me as interesting and worthy of comment: historians of pre-modern Europe have routinely relied on Inquisition documents and other archival records of trials as primary sources for years. Given the use of torture in medieval and early modern judicial systems, how one uses these sources is a tricky methodological problem. The best approaches, it seems to me, are those that regard archival sources (all of them) as texts to be interpreted--in which authorship, intended audience, genre, political considerations in the production and conservation of the material, language (both langue and parole for you structuralists), and a host of other factors have to be considered in order to make sense of what these pieces of past writing can actually tell us. In terms of methodology, this seems to be the central question in evaluating Toaff's work. Yet many (lay) commentators have suggested that using the trial records at all was wrong. So far, I have only seen two discussions of the work that emphasize the manner in which Toaff reads (wrongly as far as these reviewers are concerned) his texts: Kenneth Stow, writing for History News Network, and Roni Weinstein, writing in Haaretz. (If you can read the Hebrew, I recommend that version of Weinstein's article.) Weinstein notes that Toaff turns to Carlo Ginzburg's groundbreaking historical work for inspiration. So Ginzburg's comments in Corriere della Serra are worth noting (found via the blog, My Obiter Dicta).

Ok. That's enough about books I haven't read.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Blog Birthday and Books

Yesterday was the second anniversary of this blog. Let's drink some tea and lemon in celebration.

And yesterday I read this somewhat odd column by Bob Hoover, book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (whose work I usually like, I should say) where he laments the influence of the New York Times Book Review. For most of the column, he writes as thought he has forgotten about the Internet and of sites like this that link to a number of on-line avatars of newspaper book sections, highbrow and middlebrow magazines and even publications that call themselves "book reviews" or "reviews of books" or such similar things. Circa 1995, one might read a review of a particular book in the book review sections of the New York Times and of one's local Sunday paper (which unless one lives in Washington is likely to be a pretty small section). Now, someone who cares about books can spend all of Sunday reading book reviews, including multiple reviews of the same book. At the very end of the column, he does note that "unlike the 1960's world... the Internet offers unlimited possibilities." Right. But doesn't that makes the whole premise of the column false?

Also it seems a bit strange for a book editor to lament the out-sized influence of the New York Times while reviewing more or less the same roster of books in one's own book section week after week with a smattering of Pittsburgh or Pittsburgh-connected authors thrown in.

However, his opening comments about antiwar readers abandoning Max Ascoli's The Reporter in the late 1960s over Ascoli's support for Johnson's Vietnam policies appear to be quite timely given the current state of Leftist opinion about that venerable icon of liberal politics, The New Republic. See here for an entry point into the whole set of questions--follow the links and sample the comments at both places (but promise me you won't spend too much time with the comments or you may go as crazy as some of the commentators).

(I tried to stop reading The New Republic a couple of years ago after letting my subscription lapse. Partly I was annoyed that they hadn't fully made amends for spending a couple of years pretending that George Bush was the second coming of Woodrow Wilson [although they did come out strongly--with one exception--for John Kerry in 2004]. Partly I just wanted to save money. But I missed the book reviews and the arts coverage, so I subscribed again a few months ago.)

I got to that business about The New Republic via Bitch, PhD who has just posted a talk she gave at the Modern Language Association conference about the blogosphere and the eighteenth-century public sphere. Worth a look if one has an interest in the history of communication.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I Love Miss Manners (Still)

Today's gem:

Dear Miss Manners:

How do I reply to people who ask me to guess how old they are?


Rick Santorum's next career(s)

So--I learn from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette--Rick Santorum is off to the Ethics and Public Policy Center. That he would head a program called "America's Enemies" is perhaps not a surprise, but the conventional wisdom had the defeated Santorum headed to a K street lobbying firm not to a think tank (however right wing). And Reg Henry, one of America's Greatest Columnists, wishes him well:
But I am just so glad he has a suitable job. We were all worried for him. After all, he couldn't very well be a lobbyist because he is friendly with so many that just choosing one firm would have given offense to the crowd. Now he can sit in the thoughtarium marinating in right-wing opinions until the tide again turns.
But it turns out the conventional wisdom wasn't so far off, after all. Check out this profile of the former senator from Penn Hills in The National Review Online. Actually I'll save you the trouble and just quote the crucial penultimate paragraph:
The former senator also plans to join a law firm in D.C. "I’m talking to a few firms right now, but working on the America’s Enemies program is my first priority."