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.

New Mexico-Style Chili

Several friends congregated at our home last night and some were kind enough to ask for my Chili recipe. I’m a “by the seat of my pants” kind of cook–I make it up as I go along, so the only way I can provide a recipe is by telling a story.

New Mexico (hereafter: NM) is the Chili state. Not the Tex-Mex chili most of us are used to, the actual plant that produces the chili pods that become the basis for spice concoctions called “Chili powder” and the like. I’ve loved cooking with these pods for decades, but my interest has deepened ever since my kids moved to NM–first Alamogordo and now Albuquerque.

When you enter a NM restaurant specializing in local cuisine, the first question you are likely to hear from your server is “Red or green?” Oddly enough this does not necessarily have anything to do with the spiciness of the sauce, it’s just a color preference and doesn’t have much more to do with flavor than red, green, or orange bell peppers. But in any given restaurant, the red might be spicier than the green (or vice versa), so my reply is usually, “Which one is hotter?”

Once something you had to scour specialty markets for (unless you lived in NM of course), these days you can find a nice assortment of dried chili pods in most large supermarkets or produce stores.

For the dish I cooked yesterday, I used two packages of dried, mild New Mexico chili pods. You can find the basics of preparation for chili pods on the Internet, but here is the system I follow. First remove the stems. Many recipes suggest removing the seeds as well, I don’t. I place the pods in a dry pan on medium high heat. Using a spatula, I turn the pods frequently until the skins begin to blister. This marks the point at which they are “toasted” and it’s important to remove them quickly from the heat–over toasting them results in a bitter flavor. Next, cover the pods in very hot (almost boiling) water and let them soak a while. Drain off the water and then grind them up in a food processor–a Cuisinart works great for this. Finally, strain out the bits of skin. You will be left with a thick paste–this is the meat of the chili plant. It will be hot or mild depending on what type of pod you selected, but it will have the distinct taste of chili.

At the beginning I mentioned the Tex-Mex chili most of us are used to. Aside from using powdered chili preparations, the most distinctive flavor we experience from these dishes is that of some sort of tomato product–tomato paste, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, etc. The chili powder adds a bit of flavor to an overwhelmingly tomato-y dish. There is nothing wrong with this, and I do make these sorts of dishes too. But the point of NM style chili is to taste the chili. Therefore, most NM chilis contain no tomato products. It is important to adjust your expectations accordingly!

Last night’s dish was a basic meat-and-beans chili, NM style. To prepare the meat, I used 5 lbs of “stew beef” which I sliced into bite sized chunks. Obviously most people make chili with ground beef, but I prefer the result of using something that better resembles steak. In fact, the chili sauce resulting from the process above can easily be used to dress a simple grilled steak. I brown the beef in a heavy skillet using olive oil and then add it to a slow cooker. A large crock-pot works fine for this.

In addition to the beef, last night I added two medium onions, sauteed, and later in the process, some sliced chicken sausages.

So now the beef is slow cooking in the chili sauce with the onions. This is the point at which I do something a little different–and perhaps not at all in the vein of New Mexico–but seems to produce a very pleasurable result! My secret ingredient is the Israeli salsa called “Z’hug”. Z’hug is prepared by combining 1/3 chopped fresh cilantro, 1/3 chopped fresh garlic, and 1/3 chopped hot peppers of some sort. It used to be quite the chore to get all that garlic ready, but nowadays it is easy to find ready-peeled fresh garlic in the store. You might be tempted to stint on the garlic, but don’t. Trust me, the secret to good z’hug is lots of fresh garlic. The basic technique is to mix the ingredients in a food processor with a generous dollup of good olive oil. I often vary my z’hug by adding other sorts of fragrant green herbs such as basil. Always fresh! The heat of the z’hug ranges from moderate (if one uses jalapenos), to hotter (with serranos), to hot with habaneros, and finally intense with ghost peppers.

The important point here is that if you notice the constituent parts of z’hug, you will discover that when cooked it is a perfect unit for any recipe that calls for herbs, garlic and some heat. After I sautee the onions mentioned above, I quickly sautee some z’hug (lightly, because garlic shouldn’t be fried for long) and add it to the pot.

As I mentioned, last night was a meat-and-beans dish, so we arrive at the critical issue of proper preparation of the beans. Although we joke a lot about it, and many people fondly remember a particular scene in the Mel Brooks comedy western Blazing Saddles the truth is that most of us, even those of us who like blazingly hot chili, do not care for the after-affects of a pot of beans. Again, you can find lots to read on the Internet about this, but the truth is that it is amazingly easy to produce fart-free beans.

First, do not use canned beans. Most manufacturers don’t do the simple steps needed to produce good quality, non-flatulent beans. I prefer dried pintos, but do feel free to use kidney or black beans or any combination thereof. For last night’s recipe, I used two cups of dried beans. Rinse off the beans in a strainer that’s has holes big enough to get rid of any tiny stones that often land in bags of dried beans. Put the beans in a stock pot and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil and let the beans boil for two minutes. Drain the beans and–this is very important!–rinse the beans thoroughly with cold water. What you are doing is removing enzymes that are the actual culprit in the flatulence problem.

Next, add water to the stock pot to get a 2 to 1 water to beans ratio. Boil the beans according to any recipe. You can do the fast method or the overnight method. I don’t taste any difference, so I do the fast one. When you’re done, rinse the beans again. It’s the stuff that makes the water thick that causes the problem, so rinsing off the beans takes care of the problem. Some purists think this is bad because we’re rinsing off all that good nutrition. Sure, then fart and stop complaining. Anyway, there was no flatulence among any of the participants at our get together last night.

You may notice that I have said nothing about salt. I have sodium sensitive high blood pressure, so I don’t add salt to my food. Contrary to most people’s thinking, no salt is needed for cooking most things. One can add salt to taste at the dinner table. That’s why God made salt shakers. But most people will add salt to this chili recipe and of course if that’s your pleasure, go for it. Commercial chili preparations also have other herbs and spices such as cumin, turmeric, allspice, etc. As I explained at the top, the goal of my dish is to be able to taste the chili pods so I don’t use any of those for this dish. But you can add whatever you like!

chili_pods

New Mexico chili pods ready for preparation!

A word about heat (spiciness). There are two good ways you can control the heat of your chili. The first is the question of which chili peppers you choose for creating the chili paste. There are hotter and milder peppers. To make the chili milder, you can eliminate the seeds, but recipes that suggest you eliminate the veins should not be followed. Those veins do indeed contain a lot of the capsaicin which is indeed the primary irritant which gives the sensation of heat. But they also carry a lot of the flavor of the pod, so if they are too hot for you, choose milder chilis. The second way to control the heat is with the peppers you use for the herbal mixture (z’hug). Hotter peppers, hotter z’hug. Resist the temptation to add commercial products like Tobasco. If you or your party want hotter chili, you can always add those at the table!

So now you have a slow cooker going with your genuine chili paste, meat, beans, onions and lightly sauteed z’hug. Let it go for four hours (on high) or ten hours (on low) and you will have great New Mexico style chili!

Enjoy!

LoveLee Family News for The Departing Year of 2015

Terri and Jack Wishing You the Best for the New Year

Terri and Jack Wishing You the Best for the New Year

It’s All Good

The holiday period finds us on the road to Clara (see the previous Blog entry), but it’s also time to reflect on the year winding up. For me, there is little doubt that the major milestone was taking and passing my Ph.D. comprehensive exams. While I know most will agree that’s important, it pales beside the accomplishments of other members of the family. Terri has once again hit the ball out of the park as Dean of Arts and Sciences at U-Tenn. Ephraim completed his MS degree in Geography (specializing in GIS systems) and has found his first real job. Shoshana has configured her life in a way that allows her to both work in a vitally important profession (critical care for our veterans) but still finds lots of time to spend with Clara. And Karl completed a term as interim director of his federal agency and has returned to the scientific role he loves.

About that Ph.D.

Some might think I’m being overly modest about passing that exam, but after all it isn’t my first time at this stage of academic progress. Twice before I’ve reached the point of writing a dissertation, and twice before life intervened to direct me to other pursuits. I regret none of that–my choices allowed me to find Terri and I had a good and rewarding career as a professional in the campus Hillel at UC-Berkeley followed by more than twenty years in Information Technology at U-Michigan. During those decades I kept up my Hebrew and Jewish studies by, among other things, teaching regular courses at Lansing’s Congregation Kehillat Israel.

I would see the attainment of a Ph.D. at this point in my life as something of a vanity quest if it weren’t for the fact that I am teaching courses at U-Tenn now. The primary meat-and-potatoes of this new academic career for me are courses in the Religious Studies Department of U-Tenn such as Beginning and Intermediate Biblical Hebrew and Introduction to Judaism.

The latter is an interesting exercise. I never taught the course by the same name at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica where I spent 9 years. At least during that time it was always taught by a rabbi and was seen as a gateway to conversion to Judaism. That would certainly not be an acceptable way to teach a course at a public University! In fact, it is critically important that we study Judaism in the same way that we study Christianity, Islam and other religions in order to obtain as objective as possible an understanding of the contributions and issues that these intellectual and ethnic movements and ideologies have raised in the world in which we live.

As rewarding as these courses have been for me, they are all at the most basic level because with just an M.A., that is what I am allowed to teach. If I want to have a chance at teaching something more advanced, I have to have that Ph.D. And so that is the motivation. But it’s a bit of a vanity quest too. 🙂

Now that I’ve passed the exams, I have three more upper level classes to complete all of which can be part of my dissertation effort and one of which has to be the start of that process. But enough of process! I’m sure at least some of you are wondering what I intend to work on. 37 or so years ago I was interested in political, ethnic, and military history. I arrived at graduate school in Berkeley having completed a prize-winning undergraduate thesis which was a study of what can be known about an obscure conflict between Jews and Romans that took place during the term of the Roman emperor Trajan. You might think you have never heard of Trajan, but if you’ve ever looked at a map of the Roman Empire, you will usually find one that says something like, “The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan.” In other words, by many measures, Trajan was the most powerful emperor in the history of that world power. And the Jews in North Africa, Egypt, Cyprus, Syria, and Babylonia all rose against him.

This is a pretty typical map of the sort you will find in basic books and on the Internet. Note the description in the box.

This is a pretty typical map of the sort you will find in basic books and on the Internet. Note the description in the box.

My attempts to learn about this episode in Jewish history did not bear much fruit in the usual sense. The truth is we will probably never know very much about it. Unlike the major revolt documented by Josephus decades earlier, we have no Josephus for this era. Even the Bar Kokhba revolt a few decades hence has more documentation. So what began as a quest to learn about this event turned into a quest to understand just what the historical sources could actually be for such an event. And that led me to Jewish, Christian, and pagan sources, inscriptions, paintings and all sorts of arcane things. My interests broadened to the social and religious, and in recent years I have become fascinated by the question of just how different Christianity and Judaism were in the first two centuries of the followers of Jesus.

And in other parts of life

While teaching and studying consumed a large part of my waking hours last year, I’m happy to say that there was so much more! The previous year I at long last faced the music and had my left knee replaced, and that has led to a resurgence in my physical activities. I’m now going to the gym three times a week again and walking an average of 8 miles a day.

Jack "Hamaning" it up on Purim

Jack “Hamaning” it up on Purim

Terri and I have a wonderful and full social life which includes many dinners with friends, and enjoying many of the plays and music that Knoxville has to offer. As I hope you already know, Tennessee is the “Music State”–and that isn’t limited to Country music. Broadway shows come to the magnificent Tennessee Theater. The University sports three stages which are used for the incomparable productions of the U-Tenn Theater department, one of just a few combination professional/educational companies in the country. And if that isn’t enough, Knoxville has a wonderful volunteer company called the Tennessee Valley Players. Knoxville has a professional orchestra which performs symphonies and opera. And the School of Music has more productions than we can keep track of, and I have thoroughly enjoyed every performance I  have been lucky enough to hear.

Carousel Theater at the Clarence Brown as staged for Of Mice and Men

Carousel Theater at the Clarence Brown as staged for Of Mice and Men

Knoxville is, of course, one of the major centers of the Appalachian region and that means Bluegrass music and moonshine. I haven’t found the latter to be all that appealing, but the former is a constant great pleasure. No matter where you are reading this, you can enjoy some great live Bluegrass music every week day at noon (Eastern Time). Just point your computer to WDVX.com and for that lunch hour you’ll hear two different music acts live on stage. If you’re in town, the performances are held in the main room of the Knoxville Visitor’s Bureau, downtown. The station plays recorded Bluegrass and old-time Country music the rest of the day. All sorts of live music acts are held at two theaters–the Bijou and the Laurel, and on just about any night you can hear good music at bars and clubs sprinkled throughout the area.

The popular Israeli musician David Broza performed an impromptu concert for free on Knoxville's Market Square (May)

The popular Israeli musician David Broza performed an impromptu concert for free on Knoxville’s Market Square (May)

I can’t leave the theater/music scene without a mention of a rather extraordinary experience Terri and I enjoyed during this holiday season. We were invited to Pigeon Forge (best known as the home of Dollywood) to hear the Christmas Show at a venue called the Smoky Mountains Opry (not to be confused with Nashville’s Grand Old Opry). This is one of many entertainment venues in the area, but it is quite amazing. The auditorium easily holds as many people as the largest theater in Knoxville. The Christmas show was not at all what I expected. It resembled the show at Radio City Music Hall (NYC) more than anything else in my experience. The first half of the show was winter and holiday music with a distinctive Tin Pan Alley/Broadway sound. Almost nothing of a religious nature. After the intermission, the second half built towards a number of the best known Christmas carols–but that would have been true at Radio City for their Christmas show too. In addition to the singing (which was polished and professional) there was a plethora of comedy, ballet, and magic acts. Yes, there was an Evangelical cast to the production, and you’d have to be deaf and blind not to notice the Christian (and not Catholic) overtones, but I found it all tasteful and and not as heavy handed as I had feared making the journey up to Pigeon Forge. Our host lamented that as good as the production is, and as well attended as it seemed to be, the company is having a tough time financially. He noted that although there are many tourists to the area, these venues are all heavily dependent on local patronage, and Appalachians don’t have the money to spend that would turn operations more plentiful. ‘Nuff said on that point.

Passover

The Malcolms joined us for Passover Seder this year, and we have this photo of Ephraim and Karl enjoying some TV while Miss Clara naps at her uncle’s side.

Karl on the left, Ephy on the right, Clara snoozing between

Karl on the left, Ephy on the right, Clara snoozing between

Summer Vacation

We did have a summer vacation this year which took us north to Lansing, Traverse City, Marquette, Houghton, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. I know I’m risking overstaying my welcome with you, so here is just one photo of Terri enjoying the scene on Portage Lake.

Terri on the Portage Canal which separates Hancock from Houghton in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Portage Lake Lift Bridge is in the background.

Terri on the Portage Canal which separates Hancock from Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Portage Lake Lift Bridge is in the background.

Terri’s Words

I can hardly believe that we have been in Knoxville for 4 years now, and my first ‘term’ as Dean will wrap up June 30. Do not worry — I very much enjoy this very busy job and if asked I expect to continue for another term. Our first year I did not think we would ever acclimate to the climate, but we have — and I have even succeeded in creating a small, successful vegetable garden that was planted the first weekend of April, and I finally gave up protecting from light frost just before Thanksgiving. As a midwesterner, I marvel at the duration of the growth season, as well as the wide variety of plants that are successfully grown in this area.

I love my job because it takes me into all corners of this exciting university, all over the state of Tennessee and into most major cities in the eastern half of the country. I never imagined that I would so enjoy the job of “selling” my college and university — but, I guess it is true that when you believe in your “product” it is not hard to do so. It is not always easy, and helping to push a college/university into its best self is always slower than one would prefer. But, after 4 years, it is very clear to everyone on campus that we are modernizing and improving at a rapid rate. I give much credit for the success to the university’s leadership and their willingness (need) to involve everyone from top management, professors, facilities staff and students. Sometimes these gains come despite the state’s local politicians!

Wrapping up — we have made many wonderful new friends of all ages, learned to enjoy and adapt to (if not always love) the local cuisine, and love the breadth of music, theater and dance. While we may not always agree with all the local political perspectives, it has led us to be very active with the Jewish community and the League of Women Voters. And no matter what, the conversations are civil and people are invariably kind and polite. I have found Tennessee’s culture has much to recommend it! As Jack always says — we are in the cross-roads to many places with I-75 and I-40 crossing very near us. So y’all drop in and visit — we have plenty of room! If you particularly love growing plants, come visit the Smoky Mountains in late April for the Wildflower Pilgrimage. It is inexpensive, wonderful way to learn a great deal while spending a day or three in the beautiful outdoors.

There goes 2015, Hello 2016!

The Dean hugging Ephraim as a newly minted MS

The Dean hugging Ephraim as a newly minted MS

Loves and Malcolms in Albuquerque for the Winter Holidays. Ephy is minding the store back in Knoxville.

Loves and Malcolms in Albuquerque for the Winter Holidays. Ephy is minding the store back in Knoxville.

Traveling to Clara, Hanukkamas 2015

This story could be entitled “Waiting for the Blizzard” as the forecast for these here parts is a bit grim. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Knoxville to the Big Easy

We began our cross country trip in our home town, Knoxville Tennessee and stayed overnight in Hoover, Alabama. Although a brief stopover, we discovered a very fine Chicago-style pizzaria called Tortugas. The next morning it was on to our first goal, the Big Easy. Turns out no one knows why New Orleans is called “The Big Easy” although many theories vie for the title. We checked into the J.W. Marriott hotel directly across Canal Street from the French Quarter, and it was easily one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.

View of the French Quarter from the 14th floor

View of the French Quarter from the 14th floor

Of course it was everything you might expect of a big city hotel. Courteous and helpful staff, luxurious appointments in the room and unbelievably expensive parking requiring valet service. But we knew all that going into it so we just forgot about the money and enjoyed ourselves.

Our first mission in New Orleans was finding one my friends from my Berkeley era, Galen.

Galen and I took courses together at U-Cal in the mid-70s. Although he was not Jewish, he registered for and excelled in a Talmud course in the original languages. After graduating from Berkeley he went on to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he accomplished the almost Herculean task of obtaining a Ph.D. from the Bible Department. In those days, it was commonly held that Hebrew University was the last refuge of the German University. According to Galen, that’s the past–the school is more like others in the world now. After the 10 year-long process, Galen was hired as an instructor at Hebrew University, but was disappointed to learn that he would not be considered a good candidate for tenure track due to the lack of Israeli citizenship. He found a job at Tulane as a “Professor of Practice” which is approximately like the position I hold as a Lecturer at U-Tenn. Galen retired after his second term and now lives in the Treme where he composes music and posts liberally (so to speak) on Facebook.

Galen making a point...

Galen making a point…

We enjoyed a most pleasant dinner at a fine restaurant called the Degas Cafe in a neighborhood (district) called Esplanade Ridge. The food, service, and atmosphere were all as good as it gets.

Cafe Degas

Cafe Degas

Long Lost Cousin Marty

There was another reason we added New Orleans to our itinerary for this trip. I learned about a year ago that my cousin Marty lived there. I had last seen this cousin when he was drafted (I think in 1967). In those days he lived across the hall from me with a brother, father, grandmother (to me as well) and our aunt Esther. His mother, Fay, of blessed memory, had passed before I was born, and “Bubby” and Esther took care of the boys while dad Lou worked in the U.S. Post Office. Marty was the closest to me in age (but still about 8 years older), so I interacted with him the most. Marty married a local woman during his military service while stationed in Arkansas, Ceil, and they had a child named Patrick. For five decades I lost track of him. But we arranged to meet in New Orleans where they had settled. Patrick was home for the holiday, and so it was that I had a reunion with my cousin and met his son for the first time. And they met my wife for the first time.

Pround Pappa Marty with Patirck Holland

Pround Pappa Marty with Patirck Holland

We met up at the Court of the Two Sisters in the French Quarter where we enjoyed a fabulous buffet style lunch. (A little “touristy” Galen pronounced, but just the right thing for our day!) When Marty arrived with Patrick, I recognized him instantly and we started to chat like we had seen each other the previous week.

The Love Holland Family Photo

The Love Holland Family Photo

The decades melted away and I learned about his life and Patrick filled in some detail. I wish we could have visited longer, but perhaps we’ll get back soon.

Terri survellling the vast canopy of the Court of the Two Sisters

Terri survellling the vast canopy of the Court of the Two Sisters

New Orleans to Albuquerque

Stephanie making her point to Terri

Stephanie making her point to Terri

From New Orleans we set out on a leisurely place to Clara’s home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Along the way we stopped for lunch in Shreveport where we met an old friend and colleague of mine from my days at CAEN, Stephanie and her brother-in-law Derrick. Lovely lunch at the Superior Bar and Grill, catching up with Stephanie and her lovely daughter Brelyn, and making Derrick’s acquaintance for the first time.

 

 

Stephanie's brother-in-law Derrick

Stephanie’s brother-in-law Derrick

After overnighting near Fort Worth, we planned a stop at the Frontier Museum in Abilene (Texas–not to be confused with Abilene, Kansas). Although just a dot on the map, the museum is terrific. Lots of computer enhanced displays, genuine artifacts, nicely produced film features. For me the greatest pleasure was seeing how the curators treated native Americans with a combination of respect and the understanding that everyone in that era was engaged in a brutal struggle for existence.

Just one wonderful diorama

Just one wonderful diorama

After the museum, an unexpected pleasure: BeeHiveThe Beehive Restaurant was just superb. I know few of you will likely ever pass through Abilene, but if you do, don’t miss this place!

Our next stop was Lubbock, Texas. The town name always stirs memories of a roommate I had in the first house I ever owned–in Oakland, California–who hailed from there. Her name was Terry Hicks and I’m sorry to say I’ve lost track of her. But Lubbock was directly on our route to Albuquerque, so we stopped there for the night and had just enough time to make it to the Buddy Holly museum. A small affair, but nicely done. Buddy_Holly

And at long last we arrived in Clara-land!

Clara Country

Clara chooses to live with her parents up on Sandia Mountain–about 6800 ft above sea level. You might say that Clara lives at the intersection of “No Outlet” and “Dead End”.

The street sign near Clara

The street sign near Clara

This is the view from Clara’s road.

The view from Clara's road

The view from Clara’s road

At sunset, it can look like this.

Sunset on Sandia Mountain

Sunset on Sandia Mountain

Our first night in Albuquerque we went to a very pleasant Asian themed restaurant called Jinja Bar and Bistro. Highly recommended! The second night, Karl and Sho fixed a wonderful meal for us. Karl prefers to serve meat that he has harvested from the wild, and on this occasion he prepared quail that he had caught. Sho added a lovely pasta salad. Terri is beaming over the arranged table:

Terri is beaming over the arranged table

Terri is beaming over the arranged table

We met Karl’s friend Jerry at this meal, and Jerry couldn’t resist staying for a serving of quail even though his wife was preparing dinner near by.

Jerry partaking in the feast

Jerry partaking in the feast

Clara was too busy finishing her meal to smile for the camera, but Sho and Karl try to make up for it.

Clara intent on finishing her meal, with Sho and Karl

Clara intent on finishing her meal, with Sho and Karl

The blizzard I mentioned at the beginning of this story arrived on Saturday night, 12/26. Because of my knee, I was staying down the mountain in a hotel in Albuquerque. Terri and the kids remained up on the mountain. The storm intensified overnight and about a foot of snow accumulated on the mountain. The bigger problem was that “black ice” formed on i40 causing almost 200 serious accidents. As I write this late Sunday night, i40 is still closed. We’re hoping to reunite the family tomorrow so we can all go see Star Wars (Episode VII). In the meantime, Clara has ventured out into the snow, so we’ll end this vacation article with her.

snow_girl_Clara

Clara says, “Y’all come back soon!”

Update: The storm just grazed Albuquerque, but further south (towards the Mexico border) it caused massive problems including the destruction of some 35,000 cattle. It then marched east and flooded Oklahoma City and parts of Missouri finally burying parts of New England in several feet of snow. i40 between Albuquerque and Sandia Mountain remained closed for another day.

Despite all that, our winter vacation turned out very well. I was soon reunited with the rest of the family. We saw Star Wars in IMAX from the 3rd row (the furthest back seats still available when we arrived for a matinee!), saw the Albuquerque Zoo, ate in some more lovely restaurants, and then made the trip back to Knoxville in 2 days. Our one stop was in Ft. Smith Arkansas, which we discovered was the 2nd largest city in that state. The detour was pleasant enough and I certainly wouldn’t mind staying there again.

We’re back in Knoxville as I write this, and the semester will soon be occupying other of our thoughts. But we can’t wait to see our Clara again–hopefully this coming Passover.

Appalachian Fall

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. As some of you know, I’ve been focused on passing my Ph.D. prelims which thankfully is now past tense. (For the third time!–I hope this time I’ll actually have the sitz fleisch to write the required short paper.) I have a lot of catch-up to do and I doubt I will, but I wanted to share a few thoughts about a recent experience Terri and I enjoyed.

It took us four years to get there, but I finally went to Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood, this week. We were the guests of alumni of the U of Tennessee and we had a country style dinner followed by a visit to the Christmas show at the Smokey Mountains Opry.

http://www.reservepigeonforge.com/travelguide/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/07/Smoky-Mountain-Opry_001RSZ-800x550_c.jpg

Exterior View

The show inevitably reminded me of the many fine memories I have of the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. While the Rockettes were not in evidence, there were singers, dancers, acrobats and a cranky old comic magician billed as “Slim Chance.” Some of the dancers were of Bolshoi quality because they actually immigrated to the U.S. after being in the Bolshoi.

http://www.awomantheworlddeserves.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/IMG_2627.jpg

Smokey Mountain Opry Christmas Show

The singing was polished and professional, and I was impressed that the long first act had very little religious music; it was all from the new canon of American winter holiday music. I wondered if the organizers knew how many of those songs were written by Jews working out of Tin Pan Alley.

The second act did feature a number of traditional Christmas carols and a manger scene–but after all, so does the show at Radio City. The religiosity expressed during the show is more in line with what one expects in the Appalachian region as opposed to the Catholic and Episcopalian Northeast, but after all, that’s what makes it a Tennessee production!

The part of the evening, though, that stays with me the most are the comments made by our hosts. Their family is deeply involved in the financial success of these Appalachian regional shows. And our dinner conversation touched on the difficulties that they have making the shows profitable. Unlike the Disney scene (which I’ve commented on extensively elsewhere in this blog), this show is part of the Appalachian region and caters to an audience primarily situated there. Our hosts lamented that even the people of Knoxville, the nearest urban area, rarely venture out to shows like this. Knoxvillians prefer the pseudo elite culture imported from Broadway and presented at the Tennessee Theater and the three stages of the Clarence Brown Theater. We are excellent evidence of that since we have indeed seen almost every production at all of those venues but, as I said, coming to Pigeon Forge only for the first time now.

Digging a little deeper, we learned that presenting high quality shows is more than a challenge in our region. Our host lamented that Pigeon Forge is surrounded by four of the poorest counties in the United States. Education lags along with poverty and finding the right mix of cost and quality is a constant problem for them.

Another aspect of the evening that intrigued me was the insistence that this “Opry” not resemble the Nashville institution with a similar name. Most of the shows are closer in style and quality to New York than Nashville. And that apparently is because that’s what the area wants. And so this enormous theater–larger by a factor of two than the largest auditorium at the U of Tennessee–fills with almost every show. Even on the lowest attendance night of the holiday season (Disney practically shuts down this week), there were over a thousand people in the theater. And even so, making it economically viable is difficult.

Another thought that crossed my mind was how we can travel so far and still wind up in the same place. I was a child venturing into one of the wealthiest enclaves in the world, Rockefeller Center, to see those Rockettes. But I came from the South Bronx, one of the poorest areas in the Northeast and that is where I returned after the show was over. I think my experience must be similar to those who go to Dollywood or the Pigeon Forge entertainments and then return to those four counties.

But there is one huge difference between my experience and theirs. While I was as poor as anyone in Appalachia during much of my youth, I attended the public schools of New York City. When the time came, I could go to one of the best high schools in the United States for free. I don’t know if there is a short term solution to the economic woes our hosts apprised us of. But I do know that there is a longer term solution: agree to fund education at every level from kindergarten through University. Pay a bit more in taxes so that the children of Appalachia can have the same advantages that I did. I have no doubt whatsoever that in a decade or two we could draw a very different picture of this beautiful region.

We Have Forty Four Forevermore!

At long last, and thanks to Prof. Robert Slayton, we have recovered the fabled school song of David Farragut Junior High School (JHS 44, The Bronx). Here for your listening pleasure are the lyrics, as well as an mp3 of yours truly singing them. My first attempt features my voice cracking, but I will re-record it with 100 piece orchestra as soon as I re-assemble the school band.

Let’s give a cheer for dear old forty-four
For all the boys and girls who’ve gone before
Let’s cheer the green and white
And shout with all our might for David Farragut!
He won the battle at Mobile that day,
He sailed the Union fleet right up the bay,
He dared torpedoes in that bay,
And blasted forts along the way,
He saved the Union fleet that day!
Dear “Old Salamander”
We praise thy name,
Our hearts with love aflame,
Honor thy great name.
Though soon we will graduate,
Our love ne’er will wane,
Though we may wander far,
Our thoughts will return again.
So here’s a toast to dear old forty-four,
To Salamander’s part in navy lore,
And to his flaming spirit claim,
We’ll add more glory to his name,