A Founding Father, Less Famous

If his name is mentioned in a history book, he’s often overshadowed by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and perhaps even John Jay. Certainly, his image would be much more clear if he was the subject of a Broadway musical, and indeed, an enterprising composer and storytelling would find a great deal of strong raw material in Without Precedent, an extraordinarily compelling biography of Chief Justice Joh Marshall written with clarity and impact by a University of California law professor, John Richard Paul.

9780525533276He wasn’t a rich man, and he wasn’t a well-educated man. “Marshall grew up in a two-room log cabin shared with fourteen siblings on the hardscrabble frontier of Virginia. His only formal education consisted of one year of grammar school and six weeks of law school.” And yet–this is the part that would make a terrific Broadway musical, or perhaps even an opera–Marshall becomes a military officer, influential attorney of local and then national renown, a diplomat to France, a congressman, U.S. Secretary of State, the biographer of George Washington, and eventually, the first really effective chief justice of the new United States of America (John Jay was the first, but the high court was just beginning to take shape; he was followed by one short-termer whose nomination went unapproved, and another, who was also operating in the early days of our judicial system).

As Chief Justice, Marshall kept his justices close (they all lived together), and ran a most agreeable, remarkably non-contentious court through friendship and a model of positive social interaction.  This congenial group firmly established the Supreme Court as the arbiter of laws in the young nation, a way of working that continues today.”From 1801 to 1835, the Court issued more than one thousand decisions–nearly all unanimous–and about half that number were written by Marshall. No other chief justice comes close to that record, and no Supreme Court before or since has issued even a majority of its decisions unanimously. Marshall was not President John Adams’ first choice for the job.

The tale begins in the dark days of the American Revolution, when our forces were hopelessly untrained, unfed and unable to perform as the fighting force necessary to gain independence. Marshall was twenty one years old, and remarkably upbeat given the pathetic circumstances. That’s what caught the eye of the new military leader from Prussia, Baron von Steuben, and soon after, Lafayette, Washington and Hamilton, too. He already knew Jefferson, a family relation (from the wealthy side of the family), who makes his first appearance in the Marshall story while ineffectively running Virginia as its governor (Jefferson does not do well in this book; the author is critical of his distracted approach to public service).

Marshall becomes a small town lawyer–at the time, Richmond Town (now Richmond) had recently become the state capital, but it was an exceedingly small place. He marries well, and becomes a member of the House of Delegates, a Virginia legislative body. He is the model social networker, joining every significant organization, building his reputation by inviting people to his home (which doubled as his law office) for relaxed dinners. He lived in that house for a long time–decades, in fact–in part because his beloved wife Polly struggled with health issues for much of her adult life.

There is so much story to tell, and this essay can do little more than introduce the man, the book and the author with the strongest possible encouragement to read up on John Marshall. I’ve read a lot of books about American history, founding fathers, and the early nation to identify when a new volume is unique and valuable. This one wins on both counts because the material is so central to the development of the nation and our approach to governance, and because the stories told are not the same stories that appear in dozens of other books about the founders. Instead, this seems to be fresh, or, at least, generally unfamiliar or, at least, new to me. It’s helpful that the biographer’s keen interest in providing a clear picture of Justice Marshall is equal to my own curiosity.








Something of a Retraction: Cleese letter to the U.S.

It doesn’t happen often enough, but this time, I went directly to the source. Or the person I thought was the source. Earlier this week, I actually spoke with John Cleese. He’s funny, smart and charming. And he told me that he thought the letter (below) was nicely written, and rather clever, but he did not write it. Nor did he write the other letter that’s making its way through the internet.


Published on November 14, 2016

To the citizens of the United States of America, in light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II resumes monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Theresa May, MP for the 97.8% of you who have, until now, been unaware there’s a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America. Congress and the Senate are disbanded. A questionnaire circulated next year will determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid your transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

1. Look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Check “aluminium” in the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you pronounce it. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘favour’ and ‘neighbour’. Likewise you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary.” Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up “interspersed.” There will be no more ‘bleeps’ in the Jerry Springer show. If you’re not old enough to cope with bad language then you should not have chat shows.

2. There is no such thing as “US English.” We’ll let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter ‘u’.

3. You should learn to distinguish English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). Scottish dramas such as ‘Taggart’ will no longer be broadcast with subtitles.You must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is “Devon.” If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become “shires” e.g. Texasshire Floridashire, Louisianashire.

4. You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen”, but only after fully carrying out task 1.

5. You should stop playing American “football.” There’s only one kind of football. What you call American “football” is not a very good game. The 2.1% of you aware there is a world outside your borders may have noticed no one else plays “American” football. You should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American “football”, but does not involve stopping for a rest every two seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies) You should stop playing baseball. It’s not reasonable to host event called the ‘World Series’ for a game which is not played outside of America. Instead of baseball, you will be allowed to play a girls’ game called “rounders,” which is baseball without fancy team stripe, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

6. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns, or anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because you are not sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you need a permit to carry a vegetable peeler.

7. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday. It will be called “Indecisive Day.”

8. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left. At the same time, you will go metric without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

9. Learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips. Fries aren’t French, they’re Belgian though 97.8% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Potato chips are properly called “crisps.” Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat. The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat.

10. The cold tasteless stuff you call beer is actually lager. Only proper British Bitter will be referred to as “beer.” Substances once known as “American Beer” will henceforth be referred to as “Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine,” except for the product of the American Budweiser company which will be called “Weak Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine.” This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.

11. The UK will harmonise petrol prices (or “Gasoline,” as you will be permitted to keep calling it) for those of the former USA, adopting UK petrol prices (roughly $6/US gallon, get used to it).

12. Learn to resolve personal issues without guns, lawyers or therapists. That you need many lawyers and therapists shows you’re not adult enough to be independent. If you’re not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, you’re not grown up enough to handle a gun.

13. Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy.

14. Tax collectors from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to 1776).


The Warmth of Isabel Wilkerson

cover_bookBeginning around 1915, six million people left their native land hoping for a better life. Nearly all of them were Americans, but they were poor, without prospects. For the next half century, they left the South, many for northern cities where they knew a relative or felt they could find work, some for the west, where they hoped Jim Crow would not be a factor in their lives. They left in faith, and without much information. Three of them were fortunate because their stories were told, in considerable detail, by a compassionate, literate, well-informed journalist named Isabel Wilkerson. Her work, which she completed in 2010, involved thirteen years of her life and over a thousand interviews. the book is a solid ten-hour read (it’s over 500 pages), and you won’t want to miss a single story about her chosen few, the Americans whose stories she tells so well. They are: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling. Ida Mae starts out in Van Vleet, Mississippi in 1928, and survives the completion of the book. Leaving Monroe, Louisiana far behind, Robert survives a punishing trip to the California of his dreams, and becomes a wealthy doctor in Los Angeles with a soft spot for people in need. George is a bit of troublemaker in his native Florida, and ends up working on a New York-Florida train while living a new life in Harlem. (I use their first names because of the kinship that the author kindled in me; I feel as though I knew them from the neighborhood.)

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Wilkerson takes care to paint a full picture of these people, their lives back down South, their struggles in making the decision to leave, the tough times they endured during their period of relocation, family and friends who weave in and out of their lives. The sense of never quite being at home is a constant companion; so is the the sense that they don’t completely belong where they ended up. They resolve these conflicts in their own minds, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes considering just how fortunate their lives became, sometimes trying to untangle the equally tangled thoughts and behaviors of others.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

Wilkerson also scores scholarly points by resolving not to accept common knowledge. Her responsibility to Ida Mae, Robert and George is powerful, and she insists on providing commentary and context to keep the reader on track and clear about what actually happened, and why it matters.

Intrigued? Watch an excellent hour-plus interview with Ms. Wilkerson on the award-winning public affairs series that survived the old New Jersey Network and now resides at Rutgers University. Find it here.

From Abe to Apple

Here’s an interesting new tool from the R&D labs at The New York Times. It’s a chronological graphing tool that maps search terms against dates from 1860 until the present day.

So: Abraham Lincoln—he appeared in 1 or 2 percent of all NY Times articles during his presidency (and in its aftermath), and long-term, he’s been a fair stable presence.


George Washington preceded The New York Times, but the newspaper has been more interesting in George than in Abe about a century and a half. Lots of interest in the 1930s (I wonder why), but a good solid plater through the second half of the 20th century. Tall man, long shadow.

According to The New York Times, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick didn’t produce much long-term interesting, so I tried FDR instead. I suspect there’s something wrong somewhere—FDR should have been represented with much more coverage in the 1930s and 1940s than the graph allows. I guess that’s why this is still an R&D effort—George should not outpace FDR during the Great Depression and the Second World War.


Apple Computer made a splash in the 1980s, and seems to have peaked in the early 1990s, with the combination of iPhone and iPad causing a second peak just a few years ago.


How does Apple compare with Microsoft? Not even close—Microsoft’s coverage was much, much greater. If the graphs are correct—which, again, I question because Apple has been so prominent in the past two or three years, especially when measured against the snooze of Microsoft news.


Add Google to the mix (green line) to the mies, and things look about right. The orange line is IBM, which was, somehow, interesting around 1865 or so, more interesting than any time in the 20th century.IBM

These are percentages—the more articles the Times published, the less value for each individual article. So what about the raw numbers? Just for fun, I added Teddy and also John F. Kennedy. There isn’t a huge difference between the percentages and the raw numbers, not for this set of searches, but it’s worth flipping the $ / # switch for every graph to see anything there is to see.

So: next time there’s a rainy afternoon and you don’t feel like doing anything useful (or you’re deep in analysis of historical trends), The New York Times Chronicle is a tool worthy of your time and attention. And, by the way, if you click on any point on any graph, the Times provides a list of relevant articles that you can read online. For even the most casual researcher, this is a terrific tool, one that would be SO MUCH BETTER if every newspaper followed the lead of the NYT, and then shared their databases for combined graphing! But this is a wonderful first step.

Goodbye, Columbus

Juan Ponce de León discovered "America" but Columbus gets the credit!

Juan Ponce de León discovered “America” but Columbus gets the credit!

(Hello, Ponce de León. What a story you have to tell! Those who are impatient may scroll down about 2/3 to the part I’ve marked in red white (grey, really) and blue.

It’s an odd story, one that brings tomatoes to Italy,, and eventually celebrates a favorite son for something he didn’t do.

You know that the Vikings first showed up in what is now North America. That happened about a thousand years ago. Some Vikings stayed for awhile, started families, and settlements.  The first child of European descent born on these shores was probably named “Snoori,” a name I’ve always liked.

For several thousand years before the Vikings visited, there were natives in North America and South America. They probably arrived, well, by taking the l-o-n-g way around, on foot and on animal, working their way up from Africa, then through Asia, and across the land bridge into what is now Alaska. Perhaps they arrived in other ways, but that seems less likely because boats were small and unsophisticated, and oceans were large and dangerous to navigate.

During the 1400s, Europeans were becoming rich by trading goods found in Asia. Mostly, these goods traveled on the Silk Roads, a series of trade routes that were subject to piracy, tribal feuds, and every kind of evil deed. There were all sorts of theories about the best way to travel not by land, but by sea. Nobody was particularly frightened about falling off the earth; the idea that the world was round, and that circumnavigation was possible was accepted long before Columbus showed up. (It’s one of the earliest urban legends, utter nonsense promoted in fanciful children’s books for a time.)

Columbus was an entrepreneur in search of capital for his new enterprise–put together half the necessary funds, and found the rest by sweet-talking King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. They promised him a cut of the riches, and a ridiculous title, Emperor of the Ocean Seas. And they agreed to provide three ships. All for the glory of Spain, and the gold that everyone believed he would find. Make no mistake: it was all about the gold.

He took a wrong turn.

He was heading for what he believed was Japan, or, at least, Asia. Instead, he found an island in what is now the Caribbean Sea. (Certainly, Columbus Day should not be celebrated as a milestone in navigation history.)

Remember: Columbus was an entrepreneur. Perhaps it is that spirit that we should celebrate on Columbus Day. Certainly, there are very good reasons not to celebrate him at all, unless, of course, you share a very dark view of America and what it represents to the world.

Columbus kept a diary. Here, he writes about the native people, the Taino or Arawak people who greeted his crew with curiosity and apparent kindness.

They are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all they have, none of them refusing anything he may possess if he is asked for it. They exhibit great love toward all others in preference to themselves.”

You’ll recall the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria–the three ships provided by Spain for the first voyage. The Pinta’s captain defied Columbus’ orders, and abandoned the fleet. The Santa Maria was destroyed on a reef. Columbus high-tailed it back to Spain on the Nina, grabbing a bit of gold, kidnapping some natives. A second voyage was authorized, this time with the specific intention of becoming rich with gold. The Taino people were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to FIND THE GOLD.

Dressed in Taino garb and makeup, two contemporary Dominican girls demonstrate that these were real people with families and traditions. Each year, we celebrate an American hero who killed most of the Taino people.

Dressed in Taino garb and makeup, two contemporary Dominican girls demonstrate that these were real people with families and traditions. Each year, we celebrate an American hero who killed most of the Taino people.

Gold was not to be found. Columbus treated the Taino severely. He cut off their hands (Happy Columbus Day!)

Third Voyage. This time, a Priest named Bartolomé de las Casas joined, and kept a diary. It’s filled with documentation, generally considered reliable, about Columbus’ treatment of the natives: forced labor, brutality, horrific violence against children, babies being murdered by swinging them against trees or feeding them to dogs. From the Priest’s diary:

The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades”, wrote Las Casas. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write”

We celebrate Columbus Day because it was the beginning of the new world. In a twisted way, this is apt: the United States is the nation that was settled, mostly, by killing the natives who lived in this land. Those who believe that there is a greater reason for the celebration, an uplifting of humankind, the initiation of an era of discovery should probably consider where Mr. Columbus went, and did not go. No account brings Columbus into what is now the U.S.A. He traveled to several Caribbean Islands, notably Hispaniola (now, Haiti and the Dominican Republic,

Who discovered “America?” That’s a very challenging question. Let’s rephrase it: “Who discovered the United States of America” would trap out Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.

The earliest answer would seem to be the people who crossed Bernicia, the land bridge into Alaska around 16,000 BCE (before current era). Focusing only on the lower 48, there’s evidence dating back to about 13,000 BCE, known as the Clovis Sites.

The Vikings showed up, but probably not in what becomes the U.S.A. Sadly, our early attempts to invade, annex, or build a new country with friends nearby all failed, so Canada become a separate nation. After that, several hundred years (the Dark Ages) go by without much interest in or capability to explore, pretty much until Columbus and his kind.

Juan Ponce de León traveled with Columbus on his second voyage. He was a volunteer, a gentleman from a noble family. There were 200 such gentlemen.

For your reference, here's a map showing Hispaniola (currently occupied by Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and nearby Florida.

For your reference, here’s a map showing Hispaniola (currently occupied by Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and nearby Florida.

Columbus and his entourage apparently visited Borinquen, which we now call Puerto Rico. (In fact, when Puerto Rico finally becomes a U.S. state, the Columbus legend will come true: in that case, he would have been the explorer who discovered what become the United States of America. [For those who wish to make a case that Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S., so technically this is true today, I ask why, if Puerto Rico plays such an important role in American History, it has not been invited to join the club.)

In any case, as a result of his military leadership (de León was involved in a notable native massacre), he become Governor of the Spanish territory. Natives told him of a land to the northwest, a land that could be reached by “crossing many rivers’. He told the King, but remained as Governor until he lost out in a tussle with–who else–the son of Christopher Columbus, who was legally enforcing his father’s rights. Eventually, the King stopped the political nastiness, and after de León returned to Spain, he outfitted three ships and headed for some unexplored lands. He found what is now Florida on April 2, 1513.

Every year, we celebrate Columbus Day in the USA. Many of our Spanish-speaking neighbors in the western hemisphere celebrate Día de la Raza instead; it is, in many places, a celebration of the race, not Columbus the explorer.

Somehow, on April 2, 2013 — exactly 500 years after the first European explorer set foot on what is now a U.S. state, the first moment when Europeans visited the  part of the New World that became our nation–we did nothing.

Digital Yiddish


(Photos by Howard Blumenthal)

Last week, we spent some time in central Massachusetts–we wanted to buy t-shirts at Hampshire College, and maybe a few children’s books at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. We’ve traveled in this area before. Although we’d noticed the shetl-style architecture of the Yiddish Book Center on the same campus, we never visited. It was a picture-perfect summer day in New England, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend any time indoors, but I inside “just for a few minutes.” I could have spent all day. In fact, I spent the next two days reading Outwitting History, written by Outwitting Historythe center’s founder and leader, Aaron Lansky. The book’s subtitle provides only a glimpse of what Lansky, and the Center, has accomplished, and will do: ‘The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Jewish Books.’

Much of the book is devoted to Lansky, his friends, co-workers, and friends collecting the inheritance–the books collected by Jews who had brought their culture from Eastern Europe, and other places, often overcoming obstacles before they landed in their small apartment in Brooklyn, the Bronx or New Jersey. Getting to know these people one by one, Lansky would load his rented truck with shopping bags and cartons of books, often from people whose next step was a retirement home. Just about every visit came with an obligatory range of dishes “cooked special for you” so “you shouldn’t be hungry.” In a typical spread, there would be onion bagels and lox, kasha varnishkes, potato latkes, and lokshn kugl (noodle pudding), plus herring, chopped liver, and other traditional dishes. And conversation. Lots of lots of stories, one about every book, the times, the culture, the memories. In time, Lansky learned to travel as one of a team of three people: “two do do the shlepping and the third to be the Designated Eater. the latter was the really hard job. While the others carried boxes, you had to sit with the host at the kitchen table, listening to stories, sipping endless glasses of tea, and valiently working your way through a week’s worth of dishes cooked ‘special’ just for you…”

Over two decades or so, Lansky and his colleagues accomplished the impossible–they collected a million copies of Yiddish books. The best ones are now safer than they have ever been; they’re housed in a carved-out mountain that was built as a military facility (remarkably, it’s less than a mile from their Hadley, Massachusetts headquarters). The Center has supplied about 500 university and research libraries with Yiddish book collections (before the Center, only six such collections existed anywhere in North America). If you’re in the area–between Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts–you can look at any of thousands of books, and you can buy most of them (there are more than enough extra copies around). Some titles are Yiddish translations of popular works by Shakespeare, Hemingway, Poe, Dickinson, and other popular writers. Many are original Yiddish works of fiction, plays, poetry, history books, cookbooks, children’s books, and more. And if you can’t make your way to Massachusetts, you can visit the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online collection of more than 10,000 Yiddish titles, with each book page scanned (most of the original books were published on pulp paper, and some tend to disintegrate with each page turn, so digital technology saved the day).

New Yiddish Library's most recent title: Moshe Kulbak's The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

New Yiddish Library’s most recent title: Moshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

There is, of course, one problem. The books are written in Yiddish, and must be read in the original language. The Center has a deal with Yale University Press, and some titles are now available in English translation, in book form. More are on the way, but this solution is a minor one.

The major one, of course, is that role of Yiddish has changed, and the people who knew, know, and can claim literacy in Yiddish has been greatly diminished. At one time, more than eleven million people spoke, read, and communicated in Yiddish. That time was 1939, a year before the devastation by the Nazis, and a decade before the the shift into modern times, suburbia, and beginning the end of the old Jewish neighborhoods that once defined so much of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and other cities where Yiddish was common currency.

When Lansky was a graduate student in search of a few Yiddish books for graduate school, when he traveled by truck to collect books from crumbling old publishing warehouses and Jewish community centers in the neighborhoods where many Jews once lived, his focus was saving books. Now, the agenda for the Center is even more compelling: books continue to arrive, but the people who can translate them, with appropriate cultural context, are few. It’s one thing to translate the words, quite another to present the story in ways that are both true to the original sensibility and sufficiently interesting to contemporary readers. Yiddish was always a people’s language, informal and spoken at home, never the official language of state affairs or religious ceremonies. As Lansky points out, time and again, all of his scholarship, all of the scholarship gathered by his many friends and associates, all of it pales in comparison with the ninety-year-old man who is sitting in his small Newark apartment, sharing tea and Entenmann’s crumb cake, shopping bag full of books at his side, ready to part with his lifetime of favorite Yiddish novels, books he loves because they were so much a part of his life.

His books are safe now. They will be treated with loving care. They will find a new home. Some will be translated into English so that even those of us who cannot read Yiddish can understand the basics of what they have to say. The work will be done by human translators, and in time, perhaps, by digital translators, too. The love, the sense of what the world was like, the passion, the feeling for the characters and situations created by the great Yiddish writers, poets, playwrights, stage performers, radio performers, singers, these will be more difficult to capture and store inside a mountain in Massachusetts.

yiddish-book-shelvesAt the very least, Lansky, his friends, his co-conspirators, the Center’s network of scholars and friends and donors, the network of zammlers (two hundred people who collect books worldwide for the Center) have taken the first step. We now have the books, and nobody is going to take them away from us. And they’ve taken the second step: the books are now available, through various re-disribution schemes, to people everywhere. The third step is the mind-bender. How to republish the works, maintaining the integrity and magic of their original words and ideas in a world where (a) the whole book publishing industry is trying to figure out its digital future and path to thrival (my made-up word that goes beyond survival into thriving); (b) few people read Yiddish; (c) Yiddish culture is becoming  historical fact rather than a cultural reality; and (d) as interested as I may be, I don’t think I have every read a single Yiddish book, and apart from Sholom Alechem (whose work was the basis for Fiddler on the Roof), I don’t think I can name a single Yiddish author.

That will change, of course. Shame on me for missing this part of my cultural education.

Thank you, Norman Temmelman of Atlantic City, Sorell Skolnik of the Mohegan Colony, Mr. Kupferstein, Marjorie Guthrie (Woody’s wife), and Sam and Leah Ostroff, for helping Aaron Lansky. And thank you, Mr. Lansky for opening the door for me. As I read the books, I will pass them along to friends, to my father and my sons, and attempt, in my small way, to be a link in the chain. I suspect there is a Yiddish proverb beneath all of this, or, at least, a few Yiddish words to describe what’s on my mind, but those words are lost to me. Perhaps I will find a few of them along the way.


Welcome to the Times Machine

It’s taken a decade or so, but newspapers are finally beginning to get the hang of this new media thing.

Among the most impressive new offerings: The New York Times Machine, an online experience that allowed me, in an instant, to read a story, originally published on May 25, 1883, entitled: “Two Great Cities United: Bridge Formally Opens.” From the text:

The Brooklyn Bridge was successfully opened yesterday. A fairer day for the ceremony could not have been chosen.”

Train service was extended from Easton, PA, Long Island, and other just-far-enough-away places. The service was decidedly a Brooklyn celebration. The people in New-York (at the time, the hyphen was still in common use) were less ecstatic, but showed up in the tens of thousands to join the celebration.

I know all of this because I am reading the actual printed page of the newspaper, the story in its original font, in its original presentation. I can see what happened on that day by reading other stories. There was an uprising of Italian railroad workers in Philadelphia who demanded their pay before they went back to work. The French government is having trouble with their colonial subjects in Madagascar who seem willing to “fight to the death” for their rights (The New York Times is remarkably even-handed in telling this story.) General Grant arrived in Chicago, and will leave for Galena tomorrow (in fact, that was the whole story).

The interface is simple, and well-designed. On the left, which occupies about 3/4 of the screen, there is simply a picture of the newspaper. Click on a story, and it becomes large enough to read. (No way to copy contents just yet, but I hope that will be part of a future release.) On the right is a search window and a list of search results, each with a headline. Some stories are presented with a brief summary. Every story can be forwarded by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Google+, and more (this feature doesn’t work just yet, but it will soon).

After writing this initial draft of this article, I decided to explore some more. The Sunday New York Times for July 20, 1969 is filled with fascinating advertisements. I found a real zebra rug offered for just $195, marked down from $395, from Hunting World (“the sought-after high-contrast skins with the darkest stripes and the whitest backgrounds”). And now, the news… A judge in New Jersey determined that the conflict in Vietnam was, legally, a war. TV writer Jack Gould explained how television signals were transmitted from the moon. Bobby Seale led a Black Panther rally with about 3,000 people; most of them were white, and they shouted, repeatedly, “power to the people” while thrusting their fists into the air. Son House, Sleepy John Estes, Brownie McGhee, and Yank Ranchel were among the performers at the Newport Folk Festival (I wish I had been there!). Elsewhere in New England, last night, Ted Kennedy’s car ran off a bridge in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the yet-unnamed female passenger was killed.  Ted Williams was managing the Washington Senators, host of that year’s baseball All-Star Game, celebrating the 100th anniversary of professional league play. And, the Pope, still watching black-and-white TV, arranged for a color set so that he could watch today’s Apollo moon landing. It is SO cool to see these original stories in their original form. This particular edition included over 450 stories–plus a whole lot of interesting (and not so interesting) advertisements, mostly from department stores.

The current version is a prototype (Beta version), so the range of dates and stories is very limited. Still, it’s fascinating to see what The New York Times Machine will be–and soon.

Below, a sample image. It’s far easier to read the real thing (just click here).

NYTimesMachine NYTimesMachine2

From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day

In connection with a large project that I’m developing, my office has been pleasantly cluttered with history books. In particular, I’ve been attempting to understand the broad sweep, which is, we all know, a fool’s mission. Stumbling from Mesopotamia to The American Dream has been great fun, far better than I remembered from anything I did in school, and, because of the latest cluster of colorful history books, a fun trip every step of the way.

Appropriately entitled History: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day, the 612-page tour of the human story is presented with the full DK Publishing treatment: lots of images, interesting sidebars, full layouts about expected and some unexpected topics (The American Dream, Leonardo DaVinci, Queen Victoria, Science vs. God, The Ming Dynasty, many more). You know the visual style from so many children’s books, Eyewitness Travel guidebooks, and more. Two examples below; in both cases, the links take you to the Amazon “see inside” sequence of selected pages from the book:



At first, I picked up this book in hopes of finding lots of illustrated timelines. Instead, I found myself browsing a kind of magazine about world history with articles about topics that I figured I should know more about. (In fact, there are timelines, but the type is small, the layout is idiosyncratic, and, candidly, there are better historical timeline books than this one, including the publisher’s own Smithsonian Timelines of History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events that Shaped the World, described below).

This book excels in by telling well-chosen stories in simple, illustrated form, always offering enough depth of information to satisfy the curious. So here’s a two-page spread about Mesopotamia that begins by placing it in the area that now includes Iraq, southwest Iran, east Syria, and southeast Turkey. The name is derived from the Greek, “between two rivers,” which explains the site’s early evolution, noting that similar sites developed in the Indus Valley, and later, in China. Unlike the city-states, Mesopotamia was more like a nation that included several large cities whose names were, in 3,000 BCE, impressive: Uruk, Kish, Akkad, and Ur among them. The society was hierarchical: even in this era, inequality was the norm. There was music; there is a picture of a lyre from the era decorated with the bull’s head that was popular at the time. And there was a mathematical system based upon the number 60. You know the Mesopotamian system: it is the basis for our circle (360 degrees) and the number of minutes per hour (60).

Many pages ahead, there’s a four-page layout on City Life as it transformed normalcy in just 100 years, from 18oo to 1900. By 1819, the city of London was, well, here’s what the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote as early as 1819:

Hell is a city much like London…”

Creative Commons - Thierry Bézecourt

Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. Creative Commons – photo by Thierry Bézecourt

In 18oo, the largest city was Beijing (then, Peking) with not more than 1 million people. A century later, London was home to six times as many people, largely without the benefit of an extended period of growth and time to figure things out. Chicago’s population tripled in just fifty years. To move people around, the cities devised underground railroad systems, cable cars, and trolleys. In the 1850s, Napoleon III hired George Haussman to completely remodel the city, who “replaced entire medieval districts of narrow, cramped streets with wide boulevards…for which the city is now famous.”

Pages ahead, and it’s the Vietnam War, Raising the Iron Curtain, Superpower China, and Climate Change. A very comprehensive story, a terrific browse, a useful addition to the family or classroom library, as much fun as the old World Book Encyclopedia used to be, at least for those of us with a lot of time on our hands on rainy days after school.

The Smithsonian timetables book is more of a coffee table adventure, lavishly put together with artful two-page spreads about, for example, the Qing Dynasty, the Pacific Theater in WWII, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and, Edo Period, a personal favorite because it pictures a large picture of the Hannya mask (Hannya being a female Noh character turned into a demon by jealousy and anger). Mostly, though, this is a book with an extensive timeline that runs on the bottom fifth of most spreads for more than 450 pages. Explanations appear, in shorter story form, above the timeline. Right now, the book is open to 1780-1784. There’s an engraving, a color picture of a Montgolfier hot air balloon with seven passengers aboard, making their way across Lyons. In 1781, William Herschel, an astronomer, discovered Uranus (on March 13, in case you’re curious). On the following spread, Britain is doing what it can to eliminate the slave trade, including (and I didn’t know this) establishing Sierra Leone as a place for freed slaves (similar to our Liberia, years later). Skipping past the two page spread about steam power, we’re now in 1789, when, within months of one another, we find George Washington becoming the first U.S. President (February 4) and Fletcher Christian leading the mutiny on the HMS Bounty (April 28). The Bastille was stormed that summer (July 14, which you probably knew), and the U.S. Congress proposed the Bill of Rights (September 28).

This book is filled with interesting tidbits: Marie Antoinette was 14 years old when she married Louis XVI; tiny Portugal’s empire was 4.6 million square miles; 2,000 bathers could simultaneously splash around in the Roman Baths of Caracalla; and, for what it’s worth, the number of eunuchs employed by the Ming Dynasty exceeded 100,000. Or, if you prefer, the number of diamonds in King George’s crown: 6,000.

The abiding favorite tidbit is a quote from the President of the United States, then Rutherford B. Hayes, who watched Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate the telephone in 1876 and then said,

That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”

Storytelling through Maps and Timelines

Creative Commons license: Nicholas Kenrick

Bagan today. Creative Commons license: Nicholas Kenrick

In the year 1100, the largest city, by far, was Kaifeng, which was twice the size of its nearest competitor, Constantinople, three times the size of the third city on the top five list, Marrakech, which was, at the time, about the size of Kalyan and Cairo. Never heard of Kaifeng or Kalyan? If today’s Kaifeng was located in today’s United States, it would be the nation’s second largest city; in China, where it has been a significant city for a very long while, it would be in the top forty or fifty cities. Kalyan is now part of Mumbai. A hundred years later, Bagan makes the list–it’s no longer an active city, but the site is as popular in Cambodia as Angkor Wat. Add another 100 years and the first of the European cities makes the top five list: Paris. By 1492, just as Europe is waking up to the possibility of its role as a global power, there are no European cities on the list. Instead, it’s Beijing with over a half-million people in the number slot followed by Vijayanagara, Cairo, Hangzhou, and from the Americas, Tenochtitlán.

In 1492, the world map is a fascinating place filled with vaguely familiar names. A large swath of what is now Russia was then the Khanate of Siber; the Mongols are firmly in control of the large area that is now Mongolia; the only people in Australia are Aborigines; and the Caribbean and much of South America are under the control of the Arawak people (who will be killed, in large numbers, by European invaders and their diseases, the first of whom is Columbus). You’ve probably heard of Catherine of Aragon, a Henry VIII wife (remember “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived?”–Catherine’s the one who Henry divorced, setting up a major tiff with the Pope). Anyway…Aragon occupies the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The Inca are all along the Pacific side of what becomes South America, and the Mayas and the Aztecs are all over what becomes Central America and Mexico. Japan is Japan, Korea is Korea, and remarkably, Poland is a large country–actually a kind of joint project, so the place is called Poland Lithuania.

How do I know all of this? Because I’m having a blast browsing through a new combination of world atlas and history book. It’s called The New Atlas of World History: Global Events at a Glance and it’s been put together by research fellow at England’s Lancaster University named John Haywood.

NewAtlas World HistoryQuite sensibly, Mr. Haywood has produced a book whose broad horizontal pages alternate between an atlas view of the world at various intervals, and a timeline of significant events that describe that time in greater detail.

His story begins around 100,000 when ice sheets covered much of today’s Canada, all of today’s United Kingdom, and the rest of northern Europe. From the ancestral starting place in eastern Africa, homo sapiens migrate first into Asia and China, then across two land bridges, one to what becomes North America and the other (who knew?) across present-day Indonesia and the Indian Ocean across to Australia (which is how the place become populated with Aboriginal peoples). In fact, Europe was settled, or, at least, visited in large numbers, about 5,000 years after Australia. It took even longer for the people who took the now-Alaska land bridge to make their way all the down through the current United States and Mexico, eventually finding themselves in what is now South America.

Looking way ahead to, say, 1900, it’s again a fascinating map and story: there is no Poland, for example, because it has been obscured by the giant Russian Empire, and also, if I’m reading the map correctly, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, too. On that map, Africa is a collection of colonies belonging to Belgium, Holland, Germany and other countries whose international colonization efforts were ended by a pair of wars that provided plenty of good reason to focus on life at home.

So here’s a rough look at the 1492 map of the world (click on it to see a full-screen PDF with far better detail):

And, to accompany that layout, here’s a look at the adjacent page, this time providing a timeline view of events that mattered at the time (same story, click to see a PDF that’s easier to read):


Of course, the book offers more than just these two layouts. One of my favorites shows the migration routes to the United States, mostly from Europe, circa 1900. The same map contains the sobering stories of indentured servants leaving India for British colonies in Africa. Subsequently, a young attorney and activist named Mohandas Gandhi will understand his power by correcting the situation in South Africa (then, the Cape Colony) before returning to his native India.

So: here’s the history of the world in just over 200 pages, full-color, filled with fascinating stories told in some text, but mainly, through descriptive maps and pictures. It’s a thoroughly modern way to tell our story, and, as you might imagine, it has become a favorite. You’ll get some flavor of the work’s value by clicking on some the links on the book’s catalog page, but there’s really nothing quite like having the whole of it in front of you on a hot Sunday afternoon in the cool shade, preferably with an equally cool drink from some far-off land close at hand.

Big History

After admitting that we cannot yet answer the  obvious–and seemingly unanswerable–question about how and why everything   began, University of Sydney Professor David Christian begins with the creation of the universe about 13 billion years ago. It’s not every historian who would admit, simply:

About the beginning, we can say nothing with any certainty except that something happened.”

He continues explaining this madness: “We do not know why or how it appeared. We cannot say whether anything existed before. We cannot even say that there was a ‘before’ or a ‘space’ for anything to exist in (in an argument anticipated by St. Augustine in the fifth century CE) time and spare may have been created at the same time as matter and energy.”

After that, the big news is not so much the Big Bang Theory (explained here in detail that can be easily understood), but the shift to a neutral electrical charge, enabling the creation of atoms, first simply (mostly, hydrogen and helium atoms), then, in increasingly complicated ways. I like this quote:

Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, changes into people.”

Leaping ahead, the sun and the planets show up around 4.56 billion years ago, and, helpfully, Professor Christian helps us to understand an earth bombarded by small planetesimals (excellent word, new to me) and without much atmosphere.

The early earth would indeed have seemed like a hellish place to humans.”

As the mix of gases shifted from methane and hydrogen sulfide to carbon dioxide, the early atmosphere would have appeared red–that is, the sky would have seemed to be red, not blue. The blue sky came about because the new oceans–made possible by a drop in temperatures below 100 degrees celsius–allowed oceans to form, and those oceans absorbed much of the CO2.

How about the question of the beginning of life on earth? Again, Christian offers a coherent answer:

Living organisms are constructed, for the most part, from compounds of hydrogen and carbon. Carbon is critical because of its astonishing flexibility. Add hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur, and we can account for 99 percent of the dry weight of all organisms. It turns out that when conditions are right and these chemicals are abundant, it is easy to construct simple organic molecules, including amino acids (the building blocks of proteins, the basic structural material of all organisms) and nucleotides (the building blocks of genetic code).”

Of course, it’s one thing to assemble the building blocks and another to assemble these parts into a wooly mammoth, or even an amoeba. Christian admits that this is the tricky part: complexity is the appropriate term that causes contemporary scientists to scratch their heads and wonder. The pieces seem to be there, but the complexity of their union and the spark of life may not be so simple.

Maps of Time

Book: Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History by David Christian

Sure, multi-cell animals are interesting footnotes, but really, isn’t history all about us? Not exactly, not according to the good professor. Turns out, we are just one of many species, and in the scheme of big history, humans are a kind of, well, a kind of weed. We just keep growing, taking everything over, killing off other species, treating the whole earth as our own private amusement park. Within our lifetimes, there will be 10 billion humans on earth, an astonishing increase given that there were, in 1800, just a billion of us. Every dozen or so years, we add another billion or so.

As humans began to migrate into Europe and Asia from their original home in Africa, large animals became extinct because we hunted them down, ate them, used their hides for clothing, used their bones for tools. Giant sloths in the Americas, giant wombats and kangaroos in Australia, mammoths in Siberia. We killed them faster than they could reproduce, and so, they’re gone.

So what makes us so special? Is it really all about thumbs? Sure, thumbs make a difference, but it’s something else entirely. Professor Christian uses the term “collective learning” to describe our “pooling and sharing of knowledge…the types of knowledge that, over time, have given humans their unique power to manipulate the material world. Two factors stand out: the volume and variety of information being pooled, and the efficiency and speed with which information is shared.” Here, he’s not referring to the digital age, but the era before we developed any meaningful form of writing, drawing, or communicating with anything resembling a modern language.

By now, we’re about halfway through the book. Next will come the domestication of animals–in which humans figure out that an animal that is killed for its meat is useful only in the short-term, but an animal that is kept alive for its milk is useful in the long-term. This concept of domestication applies not only to meat/milk animals, but to others whose wool, or other production, can be used not only to satisfy basics needs, but also for exchange to other humans. In time, it’s the idea of exchange that becomes the driver, resulting first in local trade between tiny settlements, then trade routes as fewer people are tied to subsistence farming or hunting/gathering and more are available (typically, more men are available) for pursuits involving trade, travel, and, in time, the accumulation of wealth.

Along the way, humans attempt to understand how and why their world works. Since the ground, the soil, the earth provides the food we eat, we begin to explain the world in terms of an earth spirit. Similarly, the sky seems to contain the origins, the mystical, the unknowable, and so, this, too, becomes a kind of spirit. In time–and mostly within a period of just a few thousand years, mostly in southwestern Asia–we gather these beliefs in the form of religions.

As we, as contemporary, educated humans with every conceivable benefit, attempt to understand our world, and its big history (now a common term combining history and science, by the way), Professor Christian readily admits to what he has done. He has wrapped our beliefs, our knowledge, our stories into what calls “a modern creation myth.”

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