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!