Monday, February 27, 2017

For The Love Of Literature


“So much of what I see and read today approximates reality and appears as its poor imitation, except for the misery. This is more real than anything the news could portray or show. For reality, beauty and truth to be found, one has to look in books and at movies, in literature and at films. The trick, however, is not to over-think or over-analyse.”
Perry J. Greenbaum
“Notes from the Sixth Floor: Approximating Reality,” 
February 2017

For as long as I could remember, I have loved reading stories—all kinds of stories, from fairy tales to historical novels to detective and romance stories, as well as literary novels, the classics of literature. It has been a love affair spanning more than 50 years. To be sure, like all educated persons, I have read many of the literary classics published in the English language, including most of the books that make the lists of the best books of all time and those of the last 100 years.

For the most part, I have read these books for my own edification and enjoyment and not part of any program of academic study, although some were introduced favorably by professors at college and university. Some I have read more than once. There was no need to write any paper and I was not marked for my efforts. I did often take notes, writing thoughts in my journals. I look back at these from time to time.

Many of the books used to be taught in university courses of English and American literature. I am not sure if this is now the case. No matter; these books will survive current narrow ideas of “acceptable books.” Moreover, with the cost of books in decline, coexisting with a greater accessibility due in large part to the Internet, readers have more books to enjoy, even if “the gatekeepers” of Academia do not easily tolerate let alone approve of such choices that comprise the traditional texts of the “Great Books of Modern Civilization.”

In his Nobel Prize Lecture (December 12, 1976), Saul Bellow said this about what we gain or see—“the essence of our real condition”— from Literature, which becomes more apparent and urgent during times of confusion.
The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as "true impressions". This essence reveals, and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, "There is a spirit" and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.
This is true for all of us who have (briefly and fleetingly) encountered this “spirit,“ without the confusion and clamor that manifests itself in so much of our society today. The soul of Literature continues to be found at times, inspiring the reader to acquiring knowledge and to setting sights on quiet determined action. This, out of necessity, begins in the mind. So, I would like to say “enjoy and learn,” since there is a joy in learning, contrary to what many young-aged children say (and older ones, too) in protest of going to school to take required courses in English and, by default, in literature.

Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum
If you are lucky, you will have an English teacher who will encourage you. Many teachers actually love literature and understand its value to society as an influence of good; such was the case with my high school teachers. Literature, when taught well, can help young minds (and older ones, as well) to understand others and the world around them in a different way than science or technology does.

All the more reason to bemoan what has been taking place, for decades, in colleges and universities in Canada, the United States and other western nations, which have deemed it expedient to politicize literature to the point where it cannot be enjoyed, taken seriously or loved. So much of what is taught in English and humanities courses is unimaginative, pointless and replete of the prevailing prejudices of the lecturers and professors, no doubt leading one farthest from any genuine imaginative effort and the building of independent critical thinking, let alone the search for both beauty and truth.

Which brings us again to talk of soul and spirit, but not in the same sense of theologians or scholars of religion who also get bogged down in details; it is to not strip literature of all that makes it essential, important, inspiring and human. Take out the discussion of soul and spirit, take out thoughts of beauty and truth, take out the ideas of universal humanity and literature becomes what it ought not be: banal, petty and boring. Compounding the problem of accessibility is academic jargon, arcane language and techno-speak, something that gets the attention from time to time in the Academy, but usually among its most junior members who have not yet been lost to it.

It is a wonder that anyone can graduate from such programs of study with a measure of his own thoughts and ideas. It is to resign yourself to living in a small world rather than a large one, suspicious of any idea that falls outside accepted thought. It is always hard to disabuse someone of an idea dearly held. Having a graduate degree in literature hardly gives anyone a special insight into the human condition. It might be a good start, but it takes much more than that to achieve a life not only well-read but also well-lived.

Even more difficult (and rare) is to find (post)graduate students from such a program of study who hold a continued love of books. Studying literature today can easily and methodically remove any desire to read books, let alone enjoy, discuss and love what they say. Academic literary theories will, because of their narrowness and stated strictures, move students further away from understanding the universal ideas that bind humans together.

If I sound harsh, I am probably not harsh enough. I enjoy my moral judgments like anyone else. Why shouldn't I? I have worked hard and earned them. Seeing the shortcomings of a thing has always been my way of trying to find answers. There is enough pain and misery to go around, no doubt; and the question is, as always, What should I do? The short answer is, Who really knows?

In the light of no easy answers, I read, reflect and think; and take walks, short quick ones and long leisurely ones—to get information and a bit of knowledge. Such are Big Ideas, which often cause people to close their eyes and fall asleep. Not easy to take a hold of them, yet one should make attempts to do to find the soul of Literature. (In a future post, I might  discuss a few of my favorite books.) I offer you now a quote from C.S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism (1961), which argues that literature is written for the enjoyment of the reader, and, moreover, good reading involves surrendering oneself to the written work:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Good readers will understand this; it does not require knowledge of any literary theory. I will go as far as saying that the absence of literary theory will make reading more enjoyable. It might be true in this case that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Made in China

Technology: 1:1
“Happy is the man…”

I introduce here a new column, “The Happy Curmudgeon.”
Has anyone noticed that the cost of computers has not gone down, but has instead risen the last few years, while the quality is uneven at best? Laptops are a good example. While there are low-priced laptops for less than $1,000, the old adage that “you get what you pay” for applies. In the last five years, our family has purchased three Acer laptops (for between $500 and $850), and all of them soon had problems with their keyboards—the last one only a month after I bought it (in February 2016). Acer, I found out, is a company with headquarters in Taiwan, but the laptops are all made in China.

Acer Aspire E15: My younger son’s computer keyboard stopped working last week, less than two years after we purchased it. But this is not a record for failure; my oldest son’s newly purchased Acer computer’s keyboard stopped working after only one month. The computer-repair shop did not have a replacement keyboard for it, so he suggested attaching a stand-alone keyboard as a workaround, which I did. I am not yet sure what I will do with my younger son’s computer, since he refuses the same solution that his brother accepted; for now, it is non-operational.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

While planned obsolescence has a long history in mass production, this is taking it to new heights, or rather, new lows. Either the quality control is lacking at the overseas factories where these laptops are put together or the components themselves are of inferior, substandard quality. I would expect that these large manufacturers would look into their manufacturing process, in particular the quality-control aspect of their operations.

Let’s get to the point. I don’t think that our family has hit a streak of bad luck in our computer purchases. I suspect, with good reason, that a good percentage of the electronics products shipped out of China do not meet high quality-control standards and are defective in some way. I also suspect that computer manufacturers are intentionally pushing the boundaries, seeing how far they can compel consumers into accepting shoddy products. They likely do so with the knowledge that China makes most of the world’s computers.

Made in China: Like most of the world’s computers, this Acer computer is made in China. We purchased it in April 2015.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

This is one approach to capitalism, but one that is rather short-sighted. Another Asian nation took a far different approach. At one time, back in the 1960s and ’70s, Japan had such a reputation and it was said that “Made in Japan” was a epithet for poor quality. I remember getting a cheap wristwatch then made in Japan. Unbeknownst to me, the nation was then in the midst of a change in manufacturing processes, notably the use of statistics in quality control (William Edwards Deming gets a lot of credit for the changeover). A decade later Japan was known for excellent manufacturing and quality control, first in its electronics and later in its cars.

Perhaps China ought to take notice, particularly if it wants to have an honorable reputation and become a nation known for superior electronic products. This is currently not the case. “Made in China” currently means low cost and low quality.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Ancient Synagogues of Israel: Bar’am

 UnEarthing History

Kfar Bar’am (כְּפַר בַּרְעָם‎; village of Bar’am): The synagogue, in the eastern upper Galilee (between kibbutz Sasa and moshav Dovev), is located on rolling hills only three kilometers from the border with Lebanon. Dating to the second century CE, it is situated within the ancient site of Kfar Bar’am. The entrance is directed southward toward Jerusalem, common to the many synagogues in the area. One Jewish site describes this place as “the most beautiful old synagogue in Israel.” Geography and age both play a part, no doubt, as does its history, the same site notes: “Bar’am was a Jewish village in Mishnaic and Talmudic times. Perhaps building a village at this deserted location was maybe inspired by a legend that Queen Esther was buried in Bar'am. On Purim, the Scroll of Esther (Megillah) was read at her grave. […] The large synagogue also has an inscription, which can be found under the right window on the facade: ‘Banahu Elazar bar Yodan’. This is Aramaic for the name of the builder. The synagogue is made of basalt stone. The main feature is a hall with rows of six columns. They supported a roof, of which parts lie scattered in the park. The front courtyard also used to be covered and enhanced by a triangular pediment.” Bar’am is now situated in a national park.
Photo Credit: MASQUERAID; 2009
Source: Wikipedia

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: An Introduction

“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

I have been called a curmudgeon more than a few times in my life, including by my family. I take no offense and am happy to wear this label of judgment. It is no small matter to be a man of contrary views and tastes, especially at a time when people both offer opinions freely and disdain those that they find disagreeable and offensive. It does not take much to be offended today, which is not especially perplexing when one considers that “tolerance” is taught in schools at the same time that it is not.

Judgments are allowed as long as they are the correct judgments enforced by the Identitarians, the officers and gatekeepers of the New Philistines, who alone decide what ideas need be disseminated in the world of Art & Culture. In identity politics, there are no individuals, no musings on the merits of the human spirit, but only groups, especially and perhaps most essential to its growth, aggrieved unhappy groups.

Yes, there is a moral sense to it, but without thousands of years of religious and ethical thought and experience to support its edicts and moral pronouncements of right and wrong. More like a few decades, starting in the 1960s. It is as if we have glibly and eagerly thrown the essentials of western civilization into the “trash bin of history”: Beauty, Truth, Religion, The Arts, Literature.

Such briefly describes the strange and confusing world in which millennials have inherited and now take part in with a measure of both faith and fear—confronting a western culture now progressing in large part by organized “moral outrage”—which is what occurs when you let go of the past too quickly without planning well for its future. One could call it a hyper-Evolution, but I wouldn’t. Neither would I call this progress.

It seems, however, that a good number of millennials are not happy with the direction taken by western civilization. There is worry and anxiety and gnashing of teeth. This is bound to happen; it always does when things go too far. The centre cannot hold. [Hint: read Yeats; “The Second Coming,“ 1919.]

I am more than happy as a Baby Boomer born in the late 1950s to offer a few judgments on the state of Western Civilization: on its inadequacies, on its limitations and on its absurdities. That’s what we curmudgeons do: see what is missing and point this out to others. I will post such thoughts, such opinions, such views from time to time, only as I see fit and only as I am so inclined. Usually on Fridays. It will be under the banner of “The Happy Curmudgeon.”

Thanks for dropping by.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ancient Synagogues of Israel: Capernaum

UnEarthing History

Capernaum Synagogue (כְּפַר נַחוּם): Capernaum translates in Hebrew to Nahum’s village (Kfar Nahum), but without apparent reference to the biblical prophet of this name. This synagogue dates to as early as the fourth century C.E., and it is likely built atop an older structure that dates to the Second Temple period, to around the first century C.E.  A fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum is mentioned in the New Testament. As for this particular synagogue, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs writes the following “The synagogue of Capernaum was an impressive structure. Built of large, white limestone blocks from the hills of Galilee west of the town, it stood out among the buildings of grey basalt surrounding it. The synagogue was built on a platform, two meters above the houses of the town, and separated from it by streets on all four sides. Oriented north-south, it had a decorated, southern façade towards Jerusalem. The synagogue consisted of a prayer hall (20.5 x 18.5 m.), a courtyard to the east (20.5 x 11 m.) and an entrance porch (4 m. wide), running along the façade of the entire building. Staircases, on both sides of the entrance porch, led to the synagogue. The prayer hall was reached from the courtyard by a single entrance. All parts of the synagogue were paved with large, thick slabs of smoothed limestone.”
Photo Credit: David Shankbone; December 2007
Source: Wikipedia

Sea of Galilee (or Yam Kinneret; יָם כִּנֶּרֶת‎) is a large freshwater lake in northern Israel with a circumference of 53 km (33 mi) and an area of 166.7 km² (64.4 square miles). In this photo are wooden longboats near the city of Tiberias (or Tveria; טְבֶרְיָה‎), which is about 20 km (12 mi) south of Capernaum.
Photo Credit: Staselnik, 2013
Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A February Day in Toronto (2017)


A Walk in the Snow: Sarah and I took a walk earlier today, around noon, passing by the park near where we reside. It might not have been a good day to drive, with total snow accumulation of 15 cm (or 6 in.) in the forecast for today, but it was a lovely day for a walk. The temperature was rather mild, at –3°C (or 27°F), which is slightly below the average of –1.6°C (29.1°F) for Toronto at this time of the year.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Trees of Winter: On Friday February 10, after sundown, began the one-day Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat—a holiday also known as the New Year for Trees. I like trees and what they represent to humanity, including the ability to withstand the harshest of climates while staying erect, as these evergreens at the park near us do. While all trees do their part, there are a number of famous trees named in Judaism; the most famous and greatest one is The Tree of Life (Etz Chayim; עץ חיים), mentioned in the biblical Book of Genesis (2:9), standing in the centre of the Garden of Eden.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Modern Ketubah

Marriage Contract

Cosmic Ketubah: When Jews get married in a Jewish ceremony, a ketubah (כְּתוּבָּה; “written thing”), a document under Jewish civil law that spells out the obligations of the husband to the wife, is read out under the chuppah (חוּפָּה‎‎; bridal canopy) as part of the marriage ceremony. It is a document that is signed by two witnesses. Such explains an ancient biblical tradition that has long been a part of Judaism. The traditional ketubah is written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic, “the technical legal language of Talmudic law” one prominent Jewish site says. Modern ketubahs or ketubot, (the plural form in Hebrew) reflect modern sensibilities, incorporating not only modern language but also modern images, as this planetary-looking ketubah shows. Jacob Kamaras writes (“Elaborate ketubah designs mean Jewish marriage contract not merely transactional;” February 9, 2017) for “Yet increasingly, today’s ketubah designs are anything but dry and transactional. Going beyond placing a plain document in a basic picture frame, or using common designs such as a view of Jerusalem or the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, ketubah artists and consumers alike are developing more elaborate and personalized tastes.” Yet, as much as this is so, the essential meaning remains the same.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Ancient Synagogues of Israel: Migdal

Unearthing History

Migdal Synagogue: The Israel Antiquities Authority writes in September 2013 about the discovery of one of the oldest known synagogues in Israel, which was unearthed in Migdal (מִגְדָּל‎; also called Magdala), located on the western shore of Lake Kinneret (יָם כִּנֶּרֶת‎; also called the Sea of Galilee), the lowest freshwater lake in the world; the site is about 7 km north of Tiberias: “A synagogue from the Second Temple period (50 BCE–100 CE) was exposed in archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting at a site slated for the construction of a hotel on Migdal beach, in an area owned by the Ark New Gate Company. In the middle of the synagogue is a stone that is engraved with a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the likes of which have never been seen. The excavations were directed by archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority.” Among other important findings are a mikveh (מִקְוֶה; ritual immersion bath) and walls decorated with brightly colored frescoes.
Photo Credit: Avram Graicer, 2013
Source: Wikipedia

Friday, February 3, 2017

Salamone Rossi’s ‘Songs of Solomon’

Sacred Hebrew Music

Source: Youtube

The Kuhn Chamber Soloists and Symposium Musicum, under the direction of Pavel Kühn [1938–2003], perform songs from Salamone Rossi’s Songs of Solomon. This is part of a two-CD set, which was released by Panton of the Czech Republic in 1995. It was recorded at Martinek-Studio in Prague, March 24–26 (nos. 1-19), and May 3 and 5, 1994 (nos. 20-33).

Salomone Rossi [1570–1630] was a Jewish violinist and composer employed as concertmaster in the Italian court of Mantua from 1587 to 1628. This collection of Jewish liturgical music—(השירים אשר לשלמה) Ha-shirim asher li-Shlomo, The Songs of Solomon—was published later in life, in 1623. What is unique about this sacred music is that it is performed entirely in the Baroque tradition with no known connection to cantorial tradition and that the biblical “Song of Solomon” does not appear at all in the musical lyrics.

Even so, Marsha B. Edelman, Professor of Music and Education at Gratz College (Melrose Park, Pennsylvania), writes that Rossi did so with the approval of Rabbi Leon (Judah Aryeh) Modena:
Rossi’s great claim to Jewish musical fame came with his publication in 1623 of Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo, a collection of 33 Psalms, hymns, and other liturgical poems set for combinations of from three to eight voices and intended for use on festive synagogue occasions. In publishing these works, Rossi relied heavily on the endorsement of his friend Rabbi Leon (Judah Aryeh) Modena. Modena (1571-1648) had issued a responsum [a rabbinic ruling] in 1605 that, after years of prohibition, provided halakhically [legally] derived approval for the performance of choral works in the synagogue. Modena’s own choir at his synagogue in Ferrara seems to have established a precedent. But how did the music sound?
Beautiful and uplifting, elevating you to a place of numinousness and transcendence, which should not surprise you given that Rossi has been called the spiritual descendant of King David; and yet his contribution to Jewish music was not acknowledged or imitated after his death. Perhaps, it was too much against established and accepted conventions; perhaps Rossi was a man ahead of his time. Were it not for the fortunate discovery of his partbooks in the 19th century, we might not be enjoying Rossi’s  interpretation of sacred Jewish music today. It would take until the second half of the 20th century before his music would be performed in Reform synagogues.

Some Excerpts:
1-1: Qadish
1-3: Bar’ku
1-7: Q’dusha (Keter)
1-8: Elohim Hashivenu
1-12 Shir hamma’alot, ashrei kol y’re adonai
1-16: Qadish: version 2