Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Psalm 104

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar (Happy Birthday, Nechama!), and thus the second day of Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon. Every Rosh Chodesh, Psalm 104 (verse 19a: "He made the moon for the appointed times") is recited at the end of morning services, and whenever it is, I remember this story:

November 30, 2000 was the one-hundredth yahrtzeit of Oscar Wilde, an event marked as the day approached by a number of events around New York. I recall attending an exhibit at the (then unrenovated) Morgan Library, and I also attended the culminating event, a series of readings on the day itself at the Jefferson Market Library. (I seem to recall it being mentioned at the event that the building had some connection to Wilde's famous visit to America.) Presenting were such luminaries as the renowned playwrights Peter Shaffer and Edward Albee, the actresses Cherry Jones and the late Kim Hunter, and others, including the not-yet-Speaker Christine Quinn.

Shaffer preceded his readings with a personal story: When he first came to America, he worked at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in a low-level position. (I was just there yesterday to see their exhibits, thus further provoking the memory.) Then, he heard of an opening in the Library at the Arents Tobacco Collection. "One of those rooms off to the side of the main reading room, open only to those with special permission, soft chairs, quiet surroundings- you've passed those rooms, you know what I mean," as he put it. The audience, mostly literary types, nodded in agreement. The job was easier, more prestigious, and paid better than his current position, so he applied for it, and was told to be there at 1:00 of an afternoon to be interviewed by George Arents himself.

Arents, who had made his money in tobacco, had then turned his attention to collecting every single work he could find that mentioned the plant- certainly including books, pictures and the like about tobacco, but even works notable for other reasons that mentioned it only in passing. Shaffer figured that he might never have a chance to enter the room again, and so took his lunch break at twelve and came to the appointment an hour early.

The librarian let him in, and allowed him to look over the collection. Shaffer began flipping through the card catalog and came to one entry: "The Importance of Being Earnest, a Play in Four Acts". Wanting to impress the librarian with his knowledge, he said, "But The Importance of Being Earnest has three acts!"

"Ah, no," said the librarian, and he opened a special drawer and removed four plain-looking school-type notebooks. It was the original manuscript of the play, in Wilde's handwriting, one act per notebook. Wilde had been asked to shorten it to three acts by the play's producer before it was first put on. The play had earned its place in the Arents Collection because of the following lines:
Lady Bracknell: Do you smoke?

Jack: Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.

Lady Bracknell: I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.
The four act version was not then widely available (it's now published in some versions of the complete works), and Shaffer spent the next hour reading the treasure. "And," he concluded, "It's nowhere nearly as good as the three-act version. Wilde was wise to revise it." (I've seen this sentiment in a number of places.)

Just as he was finishing the play and putting it back in its drawer, the door opened, and George Arents himself was there, a somewhat...crotchety elderly man in a wheelchair. "Wheel me," he said simply. And so Shaffer began wheeling him down the long corridor leading to the main reading room. (Another knowing nod from the audience.)

The trip was quiet, and Shaffer could tell that things weren't going well. Trying to make a good impression, he leaned over and asked, "Mr. Arents, would you happen to have a copy of the Guttenberg Bible in your collection?" (The Library does, indeed, have a copy, which I saw yesterday, exhibited next to the original Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, of all things.)

Arents favored Shaffer with a sidelong glance and then replied curtly, "The tobacco weed is not mentioned in the Holy Writ."

Shaffer then sheepishly told us, "I knew I shouldn't have said anything, but I...just...couldn't...help it. And so I leaned over again and said, 'But surely it is written in the Book of Psalms [104:32b- today's Psalm- NL], "He toucheth the mountains, and maketh them smoke"?'"

Arents turned and gave him a good, hard look, then simply said, "Wheel me back."

Ruefully, Shaffer finished, before starting his readings for us, "I didn't get the job."


Mildred Loving, the plaintiff (one of two, of course) in Loving v. Virginia, has passed away. R.I.P.

I always thought that case was about as perfectly named as you could hope.

Monday, May 05, 2008


I like labels, and have always championed them. They're helpful and (almost?) always correct.

And yet frum dating sites have turned me off of them more and more. Trying to sign up to YUConnects, I have hit a brick wall trying to figure out if I am "Modern Orthodox (Machmir)" or "Modern Orthodox (Liberal)". In fact, I have no idea what those terms mean, and here I'm supposed to decide my future based on them.

OK, I suppose I have features of both. So let me rephrase: I still like labels, so long as they don't get too minute. Why is there no simple "Modern Orthodox" option?

As long as I'm linking to YU's page, this story really makes me shake my head.
The Sistine Secrets posits that the paintings covering the Sistine Chapel, the
largest fresco painting on earth in the holiest of Christianity’s chapels, does
not contain a single Christian image.
Whaaa? First, there are two frescoes on the walls (of four total) entitled "Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter" and "The Temptation of Christ".

OK, so maybe they mean (based on context) "frescoes by Michelangelo." Well, OK, except, um, an entire wall is covered by "The Last Judgment", by Michelangelo, which has a huge depiction of Jesus front and center.

OK, so maybe they mean (again based on context) the ceiling. Well, OK, except for the depiction of the ancestors of Jesus lining the sides...like I said, it's a bit of a head-shaker. Michelangelo did lots of Christian works: The Doni Holy Family, the Pieta...I give up. R' Blech is a great guy and a great author, but books like these don't do much for Judaism.

Can you have ga'avah for doing a mitzvah?

Today I had the zekhut of tearing down two posters featuring gedolim. One was just offensive because of what it said, and the other just came off with it. (Although I've got issues with the actual person on the second.)

Actually, I think all posters tacked on walls in my neighborhood need to be torn down, regardless of content. This ain't Geulah. In addition, I was worrying about chillul Hashem, seeing someone reading it this morning. So I'm just sure if my motives were 100% pure, that is, fighting for kavod haTorah in the face of attacks from the Right, or whether neighborhood beautification and defense of God's name played a part as well. But the latter two are nice things as well, so we all win.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ugly Comedy

A bunch of political points today, mostly courtesy of National Review:

A bunch of Hawaiian secessionists take over a palace and allow entry only to natives (in the racial sense) and some others. I don't mean to be unkind (ah, who'm I kidding? Of course I do), but I wonder how many ordinary people would have been able to enter the palace back in the "glory days" of the monarchy. (h/t)

The CIA reports that to make up for its population decline, Russian will have to import massive amounts of people, including "Russians from the former Soviet states." (h/t) My first thought on reading that was, "Well, maybe Russia has problems ("Maybe?"), but that'll certainly improve matters in the Baltics, Ukraine, etc." I can certainly see Russia, in the not-too-distant-future, bounded by the Urals and the Don-Volga. Let's hope it goes well.

Hillary, alas, is getting charming. Holding out hope for an Obama convention victory now. One upside I heard for a Hillary victory is that black turnout will be depressed and the Congressional picture will look better for Republicans. Unfortunately for that scenario, congressional districts are so racially gerrymandered that it wouldn't make much of a difference. Of course, such a scenario would affect the presidential race, but if Obama would lose more decisively than Hillary anyway, why bother?

One thought did pop into my head this morning: Doesn't the whole Democratic primary setup- proportionally divided states side-by-side with superdelegates- perfectly symbolize the Democrats faux-populism combined with condescending elitism?

Anyway, speaking of Hillary, I came across this: Asked who she'd go out with, she says Lincoln. (h/t) Now, I can't really blame her (see what I mean?)- when faced with those who say that he's achieved mythical status, I respond, "Because he deserves it." Problem is, it looks like the too-easy answer. Ah well, the tradeoffs we make.

When conservatives get pet projects, it's time to look out. See this, for example. It reminds me of something Jonah Goldberg pointed out about reaction to his book: "Sure, those people were all fascists- all except the one guy (philosopher, usually) that I like!" (I've seen it regarding philosophers in general, when people get their hobbyhorses. And causes in general- see the sad case of D. Klinghoffer, for example.) Rod Dreher basically left conservatism (I don't care what he says) over the issue of asthma or something. And now we have ethanol. (Also, I'm not saying it applies here, but often there are big-business funding fingerprints over these things.) And evolution. And more. It's time to put the foot down: "Small government means small government. No exceptions."

Finally, a bit of ugliness. I have to disagree with Ramesh Ponnuru here. When I see Sullivan use a line like that, I don't think theology (I imagine those who think of theology more themselves would, and it's a logical conclusion); rather, I read it as "Evil [Jewish] neo-cons manipulated us into a war in Iraq." No, I wouldn't put it past Sullivan- he's amply demonstrated that he is driven to madness by his hobbyhorses. As to "little" and "boy", well, the former is clearly along the lines of "You've got a nice Army base here, Colonel...we wouldn't want anything to happen to it." The latter is perfectly appropriate for a fawning fanboy like Sullivan- who, in any event, is a poofter. An anti-Semitic poofter. So there.

Anyway, that's what I thought of when I saw this, linked from here. Sorry, but I really can't see the (double) use of "neoconservative" (you remember Brooks' line- "con" short for "conservative", "neo" short for "Jew"- and its frenzied reaction, and Rush stresses this as well) and the reference to the American Enterprise Institute as being accidental, even more so in light of this church's actions towards Israel. Like I said, ugly. And which side of the spectrum is it coming from?

Oh, and speaking of the Religious Left, how funny is it that every Tom, Dick, and Harry on that end thinks they're qualified to say what's "grounded in Biblical tradition"? From a theologian, maybe, but who is this guy? (h/t)

Enough for today. Peace out, all!