Well, It’s That Time – Social Security

Next month my Social Security payments begin. I chose to start them because I have reached what the Social Security Administration calls “full retirement age.” This is not the same for everyone. Until a few years ago it was 65, for people in my bracket it is 66, and Congress has increased the age even further for younger people today.

No matter what one’s “full retirement age” is, we can start Social Security at 62. This is absolutely necessary because there are so many people with jobs that involve physical activity they can no longer perform, people who have lost their jobs and left the job market (these are not included among “unemployed” in case you’re wondering), and always a special concern to me, people with mental disabilities. Whatever the reason, Social Security can begin at 62. The issue is that benefits are reduced for each year one takes them prior to “full retirement age” so benefits at 62 can be much lower than a person anticipates. By pushing the full retirement age higher, Congress also punished people who need it earlier.

The SSA is also willing to reward people who delay accepting benefits past the full retirement age. The increase is currently in the range of 6% to 8% per year. If you have most of your money in interest bearing savings accounts or bonds, that looks like a great rate–substantially higher than what you can earn in such investments. A national investment newsletter recently published an article lauding the strategy of waiting as long as you can.

But the advice strikes me as incorrect. The SSA is not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They have actuarial tables and they know when we will no longer be needing Social Security, at least in aggregate. In other words, whenever we die, we stop receiving Social Security. Forever.

What that means as far as I can figure out is that the rate increase of even 8% is phony. Because while it is true you will start off with that increase, you will also lose all the money you would have received while waiting. A strategy of investing the Social Security you are receiving might not reap 8% over those years, but you (and your heirs) will not lose whatever that amounts to at your passing–and that strikes me as a much better deal.

If my math is correct, I suggest that people should not wait beyond their full retirement age. Start collecting it then. If you don’t need it, invest it. Or give it to charity. But betting against actuarial tables is, in my opinion, a sucker bet.

Nina’s Life

Nina de Amor arrived in our home in a rather haphazard fashion. The story begins with the end of another. Our family dog Caleb passed away rather unexpectedly in the Summer of 2003. Both of our kids were away from home at the time. I sat down at the dinner table and couldn’t help but notice that Terri was unusually quiet throughout. As we picked up the dishes, she said to me, “I think the dog is dead.” I raised my eyebrows at this and replied, “You think?” “Doesn’t a Ph.D. biology allow a little more certainty in a matter such as this?!” She said, “OK, the dog is dead.” I should mention that Caleb had epilepsy and Terri had already literally raised him from the dead about a half dozen times, so his passing at the age of 7 may have been unexpected at that moment, but not surprising nevertheless. But that left us with the decision of how to replace him, because we knew that our then 12 year old son would insist on having a dog.

The added complication was that Terri’s allergies were getting worse, and she was specifically allergic to the dog-dander of fluffy dogs and dogs and oily coats of dogs like Labrador Retrievers–a breed she was quite fond of. Since I worked in IT, my immediate course was to Google it. What came up was a “dog calculator.” In this scheme, you enter the three most important things to you about the dog you want to acquire, and the computer will tell you your optimal breeds. I placed “hypo-allergenic” at the top of our list, and the computer spat out three breeds: Wheatland Terrier, Poodle, and at the very top of the list, Spanish Water Dog. I had never heard of the Spanish Water Dog, but if you’re reading this you’ve probably heard of the Portuguese Water Dog because that was breed adopted by the Obamas after they moved into the White House. As I later learned, the Portuguese Water Dog was bred for size from the SWD. The SWD is likely the originator of this line because its 35 lb to 45 lb range seems to be consistent with the origin of the dog species. The SWD was not recognized by the American Kennel Club, but was sanctioned by several other international dog clubs. Obviously Spain, but also in England and Scandinavia. Terri and I aren’t “dog snobs” or in need of purebred pets, but in this case it was important because we were seeking a dog that met the hypo-allergenic criteria, and that is a characteristic of breed.

Acting on these suggestions I started my search for places where we might be able to find either a Wheatland Terrier or a Poodle, but came up empty-handed. Dog breeders explained to me that the summer was not a time when dogs generally produced puppies, and perhaps I would have better luck in the Fall. Striking out on these breeds, I scanned for Spanish Water Dogs. There weren’t many breeders, but there were a few in Ontario not far from where we lived in Michigan so I called them first–no luck. Same story as with the others. I was about to give up when I noticed a Web site for the “Spanish Water Dog Association of America.” That turned out to be a bit of hoax–it was really the Web site of a family that had gotten into the business, but I was happy to give it a try. Sure enough, they had a brand new litter which the proprietor explained had come about “accidentally”–a second breeding in the same season. And he noted that because the puppies were unanticipated, they were also unreserved, so we could have the pick of the litter.

We gave him a deposit and awaited Ephy’s return from summer camp, just a couple of days away. As it happened, Ephy was pretty discombobulated as he emerged from the camp bus–the trip took hours longer than it was supposed to. As soon as we picked him up we said, don’t get settled, we’re on our way to Tennessee to pick up a puppy. He was not a happy camper (so to speak) as we drove ten hours to Knoxville, at several points accusing us of having murdered his dog. But somehow we got there in one piece. And that’s how I landed in Knoxville for the first time in my life! Little did we know what the future had in store.

Nina’s birth location was a country home in the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee, about a 90 minute drive from Knoxville. We arose early and drove that last 90 minutes. When we got to Nina’s home, before we reached the door, it opened and a man dressed in sort of Amish-like clothing emerged with a musket or some sort of old rifle cradled in his arm. We then noticed a woman dressed in this fashion. And we thought to ourselves, whoa, what have we gotten into!


Nina’s godmother

As it turned out, they were both quite modern people of our own period–but that day they were participating in a historical recreation of the early 1800s, hence the garb, musket, etc. When they saw us they waved us over and after that it was all dogs and puppies.

They did a demonstration of their adult dogs’ diving ability in their pond, and it was indeed amazing. They threw objects that sank to the bottom of the pond (which was quite deep) and dogs emerged with them every time. One of the traits of the Spanish Water Dog is that the fur in their paws fills in densely and allows them to use their paws as flippers to drag themselves deep under water. At the time a Spanish Water Dog held some sort of Guinness type record for deepest dive by a dog. For all I know that record still stands.

Every breeder we spoke to was concerned to let us know that these dogs are work dogs and as such are happiest when they have things to do. They don’t necessarily make good pets if one’s idea of a pet is an animal that lies around the house most of the day. The breeder was relieved to hear that we lived in the country on 11 acres and that Terri was experienced with farms and farm animals. So we passed that test. After giving us some paperwork assuring us of the pedigree, we plopped our eight-week old brownish red puppy into the back seat with Ephy and we began the 11 hour drive back to Ann Arbor.

Nina was everything the Spanish Water Dog sites claimed. She learned with amazing quickness and had a broad skill set. She was a fierce guard dog and protected her family with passion. Throw a stick and Nina would beat any other dog to it. When we added a poodle to the family (Nina was then about 8 years old), Nina made sure the poodle knew who was boss, and then showed her ropes of coping with the LoveLees.

Spanish Water Dogs live an average of 11 or 12 years, but Nina showed no signs of slowing down until she hit 14. She went partially and then almost completely deaf which meant she could no longer hear knocks at the door–and she was visibly disturbed at having people show up without her personal scrutiny. We tried to move her downstairs so she wouldn’t need to navigate the staircase, but she had nothing of that. On her last day with us, she still dutifully climbed the stairs to her bedroom. And that last day she lay down and could move no more. Our wonderful vet helped her out of this world without further pain and I don’t think I will ever stop missing her.

Sho and Clara Say Goodbye To Nina

Christian Science and Mandatory Healthcare

An article in today’s Knoxville News caused me to reflect yet again about the state of healthcare in our country, these United States. The essence of the article was the focus that Christian Scientists do not believe in modern medical practice, but rather in the power of prayer, so should they not be allowed to opt out of paying for the Affordable Care Act?

The Christian Scientists interviewed for the article were by no means stupid or foolish. One stated clearly that they wanted healthcare to be available to all. Well, yes, but then you do have to pay for it.

The reasons why Christian Scientists, and indeed everyone else, needs to help pay for healthcare for all are manifold. Lets start with the simple: even the most dogmatic of practitioners must admit that there are circumstances where they would want to rely on modern medicine. If they are in an accident, or a fire breaks out, or if someone targets them in a drive-by shooting, surely they don’t think prayer alone will repair broken limbs, soothe burns or remove bullets.

The next point will be more controversial, but it needs to be said. When there are minor children involved, there is a genuine and important conflict between parental rights and the health and welfare of the child–and I think the child’s welfare overrules parental rights. It is one thing to deny a child a medical professional for the common cold, but quite another to prevent that child from receiving care for life threatening illnesses or immunizations intended to protect not only one’s own child, but everyone else in the community. I come down in this issue on the side of the power of the state to intervene and require that competent medical professionals be empowered to care for seriously ill children, and to require immunizations for all children.

One issue which often arises is that of compulsory payment. As far as I know, Christian Scientists have never claimed the right to be exempt from the Medicare Tax which is shared among all employees. We do not allow Quakers or other pacifists to opt out of the income taxes required to fund our military. People are allowed to change their religious affiliations whenever they please–just how would we be able to deal with folks who opt in and opt out of one religion or another over their lifespans?

This past year saw the infamous “Hobby Lobby” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which I believe may go down as the among the worst decisions ever made by that body, on a par with the Dred Scott decision which helped lead to the Civil War. The Court held that Hobby Lobby could not be compelled to pay for health insurance which included abortion options. But what if a company owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses objected to paying for insurance that covers blood transfusions?

Of course I’m not suggesting that Christian Scientists should not have the right to decline medical attention. And perhaps their healthful lifestyles and meditative practices will lead to better lives and lower medical costs. Hopefully that is its own reward and they will not begrudge the lower costs and better protections that will result for everyone else.


Designing a Health Plan, Or How to Deal With Obstructionists…

All the talk about healthcare plans has stirred up some Memory Lane incidents from my past life.

The first real job I had was one that I remember with great affection. As a student I had received much life-affirming support from the Hillel Foundations of Madison, Wisconsin and Berkeley, California. At Berkeley I began my career of teaching Hebrew which I am still doing, now as a lecturer at the University of Tennessee, some forty years later. Berkeley Hillel and Lehrhaus Judaica (the school associated with Hillel) combined to hire me full-time. For Hillel I was the Associate Director, and for Lehrhaus I was the Director of Hebrew Language Programming. My Hillel job included all the administrivia–managing the financial systems, employee benefits, that sort of thing.

Both Hillel and Lehrhaus were, in those days, under the general umbrella of the national Jewish social organization, B’nai B’rith. The relationship was usually positive, but here and there conflict arose as it so often does between parents and children.

B’nai B’rith had a mediocre health plan which we could buy into, but even that didn’t allow family add-ons or provisions for part-time employees. I began to look at possible plans of our own. I met with insurance company representatives, and a small HMO. The HMO was willing to allow us–and anyone associated with us–to become group members.

I next discussed with our Board  whether we could offer this as an employee benefit, and defray some of the cost via payroll deduction. Not only did they agree, but a couple of those Board members would eventually sign up as well.

When I notified national Hillel (in Washington D.C.) that we would no longer need their health plan, they sent me a rather nasty letter “explaining” to me that I couldn’t do this because we were part of their corporation. Luckily, I had been on the job for enough time that I knew something they didn’t know. Berkeley Hillel had its own corporation! When the money was raised to build the building in the 1950s, the donors were not willing to give the money to national B’nai B’rith. Instead, they incorporated separately. I had to file various reports with the State of California each year, so I knew about this. And pretty soon our local corporation had its very own health plan.

One of our employees was man of color in his 50s who had never in his life had a health plan. He had serious problems with one of his legs. But thanks to our new health plan, he received treatment and was able to work until his retirement.

Oh, and my wife was a post-Doc at UC-Berkeley which provided a plan almost as lousy as the one offered by national B’nai B’rith. But I could cover her through our new local healthcare plan. That meant that when my precious, lovely daughter had to be brought into this world via C-section, all of that cost was paid by our local insurance plan rather than bankrupting us.

Getting from the Upper East Side (Manhattan) to Riverdale (The Bronx)

I wrote this some time ago, but forgot to post it. I’ll be heading back there tomorrow, so this timely once again!


As many of my friends know, I am an aficionado of public transportation. Especially rail, but really any sort of mass transit system. During my recent visit to New York City, with one of the better mass transit systems available in the U.S., we needed to get from the upper East Side (say, Madison Ave and about 80th St.) to a residence in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

All sorts of consternation broke out in my family. Riverdale, they made sure I understood, was some sort of island, an oasis where public transit was impossible to navigate. I asked where the nearest subway station would be–after all, I have walked the Bronx from river to river, how far could it be? No, impossible they said. What about buses? Too much trouble, they don’t exist, heaven only knows.

I have to admit, with all this sturm und drang, my thoughts did turn to simply calling a cab or even Uber. But I finally succumbed to the suggestion that we make the journey via the Metro North system. This is did have the advantage of being a commuter railroad I had never traveled and much of the journey would be above ground near enough to the Harlem River to enjoy a spectacular view all the way to Spuyten Duyvil. So don’t get me wrong, I was pretty happy with this solution.

To get to Metro North we wound up taking the subway to Grand Central. My eyebrows did get a bit of a rise when I saw the fare on Metro North. The distance we were traversing was nothing unusual for mass transit–it would have been a single fare on the subway. But even with a senior rate, we were charged about 3x what the subway costs. And of course, since we had to pay the subway fare anyway, the whole Metro North fare was on top of that. No, it wasn’t an economic hardship for us, especially since it was just the one trip. But I feel for the many who have to pay that fare each way for a work week. I suppose there are probably bulk and discount programs. Anyway, all things considered it was a fun for me and not horrible for Terri. A member of the family picked us up at the Spuyten Duyvil stop for another mile or two journey to our destination.

But all this made me curious. Just how difficult is it really to get somewhere via regular NYC mass transit? For years people told me that it was impossible to get to or from any of the NYC airports and I figured out that that was BS–it’s perfectly easy to do as long as you aren’t burned by multiple suitcases, and can be accomplished with a single fare.

In my years as a foot messenger (the name is a bit strange since we always traveled by subway or bus unless the distance was very short) it was a matter of deep pride to be one who could figure out the most efficient route for delivering a package. These days, services like Google have taken a lot of the skill out of this process. I know I should have taken the two minutes it would have taken to figure out how to do the trip via regular transit. But I didn’t want conflict, and making my ever-suffering spouse ride along on my adventure didn’t seem the right way to go. So I followed the family orders. But there is that nagging sense–what else could I have done?

Back home in Tennessee I decided to look at the mass transit options. So here’s what else we could have done. The place we were eating lunch was exactly one block from a regular city bus stop where two different Bronx bound buses stop. We could have boarded either the BxM1 or the BxM2. Either bus would have taken us to a stop exactly 1 block from my family’s home. Google estimates the total time for the trip at 1 hour, including the walks to the bus and from the bus to the house. Each of the buses runs approximately every 15 minutes on Sundays, so our wait would have been no more than that. Obviously, NYC traffic is always an issue, but as I said, this was a Sunday, so not so bad. One fare, one hour. And life goes on…

On “Private” Email Servers

First a brief explanation of why I am writing about this topic. For about 20 years I was employed by the Information Technology services of the University of Michigan. I arrived just as email was taking off as a communications medium. A person who was first my colleague and later my supervisor actually contributed to the sendmail protocol, the messaging component that lies at the root of practically every email, messenger or tweet that has ricocheted around world. My role was, of course, trivial. I was a minor player as a programmer and subsequently I was “kicked upstairs” to be an administrator. But my role as an administrator was to help formulate policy which guided the use of messaging systems and this does make me something of an expert in this forest of confusion about “private” email servers.

The first thing we have to understand is that the word “private” is a misnomer in the context of current events. Most of us have employers. We might work for a corporation, a closely held corporation, an agency of the government, a family business or even be self-employed. In our role as an employee, we have to communicate with our colleagues, employers, and customers. What happens when we want to apply for a job somewhere else or cemailommunicate with a friend on something other than what might be considered appropriate business matters? Chances are, and especially if we are savvy about business and privacy issues, that we will use a different email system than we use for work purposes. We might use Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail or any of a large number of other services. Any of these would be “private” in the sense that they separated from our “public” (work) persona.

A few of us might have good reason to go even further than one of these widely known email services. To support the Blog I am writing on, I have leased space on a private server. This provider would be willing to lease the entire server to me for an additional fee. And some people just put up their own server and run it themselves.

From what I understand, Hillary Clinton (hereafter HRC) did that last thing. And I also understand that she did it following the advice of her (Republican) predecessor Colin Powell and also following the practice of Condoleezza Rice. By using an email server she owned and controlled, she was told by her employees that this would be safer and more secure than writing messages on commercial services.

Why would HRC (or Colin Powell, or any other politician) want to write and receive messages on anything other than her governmental account? As I suggested above, there are very simple reasons for this. But one of the most obvious is that politicians are involved in politics, and personal politics should not be supported by governmental resources. A congressional representative can use their “franking privilege” to send out newsletters to their district, but they would cross a line if they turned that into a fundraising appeal. Employees generally try not to get in hot water with their employers by using their company resources for personal gain, and I think it is pretty common these days for people to communicate with their customers over corporate systems, but shift to Yahoo or Gmail if they want to ask their spouse if they want them to bring home any groceries. The reality today is that almost of all us use both an employment and a “private” email service.

There is a problem which afflicts almost everyone who divides their messaging between employer and non-employer (“private”) systems. Can you actually succeed in keeping everything that needs to be separate separate? The truth is that even the most careful person probably makes mistakes in this regard. I would suggest that unless some tangible harm arises from mistakes of this sort we have to let it go. I think that is exactly the situation FBI Director Comey found himself in. HRC was not violating the law by having her own server. Did she make so many mistakes by using that server to transmit messages that might rightfully have belonged on the government server that she compromised national security, revealed state secrets, etc? I suggest his inability to indict is a direct reflection of the fact that he could not.

Recently a faculty friend raised this subject with me. He was troubled by the national security issue and was considering a vote for one of the third party candidates. As it happens, I knew that he commonly wrote to his students using his AOL account and Facebook rather than his institutionally supplied email account. I noted to him that he could easily be guilty of exactly the accusation against HRC and possibly subject to institutional discipline up to and including dismissal despite the fact that he had tenure. His eyes widened. How? There is a federal statute which mandates privacy for teacher/student interactions. It’s part of FERPA, an acronym every teacher comes to understand. I pointed out that if he “shared” communications or if even the student “shared” some of those communications he could easily stray into disseminating federally protected information. Of course he protested that nothing he had written could be construed that way–and I just said, “How can you be sure?”

As an administrator I know that it is impossible to impose full conformity with laws and institutional procedures. And I know that on occasion an employee is going to stray so far that they risk discipline or other legal remedies. Money and sex seem to turn up as the usual suspects in these sorts of problems. So the point is there has to be balance. We need training to teach people how to be sensitive to all these issues. Privacy is important. Behavior is important. Respect is important.

Hillary Clinton is a highly trained attorney with a long public record. She has served with distinction as a legislator and as a Secretary of State. There is not the slightest suggestion that any of her activities has compromised national security. Despite the innuendo about “private email server” there is nothing inappropriate about it. In fact, I’m quite sure it was her sincere attempt at considerable personal cost to ensure that she would be conforming to law and proper practice.

So it amounts to nothing unless HRC’s political opponents are able to capitalize on it. A few elections ago we experienced the infamous “Swift Boat” attack which may have sunk (sorry about the metaphor, or maybe not) another honorable politician’s campaign because of fallacious innuendo. I do hope that HRC does not suffer the same unjust fate.

Michigan Follies Part 1: The Great E-Mail Fiasco

I’ve been waiting to tell a few of my U-Mich stories for quite a while now. The reason for the wait is that there are still a few folks around who I love who might not want these things brought to attention. And for that reason, I won’t be naming any names–either of the guilty or the innocent. Even if I knew who that was, and often I don’t! There are no secrets here, by the way, the entire matter was the subject of lawsuits and was eventually reported in the press. I’m not mentioning anyone because I’d just rather not remind them of some unpleasant times.

This story rises to some importance because of all the publicity around Hillary Clinton’s email problems. I write at least in part to demonstrate how silly a lot of this drama is.

First on a lighter note: e-mail or email? The answer is, depends when. I titled this blog entry with E-Mail because that was the “correct” spelling when this story unfolded. Over time, people got tired of putting in a hyphen, so now the “correct” spelling is email. Use whatever you like best! I certainly will.

E-mail was just getting off the ground as a major communications medium when I started my career at the U of Michigan. At that time, the servers were large and enormously expensive computers that were usually called “main frames”, words which eventually became hyphenated and then crushed to “mainframe.” I teach language, so these things are sometimes important to me.

Michigan was at the forefront of encouraging electronic communication and the IT (Information Technology) department was instrumental in convincing the university administration that resources should be committed to ensuring that all faculty and staff had access to such systems. The main e-mail server was a machine purchased from IBM at a cost in excess of $1 million.

Just before I arrived, the Amdahl Corporation donated a second mainframe computer to the university.

Now, one of the ways that this initiative for greater electronic communication could be fostered was to keep the institutional costs low, and one way to do that was to rebill services to corporations or the government whenever possible. If a faculty member was funding their research via government grants, it was completely legitimate for the university to rebill the costs of their time use of the computer to the government.

A problem was quickly identified. Since the Amdahl computer was donated, there was no cost that could be rebilled to anyone. A person I was later to call both my boss and my friend came up with a legal and legitimate solution. Anyone who had a grant was given an account on the IBM e-mail server whereas those who had no external funding were given accounts on the Amdahl (free) server. In this way, the university could recover costs that could eventually be used to purchase the next computer needed to run these systems.

Let me emphasize again that this is both legal and legitimate. No one questioned or got into trouble for this stage of development. But things began to go awry.

As anyone who has worked with soft money knows, grants come and grants go. In order to keep the system honest, periodic audits were necessary so that people who were on the IBM (and thus billed for costs) were moved to the Amdahl (if they lost their funding) or vice versa. That simply didn’t happen. The result was that after a few years there were people who were on the IBM who should have been billed but weren’t (because they no longer had grants) and people on the Amdahl server who were being billed because they had received grants. Note that in the latter case, the government was being billed for services the university was not paying for. And that is the heart of an administrative nightmare.

The government does not take kindly to being billed for services not rendered. My friend, the architect of this scheme, understood the problem and began notifying first his immediate superiors and then higher level university administrators of his concerns. You might think that the university would thank him and work towards fixing the problem, but you would dead wrong.

Shortly after he hired me, he visited my office to tell me that he had been fired. You might wonder what they could have fired him for. Believe it or not, they alleged that they were firing him for creating the very system that they were defending. If there was a problem, they said, it was his fault. And he responded the only way left to him on the advice of his attorneys–he filed what is called a “whistle blower’s” claim on the university. Initially the Federal government hadn’t wanted to do anything about it. It sounded to them like a difficult case to prove. But once the suit was filed, they joined it. Eventually the university agreed to pay over a million dollars back to the federal government, and my former boss received a large settlement. Large, but certainly not enough to replace the career that was now wrecked. And for what? Trying to do the right thing.

And what of the 10 administrators who knew of the warnings that had been provided over a year’s time? Those who ignored those warnings and told people to shut up? The warnings were provided in memoranda on paper, and the most senior administrator involved told the others to destroy the memoranda so that the government could not get them via the legal discovery process. Nine out of ten of the administrators did just that. Fortunately for my friend, one did not and so the government got the evidence. None of these administrators were punished. They all kept their jobs and life went on as if defrauding the government is all in a days work. Only the whistle blower paid the price for honesty.

The university got into all this trouble because of an underlying fact of technology. There are legitimate reasons for people (and institutions) to try to control their communications by keeping those communications in segregated systems. Now that there are a lot of free email systems out there, lots of people have multiple accounts and will use one or another email address to manage such issues. And it is simply inevitable that people will forget that they are one system and start a conversation on that system instead of switching to the “right” system. We now fully understand how difficult it is to “stay straight.”

So am I excusing Hillary’s behavior in the great email brou-ha-ha? No. She did the wrong thing. But we need to keep a sense of proportion about it. Did she recognize her error and apologize for it? Yes. Did her error result in any damage to the security infrastructure of the U.S.? As far as anyone can determine, no. And other than the investigative costs (which probably were substantial), her mistake was not costly. If you want to focus on the investigative costs, I suppose it might be reasonable to expect her campaign or private foundation to reimburse the government. But do keep in mind that much of that cost was driven by opposition party politicking. It would not be fair, I think, to hold her responsible for the portion of the investigation that was politically motivated. And figuring stuff like that out is about as hard as figuring out how to bill for email servers when one is purchased and the other is free.

Mr. Jake Brannum wrote:

Perhaps the most obvious growing difference between the East and the West was the use of language. Although when the Empire had initially been split into two governances, Latin had remained the official language of administration for both halves, the language of the secular elite and of church liturgy was divided: Greek in the East and Latin in the West. Already by the 5th century and Emperor Leo I, the Eastern emperors themselves had begun to legislate in Greek (90), demonstrating that the divide between the two halves was already well under way before the so-called Fall of the West in 476. With the different languages came different texts, different liturgies, different Bibles, resulting in early irreconcilable cultures between the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire that would only continue to increase as time went on.

I would like to agree, disagree and expand on the notion of the language basis of differentiation in the Empire (whether we are speaking of Rome or the period after the end of unified government in the west). It is absolutely true that language can be a barrier. The Greeks famously coined the term “barbarian” as some sort onomatopoeic reflection of the sounds of non-Greek languages and there isn’t much question that the intent was disparagement.

In addition, even the division into Latin versus Greek is a vast oversimplification. While Latin does seem to have pervaded most of the Roman West giving rise to what we call Romance languages today, Greek was by no means the only competing language. In Egypt, always among the most populous parts of the Mediterranean, large numbers of people retained descendants of the language of the ancient Pharaohs. In mid-East, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as a lingua franca, but Hebrew was retained as a literary language–and more on that in a moment. And further east, while Greek can be found as far as Bactria, most populations spoke variations of Persian and other languages native to the region. To the south-east, Arabic was widespread.

Despite all that variation, many within the educated elite could deal with both Latin and Greek, and therefore the cultural divide was not quite so high. I’d like to focus on one important moment in the history of linguistic issues to illustrate how sometimes things worked in unexpected ways.

Once Rome accepted Christianity, one of the ramifications of that decision was a necessity to publish the Scripture on which the religion was based. While many people today would imagine that the original language of Scripture was Hebrew (at least what we now call “the Old Testament”), the situation was a bit more complicated than that. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews (using the term loosely) had long claimed that a translation of Scripture into Greek was nothing less than divinely inspired (Letter of Aristeas). To make a long story short, despite centuries of research and the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is quite impossible to determine whether the current Hebrew text (more on that in a moment) or Greek text (the “Septuagint”) is more reliable, and the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that in specific instances there is evidence on both sides.

At the time the first texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint were being copied and transmitted around the Mediterranean, first by Jewish and later by Christian copyists and communities, there was also a translation of the texts into Latin. This version is known as the Vetus Latina.

In the very late fourth century (CE) Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin. It is difficult to know exactly how he went about establishing the Hebrew text, most scholars presume that he was able to use a mss of Origen’s Hexapla despite Origen having by then been declared a heretic. Jerome mentions on a few occasions consulting Jews, and several studies have demonstrated that whatever text he used was closely related to the text that would become the basis of later Hebrew Bibles (the Masoretic Text). In doing this, he privileged that text over the Greek of the Septuagint.

Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) was acclaimed and widely distributed. This had an odd consequence: the original Latin text (the Vetus Latina) was so thoroughly supplanted that today we are unable to reproduce it. It survives in more than 27 different versions and there is little question that large portions of these variants were not from whatever the original might have been but rather copied from patristics or even the Vulgate itself. And the reason this is important is that the Vetus Latina is in itself a witness to the Septuagint (which also has a very complex manuscript history) which has to be regarded as a core text of the original Bible. In essence, when we compare the Vulgate to the Hebrew Bible of today, we are comparing two sides of the same coin!

Jews are found in lesser or greater numbers throughout the territories of the Roman Empire including all those places in the Roman West that waned and waxed after the mid-fifth century. They carried their sacred texts and their Hebrew and Aramaic languages wherever they went. In some places, the walls between Hebrew study and Latin or Greek were very high. But here and there we find breaches in those walls. A Jerome who, despite many seemingly antisemitic viewpoints, nevertheless is happy to make use of Jewish education in his efforts. Christians and Jews connected and learned from each other, if only sporadically and often because a Jew had converted to Christianity.

But Jews also borrowed from Christian sources when they deemed it necessary. Lacking a copy of Josephus’s works in any Jewish language because the books were preserved by Christians and ignored by Jews for almost a milennium, a tenth century Jew, probably in Italy, created a pastiche of Josephus adding in various legends from rabbinic sources and called his work “Yossipon” (a variant on the name Josephus).

Itinerant Jews learned the language of the communities among which they sojourned. Abraham ibn Ezra was born in Muslim Spain (most of his children would convert to Islam) and acquired a deep knowledge of Arabic culture, language and science. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, he traveled and taught in North Africa, Italy and France and even England. Many of his works survive: treatises on philosophy, mathematics, grammar, astronomy, astrology, and above all commentaries on the Bible. He was a great defender of Sa’adia Ga’on, who lived in the far eastern part of the Jewish world (Sura, Babylonia, now Iraq).

And so we see that despite the vast distances and language barriers, a Jew born in eleventh century Spain could know the works of an Iraqi and teach them in England.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Or Not)

In his monumental work The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wickham lays claim to righting several major errors in twentieth century historiography. But the mile-high view, it seemed to me, didn’t depart very much from the picture long familiar to me. In the East, Rome continued to be represented by Byzantium with Roman values gradually subsumed into Christian ones. In the West, Rome itself became increasingly isolated as the once unified western half changed into a variety of states ruled by successions of invaders (infiltrators?) from the North. Goths, Visigoths, Angles, Jutes and Saxons.

I did learn a great deal from those parts of the book which relented from the recitation of endless succession lines of a dozen or more “barbarian” polities. In the area of language, while we know that Romance languages are all descended from Latin, Wickam explains that most of the invaders actually spoke and even read Latin. Writing was more of a professional skill, so the elites who need something memorialized would dictate to a professional scribe. What was new to me is understanding that many of these may have done their dictation in Latin rather than relying on the scribe to both translate and write.

Nevertheless, these revelations raised more questions for me. Why did some groups adopt Latin and speak its variants, while others did not? Most of the invaders as early as the 5th century were variants of Germanic (Teutonic) speaking people, yet German, Norse, Dansk, and the languages of the Celts remained largely untouched by Latin. Modern English is the great melting pot between Teutonic and Latin… Still, I wanted to hear more about Greek in the East. After all, Greek does seem to have lasted in Asia Minor until the Turkish conquest. And what of Aramaic there and Coptic in Egypt?

Wickham is undoubtedly correct in asserting that there was no sudden “Fall” of Rome, but rather a gradual transformation which differed from locale to locale across the West, and something entirely different in the East.

I am running out of time for these comments today, but if I can find a few more minutes before the seminar, I would like to discuss a (very) few comments Wickham made about Jews in the (no longer) Dark Ages.

In particular, it would have been good to have heard something about how Jews fit into the economic and legal environment. Jews had a particular, one might even say peculiar, place in Roman legal texts. A status that somehow survived three or more severe revolts against Roman authority. Wickham notes [p. 133-4] that the Visigothic rulers of Iberia passed harsh legislation de-legitimizing Judaism and enslaving the Jews. He then notes that as harsh as the legislation might seem, it was not out of line with “Roman” law regarding heretics. But pre-Christian Roman law excluded Jewish persecution (other than taxation after 70 CE). I also wondered whether we have evidence that any of these laws were actually enforced–indeed, were there actually any Jews who would be affected by them?

A quote that intrigued me: “The political fragmentation of the western church and the absence of heresy were, as has been implied, linked: people simply did not have regular information about what was going on outside their own local and regional circuits.” [p. 171] Although I can’t be sure that communication was speedy during Roman imperial times, the implication to me seems to be that we are dealing with a “dark age” comparatively speaking!

One aspect I followed with interest was the discussion of the promulgation and collection of laws. I haven’t read the chapters on Byzantium yet, but I know that the Eastern Roman Empire was a focal point for the collection and systematization of law. Nothing like this seems to have occurred to Jews that early, despite the ancient interest of Jews in the law–indeed the most sacred text of the Jews was called “The Law” (Torah). The earliest attempt at systematizing the law in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, was that of Rabbeinu Hannael. He lived in Islamic Africa in the first decades after the turn of the millennium. And nothing resembling a true code of laws existed until the Mishne Torah of Maimonides, more than a century later. Maimonides too lived and worked under Islam.

Wickham does devote a number of sections to understanding class and gender issues. I was intrigued by several cases where Wickham discussed documents that seemed to contradict long established legal norms. Was this common or rare?

While Rome, especially in Byzantium, was long occupied with creating “digests” or collections of legal principles,

The Shtender By Arnold Schwarzbart Z”L

For me, as a student and teacher of what is often termed “Jewish History” the most startling observation from this week’s readings was the number and variety of commentators who raised the Holocaust in one way or another to illustrate important points about the role of memory in History (and vice versa). While I fully understand that our major objective is the use of these ideas and techniques to elucidate the history of the medieval Mediterranean world, I believe I have sufficient cause to spend some time on a topic related to the Holocaust.

I would like to start a conversation about a piece of visual art. The piece is a small sculpture created by a long-time, recently deceased Knoxville resident, Mr. Arnold Schwarzbart. On Sunday, the Knoxville Jewish Community will be inaugurating a new wing of their facility, an art gallery named in honor of Schwarzbart.

Arnold Schwarzbart was a survivor of the Holocaust (using the broad definition of the term since he was not confined to a concentration camp, but rather was among those who fled the Ukraine for Russia). He arrived in Knoxville shortly after the end of the war knowing no English. He learned the language, succeeded at earning a degree in architecture, and spent about twenty years as a successful architect before changing careers. Something led him to the world of art based on Jewish themes and he spent the rest of his life creating works large and small in every imaginable material: clay, wood, metal and stone, paper and ink.

Without further ado, here is the piece I would like to share:

The Shtender

The Shtender

At first glance, this piece might look interesting or quaint to most people. At this point in time, most American Jews probably would lack any sense of its meaning. But Arnold was born and bred in the culture of the East European shtetl (Jewish community or ghetto), and to anyone who understands that culture, the figure is instantly knowable and arresting. It is the figure of a man (and this was a male role in that culture) studying a holy book. We know this because he is wrapped in a large talit, or prayer shawl, which covers his head and a large part of his body. He is standing at a tall table or lectern upon which a book would have been laid. In many shtetl synagogues, the man would have been joined by other men standing around the lectern studying with him.

Even more arresting is the fact that the man is not actually in the sculpture at all. Like a ghost, his physical existence is suggested only by the shape the of the shawl. When pressed, Arnold explained that the reason he showed the man in this way is because the man under the shawl had been turned into ashes. He no longer walked the earth.

When do we remember? I can’t say when Arnold Schwarzbart remembered a figure such as this. Perhaps he never saw the person himself–after all, he was but a child when he was taken to the camps. The first time I can recall seeing this was not, oddly enough, during my youth in the Jewish part of the Bronx. Rather, it was when I was already done with college and had headed off to Israel for a year abroad, a gap year before I would start graduate school.

I was in a place called the “WUJS Institute” located at that time in Arad, some 7 km from the Dead Sea. The institute employed a man who had arrived in Israel from his native Poland. One of the small number who had somehow escaped the Holocaust and subsequently the Communist attempt to erase ethnic memory. He was a deeply pious man who worked hard all day and then at its end retreated to the synagogue where he studied. When I saw Schwarzbart’s figure, it was this man (whose name I never learned) who I saw.

The figure is probably evocative for a number of reasons to different people who may be members of different groups, but Eastern European Jews could not escape its authorial intent, and not even the women who, after all, had much less experience with study in the synagogue. I wonder how many people would pick up on the notion of the absence of a figure under the canopy.

When I think of the world of medieval Mediterranean society, I wonder how many Jews might have recognized this “Shtender.” I have no idea when such an image might have become commonplace nor in which locales. I suspect strongly that Maimonides, who towers over any notion of medieval Mediterranean Judaism would not have recognized it at all. Indeed, what symbols would he have recognized? In fact, despite the burgeoning of Jewish representational art in modern times, there is little that I can think of images symbolic of Judaism that would have been used in that area in those times. For Maimonides and those Jews acculturated in Islamic lands, there might have been a reluctance to adopt such symbolism owing to Islamic prohibitions on imagery. But even in such Christian lands as Italy and Byzantium, I can think of little in the way of symbolic Judaism. When the Jews began to fill books with illustrations, my understanding is that they used Christian artists and art forms to accomplish their goals.

Music is also crucial to the preservation of culture and aids in memory. Here again, Jews seemed to have followed rather than led. The Jewish music of northern Europe followed the modalities of the Gregorian Chant, while the Jews of Islamic countries sounded for all the world like a muezzin or a qari.

I must leave this topic for the moment as I have simply run out of time, but I look forward to revisiting it and elaborating on it as such time permits.

Arnold’s wife Mary Linda adds the following:

Arnold’s family was from Tarnopol, Ukraine, but he was born in Russia where his mother with her father got to during the war.)  After the war, the family moved to Vienna, where they lived from about 1946 until leaving for Knoxville in 1951. Arnold was 9 when they arrived here. I have photos of him on the ship coming over, and found the ship online. It had been a troop carrier and was converted to bringing refugees to the US. They came in through New Orleans. He practiced architecture from 1969 until 1981, but never gave up his license, finally retiring it.