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Thirteen years

September 11, 2001 I was on the subway crossing the bridge on the way to work when a beautiful sunny Tuesday turned into a day of smoke and tears.

I will never forget watching the towers burning like two torches in the morning, and the pillar of smoke in the evening.  I will never forget the missing posters and signs forming a macabre collage all over midtown.

When I was in Israel a few years before there were a few bombings (notably the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem), and the same feelings of horror, anger, and loss were translated to the streets of Manhattan.

In Israel the el-Aqsa intifada was at full blast, but as horrible as bus and restaurant bombings are, they were somehow more understandable, it was part of a conflict with known causes and players.

In the previous November George Bush was narrowly elected by such a slim margin that his left wing detractors referred to him as the President-Select.  In a pre-election television interview he was notably unable to name Pervez Musharraf, the general who had recently led a coup to take power in Pakistan.  Afghanistan was a land far away, where the USSR army bled slowly in pointless quagmire, and ruled by a fanatic regime who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas.  Familiar only from reading Kipling, and the early journalistic efforts of a young Winston Churchill who wrote about the Talib fanatics among the Pashtuns and hill tribes.   Within the next two years we would be at war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last night the President called for another intervention--War against ISIL.  ISIL is neither a state or a conventional terrorist group-- the closest analogy is to the Khmer Rouge.  They are ethno-centrist and sectarian, with the delusions of returning to lost glory with a genocidal drive.  As they are not a Nation-State there is no declaration of war from Congress, and like Bush’s war on Terror, there is no end picture of what victory will look like.  The President vowed to take the fight across national borders--which is likely to lead to a real war.

Fourth of July,

“We the People of the United States in Order to form a more perfect Union” are the first words of the Constitution, (that’s for September 17, not July Fourth).
The founding fathers when they cast off British rule and “dissolved the political bonds” that bound them to King and Parliament understood that they had to establish a stable government based on law, not an utopian dream.
These men understood that they would have to compromise their ideals in order to succeed in practice.  The ethnic cleansing of the Natives is a disgrace and Slavery would continue on for nearly a century until the civil war nearly tore the country apart.  The legacy of these two original sins continues to haunt the nation.  In their lifetime the many of the founders would see the bloody excesses and failures of the French Revolution (much as we are watching the Arab Spring turn in on itself, and the past century saw Russia go from Tsarist Despotism to Communist repression).  Theirs was a conservative revolution that went so far and said ‘Enough.’  Nevertheless, the founders understood the need to tolerate flaws and conflicting interests while creating a system through which they could be remedied and redressed.
These great men (and they were all men of western-European extraction) were flawed human beings.  The great Benjamin Franklin—civic activist, scientist, and publisher – was also a public adulterer who flaunted his Parisian mistress and their bathtub chess games, and whose illegitimate son was the British Loyalist governor of New Jersey.  John Adams, respected for his dedication to the law, diligence, and brilliance, was a difficult and temperamental personality who as President would pass the Alien and Sedition acts.  Thomas Jefferson the eloquent author of the declaration extolling the inalienable rights of man worked his plantation with human chattel (including his wife’s half-sister by whom he fathered children).   
These men living in the colonial backwaters of the British Empire studied the classics, history, and law and understood that they would have to create a stable system that could be corrected with the consent of the people when the need arose.  They understood the need to limit government power and did so with a cumbersome process of checks and balances that took into account geography, political party, and the institutional perquisites of the individual branches of government.  The messiness that results from this elaborate balancing act guarantees that change is slow.
The United States in 2013 looks very different than in 1776, but this is because the ideals for which the founders declared independence have had time to evolve and mature.  The United States no longer sit on the edges of the European empires, but is the superpower of consequence.  We are no longer the brash upstarts, but the example to the world that Democracy can work.
Happy independence day.


Libraries are in a bind.

Every year we face shrinking budget and increasing expenses.  On the Branch side there is an ever increasing demand for library services in an economy which, despite the bailout, has yet to trickle down to the working class.  We provide ESOL, literacy and computer classes, resume and job search resources.  We are the cooling centers in the summer, and a warm safe place in the winter, we become the de facto day care and senior centers in addition to providing free access to the internet (which may be ubiquitous for upper class homes, but not in for the poor or immigrant households).  Lending materials-- DVD’s, CD’s, even print books keep on going up in price, and e-books (while still only a fraction of our circulation) involve complicated deals with the vendors rather than outright purchase.  On the research side, economic uncertainty leads to shrinking
Monday starts a new chapter for New York City libraries – BookOps.  Brooklyn Public Library technical service staff are joining us New York Public Library technical service staff in the Library Service Center in Queens. This venture means that the libraries serving four of the boroughs will have a facility in the fifth.
This is an experiment.  Can libraries pool staff and purchasing power to stretch ever diminishing resources?  Can a non-profit change the trend of outsourcing back-office activities, selection, cataloging, processing and distribution to outside vendors?  It is time to find out.

Yom hashoah -יום השועה תשעג

The Israeli government instituted Yom ha-Shoah in 27th Nissan, as a day of remembrance for the victims and heroes of the Holocaust (the date was chosen to honor the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, which began on Passover).  The air-raid siren is sounded and most of the country stands for an eerily quiet few minutes. (As everything in Israel the decision has controversy—the Rabbinate had already designated Tisha b’av and Asara b’tevet as proper days for mourning the Hurban.  Furthermore, public mourning and private fasts are not permitted in Nissan).
Commemoration and historiography has evolved.  In the beginning the founding generation of Zionist Israelis were ashamed of the so called passivity of the victims and focused on the Ghetto revolts, next a focus on the camps.  The image of Israel rising like a phoenix from the ashes is still evident in the public discourse (March of the Living is a good example).  Gradually as the country and historiography evolved, and a mass exodus of Soviet Jews, a greater understanding of the Soviet Jewish victims and Red-Army liberators entered the discussion.
Now approaching the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt there are fewer and fewer survivors left.  It is time to change the focus from how victims died to how they lived.
Having cataloged Holocaust era Yiddish periodicals, memoirs written shortly after the war, and Joint publications from the DP camps, I have had a chance to read a slice life before the war.  It is time to stop thinking of the Holocaust merely in terms of numbers of victims, statistics, maps, and pictures of dehumanized corpses.
It is time to start looking at how people lived before the war.  It is time to drop the fiddler on the roof stereotype and look at the complexity of European Jewish life.  It is time to remember the civilization destroyed to properly mourn the destruction.

After the storm

Sandy hit New York hard.

Manhattan below midtown was dark, with power only recently restored. Many areas in the outer boroughs still are without power.
Transit was shut down for days and some train routes are still down and or not running from Brooklyn-Manhattan parts of the line.
Schools were shut for the week, and some schools will be sending their students to other locations until they are up and running again.

In the New York Public Library we reopened 55 of the branches on Thursday, despite our catalog  and main server being down (the iconic 42nd street building housing the IT center was without power).  I was in the 40th st. Mid-Manhattan branch and watched librarians come up with public programming on the spot.  Staff found ways for as many people as possible to charge devices (without totally overloading wiring that should have been updated long ago). Those of us who could make it in reported to branches often filling in on strange reference desks (or on the case of many of us non-roman catalogers straightening up the shelves of foreign language books.

A cross section of New Yorkers all came to the library -- students off from school, young professionals working from laptops, and older people just getting out of the house.  Even without the ability to carry out normal circulation activities (some locations used offline checkout), or even search the catalog.   NYPL was the place to go to charge phones and laptops, use the Internet, or even just have a warm safe dry place to be for the day. 

This is the public service, filling a need in the city.  Creating safe public spaces that cut across social and economic lines.  As the economy stagnates and budget cuts proliferate it is important to consider how the Library fills so many other roles in the community



Life of Galileo / Bertolt Brecht

This past week I saw the Classic Stage Company production of Brecht's Life Of Galileo.  A lot has been written about Galileo, and the play is really more of a reflection on the time when Brecht wrote (and rewrote) it: Late 1930's as his homeland was being dominated by fascism; 1940's with the anti-communist purges and black listing and the HUAC 'inquisition'; and the shadow the atomic bomb cast on science.  The play can be viewed from the perspective of the 1630’s, the 1940/1950’s and the present day.  As a religious person it disturbs me when religion is used a as a weapon to hurt others rather than a source of inspiration to be better.  I have to believe that that G-d does not want us to close our eyes and minds to his creation, but to take full nerdish pleasure in discovering its intricacies.

This production used the translation that was a collaboration between Charles Laughton, the actor who played Galileo in the original American production and Brecht.  F. Murray Abraham (always magnificent) starred as Galileo.  This production used supporting actors in multiple roles as the play itself has over 30 roles.   The theater was small and intimate, a circular stage with hanging globes representing the planets and medieval view of the planets.

I love the Little Monk (Aaron Himelstien), who after making an emotional case against upsetting the understanding of the order of the universe for the sake of his poor peasant family, still can't resist picking up the manuscript on tides. 
"Let it lie there.  Thou shalt not read. (Little Monk has picked up the manuscript) Already! An apple of the tree of knowledge, he can't wait, he wolfs it down. He will rot in hell for all eternity.  Look at him, where are his manners." (Laughton translation, scene 7)
When Galileo is called in by the Inquisition and shown the instruments of torture, his daughter Virginia prays for him to recant and be spared.  The Little Monk instead prays for the inquisition to back off.

"No one's virtue is complete / Great Galileo liked to eat" (Scene 2)

Brecht’s Galileo is an Anti-Hero.  He is a man who can’t resist “an old wine or a new thought.”  Capitulating  to the inquisition--not to live another day to keep on working on his theories, but from fear of pain.  He understands the chilling effect his silence will have even on lands outside of the Church’s influence, yet even when passing his work to his former student refuses to take on the risk. 

In cataloging I have become involved with the technical side of many of the New York Public Library’s projects. I see the actual data of titles to be sent offsite, the cuts that are involved collaborating with Columbia and NYU.  Having seen what the loss of the Oriental and Slavic divisions meant for researchers, I know what the consequences can be for researchers when the materials they need have a two to five day wait.  I read the articles in the Nation and listen to the NPR shows on what is going on knowing that it is actually worse.  … Yet I too like to eat.


What is Chanukah מאי חנוכה?

Tonight is the fifth night of Chanukah.  It happens to also be X-mas eve (Gregorian calendar, the Eastern churches celebrate in January). 

Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.  The nativity figures prominently in the gospels; whereas the book of Maccabees is part of the Apocrypha (non-canonical books of the bible).  Lighting candles and the added prayers are Rabbinic not biblical origin since the events are post biblical.  (Somehow the irony is lost on the Reform Jews who tend to make a much bigger deal of Chanukah than biblical holidays, despite claiming the Talmud and Oral law as irrelevant, observing one day of Yomtov instead of two…)

The Rabbis of the Talmud go so far as to begin the debate by asking the question, “What is Chanukah?”: Do we celebrate the miracle of the military victory or the rededication of the temple (both, but they downplay the war).  The oil lasted eight days when it should have only lasted one—this pales in comparison to many of the biblical miracles—and it still would only account for seven days of miracle, not eight.   Of course by the time of the Talmud, the military victory of the Hasmonean dynasty was bittersweet.  The family that fought against Hellenizing Greeks would collaborate with the Romans leading to the dissolution of the kingdom.  Latter commentators like Maimonides (late 1100’s (Hilkhot Melakhim u-milhamotehem) make the point that the later Hasmoneans went bad because they were illegitimate kings.  

The Chanukah story is not about religious freedom; politically correct versions gloss over the facts.  It is about staking a claim for religious identity.  The Seleucid Greeks issued edicts against the practices that create Jewish identity, i.e. circumcision, keeping Shabbat, and marking the Hebrew months (which determines the time of the holidays).   The family of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) led the revolt against the Greeks but also brutal retribution against Hellenized Jews.  After the Greeks were driven out through guerrilla warfare, the fighting continued as a bloody civil war. The Maccabees were not the ACLU of the Levant but the Jewish Taliban.

That said, Chanukah in the USA-- one of the most politically correct, egalitarian, and tolerant societies, is still about finding and staking a claim for religious identity.  Jewish communities most threatened by assimilation seem to make the most noise against Christian religious displays or try to keep up with elaborate gift giving (so the kids don’t feel left out).  The attempts a Chanukah bushes, Chrismukah, or any other variation of syncretism sadly miss the mark. 

September 12, 2001 -- 2011

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes, new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
….. (beginning of Shakespeare sonnet XXX)

With the capture of Bin-Laden, I wrote about some of my experiences on September 11, 2001. The coverage of 9/11, and coverage of the anniversary of 9/11 dominated the airwaves for the past week. The media saturated the airwaves with coverage, to the point I couldn’t watch or listen to any more. Ten years ago, I avoided the media saturation because most television channels (and many radio stations) broadcasted from antennas on the WTC.

Instead, I would like to remember September 12, 2001. I went to work, just as I did the day before. The library was closed to the public and staff were given the option of taking the day off (due to transit difficulties among other things). I personally didn’t want to stay home. At some point in the morning we were evacuated due to a bomb scare. (Working in a major NY City landmark it has happened before and since, but everyone was a little bit more sensitive on the twelfth.) The city was on edge, and yet pulled together.
On the commute in to work I looked out over the Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty from the bridge; whereas on the 10th I saw the towers, on the 11th the towers burning, on the 12th there was a pillar of smoke rising from the site. This pillar was visible for weeks as the wreckage smoldered. What struck me most however were the missing posters all over the train stations and nearly any other public space. Over the next week flags were hung all over the city.
Where are we ten years later:
We have yet to come up with viable alternatives to our petroleum addiction despite the gulf spill, and a venture with corn ethanol that drove up food prices. We have yet to significantly improve our infrastructure to be able to handle a biological threat (see avian flu, h1n1 etc. -- even a recent revival of measles and mumps because parents don’t think THEIR kids need to be vaccinated). We are involved in three wars in the Mideast (Afghanistan – the base of the Taliban/Al-Qaida, Iraq – because we had to figure a way to pull our troops out of Saudi Arabia, oil or WMD’s that were never found, Libya – to support who again?), yet we know even less about the region as Middle Eastern study programs come under threat (from all sides trying to infuse a political spin). The library where I work has dissolved their Asian, Middle Eastern, and Slavic reference divisions and cut acquisition of Arabic and Persian materials drastically due to budget cuts.

Family Vacation

So many people barely know their cousins, I’ve gone on vacation with mine for most of my life.

Nearly every year since before I was born, my family have gone to the beach on vacation together.  Some years we went other places (such as the Alaska cruise formy grandparent's 50'th and Caribbean for their 60'th anniversary).  This year there were about 25 of us staying in one house (including 2 babies, and not all of us were there all week).   I went down Sunday and came back Thursday.

Most of the family lives in the Baltimore / Washington area so Rehoboth Beach (Delaware) is only a couple hour drive.  I live in Brooklyn so getting there is a full day schlep.  After researching a few options, I took NJ transit to Atlantic City, transferred to the Wildwood/Cape May bus (returning I got a direct Cape May-New York bus).  From there I took the Cape May – Lewes ferry across the bay (Hour and a half or so) to Lewes Delaware (half an hour from Rehoboth)
where my parents picked me up.   It’s a long trip, but on the way back I was able to spend about an hour walking around the shops in Cape May before catching the bus.

High points include a morning of deep-sea fishing (and rest of day spent cleaning and cooking the fish) and 
seeing my nephew who has hit the cute 6-7 month age and doing more each week.  As usual we had a giant jigsaw
puzzle to work on, Bridge, Bananagrams, were played as well as a new (for this crowd) game Quirkle.  One of the cousins who is a videographer interviewed my grandparents (my grandfather despite increasing forgetfulness is still a master story-teller).  Most of us watched the video afterwards, in lieu of the usual family talent show. 

A good vacation, but getting back to work on Friday was nice.

Loss of an innocent ; loss of innocence

An eight-year-old boy walking home from summer camp for the first time asks a stranger for directions.  After two days and an intensive search his dismembered body is found in a dumpster and the suspect’s own freezer.  It was the perfect storm – a kid raised to trust members of his community, and a monster who showed almost no signs. 

The brutal murder of Leiby Kletzky occurred nearly two weeks ago.  The parents have gotten up from sitting Shiva; the wretched excuse of a man who abducted him has been indicted; the media is nearly finished chewing over the details.  And yet … there is something that is still very unsettling.  (Although that is, and should be, the case with any murder of an innocent child.)

Borough park is an extremely safe neighborhood, I’ve walked on the streets there at all kinds of hours.  I saw the posters from Shomrim all over my neighborhood.  I know the route where Leiby was supposed to go, to Eichler’s book store; I know the area where he got lost, asked for help and where everything went horribly tragically wrong.  I’ve been asked by children his age “Krossen?”  (i.e. Yinglish  for ‘cross the street’) on those very same streets.  I remember walking to elementary school or the pool (about the same distance in the suburbs) when I was not much older. 

It was amazing to see the community pull together in the search.  Shomrim, the neighborhood watch was already on the case -- going to local merchants for their surveillance footage and canvassing the nearby neighborhoods. (There was rumbling in the media that the police weren’t called until several hours after Shomrim.  But Shomrim gets calls to find lost kids on a regular basis, usually the police would advise parents to wait a few hours before beginning a massive search …)

I saw the missing posters, and then the news, yet it is still hard to believe that this isn’t some sensationalist TV plot.  The suspect had no record of doing anything worse than public urination.  He went to work the next day acting normally, yet had tied up, drugged, and smothered an innocent boy. 

All of us lost a bit of innocence as well.