The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Piercing Together the Genizah

The story first appeared in The Forward

Computer scientists at Tel Aviv University are using artificial intelligence to gather the fragments of the world’s largest collection of medieval documents, the legendary Cairo Genizah, to tell the story of 1,000 years of Jewish history and culture. They have reconstructed more than 1,000 documents from 350,000 individual items found in the Cairo storage room: more in a few months than in 110 years of conventional scholarship. 

They have decades to go before they are finished.

“The Genizah contains information about every single Jewish subject in the world — all learning,” said Rabbi Reuven Rubelow, manager of the  Friedberg Genizah Project , which funds the research. “If it is holy, they kept it in this room."

In some ways, the contents of the Cairo Genizah are more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls, SEVERAL scholars believe. While the Dead Sea scrolls were the religious literature of a small sect that lived in the desert for a few years, the Cairo Genizah told the story of the day-to-day details of a millennium of Jewish life. 
“What we have learned about Jewish culture and history... in the Muslim world in a century of research is unparalleled, unparalleled,” said Mark Cohen, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. It is especially true of the day-to-day life of the Jews.

“It’s like looking through a trash can outside your home,” said Phillip Lieberman, assistant professor of Jewish studies and Law at Vanderbilt University. “I can tell a great deal about your life from what I find.”
What the Tel Aviv researchers are doing will revolutionize that search.

While some of the archive includes complete letters, manuscripts and documents, much of it consists of fragments, some containing only a few words, or pages out of context. The fragments are spread out through 70 different libraries and museums around the world. One page of a letter could be in Oslo and another in Philadelphia.

Nachum Dershowitz and Lior Wolf of TAU’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science are taking the digitized documents and feeding them into computers to rejoin the parts.

Until now, researchers had to rely on serendipity to put together fragments; they would look at a document and remember that it looked like something they saw someplace else, Cohen said. But now, computers are able to learn from their own experience which fragments fit with which. The more documents  the computer sees, the better the algorithm will get, an attribute of A.I. scientists call computer learning. The project uses A.I. techniques THAT WERE developed over the past decade for myriad reasons but only recently brought to bear  on the Cairo Genizah. 

Although A genizah has been described as a “holy trash” dump, IT is  ACTUALLY a word from the Persian, meaning “hoard” or “hidden treasure.” The practice of storing documents in a genizah derives from the Jewish idea that letters, like people, are alive and sacred. When they wear out, or “die,” they are to be treated with respect, especially if, like the Torah, they contain the words of God. They are eventually either buried or, as in the case of the Cairo Genizah, allowed to decay on their own. 

Eventually, genizot became neutral receptacles for any community documents. The one in Cairo is by far the oldest and largest.

The brilliant, eccentric Moldavian-born talmudic scholar Solomon Schechter is credited with the discovery of the Cairo Genizah in 1896. Schechter , WHO AT THE TIME WAS on the faculty of Cambridge University, was told of the Cairo Genizah by Scottish twin sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who had uncovered the trove during their travels to the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

Solomon Schechter
Shown two documents from IT, Schechter immediately understood that the sisters had [tripped   STUMBLED] on a historic treasure. One manuscript was the original text of “The Wisdom of Ben Sirach” (“Ecclesiasticus”), from the second-century BCE, part of the Christian Apocrypha and the origin of part of the Jewish Amidah prayer. Schechter immediately sailed to Egypt.

Founded in the ninth century, the synagogue is located in the Fustat section of medieval Cairo, once home to a teeming Jewish neighborhood. The genizah itself was in a dark, sealed room just under the roof. The contents were protected in part by Egypt’s dry, warm air and in part by a curse that threatened anyone who removed a document.

Schechter found a letter signed by Maimonides among the documents, as well as a draft of Maimonides’s laws that was hand-corrected by the author. The Cairo Genizah also contained the oldest piece of Jewish sheet music, the oldest rabbinic text ever discovered and, as an illustration in an 11th-century child’s reading primer, the oldest use of the Star of David. 

It contains social and commercial documents stretching from the 19th century back to the ninth century. ThIS genizah was, in short, a vast storehouse of information on life in the Middle East AND its culture and economy, from sex to glassmaking. 

Understandably, much of it is in poor condition. Paper had crumbled or been stuck together; parchment was torn; text was missing in the middle of documents. Some pages were covered with a molasses-like goop, of undetermined origin. No one had cataloged them.
Schechter shipped back most of the trove to Cambridge and took some with him to New York when he became president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902. Other scholars and collectors around the world took the rest.

To piece it together, the first order of business was finding out where it all was. 
“The Friedberg people went around the world and made a list,” Dershowitz said. Some is in private hands, sold by dealers in the 19th century. Seventy percent is still in Cambridge, another 20% to 25% is at JTS, according to the foundation. The rest is scattered around the world.

Now that they know where everything is, the, entire collection is being digitized. Documents or fragments are photographed either by the libraries or by the foundation, shipped to the Freiburg office in Jerusalem and uploaded onto the computer there. Cambridge alone sends almost 10,000 documents on disk by courier each month, Rubelow said.

The documents are scanned using algorithms developed partially for facial recognition. The computer ignores content and looks for matching physical attributes. “We look at the shape of letters and the spacing between lines and things like that,” Dershowitz said. “If you have two pages from the same book, then the layout of each page is similar.”

So far, the computing project has found about 5,000 fragments that might be rejoined, mostly from collections in Geneva and New York, but human scholars have gone through those and affirmed that only 1,000 of them are actual matches.

“This [computer joining] is especially important for historical fragments,” Cohen said. “They are less well preserved. They have the most tears and holes.”
The most important find? Dershowitz said it was the discovery of more works of Saadia Gaon, a 10th-century philosopher. Everyone thought all his extant work had been found, but more was in the  Cairo Genizah, and even more has come to light during the Tel Aviv investigation. Dershowitz’s researchers are now experimenting with dating some of the documents and determining their provenance.

Lieberman said the Cairo Genizah scholarship is surprisingly relevant to modern Jews. The Jews in the Medieval Muslim world were highly assimilated culturally and economically into the greater society as modern Jews are, and lived peacefully with their neighbors for centuries. How they did so could be important to know, he said.

The work is unlikely to be completed in the lifetime of most of the scholars, Dershowitz admits.

“In  ‘The Book of Ethics,’” Dershowitz remarked, “it said, ‘It is not your job to finish.’ It’s our job to start. Let other people finish.”

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Climate change, forest fires, and cultural collateral damage

Carmel Forest in better days

The price of climate change isn’t just high temperatures and rising seas. It is cultural, political, economic and philosophical. Climate change has collateral damage.

In December, the worst forest fire in Israel’s history destroyed 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) of forest. The fire did not just destroy trees; it destroyed one of the philosophical underpinnings of the Jewish state, costs millions of dollars, dozens of lives and could even contribute to bringing down a government.

The fires should not have been a surprise. In 2001, Israeli scientists predicted that the changing climate would eventually lead to heat waves, drought, a change in rain patterns and eventually forest fires. All that turned out to be true. Guy Pe’er, a co-author of Israeli’s National Report on Climate Change, said what happened in Carmel was “a taste of the future.”

The fire roared through the mountains in the northern part of the country, south of the port city of Haifa, an area about 1,500 feet (500 meters) above sea level, which draws thousands of tourists because of its exceptional beauty in a region more famous for desert. Something like 5 million trees were destroyed. Forty-three people died, many of them burned to death in a trapped bus.

In the report almost a decade ago, Pe’er and others said that if temperatures in the area rose by as little as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7) Fahrenheit, the desert would expand northwards by several hundred miles. But at the rate temperatures were rising, the temperatures would be higher than that by century’s end. This would essentially put an end to Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

This year, the rains did not come. Carmel suffered from eight months of drought and unusually high temperatures, hovering around 96 degrees Fahrenheit (30 C). It was prime forest fire weather. And Israel was totally unprepared.

Getty Images

Some background puts this into perspective. It’s not just the trees.

Israel is perhaps the only country in the world that has more trees now than it did in the beginning of the 20th century. Trees became the symbol of the Zionist movement, reclaiming the land from the desert and the neglect of millennia. Many Jewish homes in the diaspora had little blue boxes sent by the Jewish National Fund, an organization devoted to planting trees in the Holy Land. When you had loose change, you put in the blue box. Stores in Jewish neighborhoods stocked the boxes as well. Children who went through the rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah often received planted trees as presents. (My family probably has a couple of dozen plantings in our name). It was a legitimate wedding gift.  Millions of trees were planted, turning northern Israel green. The forests were lines of mostly pines, exceptional only in where they were, how many of them there were and how they got there. For the area they were extraordinary, and there were so many of them they actually changed the local climate.

Unfortunately, the JNF never invested any of that gift money in forest fire fighting equipment and the country itself discovered to its dismay it also had neglected fire emergencies under the theory that most of the buildings in Israel are made of stone and hence not fire prone. The fire burned itself out more than it was put out, and a country famous for sending aid to other countries suffering from natural disasters had to ask for help for itself. Even the Palestinians chipped in with engines.

The unpreparedness could cost the Interior Minister his job and the poor response of the government did little good to the precarious government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, the JNF is trying to collect funds to plant more trees and is running into opposition from contributors who are unhappy about what they did with the money they had, and scientists who believe the best way to restore the Carmel forests is to leave them the hell alone and let nature rebuild them. Nature is likely to do a better job.

Except for the changing climate, that is,which could make the forests of Carmel just a brief moment of verdure in the long history of that sere and benighted region.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Einstein, Relativity and Wingnuts

"The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits"--Albert Einstein. --First it was evolution, then global climate change. Now it’s the Theory of Relativity and it’s iconic formula, E=mc2.

Conservative bloggers are attacking Einstein’s theories as a “liberal conspiracy,”claiming they are controversial outside of “liberal universities.” Puzzled physicists, who consider relativity to be a seminal discovery of their science, seem as unsure how to react as did biologists when first confronted with modern creationists.

While relativity has always had rejectionists--mostly anti-Semites—the new dispute draws the denial into the realm of American politics, where it doesn’t belong.

The debate became public when a conservative website, Conservapedia, posted a definition of relativity making the charge it was part of an ideological plot, and then added a list of counter examples it claims disprove the theories. The postings were picked up by the liberal blog TPMuckraker and went, in the jargon of the internet, “viral.”

Conservapedia was created by Andrew Schlafly, the 49-year-old lawyer son of Phyllis Schlafly, the antiabortion activist. He studied engineering physics from Princeton and law at Harvard, and founded Conservapedia three years ago because he felt Wikipedia, the dominant online encyclopedia and one of the most visited websites in the world, had a liberal, anti-Christian, anti-American bias. Among other things, it accepts evolution as a fact and will occasionally use British spelling.

(Schlafly did not respond to repeated attempts to interview him for this article).

Einstein, a notorious liberal, would be amused but hardly surprised.

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton defined modern physics in 1666, with his laws of motion and energy and his description of how the planets circle the sun. His universe was beautiful, rational, deterministic. His laws still dominate how we think about the mechanics of the world. In 1905, the 26-year-old Einstein, working as a patent clerk (even brilliant physicists need a day job) in Bern, had a very good year. He published four papers, any one of which would have made him famous, but the first cinched it: the Special Theory of Relativity. The famous formula is in that paper: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Energy, the mass of an object, and the speed of light, all seemingly disparate attributes are entwined. The mass of any object can be converted into energy, as the world subsequently found out to its horror.

Ten years later, he added gravity to space and time in the General Theory of Relativity. Every time you feel heavier when an elevator you are riding in accelerates upward or lighter going down, you are feeling effects described in the General Theory.

The theories were radical for their time. They did not contradict Newton as much as they complemented Newton. Einstein had pulled off a rare thing in science, what the historian-physicist Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift. There aren’t many in the history of science, and as Kuhn wrote, one sure initial reaction was disbelief, which is certainly how Einstein’s papers were first greeted.

In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington, observing the stars around the sun during a solar eclipse. The light from the stars was deflected as it passed by the sun just as Einstein predicted. It made Einstein world famous.

(Asked what would he think if Eddington came up with a different answer, Einstein replied, “Then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct anyway.”)

For most of the 20th century, scientists fanned out around the world to test the predictions inferred from relativity. Many--perhaps most--hoped they would be the ones to disprove Einstein. Unlike evolution, which takes millions of years to well, evolve, relativity can be proven in laboratories within minutes, and has. Einstein’s theories have been verified going back now nearly 100 years.

“There is no controversy,” says historian and physicist Michael Riordan, adjunct professor of physics at the University of California Santa Cruz. “The theory isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete and has refinements that might or might not be true.”

Andrew Schlafly
A second paradigm shift overtook Einstein, the theories of quantum mechanics, a concept Einstein never accepted. Quantum mechanics, created by a slew of physicists led by the Dane Niels Bohr, did to Einstein what Einstein did to Newton--complemented his theories. Like relativity, quantum mechanics also has passed every test.

No serious physicist doubts relativity or quantum mechanics any more than any serious biologist doubts evolution.

Which brings us to Andrew Schlafly.

Schlafly is obvious very bright. He was accepted at both Princeton and Harvard Law. He is obviously very well educated. He graduated both after a distinguished academic career.

That creates a puzzle: how could someone as bright and as well-educated produce web entries so perfectly inane.

Schlafly’s main argument appears to confuse relativity, an abstraction in physics, with relativism, a philosophical argument having nothing to do with physics.  He believes that accepting relativity leads to moral and religious relativism, which is like saying growing apples leads to giraffes.

What seems to have triggered it was a 1989 Harvard Law Review article, now all over the internet, written by liberal law professor Lawrence Tribe, using relativity as a metaphor for understanding constitutional law. Tribe thanked Barack Obama in the footnotes (which isn’t surprising since Obama was then editor of the Review), hence it must be a liberal conspiracy.

Some of the statements in his relativity entries (I haven’t bothered to look at other pages) makes me wonder if he is underestimating his readership or whether he is pandering to them, knowing what he is writing is nonsense but they’ll never figure that out because he is feeding their prejudices.

For instance, Schlafly claims that “virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible,” but doesn’t say how he knows that. Has he polled them all? Are there any data to support that?” No one as educated as Schlafly can write that with a straight face. I was taught relativity and read the Bible every Saturday morning. A world famous astrophysicist in our synagogue also believes in relativity and reads the Bible. I can match Schlafly’s anecdotes with mine, and none of them prove anything. As a trained engineer from Princeton, he knows better.

He also uses examples from the Christian Bible as evidence the theories are wrong, which of course is religion, not science.

Perhaps there is something else going on.

After the physics community learned to accept Einstein’s theories, attacks continued from less reputable sources, anti-Semites, apparently upset that a Jew was credited with producing something that important. They called it “Jewish science.” Nazis proposed that Germans should do better and came up with an alternative construct, totally incoherent, called Deutsche Physik. German physics didn’t recover until after World War 2.

While there is no overt anti-Semitism in the Conservapedia, the entries on relativity echo the old arguments. For instance, Schlafly writes: “The theory... is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

Forget for a moment that he is assuming everyone who believes in relativity is a liberal. Greg Gbur, assistant professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte points out in his blog Skulls in the Stars that if you “replace ‘liberals’ with ‘Jews’ in [that] sentence, the words might well have been written by a Nazi circa 1930s-era Germany.”

The attacks on Einstein, overtly anti-Semitic or otherwise, take two forms, and Schlafly repeats them both: that Einstein plagiarized the theory and that the theory is is known to be wrong.

All scientists base their work on that of their predecessors, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Newton put it. Deniers point to the work of Jules Henri Poincaré, and Hendrik Lorentz which preceded Einstein’s publication by several years. These men were superb physicists (Lorentz won a Nobel Prize) and had thought about relativity, but neither made the huge leap in imagination Einstein did, although Poincaré came close and probably did influence him.

Another claim is that the theories originated with Einstein’s first wife, the Serbian physics student, Mileva Marik. She may well have served as a sounding board, but there exists no serious evidence she made any substantive contribution. Einstein biographer Ronald Clarke wrote that Einstein didn’t think her bright enough to understand what he was working on. She was an Einstein in name only.

No scientist has had his life probed by more respected biographers and historians than Einstein, and none of them have discovered any proof that the credit for relativity is misplaced.

To prove that the theories wrong, Schlafly provides a list of about two dozen “counterexamples.” The list changes regularly so you can’t come up with a solid numberr. Some are irrelevant, confusing relativity with quantum physics; some misinterpret the science, and many are demonstrably completely wrong.

Schlafly claims that “The lack of useful devices developed based on any insights provided by the theory; no lives have been saved or helped, and the theory has not led to other useful theories and may have interfered with scientific progress.”

The sound you hear is jaws dropping.

First of all, just because nothing useful came out of the discovery of a law of nature doesn’t make the discovery wrong. Everything does not have to have a practical application. But his premise is erroneous.

Everyone who has had a PET scan in a hospital, many who have undergone radiation therapy for cancer or turned on a particle accelerator has used Special Relativity, says Riordan. If you have a GPS navigation system in your car, Einstein is guiding you. If your electricity comes from a nuclear power station, Einstein is lighting your home. That E=mc2 is wrong surely would have surprised the physicists at the Manhattan Project who used it to destroy two cities, not to mention the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The GPS issue is interesting. Schlafly says a Navy research office denied the GPS satellites made use of relativity and that there is nothing about the satellites relevant to Einstein. The navy office he quotes said no such thing and scientists who programmed the satellites had to program relativity into the four clocks in each satellite or the satellites would be useless. Every physicist knows this, and I know at least one of the physicists who actually did the programming. Can Schlafly, with his Princeton engineering really degree not?
GPS satellite

Perhaps the most bizarre of Schlafly’s counterarguments involves what Einstein called “spooky action from a distance” which Schlafly uses to disprove relativity. He uses Jesus to back him up.

Start with the premise (I do) that quantum physics makes no sense at all. Einstein would agree with that sentiment. One of the foundations of relativity is that there is a cosmic speed limit--nothing can move faster than the speed of light.

In a thought experiment with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published in 1935, he postulated that if you took a molecule containing two atoms, you could describe the two atoms with one formula. They shared attributes, a wave function. If you then separated the two atoms, they would still share the same wave function so that if you altered one, the other would reflect the change instantaneously even if it was now across the galaxy.

Nothing, Einstein wrote in his relativity papers, could go faster than the speed of light, so of course this is impossible. This isn’t as funny as Schrödinger’s Cat, but nonetheless proved, so Einstein believed, that quantum mechanics was nothing but solipsism.

But quantum physicists can prove that actually happens, something they call “entanglement.” Forty years after Einstein died, the French physicist Alain Aspect used a pair of entangled photons he created with lasers and proved that a change in one instantaneously changed other, speed of light be damned.

Other experiments have verified Aspect’s work. No one has the remotest idea how that works. As is usual, however, Shlafly uses that as evidence relativity is wrong. Einstein, who thought relativity was right, used it to show quantum mechanics was wrong. In fact, it proves neither. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong; it just makes it mysterious. And quantum mechanics doesn’t contradict relativity, it adds to it. We are just not sure how.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Shlafly quotes John 4:46-54, where Jesus, fresh from turning wine into water, cures a child in a remote geographic location. Schlafly never explains in detail (one gets the feeling he just wanted a Biblical reference to please his audience) but the book says it happened instantly which would defy Einstein. But we doesn’t know how fast the cure happened since the kid was elsewhere and more important, if Jesus is who Schlafly thinks he is, why can’t he perform miracles? Miracles are acts that defy the law of nature.

And what the hell does that have to do with science?

Here’s where Schlafly’s rhetorical technique comes to play.

Gbur says that Schlafly uses a technique known in rhetoric as the “Gish Gallup” (named for a creationist debater who employed it), which can be defined as: throw as much crap out there as possible and give the appearance you know what you are talking about and take the chance no one has the energy to dig through it all. Schlafly piles statement after statement, footnote after footnote. and even stacks impressive mathematical formulas with jargon. Some of the references refer to himself and some have nothing to do with the argument, and few deal with outside sources.

Physicists have mixed feelings about how to react. Several refused to comment for this story because they did not want to give Schlafly credibility. But Clifford Will, professor of physics at Washington University, in an email from Paris, wrote:

“The internet world is full of kooks and crackpots who put out all kinds of drivel.  It is pointless to attempt to refute these people with evidence, because they don't believe in evidence.

“…People may not like relativity, but the experimental and observational evidence that supports it is so overwhelming that it is a now fact of the universe,” he wrote.

Einstein himself, who got the first word above, gets the last word:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Jewish genetics, Palestinians, and those Italian girls

Genetic evidence in the last several years has shown that most Ashkenazic Jews (most American Jews) are Middle Eastern-European hybrids. They are genetically descendent from the people of the Middle East. But a new study hints that there was a good bit of fooling around in southern Europe in the old days. Those Italian girls! And, guess who are their (our) closest genetic cousins? Palestinians.

Whether Jews are a people, a religion, a tribe, or a form of neurosis (my vote) has long been a matter of argument. One result, since the Holocaust, is the belief that the Jews were not really a people, just a religion. It also was speculated that most Jews may be descendants of converts like the
Khazars in the Caucuses and really share very little historically. See Arthur Koestler. But DNA evidence, going back almost a generation has disproven that notion. A new study confirms that. Ashkenazim around the word are mostly more alike among themselves then they are with non-Jews. Most can trace their ancestry back to what is now Israel and the surrounding areas.

Scientists in Israel and the U.S., using genetic markers called genomic
microsatellites (don’t ask), studied 78 individuals from four Jewish groups around the world and compared them to 321 individuals from 12 non-Jewish populations. They found:

Jewish populations showed a high level of genetic similarity to each other, clustering together in several types of analysis of population structure. Further, Bayesian clustering, neighbor-joining trees, and multidimensional scaling place the Jewish populations as intermediate between the non-Jewish Middle Eastern and European populations.

These results support the view that the Jewish populations largely

share a common Middle Eastern ancestry and that over their history they have undergone varying degrees of admixture with non-Jewish populations of European descent.

In other words, a shared ancestry. A peoplehood.

But here were two surprises in the study, published in BMC Genetics. One, although most Ashkenazim come from the northern part of Europe, most of the European genes come from southern Europe--Italy, Greece, Sardinia. One guess is that most of the intermarriages and assimilation happened after the Jews dispersed from the Middle East during the years of the Roman Empire, at least more so than in later years when they wound up in Germany and Poland during the Middle Ages. Then, they generally were sequestered in ghettos and in villages or parts of cities and had limited interaction with surrounding populations until the beginning of the 19th century.

And the second surprise is that the group of people closest genetically to the Jews are Palestinians. Both come from the Levant area and Mesopotamia. That could be that many Palestinians are likely of original Jewish or Samaritan origin.

Combatants in the Middle East might note.

[OK, the photo is Dominique Sanda and friend in "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," about an Italian-Jewish family in WW2. Seems appropriate. You'd rather see Khazars?]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Holy Days on the Last Frontier

[The author is spending the current academic year teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with his daughter, Hannah. The following appeared on his person blog.]

The high holy days at what is believed to be mostly northerly synagogue building in the world, and one of the world’s northernmost Jewish communities, has begun. It is Judaism at the edge. That’s the synagogue above before anyone arrived.

Or Hatzafon (the Light of the North) sits on the northern edge of Fairbanks. A few blocks north is the frontier and there is nothing for 800 miles. There may well be Jews living further north than latitude 65, probably in Siberia, but no one knows of a synagogue building that high.

The congregation is about 80 families, almost all, like most Alaskans, from somewhere else. The president is from Delta Junction but he is a thoughtful convert. The woman running the Sunday school is from Massachusetts and several others I have met are from Long Island and Montgomery County, Maryland. Only the military are here by chance. One man told me he was from Delaware and has been here for 30 years. His first winter, the temperature dropped to 66 below and he absolutely had to go outside to experience it, and, no doubt, so he could tell the story 30 years later.

They have no permanent rabbi although they did buy a duplex home and convert it into a synagogue a few years ago. They also have a part time administrator, both of which put them ahead of the synagogue I belong to in Baltimore. They have begun a search for a rabbi. They get student rabbis for the summer and save their b’nai mitzvot for when one is around, and it would be interesting to see who they can get to come up here permanently.

For Rosh Hashanah they brought in a woman rabbi from San Diego. They are affiliated with the Reform movement in part because it gives them more flexibility to please more a diverse population. Congregants range in skills from one man with a lovely, if untrained, voice who acted as a knowledgeable cantor, to people who know very little. They use, at least for the moment, an old Conservative prayer book for shabbot with the Hebrew transliterations pasted on the pages. They have ordered the new Reform siddur. The machzor for the holidays is the New Machzor from Media Judaica, which lacks the excruciating translations of the Silverman, and is less traditional and has little explanatory text.

(The nearest Conservative synagogue is in Vancouver, in a whole other country. There is a Chabad House in Anchorage and two other Reform synagogues there and two small ones near Kenai. That’s it for Alaska’s Jews, all 5,000 of us in a zillion square miles.)

About 60 people came for Rosh Hashanah. The dozen or so children played in the kitchen area; the adults prayed in what was probably one half of the duplex converted into a sanctuary. Most were regular members, a few were people who apparently came in from the bush (which in part may explain the pickup trucks in the parking area), and there were a couple of visitors, including one young woman from Montclair, N.J., who is working for Americorps in Nenana. There is usually someone from the army base. They have two Torahs, including a small kids’ one, both in need of repair. The large one came from a defunct synagogue in the Ohio River valley. They are starting a repair fund.

The rabbi read the Torah; she didn't chant it. Haftorah is read in English for both holidays by the congregants. On Yom Kippur, the Torah was read by members in Hebrew, sometimes quite haltingly, sometimes skillfully. I had an aliyah and the reader was a young Israeli who danced through it. Most of the melodies were the ones I am used to and singing was enthusiastic, especially those prayers with transliterations in the book. One woman added both harmony and counterpoint to Adon Olom that was gorgeous. Indeed, it’s a good singing congregation. Yom Kippur was handled by the congregation and the house cantor, and done well.

The people are unique, delightfully odd and, like all Alaskans, notably friendly.

Hannah starts teaching in the Sunday school on the 30th, two courses, Hebrew and Judaics. I get some of my Schechter tuition back. Well, actually, no--she gets to keep it all.

Unlike communities back where most of you live, Alaska is oblivious to things Jewish. There are not enough of us to make an impact. School certainly doesn’t close down for the holidays, there being maybe a dozen Jewish students in the high school and no teachers I know of; the university schedules freely, there being maybe a dozen Jewish students (I haven’t met any yet--there is no Hillel). There is Jewish faculty, including the chair of English. When I told my students there would be no class last Thursday because of the holiday, several came up after class to ask questions. This was clearly all new to them. Often, the president has to call the Christian chaplains at the nearby army base to explain why a soldier has to be excused from duty because of the holidays. Jewish chaplains are rare in the current military and there hasn’t been one in Alaska for years. About four or five soldiers were at the service.

Keeping observant here is not an option for those less than rabid. Although the supermarkets keep the normal brands, many of which are kosher (including Hebrew National), unless you are willing to spend an inordinate amount of money to import food, you turn into a vegan whether you like it or not, and the stricter you are, the harder it would be. Lighting candles at this latitude is a major chore. Around the summer solstice you would have to stay up to nearly 3 a.m, and at the winter solstice, you light the candles right after lunch. Go any farther north of here, say 200 miles, and whole days go by without sunrise or sunset. (The synagogue here simply schedules candle lighting at 7:30 p.m. no matter what it’s doing outside.) Living within walking distance of a synagogue could be life-threatening when it’s 44 below zero, and you sure as hell aren’t going to wheel an infant in that weather--the kid would be solid by the time you arrived.

Tashlich was at the ice bridge (don’t ask--i’ll tell you later) on the Chena river. Our sins apparently float down the Chena to the Tanana and eventually, one hopes, to the great Yukon, where they no doubt merged with lots of other sins.

Yom Kippur had about 50 people and a pot-luck dairy break fast. All were reminded that poultry counts as meat and that the fish has to have fins. The (non-Jewish) owner of one of the better sea food restaurants in Fairbanks sent over some fish and salad--just to be nice.

You do the best with what you've got.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Frozen Chosen

If the temperature falls below -35, Sunday school is canceled--A personal note, if you don't mind. Wondering what the hell I've been? Getting a job.

I thought you all would like to know that starting in mid-August, I become adjunct professor of journalism (Snedden Chair) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. It's a one-year appointment and I'm the first person to hold the position. I just came back this week from five days in Fairbanks. I'm also happy to report that Hannah is coming with me next year, and will start 9th grade at West Valley High School in Fairbanks. She is already wearing a Wolf Pack sweatshirt. Carol will join us periodically when her job permits--she hates cold weather. We hope to live on campus and will return to civilization once or twice during the academic year. We also intend to maintain a place in Alaska through next summer for exploration. It is very beautiful.

I will teach two courses, Prospectives in Journalism, which I can design myself (think corporate ownership, the new media, political pressure etc.) and science writing. Additionally, my students and I will be working on a year-long project, probably on climate change, which is occurring in Alaska faster than anyplace else in the world--or at least is being better measured than anyplace else. I hope to turn it into a book. All that will require some time in the field, an adventure. Muck-lucks and whale blubber, yum. The International Arctic Research Center is based at the university, so a major resource is up the street.

We will return to Baltimore late spring next year. We're home until August 13th or so. Alaska is allegedly the best-wired state in the country so I will not be out of ready touch. I will keep this going until then and then I'll start a blog for that purpose. I've had requests.

And the line about the Sunday school--it's an actual message on the website of the only synagogue in Fairbanks, which claims to be the northernmost synagogue in the world. Now imagine kids trudging off to Sunday school in -35 degrees and darkness. The frozen chosen. Oh, and the bear photo? That is a nine-foot Kodiak bear on display at the Anchorage airport. One's only possible reaction to seeing a nine-foot bear--even stuffed--is 'oh shit.'

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Of course, you blame the Jews

Darwin changed his name for business purposes—In America, we have a president who thinks the Theory of Evolution is just another theory. In Britain they put Charles Darwin on their money, the £10 note. It just got funnier.

Try this from a Texas newspaper:

By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN - The second most powerful member of the Texas House has circulated a
Georgia lawmaker's call for a broad assault on teaching of evolution. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, used House
operations Tuesday to deliver a memo from Georgia state Rep. Ben Bridges.

The memo assails what it calls "the evolution monopoly in the schools."
Mr. Bridges' memo claims that teaching evolution amounts to indoctrinating
students in an ancient Jewish sect's beliefs.

"Indisputable evidence - long hidden but now available to everyone -
demonstrates conclusively that so-called 'secular evolution science' is the
Big Bang, 15-billion-year, alternate 'creation scenario' of the Pharisee
Religion," writes Mr. Bridges, a Republican from Cleveland, Ga. He has
argued against teaching of evolution in Georgia schools for several years.
He then refers to a Web site, www.fixedearth.com, that contains a model bill
for state Legislatures to pass to attack instruction on evolution as an
unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Mr. Bridges also supplies a link to a document that describes scientists
Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein as "Kabbalists" and laments "Hollywood's
unrelenting role in flooding the movie theaters with explicit or implicit
endorsement of evolutionism." .....


Naturally, you want to blame the Jews. Darwin’s real name, of course, was Chaim Darwinsky from Chelm, and this is a Jewish plot to undermine a Christian America. We had a speaker at the latest meeting of ZOG, the Zionist Occupation Government. Sorry you missed it. We served cake. It was at my house. Nice turnout, by the way.

But don’t laugh too soon.
The theory of evolution accords with the secrets of Kabbalah better than any other theory. Evolution follows a path of ascent and thus provides the world with a basis for optimism. How can one despair, seeing that everything evolves and ascends? When we penetrate the inner nature of evolution, we find divinity illuminated in perfect clarity. Ein Sof [the essence or light of God] generates, actualizes potential infinity.
From The Essential Kabbalah; the heart of Jewish mysticism, by Daniel C. Matt.
You really gotta go the the fixed earth website cited above, however. Keep in mind this man was elected to a state legislature. Keep in mind that Chisum was too. When the story was published and was met with waves of hilarity, Chisum recanted and apologized Don’t you really miss Molly Ivins now?

As someone pointed out, if Darwinsky actually said only the fittest survive, Chisum, Hall and Bridges are living proof he was wrong.

The president of the Fair Education Foundation, Marshall Hall, said he had sent the memorandum to Mr. Chisum at the request of Mr. Bridges, whom he called a longtime friend and supporter. Mr. Chisum, in a letter accompanying the memorandum, said he distributed the memorandum “on behalf of” Representative Bridges. He said he knew Mr. Bridges through the National Conference of State Legislatures “and greatly appreciate his information on this important topic.”

The memorandum was condemned by some Texas lawmakers and by the Anti-Defamation League.

In a letter to Mr. Chisum dated Feb. 14, Mark L. Briskman, director of the league’s North Texas-Oklahoma regional office, said, “We are shocked and appalled that you would share this outrageous anti-Semitic material with your colleagues in the Texas House.”

Questioned Friday about his apparent endorsement of the memorandum, Mr. Chisum appeared to back away from it. “I read it, but he didn’t ask me to edit his memo,” he said. “It does not reflect my opinion.”
Of course the Christianists are not alone in their disdain for Darwin[sky].
And our record isn’t too clean either. See Darwin and the Zoo Rabbi here.

Special thanks to the folks at SCJM for calling this to my attention.