Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Survival of the Chinese Jews; The Jewish Community of Kaifeng: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng by Donald Leslie

The Survival of the Chinese Jews; The Jewish Community of Kaifeng by Donald Leslie is a comprehensive look at the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng.  In their long history of nearly a thousand years in China, this community has left clues as to their origins, daily life, and ultimate extinction.  Leslie takes these topics in turn

The merits of Leslie’s book are the detailed drawings and photos.  The shortcoming is that this work was written quite some time ago so the prose is sometimes clunky, and the Chinese transliterations are in the old style, and odd to read.

However Leslie’s book is overwhelming helpful.  Hopefully, there is a scholar of Chinese and Jewish history out there who can take Leslie's work, update the translations, analysis their Hebrew books and Chinese inscriptions and provide a definitive work on the Jews of Kaifeng.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: A Millennium of Adaption and Endurance

The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: A Millennium of Adaptation and Endurance, edited by Laytner and Paper, is divided into two parts, Past and Present.  By far the past is the most interesting section, with the papers by Berstein and Paper examining the unique Chinese Jewish elements which characterized the Kaifeng community during its prime.

The Present is far less interesting, as it is readily apparent the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews show little interest in returning to Judaism in any meaningful sense.  Although some of the essays on the Chinese government crackdown on attempts by descendants of Chinese Jews and Western Jews at reviving the religion are fascinating.  

Judaism is not an “official” religion in China.  The Chinese government is wary of religions they don’t understand or control, as some of the most destabilizing wars in Chinese history (like the Taiping Rebellion) were led by messianic figures at the helm of east/west hybrid religions.

The Chinese government even covered the old well on the former grounds of the Kaifeng synagogue with gravel, the only remnant of the building on site, the last bit of the synagogue in situ!

Kaifeng synagogue well, now buried

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

I had high hopes for Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant, largely because of the glowing preface by Michael Ondaatje, whose novel, The English Patient, I admire greatly.  

Unfortunately Gallant’s stories tend toward the ponderous, both in style of the prose and pacing.  She is writing for another time and place, and while that does not discount a book’s quality (and in fact, it can be a virtue) for Gallant this scars the whole collection.  I found myself constantly searching for a perch where, as a person, I could feel the pulse of Gallant's stories.  I only found a few.

Yes, Gallant can write, and write well.  And therein may be the central problem: her stories are too solidified, too set into place; they do not breathe, and this makes for suffocating reading.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Weehawken dueling grounds, New Jersey

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a masterpiece of a biography.  Chernow presents this complicated man without shying away from those complications, or relying on overly reductionist explanations of why Hamilton could be so noble at certain time, and petty at others.

In this way, Hamilton was no more or less like any other person.  But as a public figure, and as one of the founders, his actions were writ large.  So, his highs were high, and his lows, low.  This should be familiar: our leaders suffer the same extremes.

Chernow’s biography is instructive not only about Hamilton, but about the entire founding generation.  They were men (all were men) capable of selfless, statesman-like behavior.  But they were also petty, mean, and held lifelong grudges against their perceived enemies.  

What we call the spirit of partisanship was rampant in those early days, especially in Washington’s second term.  It threatened to tear our young republic apart, just as its  similar form of political polarization today places our country in existential jeopardy.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Provost’s Review of the Social Sciences at Cornell

I seldom write about Cornell, my employer of nearly 19 years, except in a veiled way.   The university, overall, has been very good to me, providing a vital and challenging environment to work and exist.  But here I break that rule for the email below.

As an organization, Cornell tends to think and coordinate as organizations do: they form committees and generate studies.  In the context of the long email below, Cornell administration tends to be disingenuous in its statements.  In keeping with other committees investigating similar themes and topics, the sentence containing the statement that the goal of the committee is to “identify opportunities for continuing to strengthen the social sciences at Cornell” means one thing: to somehow centralized the Social Sciences at Cornell, and strip power for the individual units.

The reason for this move is cost savings.  The end result will be some overarching entity, The School of Social Science, The Social Science Entity,  Social Science Incorporated; this entity will supposedly pool resources and eliminate redundancies.

Centralization certainly has its place in congregations of people gathered together to perform some task(s). But it has a shadow side in all but ignoring the benefit of organic growth and the decentralization that fosters it.  The centralized folks, of course, prefer centralization.  It is where they derive their power and authority.  Decentralization is tantamount to disorder, and even chaos. And it is supposed to be less cost effective.  Yet where is the evidence that Cornell’s centralizing drive saves money?  Has anyone studied that outcome?

The Provost is a shadowy and strange presence on campus, feeding money or not depending upon their internal (and often opaque) reasoning.  Besides tightening a belt that may very well be on the waist of bogie man, what do they do?  Why do they exist?

Provost’s Review of the Social Sciences at Cornell

Review the current state of the social sciences at Cornell, and identify opportunities for continuing to strengthen the social sciences at Cornell.
The review will focus on the traditional social science disciplines as they appear in all colleges and schools, as well as research infrastructure units that support the social sciences. However, the review will also recognize and consider disciplines that intersect traditional social sciences. Contributions to the research, teaching, and public-engagement missions of the university, as well as the organization of social sciences faculty throughout the university, will be included.
First, a small internal committee will be convened to develop a document that describes the current state of the social sciences at Cornell. The report produced by the committee will be descriptive—it will not provide a critique of social sciences, nor will it be prescriptive in tone. The report will be informed by data and information that are internal and external to Cornell, pertaining to the teaching, research, and public-engagement missions of the university. The internal committee is not intended to be representative of all social science disciplines, but rather is meant to be a small group with enough knowledge to produce the descriptive report. The Provost will invite nominations from the campus and will appoint the membership.
Second, a group of highly regarded scholars, external to Cornell, will be identified and invited by the Provost to review the report of the internal committee and to participate in a site visit that will include interviews, tours, and discussion. This group will be asked to provide its assessment, together with recommendations for further strengthening the social sciences at Cornell.
Progress reports will be provided to the Faculty Senate Committee throughout the process.
Internal Committee
Co-Chairs: Judith Appleton and Ted O’Donoghue
Members: Rose Batt, Jesse Goldberg, Katherine Kinzler, Yael Levitte, Katherine McComas, Kelly Musick, Holly Prigerson, Jed Stiglitz, and Martin Wells.
September 2017 Update
Following completion of the self-study, receipt of the report of the external review committee, and a period of invited comment on the report, the next step in Cornell’s review of the social sciences will be to address the central issues raised in the process to date.
Committees will be formed to address:
1.     Organizational Structures: university level organization of the social sciences, including academic units and centers/institutes (work to begin late September 2017)
2.     Idea Panels: explore areas of strength and opportunity for radical collaboration in the social sciences (work to begin October 2017)
3.     Administrative Issues: specific concerns regarding current policies and practices that impact faculty productivity (work to begin Spring 2018)
Charges for all three committees, along with up-to-date committee membership, can be found here [current draft September 20, 2017]
Any questions or concerns you may have on the review process may be submitted to ssreview@cornell.edu.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass: vast profunditie obscure

Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy, derives its title from this section of Milton’s Paradise Lost

On heav’nly ground they stood, and from the shore
They view’d the vast immeasurable Abyss
Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde,
Up from the bottom turn’d by furious windes
And surging waves, as Mountains to assault
Heav’ns highth, and with the Center mix the Pole.
Silence, ye troubl’d waves, and thou Deep, peace,
Said then th’ Omnific Word, your discord end:
Nor staid, but on the Wings of Cherubim
Uplifted, in Paternal Glorie rode
Farr into Chaos, and the World unborn;
For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine
Follow’d in bright procession to behold
Creation, and the wonders of his might.
Then staid the fervid Wheeles, and in his hand
He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he center’d, and the other turn’d
Round through the vast profunditie obscure,
And said, thus farr extend, thus farr thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World.
—Paradise Lost bk vii, lns 210-31 (1667)

The literal golden compass of this tale holds the secrets of creation. The device is both an artifact of religious veneration, and a piece of technology.  Lyra, the protagonist, is obviously some vital piece of a cosmic drama which holds the secrets of “the vast profunditie obsure,” although the first book only alludes to this. In book one it appears that the world and creation are more complex than the official church doctrine.  And of course, this can only lead to a bewildering drama.

Monday, September 18, 2017

English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions)

English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions) hits all the major Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelly.  

If you are like me, and have not read these poets since high school or college, and when you read them you did so apathetically, then this is a book loaded with gems.  Stylistically, thematically, and linguistically, these poems are at once familiar and numinous.  They are protean forms in the mind and heart, forming shifting, evocative images and scenes.

The Dover Editions once sat on a rack near the register of book stores (do they still?)  As if these little one or two dollar books were an impulse purchase like a pack of gum.  The world has changed a great deal.