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.


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!


He sailed the Union fleet right up the bay

He won the battle at Mobile that day


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

A Brief Bx Science Oriented AutoBio

It’s that time–high school reunion. This year its my (shudder) 40th. I’ve heard from a number of old friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in perhaps more than those 40 years, so I think it a good occasion to give some account of myself with as much of a tip of the hat to my alma mater as I can muster.

Undergrad Years, 1969-1972

After graduating from Bx Science in the rather turbulent year of 1969 I headed for an even more turbulent place, the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A few other Science grads accompanied me–off the top of my head Rena Robbins and Shelley Falik. The VietNam War was heavy upon us, at some point I hope to share some of my experiences through those events and years. For now, I’ll say that although I started off as a science major, social pressures and imminent military service kept my thoughts elsewhere. Through clouds of tear gas and watching armored personnel carriers trundle through downtown streets, I experienced as much educationally outside the classroom as in.

Another Science grad, David Fine, became infamous as a member of the gang that brought urban terrorism to Madison. In late 1970, he and his partners detonated a bomb which destroyed the Army Math Research Center and in the process killed a promising young post-doc named Robert Fassnacht. If you’re interested, here’s one link to what happened:

Madison, Army Math Research Center

The following year, I joined a group of UW students in trying to make sense of all this by inviting a stellar cast of dozens of the most famous people in the world to participate in a Wisconsin Student Association  Symposium. Much to my surprise, most of the invitees accepted and I found myself in the company of George McGovern, Nathan Glazer, Paul Samuelson, Jimmy Breslin, Anthony Lewis, James Farmer, George Wald and Pete Seeger (!).

Shelley (Science 69) was one of the organizers and gets the credit for convincing Pete Seeger to come. Shelley invited Pete to attend a pot luck dinner at his house, and after eating a humble meal (beans of various kinds is about all I recall of the menu), Pete picked up his banjo and led us in a sing-along. The following day, Pete held his “talk” which unsurprisingly turned into a concert. But towards the end, Pete thrust his microphone in front of Shelley’s mouth and said (paraphrasing after these several decades), “Why did you invite so few women to speak at this event?” Shelley looked mortified, that deer-in-the-headlights stare for a few moments. Then he said quite simply, “We were wrong”. Pete Seeger smiled and said, “There is the beginning of wisdom” and went on with the concert.

I hope I’ll have more to say on the topic of this symposium elsewhere in my blog.

Grad School

Life went on and I graduated from the UW in December 1972 with a few accomplishments. Earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and an award for best undergraduate thesis. In my senior year, I had developed an affection for ancient Jewish history. So I ignored my admissions letter to the UW Law School and headed for Israel with hardly a penny to my name. I attended the Ulpan (Hebrew Academy) affiliated with the World Union of Jewish Students in Arad. While there, at synagogue on the Day of Atonement, our rabbi faced us and said, “I regret to inform you that Israel has been attacked on all sides by the armed forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. I volunteered for service and they immediately found a suitable job for me: picking weeds out of pepper fields. After two weeks of this, the war over, I returned to Ulpan.

From there I enrolled in the Master’s program in Classical History at Tel Aviv University. I didn’t have the mandatory Latin facility, so they insisted that I take their first-year Latin class. My grad advisor informed me, with more than a twinkle in his eye, that I was very “fortunate” because for the first time elementary Latin was being taught to Hebrew-speaking students using a Hebrew textbook. I’m not sure how much Latin I learned in that class, but I can say without fear of exaggeration that that was where I learned Hebrew.

After a grueling but fabulous year at Tel Aviv, I realized that I had to return to the States to have any hope of an academic career. Much to my surprise, UC-Berkeley not only accepted me, but offered me a full-ride fellowship, so I landed in Berkeley in 1974. In another weird coincidence, David Fine (our Science-grad bomber) was also living in Berkeley at the time. The authorities finally caught up with him, so there I was in San Francisco reading about his arrest and trial.

I received my MA in Near Eastern Languages and Lit in December, 1976 and began my doctoral studies in Berkeley’s Group for Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology. My studies were going well, and I spent another year traveling. I received a year’s doctoral fellowship from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 77/78 and the following year was admitted to the graduate and rabbinic programs of the Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati).

But in 1979 I had some personal problems related to my mother’s medical condition and the simple reality that these were not good times for students of the Humanities, and I took leave of UC-Berkeley. It was supposed to be temporary, but as has happened to so many back then, it has stretched to decades.

Early Career

During my last grad years at UC, I had begun to teach Hebrew and Jewish Studies at a new school for adult Jewish students called Lehrhaus Judaica. When I left UC, the Hillel Foundation and Lehrhaus offered to hire me full time. By day, I managed the business activities of the Foundation, and at night I taught. Lehrhaus spread over the entire San Francisco Bay Area and for my last several years there I rode circuit teaching at Stanford, San Francisco State and Berkeley. Although these were adult classes, we were reviewed by the University of Judaism and my Hebrew classes along with several other courses taught by Fred Rosenbaum and Marty Ballonoff were awarded credit-worth status. So those few of my students who wanted it could earn academic credit.


In late 1982, I met the love of my life, Theresa (Terri) Lee. Our first encounter was in one of my Hebrew classes, and yes, I did occasionally date my students. Never the ones taking the class for a grade, of course. Terri was a post-doc in UC-Berkeley’s Psychology Department and had come to study with Irv Zucker. But she somehow found some time to take my Hebrew class and stuck with it, she said, because I was one of the best stand-up comedians she had ever heard. We married a year later. The rabbi made a mistake in the community newspaper and invited everyone to our wedding, so instead of the 100 we thought would attend, there were about 350!

First Child

On September 16, 1985, my first-born entered the world. Reluctantly. Shoshana was a breach baby, and Terri had to be carried kicking and screaming into surgery for the C-section. Terri, who operated on animals on a daily basis, knew what surgery was like and she was having none of it. But we chanted Hebrew verb tables together and she came through it as did my beautiful daughter whom we named Shoshana Frances. That day, by the way, was Rosh HaShanah, one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. I had been scheduled to read from the Torah to an audience of more than 600, but some lucky person had to fill in for me. I think that must have been Rabbi Ballonoff, but if he was upset, he never let on.

Moving to Michigan

After 14 glorious years in Berkeley, there was a serious decision to be made. I had this wonderful but quite wacky career as a Jewish educator, but Terri was invited to join the University of Michigan as an Assistant Professor. In my mind there was no comparison, and off to Michigan we went. Terri, Shoshana, my dog Lucy, our cat Teddy and our three rabbits, Pesah, Bilhah and Zilpah. We found that we couldn’t afford a house in Ann Arbor, so we bought a small house on 11 acres just outside town. We’re still in it 18 years later, and I’m typing this into my computer in my office in that house. We finally were able to get DSL about two years ago, so I’m not using dial-up!

Terri rose from Assistant Prof to Associate. Then she was promoted to Professor. They made her the Chair of the Biopsychology group and then the Chair of the Undergrad program. Now she is Department Chair. Psychology is the largest department in the University and the numbers are mind-boggling. 8000 enrolled students ( 25% of incoming first year students in the college get at least one of their undegraduate degrees in Psych). She’s also been co-director of the University’s Sheep Farm and published an armload of papers. Her own lab has something like 40 post-docs, grad students and undergrads toiling away on her sheep and rodent projects.

OK, this is supposed to be autobiographical, so what happened to me?

Of course I would have liked to have taken up where I left off in Berkeley, but it was abundantly clear to me on my arrival that Michigan’s chapter of the Hillel Foundation was doing just fine without me. I probably could have tried making something happen at one of the smaller schools, but after 14 years I thought it was time for something different. I did manage to keep a foot in the teaching of Judaica. Soon after our arrival, someone who knew of me from Berkeley–a Science grad for that matter, Barry Gross–invited me to teach at Congregation Kehillat Israel in Lansing, Michigan and I’ve taught there ever since. But unlike Berkeley, I wasn’t going to be making a living here that way.

One of my students at our Stanford campus was a highly placed executive in the Oracle Corporation. Someone who had been there from the beginning and was a personal friend of Larry Ellison. He was contemplating early retirement and doing graduate work in Judaica and we became good friends. One day he asked me whether I’d like to learn about Oracle and that started me on a path of study to become a database administrator.

On my arrival in Michigan, I discovered that the school had just signed a license for Oracle but had no one who actually knew how to use it. (There were a few departments who had used it prior to the campus-wide agreement, but no one in the primary IT department was familiar with it.) So I was hired to bring up the first Oracle database in the University’s administrative area.

A few years later, in April of 1991, our second child, Ephraim Robert joined the family.

I moved from database administrator to departmental manager at the College of Engineering and eventually was appointed Director of Operations in 2006. After a few health problems and administrative headaches beyond the call of duty, I decided on early retirement in 2007. After about 6 weeks of retirement I went back to work. Nothing to do with the current financial mess, I just didn’t take to an unstructured life very well. My current job is far cry from my former position. I help University faculty and staff acquire the software they need to get their jobs or research done. For the first time ever I have a cube instead of an office and no one to supervise. But I work on a team with some very fine people and the work is far less stressful than my former position.

As it turned out, this was a good place to be now that we are in the grips of some pretty terrifying financial times. If the financial climate improves I think I’ll get back to some good retirement planning. I want to spend more time working on Web sites for organizations I support like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and our small Ann Arbor Model Railroad Club. I’m doing a re-write of the book on Classical Hebrew I wrote for my class at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica. So there’s no lack of things to occupy me, just a lack of things that pay.

The family continues to grow. Karl Malcolm proposed to and subsequently wed Shoshana in August of 2008 (photo elsewhere in this blog). Shoshana became a registered nurse and is now doing the sacred work of healing at the VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. Ephraim will soon be graduating from Dexter High School and is planning to spend his first college year in Israel.

I’m in regular contact with at least one other Science grad–Rabbi Jay Lapidus, who runs a small but vibrant discussion group on Yahoo called “OCR Jewish”.

So that’s my news thus far. I’ve had a marvelous life so far, and I’m looking forward to many more happy times. As I write this, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to get to our 40th reunion or not, but I hope to hear from some of my old friends any time!