Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Klinghoffer Affair: A Moral Nightmare

Mass Confusion

An article in CIJR, originally published by Paul Merkley in The Bayview Review ("The Perpetual Assassination of the Jew Leon Klinghoffer": June 24, 2014) argues, among other things, that one reason the inoffensive sounding opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" has become so acceptable to post-modern sensibilities is that when morality is loosened from its traditional moorings and cast aside, multi-layered and complex ideas can easily and seamlessly infiltrate a narrative, thus sanctioning everything, including murder.

Merkley writes, first recounting history, which many now have forgotten:
On October 7, 1985, four pirates, engaged in the cause of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), took control of the Italian luxury liner Achille Lauro as it was sailing from Alexandria to Port Said, Egypt. They demanded ransom, including the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons, for the crew and passengers. The next day, befuddled by the delay in response to their ransom demand, they were delighted to discover that among the passengers was a real live Jew! Not only that — an American Jew! And best of all – a disabled American Jew! God is great!
They quickly ordered two members of the ship’s crew to wheel the wheelchair of their helpless and terrified captive–Leon Klinghoffer, then 69, retired and in the midst of celebrating his thirty-sixth wedding anniversary with his wife Marilyn—to the edge of the ship and drop him overboard. (Some images belonging to this story time, can be seen at

As the worldwide press speculated over the meaning of all this, PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi, who knew that his boss Yasir Arafat had indeed commissioned the deed, helped them out by speculating that Klinghoffer’s terminally ill wife Marilyn Klinghoffer had killed her husband for insurance money.

Initially, the hijackers were granted safe passage to Tunisia by Egypt, but U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. fighter plane to force the get-away plane to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. After fussing over the appropriateness of extradition in such a matter, Italian authorities eventually arrested and later tried the Palestinian terrorists. Reagan’s motto was: “What we want is justice done… a message to terrorists everywhere…. ‘You can hide but you can’t; run…’ ”

None of this counted for anything, however, when in 1993 the Clinton government recognized Yasir Arafat and his PLO as the appropriate instrument for peace throughout the Palestine Authority. The Nobel Peace Prize followed shortly after that.
From there, morality takes a downward spiral, Merkley writes, a consequence of the dilution of meaning:
The appropriate moral-levelling effect appears, Tommasini finds, at the beginning, “with a pair of somber, brooding, agitated choruses, giving voice first to exiled Palestinians, then to exiled Jews.” This exchange between choirs, to right and left of the scene, reminds Tommasini of the similarly powerful “St Matthew Passion,” of Johan Sebastian Bach. (“In a New Generation, a Searing Opera Breaks Free of Polemics,” New York Times, February 2, 2009.)

This thought goes right off the scale of offense that begins with giggles and ends with blasphemy. But then, the New York Times long ago gave up believing in the ontic possibility of blasphemy – about the same time as it gave up on the notion that that there is such a thing as pornography.

These are broken people – these aesthetes who imagine that judgments about right and wrong must go under the yoke of supra-moral hermeneutics. Simple-minded people see a helpless, elderly man pushed overboard by an armed, athletic youth, cheered on by co-sadists. But not all the nuance in the world – not all the unjaded and affecting commitment to all that is multilayered and complex – will ever scrub clean this filth; and all effort along that line is simply demonic.
Yet, many will argue on the necessity of this performance, defending it on the grounds that it is art, on the grounds that is poignant and powerful, on the grounds that it is after all only an artistic performance and not real life (escaping the fact that Leon Klinghoffer was a real person, as are his two living daughters)—thus reason alone why it ought not be censored [it hasn’t].

Today, no doubt, many agree with glee and delight that art need supersede morality. That this work pretends to be fair and even-handed is where the problem begins and ends; this argument, however, only matters to individuals who care about morality and such old-fashioned ideas as right and wrong. If I am belabouring the point, I offer no apology.

Allow me to both simplify things and raise a question. The play uses as its centre-piece the murdering of a sixty-nine-year-old Jewish man bound in a wheelchair, on vacation with his wife, both on a cruise ship to celebrate a life event; how does the murder of a Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer, give voice to the Palestinians and their cause? It ends with no resolution, and humanity is as confused as ever.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jonah, Colombo, and Related Names


by George Jochnowitz

The story of Jonah and the whale (a big fish and not a whale according to the Biblical text) is very well known. The Book of Jonah is read every year during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, but people who have never read the Bible at all are still familiar with the account. In fact, in the opera Porgy and Bess (1935; music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) we hear the following verses about Jonah:
He made his home in
that fish’s abdomen.
יוֹנה is the Hebrew spelling of Jonah and means “dove” or “pigeon.” It is a feminine noun, which suggests that Jonah’s name may have had a different origin. Be that as it may, the name is masculine. It is a given name, but it has also become a surname. Jona is an Italian Jewish surname and Jonas is an Ashkenazic surname. Translations of “dove” have become Jewish surnames as well. There is Taub, from German; Golub and Golomb (a spelling based on the sound of Polish gołąb) from Slavic languages; and Colombo, from Italian.

Colombo is a common name in Italian and is generally not Jewish. However, it is also found among Italian Jews. If Christopher Columbus is from Genoa (a disputed question), his surname could indeed be Jewish. In Spain, where he lived, his name was Colón, which is not the same as the word for “pigeon” or “dove,” which is paloma. As for his first name, Christopher, it is not at all a Jewish name, since it means “bearer of Christ.”

What about all the Italians named Colombo who are not Jewish? Might they be descended from Jews who converted to Christianity when Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1492 and from Naples in 1541? Or were they named Colombo because their ancestors raised or trained or sold pigeons? Perhaps there is another possibility. I don’t know.

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 ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. It is republished here with the author's permission.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Dilution Of Meaning

Book Review

Destruction of Religious Images in Zurich
Destruction of religious images in Zurich, 1524. (From the Panorama de la Renaissance.)
Source: JRB

In a book review essay (Terry Eagleton; Culture and the Death of God), in The Jewish Review of Books, Jonathan Sacks writes that in the face of post-modernism and of the decay of traditional signposts of meaning, humans will seek meaning elsewhere. Using a chemistry metaphor, many will mix together various vials of beliefs and values that are now readily and easily available in this culture of consumption. Often, there is little coherence or cohesion in the elixir, but the individual will consider it his or hers alone.

My personal experience and observations and that of others supports this assertion. All the secular 'isms are to a large degree a search for a meaningful existence, a meaningful life. Even the negation is in itself an act of individual faith, although this is not always apparent.

Sacks, the emeritus chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, writes:
We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship. Eagleton’s book is a brisk, intelligent, and provocative tour of Western intellectual history since the Enlightenment, understood as a series of chapters in the search for a God-substitute. The Enlightenment found it in reason, the Idealists in the human spirit, the Romantics in nature and culture, the Marxists in revolution, and Nietzsche in the Übermensch. Others chose the nation, the state, art, the sublime, humanity, society, science, the life force, and personal relationships. None of these had entirely happy outcomes, and none was self-sustaining.

The end result was postmodernism, a systematic subversion of meaning altogether. Postmodernism is Nietzsche without the anguish, tragedy, or will to power—all the things that made Nietzsche worth reading. Now, in place of the revaluation of values, we have their devaluation. We are surrounded by choices with no reason to choose this rather than that. Postmodern consciousness, in Perry Anderson’s phrase, is “subjectivism without a subject.” Eagleton calls it “depthless, anti-tragic, non-linear, anti-numinous, non-foundational and anti-universalist, suspicious of absolutes and averse to interiority.”

The result is that we are witnesses to the advent of the first genuinely atheist culture in history. The apparent secularism of the 18th to 20th centuries was nothing of the kind. God—absent, hiding, yet underwriting the search for meaning—was in the background all along. In postmodernism, that sense of an absence, or what Eagleton calls “nostalgia for the numinous,” is no longer there. Not only is there no redemption, there is nothing to be redeemed. We are left, Eagleton writes, with “Man the Eternal Consumer.”

There the story of the search for transcendence might have ended. But then came 9/11 and the realization that religion had not gone away after all. It had just signaled its presence in the most brutal fashion. “No sooner had a thoroughly atheistic culture arrived on the scene . . . than the deity himself was suddenly back on the agenda with a vengeance.”

The real trouble—and here Eagleton is surely right—is that the West no longer has a set of beliefs that would justify its commitments to freedom and democracy. All it has left is “a mixture of pragmatism, culturalism, hedonism, relativism and anti-foundationalism,” inadequate defenses against an adversary that believes in “absolute truths, coherent identities and solid foundations.” The West has, intellectually speaking, “unilaterally disarmed at just the point where it has proved most perilous for it to do so.” Eagleton regards this as an irony, but it is not. It is precisely the West’s loss of faith that made it seem vulnerable to its opponents. It is mostly the failure of postmodernism to speak to the most fundamental aspects of the human condition that has driven those in search of meaning and consolation into the hands of the anti-modernists for whom freedom and democracy are not values at all.
The worrisome sign is that as atheism gains a greater hold in the west, so will fundamentalism and extremism in this century, often of a violent nature; we are now witnessing the beginning of this trend of the emergence and dominance of pre-modern, or anti-modern. faith:.

Sacks writes:
The occupational hazard of monotheism is dualism: the division of humanity into the children of light and the children of darkness, the redeemed and the infidel. The result is that in the 21st century we will face a world of increasing religiosity of the most unreconstructed, pre-modern kind, whose devotees believe themselves to be commanded to convert or conquer the world. Too little has been done within the faith traditions themselves to make space for the kind of diversity with which we will have to live if humankind is to have a future. As religious groups turn inward under the impact of aggressive secularism, all that will be left will be the extremes.
If we value our democratic culture and civilization we ought not to take any delight in the increase of extremism, wherever and however it rears its head. Ridding the world of religion, if it were at all possible, is no solution to humanity's problems. As I have argued many times, the long history of religion has helped shape humanity and confers meaning to many of the peoples with whom we share our planet; the problem, so to speak, are extremists who have politicized and simplified religion without any hint of understanding its deeper more profound meanings and the search for transcendence. Sacks' article title is right on the mark: "Nostalgia for the Numinous."

You can read the rest of the article at [JRB]

Thursday, June 19, 2014

BDS Defeats Palestine

On Israel

Whatever you think or know about the BDS Movement, you must wonder how effective it has been in its objectives to help the Palestinian people; one clear outcome is that the New Left has become morally bankrupt and politically powerless, a victim of its rhetoric and its over-zealous acceptance of BDS's tenets of faith. Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: "Leftist academics, who form the core of the BDS Movement, have also become its victims. Now Leftists have to be silent about gay-rights and women’s-rights causes. Their response to the Boko Haram Movement has been wishy-washy. Their objection to the executions of homosexuals in Iran and northern Nigeria has been feeble. Leftists are not free to protest the persecution of women and homosexuals in Muslim areas because doing so might indirectly make Israel look less bad. The BDS Movement has made the Left powerless when it comes to protesting injustice against gays and women committed by Muslims."

by George Jochnowitz
On June 6, 2004, the Israeli government voted to withdraw from Gaza. Israel was about to leave Gaza and let its citizens create their own Palestinian state—albeit a small state. Had things worked out, Israel would have proceeded to withdraw from much of the West Bank. As it happened, things didn’t work out.

Instead, on July 9, 2005, 171 non-governmental organizations voted to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions against Israel. That was the beginning of the BDS Movement. The goals of the Movement were the following:
  • Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
The words “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” are ambiguous, since many Arab groups, Hamas among them, include all of Israel in that category. As for “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return home,” that is a call for millions of Arabs, most of whom were born in refugee camps, to move to Israel and form a majority of the population. In other words, the goal of BDS was to end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Nothing Israel has ever done has led to a greater increase of anti-Israel hatred than the announcement of the withdrawal from Gaza. This makes no sense. Why should the world resent Israel for a decision to withdraw from Arab territory? Perhaps Israel’s enemies were afraid that an independent Palestinian state would lead to a decline in anti-Israel hatred. However, nobody ever made any kind of public statement saying that Israel was doing something as radical as establishing a Palestinian mini-state. Perhaps the founders of the BDS Movement knew that they should oppose a free Gaza because it might lead to increased acceptance of Israel. Perhaps. But what seems more likely is that BDS simply never made the connection between Israel’s withdrawal and Palestinian independence in Gaza. It was probably just a gut reaction. “Hate, hate, hate,” said the guts of the BDS founders.

The United Church of Christ voted on July 5, 2005, to divest from Israel. The Presbyterians, on August 5th, voted to press American companies not to provide technology to Israel that might be used in the occupation of Palestinian territories, and that if the companies did not comply, the church would take a vote to divest its stock in them. These votes took place after Israel announced its plans to withdraw from Gaza. Were they a reaction to the announcement? That doesn’t make sense, but then the boycott doesn’t make sense.

On June 12, 2014, the Methodist Church voted to sell its shares of stock in a British company that produces security equipment used by Israel.Do these churches realize that they are saying that Israel is uniquely wicked? Probably not. Do they think so? Maybe individual members of the churches do, but the hatred gives the appearance of being subconscious.

Whatever the motive, the BDS Movement has had an effect. The agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to negotiate never took place. How could Abbas agree to a compromise that would allow Israel to keep the territory near Jerusalem and elsewhere where close to half a million Israelis live? Can one allow an evil, hated nation to profit from a war, even if one’s own side started that war? Kerry and Abbas were both victims of BDS, since both of them apparently believe that the Palestinians can’t be expected to cede territory that belonged to Jordan before 1967. When the pre-1967 lines existed, the only countries on earth that recognized them were Jordan and Great Britain. After the West Bank was lost by Jordan, which made the mistake of joining the Arab side during the Six Day War and attacking Israel, the cease-fire lines, now called the Green Line, became holy.

Leftist academics, who form the core of the BDS Movement, have also become its victims. Now Leftists have to be silent about gay-rights and women’s-rights causes. Their response to the Boko Haram Movement has been wishy-washy. Their objection to the executions of homosexuals in Iran and northern Nigeria has been feeble. Leftists are not free to protest the persecution of women and homosexuals in Muslim areas because doing so might indirectly make Israel look less bad. The BDS Movement has made the Left powerless when it comes to protesting injustice against gays and women committed by Muslims.

There are no answers to questions beginning with the words “what if.” We will never know what would have happened had the BDS Movement not been born immediately after Israel announced its withdrawal from Gaza. Would the Arab world have agreed to accept Israel’s existence, recognize that Israel had freed Gaza, and established a Palestinian state? Maybe yes, maybe no. Be that as it may, the Palestinian cause is the only independence movement in human history that has rejected a state of its own because of a boundary dispute.

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 ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. It is republished here with the author's permission.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Holocaust Memorial At Earl Bales Park, Toronto

On Memory

"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech
10 December 1986

We remember so as not to forget; we remember the horror and the evil deeds to remember what man is capable of; and most important, we remember the persons inscribed on the Wall of Remembrance to give life to those whose lives were cruelly extinguished.

The Canadian Society for Yad Vashem writes on its site:
The Canadian Society for Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Flame at Earl Bales Park, Toronto, was unveiled in 1991, with the Wall of Remembrance following in 2001. Engraved on the Wall are thousands of names of Holocaust victims commemorated by their Canadian families, as well as Holocaust Survivors who rebuilt their lives in Canada and have since passed away.
The site stands as a permanent reminder of the Holocaust’s devastating toll on the Jewish people. It is the Canadian Jewish community’s public symbol of respect for the memories of those who perished in the Shoah and a tribute to the legacy of the Shoah’s Survivors.

It is the Society’s hope that the name of every Holocaust victim is inscribed and every life that survived the Holocaust is remembered. In so doing, we testify to the tragedy of the Holocaust as a whole and help to impart the universal lessons of the Shoah amongst Canadians.

The name Yad Vashem (יָד וַשֵׁם) has particular meaning; Wikipedia writes:

The name "Yad Vashem" is taken from a verse in the Book of Isaiah: "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name (yad vashem) better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:5). Naming the Holocaust memorial "yad vashem" conveys the idea of establishing a national depository for the names of Jewish victims who have no one to carry their name after death.[1]

All photos by Perry J. Greenbaum, 2014

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Evgeny Kissin Becomes Israeli Citizen

I was unaware that Evgeny Kissin became an Israeli citizen on December 7, 2013; here is the simple but touching citizenship ceremony, with an introduction by Natan Sharansky, chairman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, before Kissin himself explains the reason for his decision. (Minister for Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver personally handed him his citizenship documents.)

Noted columnist Charles Krauthammer writes ("A new anti-Semitism becomes chic; January 23, 2014) in The Daily Journal:
In this sea of easy and open bigotry, an unusual man has made an unusual statement. Russian by birth, European by residence, Evgeny Kissin is arguably the world's greatest piano virtuoso. He is also a Jew of conviction. Deeply distressed by Israel's treatment in the cultural world around him, Kissin went beyond the Dershowitz/Weinberg stance of asking to be considered an Israeli. On Dec. 7, he became one, defiantly.

Upon taking the oath of Israeli citizenship in Jerusalem, he declared: "I am a Jew, Israel is a Jewish state. ... Israel's case is my case, Israel's enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared the troubles which Israeli musicians encounter when they represent the Jewish state beyond its borders."
Well said and bravo, Mr. Kissin; you are not only a world-class pianist but a world-class mensch. My family and I hope to follow your example one day soon.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Mozart's Don Giovanni At La Scala, Milano (2011)

A modern production of W.A. Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is here performed at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, under the musical direction of Daniel Barenboim; the opera ran from December 7, 2011 to January 14, 2012. A synopsis of the opera can be found here.

Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni is based on the life of Don Juan, a fictional dissolute and seducer of women. The opera is in two acts; Mozart wrote the music and Lorenzo Da Ponte the Italian libretto. The opera premièred to great acclaim at the Teatro di Praga (now called the Estates Theatre) in Prague, Czech Republic, on October 29, 1787. The story of Don Giovanni, an unrepentant and arrogant nobleman, has lead to the writing of many philosophical and religious essays including notable ones by Flaubert, Shaw and Kierkegaard.

It remains among the top ten operas performed worldwide. [see Operabase for more statistics]

Friday, June 13, 2014

Creationism Versus Genesis

On Beginnings & Belief

Most people know the genesis story in the beginning of the Bible, and of its telling of God's place as the centre of creation. Not everyone, however, looks at the story as an accurate account of how the earth and all of its inhabitants came into being, including this writer. This does not suggest that the biblical narrative has no merit; it does, but more as an allegorical myth. To give it much more importance would be stretching the limits of its original purpose. With this in mind, Prof George Jochnowitz writes: Obviously, the Book of Genesis was never meant to be taken literally. Thousands of years ago, it was clear that the accounts of Creation were allegorical. Why should we believe them literally today.

by George Jochnowitz

The Bible never explicitly tells us anything about the earth being either round or flat. Instead, it says that there is water above the heavens and thus implicitly rejects the idea that the earth is round: And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered unto one place, and letthe dry land appear: and it was so (Gen. 1:9). This account can be understood if we assume theworld is flat. It becomes very difficult to picture with a round earth. We may, if we choose, argue that Genesis 1:9 may be read figuratively; however, once we are willing to read the text in a more complex way, we could just as well say that the Bible does not reject evolution.

There are other passages in the Bible that cannot be reinterpreted in order to find a reading that is scientifically acceptable. One such case is found in Chapter 30 of Genesis, where Jacob and Laban agree that any spotted and speckled cattle that are born will belong to Jacob, who then proceeds to increase his share. “And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chestnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink. And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted” (Gen. 30:37-39). 

If we were told that the birth of the speckled cattle was a miracle, we could believe it. But there is no way that placing objects in front of animals while they are mating will produce offspring that resemble the objects. Since Genesis 30 does not mention the possibility of a miracle, we have to conclude that it is a story in which science and religion cannot be reconciled. The speckled cattle may be the result of selective breeding, which would make sense. Genesis 30, however, is not written in a way that sounds allegorical.

The Bible tells us that Adam and Eve had three sons. No daughters are mentioned until Genesis 5:4, when we are told, “And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters.” Somehow, these sons and daughters seem to be an afterthought to explain how the human race continued.

Before Seth was born, Cain and Abel were the only two children of Adam and Eve mentioned. Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to the Lord, as we are told in Genesis 4:3-5, “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”

In other words, God was saying, “vegetables—yuck.” This rejection led Cain to kill Abel. “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him” (Gen. 4: 15). Who was there to find him? Weren’t his parents the only people left alive on earth? Apparently not. The next two verses tell us, “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch” (Gen. 4:16-17).

His wife? How come we had not read about her earlier? A city? Who was there to live in it? The answer is the sons and daughters mentioned in Genesis 5:4, but when we read about Cain we haven’t yet heard of them. Somehow, they are only a footnote.

Obviously, the Book of Genesis was never meant to be taken literally. Thousands of years ago, it was clear that the accounts of Creation were allegorical. Why should we believe them literally today?

The strongest arguments against creationism are found in the Book of Genesis.

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 ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. It is republished here with the author's permission.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jerusalem Becomes City Of Lights

Light Festivals

Jerusalem's Damascus Gate, "which leads to Jerusalem’s Old City, is projected with blue eyes
to promote the capital’s 6th annual International Festival of Light,"
Eisenbud of the JPost writes.
Photo Credit:
Reuters; June 10, 2013

An article by Daniel K. Eisenbud, in The Jerusalem Post says that Jerusalem is hosting its sixth annual city of lights festival; the artistic event began yesterday, June 11th, and continues for a week until June 19th:
Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to converge on Jerusalem’s Old City each evening for the next week, as all four quarters are cast aglow during the capital’s sixth annual International Festival of Light.
Beginning Wednesday night, the festival will feature 17 acclaimed international light artists, including numerous interactive light shows, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. until June 19 – all free of charge.
The event's organizers write on its site:
You'll be able to ramble through the Old City's picturesque  alleys, among breathtaking works of art from Israel and abroad, and view enthralling light shows, three-dimensional artistic displays and huge video projections on landmark Old City buildings and on the Old City walls.
The lights will undoubtedly give a new perspective to the city, if only briefly. Light has a way of revealing something new in the old, which becomes apparent when meandering through  the various alleyways and paths of the Old City—it containing thousands of years of history, of multiple stories of the people who resided within its domain. If those ancient stones could talk.

 For more information on the festival , you can visit here.; and you can read the rest of the article at [JPost].

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: Mozart Sinfonia Concertante

Itzhak Perlman on violin and Pinchas Zukerman on viola, accompanied by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra,  Zubin Mehta, conducting, perform Mozart's K.320d [364], First Movement:1779, after a difficult period in his life, shortly after his return to Salzburg.

Sara Carlton writes in the program notes for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that this piece came "out of the ashes of this sorrow and disappointment':
Mozart did not have an easy time in his early 20’s. He no longer had the status of a child prodigy and was in the employ of a man whom he detested, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg. In 1777 Mozart left for an extended tour of Paris and Mannheim hoping to find a new, more genial patron. However, the trip came to naught. Not only did the young Mozart fail to secure a post in Paris, but his mother died of a sudden illness. Out of money and options, a sorrowing and desperate Mozart went to Vienna to ask his sweetheart Aloysia Weber (sister of his eventual wife, Constanza) for her hand in marriage but was turned down. Grieving and broke, Mozart returned to Salzburg without funds, job prospects, fiancé, or mother.

Out of the ashes of this sorrow and disappointment, Mozart wrote the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major shortly after his return to Salzburg in the summer of 1779. The last and crowning glory of Mozart’s efforts in this genre, this composition is considered Mozart’s musical ‘coming of age,’ as the young composer shows a new musical independence and maturity. More like a double concerto than a symphony, 39 this work treats the violin and viola solo parts equally, often having one instrument finish the melodic line begun by the other. The layers of highly emotional, yet supremely balanced dialogues which develop not only between the soloists, but also between winds and strings, and orchestra and soloists, weave together a tapestry of sound that is exquisitely Mozart.

Mozart likely was the viola soloist in the first performance and his love of the instrument is evident in the care he took to ensure that it would produce a brilliant effect. Although the orchestra score is in E-flat, the
viola part is actually written in D, with instructions that the instrument be tuned up a half step “and perhaps a shade sharp” so that it would stand out more effectively against the orchestral timbre. (Duration approximately 30 minutes.)
That such beauty can come out of such sorrow is a moving testimony to Mozart's genius to transmit what resided deeply in both his head and his heart to a wide audience. As well, due credit must also go to this orchestra and to Perlman and Zukerman, who do a masterful job of interpreting and bringing out the best of Mozart's feelings and expression. Are we not the fortunate listeners of such beautiful music? Even the sorrow is uplifting.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Science Of The Mind: Some Science, Too Much Fiction

Human Behaviour

Charles Myers recording the sacred song of the Malu ceremonies, 1898, Gray writes, adding:
“Rivers, Myers and McDougall were members of the celebrated anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898, and in 1901 an account of the expedition was published by its organiser, Alfred Haddon, under the title Head-hunters: Black, White and Brown. The purpose of the expedition was to study ‘the primitive mind’, using techniques that among other things involved measuring reactions to pain.”

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind (2014)
by Ben Shephard

In a book review essay ("Shocks to the System") in Literary Review, John Gray argues that much of today’s brain science is repackaged Victorian Darwinism meshed with speculative theories of genetics; it makes for good and interesting reading, but there might be more fiction within its pages than science.

Gray, a political philosopher, writes:
Summing up the current intellectual situation, Ben Shephard writes: 'On the face of it we now live in a completely new world. All the old gods are dead - neither nationalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis nor Christianity any longer provides philosophical ballast. Instead, the modern intellectual landscape is dominated by two phenomena, Neo-Darwinian genetics and modern neuroscience - just as it was in the 1890s.'

As Shephard shows in this refreshingly sceptical mix of biography and intellectual history, the present intellectual climate is not as unprecedented as some would like us to think. The belief that a synthesis of Darwinism and neuroscience would revolutionise understanding of human behaviour was pervasive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Linking evolution with neurology, it was believed, would produce a new science of the mind, which would in turn transform our understanding of ethics, politics and the human species itself.
Now, at the start of the 21st century, Christianity may still be retreating in most Western countries (though the opposite is the case in China, Russia and much of the developing world), while Marxism and psychoanalysis may have faded from view, but the idea that we are on the brink of a scientific revelation regarding the nature of the human mind that will transform the way we think of ourselves is as strong as it has ever been. Yet any suggestion that the human sciences can be progressive disciplines like physics remains as problematic as it was a century ago, and the neo-Darwinian theories that proliferate at the present time will surely prove to be as misguided as those that flourished in late Victorian times.
I agree with Gray that neuroscience is hardly a hard science like physics or chemistry; and, more problematic, I also have the same uneasy feeling about the speculative findings of neuroscience and much of evolutionary theory as it applies to human behaviour, both modern disciplines that tend to model the brain as a system or neural network akin to a computer or some other electrical-generating device. In such modelling, human behaviour is controlled, or decided, to a large degree by discrete modules, and so forth. The language of engineering is shockingly apparent, but I think completely misplaced, and as Gray says, "misguided."

Similarity is not sameness, a thought these neuroscientists might understand, but do not put forth in their breathless, over-hyped academic papers. A little bit of history, notably about science, might prove helpful in this discussion. Consider this. On the surface, such theories of the mind sound plausible and “scientific,”but if you dig a little deeper, much of what is proffered as science is speculative fiction, similar to the theories of phrenology during the Victorian era. The Victorians had also thought they had found the scientific doorway to understanding the human mind (“the only true science of the mind,” they called it).

My thinking is that there are multiple doorways, multiple paths of understanding and the human mind will defy any easy explanation, even if conveyed in complex models and colourful images. Some will find this idea disappointing, but continuing along a dead end will not better the human condition in any way.

You can read the rest of the article at [LitRev]

Monday, June 9, 2014

France's Thoughtless & Hateful Irrationalists

On Human Thought

France's Men of Unreason (clockwise from left): Charles Maurras, Maurice Barrès, Louis Darquier, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. In this article, Bell writes:“As in For the Soul of France, Brown tells his story in an episodic, sometimes impressionistic manner. He mixes chapters about Barrès, Maurras, and Drieu together with vignettes about a variety of scandals and causes over which the apostles of ‘unreason’ obsessed. One chapter follows the long campaign to canonize Joan of Arc, which finally came to fruition in 1920. The Action Française celebrated Joan as a symbol of the true Catholic France, and held her up against the godless Revolution of 1789, regularly staging massive processions that ended at Joan’s golden statue in the Place des Pyramides in Paris. (In recent years, the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine, have continued the tradition.).”
Photo Credit: Pierre Petit/Collection Dupondt/Akg-Images; Popperfoto/Getty Images; Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images; Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone Via Getty Images
Source: The New Republic

In a book review of Frederick Brown's  The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 David A. Bell writes in The New Republic, "Dancing with the devil is an old pursuit among French writers." In this case, the dance is with unreason and irrationality, which can often lead to a need to hate, to find an object to hate, and then to plan and scheme some solution to put an end to this hatred by ridding the world of this object in human form.

Bell, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton University, writes about France's daillance with irrationality before the First World War, including the Dreyfus Affair, which still haunts and divides France more than a century later.
Never in French history did this cultural impulse prove more pernicious than during the troubled decades of the Third Republic (1870–1940). In this period, some of France’s most talented writers gazed longingly into the abyss, and then turned the full power of their eloquence against the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Even as the frail Republic lurched from scandal to scandal and crisis to crisis, writers on both the left and the right subjected it to endless, pitiless mockery and abuse. Robert Brasillach, one of the most brilliant writers and critics of his generation, likened it to “a syphilitic old whore, stinking of patchouli and yeast infection.” Charles Maurras, an enormously skilled polemicist, endlessly denounced it as “the Jew State, the Masonic State, the immigrant State.” Such attacks did much to drain French democracy of legitimacy precisely at its moment of greatest peril. They made it all too easy for a portion of France’s elites to treat the crushing defeat of 1940 as history’s judgment on a corrupt and senile society, and therefore to embrace Hitler’s grotesque New Order rather than to struggle against it.
Frederick Brown, an accomplished literary biographer, has emerged as the leading English-language chronicler of this appalling but fascinating French story. In his book For the Soul of France, he examined the fin de siècle, with particular attention to what he called the “culture wars” between left and right. He centered his account on the Dreyfus Affair, in which the trumped-up conviction of a Jewish army officer on treason charges unleashed a political firestorm that came close to bringing the Republic down. Now, in The Embrace of Unreason, he has taken the story through the interwar period. This time no single “affair” dominates the landscape, but the specter of Vichy looms on the horizon, as the final destination at which so many of those who “embraced unreason” eventually arrived.
Even individuals who have reached and scrounged the lower depths of irrational thought have a need to employ, post facto, some reason in their arguments, a psychological need, perhaps, to first convince themselves that what they are doing is right and honorable, and second to convince others of the rightness of their arguments, of their cause. Once the unreasonable step is taken, the human mind needs to appear rational and logical in all of its choices. What is tragically lost in such minds is that their initial views, their initial arguments are all—every single one of them—irrational and unreasonable. They have, so to speak, lost their minds.

You can read the rest of the article at [NewRep].

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Futurism & Nihilism

War Stories

Fortunato Depero, Skyscrapers and Tunnels (Gratticieli e tunnel), 1930 (detail)
Photo Credit & Source: Guggenheim

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City has mounted an exhibit on Futurism, entitled Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, which runs until September 1, 2014.

The site gives a brief overview on this movement, which touched all aspects of Italian society:
Italian Futurism was officially launched in 1909 when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian intellectual, published his “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in the French newspaper Le Figaro. Marinetti’s continuous leadership ensured the movement’s cohesion for three and half decades, until his death in 1944.

To be a Futurist in the Italy of the early 20th century was to be modern, young, and insurgent. Inspired by the markers of modernity—the industrial city, machines, speed, and flight—Futurism’s adherents exalted the new and the disruptive. They sought to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity. Futurism began as a literary avant-garde, and the printed word was vital for this group. Manifestos, words-in-freedom poems, novels, and journals were intrinsic to the dissemination of their ideas. But the Futurists quickly embraced the visual and performing arts, politics, and even advertising. Futurist artists experimented with the fragmentation of form, the collapsing of time and space, the depiction of dynamic motion, and dizzying perspectives. Their style evolved from fractured elements in the 1910s to a mechanical language in the ’20s, and then to aerial imagery in the ’30s. No vanguard exists in a void—all are touched by their historical context.

The Futurists’ celebration of war as a means to remake Italy and their support of Italy’s entrance into World War I also constitute part of the movement’s narrative, as does the later, complicated relationship between Futurism and Italian fascism.
An article in the Hannah Artendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College gives an excellent reminder on the consequences of futurism and its nihilistic beliefs, so to speak. The First World War, for example, was viewed by such believers as a necessary battle to cleanse the earth and purify it; this meant, of course, cleansing the earth of undesirables, both people and the middle-class values they held.

The article states:
That war cleanses speaks to the ascetic virtues of the warrior and wartime civilization. But while the virtues of war are ancient, the vision of war as a salve for the meaninglessness of life is modern, part of the 20th century rebellion nihilism, the devaluing of the highest values that is endemic to the 20th and now 21st centuries.
When no values are worth fighting for, all that matters is the fight itself, and victory, no matter what the cause. As Marinetti writes in 1915, “With us begins the reign of the man whose roots are cut, the multiplied man who merges himself with iron, is fed by electricity, and no longer understands anything except the sensual delight of danger and quotidian heroism.” Marinetti, like so many other European intellectuals, had got the war he wanted, “the finest Futurist poem that has materialized till now.” The point was to tear down the bourgeois world of consumerism and careerism, to find in war a cause—whatever the cause. The futurist yearning is to win, to assert one’s power, which is the only measure of virtue in a world—to give oneself fully to a movement.

It is important to understand both the justification for and the danger of such contempt for bourgeois, middle-class society. In 1914, the elite of Europe went to war, as Thomas Mann noted carefully, because they believed “war was ‘chastisement’ and ‘purification’”; they believe in “‘war in itself rather victories, inspired the poet.’” Hannah Arendt quotes these words of Mann’s and compares them to Lawrence of Arabia’s determination to lose his self in the inscrutable and unstoppable currents of history. Both Lawrence and Mann are responding to what Arendt calls a “violent disgust with all the existing standards, with every power that be.” The elite of Europe, Arendt writes, went to war in 1914 “with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life might go down in its ‘storms of steel’ (Ernst Jünger).” Like the Futurists, and writing in the same early years of the 20th century, these European elite expressed a violent disgust for society, consumed with consumptions and sterilized by security. War offered hope, because war was a breeding ground for courage, chivalry, honor, and manliness. It was also a symbol of equality, where birth and rank offered no protection against a well-aimed bullet or an unprejudiced bomb.
Such ideas as courage, honour and manliness still persist in the narratives and myths of nations, a necessity, it seems, to enforce the ancient idea that this battle is necessary, if not to build a better future world, then to ensure that the present values will remain. The latter is understandable in defense of a nation under attack; the former is not. We are not here talking about progress in the betterment of all humanity, such as in the curing of diseases or in the improving our food and water supply, or in the creation of jobs and economic opportunities, but a progress by destruction, a progress by elimination.

This is a type of futurism disguised as nation-building in the emotional language of nationalism or patriotism; it is present, yet not always seen or apparent, when nations wage war. The desire to build a sleek modern efficient world, void of soul and genuine meaning, purifying the messiness of humanity, seems to some an appealing ideal; to others, including this writer, a nightmare of ghoulish proportions. The cost to humanity is too great.

You can read the rest of this article at [HannahArendt]

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Expo 67 : Man & His World (1967)

In this British-made documentary is one person's impression on Montreal's world's fair, called Expo 67, with the theme of "Man and His World." Or in French, "Terre des Hommes." It opened on April 21, 1967 and closed on October 27, 1967; there were 90 pavilions, including  the U.S. pavilion, a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller; and Habitat 67, an urban modular housing complex designed by architect Moshe Safdie. [I noticed one error in this video; the capital of the province of Quebec has always been Quebec City and not Montreal, its largest city.]

I was born in Montreal, and at school we talked about it and learned the theme song ("Hey Friend, Say Friend/Un Jour, Un Jour", written by Stéphane Venne) and a popular jingle written by Bobby Gimby ("Ca-na-da"). Thus it was natural that we all wanted to explore the site. I was nine when my family attended this fair (we went on a number of occasions), a homage to man's many achievements; the fair was without a doubt a success, with more than 50 million visitors from around the world attending, a feather in the cap of then-mayor Jean Drapeau, who always had big dreams and carried them to fruition.

As for the fair's theme, it originated from a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des Hommes (1939); and as Wikipedia reports it, citing Gabrielle Roy's 30 page commissioned essay on the fair, it is about human cooperation, still a noble idea in needing of work:
In Terre des Hommes, his haunting book, so filled with dreams and hopes for the future, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes of how deeply moved he was when, flying for the first time by night alone over Argentina, he happened to notice a few flickering lights scattered below him across an almost empty plain. They "twinkled here and there, alone like stars."

.... In truth, being made aware of our own solitude can give us insight into the solitude of others. It can even cause us to gravitate towards one another as if to lessen our distress. Without this inevitable solitude, would there be any fusion at all, any tenderness between human beings.
Moved as he was by a heightened awareness of the solitude of all creation and by the human need for solidarity, Saint-Exupéry found a phrase to express his anguish and his hope that was as simple as it was rich in meaning; and because that phrase was chosen many years later to be the governing idea of Expo 67, a group of people from all walks of life was invited by the Corporation to reflect upon it and to see how it could be given tangible form.
—Gabrielle Roy
Isn't this the basis of humanity, the need for cooperation?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wellcome Library's Top Ten Images

On Human Impressions

In an article in The Public Domain Review, Catherine Draycott, head of Wellcome Images, describes and briefly discusses the 10 most downloaded images from the 100,000 images that the library released for public consumption earlier this year. Here are three of the top ten images that captured the imagination and hearts of the public. 1.) Paolo Mascagni's Exploded Torso; 2) The Horoscope of Prince Iskandar; and 3) A Head of Writhing Nudes.

1. Paolo Mascagni's Exploded Torso

Paolo Mascagni: From the Anatomia Universa [1823-31], which contains 44 hand-painted slides of the human anatomy. As Prosector of Anatomy at the University of Siena, Paolo Mascagni "was  responsible for leading dissection for demonstration and research," notes the Wellcome Library, which adds:

"The main figure here is surrounded by smaller studies. At the top of the plate, the hearts have had the 'epicardium', the outer layer of heart tissue, removed to reveal the cardiac muscle. The heart at the bottom left is viewed from above to reveal the aortic valve. The smaller figures are foetal dissections revealing the umbilical artery and vein."
Wellcome Library, London

Illustration of human viscera by Paulo Mascagni, from his Anatomia Universa (1823-31) – Source: Wellcome Library, London. - See more at:

 2. The Horoscope of Prince Iskandar

The Birth of Iskandar (1384): The personal horoscope of Prince Iskandar, grandson of
Tamerlane, the Turkman Mongol conqueror
. The Wellcome Library writes:
"This horoscope shows the positions of the heavens at the moment of Iskandar's birth on 25th April
1384. This is a fly leaf from the personal horoscope of Iskandar Sultan (died 1415), grandson of
Timur, who ruled the province of Farsin, Iran. He is best known for his early military career
and his patronage of the arts and sciences. "
Source: Wellcome Library, London

3. A Head of Writhing Nudes

Filippo Balbi's Testa anatomica (1854):Wellcome Library describes it as a "profile view of male human head composed of writhing, apparently tormented naked men."
Wellcome Library, London
Many of the remaining top ten images represent depictions of human anatomy, which says much about our interest in the human body when presented in a particular stylized form and when done by the human hand in painstaking detail.

You can view and read more about the rest of the images at [PubDomRev]

1. Paolo Mascagni’s Exploded Torso

Monday, June 2, 2014

Judy Garland: Over The Rainbow (1939)


Judy Garland: Over the Rainbow
Via; Youtube

Judy Garland and her signature song, “Over the Rainbow” from the American movie, The Wizard of Oz. Here are some background notes from Wikipedia on a song that the American Film Institute has ranked as the greatest movie song of all time on its list of "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs."
"Over the Rainbow" (often referred to as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") is a classic Academy Award-winning ballad, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg.[1] It was written for the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, and was sung by actress Judy Garland in her starring role as Dorothy Gale.[1] Over time, it would become Garland's signature song.

About five minutes into the film, Dorothy sings the song after failing to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her relate an unpleasant incident involving her dog, Toto, and the town spinster, Miss Gulch. Dorothy's Aunt Em tells her to "find yourself a place where you won't get into any trouble." This prompts Dorothy to walk off by herself, musing to Toto, "'Some place where there isn't any trouble.' Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It's not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It's far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain..." at which point she begins singing.
The song, written by two Jewish artists, has a certain Jewish sensibility that speaks of the times and place it was written. In an essay on his site, Simcha Jacobovici writes:
The fantasies of immigrant Jews wanting to be “real” Americans were popularized not only by Hollywood producers – there were also the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley Jews. It is no accident, for example, that the greatest Christmas songs of all time were written by Jews. For example, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written by Johnny Marks and “White Christmas” was penned by a Jewish liturgical singer’s (cantor) son, Irving Berlin. But perhaps the most poignant song emerging out of the mass exodus from Europe was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. The lyrics were written by Yip Harburg.


He was the youngest of four children born to Russian Jewish immigrants. His real name was Isidore Hochberg and he grew up in a Yiddish speaking, Orthodox Jewish home in New York. The music was written by Harold Arlen, a cantor’s son. His real name was Hyman Arluck and his parents were from Lithuania. Together, Hochberg and Arluck wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which was voted the 20th century’s number one song by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In writing it, the two men reached deep into their immigrant Jewish consciousness – framed by the pogroms of the past and the Holocaust about to happen – and wrote an unforgettable melody set to near prophetic words. Read the lyrics in their Jewish context and suddenly the words are no longer about wizards and Oz, but about Jewish survival.
For many Jewish immigrants Oz was America with all its promises and hope for a new life free from hate and from old traditions; and for others it was Israel with its promises of rebirth and return to a land the Jews could (once again) make their own. In both lands the Jews prospered, because both offered a level of freedom and opportunity not evident in the lands from which they left.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow
by Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can't I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Engineers & Their Pocket Protectors (2014)

Engineering History

Pocket Protectors at NASA: Henry Petroski writes for American Scientist: “The scene in NASA’s Launch Control Center just after the Apollo 11 liftoff: big smiles, crisp shirts and ties, and a lot of pocket protectors. Featured above are, left to right, Wernher von Braun (with binoculars); George Mueller, associate administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight; and Lt. Gen. Samuel Phillips, director of the Apollo Program.”
Photo Credit:  NASA

An article, by Henry Petroski,  in American Scientist gives an overview of the pocket protector, which came to be defined as a nerd accessory worn by engineers. When I was in engineering school in the late 1970s and early '80s, many students wore pocket protectors to hold not only pens, mechanical pencils, but also micrometers and other small tools of the trade. No one wore short-sleeved white shirts, but some did wear white sports socks, including me. All were earnest and hard working, true to stereo-type, but not everyone wore glasses. I didn’t then.

Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, writes (“Rise and Fall of the Pocket Protector;” May/June 2014) in the magazine's latest issue that the plastic pocket insert typically worn on the left side does not conjure up a positive image of “cool.”
The pocket protector has long been associated with engineers, but to society at large it does not necessarily evoke a positive image. According to Jeanette Madea, whose brief history of the pocket protector appears on the IEEE Global History Network website (, the plastic pocket insert “conjures up images of a guy in a short sleeve white shirt, glasses taped together and ‘high-water’ pants.” Those reference points date the characterization to the 1950s and 1960s, when engineers did indeed favor white short-sleeve shirts, eyeglasses that were prone to break across their plastic bridge, and pants hitched up to reveal a lot of sock, often white to match the shirt. Today, we call the professional descendants of the earlier stereotypes nerds or geeks, terms that at least can include gals as well as guys.

Madea credits the “original pocket protector” to inventor Hurley Smith, who was born in 1908 in Bellaire, Michigan. Smith had no formal schooling but completed high school by correspondence course. After working and saving money, he matriculated at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. He studied electrical engineering at Queens, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, and upon graduation had to take a job marketing Popsicles around the province. He finally found a position as an engineer with a transformer design company in Buffalo, New York, but lost this job when he refused to misrepresent the company’s rewound transformers as new products.

While working in Buffalo Smith came up with the idea for his pocket protector, which he patented in 1947. The time was ripe for such an invention because the ubiquitous fountain pen was notorious for leaking ink, as was the ballpoint pen then being introduced in America. According to Smith’s patent, it was not only the pocket proper that his invention protected from being “marked, disfigured or soiled by pencils or other more or less analogous articles or the fingers of the user in placing such articles in and removing them”; it also protected the material of the shirt directly above the pocket. Smith did not associate the device solely with engineers, whose fingers might be expected to be fairly clean, but also with “workers in factories,” the hands of which “may become soiled or greasy.”

As described in the patent, the manufacture of Smith’s pocket shield began with an elongated and relatively thin rectangular piece of “transparent or translucent Cellophane, Celluloid or analogous sheet material” just a bit narrower than a typical shirt pocket. The sheet was given two transverse folds. The first fold was made about equidistant from the ends, and the second—a reverse fold—about a quarter of the way from one end to produce a flap. This produced a pocket insert whose longest portion projected above the top of the pocket and whose shortest hung outside the front of the pocket. Pens or pencils clipped over the flap compressed the shirt pocket material between the flap and part of the shield inside the pocket, holding the protector and its contents securely in place. As Smith pointed out, the lightweight but stiff shield would incidentally prevent a pocket from “bagging or sagging out of shape and detracting from the neat appearance of the shirt or garment.” By clipping writing utensils over the flap, the protector also prevented wear and tear on the edge of the pocket.
If the other students at McGill University considered us nerds, I was not aware of it, since we were all too busy working hard on our endless assignments, projects and lab work to consider the existence of this question. Truly, we were for the most part oblivious to it and the standards of cool. I do, however, remember a moment when I did look across the wide expanse of lawn one exceptionally sunny and warm day in mid-April during the exam period; I had exited the engineering library to go outside for some air, to collect my thoughts, and when I looked across the wide expanse of green, there were sounds of laughter and play adjacent to the Arts Building and the Leacock Building, home to  non-engineering students, non-science students. They looked and acted carefree and without a worry in the world.

You can read the rest of the article at [AmerSci].