Hanukkah Musings 2021

It’s time for my annual Hanukkah message. I’ve been doing this off-and-on since 1972, when an article I wrote was featured in a Jewish student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin—which seems to be defunct. There was a new Chabad rabbi in town for the new position of any sort of Chabad presence at UW whose name as I recall it was R. Shmudkin. The Hillel rabbi at that time, R. Alan Lettofsky, was going to be out of town, so he invited R. Shmudkin to lead students in reciting the Hanukkah blessings.

I was one of the last students to arrive so there was a bit of a crowd and I stood near the back. R. Shmudkin saw me and raised his eyebrows. He said, “I see that Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we are about to recite the blessing honoring the Maccabees.” Two things startled me about this. First, that he knew who I was, and second, that he apparently had read my article. I just chuckled and said, “I’ve been lighting the Menorah since I was 5 years old, so I think I’ll keep doing it.” And a brief but lovely service ensued.

My life and career have endured many twists and turns since then, and I suspect that if R. Shmudkin is still around somewhere he is even less happy with my views now than he was then. But I guess he would be happy to know that all these years later I and my family are still delighted to kindle the Hanukkah lights on one of the dozen or so Hanukkah lamps that beautify our home.

What had so disturbed R. Shmudkin is that in my senior year at UW, I had done a lot of research on the ancient history of the Near East. Steeped in the writings of historians such as Victor Tcherikover, Alexander Fuchs, Menachem Stern, and Elias Bickerman I came to understand that a considerable part of the narrative surrounding the origin of Hanukkah was just a fairy tale. In fact, the great devil of the era, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was not attempting to destroy the valiant God-fearing Jews, he had simply been invited into a struggle among rival factions of Judeans by one of those factions. In other words, it was a civil war and Antiochus decided to intervene on the side of the faction that offered him the most reward. And unfortunately for him, the other side won.

Most modern Jews imagine that we know all about the Maccabees and their struggle because of the preservation of such sources as the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees and the historian Josephus. In fact, the ancient rabbis rejected all those sources and had nothing to do with their preservation. We owe the existence of those sources to Christians. As it happens, the early Church was particularly interested in stories of martyrdom, and as for Josephus, they thought that he had described the era of Jesus and even mentioned Jesus in his Antiquities. The rabbis cared for none of this. But about 1500 years after the Maccabees some Jews also felt that it was important to recall ancient Jewish victories. Having nothing of their own, they plagiarized Josephus, added in a few tales from the Midrash, and published Sefer Yospipon (The Book of Joseph). The conceit was that they had discovered this book written by another of Josephus’ fellow generals in the Roman War of his era. Sefer Yosippon has the same relationship to Josephus as exists between the Gospels and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

If this is the case, where does our festival of Hanukkah come from? The ancient rabbis faced exactly the same problem that confronted early Christian authorities. That problem was that no matter what they might have argued as religious doctrine, the general populace was not going to be dissuaded from recognizing the change of seasons and most especially, the Winter Solstice. Christians solved the problem by moving the birth of Jesus to a day that is unsupported by their own Gospels. The rabbis composed a tale of the miraculous purification of the Temple by oil which though only sufficient for one day, nevertheless lasted for eight. And this event just happened to coincide with the coronation celebration of the hated Maccabean kings—and so could replace any notion of that in the popular imagination. This tale, by the way, is not recorded in any of the most ancient sources of the rabbis, but rather in the Babylonian Talmud, (Shabbat 21a). The earliest date that could be ascribed to this tale is 300 C.E. and a century or two after that is more likely.

Ultimately, who cares? None of this matters to me as I enjoy the potato pancakes and see the joy in the eyes of my children and grandchildren as they light the candles with us and look forward to treats and toys. Religion is not about history, but rather about what we make of it. History and religion are, as Stephen Jay Gould said, “non-overlapping magisteria.”

About 10 years after R. Shmudkin led the Hanukkah service at UW Hillel, I met the woman who would become the love of my life. We were married on 28 Kislev 5744, the 4th day of Hanukkah, 1983.

Hanukkah Musings for 5781

Hanukkah 5781 for secular year 2020 is upon us and it is a holiday I always look forward to and treasure. The earliest Hanukkah I recall is one in which I crossed the hall of our tenement to enter the magical realm of my Bubby, my grandmother, who had her family Menorah (lamp, now more properly known as a Hanukkiah) ready for action. Bubby spoke only Yiddish, but we managed to communicate somehow or other, and she taught me how to recite the holiday blessings–in Yiddish, of course. This would have been before I learned to read Hebrew, so it may have been as early as 1957 when I was 5 years old. Whether it was then or a bit later, the warmth of the holiday and love of my Bubby and the joy she felt as I recited those words made an indelible imprint in my memory.

Bubby (Center), Esther and Louie

I was called to the Torah in 1965 and can’t say that I recall many Hanukkah occasions after that until I arrived at the University of Wisconsin. It was in my junior year, 1971, and thanks in large part to our fabulous Hillel House under the direction of Rabbi Alan Lettofsky, that I started paying attention to Judaism and Jewish history–a story for another day.

As a young student (and major) of History, I began reading about the Hanukkah holiday in several volumes that have retained their value and reputation to this day–in some cases more than half a century ago. Elias Bickerman wrote Der Gott der Makkabäer in 1937, the anteroom of the Holocaust. Subsequent accounts of the wars and dynasty of the Maccabees reflected the young state of Israel. Books like Victor Tcherikover’s Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (which became well known after its English translation appeared in 1958, but which was originally written even before Bickerman’s masterpiece in 1930). These were among the first publications to bring modern methods of historiography and analysis to the period of history bracketed by Alexander the Great and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. And for me, it they were the eye opener for me to understand that there was more to the history of the people who venerated biblical literature than the fairy tales I had known from childhood.

In the case of the Maccabees, and the Hasmonean dynasty they founded, there was a practically unanimous conclusion that the surviving historical accounts do not portray some evil “Greek” attempting to subjugate “the Jews.” Rather, what we see is a civil war in which one group of Jews (the term is actually an anachronism, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s use it) against another. As often happens in such conflicts, one of the groups appealed for and succeeded in gaining the support of the ruler of the area–that evil Antiochus Epiphanes, but when all was said and done, the real war was between opposing groups of Jews who all accepted the Torah and other biblical literature, but had all sorts of diverse opinions about things like the calendar and which priests should be given authority over the Temple.

I wrote an article about this for the University of Wisconsin’s Jewish student newspaper because at this time of year, it’s customary to write about the holidays. Hillel would always have a candelabra (Menorah or the aforementioned Hanukkiah) lighting followed by a talk or group sing-a-long, and I headed over for what I thought would be the usual ceremony. As it turned out, Rabbi Lettofsky was out of town, but he asked the brand new Chabad representative (so new there wasn’t even a Chabad residence yet) if he would like to lead the service. I believe his name was Rabbi Shmodken, but memory does funny things over the decades. Anyway, I arrived to find most people already gathered around the Hanukkiah. Rabbi Shmodken apparently recognized me and arched his eyebrows. He then said in loud, clear voice–although with a heavy Yiddish accent–“Mr. Jack Love has entered the room. Jack, perhaps you would like to excuse yourself while we honor the memory of the Hashmonaim?” As I mentioned, Hanukkah was, and still is, a favorite holiday of mine, so I stood my ground and sang the blessings with my congregation.

611 LANGDON ST | Property Record | Wisconsin Historical Society

The ultimate irony in the good rabbi’s comment is that the original rabbis despised the Hasmoneans and did everything in their power to blot out their memory. They had good reason. The Hasmonean kings by and large supported the Temple priesthood most of whom belonged to the group known as Sadducees. The kings and their allies generally opposed competing groups such as Pharisees and Essenes–and it was the Pharisee sect that developed into the rabbinic group following the Roman war and destruction of the Temple. The Hasmonean king Alexander Janeus was reported to have crucified hundreds of his opponents on the roads leading to Jerusalem–which creates a bit of a problem for those who want to claim that Jews could not have had anything to do with the crucifixion of Jesus–but that is a tale for another day.

The point is that the Pharisees and their rabbinic descendants wanted nothing to do with the Hasmonean kings. They did not copy or preserve either of the books called Maccabees (which were copied and honored by Christians), nor did they copy or preserve the works of the historian Josephus, who also wrote about these events.

But what they did do is tell stories. One of those stories, which appears many centuries after the time of the Hasmoneans, recounts the tale of how the Temple had been defiled by wicked people and required purification. There was only enough oil for one day, but by a miracle, the oil lasted for 8 days. Strangely enough, we have no idea why it was necessary to have a lamp burn for 8 days for this purification to occur. But we do know that by another miraculous coincidence, that 8 day period corresponds exactly to the 8 day festival proclaimed by the Hasmonean kings to celebrate their dynasty.

LoveLees Hanukkah Night 1

 

 

On the History of (Jack’s) ColonFiberOscopies

First, I have to begin with a word of caution. This biographical entry contains some materials of a medical nature that might make some people a bit queasy. Best to skip this article if you don’t like hearing about blood or poop.

I’m writing this after my most recent colonfiberoscopy at UT Medical Center, which stirred the memory of how I became about the 3rd person in the United States to be treated with that instrument.

My earliest recollections of serious medical issues involving my guts go back to when I was 8 years old. That’s when I first noticed that there seemed to blood in the potty when I went to the toilet. Although my parents were not exactly the most medically knowledgeable people in the world (an understatement of considerable proportion) they did understand that this needed attention. Our family doctor recommended that they take me to Mt Sinai Medical Center.

There, and at many other times throughout my childhood, I experienced all the diagnostic tools available multiple times: the barium enema, proctoscope, and sigmoitoscope. None could detect the problem, although the presence of blood was confirmed and indeed obvious. In those days, the only thing that might have worked was exploratory surgery and as it turned out, thank Heaven my parents chose not to put me through that. So I regularly found blood, and every few months, there would be quite a bit of it.

In the Fall of 1969 I headed off to the University of Wisconsin, which had and still has one of the finest medical research hospitals in the world. As a freshman living in the dorms I reported my issue to the Student Health Service and they put me through the same battery of tests with the same results. Yes, there is blood, no, we can’t figure out where it’s coming from.

In my sophomore year, I was living off-campus with several guys who have become my life-long buddies. As it happened, our landlord stopped by to chat. He had a brand new powder blue Cadillac he was showing off. I felt some pressure and went to the toilet where I expressed approximately half my blood supply. I staggered out of the bathroom and passed out. I woke up in the University Hospital ER. I learned later that my hematocrit was 18 (42 is low-normal for adult men), so they gave me a transfusion of two units of blood. By then, whatever had caused the hemorrhage had ended, so once again, they were stymied about what was causing this. 

The way I got to the hospital was that the aforesaid landlord, who we thought was kind of a joke, grabbed me and threw me into his brand new car and drove me to the ER. You can never tell how kind and gracious a person can be until you see how they react to unusual circumstances. I never joked about Sid Livsey again. But I have to say that the next time I saw him he was driving a different car–he said, “Well they got the stains out, but they couldn’t get the stink out.” So he bought a new car.

I spent a few days in the hospital recovering and on the day I was to be discharged an impeccably dressed man came to visit me. His name was Dr. John F. Morrissey. Dr. Morrissey had formed a strong relationship to a team of Japanese doctors who had invented a new device which was then called a colonfiberscope in 1969. Dr. Morrissey had used it for the first time that very week and he invited me to become the third patient. He explained that this was a flexible tube that could reach far higher into the intestines than a sigmoitoscope. And, depending on what they found, they could actually use the instrument to fix some sorts of problems. I didn’t need much convincing. So that is how I became patient number 3 for this new device in the US. 

When you hear about this procedure these days, mostly what you hear about is how difficult the “prep” is. Basically, the idea is that the physician using the scope has to be able to see the intestinal wall, and that’s hard if it’s covered in poop. So you have to do something to clean it up. In 1971 that meant not just laxatives, but enemas.

On the morning of the procedure, I arrived at the clinic and was strapped into a chair that could be inverted. When I was upside down, they pumped water into my colon until my bowels were bloated. Then they right-sided the chair and the water poured out of me. They did this three times.

Next, I was wheeled into the room with the instrument. In those days the instrument was much thicker than it is today and you can guess what that might mean in terms of comfort. Of course today, Propofol is the drug of choice and you really don’t feel a thing. But in 1971, as Dr. Morrissey explained, they could not use anesthesia because they needed my feedback (so to speak) on whether the instrument might be causing too much stress. But they did use an I.V. to provide me with valium (diazapam) which made me a bit loopy.

The scope was inserted and at intervals of 25, 35 and 45 cm (about 18″) they found large polyps. The deepest and largest of these was big enough to have produced the hemorrhage that nearly killed me. Dr. Morrissey used the scope to extract the polyps and cauterize the areas. A few days later the pathologist reported that while these were very large polyps, they were benign. For the first time since I was 8 years old I could go to the bathroom without seeing blood in the toilet.

A year later, I returned for a follow-up procedure. Major improvements had already been made and I don’t recall any pain or problems. The scope showed that my intestines remained in fine condition and no new polyps had grown. I was then 21 years-old.

I didn’t have another colonoscopy until I turned 50 when my family physician advised it as part of my regular checkup. As you can imagine, I was astonished by the difference those decades had made. I know it’s an over-used metaphor, but comparatively speaking, it was a walk in the park. On that occasion, they found 2 “diminutive” polyps and now they applied the more technical term “adenoma” to them which is the more dangerous kind because they can become malignant. Mine were benign, but they recommended 3-year follow-ups. So while we lived in Michigan, I went twice more and both times the results were “clean”–no more polyps.

We moved to Tennessee about 9 years ago and when the time came for a follow-up I had an unpleasant surprise. Our GI folks prescribed a “prep” which in it’s own way was as bad as what I went through in 1971. If you’ve had a recent colonoscopy, you know what I mean–a requirement to drink a full gallon of ghastly stuff. There are more palatable alternatives, but many health plans won’t pay for them. So I did what I knew to be the stupid thing and didn’t go.

This year my health plan, it turned out, had authorized the more palatable solution and so I scheduled my visit for today. The prep was awful, but less awful than drinking a gallon. The test itself was, as I said, a walk in the park. They did find three (again) “diminutive” polyps and my GI doc said there’s no chance that they are malignant. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t stupid. I should have swallowed my pride and the prep and gotten the test earlier. I could have as easily allowed myself to get cancer for nothing as have this better result.

Don’t do as I did, do as I say: get the test when the docs tell you to.

Teddy Bear

Today is the 9th anniversary of the passing of my mother, Mrs. Stella Love (as she preferred to be known), pictured here during the 1970s.

In 1958 as I was about to begin 1st grade, I awoke from sleep to the sound of a commotion. I wandered out to our living room and witnessed a cop dragging my mother out of our apartment by her hair. That was the last I saw of her for 10 months.

She spent those 10 months in Rockland State Hospital, my father placed me in a private boarding school. On one of his visits, he brought me a teddy bear my mother had sewn. As you can imagine, that bear became my most prized possession.

At the end of the school year, my father brought Stella home from the hospital and me from the boarding school. Teddy remained with me at all times. Until one day when Teddy disappeared. I looked everywhere. Then my father told me that I was too attached to Teddy, so he had decided to throw him away. I was inconsolable for hours and perhaps days.

My father abandoned our family when I was 15 to move to Israel and my mother and I made do on our own. Two years later I headed off to the University of Wisconsin and Stella stayed in New York earning a living as an office staff person. Then in 1978 she had a relapse of her mental condition and I was forced to make the decision of letting her go to some other hospital or taking care of her–which meant at least temporarily giving up on my PhD. As most of you know, I took a leave of absence from grad school, packed my mother up in New York, and brought her out to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stella became a fixture in Sproul Plaza, dancing to the music, and visiting Larry Blake’s Rathskeller.

For me, marriage and children followed, and from time to time we had to pack Stella up and move her to a new living situation. Stella’s last residence was the Evangelical Home of Michigan in Saline. At first I was a bit dubious about placing her in a Christian home, but as it turned out there were other Jews there and the non-judgmental love they showered on Stella made me understand that I had made the best choice.

On that final stop, we went through her belongings to see what might be donated to charity, and look what we found. My father hadn’t thrown Teddy away after all, just placed him with Stella for safe-keeping. And he is with me to this day.

Blessed is the True Judge. May Stella’s memories be bound with ours so that she lives on forever through us.

ברוך דיין אמת

Today is the 9th anniversary of the passing of my mother, Mrs. Stella Love (as she preferred to be known), pictured here during the 1970s.

In 1958 as I was about to begin 1st grade, I awoke from sleep to the sound of a commotion. I wandered out to our living room and witnessed a cop dragging my mother out of our apartment by her hair. That was the last I saw of her for 10 months.

She spent those 10 months in Rockland State Hospital, my father placed me in a private boarding school. On one of his visits, he brought me a teddy bear my mother had sewn. As you can imagine, that bear became my most prized possession.

At the end of the school year, my father brought Stella home from the hospital and me from the boarding school. Teddy remained with me at all times. Until one day when Teddy disappeared. I looked everywhere. Then my father told me that I was too attached to Teddy, so he had decided to throw him away. I was inconsolable for hours and perhaps days.

My father abandoned our family when I was 15 to move to Israel and my mother and I made do on our own. Two years later I headed off to the University of Wisconsin and Stella stayed in New York earning a living as an office staff person. Then in 1978 she had a relapse of her mental condition and I was forced to make the decision of letting her go to some other hospital or taking care of her–which meant at least temporarily giving up on my PhD. As most of you know, I took a leave of absence from grad school, packed my mother up in New York, and brought her out to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stella became a fixture in Sproul Plaza, dancing to the music, and visiting Larry Blake’s Rathskeller.

For me, marriage and children followed, and from time to time we had to pack Stella up and move her to a new living situation. Stella’s last residence was the Evangelical Home of Michigan in Saline. At first I was a bit dubious about placing her in a Christian home, but as it turned out there were other Jews there and the non-judgmental love they showered on Stella made me understand that I had made the best choice.

On that final stop, we went through her belongings to see what might be donated to charity, and look what we found. My father hadn’t thrown Teddy away after all, just placed him with Stella for safe-keeping. And he is with me to this day.

Blessed is the True Judge. May Stella’s memories be bound with ours so that she lives on forever through us.

ברוך דיין אמת

 

Stella Love
Stella Love in the '70s
Teddy Bear
Teddy

Life Since WUJS

Received word from some of my old friends from the program I attended in 1973 in Arad, Israel that we are going to attempt a class reunion. They asked for an update on what we’ve done since graduating. This will likely be repetitive for many of my friends and family, but here goes…

The reason I enrolled in WUJS was that I had been accepted to Graduate School in History at Tel Aviv University, but at that point knew only the Hebrew that was taught in two semesters at my undergrad institution, the University of Wisconsin (Madison). It was a terrific way to build my Hebrew and also participate in a program designed to introduce college graduates to the entire country. Almost a half century later I still treasure the memories of our visits from Rosh HaNikra in the far north to Beersheva and the agricultural settlements south of Arad.

The indelible memory of that year was seared in place by a major conflict known to most people as the Yom Kippur War which effectively ended WUJS instruction for me. Despite offers of repatriation from the US embassy, along with many others in WUJS, I signed up to do what I could. It wasn’t much–one of my memories from that experience was a kibbutznik too old to bear arms who would lean over and tell me in the dining hall, “You eat more than you’re worth.” And friends, I was skinny in those days!

When the war ended, some students remained at WUJS, but it was time for me to begin my studies at Tel Aviv U. My favorite class was elementary Latin (“You mean you want to study ancient history, but you have no Latin?!”). We were the first class at Tel Aviv U. which enjoyed learning Latin via a textbook written in Hebrew. Before that, students had to use a teaching book written in English. Lucky me! But really, it was a huge boost in my Hebrew comprehension.

At the end of that school year, I accepted an offer from the U of California (Berkeley) and began studying for an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies in the Fall of 1974. I completed that degree in December, 1976 and received “permission to proceed” to the Ph.D. But first, I felt that I still needed more coursework, and there was nothing left to take, so I applied to and was accepted as graduate fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem beginning in the Fall of 1977.

That academic year, Anwar Sadat stunned the world by coming to Jerusalem. I sometimes quip that my two years in Israel were, “War and Peace.”

I took as many course as I could at Hebrew U, and then it was time to return to the States. But my graduate advisor at Berkeley told me that given that only 4 PhDs in History at UCB had managed to find positions, I ought to consider other alternatives. So I applied to the Rabbinical program at HUC – Cincinnati. Oddly enough, they advised me to join the History PhD program there because I would receive a much better fellowship that way. And so I went from Jerusalem to Cincinnati. The most important scholar there for my interests was Samuel Sandmel. When I got to Cincinnati, I was his only student. During the semester he informed me that he had accepted a position at the U of Chicago and asked me to consider joining him. But the chancellor pulled me aside and cautioned me that Sandmel might not be alive much longer, so I declined his offer and indeed he passed away in February having made the move to Chicago just a month before.

Without Sandmel, staying in Cincinnati didn’t seem worthwhile although I did very much enjoy my studies in Talmud with Ben Zion Wacholder. Life intervened and I received word that my mother was in dire straits and needed my help. So I returned to Berkeley, made arrangements to settle my life down a bit, and then went to New York City to see how I might help my mother. She had had a severe episode of her long standing bipolar disorder and as a result lost her job. She was in danger of running out of money for the rent. My father, her husband, had abandoned us years before–ironically perhaps to move to Israel. I was an only child to her (my sister was born to a different mother) so it was me or no one. I packed her up and took her to California.

Continuing with the PhD program was now out of the question. I took a job as the Assistant Director of the Berkeley Hillel Foundation which involved leading religious services, teaching Hebrew courses and running the rather extensive Hebrew language program of the Lehrhaus Judaica which was co-housed in the Hillel building, and being responsible for the financial part of the foundation. To do that effectively I enrolled in Accounting classes at a local community college.

This was supposed to be a stop-gap until I got my mother settled, but we all know how that goes. I enjoyed my job, I enjoyed having the stability of a real income. In 1979 I purchased my first house in Oakland with the help of the Lehrhaus director. A couple of years later I met the woman who would become my wife of now 36 years.

We sold that first house to buy a house in Berkeley (this time together with our Hillel office manager who went on to be the leader of the Unitarian Universalists west of the Mississippi). And 1985 saw the birth of our first child, Shoshana. In 1987 the University of Michigan offered Terri a tenured position in their Psychology Department, and as much as I loved our lives in the fabled San Francisco Bay Area, we both agreed that moving to Ann Arbor was the sensible thing to do. So in 1988, Terri’s mom came out and helped Terri, Shoshana and our pet rabbits move to Michigan. I came a couple of months later with our dog. And a couple of months after that I moved Momma to Michigan.

Of course I was hoping for a job teaching Hebrew, but Hillel was staffed up and my mere M.A. wasn’t good enough for the U, so I was unemployed for awhile. I had learned a considerable amount about both accounting and database management, and a friend mailed me–quite out of the blue–a T-Shirt emblazoned with the word “Oracle.” One day, I felt a tap on my shoulder as I was picking Sho up from day care, and the father of one of the other kids asked me, “Do you know anything about Oracle?” I replied that “Yes, I had successfully deployed an Oracle database at my former employer in California.” He hired me on the spot to do a training session for his group at the University’s IT department because they had just paid $600k to license Oracle, but no one knew how to use it. After the session, he hired me as an external consultant to help them design databases, and after three years of that they decided it would be cheaper just to give me a job. That’s how I became an employee of the U of Michigan in 1992. In 1995 Ephraim joined our family, and shortly thereafter the College of Engineering hired me away from the IT department. I rose through those ranks and eventually was leading three departments within the College.

I decided to retire from the University when I turned 58 because I was qualified for benefits, they were running an early retirement program, my investments had done well, and really, I didn’t need the headaches any longer. I accepted a voluntary position as the first Executive Director (unpaid) of the County’s NAMI program.

2011 was a momentous year for our family. Ephraim had decided to make aliyah and complete his education in Israel. My mother sadly left us that year. And Terri received an offer to become the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the U of Tennessee, Knoxville. After a visit to check it out, we decided to take the offer. We sold our Ann Arbor house at which point Ephraim changed his mind and decided he would stay in Ann Arbor, but we held to our plan and we went to Knoxville while he remained in Ann Arbor.

A few months after our arrival, the Religious Studies Department was notified that faculty members they had hired to teach Hebrew had elected not to come and the director of Judaic Studies and the Head of the Religious Studies department asked me if would teach Biblical Hebrew for the year. And after that first year, they have hired me ever since, seven years now.

Of course they really wanted me to have a PhD, so I was approached by someone who offered to be my mentor for completing that project. She averred that given all my prior course work, it would probably only take me a year to start writing my dissertation. But the Grad School had other ideas about whether they were going to accept decades-old courses. I stuck with it and earned my PhD in History in December 2019.

Our daughter Shoshana now lives in Albuquerque, NM with her husband Karl and our two grandchildren, Clara and Alexander. My son Ephraim joined us in Knoxville after completing his BA at U of Michigan. He’s now in the later stages of a PhD in social geography and spatial statistics, and he is engaged to a woman who is also working on a PhD in the biological sciences.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Added 4/13/20:

My father was a child of the beginning of the Soviet Union, his father was a highly educated Orthodox Jew (musmah Kishinev). My grandfather came to the States first and established a business selling second hand steel in Cleveland, OH. Then he was busted for selling stolen property and after spending everything to avoid jail moved to Detroit. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, found the cash to ship my Bubby and her three surviving children (three others seem to have died of Tay-Sachs) to Detroit. It’s not entirely clear that my grandfather, the Grand Rabbi, was all that happy to see them.
 
My mother of blessed memory was born in Brooklyn. Her mother had five children of whom my mother was the youngest. She passed when my mother was 14 and my maternal grandfather (who was a Sanitation Dept employee) fostered her out to people who were cousins of ours. Through Facebook I have been able to make contact with that branch of the family and they are all wonderful folks. In those days there was no healthcare and no real pension for city employees, so when my grandfather couldn’t work owing to a savaged back, he eked out a living as fortune teller setting up on the street. He passed the year before I was born. My middle name, Francis is for my mother’s next-in-line sister Frances  who was electrocuted in shock therapy at a Brooklyn hospital, also the year before I was born. I know, many of you don’t want to hear details like this, but if you want to be honest about life, these are the kinds of things that happen.
 
After my pretty typically Orthodox bar-mitzvah, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. Like Perry, I was impressed with the events of the 6-Day-War. My father decided to make Aliyah–I think as a way of getting away from us as we were not invited to accompany him–and that was the last I saw of him until I got to WUJS (he was in Tel Aviv). In 1971  I had a serious health emergency and my life was literally saved by the invention of colon fiberscope. I was only the 3rd person to undergo that procedure. The doctors found the polyps that were the cause of my issue and extracted them. I’m telling you this because when I woke up the town (Madison, WI) hazzan was waiting by my bedside. A doctor had asked him to come because he recognized that I was reciting the Sh’ma in my delirium.
 
After my recovery, I started hanging out at Hillel and discovered that the rabbi there was both brilliant and not crazy. It was the first time I think I realized that one could be intelligent and religious at the same time. We became lifetime friends–just spoke with him last week–and I’ve been part of Conservative Judaism ever since. It was at this Hillel that I met the “shaliah” who recommended that I go to WUJS. Not to say that “I got religion”–I was agnostic before, during, and after all this. But I found great comfort in being part of a community, and I discovered that I love ritual even if I don’t think it’s going to save any possible soul I might have.

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!

On David Broza, Pete Seeger and Other Musings

In my life I have been fortunate to have had close encounters of the musical kind with people imbued with immense musical sensibility and talent. In the early Spring of 1971, I was part of a student effort at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) to discover “future alternatives for America.” This Symposium was a direct result of the loss of a student’s life when a group of anti-war activists set off a bomb in the University’s Sterling Hall, home to the Army Math Research Center.

Each of us on the steering committee were charged with inviting speakers who could address the theme. My dear friend Shelley Falik chose to invite Pete Seeger, and to the astonishment of many of us, Pete accepted.

In order to avoid problems with his record label, Pete’s appearance was labelled “Pete Seeger Speaks” and the nothing in the description suggested that he would be giving a concert. But no one was fooled by that.

The night before the concert arrived and Pete Seeger arrived (in my fuzzy recollection by bus carrying his guitar and banjo). At some point, Shelley picked him up in his beat up jalopy and brought him to his student dive of a house where his girl friend and Symposium helper had made a pot of beans. The rest of us came with the simple offerings of students in those “counter culture” days. Pete pronounced the meal as good as any he could recall.

I don’t remember where he spent the night, but the next day at around 10am, Shelley and I were on a makeshift stage with him at the University of Wisconsin Stock Pavilion which could hold around 2,000 people. It was full. Pete Seeger “spoke” for about two hours.  It was broadcast by UW’s public radio station and I have a recording of that event but no idea whether I can legally post it or not. Perhaps some day.

All this came rushing back to mind yesterday when I had another close encounter with musical greatness. A few days ago my friend Mary Linda Schwartzbart noted in her Facebook page that David Broza’s new film would be screened at our Scruffy City Arts Festival here in Knoxville. Scruff City is a rather odd place–part bar, part performance venue. It sits on Knxoxville’s Market Square in a building dating to about 1900. These days, some enterprising and artistic minded folk have purchased it and use if for things like the Scruffy City Arts Festival.

Imagining that there would be a mob scene immediately prior to the event, Terri and I went over there the day before to buy our tickets. For those of you who do not know, David Broza is one of Israel’s most famous musical artists, a celebrity who can fill stadiums. As I bought the tickets, the manager told me that David Broza would be at the event and might perform a few songs after the movie.

As the event was getting under way, Terri headed off on a brief errand and I handed the ticket taker my stub–and I as I did so I glanced back. Standing right next me, close enough that I could have tapped him on the shoulder, was David Broza. Since I couldn’t actually think of anything to say to him, I gawked for a brief minute and then headed for a seat inside. When Terri joined me I said, I’m pretty sure David Broza is here.

The movie is called David Broza: East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. It is a small study in the ways that music can enlighten people and contribute to peace. A wonderful surprise for the Knoxville crowd is the presence in the movie of Steve Earle. In this film he could pass for a Hassid.

David Broza at Scruffy City, Knoxville

David Broza at Scruffy City, Knoxville

For reasons I can’t imagine, no one seems to have informed the Jewish community of Knoxville that this would be happening, so the audience consisted of Mary Linda’s friends and the usual suspects who turn up for every musical event in Knoxville–which is a wonderful, motley crew. Fortunately that meant enough people to mostly fill the small auditorium, and the crowd made up for its small size in vocal enthusiasm. Knoxville’s Appalachian residents welcomed David Broza into the fold. They clearly appreciated the film, and even more the songs that Broza played at its conclusion. Those songs included two wonderful pieces from the film: Jerusalem and my personal favorite, The Lion’s Den. He also played a song inspired by the music of the Mughrab and concluded with his most famous tune called Yiyeh Tov, a Hebrew song whose title means something like “It will turn out OK.”

On the “Open Hillel” Movement

A two-year old initiative called “Open Hillel” is once again in the news. For those of you who aren’t particularly interested in Jewish politics, much less the emotional stirrings of Jewish students on college campuses, this probably feels like “much ado about not much.” But it is important to me, and I hope you’ll indulge me for a bit.

When I arrived as a young college student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, the campus was in almost constant tumult with events related to the Vietnam War. Madison (Wisconsin), UC-Berkeley and the U of Michigan (all campuses where I had or would have strong connections) were among the most active, but the uproar was everywhere. There were even students shot and killed–which left an enduring legacy in the form of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Four Dead in Ohio.”

berkeleyHillel

Berkeley’s Hillel House as it looks today.

At Berkeley, Jewish students opposed to the war formed a collective they named “The Elders of Zion” and published a campus newspaper called “The Jewish Radical.” The newspaper and the group received support and a home in the local Hillel Foundation. At Wisconsin, Jewish students created an ambulance brigade to provide first aid to demonstrators (or anyone else) who was injured in the demonstrations. That operation, likewise, was housed in the local Hillel Foundation.

Lest you think this was all the exaggerated antics of over-enthusiastic youth, let me provide a very personal anecdote. In the late Fall semester of my second year at Wisconsin, I left a mid-term exam in Geology, got on my bicycle and started pedaling towards my next class. When I turned the corner of State and University Avenues, an unmarked police car pulled up beside me. I glanced at it just long enough to see someone pointing a grenade launcher at me. The grenade hit me in the leg and detonated a tear gas canister. I skidded to the side of the street enveloped by the gas. Suddenly a middle-aged, matronly woman bolted out of the closest building (Chadbourne Hall). She grabbed me under my arms and hauled me into the building where someone else dumped a bucket of water over me.

First aid was important in those days. And no, I had no idea what was going on (it turned out that a band of demonstrators had passed that spot a few minutes before I turned the corner), and I had absolutely nothing to do with whatever the officers were reacting to. Not that I was innocent of participation—I did attend demonstrations. Just not that day.

madison_hillel

Neither this lovely facade nor the photo of Berkeley’s Hillel resemble the buildings of my era. As nice a statement as these facades may make, no one should be surprised that it took major fundraising to transform the old edifices.

At Madison the rabbi of the Hillel allowed the facility to be used for the makeshift first-aid center. At Berkeley, the rabbi supported the student efforts to create a journal for vigorous debate of the issues of the day—particularly the issues that stirred the minds of young, Jewish students. And similar activities were supported throughout the country wherever there were enough Jewish students who desired to use the Hillel Foundation as a home base for their discussions and activities.

A decade or so after the Vietnam War had ended, Berkeley’s students were involved in another cause. Refugees were arriving from Central America. Many campus religious organizations offered these refugees a place to stay and eat. No one at these churches was particularly concerned about the legal status of these obviously beleaguered people. Berkeley’s Hillel Foundation was not directly involved in most of this activity, but there were occasions when there was overflow (too many guests) or a church needed its full facility for an event–and on such occasions the Jewish students would take the refugees over to Hillel for that time.

This was the Hillel of my college and early professional years. Sensitive to the issues that motivated Jewish college students and willing to take small risks (there were never any serious consequences to any of these activities) to assure those students that compassion is an important component of the Jewish faith.

Today, these sorts of things seem to be a thing of the past. Hillel Foundations avoid even the slightest controversies like the plague. Hillel directors shun any sort of activities that cannot be directly connected to matters of interest to Judaism, and even in that smaller arena, the official Hillels are places where any sort of criticism of Israel cannot be countenanced.

What happened? As an historian I like to say, “Whenever anyone says it’s not about the money, it’s always about the money.”

The Hillel Foundations have an interesting history. They were not created by a religious community but rather a fraternal organization called B’nai B’rith (the Jewish version of organizations like the Shriners and Masons). B’nai B’rith was also the home of an international youth association and most-famously the Anti-Defamation League. B’nai B’rith’s status as a fraternal rather than religious organization allowed their affiliated agencies to be non-denominational: all Jewish students should feel equally at home no matter whether their background was Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, or for that matter secular. In order to foster the widest degree of participation, most Hillels tried to serve kosher food and adhere to standards of Sabbath observance that would satisfy all but the most Orthodox of students. Essentially it was a matter of serving the students who would come.

The central office for the Hillel Foundations didn’t have much time to deal with local issues and most local directors (some but not all of whom were rabbis) were given wide discretion. Most of the Foundations were given funds to cover the directors’ salaries and a bit for programming, and needed to raise the rest locally. Oddly enough, this arrangement gave the local foundations a bit of cover which freed them from too much concern about petty local politicking in much the same way that Roman Catholic congregations are sometimes shielded from local politics by the central control of the Vatican.

All this came to a rapid demise in the late ‘80s. Fraternal organizations in general, and B’nai B’rith more than most, saw huge declines in membership and fundraising. Those Hillel Foundations which had received significant funding from the national office were told to make friends locally. That meant dealing with the sources of local Jewish communal funding which generally go by names such as the “Jewish Community Federation of…” Eventually, the situation deteriorated to the point that B’nai B’rith and the Hillel Foundations found it necessary to separate into completely independent organizations. Today, B’nai B’rith has nothing to do with the hundreds of campus Jewish organizations it founded.

One of the casualties of this process was intellectual freedom within the Hillel populations. That may seem like an extreme statement, but bear with me and I think you will understand that it is no exaggeration.

Jewish Federations are not democracies. They were designed to raise the maximum amount of money possible, and to do that they learned to cater to the biggest donors. In most communities those donors are rich, politically conservative, and often vigorously pro-Israel. Of greater importance, they often feel strongly that they do not want their contributions funding any activity that might be perceived as “bad for Israel.” And as the Israeli government has become increasingly conservative in recent years, American Jewish federations have moved along that path as well.

To illustrate how this can affect the academic environment, consider the case of Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin is among the most important scholars of early Jewish religion and history. He holds the Taubman Chair of Talmudic Culture within the Near East Studies department at UC Berkeley. His scholarship is unquestionably of the highest caliber, and he has important things to say about the history and evolution of Judaism in its critical and formative period. Despite his stature in scholarship, he is persona non grata in most Hillel Foundations and Jewish communal institutions such as adult educational forums sponsored by those communal institutions. Why? Boyarin has been an outspoken personality on the progressive or if you will left-wing side of Israeli/Zionist politics, and that irks many of the big donors.

In response to these donors, Hillel has posted guidelines which at first glance might seem innocuous, but contain clauses that can be used to exclude scholars such as Boyarin as well as prominent rabbis and other Jews who are unwilling to commit to what ultimately comes to a matter of restraining free and unfettered speech. The guidelines can be found here:

 http://www.hillel.org/jewish/hillel-israel/hillel-israel-guidelines

Without turning this into a lengthy study of these “guidelines” let me say that I think most would agree that the single most difficult part of these guidelines is the bullet point which excludes anyone who supports: “… boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

berkeley_demontration

This is more like the scenes that I recall…

Personally, after careful consideration, I cannot support what has become known as the “BDS” approach. But I find it completely unacceptable that Jewish students should be prevented from learning why other Jews believe this is the correct approach.

Boyarin’s academic methods and conclusions are not universally accepted in the community of Jewish scholars, but none would deny that his claims are credibly based on profound analyses of the sources available to us. To exclude a scholar such as Boyarin is to make a mockery of the idea of scholarship and to deprive Jewish students of one of the most creative minds available to them. But that is exactly what has happened in Hillel Foundations around the country. And this is directly a consequence of the conversion of institutions such as Hillel Foundations into creatures of the local Jewish communal organizations.

I have used Boyarin as one example of this issue, but he is hardly unique. As those of you who have read him might expect, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most renowned public intellectuals would not pass muster under these guidelines. My dear friend Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a tireless warrior for peace and the scion of one of the most prominent rabbinic families in the world would likewise be excluded from Jewish audiences if the national Hillel organization had its way.

What is lost in this haze of politics is that students suffer (and this is true whether we are speaking of Jewish students or any other such groups) when they are denied the ability to hear the wide range of opinions that is a significant feature of higher education. Imagine denying Arab students the right to hear an Arab scholar speak about the positive relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle Ages because some sponsoring Arab communal organization is concerned about looking too pro-Jewish.

And so we come to the “Open Hillel” movement that seems to be gaining traction at many universities these days. As the term suggests, Jewish students on several campuses have declared an interest in hearing from all sides in the fractious environment of the Middle East. They are not willing to exclude voices such as Boyarin’s. And perhaps even more serious from the perspective of the organized Jewish community, they are willing to listen to speakers and organizations which represent pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist schools of thought.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that if I were a college student today, I would be part of the Open Hillel movement. I strongly suspect that if things were then, when I began my career with Hillel Foundation at Berkeley, as they are now that I would not have been considered an acceptable role model and probably would not have been hired.

The irony in that is that I am neither anti-Israel nor anti-Zionist. While I do have serious reservations about the policies of the current government of Israel, I continue to believe that Israel serves an important purpose in providing refuge for Jews who become the subject of persecution. In a world in which many countries provide special status to their ancestral peoples, I do not see any reason why Israel cannot do so for Jews. But because I am unwilling to declare loyalty for the Israeli policies which I happen to oppose, I would not be considered an appropriate hire for most Jewish communal organizations including most Hillel Foundations.

All of this would be the sad ruminations of an aging curmudgeon if it weren’t for one fact I mentioned above. I believe strongly that the policies I have mentioned here are damaging the ability of Jewish communal organizations to reach college-age Jews. We should all be celebrating the “Open Hillel” movement because it, far more than the regular Hillel Foundations, has a chance of reaching that critically important population sector and perhaps retaining some of these motivated, highly educated Jews for the future of the community.

Life in These States of UTK

Lots of construction going on. What’s missing is anything resembling decent signage or consideration for pedestrians–especially disabled folks. With my bum knee, I guess I now belong to that category. But this, I understand, is pretty normal around these parts. Come to think of it, it reminds me a lot of Tel Aviv. A few years ago we rented an apartment there and discovered that they were tearing up the sidewalks having made not the slightest provision for disabled folks.

Last Wednesday I needed to journey to the ends of the earth. Well, at least the campus. A class I was taking was scheduled for a room inside and at the far end of the football stadium. Normally to get to the stadium, I would walk down a long valley that leads directly from Cumberland Ave to the stadium. And that’s what I set out to do. But halfway there I discovered that that route was blocked by construction.

The only way out of the construction (other than turning around completely and returning the way I had come) was to enter a campus building. I was confident that the building would have an exit to an alternate path to the stadium and so I entered the building. A sign was posted which read “Exit on 3rd Floor.” I was on the first floor, so I looked for a staircase.

Just a few steps along a corridor I came to an Exit sign and a stairwell. I entered the stairwell and climbed a flight of stairs, which would put me at the 2nd rather than the 3rd floor. There was no flight up from there, just a door to what I thought would be the 2nd floor of the building. I went through the door, and this is what I saw:

UTK Construction02The door closed and locked behind me. I was on a grassy hill. Below me was a ledge, about four feet higher than the corridor running along side the building. Looking up the hill I could see a fence, about 5 feet tall. I walked up the hill and down the hill. The gates at the top were padlocked, the ledge at the bottom was continuous, there were no stairs or other means of getting off the hill.

For a New York minute I contemplated calling 911 to get me outtathere. I walked up the hill to the fence and thought about climbing over it. Nah. Then I went down the hill and contemplating jumping down four feet to the concrete path below. Nah.

Finally, the solution came to me. I went back down hill and sat my behind down on the ledge, draping my legs over. About two feet to drop, but by holding both arms on the ledge I could let myself down easy and only drop the last six inches or so. Success! (You may be wondering about all this fuss, but let me say that if you have a knee without cartilage you’ll know exactly what motivated all that care.)

Of course, this now put me exactly where I was before! I still had to enter the building and find a way out further up the hill. This time, however, I took the elevator to the third floor and found the public exit. That did indeed lead to the football stadium and to my class.

On the way back, I took a few photos of the area of my confinement. I think this is the best summation of the experience:

UTK Construction01Yes, that wheelchair entrance sign is indeed located behind the fence I would have needed to climb to exit that direction.

David Farragut Junior High School (JHS 44) Bronx, New York

Note: A few extra notes and corrections as a result of correspondence with several alumni of JHS 44: Mitch Turbin, Rob Slayton and Larry Pryluck.

Due to a family move between the 8th and 9th grades, I attended two Junior High Schools. My 7th and 8th grades were located within the ancient (19th century) halls of Junior High School 44 which had taken the name of David Farragut, America’s first Rear Admiral and a hero of both the War of 1812 (having enlisted at the age of 12!) and the Civil War. Those of us in the Bronx didn’t know much about New Orleans, so the tales of David Farragut were my first introduction to that exotic place.

jhs-44-bronx

Much to the chagrin of the school, its most famous graduate was Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President of John F. Kennedy. Most of us who lived through that event recall exactly where we were at the moment we heard the news. I was in JHS 44’s Wood Shop when the announcement came over the school speaker. I think we went home early that day, although I don’t recall that clearly. Some time later I noticed that one of the names carved into a desk where I sat was Lee Oswald. It may have been the prank of one of my contemporaries, who knows.

If I remember correctly, the school had two graduates more worthy of recall. Dr. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the Polio vaccine, and Hank Greenberg, a rare example of a Jewish major league baseball player.

On a visit to New York City a few years ago, I found myself close enough to 44 to take a walk over and see how the old building was faring. I was surprised (actually) to see that it was still in operation, but it is now an elementary school, grades K-6. It was a little sad. Not exactly my fondest memories to begin with, no one seemed to have the remotest interest in talking about the school’s former glories. So I left without much to show for my interest other than the dying embers of a few more synapses. It turns out that JHS 44 was at least in part an elementary (K-6) school even in my day. Larry Pryluck actually attended K-1 there. I don’t know how many other schools were like this in New York City, combining the youngest school children with middle schoolers, but it would be interesting to discover. Larry then joined me in Mrs. Mitchell’s 2nd grade class at PS 92.

Larry reminded me of another of JHS 44’s distinctions, although it was hardly a credit to the school so much as the neighborhood. Strange as it may seem now, that crumbling part of the Bronx was home to a televsion studio-Biograph Studios. Biograph was the home of Naked City and Car 54 Where Are You? Naked City was a bit before my time, but I remember Car 54 very well. The cast included Joe E. Ross, Fred Gwynn, Al Lewis and Nipsey Russell (!). I don’t know how often these guys were seen around the neighborhood, but a few of my family were in the background of scenes shot on Southern Boulevard. Naked City is easily available at this time, but unfortunately Car 54 is out of print as I write this. There is a movie by the same name, but it has the distinction of being rated the worst film since Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space so I wouldn’t recommend it.

David Farragut JHS had a somewhat well-known school song which celebrated its namesake. Although just about every High School has a school song, Junior High songs are not common, and good ones are rare. JHS 44 had had a good music teacher who came up with a song I’d bet would be a candidate for “best in show”. The one time that Google has failed me in recent years is the time that I put in some of the words expecting to find that one of my classmates or teachers had uploaded the words to the song, but nothing turned up. There are gaps in what I recall, so here’s my first attempt. If others can help me fill in the gaps, I’d post a music file to preserve this little memory of a Bronx backwater.

Lets give a cheer for dear old 44

For all the boys and girls who’ve gone before

Lets cheer the green and white

And shout with all our might

For David Farragut!

[gap]

He sailed the Union fleet right up the bay

He won the battle at Mobile that day

[gap]

Dear Old Salamander

We praise thy name

Our hearts with love aflame [maybe]

Honor thy great name

Though soon we will graduate

[more gap]

JHS44 in 2010

PS 44 (No longer JHS!) in 2010