Friday, December 25, 2009

The first raspberry in the English language?

Among the upper, educated classes, the French stories clearly circulated freely, but the development of a vernacular tradition was seriously hindered by what was for many years the depressed status of the English language. (I had vivid experience of this myself, years ago, while working on medieval London. I came across an early fourteenth-century case in the city courts which used French. An English clothes-dealer and his Welsh friend had been fined for causing a fracas in a brothel, whereupon they made a habit of standing at the roadside and neighing like horses whenever the aldermen rode by! Rebuked, they replied with ribald snorts of 'Trrphut! Trrphut!' (perhaps the first recorded raspberry?) — described as a rude 'English' expression!)

— Gwyn A. Williams, Excalibur: The Search for Arthur (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1994), 161

Surprising that no one has tried anything like this in Amherst. Our local government certainly has its vocal critics.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Captain of the "Exodus" Dies at Age 86

Some time ago, we noted the anniversary of the dramatic voyage of the "Exodus 1947," the ship carrying Holocaust survivors as illegal immigrants to Mandatory Palestine. The British seizure of the ship and forced relocation of the passengers to internment camps in Germany caused a scandal and helped to build international sentiment for Palestine Partition.

The Jerusalem Post reports the death of its captain, Ike Aranne, in Hadera. Born Yitzchak Aronowicz in what was then Gdansk, Aranne emigrated to Palestine at the age of 10. After sailing on various ships and then taking officer training in London, he returned in 1942 to Palestine and joined the Palyam, the new marine arm of the Palmach. The rarity of professional naval skills allowed him, despite relative lack of experience to assume his first command aboard the "Exodus."
The UK continued to hold the detainees in Cyprus until January 1949 when it formally recognized the State of Israel.

Aranne's daughter, Ella, told the AP that the experience remained a pivotal part of his life for years afterward.

"It was one of the most important things of his life. He wasn't a big storyteller, but he'd happily tell schoolchildren about it," she said.

"The Exodus influenced him and his friends deeply. Those were the days that defined them and as far as they were concerned defined the character of this country."

From 1993 until his death, he lived in a house built like a ship, with rooms in a row and a faux mast and huge windows providing a view of the Mediterranean.

He lived in the house alone since the death of his wife, Irene, in 2001.

Aranne's funeral is scheduled for Friday in northern Israel. He is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren, and a 2-year-old great-grandson.

Update: a sampling of additional coverage

• Margalit Fox, "Yitzhak Ahronovitch, Exodus Skipper in Defiant '47 Voyage of Jewish Refugees, Dies at 86, NY Times, 23 Dec.
• Naama Lanir, "Captain of refugee ship 'Exodus' dies," Ynet, 23 Dec.

• Eli Ashkenazi, "Captain of Exodus dies at 86," Haaretz, 24 Dec.

• Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, "Leon Uris 'Exodus' novel had nothing to do with reality, skipper said," Jerusalem Post, 26 Dec.

•"Yitzhak Aharonovitch: captain of the Holocaust survivor ship Exodus," Sunday Times, 30 Dec.

Introducing Another New Rubric: "quote unquote: bad history"

Every good phenomenon has to have its bad counterpart (like Captain Kirk's evil twin), and so it is only fair (and fun) to call attention to bad writing (mainly historical), as in the case of the good examples: as serendipity or whim may dictate.

A starter:

Neil Sheehan, whose study of a Vietnam policy-maker, A Bright and Shining Lie, won considerable acclaim, attempts to duplicate his success with a biography of Cold War missile engineer Bernard Schriever. Reviewer J. Peter Scoblic says it does not succeed, challenging the book's entire logic regarding the strategic and historical role of the ICBM. ("Did Missiles Win the Cold War? A Soulless New Book Gets the History Wrong," The New Republic, 2 Dec. 2009. Among other things, the review picks out "one of the book's more infelicitous sentences":
technology was in the saddle of a horse named Fear in a race of human folly
Ouch! None of my students this semester displayed such a misguided striving for effect (though there were other mistakes aplenty).

It's a target-rich environment out there.

Suggestions welcome here, too.

"dentist-chair bargaining" (introducing a new rubric: "quote unquote")

Introducing a new rubric, "quote unquote":

A miscellaneous selection of notable, quotable phrases (drawn mostly from writings about history, politics, or culture), new or old, as serendipity or whim may dictate.

Here's one for a start:
Bloom has summed up his approach to these situations as "dentist-chair bargaining"—in which the patient 'grabs the dentist by the balls and says, 'Now let's not hurt each other.'"
—from Noam Scheiber's portrait of the Obama administration's Ron Bloom, and his technique for tough negotiating in order to save jobs and industries in the face of management's efforts to cut losses by cutting jobs and closing factories: "Manufacturing Bloom: The proletarian schlub who might just save American industry," The New Republic, 2 Dec. 2009

Suggestions welcome.

[typos corrected]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Breaking news: Polish police locate stolen Auschwitz sign

AP 20 minutes ago: Police located the stolen Auschwitz gate sign in
northern Poland. Press conference scheduled for 3 a.m. Eastern Time.

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Auschwitz I Sign Theft Update

According to the Auschwitz administration and Reuters, Polish authorities are offering a reward of 115,000 PLN (about $ 39,000) "for information leading to the return of the metal sign" that hung over the gate to the camp and was stolen this week.
I am shocked and outraged by the theft of a recognizable symbol of Nazi cynicism and cruelty," President Lech Kaczynski said in a statement.

"Everything must be done to find and punish the offenders... and I appeal to all my compatriots who can help the law-enforcement authorities."
Authorities now believe that the motive was not antisemtism on the part of neo-Nazis or similar groups, and instead, a simple theft, though the specific motives behind the latter remain unclear.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Infamous "Arbeit macht frei" Sign Over Auschwitz Entrance Stolen Last Night

I had already been planning a new posting with updates on the status of historic preservation efforts at Auschwitz (including some recent good news), but events often overtake us.

The press office of the historic site and memorial announced that the infamous sign over the gate of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp disappeared in the middle of the night. According to a more detailed report from Haaretz and AP:
Polish police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said local authorities believed the sign was stolen between 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., when museum guards noticed that it was missing and alerted the police.

Padlo added that the iron sign, which spanned a gate at the main entrance to the former Nazi death camp, was removed by being unscrewed on one side and pulled off on the other.

The daily Gazeta Wyborcza said on its website that the museum authorities had already installed a replica sign over the gate that had been used briefly a few years ago when the original was being repaired.

"This [theft] is very saddening," Gazeta Wyborcza quoted Jaroslaw Mensfelt, the museum's spokesman, as saying.

"The thieves either didn't know where they were or -- what's even worse -- they did know but that didn't prevent them from stealing."

the gate, through which visitors now enter the site:
1.1 million in 2008, when this photo was taken

Even without vandalism, the preservation of the historic resources of the site has posed a great challenge, for both the facilities and the thousands of artifacts—3,800 suitcases and 12,000 pots and pans, [accidentally omitted: and two tons of human hair,] for example—are in urgent need of conservation. At the start of the year, the Polish government, which has maintained the camp on its own, announced ambitious plans to create a foundation with an endowment of 120 million Euros, the interest of which could perpetually finance these tasks. Just this week, Germany committed to contributing half that amount .

Updates on this story and the overall struggle to preserve the site will follow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Coming Attractions: Worcester Conference on Historic Resources & House Museums

Most memorable quote from the conference: "The National Trust is not in the business of preserving buttprints!"

Full coverage to follow.

Press Release: West Cemetery Headstone Restoration First Phase Completed

9 December 2009

West Cemetery Headstone Restoration First Phase Completed

Members of the Amherst Historical Commission recently inspected and approved headstone restoration work completed by Monument Conservation Collaborative (MCC) of Norfolk, Connecticut. In three older sections of this ancient burying grounds, 269 headstones were repaired, righted, and reinstalled using $145,000 in Community Preservation Act funding. MCC has provided before and after images of each of the stones and descriptions of the repairs performed; some of these will be posted on the Historical Commission’s website.
West Cemetery, Amherst’s oldest, includes not only the Dickinson family plot, a frequent destination for Emily Dickinson devotees, but also an early African-American burying area, and the graves of some of Amherst’s earliest settlers. New signs have been designed and will be fabricated and installed to introduce visitors to the cemetery.

Irving Slavid, President of MCC, said “I have worked in historic cemeteries for over 15 years and the West cemetery in Amherst has more visitors than any cemetery we have worked in. Apart from local visitors, we also met people from all over the country and some from Europe. I remember an Italian couple making the journey to see Emily without speaking English. These travelers were devoted. People coming in by car or parking in town and walking through the cemetery, mostly all coming to visit Emily. Some stayed for a fair amount of time.”

In 2006, muralist David Fichter and local artists created the Amherst Community History Mural, which depicts historical Amherst figures along the back wall of the Amherst Carriage Shops overlooking the cemetery. Additional signs will describe the mural for visitors to the cemetery, and brochures describing the images and personalities depicted in the mural are available at the site.

Restoration of the cemetery is still incomplete. Additional CPA funding has been approved for repairs to the town tomb, ironwork around several family plots, and for additional landscape restoration. This year, older areas of the cemetery were re-seeded with native plants including lupine and forget-me-not, and were left unmowed, to begin to recreate the meadow that would have been characteristic of the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These plantings are being installed with help from members of the Alpha Tau Gamma fraternity of the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts, and generous contributions from the Hadley Garden Center.

Members of the Historical Commission expressed concern that a few of the restored headstones have already been the victims of new vandalism. Under normal conditions, repairs should last anywhere from twenty to fifty years. Members of the Historical Commission continue to discuss additional safety measures that might better protect the cemetery, the mural, and the headstones, both those already repaired and others that will be restored in an upcoming project.

For further information, please contact Jim Wald, Chair of the Amherst Historical Commission (jjwald at or Jonathan Tucker, Director of Planning (TuckerJ at

In the photo above: Jim Wald, Chairman of the Amherst Historical Commission and Jonathan Tucker, Director of Planning, examine the recently repaired headstone of Aaron Warner who died in 1774. The Aaron Warner House on West Street has been nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Coming Attractions: Updates on Historic Preservation Work

At this hectic time of year, there are many competing demands in the worlds of work, family, and civic affairs alike. However, we have made considerable progress in the latter area. Updates on the status of historic preservation initiatives will follow soon.

As a first installment, a separate posting will include a new release on Historical Commission projects, focusing on our work in the West Cemetery.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Coming Attractions: Hampshire Alumnus Read(s) from Tell-All Memoir; Buildings Still Standing

Coming Attractions:

Administrators and others legitimately concerned about the reputation of the College have been scared shitless at the publication of Richard Rushfield's new memoir of the wild and do-nothing Hampshire College culture of the old days.

Full disclosure: I knew and taught the author from his first through his last days here, so I am in a position to offer some sort of reality check.

A little report on the event (not a full-fledged book review—though I could identify some of the actual historical figures behind the literary characters for the reading public) will follow in due time.

In the meantime, I reproduce here the article from the Hampshire Gazette, which nicely summarizes the relation of author, text, and events:
At Hampshire, a student and his college come of age

By Daily Hampshire Gazette
Created 12/02/2009 - 05:00

"I write about a time when reckless irresponsibility ceased to be an acceptable lifestyle, and American culture became more serious, self-conscious and self-absorbed," writes Hampshire College graduate Richard Rushfield in his new book, "Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost: A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the '80s" (Gotham Books).

Think about that statement for a few minutes, and you gradually, grudgingly, realize that this man has a wicked sense of humor. He skewers every person and every philosophy he encountered during his undergraduate years at Hampshire College (1986-'91), but he is also unsparing in his self-criticism. The resulting story is a coming-of-age tale for both the experimental college and for one particularly insecure, observant youth.

Rushfield, who lives in Venice, Calif., will read from his memoir Monday at his alma mater. It's a book that combines the journalistic accuracy and sense of place in Tracy Kidder's non-fictional "Hometown" with the drug-crazed, neurotic characters and adventures in Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." #

Young Rushfield came to the Pioneer Valley from that other "valley" - southern California. In his book, he describes Hampshire College as "a self-conscious experiment in education by the four major schools located in the idyllic western Massachusetts wilderness of the Pioneer Valley ¿ a laboratory free of the constraints of the established schools ¿ with the boldness to traipse down the paths its stodgy neighbors feared to tread." He claims that by the time he started school there, the experiment had turned into a nightmare of loosely drifting "misfits and malcontents from around the globe."

He also admits that his prime reason for attending the school was the promise of a single room in the dormitory.

Reality check

Rushfield thought Hampshire would be similar to his former Los Angeles high school ¿ "a liberally oriented school cloistered from reality" where he hung with a crowd he describes as "revival-movie-going, Cole Porter-reciting, self-styled intelligentsia ¿"

But, once on campus, he felt sorely out of place. A sadistic dorm supervisor scorned him for being a "first-year"; a non-politically-correct essay earned him revulsion on his first day in the class "From Mark Twain to Miami Vice: Images of the American Male in Popular Culture"; he felt mocked by campus hippies for his inexperience with women and his rejection of marijuana.

"Pot was to Hampshire College what basketball was to Notre Dame, calculus to MIT. ¿ In the following years, never would I pass a day without being asked for or offered marijuana," he writes. "Perhaps the biggest handicap I had brought to Hampshire, the thing that made me totally unsuited to survive in this ecosystem, was my aversion to marijuana."

Eventually, Rushfield found friends who shared his taste in alcohol, pills and cocaine. His nihilistic tendencies, just budding when he defaced all the doors in his dorm and denied it in front of 10 witnesses, were brought to fruition at his next residence. He moved in with a group of good hearted, self-destructive misfits called "The Supreme Dicks."

The Dicks liked to bother other people by showing up uninvited at gatherings and playing loud sounds on electric instruments. They showed contempt for fellow students by organizing events meant to shock and outrage, such as a "spermathon" for South Africa. (Don't ask: read page 110.) The Dicks had a dark secret that was eventually uncovered by Rushfield: a suicide for which many people considered the Dicks responsible.

After two years of wild exploits and missed classes, the Dicks were being disbanded and Rushfield was close to expulsion. He did remain and went on to graduate with a degree in art history, mostly by attending classes at Smith and Amherst colleges. By graduation time, he had become more comfortable around the opposite sex and was off the radar screen of campus security.

Rushfield's memoir paints an unflattering view of life at Hampshire College in the late '80s. Post-epilogue, after Rushfield has sworn that the incidents in the book are essentially true, he offers this thanks to the college: "For all the rocky miles we've been down, you provided me the most memorable years of my life, years that made me who I am today, and without them, there would have been no memoir."

It is easy to picture him saying this with a bit of a sneer on his face.

Richard Rushfield will talk about his memoir Monday at 7 p.m. in the main lecture hall of Franklin Patterson Hall on the Hampshire College campus.
As noted, a further report to follow. Or, to cite the retro style favored by the speaker: Be there, Aloha.

9 December 1917: General Allenby Captures Jerusalem

The Ottomans surrender Jerusalem to British forces, December 1917. It was a most welcome development for the Entente in the wake of the disasters of Passchendaele and Caporetto. In June, Prime Minister Lloyd George had asked General Allenby to "to take Jerusalem as a Christmas present for the nation." Allenby famously entered via the Jaffa Gate on foot, a gesture generally described as one of deference to Jesus, who had ridden a donkey, but in fact also a political one intended as (in Conor Cruise O'Brien's words) "a snub to the Kaiser, who had entered the Holy City nineteen years before, mounted on a white horse, under a triumphal arch."

In November, the government had issued the Balfour Declaration, in which it announced that it viewed "with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people," a charge that became part of the League of Nations mandate for Palestine assigned to Great Britain in 1920.

The Great War lent an impetus to both Arab and Jewish national liberation movements, which some members of each regarded as sympathetic and compatible. Although much contemporary discussion either emphasizes or merely assumes monolithic Arab hostility to the Declaration, Matthias Küntzel reminded us in his recent popular book that this was not always the case, citing in particular examples from the Egyptian elite who welcomed Zionism as a force for rejuvenating the region. As late as 1925, "Egyptian Interior Minister Ismail Sidqi took action against a group of Palestinians protesting against the Balfour Declaration in Cairo. He was at the time on his way to Jerusalem to take part in the opening of the first Hebrew university." [1]

The other point that has been lost to collective memory is Christian hostility to the British victory: The Vatican, for example, regarded Jerusalem as the "patrimony of Christ." As Richard Rubenstein observes, "Over the centuries the Christian churches, both Orthodox and Latin, had achieved a modus vivendi concerning Palestine with the Ottoman Empire. The conquest of Palestine by Protestant England, which had made a qualified promise to the Jews of a 'national home,' did not sit well in Rome." [2] More generally, his essay on the "witness people idea"—namely, that the Jews are a crucial but ambivalent sign in Christian thought—goes a long way toward explaining the seemingly inexplicable modern western obsession (positive or negative) with the Jewish state without recourse to the sometimes misleading or tautological explanation of antisemitism.
[1]Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 (NY: Telos Press, 2007), 6.
[2] "The Witness-People Myth, Israel, and Anti-Zionism in the Western World," in Michael Berenbaum, ed., Not Your Father's Antisemitism: Hatred of Jews in the Twenty-First Century (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2008), 293-327; here 301-2.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"one of the most remote places" on earth

Cultural comparisons: 2

The speculative run-up to President Obama's policy speech on Afghanistan tonight has, predictably, generated a lot of vaporing. Several weeks ago, I was struck by reference to the country on an NPR report as "one of the most remote places on earth" (NPR usually reserves that phrase—just try googling it—for Antarctica, or occasionally some exotic isle.)

Really? By what standard? One would think that a country that is already home to some 50,000 US troops, with 30,000 more now on the way would hardly be remote in the sense of hard to get to. Indeed, what with the influx of troops, support personnel, and press these days, it's probably one of the easier places in the region to get to. Just try visiting the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan, or for that matter, Canada's Northwest Territories.

And "remote," in the sense of distance?

Isn't this all relative anyway? I'm sure that, to the people of Afghanistan, the United States qualifies as "one of the most remote places on earth," in more regards than one.

I am also reminded of the old joke told by and about refugees from Nazism:
Early 1930s: two acquaintances trying desperately to leave Germany run into each other at the emigration office.

First émigré: Where are you going?
Second émigré: Shanghai.
First émigré: What, so far?!
Second émigré: Far—from where?

"one of the world's great religions"

Cultural comparisons: 1

In his much-awaited Afghanistan speech tonight, President Obama referred to Islam as "one of the world's great religions."

I of course agree wholeheartedly (unlike the Swiss).

I knew exactly what he meant: he was referring to its number of adherents, its contributions to literature and the arts, its role as a pillar of western and world civilization (indeed, I have always taught my students to understand that Islam was part of the shaping of the West, for example, through its leading role in philosophy and science as well as theology).

Still, it made me wonder.

For one thing, it was a kind of political boilerplate and pandering, a throw-away line. (In fact, I was almost reminded—this dates me—of cadaverous deadpan comedian Pat Paulsen's 1968 presidential campaign. A spoof video had him say, in every little town, that this was the greatest place in America, his favorite place in America.)

For another, what else could President Obama have said? Let's extrapolate.

What reaction would Zoroastrianism—after all, found in the strategically crucial countries of Iran, India, and Pakistan—provoke? "One of the world's pretty decent second-tier religions"? (sort of like a college football team that's good but not on a par with the Big Ten? a baseball farm club?). Actually, I'd go with: "one of the world's oldest religions": true and safe, makes no qualitative or comparative judgment. Dodged a bullet there.

And wicca? Anthropologically and scientifically, one cannot of course differentiate between it and the established religions. Sorry to have to say that to traditionalists (differentiating historically is a different matter). For that reason, among others, it stands on a footing of equality at the Spiritual Life Center at neighboring Mount Holyoke College (to cite one example) along with the expected eastern and western faiths. But addressing wicca at all would be politically very unpopular. The wingnuts, after all, don't even want to believe that the President is a natural-born American citizen. They'd have a field day with this. Fortunately, there are no wiccan constituencies or crises on the horizon. Save for contingency plan, review later.

And what about cases in which multiple religions are involved? The "Middle East conflict" is, thank God (figure of speech), a no-brainer: "three of the great world religions," "three of the world's greatest religions," "the three great monotheistic religions," etc. Home free. Everyone is happy (well, except for the ones who are killing one another over their great religions).

But what if a President had to take a tough stand on events in Sudan? (don't hold your breath) Today, of course, the chief issue is the genocide in Darfur, in which Muslims are killing Muslims. You can stick with the original formula: now a doubly tragic conflict between members of "one of the world's great religions." It's a multi-purpose phrase.

But in earlier decades, the focus was on the war between the Arab and Muslim north and what was referred to as—it became a total stock phrase among journalists: just try googling it (I got about 5000 hits for that exact phrase and wish I owned the copyright. Bizarro)—"the largely Christian and animist south." Tough one. What does one say there: a "tragic conflict" (all conflicts nowadays are of course tragic; that almost goes without saying) involving "'two of the world's great religions' and, um, . . . what we used to refer to as a 'primitive religious belief,' not understanding that the term itself reflected a Eurocentric bias and could not do justice to its rich and complex vision of the interplay between living humans, ancestors, and nature"? Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Fortunately, that one's largely behind us now anyway. Save for the files and hope for the best.

It must be hard to be President. I guess that's why he has speech-writers and vetters of speeches. Can't be too careful what you say nowadays (as Hillary and her staff evidently have yet to learn).