Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Two Angles on the Temple Mount

From the tower of the Lutheran church in the old city:

And from Mount Scopus with a long lens on a dusty afternoon:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shuq Mahaneh Yehudah

I've been eating fruit and vegetables and freshly baked bread from the market every day since I've been here. Since I'm generally useless before I give talks, I went over there to take pictures this morning before heading up to the conference.

In addition to the infinite quantity of figs, there is some of the very best people watching in the world to be done there.

Personal Teleprompter

I made some changes to my talk since I left New York* and so I don't have a hard copy of the most up-to-date typescript, so I'll be speaking from my iPad when I give my talk today at the 16th World Congress of Jewish Studies. So we'll see how that works.

*Oh, who am I kidding? I haven't looked at the thing since I gave version 1.0 in Philadelphia in April and needed to remove a few Katz Center-specific references and had been planning all along to do it the night before

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Book Display!

The last time I was at the World Congress of Jewish Studies was not the previous one four years ago but rather two congresses ago, in 2005. I had just graduated from college, was living in Jerusalem and basically just went up for one day to hear a friend who is somewhat more senior to me in the profession give a paper. Going back, I have the sense that I must have been a little kid then. Everything seemed a lot smaller and more manageable this time.

Tomorrow I give my paper and I will listen to papers on Wednesday, as well.

But today was for meeting colleagues and buying books. When I was last at the World Congress this friend and I each bought a copy of Joshua Blau's descriptive grammar of Judaeo-Arabic and then went out to the botanic garden and had a race to see who would exclaim "Cool!" first while reading. That is the kind of dork I was and am and associate with. (Although I don't actually associate with that particular dork anymore.) This time, though, I was looking for text editions, which is pretty much what I've limited myself to buying these days; and this book fair is actually a pretty inexpensive way of buying books (all told, the one pictured below plus one that I picked up at the request of a colleague was just under $100 US) and so I bought three editions that I needed:

I also purchased this earth-shatteringly important work of Hebrew literature:

(The really funny thing is that the way that they've translated "terrible-horrible," as "ayom ve-nora" makes it sound like Alexander and Yom Kippur.)

I recently submitted an abstract for a paper on the seriously confused provenance of a Hebrew Alexander the Great manuscript to an edited volume under the title "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Codes." The paper was accepted, but I was told that I definitely could not keep the title. They have to let me use it now, right?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Gregor Samsa Museum of North African Jewish Heritage

After going to the library this morning, I went to the museum at the David Amar Center for North African Jewish Heritage, as the museum had recently been restored and was supposed to be quite nice and home to a newly-created Moroccan patio, a la the installation in the Islamic galleries at the Met.

When I arrived, there was a sign at the door that asked visitors to ring the bell. I did. A woman answered, and I said I was there to see the museum. She told me to open the door when it buzzed. I did.

It's a very small collection, entirely of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century metal and textile objects from Morocco and Algeria.

This eternal flame canister is particularly interesting because it is dedicated to the memory of Judah Halevi, showing how the memory of the high literary culture of medieval Spain has persisted.

I walked upstairs and started to take photographs from the second story of the center patio/courtyard, which goes all the way up the interior of the three-story building. To be frank, the craftsmanship is far inferior to the one at the Met.

After just a few frames,  a man came out of his office, and the following conversation transpired:

Man: Who are you?

Me: My name is Sarah. I came to see the museum.

Man: You can't be here. You cannot see the museum. (He looks over the railing in the balcony at two other people who have come in and are on the ground floor, and continues, shouting.) Nu, friends! You cannot be here! You cannot see the museum! You must call and make an appointment and go with a  group. You cannot just look around by yourself! (Then he turns to shout just at me.) What do you think you are doing here? You cannot be here. There are people working here!

Me: I'm sorry, it's just that the woman who answered the bell said I could come in.

Man: What woman?

Me: I don't know! Whoever is the woman who answers your bell! I'm really sorry! I'll leave now!


Friday, July 26, 2013

Reviewing Ad Hominem

I am reviewing an article for a journal and I am going to recommend against its publication. In spite of that, having been on the receiving end, recently, of a blind peer review report that was completely off-base as well as just nasty, and having been made aware of the pitfalls of reviewers trying to use the process to force their own agendas onto other scholars in ways that I don't consider appropriate, I am trying to parlay these experiences into writing a better review.

The process has definitely given me an appreciation for how easy it is to inadvertently fall into ad-hominem attacks against the author of the article, even if that isn't really what you mean to say.

So for example, where I had originally written, without really thinking about it:

"The author does not appear to have a comprehensive grasp on the panorama of [area of my subfield redacted to protect the innocent]."

I changed the text of my report to read:

"The article does not reflect a comprehensive picture of the breadth and variety of [redacted things in this area of my subfield]."

It's still critical and it's still, honestly, quite harsh. However, I'm not insulting the author by suggesting that s/he doesn't know the material; just that his/her knowledge, which I assume to exist by virtue of the fact that s/he is at the stage of submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals, is not reflected in this particular presentation of the material.

When I have received critiques of my work, I have found the detailed, critical, harsh ones that engage deeply and in detail with the work itself to be incredibly valuable; and I keep going back to them over and over again as I revise. But I find myself tuning out the ones that resort to ad hominem criticism. Even if it is an understandable rhetorical misstep on reviewers' parts, I think it's just a better use of everyone's time and intellectual resources to make a real effort to present critiques of work in ways that do not put their recipients on the defensive. 

Overheard from Medieval Cairo

The two Mizrahi men sitting to my right  in the capacious lobby of the Jerusalem YMCA are hammering out the details of a bill for repair work to be sent to a certain Hajjaj b. Yosef. I feel ever so slightly like I'm sitting in a Genizah document — and maybe a little bit more sympathetic to the early Genizah scholars who found it so easy to use their modern world as a store of comparanda for the medieval one.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Timekeeping Near an Unsettled International Border

All told, this is a totally minor complication of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I noticed last night before I went to bed that my cell phone was showing a time one hour earlier than my watch and my laptop clock, despite having been correct earlier. I figured that it somehow was lagging due to my travel from Britain earlier in the day, so I turned it off, turned it back on, found it to be showing the right time, set the alarm, and went to sleep.

I woke up early, saw that it was five minutes to six, and went back to sleep, intending to get back up when my alarm would go off at seven. Next thing I know, it's 8:20. My first thought was that I must have inadvertently set my alarm for 7pm, but I found it set for 7am, and still on — so it's not that I heard the alarm and turned it off in such a deep sleep that I didn't remember having done it. And then suddenly my phone switched to showing 7:20 as the current time. My watch had 8:20.

It turned out that, apparently, all night my phone had been cycling between picking up a signal from Hebron and one in Jerusalem, and it kept resetting its own clock accordingly, as Israel and the West Bank do not share a time zone.

Unfortunately, this means I won't be able to get a space at the library today, as you have to be there promptly at 9am; but I've got the phone force-set to the right time zone, so this shouldn't be a problem going forward.

Updated, 3:52 pm, Jerusalem time. The weather  app also has me in the wrong place (I'm in West Jerusalem), but this strikes me as oddly specific:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Week in Links (Abridged Version)

I have to admit that I hadn't heard of Roberth Galbraith's spy novel, Cuckoo's Calling, until the author was outed as J.K. Rowling, she of Harry Potter fame. Hadn't seen it on a bookstore shelf, hadn't come across any reviews. Now that it's made the news and I've had a chance to read the rave reviews that it got before the news about its author's identity broke, I'm actually really excited to read it. It got a great critical response. But the whole saga is also a really sad commentary on the state of publishing and bookselling and book-choosing. This article explains how badly the book sold under "Galbraith"'s name and how the publisher was considering pulping the unsold copies until it had a star name attached and the publicity and sales that go with that. The fact of the matter is that I'm excited to read a great spy novel, but I'm actually really not totally happy to be reading a book that's associated with a major commercial brand, that is, Rowling. But even as somebody who keeps  up pretty well with new books coming out (perhaps too well for my own time management and wallet) I didn't have the chance to hear about it until that force was behind it. It's not ideal that a book has to have a big name behind it in order for the media and booksellers to promote it at all. And it doesn't give much confidence that new or lesser-known writers, even if they have something great to say, stand a chance of getting a hearing.

Rowling Book Skyrockets to Instant Hit

A totally different story about giving books their due:

New Building for Ancient Library

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hampton Court Caveat

Not all the pictures in the last post were uploaded, owing to bandwidth restrictions. There will be more garden photos eventually, technology-permitting. Watch this space for further details.

Hampton Court Palace

I spent my last full day in England at Hampton Court, the palace established by Henry VIII (having had lunch on Wednesday with a colleague who is a fellow of a college and holder of a professorial chair all founded by same). It was squatter, more compact and less capacious than I was expecting, but it was still pretty spectacular and a good day out.

There are a lot of pictures of stained glass and English gardens following the jump. Consider yourself warned.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Good Bribe Gone Bad

I have two book reviews that are, at this point, seriously late. They may only be a little late by the standards of book review editors, who often have two-year-long queues of review backlog and appear not to really care when new reviews come in, but for my own comfort with deadlines and my desire to get things crossed off my to-do list, they are seriously late and need to get finished. By me.

So I brought both books to England with me with the promise that if I finished the reviews, I would allow myself the indulgence of mailing the books home rather than schlepping them along in my suitcase to Israel. It seemed a little like overkill but a bribe has to involve a real and desirable reward; and the promise of not having to lug two not insubstantial books — one a hardbound single-author monograph of typical length and the other softbound but a museum exhibition catalogue printed on luxuriously heavy paper — around with me seemed like a good one.

The only trouble is that it didn't work. In addition to my work in the libraries I came to visit, I have, with the exception of a few references that need checking when I get home, basically completed the last chapter of the book manuscript and written 1500 words of a 10k-word chapter for an edited collection that isn't due to the editors until February.

There's nothing like having less desirable tasks at hand to increase productivity. I guess I'll have to find some really unpleasant task to undertake that will make writing book reviews seem like the only thing worth doing.

Anybody have some stables that need mucking?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

King's College Chapel and Cows


The Corpus Clock Chronophage

This is video of the Corpus Clock striking 11a.m. It is a mechanical clock outside Corpus Christi college that contains the largest clock mechanism of the "grasshopper" type, with the grasshopper-esque "chronophage" at the top of it being a clever play on the name and a way of demonstrating that type of clock movement. It's only accurate every five minutes at it sometimes pauses. Unfortunately, it's a bit hard to photograph as it's behind glass.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Adventures in Observed Phonology

Some teenagers, some British and some not, participating in some kind of summer program that means they are all wearing identical t-shirts, are sitting near me in the cafe where I have decamped to work for the afternoon. (The cafe is air conditioned and the library is not.) One of the British teens is teaching the correct pronunciation of a new word to one of the foreign teenagers. It makes no sense whatsoever in an American accent, so try to imagine it in an estuary-English one: "Y-A-W-N. Yawn. It's 'yaw' like 'you're great' but with 'n' instead of' great.'"

Loss (Volumes 1-3, 6-9, 12+)

These are three of the four boxes of unbound material in the Israel Abrahams collection in Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies library. As you can see, in his handwriting on the spine of the boxes, there were at least eleven such.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Raiders of the Lost Arc(hive)

I told you this was an Indiana Jones movie.

Today was my day to go looking for a manuscript only to end up scrunching up my face and saying: "Nazis. I hate these guys!"

About half the archive that I am working my way through is here as expected. The other half isn't here because it was in London during the Blitz. As typical British understatement would have it, "enemy action in 1940 destroyed much of the collections."

It's a strange sense of being in a time warp. It's not that the books and papers aren't here because they are in London. They're not here because they were in London in 1940.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Week in Links (The Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road Edition)

I suppose I should just accept the fact that castles and fortresses are used and reused over the centuries and damaged and rebuilt anew after each successive attack. But the news of the damage to the Krak des Chevaliers still makes me cringe.

Krak des Chevaliers Hit

An update on the destruction of cultural patrimony in another place and another war, twenty years ago:

Impossible to Turn the Page

Kosher Sushi in the (Ex-?) Ghetto in Rome:

Echoes from the Roman Ghetto

The Grammatical Diversity Project at Yale is documenting varieties of English diglossia:

Why 'Bad' Grammar Isn't

Although this was specifically written with students beginning the study of English literature in mind, it will be worthwhile to all literature and history students:

Advice for New Students of English Literature

Lawsuits and injunctions are flying to keep the NYPL from destroying its research library at the Schwartzmann Building:

Second Lawsuit Filed Against NYPL

As a fan and defender of bad literature, this blog post appealed to me:

The Boring, Ugly and Unimportant: Biases in Manuscript Studies

It turns out that I'm not the only one having issues in the archives of London this week. I guess I would have expected this sort of thing in Spain, but was surprised that it happens in the UK, too:

Surprises in the Archives

And finally, knit the Middle Ages!

Knit Archaeology Festival

Friday, July 12, 2013

GROWLTIGER'S ON THE LOOSE! (medieval version)

Full marks for effort, major deduction for execution, though.

Personally, even if my cat loved medieval history (he doesn't), I'd still actually put a picture of him on a "lost cat" poster. I mean, if you see a ginger cat wandering Cambridge, are you just supposed to go up to it and start quizzing it on the Battle of Hastings and call the number if it responds?

On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to the need to advertise the cat's proclivities, but really, if you need a pictures of medieval cats (and yes, I've just used the words "medieval" and "cat" in the same sentence, fully knowing the risk of reigniting the flurry of cat-print-on-manuscript pictures circulating) there are much better options available.

Nevertheless, I do hope these folks find their cat.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Humanistic Pose

"Is my 'Humanism' really a pose? Do I pretend tolerance to gain a hearing? This has never been charged against me. But what of my own consciousness? Does my own self charge me?

“Partly. Humanism is, I concede, sometimes an affectation. One restrains oneself.

“But only partly. If it be sometimes an affectation, it is always an effort. Perceiving other people’s intolerance, or rather, perceiving that intolerance is natural, one asks: What of my own intolerance? It is just as natural to me as to other people’s to them. What then? I must overlay the natural by the artificial, for the artificial is the truer, not to myself, but to a cause higher than myself. This cause is the cause of all against the one. Truth is not natural, it is artificial, artificial in the good sense. A child is not naturally truthful. He is naturally self-indulgent. Humanism is an artificial process against self-indulgence, and self-indulgence, though natural to each, is unnatural to all.

"Humanism is a pose, but a pose of grace.”
Quoted from Israel Abrahams, unpublished papers, Southampton Hartley Library MS 116/58 AJ 172/E.8

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Day Two at the London Metropolitan Archives

When I returned to the London Metropolitan Archives today, I found some references to the manuscript collection, but nothing relevant to the provenance of the manuscript I'm interested in. At this point, I am comfortable saying that it may never have existed; and that if it did ever exist, it no longer does.

I found a very late (1918) letter that was sent along with a historical manuscript, entitled Toledot Yisrael, describing the circumstances under which it was found (under a rock during the shelling of Jerusalem!!) and donated to the library. Unfortunately, there was nothing earlier along those lines, and certainly nothing like this from the pre-Neubauer period, before the 1886 catalogue that contains the entry for my manuscript was published.

One interesting thing is that in the early 20th century, the library was willing to send manuscripts out on loans to other libraries (that, of course, all vouched that they had suitably safe and fireproof places to store them).

There were a number of other somewhat interesting letters in this folder. I'll hold off posting them for now for a really mundane technical reason, though, namely I'm on a ridiculously slow internet connection.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

'Frankweiler' is a Jewish Name, Right?

I met with the LSJS library volunteer today, and she gave me permission to tool around in the librarian's files that were in the library proper (but not in the archives in the back), and so I did that while she was taking a class.

To paraphrase Sheldon Cooper: Explain to me an organizational system in which fountain pen refills and Maimonides in a desk drawer is valid.

All of the drawers and files were disorganized and just full of bills, invoices, random correspondence, books, pamphlets, labels that look like they might have been from dinky museum exhibitions. Some of it was tenuously in chronological order.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Indiana Jonesing

I arrived in London today not having been successful in making contact with the librarian at the London School of Jewish Studies, where I am hoping to track down the early European provenance of a manuscript I'm working on. It was held for a long time as part of what was formerly Jews' College London, originally a rabbinical college and institution of higher education founded by Moses Montefiore. As the college fell into disarray, its associations with the University of London and SOAS were terminated, and the library was in such a shambles that it sold off its Hebrew manuscript collection, which had originally been assembled by one of the early chief rabbis of England. It's not clear what happened to the library's records for those manuscripts once the collection was broken up.

The librarian finally emailed me this morning to tell me that the manuscript I want records for was never owned by JCL. I was prepared to go in with my iPad and argue that this catalogue entry and this insignia in the manuscript say different. (Only I was planning to be more polite than that.)


I arrived at the time that the librarian had indicated, only to discover that she'd had to leave due to a death in the family. The problem was that nobody else in the school could tell me anything about the library. The girl at the reception desk took me to the library at the suggestion (by phone) from a library volunteer that she look at a few card boxes on the librarian's desk. No luck. I do have to say, though, the periodicals in this library are catalgogued well, in detail, and many times over in many places.

The receptionist told me she really couldn't let me into the room, but then relented and let me walk up and down the hall while she watched, and then left me to it with a sort of wink and nod.

It's a disaster zone:

It might not look so bad in the pictures, but the boxes and folders contain odd conglomerations of different types of documents: accession records, random periodicals, invoices, correspondence; and very little of it pre-dates the second world war (actually maybe that's part of the problem?).

This floorplan was the only evidence I found of the manuscript collection even having existed. To be fair, I was shuffling quickly and haphazardly, because I didn't want to get caught and kicked out (since I really wasn't supposed to be in there.) It's not an ideal way to work in a disorganized collection with zero finding aids.

Rule number one in handling archives, rare books, and manuscripts is that you must wash your hands when you're finished, especially before you touch your eyes, because you never know what kind of schmutz, arsenic, or bugs you might have gotten on your hands.

I found a book that contained conservation records for print incunables (close, but no cigar!), that had a mummified spider resting on the first page. There was far more wildlife in this hall than one likes to find in a rare book collection.


And my hands have never, ever been this dirty walking out of a library.

I'm almost ready to accept that I'll never have anything extra-textual that will help me situate this manuscript. I find it to be an infuriating state of affairs because it's not like it's information that was burned by the inquisition or lost sometime in the late Middle Ages: It's been discarded by an institution that doesn't appear to care about its own history or its cultural/religious heritage. It's such a shame.