Monday, October 31, 2011

Berlin Philharmonic: Brahms Symphony No. 1

Here is the Berlin Philharmonic performing part of Brahms Symphony No 1, in C minor, Op. 68, Daniel Barenboim, conducting, on April 27, 2010.

Johannes Brahms, the nineteenth century German composer and pianist, was one of the leading Romantic period composers. Brahms, a contemporary of Franz Liszt, had a number of musical influences, including Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, and to a lesser extent Frédéric Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn. Brahms' music and its form was in direct opposition to the Liszt and Wagner's modern style of music drama.

As a Romantic-era composer, one would expect that Brahms' music would be laden with emotional depth, but it is an emotionality built on structure and tradition. The composer, a self-styled perfectionist, worked on the four-movement symphony for 14 years, finally completing it in 1876, only performing it publicly when he felt it was ready. It made its premiere, with Brahms' friend, Felix Otto Dessoff, as the conductor, on November 4, 1876, in Karlsruhe, Germany. Some have called this work, Beethoven's Tenth, due to its similarities to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, his last.

You can feel the tension in Brahms piece, well-captured in an article, "Struggle and Triumph, in The Wall Street Journal, that Barbara Jepson wrote:
Yet in the magnificent "C Minor Symphony," which had its premiere in his native Germany in 1876, Brahms not only overcame self-doubt but further imbued Classical symphonic form with the rapid mood shifts and ardent longing of German Romanticism. Endowed with remarkable thematic richness and unity, the C Minor Symphony is music of struggle and triumph, from its yearning opening for strings over a pounding timpani to its jubilant conclusion. Indeed, ambiguity pervades this 45-minute work. 
An interesting note: The Berlin Philharmonic, in its earliest form, played all four Brahms symphonies during its first three years of existence. One can meld together tradition and romanticism, but it doesn't come easily or cheaply. Greatness in art is often a matter of struggle and the overcoming of adversity.

Johannes Brahms [1833-97]: Taken in 1853 when he was twenty. "Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind."
Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fundraising Fatigue Redux

Money & Society

One must be poor to know the luxury of giving.
George Eliot

Education costs money, but then so does ignorance.
Sir Claus Moser

Lack of money is the root of all evil.
George Bernard Shaw
I am suffering from fundraising fatigue. It seems that every charitable or non-profit organization is appealing for money to support one worthy cause or another. There is no end of appeal letters that come my way, from schools, as well as community, health and religious organizations. I am sure that most, if not all, of the causes have some merit, and that they "desperately" need my money to further advance their work.

My decision on what organization to support has been made easier of late, since we have less money to give, owing to our fragile personal economic situation. That, however, does make the task of saying no any easier. Which is precisely the way such appeal letters operate, to make you seem like a selfish or heartless individual if you would dare to exercise your right to say "no."

Even so, if you receive such a letter in the mail, you can just as easily toss it in the trash, and ignore its appeals. But fund-raising organizations have become better at extracting money in two areas, which involve a kind of emotional manipulation.

One is at retail outlets, notably supermarkets. So, after shopping for food and waiting at the check-out, the cashier will ask whether you would like to contribute a small amount (usually one dollar, sometimes two) to some worthy charity. This is often an ethical or green cause, or a medical- or children-related cause, which the supermarket chain has partnered with, to use the parlance of business. (There are no shortage of such partnerships, as Cause Marketing Forum shows.)

This seems like a win-win-win situation, where everyone feels good, bettering the world: the charitable organization, the supermarket and the donor or contributor for donating to such a worthy cause. You have at most a few seconds to decide whether you would like to support this cause. It could be for any charity. It's hard to say no, so most people (including myself) have usually acquiesced to the appeal and contributed something. Yet, lately I have not, chiefly because I think such decisions are best made privately and not quickly without thought.

Allow me to elucidate. This process of fundraising at the check-out is counter-productive, a nuisance and an affront to my dignity. I am in a retail store, which by definition is a private space dedicated to shopping, and I am there to buy groceries and other consumable items. That is the chief and only reason that I am entering that space. Yet, I face an appeal for money when I am most vulnerable, at the check-out, while paying for the items that I have purchased.

I find this shameless manipulation and an ill-considerate tactic. (I often ask the cashier why they ask each customer and their response is that they are mandated by management.) Such emotional and manipulative tactics is an affront to human dignity, to both the cashier and consumer. It's not a win-win-win situation, as the smiling cashier might imply, if the donor is "compelled' to give, so as to ward off shame and humiliation. It can be likened to panhandling, but legalized and socially acceptable, since it takes place in the confines of a reputable business.

This raises the question of ethics, namely, is it ethical for supermarkets (and other retail organizations) to ask for a charitable donation in a private retail space, if the space has been reserved for a particular purpose? It's a valid ethical question, since appealing for charity, when the client has other interests, namely, buying food and exiting the store, is contrary to the store's purpose. People entering have no expectation of facing requests for charity while food shopping, just as panhandling on most urban streets is against municipal bylaws.

I suggest that we ought to have freedom from such fund-raising tactics. A better less intrusive way is what one of my gasoline retailers does in its efforts to appear charitable, and hence better its public image. For every purchase, a percentage of the sales (typically one per cent) goes to a designated charity.

John Dewey [1859-1952], American philosopher and educational reformer: "The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences." As the University of Chicago says: "In Hyde Park, John Dewey was part of a closely knit group of friends and colleagues that included George Herbert Mead, James H. Tufts, and Eva Watson Schütze, the PhotoSeccessionist who produced this imposing portrait."
Photo Credit: Eva Watson Schütze
Source: University of Chicago

The Funding of Education

There is another area where fundraising has become an almost commercial endeavor. Institutions of learning have adopted business practices not only in how they operate but also in how they instill in students a mercantile approach to life. Such starts at the elementary or primary school level. Schools are asking increasingly more from parents: time, money and resources in fund-raising efforts. But it is money that they want most.

For example, each week, my nine -year-old son returns from school with a packet of fund-raising requests, from such causes as read-a-thons for women's shelters to walk-a-thons for cancer to raising funds for grad dances. You name it. Young minds are drawing certain conclusions about money and its necessity to support a consumer-driven society. Now, many of these causes are worthy and do good work, so it's not about the charities themselves, but in their appeals to parents, using students and schools as the mechanism to raise money.

Now, I reside in a suburb of Montreal. Things are no different, it seems, in the United States with my American friends. There is a wonderful article, School Fundraising? Phooey!, in The Washington Post, written a few years ago that holds true today, as does this article from CBS MoneyWatch, "Parents Unite Against Dumb School Fundraisers!" There is also one from a parent who's involved in fundraising, who thinks we've gone too far—how about playground equipment that costs $100,000? (see here).

So, I have to say no more times than I feel comfortable with to the countless appeals for TCBY frozen yogurt days, Pizza Fridays, Terry Fox Walk-A-thons, and other assorted charitable appeals that helps raise money for the publicly funded school that my son attends. As well, there are the field trips, such as this month's cross-country races involving a number of area schools (another ten dollars).

This is in addition to the three hundred and twenty dollars for lunchroom supervision, sixty dollars for school supplies, and fifty-five dollars for, as the school puts it, "consumable items such as workbooks, certain exercise books, paper, art supplies, cross-country skiing and the Agenda" that the school bills us each year. School taxes are another four hundred dollars a year.

This raises the question whether parents, who already pay school taxes, ostensibly to operate the schools, ought to receive appeal letters for fundraisers for gym equipment, musical instruments, dances, to name only a few things. This also raises the unpopular question on what is the chief purpose of an education.

As for funding of schools, it seems that the federal government does an adequate if not good job, earmarking about 3.5 per cent of its national wealth (i.e., GDP) to education. In national standardized testing, Canadian students fare well, near the top in reading, math and sciences (see here). Kudos to the teachers for a job well done. This is indeed good news for the future of Canada and Canadians.

Yet, school boards and school principals complain that they do not have enough money for their students. If this is so, then it means either the money is not being spent well, or that education today needs more funding, and governments at all levels have to consider such things more carefully. Like most parents, we want the best for our children, and that includes a good education. So, it might come down to this question:  If the various forms of government truly value education, why are they not funding schools to the level that they need?

If you have the answers to these questions, I would be happy to hear from you.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wanda Landowska: Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22

Wanda Landowska performs Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No 22 in E flat Major (KV 482), 1st movement (Allegro), with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Artur Rodziński, conducting, in New York City, December 2, 1945. The second movement is here; and the third here.


Rodziński , a conductor of Polish origins, was musical director of the New York Philharmonic between 1943 and 1947, when he resigned and joined the  Chicago Symphony Orchestra for one season, again resigning over artistic control. During Rodziński 's four-year tenure in New York, the orchestra performed weekly live broadcasts on CBS radio. As for Landowska, who played music in the grand manner, notably on harpsichord, it's nice to also hear one of her few recordings on the piano.


Friday, October 28, 2011

NBC Symphony: Rossini's Barber of Seville Overture

The NBC Symphony Orchestra performs Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" Overture, with Arturo Toscanini conducting, on June 28, 1945, in New York City. It is called "Il barbiere di Siviglia" in the original Italian tongue.

Gioachino Rossini composed this two-act opera, and Cesare Sterbini wrote the libretto for the sharp-witted comedy.   Small wonder, since The Barber is based on Pierre Beaumarchais's Le Barbier de Séville (1775), a play that was originally conceived as an opéra comique, but never staged as such. Forty-one years later, Rossini's opera made its debut, with the title Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome, Italy, on February 20, 1816. The setting is Seville, Spain, in the 17th century.  But it is often placed in more modern times, depending on whom is mounting the production. (Here is the opera's synopsis.)

Rossini's opera forms the first of the plays from the Figaro trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais; noteworthy is Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro), which was composed 30 years earlier in 1786.

The Barber remains one of the most popular operas still performed today, likely because it's a very human comedy of ordinary people going about their business with strange outcomes. Of course, in the original Beaumarchais production, it spoke about the absurdity of social classes, which caught the eye of French censors.

As for the barber as a profession, it is interesting to note that in medieval times, the barber-surgeon was  considered an important position: he not only cut hair but was also involved in medical procedures such as pulling teeth, performing surgery on minor wounds, amputating limbs or administering leeches in a form of blood-letting.

As medicine thankfully become more scientific, the barber-surgeon was separated into two distinct professions, one becoming more prestigious than the other. In France (in 1743) and England (in 1745) barber-surgeons who cut or shaved hair were forbidden by law to perform surgery, but some still performed such practices surreptitiously. Most of the former barber-surgeons turned their hand to wig-making, whose practice was soon imported to America. In 1800 the College of Surgery was founded in England, thus bringing medicine into the modern age.

Since Rossini wrote the score in three weeks, he had to re-use previous work, including the overture. This piece is famous to the many viewers of "The Bugs Bunny Show," a cartoon that has been on TV for decades. My two young boys still watch the show, and the overture, at least a parody of it, is prominent in one of the episodes dating from 1950 (see here).

Gioachino Antonio Rossini [1792-1868]: "Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind."
Photo Credit: Félix Nadar (1820-1910).; Taken in 1858.
Source: Wikipedia

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Empathy: A Friend Of Democracy

Society & Politics

There are many respects in which America, if it can bring itself to act with the magnanimity and the empathy appropriate to its size and power, can be an intelligent example to the world. 
J. William Fulbright

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us "universe", a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Albert Einstein

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination. 
Percy Bysshe Shelley

When you bring up the idea of empathy, you usually get one of two reactions or responses from people. "I think it's important, and I wish I were more empathetic" or "Empathy is unnecessary for humans to act morally." It's interesting to note that persons who have sociopathic tendencies or, more important, who have been diagnosed as sociopaths all, without exception, lack empathy. That is to say, they could not relate to their fellow human beings as persons, and as such were able to commit horrific crimes without any remorse. 

Many scientists consider such humans as suffering from a genetic anomaly or mutation; others as conditioned by their environment. Most, however, would agree that both genetics and environmental factors have come into play, the only argument being in what proportion. Evolutionists focus on genetics; social scientists on social conditions.

This is not to say the opposite is true, that if you lack empathy, you will become a criminal or develop sociopathic behaviour. This is obviously not the case. You can do very well in society today without displaying any level of empathy. In fact, a lack of real empathy might make you a good leader today, whether in business or politics or as a political commentator. I suspect many business CEOs and politicians and hard-boiled political pundits truly lack empathy, thus giving them the appearance of confidence and certainty in their views. The same goes for many religious leaders.

But who knows what lies beneath that veneer of sophistication? What might appear as moral certitude and earnestness might be little more than a hidden lack of empathy combined with hubris. It might be better if our leaders had more empathy, an ability to connect with persons who think in a different way. Disagree? Most certainly. Ignore and disregard? Of course not. 

Yet, we have gone further into the abyss of uncivil discourse. We don't ignore our political and business adversaries; we mock and try to destroy "opponents," using the symbolism of sport and the "need" for victory at all costs to achieve some justifiable end. We have allowed our baser emotions to come to the forefront, using the guise of honesty as our reason, our excuse, but something far more noxious is at work. At times we frame our hardness in moral terms of right and wrong, but do so in a crude way without much thought or understanding. Also lacking in today's discourse is compassion, a cousin of empathy. But that's another topic for another time.

Empathy & Character

Such is the way things are, having come to this point through poor understanding of ourselves. For many, compassion and empathy are signs of weakness, bad for future advancement. Which naturally leads to the question of why bother showing genuine empathy if it doesn't improve my career prospects? The short answer is that empathy forms one of the fundamental building blocks of a healthy and well-operating democracy, its importance undeniable (see here, here and here).

On a personal level, empathy makes you more of a human being who has a greater ability to connect with others. Yes, it's often important to view yourself in another person's shoes, if only to understand their actions. Such a response does not necessarily mean you condone immoral or unethical behaviour, an argument used by the hard-edged and thoughtless to avoid any sign of empathy. Rather, it is a sign of humanity and democracy in action, where the individual is important.

Is it wishy-washy if you think, for example, it is bad government policy to cut off benefits for working single mothers or for the poorest of the poor while billions are spent on the war industry?  Or to feel sad when millions of American children are living in shelters? Or to think it bad policy for corporations to reduce health or pension benefits for its employees while enriching its chief shareholders? No, such shows empathy, a valid emotion in response to bad policy decision. Empathy is a democratic emotion that often leads to policy change, bettering the lives of millions of individuals.

After all, one of the chief reasons for being human is to connect with other humans. It's also better for civil society if humans act more civilly to each other, a characteristic that we are losing. If we desire a better society, we might consider the need for empathy.

It's interesting to look at what Gustav M. Gilbert found out. Gilbert was a German-speaking American prison psychologist and a military intelligence officer who was assigned to Nuremberg prison in Berlin, where 23 Nazi war crimes defendants were being held. Afterward, he wrote an account of what took place, Nuremberg Diary (1947), which includes a professional opinion on what he learned: 
I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I've come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It's the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leonard Cohen: The Stranger Song

Leonard Cohen performing on The Julie Felix Show in 1967. "The Stranger Song" is from Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which had a limited release on December 27, 1967, and a greater release in February 1968.

The song uses the card game of poker to suggest something greater about love and relationships. In the parlance of the 1960s, a dealer was someone who viewed romantic liaisons as a game of chance, looking for temporary shelter but no long-term commitments. Today, such a man might be called a "player."

On the surface, the song speaks about the men and women who each get involved in relationships that eventually end badly, the focus elsewhere and not on the original object of desire. But it also speaks about dreams, possibilities and what means we all use to achieve such dreams. In this case, poker is a fine metaphor in that players have to decide on what (cards) to keep and what to give up. There might be serious regrets later on, with the strong and sad realization that we have given up the wrong thing, or person.

Note the tear in Leonard Cohen's eye at the song's conclusion.

The Stranger
By Leonard Cohen

It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.
And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much
not even laughter

Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

But now another stranger seems
to want you to ignore his dreams
as though they were the burden of some other
O you've seen that man before
his golden arm dispatching cards
but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.

Ah you hate to see another tired man
lay down his hand
like he was giving up the holy game of poker
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway
that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.
It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder.

You tell him to come in sit down
but something makes you turn around
The door is open you can't close your shelter
You try the handle of the road
It opens do not be afraid
It's you my love, you who are the stranger
It's you my love, you who are the stranger.

Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
I think it's time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
When he talks like this
you don't know what he's after
When he speaks like this,
you don't know what he's after.

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
upon the shore, beneath the bridge
that they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform
for the sleeping car that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say ok the bridge or someplace later.

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind ...

And leaning on your window sill ...
I told you when I came I was a stranger.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Cross, The Sword & The Jews

Book Review

Title: Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History
By James Carroll.
Publisher Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin
Year Published: 2001

Constantine’s Sword (2001) by James Carroll
Source: Alibris

by George Jochnowitz

There are three systems of belief — two religions and one atheistic philosophy — descended at least in part from Judaism: Christianity, Islam, and Marxism. All three are or have been supersessionist; they claim to be the true faith, the replacement of their predecessors. In the case of Christianity, the predecessor is unambiguously Judaism; in the cases of Islam and Marxism, the predecessors are Christianity and Judaism. It is logical for a philosophical or religious system to reject and perhaps even to condemn those it broke away from, and indeed, we find evidence of this in the texts of Christianity, Islam, and Marxism.

In the New Testament, the Jews tell us that they are the ones guilty of the death of Jesus: "His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matthew 27:25). The Qur'an says: "O followers of the Book [Jews]! Why do you disbelieve the communications of Allah while you witness them? O followers of the Book! Why do you confound the truth with falsehood when you know?" (Surah III: 70-71). And Marx says, "What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money" ("On the Jewish Question").

James Carroll shows us how the idea of supersession is one of the two principal forces leading to antisemitism. The other force is the complex set of beliefs identified with the cross: responsibility of the death of Jesus, redemption through the suffering of Jesus, and the secular power of the Christian Church. Indeed, the title of the book, Constantine's Sword, refers to the cross. In the year 312 C.E., the Roman Emperor Constantine

saw a cross in the sky, above the legend In Hoc Signo Vinces ('In This Sign, Conquer'). ... After the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the conversion of Constantine may have been the most implication-laden event in Western history. ... When the power of the empire became joined to the ideology of the Church, the empire was immediately recast and reenergized, and the Church became an entity so different from what had preceded it as to become almost unrecognizable (p. 171).
Crucifixion had been a Roman method of execution for centuries. A cross, to the Romans of Constantine's day, must have had the same symbolism as a noose or an electric chair. It is entirely logical that "as Constantine was elevating the cross to the realm of the sacred, he was abolishing crucifixion as the Roman form of capital punishment" (p. 193). Crucifixion was no longer to be thought of as the way tens of thousands had suffered and died; since Constantine it has been associated only with Jesus — and perhaps with the two criminals who perished at the same time. Crucifixion, a viciously cruel form of execution, is a blot on the history of the Roman Empire. The fate of every person who died this way was as horrifying as the death of Jesus. Then why shouldn't the agony of each of these individuals be part of God's plan to save humanity from sin? Constantine's decision to end crucifixion had the effect of making the suffering of Jesus seem to be unique.

After Constantine, in 381 C.E., the Nicene Creed was amended to "put the crucifixion at the center of faith and the death of Jesus at the heart of redemption." This was a drastic and fatal change, Carroll tells us, because it "sets in motion a dynamic that will keep Jews at the heart of a quickened, and quickly armed, Christian hatred" (p. 191).

If the cross is revered because it is the instrument of suffering that led to redemption, shouldn't all the actors in this story, including Judas himself if we believe he was guilty, be equally revered? Carroll insists that there is a "logical flaw adhering in a scheme that emphasizes both that Jesus' death was freely chosen by Jesus himself and that Jesus' death was caused by the Jews" (p. 289). Furthermore, Carroll rejects the idea that God needed a sacrifice in order forgive people from sin. He is troubled by the change in the Nicene Creed for two reasons: it reinforces antisemitism and it suggests that God is not capable of forgiveness without diverting the punishment to someone else — even if the someone else is simultaneously his son and himself in human form.

But I wonder whether the idea that Jesus was born to die and suffer is as recent as 381 C.E. A similar idea is found in the Gospels:
Then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures, and said unto them, Thus is it written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:45-47).
Yet Carroll does not feel he has to make excuses for the Gospels or pretend they have been misinterpreted. Rather, he says they need not be believed. To cite one example, he dismisses the story of Pontius Pilate trying to persuade the Jews to accept the pardon of Jesus as a substitute for the pardon of Barabbas: "The Gospel of Matthew was not composed by someone who had been there, not composed by someone who knew well that Pilate was a sadist who'd have thought nothing of dispatching an unknown Galilean troublemaker,..." (p. 88).

Carroll is certainly correct that Matthew wasn't there. Nevertheless, it could well be true that the Jews of the time, given a choice between saving Barabbas, a violent revolutionary who had fought against Rome, and Jesus, a preacher, would have saved the rebel. Barabbas, according to Mark, "lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection" (15:7). Luke agrees with Mark about Barabbas, "who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison" (23:19). Matthew speaks of his notoriety: "And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas" (27:16). Only in John is Barabbas a simple crook: "Now Barabbas was a robber" (18:40).

Pontius Pilate, it seems, was obliged to pardon one condemned prisoner every year, a prisoner selected by the Jews. The Jews had every reason to hate their Roman conquerors and oppressors; they would have approved of an insurrectionist like Barabbas who committed violent acts against their rulers. Pilate, on the opposite side of the quarrel, would have wanted to free anyone except a revolutionary. What better choice could there have been than an itinerant religious leader with only 12 committed followers? If Pilate had wanted to free Jesus because he thought him innocent, he could have pardoned him whether or not the Jews demanded freedom for Barabbas. There was nothing to stop Pilate from granting two pardons. The Gospels do not consider this issue.

Carroll rejects the idea that Jesus and the Pharisees were enemies. "On the Christian side (and I assert this as a Christian), the canonization of this dispute--putting into the mouth of Jesus, say, a sweeping characterization of the Pharisees as a 'brood of vipers'--was a profound betrayal of the life and message of that same Jesus" (p. 148). The words were put into the mouth of Jesus for political reasons almost a century after his death, according to Carroll. But their damage continues to this day. Much of Constantine's Sword is a recounting of injustice after injustice, atrocity after atrocity, committed by sincere Christians who thought they were doing the right thing.

We might want to begin with the Crusades, wars fought under sign of the cross and named for the cross. A crusade is a Christian holy war; the Islamic analog is a jihad. The First Crusade "set out from northwestern Europe in the spring of 1096, bound for the Holy Land. But the cross-marked army's first act of belligerence took place in the Rhineland, not Jerusalem, and its target was not the Muslim infidel but the Jewish one" (p. 237). In terms of numbers, most of the Jewish victims of the Crusades lived in Europe. But the Crusaders also destroyed the continuity of Jewish life in Jerusalem. In 1099, they drove all the Jews into one synagogue and burned them alive" (p. 250).

We might want to continue with the Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215, which promulgated the following resolution: "Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province, and at all times, shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other people by the character of their dress" (pp. 282-283). Hitler, as we know, revived the idea of the yellow star. Not too long after the Fourth Lateran Council, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), respected to this day for his learning and wisdom, "concluded that Jews, confronted with the truth of Jesus, had not been ignorant at all. They knew very well that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of God, but they murdered him anyway" (pp. 305-306). St. Thomas, whose words remind us of the quotation from the Qur'an cited above, might have thought that the Jews were idiots, but more likely, he considered them inherently wicked.

When misfortunes arise, it is natural to blame those we consider wicked. When the Black Plague raged in Europe between 1348 and 1351, the Jews were blamed: "A masterly rumor identified a native of Toledo, one Jacob Pascal, whose name suggested Passover, as the initiator of the plot. A cabal (a word we have from 'Kabbalah') of Iberian Jews was the supplier of poison to Jewish agents elsewhere in Europe--a first international consipiracy. Jews in Geneva, under torture, confessed that the rumor was true, which was all it took" (p. 339).

Racism had not yet become an issue, unless we want to conclude that it was implicit in the accusation made by St. Thomas that Jews knew Jesus was the Messiah. Things changed as a result of the massacres of 1391 in Spain. For the first time, there were mass conversions: "There were, to be sure, many Jews who chose to die rather than apostasize, and as in 1096 and 1348, even to commit suicide. But the decision by many others to become Christian is what makes 1391 a turning point in this story" (p. 341). Converts were all over Spain. When the city of Toledo, in 1449, "passed an ordinance decreeing 'that no converso of Jewish descent may have or hold office in the said city of Toledo,' Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) reacted with a fury suggesting he saw what was at stake in such a move. ... Nicholas V excommunicated the author of the Toledo statute. Yet two years later, the king of Castile formally approved the regulation. Jews would be legally defined now in Spain not by religion but by blood" (p. 347). Racism thus antedates the Spanish Inquisition.

Hitler did not consider himself a Christian, although he was born a Catholic. Hitler's racist antisemitism did not have a religious component. Carroll, however, throughout his book, stresses the continuity of European antisemitism. He cites a statement that appeared in 1898, during the Dreyfus controversy, in the Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican: "Jewry can no longer be excused or rehabilitated. ... If there is one nation that more than any other has the right to turn to antisemitism, it is France, which first gave their political rights to the Jews, and which was thus the first to prepare the way for its own servitude to them" (p. 457).

Carroll contrasts the reactions of Pope Pius XII to Communism, which he condemned, and Nazism, which he tolerated. Christianity in general and Pope Pius XII in particular bear part of the responsibility for the crimes of Hitler, according to Carroll, who adds, "In academia, the history of antisemitism is taught in Jewish studies departments, if at all, when it should be taught as a core component of the history of Western civilization. ... That is why this history must be recounted not as the history of the Jews but primarily as a history of the Church" (p. 392).

If the Catholic Church nourished and perpetuated antisemitism, the Catholic Church can cure it, says Carroll--a great optimist! He calls for "a revived Catholicism committed to intellectual rigor, open inquiry, and respect for the other. ... And in nothing is this more true than in relation to the task of ending antisemitism forever" (pp. 547-548). He maintains that Catholicism — and only Catholicism — can do this, since it is not bound by Scripture.

To Catholics, the understanding of the Scriptures is mediated to the individual by the teaching authority of the Church, which claims primacy over the Word. ... But this difference [with Protestantism] also means that now the community of the Catholic Church, with its claim to authority even over the inspired word of God, is in a position to confront the problem of foundational texts that have proven themselves to be the sources of lethal antisemitism (pp. 559-560).

Consequently, the Church can call a Vatican Council III. One of its tasks should be its to confront its own responsibility and "to face honestly and fully the long history of its contempt for the Jews." (p. 543) That is only a first step. It must then reject the idea of supersession. And it must change an element at the core of Christian belief, the idea that Christ died for our sins: "A new Christology will banish from Christian faith the blasphemy that God wills the suffering of God's beloved ones, and the inhuman idea that anyone's death can be the fulfillment of a plan of God's." (p. 587)

I am a Jew, not a Christian. As a Jew, I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of the goat which, on Yom Kippur, is driven into the wilderness but not killed bearing the sins of the people — a different goat is sacrificed (Leviticus, Chapter 16). We still read about the goat every year, but we no longer follow the practice. Instead, some communities follow the ritual of kapparot, in which a chicken is slaughtered on the day before Yom Kippur. The idea of a scapegoat is based on the theory that punishment has to go someplace, an odd, illogical point of view. I am in total sympathy with Carroll for wanting to end the idea that the death of Jesus served a purpose.

Carroll does not discuss the idea of hell in his book. We cannot conceive of anything more merciless than eternal torment. No one but a Hitler could deserve such a fate. I would be curious to know what Carroll thinks about the story of the rich man who went to hell for not helping a beggar, told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31. Carroll tells us that it is blasphemy to say that God wills the sufferings of his beloved ones. If we exclude the idea that Christ died to save sinners from damnation, does it follow that there is no hell?


Constantine's Sword is an exciting and important book. There will no doubt be future editions and translations. Some of the following points should be cleared up:
1. We are told that the first grand inquisitor, Fray Tomas de Torquemada, was of Jewish blood (p. 355). What is the source of this information?

2. Kazimierz, the Jewish neighborhood in Cracow (where my father grew up), once was a separate municipality. When Jews were expelled from Cracow in 1494 or 1495, they were not expelled from Kazimierz, as is suggested on p. 362. Nor is the Remu Synagogue the city's oldest synagogue. In 1407, the Alte Shul, now a museum, was completed.

3. On p. 360, we are told that Jews were expelled from Provence in 1394 (actually the date of the expulsion from France). On p. 364 we learn they were expelled from Provence in 1498.

4. On p. 376, we read of refugees who arrived in Poland from Iberia. This suggests that the ancestors of most Polish Jews came from Spain, which they did not. There had been Jews in Poland long before the Spanish massacres of 1391.

5. Ancona, not Anconia, is the name of the city mentioned on p. 379.The ghetto of Rome was not in Trastevere, as stated on p. 416, although it was on the banks of the Tiber (Tevere in Italian).
6. The phrase "a midpoint among Cologne, Mainz, and Trier" (p. 514) is ungrammatical. "Between" should be used rather than "among" when we have a definite number, definite places, or definite people in mind, even if there are three or more items.
Minor errors are inevitable in a book as long and informative as Constantine's Sword. Carroll has written a major work, a courageous call for action. Constantine's Sword is a magnificent achievement.


George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at
Copyright ©2011. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This review appeared in Midstream, Volume XXXXVI, Number 2, February/March 2001. This post can be found on George Jochnowitz. It is republished here with the author's permission.

Monday, October 24, 2011

New Technologies, Old Thinking

Mass Communication

Marshall McLuhan [1911-1980]:  McLuhan once said: "Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition."
Photo Credit: © Horst Ehricht [1928-  ]; taken in the 1970s.

Much is made of the advent of new technologies, especially in how we communicate. The hagiography (and subsequent humanization) surrounding Steve Jobs and his innovative inventions is a recent example. To be sure, we can now communicate messages, images and ideas over the airwaves very quickly, getting close to matching the idea "as instantaneous as thought." Much of science fiction literature, certainly of the past, portends a day when humans would become have their brains (un)willingly connected directly to some sending and receiving mechanism, thus validating the human-machine relationship.

Yet, as much as some share some concern over the idea of humans becoming more machine-like, and this assertion remains unproven as of yet, a greater issue is what humans communicate, or rather disseminate. Despite the advent of wonderful technologies of communication, humans are still tied down to old ideas and prejudices. The newer technologies cut both ways, and persons and groups with old prejudices and hatreds now have a wider audience in which to potentially disseminate their ideas, as noxious as they are.

So, yes, we have newer technologies in communicating, bringing people closer together, And this is wonderful and good and there is much to applaud in these engineering marvels. Yet, the thinking has remained the same. Which brings me to Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist at the University of Toronto, who is perhaps most famous for coining the expression, "the medium is the message." In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), McLuhan writes:
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. (7)
It has been a while since I studied communication theory and mass media in university, but McLuhan's words are worth looking at, in light of today's modern means of communication. McLuhan, for some was prescient, in seeing the human effects of mass communication. McLuhan's pithy phrase, because it is pithy, is often misunderstood to mean that content is less important than the means of communication. This is not so, at least according to McLuhan.

For McLuhan, the medium is anything that extended humanity's reach, from the physical and practical use of a hammer or wheel to do tasks, to the use of language and words to convey ideas. More so with the Internet and social media, which extends our ideas and thoughts around the globe instantaneously. In "What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?", Mark Federman of the University of Toronto's McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology writes:
Thus we have the meaning of "the medium is the message: "We can know the nature and characteristics of anything we conceive or create (medium) by virtue of the changes —often unnoticed and non-obvious changes —that they effect (message). McLuhan warns us that we are often distracted by the content of a medium (which, in almost all cases, is another distinct medium in itself). He writes, "it is only too typical that the "content" of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium." (9)

And it is the character of the medium that is its potency or effect —its message. In other words, "This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium —that is, of any extension of ourselves —result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."

This, of course, can be good or bad, depending on how one views the thoughts and ideas being propagated. So, is McLuhan right? Is the medium the message? Yes, to a large degree, since new communications technologies introduce new media (i.e., social networking is one recent example), which influence change. Their presence and use effect changes, no doubt, in our personal spaces and how we view the message.

Even so, as important as McLuhan's theory might be, one must not forget that it is still the message itself that has the power to influence and motivate people to action, both good and bad. Not to put too fine a point to it, but the medium is still the means of carrying the message. Also worthy of consideration is that various media can alter the perception and validity of a message (e.g., manipulated photos and videos) to tell a story that the sender wants the world to consider as true. As another old saying goes, "Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story."

We might have new technologies (and new media), but the thinking (and the message) is often as old as humanity.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Benno Moiseiwitsch: Mendelssohn-Rachmaninov Scherzo

Benno Moiseiwitsch [1890-1963] performs the Mendelssohn-Rachmaninov Scherzo from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." This was recorded in 1939, and there is a story behind this piece of music done so elegantly by the Odessa-born Moiseiwitsch:
It was on 17 March 1939 that Moiseiwitsch recorded one of his most famous discs, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream arranged for solo piano by Rachmaninov. He tells the story that there was remaining time at the end of a recording session so he sat down at the piano in his shirtsleeves and played the Scherzo through once. It was the best he had ever played it and the recording was published.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Luciano Pavarotti: Caruso

Luciano Pavarotti sings "Caruso" with the Orchestre de Paris in Paris, France, James Levine conducting.


Lucio Dalla, an Italian singer and songwriter, composed "Caruso" in 1986, in dedication to the famous operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso [1873-1921]. Caruso's last performance at The Met was as Eléazar in Halévy's La Juive on December 24, 1920. Enrico Caruso died in Naples, Italy, on August 2, 1921. He was 48.

The song has also been covered by Andrea Bocelli and Julio Iglesias, among others, selling millions of copies. The Italian lyrics follow below.

by Lucio Dalla

Qui dove il mare luccica
e grita forte il vento
su una vecchia terrazza vicina al golfo di Surriento
un uomo abbraccia una ragazza
dopo che aveva pianto
poi si schiarisce la voce e ricomincia il canto:

Te voglio bene assai
ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai
che scioglie il sangue dint'e vene sai...

Vide le luci in mezzo al mare
pensò alle notti là in America
ma erano solo le lampare
e la bianca scia d'un'elica
sentì il dolore nella musica
si alzò dal pianoforte
ma quando vide la luna uscire da una nuvola
gli sembrò più dolce anche la morte.
Guardò negli occhi la ragazza
quegli occhi verdi come il mare
poi all'improvviso uscì una lacrima
e lui credette d'affogare.

Te voglio bene assai
ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai
che scioglie il sangue dint'e vene sai...

La potenza della lirica
dove ogni dramma è un falso
che con un po' di trucco e con la mimica
puoi diventare un altro
Ma due occhi che ti guardano
così vicini e veri
ti fanno scordare le parole
confondono i pensieri.

Così diventò tutto piccolo
anche le notti là in America
ti volti e vedi la tua vita
come la scia d'un'elica.

Ah si, è la vita che finisce
ma lui non ci pensò poi tanto
anzi si sentiva già felice
e ricominciò il suo canto:

Te voglio bene assai
ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai
che scioglie il sangue dint'e vene sai...
Te voglio bene assai
ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai
che scioglie il sangue dint'e vene sai...

And here is the translation, from Wikipedia:

[English Translation]

Here where the sea sparkles,
and a strong wind blows,
on an old terrace overlooking the gulf of Sorrento,
a man holds a little girl in his arms
after he's been crying.
He clears his throat and sings the song again.

I love you so much;
so very much, you know.
It's a bond, now,
you know, that thaws the blood in the veins.

He looked at the lights, out at sea,
and thought about the nights in America.
But they were only the lamps of fishing boats
and the white of wake.
He felt the pain of the music.
He got up from the piano,
but when he saw the moon come out from behind the clouds
death seemed sweeter to him.
He looked into the little girl's eyes -
those eyes as green as the sea,
then suddenly a tear fell
and he thought he was drowning.

I love you so much;
so very much, you know.
It's a bond, now,
you know, and it thaws the blood in the veins.

The power of opera!
where every drama is a sham;
where, with a little bit of make-up and mimicry,
you can become someone else.
But two eyes that look at you,
so close and so real,
make you forget the script,
confounding your thoughts.
And so everything became insignificant,
including the nights in America.
You look back and see your life
like the wake [of the boats].
Ah yes! Life is ending,
but he wasn't worried about it any more.
Instead he felt happy
and began to sing the song again.

I love you so much;
so very much, you know.
It's a bond, now,
you know, that thaws the blood in the veins.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rubinstein, Heifetz & Piatigorsky: Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 1

In this undated video clip, Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz & Gregor Piatigorsky perform Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49. This trio was referred to in some circles as the "Million Dollar Trio."

Mendelssohn completed the work on September 23, 1839 and published it the following year. The work is scored for a standard piano trio consisting of violin, cello and piano, as is the case in this performance. The trio is one of Mendelssohn's most popular chamber works and is recognized as one of his greatest along with his Octet, Op. 20.

Glenn Gould: Bach Concerto No. 1

Glenn Gould performs J.S. Bach's Concerto No 1, in D minor, BWV 1052, in an excerpt from the first movement, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein conducting. Bach completed the piece for harpsichord in 1738.

This was originally aired on a CBS Television broadcast, marking Gould's American television début  on Ford Presents "The Creative Performer." The performance from New York City took place on January 31,1960. Gould's performance has been included in DVD compilation of great 20th century pianists and their recorded performances, "The Art of Piano" (1999). 

Glenn Gould and J.S, Bach make a wonderful combination for these trying times. You can read more on Gould here and here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baruch Blumberg: Finding The Hepatitis B Virus

Great Advances in Science

 Hepatitis A and B are vaccine preventable diseases, yet they continue to be the most commonly reported vaccine preventable diseases. Getting vaccinated, especially if you are at high risk, provides the best protection from these diseases.
J Robert Galvin, 
Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health,
May 18, 2009

Barry Blumberg was a great biochemist and researcher. He was a leading light in the scientific community and a great humanitarian. He also was a loyal and supportive friend to NASA, Ames Research Center and the nation's space program.
Pete Word, Ames Center Director

This is what drew me to medicine. There is, in Jewish thought, this idea that if you save a single life, you save the whole world, and that affected me.
Baruch Blumberg, in a 2002 New York Times article

Baruch Samuel Blumberg [1925-2011]: In his later years, Blumberg took a position at NASA, where for five years he was a Distinguished Scientist at its Lunar Science Institute, part of the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Much of his later work at NASA was searching for micro-organisms in space.
Photo Credit: Tom Tower. NASA, 1999.
Source: Wikipedia
Baruch "Barry" Blumberg might not be a name you would know well unless you were well versed in the field of vaccinology and medical science. But his contributions to science and humanity are immeasurable. In 1976, Blumberg, an American, shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine (along with  D. Carleton Gajdusek) for discovering "new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases."

Blumberg has often been compared to Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine. In his case, Blumberg is best known for discovering the origins of the hepatitis B virus in 1967, then creating a blood test for hepatitis B and the development of a proto vaccine against hepatitis B in 1969. It took more than a decade for a vaccine for hepatitis B to become available to the general public, since pharmaceutical companies generally look at vaccine manufacturing as an unprofitable business, more as a public service than a highly profitable venture.

Even so, Big Pharma eventually conceded, likely seeing it as a moral duty, I presume, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. In terms of the hepatitis B vaccine, Blumberg developed it with Dr. Irving Millman, a colleague at the Institute for Cancer Research of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At first, his findings were met with resistant from the medical community.

In the end, however, Blumberg's scientific work prevailed, proving a viable link between hepatitis B and liver cancer. The vaccine they developed, becoming commercially available in 1982, became known as the first so-called cancer vaccine. As Blumberg later said in a 2002  New York Times article, saving lives drew him to medicine. “There is, in Jewish thought, this idea that if you save a single life, you save the whole world, and that affected me.”

Blumberg's contribution to medical science and the betterment of humanity is notable and undisputed, but still has to be placed in context, especially today. Hepatitis B is an infectious disease that causes inflammation of the liver, and its cause is directly linked to a virus called hepatitis B, or HBV. This virus is about 100 times more infectious than HIV and the severest of the various forms of hepatitis thus far identified. Like many contagious diseases, hepatitis B is spread by the blood and body fluids of infected persons.

It is not transmitted by coughing, sneezing or shaking hands with an infected person, which is the case with influenza or the common cold (human rhinovirus), Chronic hepatitis B is treatable. If left untreated, however, it can lead to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, other liver problems and liver cancer. (More information can be found here.)

The disease in entirely preventable by having persons vaccinated. Despite the wide availability of vaccines, hepatitis B is still prevalent today, as are the two other chief forms of hepatitis (A & B). In Canada, the incident rate is low, with no more than 1,000 new cases of hepatitis B reported each year, the rates dropping with increased vaccination rates. In total, about 200,000 persons in Canada live with chronic hepatitis B, says the Public Health Agency of Canada. The United States has a similar low incident rate of less than 0.5 per cent of the population, with 40,000 new cases of hepatitis B each year, says the Center for Disease Control (CDC). It says that an estimated total of between 800,00 and 1.4 million persons live with chronic hepatitis B infection in the U.S.

It is in developing nations where the numbers are greatest. In developing nations, the rate of infection often is greater than 10 per cent. For example, as of 2010, China has 120 million infected people, followed by India with 40 million, and Indonesia with 12 million. Globally, more than 520-million people have some form of hepatitis, says the World Health Organization, a body that monitors infectious diseases, it contributing to 1.5-million deaths a year worldwide. (Here is some background information on the various forms of hepatitis by the World Health Organization.)

Such makes getting children vaccinated, it a viable protection against possible liver cancer and other liver diseases. Such is an important consideration for parents who want to make informed choices for their child's welfare. In that respect, the scientists who made vaccinations possible deserve our respect and admiration and are among our true heroes of humanity.

Growing up in New York City

Baruch Samuel Blumberg was born to Meyer Blumberg and Ida Blumberg (nee Simonoff) in New York City on July 28, 1925, one of three children born to the couple. His father was a lawyer. Baruch attended an Orthodox school, the Yeshiva of Flatbush, where, as he put it in his Nobel Prize biography, "We spent many hours on the rabbinic commentaries on the Bible and were immersed in the existential reasoning of the Talmud at an age when we could hardly have realized its impact." Indeed, scientific and personal curiosity combined with the need to know, is a potent force that often leads to discovery.

As does field experience. After graduation from Far Rockaway High School in 1943, Blumberg served in the military, as a U.S. Navy deck officer during the Second World War. This experience profoundly influenced him, he said:
Sea experience placed a great emphasis on detailed problem solving, on extensive planning before action, and on the arrangement of alternate methods to effect an end. These techniques have application in certain kinds of research, particularly in the execution of field studies.
He attended college while still in the military, graduating from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in physics with honours in 1946. It was then that he was also discharged from the navy. From there, he entered the graduate program in mathematics at Columbia University, but switched to medicine at the advice of his father, enrolling at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, from which he received his medical degree (M.D.) in 1951.

He furthered his medical education and knowledge, remaining at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center for the next four years, first as an intern and then as a resident, including a stint at Bellevue Hospital, which, as he says in his 2003 book, Hepatitis B: the hunt for the killer virus, "reinforced my curiosity about the mechanics of clinical diversity." In his 1976 Nobel Prize biography, he elucidates his fascination with Bellevue:
The wards were crowded, often with beds in the halls. Scenes on the wards were sometimes reminiscent of Hogarth's woodcuts of the public institutions of 18th century London. Despite this, morale was high. We took great pride that the hospital was never closed; any sick person whose illness warranted hospitalization was admitted, even though all the regular bed spaces were filled.
It was during this period that he met Jean Liebesman, an artist. They married in 1954, having four children: Anne, George, Jane, and Noah. Blumberg won a fellowship, in 1955, to Oxford University' Balliol College, where he earned his doctorate in biochemistry in 1957, spending as he said, "some of the happiest years of his married life."

They returned to the U.S. in 1957 and for the next seven years, he worked at the Geographic Medicine and Genetics Section of the U.S. National Institutes for Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. He traveled extensively to such places as Alaska, Africa, the Pacific, South America, Europe and Australia in search of answers to a basic question—why some people get sick and others do not? It is the nexus between anthropology and medicine, with philosophy thrown into the mix, the work of a powerful intellectual mind.

In 1964 he left NIH when he was appointed associate director for clinical research at the Institute for Cancer Research (later named the Fox Chase Cancer Center) in Philadelphia. By this time, Blumberg continued his research on the Australia antigen, and in 1966 he discovered the link between Au and hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B Vaccine: Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Natasha Wooden administers a Hepatitis-B vaccine to a sailors aboard the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) somewhere in the Pacific Ocean (June 2, 2005).
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Apprentice Christopher D. Blachly, June 2, 2005
Source: Wikipedia

Finding the Hepatitis B Virus in Australia

His interest in the diversity of other cultures started when he was a navy officer during the Second World War and later as a medical student. A medical anthropologist in the early 1950s, Blumberg was interested in whether inherited traits could make different groups of people more susceptible to a particular disease. This was before there was mechanisms and technology to identify genetic markers, so they had to resort to innovative ways to conduct research and make sense of the results. The Hepatitis B Foundation in Pennsylvania explains how Blumberg went about making that important discovery:
Dr. Blumberg and his team traveled the globe to collect blood samples from native populations in remote parts of the world. They planned to look for genetic differences, and then study whether these differences were associated with a disease. However, since they did not have the technology to analyze these blood samples at the genetic level, a new indirect method had to be developed; they turned their attention to hemophiliac patients.

Dr. Blumberg reasoned that hemophiliacs who had received multiple blood transfusions would have been exposed to blood serum proteins that they themselves had not inherited, but had been inherited by their donors. As a result of this exposure, the immune systems of the hemophiliac patient would produce "antibodies" against the foreign blood serum proteins, or "antigens", from the donors. Since antibodies are programmed to lock onto specific antigens, Dr. Blumberg decided to use antibodies from hemophiliac patients to test the blood samples collected around the world.
Using this new lab technique for matching antibodies with antigens, an unusual match was identified between an antibody from a New York hemophiliac and an antigen found in the blood sample of an Australian aborigine, which they called the "Australia antigen".
That was in 1967. That same year, the Australia antigen was identified as part of the B virus itself and was renamed HBsAg (hepatitis B virus antigen). A couple of years later, along with a colleague, Irving Millman, they developed the first vaccine for hepatitis B. But it was not met with much enthusiasm, says a New York Times article:
Vaccines are not an attractive product for pharmaceutical companies in that they are often used once or only a few times and they ordinarily do not generate as much income as a medication for a chronic disease that must be used for many years,” Dr. Blumberg wrote in an autobiographical essay for the Nobel committee.
Moreover, he said, the medical research community in the early 1970s remained skeptical about the claim that a virus had been identified and a vaccine developed.

Ultimately he and Dr. Millman signed an agreement with Merck & Company, whose vaccine laboratories were near Philadelphia.
After being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976, the year of America's bicentennial (and perhaps somewhat appropriate and poetic that Blumberg resided in Philadelphia, the home of the Liberty Bell), Blumberg became professor of medicine, human genetics, and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He lived with his family in the center of old Philadelphia, a few blocks from Independence Hall.

In 1989 he returned to Oxford to become master of Balliol College, the first American and first scientist to hold that position, which he held until 1994. When he returned to the United States, he resumed his post at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, with the title of Distinguished Scientist, and continued to teach as professor of medicine and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania

At NASA: Dr. Baruch Blumberg was introduced as the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute during a press conference held at NASA's Ames Research Center in May 1999.
Photo Credit: Dominic Hart. 1999/NASA
Source: NASA

Move to NASA

Blumberg had a second career that made sense if you understood that he was a curious person. In 1999, Blumberg was asked to serve as director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, California. It was a relatively new field and many scientists from different disciplines were active in astrobiology at the time. “He was inspired by the questions that astrobiology asks," says Carl Pilcher, NAI's current Director in an article (May 2011) in The Lancet. “One of the things he frequently said was that in astrobiology we are asking some of the most fundamental questions about where else and under what circumstances life might have arisen, and also about the nature of life, which was one of his passions as a physician and a researcher.”

He held that position for five years, before once again returning to his home base in Philadelphia at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. In 2005, Blumberg was elected president of the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues. As Blumberg wrote, "It is, probably, the oldest academic, scientific, or scholarly society in the United States."

Baruch Blumberg died of a heart attack on April 5, 2011. It was shortly after he gave the keynote speech at a NASA conference at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, which is in the San Francisco Bay area. He was 85. (See obituary in New York Times.). The talk was on the value of citizen science. Baruch Blumberg was a scientist to the end.

His funeral was held on April 10, 2011, at Philadelphia's Society Hill Synagogue, a self-described egalitarian non-denominational synagogue where he was a long-time member. The next day he was buried at Antietam Meadows Farm, which the family co-owned, located two miles from the historic Civil War battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. He is survived by his wife, four children and nine grandchildren.

Personal Note: I am a firm believer in vaccines, since they have been proven scientifically effective in savings lives and in preventing epidemics, and more so pandemics. As both a parent and a journalist, I have done extensive research on the matter, and I remain convinced of their efficacy. (see On Vaccines: A Matter of Life.)

Accordingly, this week my nine-year-old son received the vaccine against hepatitis A & B, along with the rest of his Grade 4 classmates.  A second dose will follow six months later. Although initially nervous about the "shot," he said, with confidence and intelligence beyond his years, "it was important to be protected against getting sick."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NBC Symphony: Beethoven 'Coriolanus Overture'

NBC Symphony Orchestra performs Ludwig van Beethoven's Coriolanus Overture, op. 62, Arturo Toscanini, conducting, on  December 24, 1946. It is called Coriolan in the original German, and that is how many refer to this piece.

There exist a number of extant stories on the life of the Roman leader, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, including works by William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht. Beethoven composed his work in 1807, and it premiered in March of that year. It was a nod to Heinrich Joseph von Collin's 1802 tragedy of the same name. This work differs from Shakespeare's early 17th century tragedy in a number of respects, not the least of which is how General Coriolanus meets his end, choosing to die by his own hand than face a vengeful mob.

In the program notes of the San Francisco Symphony, it says:

Coriolan came early in this succession of works. The Coriolan in question is not Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but rather a tragedy by the Court Secretary Heinrich Joseph von Collin that was premiered in Vienna on November 24, 1802. Beethoven is known to have attended that performance, where he heard the accompanying score that had been arranged from bits and pieces of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo. It’s easy to see why Beethoven liked the play, which considered the dilemma of a heroic political leader torn among the conflicting forces of patriotic impulse, family devotion, and personal pride.
In this case, Coriolan, a Roman general banished from Rome despite long and valiant service to his people, seeks vengeance by leading an opposing army against his native city; when the Romans send his own mother and wife to persuade him to withdraw, he consents to place his fate in the hands of the Roman mob, effectively choosing suicide as the only acceptable solution to his situation. Richard Wagner, in an essay about this overture, characterized the Coriolan to which Beethoven was drawn as “the man of force untamable, unfitted for a hypocrite’s humility.
In the German romantic ideas common at the time of Beethoven, Coriolanus reflects the tragic hero. E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of the musical work: "[A]part from those expectations that will be aroused only in a few connoisseurs who truly comprehend Beethoven’s music, the composition is completely suited to awaken the specific idea that a great, tragic event will be the content of the play that follows."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Luciano Pavarotti: Puccini's Tosca—'Recondita Armonia'

Here is Luciano Pavarotti performing the aria, "Recondita Armonia," from Act 1 of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, in a September 1988 recital at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, James Levine, The Met's artistic director, as accompanist.


Giacomo Puccini  composed Tosca, a three-act opera, and Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa wrote the Italian libretto. The work, like most operas, is based on another narrative, in this case, Victorien Sardou's La Tosca (1887), a French-language dramatic play in five acts set in Rome, Italy, in June 1800. As written, the Kingdom of Naples's control of Rome is threatened by Napoleon's invasion of Italy. (The synopsis for the opera can be found here.)

Puccini's opera premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on January 14, 1900, to a good reception, with numerous encores. But its greater success was in Milan's La Scala, two months later, with Arturo Toscanini conducting on March 17, 1900. It was a great success and played to packed houses.

Here are the lyrics to the aria, which is sung by the painter, Mario Cavaradossi, when comparing his love, Tosca, to a lady he was painting. "Recondita armonia" roughly translates as hidden or mysterious harmony.

Recondita armonia

Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse!
È bruna Floria, l'ardente amante mia,
e te, beltade ignota
cinta di chiome bionde!
Tu azzuro hai l'occhio
Tosca ha l'occhio nero!
L'arte nel suo mistero
le diverse bellezze insiem confonde:
ma nel ritrar costei
il mio solo pensiero,
ah! il mio sol pensier sei tu!
Tosca sei tu!
[English Translation] 

Hidden harmony of different beauties
Floria my passionate lover is a brunette
and you unknown beauty
are framed by fair hair
you have blue eyes
Tosca has dark eyes
the mysterious art
mixes the different beauties together
but while I paint her
I only think
Ah I only think of you
Tosca of you! 

Translation courtesy of Mark Harris ( from The Aria Database.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street's Message Is Important

This is a follow-up to an earlier post, America: Land Of Opportunity No More.

My generation, the baby boomers (I was born in 1957), often complain that young people are socially and politically dormant, only interested in the practicalities of life. This movement, "Occupy Wall Street", shows otherwise (Perhaps a better name would have been "Reform Wall Street," but it's too late now for the change.)

The young are not only socially aware, but are active and operating with a clear moral conscience on an issue that has great significance for us all. The powerful banking elites, for example, would love to dismiss it as mere noise, and make it go away by any means possible. The last thing they want is a light shone on their affairs.

As long as the persons part of Occupy Wall Street behave according to the principles of democracy, that is voice their concerns and protests against the status quo in a peaceful way, which has been the case so far, they will carry the day—having the moral right on their side. It might take long, but it's worth remembering that no fight worth fighting, and this one is right on principle, has been easy.

We hope that their message is heard in the corridors of power. A reform in the system that will induce fairness in the fiscal and economic policies of the United States first and then other democracies, Canada included, will be a victory for democracy everywhere.

We as citizens who value and cherish the democratic principles and traditions will be better for it. The young people, who by their actions are showing the world that they want change, and a change for the better. All courage and respect to them.

A final note: If anyone thinks that this is a fringe movement of malcontents, think again. It has the moral assent of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both Nobel laureates in economics (See here and here). In the end, it all comes down to “Democracy,” to quote Leonard Cohen, a poet and singer/songwriter whom I admire and enjoy, and who hails from Montreal, my hometown.