Monday, January 31, 2011

What Makes a Country and What Keeps it Together?


  What does it take to make a country last? On one side of the Aisle, you have France, Italy and Germany, which are all composed of regions with distinct identities and in some cases distinct languages. France has Alsatian, Provencal, Breton and Corsican, to name a few local languages. Italy has Piedmontese, Sicilian, Sardinian and Barese, to name a few. Germany has Bavarian and Plattdeutsch, and even a Slavic language known as Sorbian.Switzerland goes further than any country in making its very diversity the core of its identity.

In all of these countries, there is a firm commitment to remaining one country, despite strong regional identities and loyalties.

On the other side of the aisle are Yugoslavia, which had an explosive divorce, and Czechoslovakia, which had such a civilised breakup that it was more like an Ingmar Bergman movie. Like many civilised divorces, one was left wondering why they couldn't have put the same effort into staying together as they did into breaking up.

It was almost understandable why the USSR broke up. You had seething local resentments at being eclipsed culturally and economically by Russia. The Baltic nations were forced to join the USSR. And the Ukraine had the bitter memories of the forced famine of 1932-33.

So why do some nations break up and others stay together. Yugoslavia was more a state of mind than anything else at the end of World War I when it was founded. Slovenia and Croatia were loyal to teh Roman Catholic Church. Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro were more Eastern Orthodox. Then there was, of course the Muslims, who generally practiced a very assimilated and Western form of Islam. Maybe Yugoslavia was built on too many ethnic and political fault lines.Perhaps it took an emperor or a strong man like Tito to pull them all together.

Countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon owe their borders to colonialism. After independence, Kurds Arabs and Assyrians in Iraq ask themselves what they really have in common. Iran has Turkmen, Arab, Baluchi and other minorities who together make up about half of Iran's population. What will keep Iran together. Will it be a dictator or will they need an enemy like the US or Israel?

The US has various competing historical narratives. The north and the south, black and white, English speakers and Spanish speakers all have had different experiences in America and therefore different historical narratives. What will it take to keep us together as a nation.

A great deal went into forming the different pieces in the map of the world. countries that we see on the map as one colour actually incorporate a great deal of diversity. What brings these nations together and what keeps them that way?

The following are Catalonian and Basque anthems. The last song is a patriotic song recorded by the Corsican Liberation Front

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Disorder In Class: A Look At Three Classrooms


Three scenarios of classroom disorder flashed through my mind today. All were very different, yet shared a common denominator.

   The first location is the English class in a yeshiva. Not all English classes in Yeshiva are disorderly. Some yeshiva administrators have high behavioral and academic expectations. In those yeshivas where this is not the case, students quickly pick up the message that they are not to take English seriously. Gerry Albarelli tells the story in his book "Teacha Teacha" of his year teaching in a chassidic yeshiva and paints a vivid picture of the experience.

The second scenario of classroom disorder was one that I experienced personally, that of  a CCD class. CCD stands for "Confraternity Christian Doctrine" and it is a class that is taught once a week for a couple of hours. The class deals with all aspects of Catholic teaching.
When I was in such classes, they were taught by nuns whose clerical garb was melting into the sartorial mainstream like the vestiges of snow in early March. The best way to describe such classes is that they were exercises in crowd control.

In one class, a boy I remember as Kevin suggested that we be allowed to tell jokes.

"As long as they are suitable for a nice Catholic boy." the sister primly replied,

"In that case, forget about it." Kevin answered.

That was one of the quiet moments. Most of the time you could hear the classes outside the building.

The last example I heard of persistently disorderly education was afternoon Hebrew school. I heard about it from my friends who belonged to synagogues. I always felt sorry for them missing three afternoons of play a week. It seemed to me like they were being kept after school for being Jewish. A Jewish day school with afternoons free for play made a lot more sense to me.

I heard occasional stories from kids who were motivated to Hebrew literacy and Jewish commitment through their day school experience. I heard a lot more stories about boredom and acting up. In many cases, a bar mitzvah marked the end of a Jewish education.

One friend of mine told me of his life back in the 1930's he took a brick in his jacket one day to brandish at his Hebrew school teacher who had hit him one too many times. Although that was his last day in Hebrew school, he still grew up, appropriately enough to be a Jewish militant, dishing out the same pugnaciousness to anti semites who thought that Jews were an easy mark.

One common denominator to all of the experiences I have summarised is that each class had been labeled as secondary in importance. In yeshiva, English studies were secondary and in after school religious instruction, both Jewish and Catholic, it was clear that secular studies took priority.

In any recipe, you have a list of ingredients. When you bake bread, flour and water figure most prominently. If you leave out yeast or eggs, if they are called for in the recipe, you will have something that can be referred to as bread that might be barely edible.

A religious Jew who neglects secular studies may well find himself stuck in a lower paying job that soaks up time that could have been spent learning Torah or with his family. Failure to learn secular studies ultimately results in diverting time away from learning Torah.

Conversely, a person who is adept at secular studies but cares nothing for his or her faith and traditions does not pass these traditions on to the next generation. The achievements of such a person are far less likely to strengthen a faith community. At the extreme, they could become a money making machine divorced from a moral foundation.

While working in a bookstore years ago, I helped sort out the library of an old German doctor. His medical textbooks had pictures of burn and frostbite victims and a copyright date in the early 1940's. It was clear that these were the infamous photos of Nazi medical experiments, in which prisoners were burned and frozen. It was a chilling and graphic illustration of what happens when secular knowledge is detached from morality.

There are three dimensions to education.

The first is practical knowledge, reading writing, math and science, that one needs to earn a living and function in the world.

The second is education that enables one to appreciate the world, its beauty and the origins of its civilisations. A person who is properly educated in this regard is never bored. For them, every tree is a lesson, every word on the printed page is an artifact in a museum.

The third and most important dimension of education is moral. Freedom from fear of one's neighbours comes from internalised restraints. A society in which a Seeing Eye is a factor is a society that has far less need of undercover and secret police. Societies in which public order, with its roots in  moral restraint prevails is a society in which wealth can be accumulated without fear and enjoyed. Moral behavior is tied to public order, which is tied to prosperity.

Education does not end in school. Ideally, the classroom is like training wheels on a bicycle, it is a means of support until one can learn on one's own.

Whether one places a higher value on religious or secular studies should be immaterial. Just because something is less important does not mean that it is unimportant. It is far better to think of the various sorts of knowledge as ingredients in a recipe, none of which should be left out and all of which should be added in the proper manner and sequence. Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Memorable Conversation From Shul

There is a panhandler who comes to my morning minyan who looks to be well past the age of retirement. He speaks a beautiful Yiddish with a slight slavic accent, the kind of Yiddish that was not learned in America. Rather than work the crowd, he lingers in shul. He's polite in response to small donations and gives a warm expression of blessing to someone who gives him paper money.

Friday morning, my curiosity got the better of me, and I asked him where he was from, that he spoke such a beautiful Yiddish. He said that he was from a small town in Ukraine. His parents spoke to him in Yiddish, but he winced in embarrassment when his mother called out to him at dinnertime.

"Chaimke kum a kaim."

In his small village, he dis not want to advertise his Jewishness on the street.He went to communist schools, but his grandmother told him as much as she could about Judaism. He and his family were relocated to the Urals far to the east before the Germans reached his shtetl. It was one of the few kindnesses of Stalin's regime to the Jews, and it saved his life.

After the war, the climate changed. Contacts with relatives abroad became dangerous. His mother had two brothers in the US. They wanted to send money to their sister and her family. She wrote back and told them not to write anymore. She was afraid that a contact with Americans could mean trouble for her and her family.

Chaim tells me that the things he learns in shul and the atmosphere he absorbs means more to him than the few dollars he collects. Speaking with him is a vivid reminder to me that history and local politics touch real human beings.

I always check what I read in the papers and the books against the recollections of flesh and blood human beings. Each human being is a library, and there is much knowledge to be gained from passers by. I look forward to speaking to Chaim again, to learning some new Yiddish words and to read some new pages of history not found in books. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Prison Librarian Shares His Experiences In “The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian”

Particularly among crime victims and their families, the issue of prison can evoke a visceral response. The desire to put together a forbidding punitive environment for society’s malefactors is a compelling drive for many. Avi Steinberg worked for two years as a librarian in the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay, Massachusetts, running the library and supervising prisoners who assisted in its operation. In his book, “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.”, he provides many humanising portrayals of prisoners who ran and used the library that he ran.

The library in prison had the feel of its counterpart in the free world, with the notable difference that it lacked internet connections. Steinberg portrayed various people whose lives were touched by the library, such as Fat Kat, a man who was serving time for drug dealing who ended up developing a side of himself as a librarian that was instrumental in his rehabilitation. Another inmate he portrayed was a woman with a child who was living with relatives who had never been to a library outside of prison. So inspired was she by her experiences as a library patron that she promised to make a weekly visit with her daughter to the library upon her release.

Steinberg also portrayed other more peculiar aspects of the prison library, such as prisoners leaving each other messages in between the pages of books. Some people only came for movies and pimp biographies. Despite some of the less inspired uses for the prison library, Steinberg showed clearly how the world of the written word could elevate people who had forfeited their freedom to the state.

Most prisoners will return to society, and Steinberg makes a compelling case for introducing rehabilitative influences into the prison environment.

Read more about Steinberg and his book on Sphere: Related Content