Israel: Day 18

September 21, 2023 • 9:30 am

On Wednesday I spent about four hours at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and even that wasn’t long enough to see all the interesting stuff. There are four bits to peruse: archaeology (not just in Israel, but throughout the world), things reflecting Jewish life, art (including Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting), and, in a separate building (“The Shrine of the Book”), the Dead Sea Scrolls (only a bit of the original on display) and the Aleppo Codex (fully on display). As Wikipedia notes:

The Israel Museum (Hebrew: מוזיאון ישראלMuze’on Yisrael, Arabic: متحف إسرائيل) is an art and archaeological museum in Jerusalem. It was established in 1965 as Israel’s largest and foremost cultural institution, and one of the world’s leading encyclopaedic museums. It is situated on a hill in the Givat Ram neighborhood of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Bible Lands Museum, the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Its holdings include the world’s most comprehensive collections of the archaeology of the Holy Land, and Jewish art and life, as well as significant and extensive holdings in the fine arts, the latter encompassing eleven separate departments: Israeli Art, European Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Prints and Drawings, Photography, Design and Architecture, Asian Art, African Art, Oceanic Art, and Arts of the Americas.

Among the unique objects on display are the Venus of Berekhat Ram, the interior of a 1736 Zedek ve Shalom synagogue from Suriname, necklaces worn by Jewish brides in Yemen, a mosaic Islamic prayer niche from 17th-century Persia, and a nail attesting to the practice of crucifixion in Jesus’ time. An urn-shaped building on the grounds of the museum, the Shrine of the Book, houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts discovered at Masada. It is one of the largest museums in the region.

I’m surprised they don’t mention the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in existence (there are older versions in Greek), also a big draw to the Museum. But more on that later. I’ll include some labels with the object to avoid taking a lot of time simply to retype them.

The entrance to the Museum Complex, which (save the Shrine of the Book) is in several interconnected buildings, is long and spooky, and reminds me of the underground connection between the two parts of Terminal 1 in O’Hare airport:

The connecting tunnel at Terminal 1 at O’Hare in Chicago:

But there are a few mosaics on the wall to distract you (click descriptions to enlarge)

There were at least a dozen of these eerie coffins:

Here’s one:

A piece of pottery that caught my eye:

And I loved these lions from the sixth century BC. I show one below:

It doesn’t look very fierce! And it has hooves!

An Egyptian statue of the cat-shaped god Bastet:

Another Egyptian cat:

Two locks of hair found at Masada. Could they be from Jews who decided to commit suicide rather than be captured as slaves by the Romans? We don’t know, and, as I’ve noted, the “mass suicide” story of Masada may be fictional.

A big mosaic; I photographed only part of it:

The centaur is on the right.

A famous bit of cuneiform writing, which fascinates me:

On to Jewish Life. Here’s a Jewish wedding dress from Morocco:

And a carriage devoted solely to carrying coffins (Hungarian, 19th century):

A 19th-century Jewish marriage contract (“ketubah”). As one site explains:

The ketubah is a unilateral agreement drawn by witnesses in accordance with Jewish civil law, in which they testify that the husband guarantees to his wife that he will meet certain minimum human and financial conditions of marriage, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

It is not a ceremonial document of scripture or prayer. That is why it is written in Aramaic, the technical legal language of Talmudic law, rather than in Hebrew, the language of the “Song of Songs.” Neither is it a state document establishing the new relationship of man and woman. It makes no mention of the confirmation of G‑d or of society. It is not an instrument of the privileged class, as in ancient societies, but one obligatory on every person. It is also not an affirmation of perpetual love. It is a statement of law that provides the framework of love.

The ketubah restates the fundamental conditions that are imposed by the Torah upon the husband, such as providing his wife with food, clothing, and conjugal rights, which are inseparable from marriage. It includes the husband’s guarantees to pay a certain sum in the event of divorce, and inheritance rights obligatory upon his heirs in case he dies before his wife.

It is not a mutual agreement; the wife agrees only to accept the husband’s proposal of marriage. It is assuredly not a bill of sale; the man does not purchase the bride. In fact, the ketubah represents the witnesses rather than husband or wife. Through this instrument they attest to the groom’s actions, promises, and statements, and to the bride’s willing acceptance of the marriage proposal.

I’m wondering whether the small letters at the lower left around the square are the signatures of the witnesses. Note both the Hebrew and the Aramaic.

NOTE: Joseph points out in the comments that the photo below is not a mezuzah but a megillah. I have crossed out what I wrote before and added what seems to be the correct information. This shows that I am not a very good Jew!

Below is a very fancy mezuzah, a container affixed to doorways in Jewish homes, each containing a klaf, a piece of parchment on which there’s verse from the Torah (see above). The scroll itself is a lot more important than the container, and, if prepared in the kosher way, can cost a lot more than the container (check Amazon).  When I owned a house in Maryland while I had my first job, there was a mezuzah attached to the front door frame, with the top pointing inward, as is the custom. That was one of my only concessions to religious Judaism, and I don’t have one now. Even secular Jews do it (see from the Wikipedia article below)

I didn’t write down the source or date of this mezuzah, but it’s very fancy, with a silver case and a very long handwritten klaf:

This is not a mezuzah, but a fancy megillah scroll in a silver case, which contains parts of the Bible read on special occasions (this one is small, about 6 inches long).  The Britttanica explains the scrolls:

Megillah, also spelled Megilla, Hebrew Megillah (“Scroll”), plural Megillot, in the Hebrew Bible, any of the five sacred books of the Ketuvim (the third division of the Old Testament), in scroll form, that are read in the synagogue in the course of certain festivals. The Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) is read on the sabbath of Passover week, the Book of Ruth on ShavuotLamentations of Jeremiah on Tisha be-AvEcclesiastes on the sabbath of the week of Sukkoth, and the Book of Esther on Purim. The reading of Esther on Purim is prescribed in the Mishna; other readings were introduced in post-Talmudic days.

The NY Public Library notes  that these are usually scrolls of the Book of Esther and are read on the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The Haggadah is a Jewish text, read on Passover, that contains the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It is not lifted from the Old Testament but recounts a similar story of Exodus. It was written no earlier than 170 A.D.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah (below) is very famous, as it’s the oldest surviving Passover Haggadah from Ashkenazi Jews. As it says below, it was written about 1300 A.D. Wikipedia has a long article on it that gives theories for why all the humans have bird heads, as in the photo below.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah is so called because all Jewish men, women, and children depicted in the manuscript have human bodies with the faces and beaks of birds. Non-Jewish and non-human faces (such as those of angels, the sun, and the moon) are blank or blurred. Numerous theories have been advanced to explain the unusual iconography, usually tied to Jewish aniconism. The Haggadah is in the possession of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where it is on permanent exhibition.

Here’s a later Haggadah, apparently from Moravia, and written four centuries later:

The Torah is the archetypal document of Judaism, comprising the first five books of the Old Testament. It is written by hand on a scroll that is kept in the synagogue and read at least once a week. See below for more information. In the bar mitzvah ceremony of becoming a man, a Jewish boy must be able to read from the Torah. (I was never bar mitzvahed because I flunked out of Hebrew school.)

Here’s a section of a Torah from the Museum. The calligrapher has do do a good job because, as it says above, if you make a single mistake, the entire document becomes worthless and you have to start again from the beginning.

There are dozens of fancy Torah cases in the Museum; here are two.

Menorahs are Jewish “candelabras” that burn oil and there are two types. Temple Menorahs have seven branches for fuel and are rarely if ever lit. All temples have one, but it’s mostly symbolic.

Here’s one from Wikipedia with the caption, “Reconstruction of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, created by the Temple Institute of Israel”

The more famous menorah is the Hanukkah menorah, which has nine branches with the middle one higher than the others. From Wikipedia:

Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Eight of the nine branches hold lights (candles or oil lamps) that symbolize the eight nights of the holiday; on each night, one more light is lit than the previous night, until on the final night all eight branches are ignited. The ninth branch holds a candle, called the shamash (“helper” or “servant”), which is used to light the other eight.

The Hanukkah menorah commemorates, but is distinct from, the seven-branched menorah used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Along with the seven-branched menorah and the Star of David, it is among the most widely produced articles of Jewish ceremonial art.

Why the extra branches? Here’s the classic explanation:

Miracle of the cruse of oil (Hebrew: נֵס פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן), or the Miracle of Hanukkah, is an Aggadah depicted in the Babylonian Talmud as one of the reasons for Hanukkah. In the story, the miracle occurred after the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt, and it describes the finding of a jug of pure oil that was to be enough to light the lamp for one day, but that lasted for eight days.

Here’s one from with the caption “A Hanukkah lamp from Lemberg in The Jewish Museum of New York. “

The Museum has dozens of menorahs of all types from around the world: here’s a wall display (click to enlarge):

And there are a ton of paintings in the art wing. I photographed three by famous artists, though hardly their best work.

From Gauguin:

An early and rather crude van Gogh:

And a not-bad Kandinsky, who’s one of my favorite artists.

More art, this time from the New World:

There was a special and rather grim exhibit of the garb that Jews put on their dead when they’re buried.  This male garb has a hat.

I believe these are shrouds for Jewish women:

There was a detailed outdoor model, quite fascinating, of what Jerusalem looked like in the Second Temple Period (ca 516 B.C.-70 A.D.), starting when the Second Temple was built and ending when the Romans put the Jews to flight. The caption is below:

Below: the very large reconstruction, showing the city walls enclosing houses, shops, and, in the center, the Second Temple, which now remains only in the Western Wall and other stuff buried in the Temple Mount.

The structure in the middle of the Temple presumably held the “Holy of Holies“, the inner sanctum that held the Ark of the Covenant said to contain the Ten Commandment stones. Only one person could approach it, the head priest, and then only once a year. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t even climb up the Temple Mount (allowed briefly a few times a week) for fear that they’d be stepping atop the Holy of Holies.

Click to enlarge:

There are two possible Western Walls here, so I took a picture of the two possibilities. Maybe a reader knows which one faced west.

Or is it this one?

The “Shrine of the Book” is famous mainly for holding the Dead Sea Scrolls, only one bit of the originals on display at once. (They’re alternated so they won’t fade.) They were written during the Second Temple Period and discovered in caves on the West Bank between 1946 and 1956. A bit about them from Wikipedia:

. . . the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be a keystone in the history of archaeology with great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canons, along with extra-biblical and deuterocanonical manuscripts that preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. At the same time, they cast new light on the emergence of Christianity and of Rabbinic Judaism.  Almost all of the 15,000 scrolls and scroll fragments are held in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, located in the city of Jerusalem. The Israeli government’s custody of the Dead Sea Scrolls is disputed by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on territorial, legal, and humanitarian grounds — they were mostly discovered following the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank and were acquired by Israel after Jordan lost the 1967 Arab–Israeli War — whilst Israel’s claims are primarily based on historical and religious grounds, given their significance in Jewish history and in the heritage of Judaism.

The Shrine building is striking, and is modeled to resemble the tops of the jars in which the scrolls were found. Fountains and a pool surround it.

The eerie underground entry to the exhibits:

And an original bit of a Dead Sea Scroll, many of which are in bad condition; the text was painstakingly reconstructed.  You can make out the Hebrew letters.

Below is a facsimile of the most complete scroll:

The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is the largest (734 cm) and best preserved of all the biblical scrolls, and the only one that is almost complete. The 54 columns contain all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version of the biblical Book of Isaiah. Dating from ca. 125 BCE, it is also one of the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some one thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible known to us before the scrolls’ discovery.

The Aleppo Codex, written in Israel about 920 AD, is of comparable historical interest, and sits one level below the Dead Sea Scroll display. In this case you can see the original.

As I mentioned above, it’s the oldest extant version of the Bible in Hebrew, and has been used as a benchmark for accuracy by, among others, Maimonides. Much of it has gone missing, perhaps through theft.

Here it is on display:

And a close-up of the text, 1,100 years old:

Lovely gardens surround the Museum. Here’s an olive tree in case you haven’t seen one:

For some reason there are many rubber ducks on sale in the Museum Shop. Perhaps a reader can explain them to me.

Notice the variety, including devil ducks, surgeon ducks, Viking ducks, athlete ducks, and Santa ducks. What’s going on here? Is this Judaica?

Back in town: post-Rosh-Hashanah sale: mini shofars on sale for only five bucks!

And my customary lunch: a falafel sandwich with all the trimmings. I’ve had meat only once in Israel, and haven’t touched a drop of alcohol (I lose my desire to drink when I travel). I had a delicious meat lunch today, though, and you’ll see it in my next (and last) post from Israel.

Here are two women in he falafel shop. Their covered heads and long dresses led me to believe they were Orthodox Jewish women, but their clothing was strikingly attractive and stylish. I thus sent the photo below to a friend who had lived here, along with the question:

Are these women Jews (Haredim?). They have long dresses and big headscarves, but their clothes are pretty fancy.  They are buying falafel sandwiches.

And the reply:

Yes, they are. Fancy clothes are ok, as long as they cover. You are supposed to please your man for continuous procreation.

That made me laugh out loud, though it’s probably true.

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 15, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we feature another travel/historical/picture contribution from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior.  His captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Macedonian treasures

Macedonia, in northern Greece, is the descendant of the Kingdom of Macedon of Alexander the Great fame, and not to be confused with Northern Macedonia, the independent country resulting from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The young country’s choice of ‘Macedonia’ for its name caused a 25-year kerfuffle with Greece, which is still bitter about it (source of the images in parentheses).

Some of the 266 fragments of the Derveni Papyrus, the oldest European ‘book’ and one of the documents in the UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ Programme. The papyrus roll from the 3rd-4th c. BC was found carbonized among the remains of a funeral pyre in northern Greece. The text, read with special photographic techniques, consists mainly of an allegorical-philosophical interpretation of a poem ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus. One of the lines read: Zeus is the hea[d], Zeus the mid[dle], and from Zeus all things are ma[de], which unsurprisingly resonates with the idea of a Grand Poobah from the Abrahamic religions. Most modern myths such as the Flood, Immaculate Conception, Chosen People, Garden of Eden, Hell, are not original – the Ancient Pagans thought of them first. (Thessaloniki’s Archaeological Museum, AM):

A bill of sale from 3rd c. AD.: Titos, son of Lykos, buys from Amphotera a two-month old slave girl. The girl’s name is Nike. The price is set at 15 silver pieces. Slavery was a fact of life for the Greek city states and every other ancient civilisation. (AM):

JAC: I’ve highlighted Nike’s name

Aphrodite, or Venus for the Romans. Her family tree was unusual even for the imaginative Greeks: she was born from the white foam produced by the severed genitals of Uranus (Heaven), after his son Cronus threw them into the sea (aphros means ‘foam’). Aphrodite had a wide portfolio: goddess of sexual love, beauty and fertility, she was also worshipped by seafarers, prostitutes and warriors. This terracotta figurine is an early representation of Aphrodite, with no features to distinguish her from other goddesses. (Pella Archaeological Museum):

Some of Aphrodite’s later incarnations: The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) © Uffizi Gallery, Wikimedia Commons, and The Birth of Suburbia, by Rosaleen Ryan.:

Hermaphroditus, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. The water-nymph Salmacis, seeing him bathing in a pool, fell in love and prayed that they may never be separated. The gods acquiesced and joined the pair into one body with a dual nature, boy and girl. Among Greeks and Romans, Hermaphroditus was worshipped by – unsurprisingly – hermaphrodites, and also by ‘effeminate men’. But he was also seen as a deity of marriage for representing the union of a man and a woman. Hermaphroditus has experienced an unexpected revival into the modern pantheon, as the Church of Woke often cites him in mendacious arguments for the idea of sex as a continuum. (AM):

A votive relief dedicated to Hades, the god of the dead and the ruler of the underworld. 2nd c. AD. The Greeks had a god or demigod for any imaginable situation or activity. Listeners of A Way with Words mentioned some gods missing from the museum, including: Lemonades, god of cool refreshments; Ledes, god of low power lamps; Marmalades, god of chunky fruit spreads; Seus, god of children’s literature; Mediocretes, god of things that are slightly below average; Herpes and Chlamydia, the incurable romantics; Auricles and Ventricles, protagonists of a heart-breaking story; Apallo, god of shock and dismay; Diabetes, the god of carbonated sodas; and Phlebotomies, god of vampires. (AM):

You may have attended symposiums, but not likely the ones put together by the Ancient Greeks. Symposiums were gatherings of upper-class men in the andrones (‘men’s quarters’), which were furnished with couches along the walls. The lads would dine and drink in a semi-reclining position, which was a mark of elegance and decorum (the standing figure is a slave, who are always depicted as small). Household women did not take part: instead, cultured and sophisticated courtesans (the hetairai) were hired to entertain the guests with music, songs, dances and their ‘feminine charm’. (AM).

A helmet and funerary mask from ~520 BC. The warrior was buried wearing his helmet and his face was covered with a golden mask. The facial characteristics must have been created by pressing the gold sheet against the dead man’s face. (AM).

This gold chest is believed to have held the bones of King Philip II, and the gold wreath of oak leaves adorned his dead body. Philip II turned the kingdom of Macedonia into a regional power and prepared the ground for his son, Alexander the Great. The discovery of Philip’s tomb near modern Vergina in 1977 by Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos is one the most remarkable archaeological findings ever. (Royal Tombs of Vergina):

A replica of the Horologion of Philippi from 250-350 AD. This amazing instrument was used to calculate time, latitude, the height and the azimuth of the sun or some other star. You can find out how it works here. Only the Antikythera Mechanism could be more spectacular and awe-inspiring (AM):

A clay alabastron (a vessel used for storing oil) with a bust of the god Dionysus from the 2nd-1st c. BC. It is shaped like a phallus, which was a symbol of fertility and well-being, and a charm to avoid bad luck. Phallic amulets, often in the form of winged willies, really took off with the Romans. They were depicted in jewellery, pendants, lamps, relief carvings, mosaics, etc. and given to male children to ward off the evil eye and keep them healthy during their early years. These phallic charms were known as fascini (sing. fascinus), which is fascinating. (Museum of the Roman Agora, Thessaloniki):

Alexander III, aka the Great (356-323 BC). As king of Macedonia, Alexander created the largest empire in the ancient world until the Romans came to the stage, and he laid the foundations for the Hellenistic Period, when Greek language and culture spread throughout the Mediterranean. Alexander was no thicko: he studied literature, science, medicine and philosophy under the supervision of Aristotle, his private tutor. This head bust embodies all that riles the Woke apostles: empire, male dominance, whiteness. So inevitably the Classics are being cancelled, sometimes by classicists themselves. (Pella Archaeological Museum):

This lead tablet from the 4th c. BC contains a curse in the dialect spoken by the population of Pella (the ancient capital of Macedon). Among other things, it says: ‘…were I ever to unfold and read these words again after digging (the tablet) up, only then should Dionysophon marry, not before; may he indeed not take another woman than myself, but let me alone grow old by the side of Dionysophon and no one else”; ‘But please keep this (piece of writing) for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably’. Curse tablets with magic texts intending to cause harm or to ward off evil were a big thing among Greeks and Romans. They were placed in graves, thrown into wells or nailed to the walls of temples. A whole collection of them was found in the English city of Bath. (Pella Archaeological Museum):

Lead was also a handy resource for psychological warfare; Greeks and Romans used catapults (sling shots) with deadly efficacy, but some of their lead bullets were intended to carry messages to threaten, insult or taunt the enemy. In 41 BC, during the civil war of Augustus, Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus) cornered his enemies Lucius Antonius and Fulvia (Mark Antony’s brother and wife) in the town of Perugia. During the long siege that followed, the opposing armies showered each other with glandes (lead bullets). Many of these projectiles have been recovered from the archaeological site, and some make interesting reading, although nothing like the Aeneid or Metamorphoses. The precision and concision of the Latin language made these messages come across sharply and to the point: sede, laxe Octavi: ‘sit [on this], gaping-arse Octavius’; peto landicam Fulviae: ‘I’m aiming at Fulvia’s clitoris’; salve Octavi, felas: ‘Hello Octavius, you suck cock’; L. Antoni calve; Fulvia, culum pandite; ‘L. Antonius you baldy; Fulvia, spread you cheeks’ (during that period, Romans saw baldness as a disfigurement subject to ridicule; Cesar had a big chip on his shoulder because of his thinning hair). This taunting tradition has endured: American military staff scribbled their names and messages on ‘Fat Man’, the bomb that obliterated Nagasaki, and today you can pay to send a custom message on artillery shells that Ukrainian soldiers are firing at the Russians. Image: Greek lead bullets with a winged thunderbolt on one side and the inscription “ΔΕΞΑΙ” (Dexai) meaning ‘take that’ or ‘catch’ on the other side. 4th c. BC © Marie-Lan Nguyen, British Museum:

Gerda Klein recounts her liberation by the American Army from a concentration camp

June 22, 2023 • 11:30 am

Malgorzata sent me a link to this video with the words, “I knew this story but I never saw her own testimony. If you don’t know it, it’s worth watching, but you will cry in spite of the happy ending.”  And indeed, I began tearing up only a few minutes into the video.

This is a five-minute monologue (posted by the USC Shoah Foundation) in which Gerda Klein , a Jewish Pole put in the camps by the Nazis, recounts her liberation by the American Army after three years in captivity (not counting her earlier confinement in a ghetto). In fact, she later married the American soldier who liberated her, also a Jew.  It’s an amazing story, and she tells it very well.

Do watch it: click to enlarge, and there are English subtitles though she speaks in English:

Gerda, who died in 2022 at 97, has her own Wikipedia page, which explains that she wrote a book about her experiences (All But My Life) that was made into an Oscar-winning documentary, “One Survivor Remembers”. She and her husband were both devoted to helping people remember the Holocaust, and her activities earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given by Barack Obama.

Notes from the USC Shoah Foundation:

Gerda describes being liberated by the United States Army and encountering her future husband, U.S. Army Lt. Kurt Klein, in Volary, Czechoslovakia, in May 1945. Gerda Klein was born Gerda Weissmann on May 8, 1924, in Bielsko, Poland. Gerda and her brother, Arthur, grew up relatively unaware of the spread of Nazism, until Poland was invaded in 1939; soon after, Arthur was taken away on a transport. In April 1942, Gerda and her parents were ordered into the Bielsko ghetto. Two months later, Gerda, her mother, and father were separated, and Gerda was sent to the Sosnowitz transit camp in Poland. She never saw her family again. After that, Gerda was moved from camp to camp. In January 1945, Gerda was sent on a death march from the Grünberg labor camp to the Helmbrechts labor camp in Germany and from there continued into Czechoslovakia. Gravely ill during the forced march, Gerda was liberated by the American Army, including her future husband, Lt. Kurt Klein, in Volary, Czechoslovakia. In August 1946, Gerda and Kurt were married in Paris before rreturning to Kurt’s home in Buffalo, New York. There, Gerda would eventually work as a columnist for the Buffalo Evening-News. At the time of her interview in 1995, Gerda was living with her husband in Scottsdale, Arizona, and had three children and eight grandchildren.

You can see the entire 40-minute film “One Survivor Remembers” at the U.S. Holocaust Museum site (they made it in conjunction with HBO); just click on the screenshot below. The film is mesmerizing:

Book recommendation: “G-Man”

May 31, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Assuming you’re not put off by long books (this one has about 750 pages of text) and that you a well-written biography of a fascinating American character, I can highly recommend G-Man, which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It also nabbed a bunch of other awards, including the 2023 Bancroft Prize, the 2023 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize in American History, the 2023 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, and the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.  I found out about the book via a recommendation fr0m my editor at Viking Penguin, the terrific Wendy Wolf, who happened to be the editor of this book—her second editing job to win a Pulitzer for nonfiction.

I presume that you know a little about J. Edgar Hoover: how he was FBI director from 1935-1972—from the days of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd right up through the Watergate burglary.  He refused to step down (and so died in office), served under eight Presidents, and grew the Bureau from a small investigative office into the behemoth institution it is today.

You’ve probably also heard that he illegally bugged Martin Luther King (among many other people), catching the Reverend in acts of infidelity and sending the tapes to Coretta King. After that, he had an anonymous note sent to King urging him to “do the right thing”, i.e.,  kill himself. (Hoover, an arch-conservative, disliked the civil rights movement, all Communists, and, at the end of his life, the left-wing antiwar movement.) You may have also heard that he was gay and dressed in women’s clothes. The latter isn’t true, while the former probably is, though Gage was unable to produce convincing proof that Hoover, who never married, had a homosexual relationship with his deputy Clyde Tolson.  They were surely partners of some sort, and nearly all of Hoover’s money (and the flag on his coffin) went to Tolson after his death. Hoover also bugged John and Bobby Kennedy, catching them in multiple infidelities, though he didn’t use that information against them.

Beverly Gage spent 16 years writing this book, and it shows: it’s loaded with facts that only a dogged researcher could pry out of archives, and yet the prose is superb. This is a long book that’s also a page-turner.

I don’t think that anyone who reads this book and has a moral neuron could think anything other than that Hoover was an odious human being, even though he ran the Bureau efficiently (although autocratically). He regularly violated the law by wiretapping, intimidating people, and engaging in quasi-legal manipulations to get his way, and I could find no sense of humor in the man, or, indeed, anything to like. Acts of empathy on his part were almost nonexistent. People befriended him simply because he was powerful.  But that’s what makes the story fascinating: how he cowed seven Presidents, including several who couldn’t stand him, into getting his way. (He got along best with Nixon and Johnson).

Gage sums up his life in a couple of pages at the end, and, like me, sees him as a pretty awful human being, but one who had the facility to wield power to his own advantage. He played a huge role in American history, though not always a good one, and if you’re a history buff or simply like biographies, this is one to read.  It’s a good book to take on a long trip, but too heavy to schlep to the beach!

I give it two hearty thumbs up.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon page:

Click below to see a 16-minute NPR interview of Beverly Gage by Michel Martin:

NYT op-ed: Cleopatra was black because her lived experience made her “culturally black”

May 11, 2023 • 11:30 am

You’ve surely heard the argument that Cleopatra (“Cleopatra VII Philopator“, the Queen of Egypt, 70/69 BC – 10 August 30 BC) was “black”, an argument that has long turned on her genetics and genealogy. It’s generally been made to fold her into the group of sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants, especially when the argument is made in the U.S., where Cleopatra is appropriated by descendants of black African slaves. In other words, the “black Cleopatra” argument maintains that she was pigmented like modern Africans, with a dark skin, and, if we could see her DNA, it would group her with sub-Saharan Africans.

The “was-Cleopatra-black” argument, as you can see by reading the very long article about it in Wikipedia, has been persistent, but the consensus of scholars, based on historical analysis (and to a lesser extent from depictions in painting and statuary) is that Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek, the last ruler of the Ptolomeic dynasty going back for nearly three centuries. Her father, Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, was of that ancestry, and although her mother was not absolutely identified, she may have been the Queen Cleopatra VI Tryphaena.  There is no evidence that Cleopatra’s mother was black, ergo that Cleopatra herself would be half black. Genetically, I suspect she would probably group with ancient Greeks and Persians, not with sub-Saharan Africans. (No mummy is available, so we can’t know for sure.) But as Wikipedia notes, the dispute about Cleopatra’s race takes place among the populace in general, not among scholars:

The race and skin color of Cleopatra VII, the last active Hellenistic ruler of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, has caused some debate, although generally not in scholarly sources.

Further, as many scholars have pointed out, the ancients, including Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, didn’t even have the same concept of “race” as we do. Rather, although they were xenophobic, they considered “outgroups” based on other factors, mainly that they belonged to populations that were ethnically, culturally, and geographically different from the three main groups above, and were therefore inferior. Greeks and Romans, for example, enslaved conquered peoples and their descendants, and those were generally not sub-Saharan Africans.

Having no time to look this up, I doubt that the these three civilizations even had a concept of “race” that bears any resemblance to the concept people have today, which is generally based on genetic composition and geographical origin. (I’m using the old usage of race; I actually prefer “ethnicity” because we know now that the human species comprises groups within groups, and one could, on the basis of genetics and geography, demarcate any number of “races”.)

The irrelevance of the modern “race” concept to Cleopatra is also what Gwen Nally and Mary Gilbert, the two authors of the NYT op-ed below, argue: they say that it’s futile to bicker about the phenotype and genetics of Cleopatra because we simply don’t know enough about her and that the idea of “race” was irrelevant to ancient Egyptians (though most scholars, again, think she was Macedonian/Greek, which would be counted as “white” in the old definition of race).

The reason this controversy has resurfaced is, as Nally and Gilbert (henceforth “N&G”) note, is that there’s a new Netflix docudrama called “Queen Cleopatra”, produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, who is black.  In the film, Cleopatra is played by the British actor and screenwriter Adele James, who is also black. Here’s one of James’s tweets:

This has led to considerable controversy, particularly among modern Egyptians who claim Cleopatra was “one of ours” and not black. CBS News, for example, says this:

In the latest official response to the controversy, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a long statement at the end of April stressing that “Queen Cleopatra had light skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features.”

The statement criticized Netflix for casting James, whom the ministry said has “African features and dark skin,” to play Cleopatra.

Well, is it important? Even if Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans didn’t have a conception of race similar to ours, why can’t a black woman play Cleopatra? Racially mixed casting has been going on for a while now, and I don’t really see anything wrong with it.

But N&G do care: for in this op-ed they claim that Cleopatra is really “culturally black”, and thus can be claimed by blacks as a member of their group. But she can also be claimed by modern Greeks and Egyptians as members of their group, too! (Are you confused yet? Read on.)  I’m not sure why N&G make this claim, which seems to be deeply muddled given that they don’t even outline what “black culture” is. Somehow it involves oppression and exploitation, but also “triumph and survival”—but that’s as far as it goes. Under their view, we’re all culturally black.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click to read (someone also archived the piece here).

Below is N&G’s note that ancient conceptions of race don’t even come close to ours. (I would maintain that even the very idea of “race” isn’t to be seen in these cultures, at least as their way of hierarchically ordering human  groups. Rather, they had an idea of “groups” that were based on geography and culture.)

What debates like this miss is that current notions of race are relatively recent inventions and do not necessarily speak to how people of Cleopatra’s day saw the world or themselves. Classicists tell us that although the Greeks and Romans did notice skin color, they did not regard it as the primary marker of racial difference. Other concepts — environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom and culture — played bigger roles in delineating groups and identities. So regardless of the material a sculptor may have chosen to use to summon Cleopatra’s powerful visage, there is no meaningful sense in which she — or anyone else of her era — would have identified as white.

The question that follows is: How, then, can anyone, including a Netflix dramatization, claim that Cleopatra was Black?

Good question, indeed!  My answer would be that scholars say Cleopatra was probably Macedonian/Greek, which would make her “white” in today’s parlance. But really, who cares what actress portrays her? This would seem to be a sensible view that would end the controversy, but N&G don’t agree: the main point of their piece is that Cleopatra was indeed black, but “culturally black”:

Dr. Haley has said that she was struck by the experience, early in her life and career, of encountering Black American communities that seemed to view Cleopatra as one of their own. Building on that experience, Dr. Haley’s academic work on Cleopatra adopts a more complex criterion for racial identification than skin color alone. “When we say, in general, that the ancient Egyptians were Black and, more specifically, that Cleopatra was Black,” Dr. Haley wrote, “we claim them as part of a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival.”

Why was Cleopatra oppressed? She doesn’t seem to have been, so were her ancestors oppressed? It doesn’t look like it: they were Pharaohs and Queens!  So where can you find oppression in Cleopatra’s persona?  You can’t really, though N&G dig hard looking for it:

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was a member of the family that conquered Egypt over 200 years earlier. He was routinely referred to as an illegitimate child. His mother is unknown, as is the identity of Cleopatra’s mother, though several clues suggest she may have been Egyptian, including Plutarch’s claim that Cleopatra was likely the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak that language.

When the Roman poet Propertius famously called Cleopatra a whore queen (meretrix regina), he laced his misogynist tirade with allusions to Egypt, such as the “noxious” city of Alexandria and the “yapping” Egyptian god Anubis. The intersection of Cleopatra’s race and gender resulted in a form of oppression that cast her heritage and sexuality as particularly dangerous. Regardless of her lineage or appearance, it’s clear that Cleopatra’s actions were not perceived as the typical behavior of a Greek or Roman woman.

Note the “intersectionality” here, as well as the term “gender” instead of “sex.”  But one poet’s slur does not oppression make; remember that Cleopatra was QUEEN OF EGYPT. Yes, she had life and love troubles, but so do we all.  Here’s more of N&G’s unconvincing argument that Cleopatra was oppressed:

Throughout her reign, Cleopatra was also careful not to depict herself as a wife or consort but rather as Isis, the great Egyptian goddess who raised her son alone, without her slain husband, Osiris. Cleopatra was a pragmatist, doing what it took to survive, aligning herself first with Caesar, then with Mark Antony, before fleeing Actium when the tides turned. Finally, when it became clear to her that Octavian would let her live only in order to march her through Rome as a war captive, she took her own life by poison.

But that doesn’t say anything about oppression, at least of the type the authors are discussing. They further argue that modern Egyptians and Greeks can also claim Cleopatra as part of their culture:

Dr. Haley argues that Cleopatra’s experience was part of a history of oppression of Black women. Reclaiming Cleopatra as Black and choosing to portray her now as a Black woman highlights this history — and is consistent with contemporary Egyptians or Greeks identifying with Cleopatra on the grounds of their own shared culture. Unlike racial assignments based on physical characteristics, which seek to distill people into rigid and recognizable categories, shared cultural claims can easily coexist.

But Cleopatra wasn’t black. So N&G have to argue that she, like black women today, had a history of oppression but also “a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival”.  If these are the criteria that make Cleopatra “culturally black,” and also make Egyptians and Greeks culturally black, then they also make the Irish, modern Hispanics, and Jews “culturally black.” Indeed, every group on Earth, whether it be demarcated by genes or culture, has had its moments of oppression and of triumph. If everybody is culturally black, then nobody is.

This makes the whole “culturally black” argument into complete nonsense. Cleopatra was, if anything, privileged, though her life was tough at times.

Why, then, was this article written? The only reason I can think of was to somehow enable American blacks to still claim Cleopatra as one of their own. (If her portrayal by a black actress wasn’t intended to do that, then why are the Egyptians objecting so vehemently?) But why can’t we adopt the more sensible view that all humans can find something of Cleopatra in themselves: she was part of humanity and shared human emotions, love. and experiences (granted, not experiences that largely coincide with mine)?  In an attempt to shoehorn Cleopatra into an ethnic group in order to boost group esteem, N&G fail miserably. The NYT should have put this piece in the circular file.

But there’s a lesson here: regardless of what color Cleopatra was, she was part of the confluence of humanity, not to be claimed by any living group as “one of theirs”—any more than I can claim George Washington as “one of mine”.

In the end, was Cleopatra not a woman and a sister? And isn’t that enough to end these stupid and divisive arguments about her “race”, at least among the public?


Supplementary material: If you want to see what Cleopatra may have looked like, this page has lots of pictures of the “Berlin Cleopatra,” a sculpted portrait made when she was alive. Wikipedia describes it as “a Roman sculpture of Cleopatra wearing a royal diadem, mid-1st century BC (around the time of her visits to Rome in 46–44 BC), discovered in an Italian villa along the Via Appia and now located in the Altes Museum in Germany.” Here’s a face-on view:

The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute changes its name

April 24, 2023 • 10:10 am

104 years after its founding, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is no longer going to be called that; it’s changed its name to the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Africa & North Africa (ISAC).  Founded in 1919 with the approval (and funding) of John D. Rockefeller, it has a venerable history of research, and its museum, which I pass every day on my way home, is well worth visiting if you come here. (It’s “donate what you want” to get in.) Here are a few photos I took in 2018, especially of ducks and cats.

This is my favorite: it’s a “Human-Headed Winged Bull (lamassu), Palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II (721–705 BCE), Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad), excavated by ISAC’s Iraq Expedition (A7369). One of approximately 350,000 objects available in the collections search.” It’s HUGE, going from floor to ceiling (this photo is not mine but from the ISAC site). Imagine moving this from Iraq to Chicago (I hope the acquisition was kosher):

It’s a great place, no matter what it’s called, but, as Wikipedia notes, beginning with Edward Said the noun and adjective “Oriental” began to be seen as pejorative: reducing Asians to some exotic, mysterious aspect of their character—in other words, stereotyping them. As Wikipedia notes,

In the 2010s, multiple organizations within the U.S. began reconsidering the use of the word “Oriental,” as some scholars felt the word was alienating and that it had changed in popular meaning. In March 2023, University of Chicago administrators announced they would be changing the name of the Oriental Institute. Interim director Theo van den Hout said, “Our current name has caused confusion, often contributing to the perception that our work is focused on East Asia, rather than West Asia and North Africa. Additionally, the word “oriental” has developed a pejorative connotation in modern English.” In April 2023, the organization’s name changed to the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa, abbreviated as ISAC. The institute’s new logo features a lotus flower, which is found in ancient Assyrian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian art, as well as being a decorative motif on the ISAC building.

Well, I guess the confusion lasted over a hundred years, but we all know that the name was changed because “Oriental” began to be seen as either racist or “othering”.  In reality, I think, the Institute was named simply because “Oriental” meant “east of the Mediterranean”, which pretty much reflected the work going on there. It surely did NOT refer to people, but to an area.  So I’m a bit sad to see that concise and venerable name changed to something that’s a big mouthful. On the other hand, I can’t get too worked up about it because the connotation of words changes. I’ll just refer you to three articles on the Museum, and recommend that you come see it if you’re on campus. It’s well worth it, and right across the street from the main Quad.

From the University of Chicago News site:

From the Hyde Park Herald (local paper):


The Chicago Maroon (student paper):

Here’s the new lotus-flower symbol that the institution has adopted, and they’re busy now effacing “Oriental institute” from the building and its signs.

Movies of Lenin and recording of his voice

April 3, 2023 • 10:15 am

For some reason I was reading about Lenin this morning and wondered, “Are there any recordings of his voice?” It turns out that there are, as well as movies, both black and white and colorized. Let’s have a butcher’s and a listen:

Lenin’s voice, with the YouTube captions

“Recording of the voice of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” and “Appeal to the Red Army.” I presume we have at least one Russian speaker who can tell us what he’s saying. As with most famous people, he doesn’t sound like you’d imagine he’d have sounded.

Black and white footage, labeled “Russian Commentary – Lenin Obit 1918/1919. Many good shots of Lenin. Shots of a funeral [not his!] and a parade. DATE 1918/1919”. He died of a stroke on January 21, 1924.

And some (mostly) colorized footage. I believe that’s Trotsky on the podium at 1:09, and Stalin shows up at 2:40

A rediscovered Martin Luther King, Jr. speech

January 16, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Greg Mayer spotted this talk on my colleague Brian Leiter’s website, and I’m stealing it. Listening to it is a good way to remember King on this day, and to see the clarity and focus of his mission. It’s also  chance to appreciate his powerful rhetoric.

The 26-minute speech, rediscovered about eight years ago, was given in 1962, and is about two documents, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence—and how they failed to bring clarity or resolution to America’s “race question.” King recounts how the Founding Fathers were well aware of their failure to bring equality to all Americans.

Here’s the story from NPR:

Last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure.

As they sifted through box after box, museum director Mark Schaming remembers: “They pull up a little reel-to-reel tape and a piece of masking tape on it is labeled ‘Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.’ ”

It’s audio no one knew existed.

That year — 1962 — fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since. When Schaming listened to the audio, he found it still relevant. “It’s 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation is released, and this promise is still unfulfilled, very much as it is still today in many ways,” the museum director says.

At the end of the speech, King quotes a slave preacher who he says “didn’t quite have his grammar right but uttered words of great symbolic profundity.”

“Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

The passage, Schaming says, is so powerful it must be heard to be appreciated. You can hear the speech at the New York State Museum‘s online exhibit.

The ending is eerily similar to that of the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech—his final oration before he was murdered.

As you listen to King’s words, you can see the original typed speech go by—complete with King’s emendations, which markedly improve the text. Remember, this is two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

It’s natural to wonder what King would say, were he still with us, about the racial divisions in America today, the hegemony of identity politics, and the rejection of his dream to have people judged not by their race, but by the content of their character.  Of course, it’s clear that King was expounding identity politics here and throughout his life, but in a way far more salubrious and less divisive than they’re used today.

There’s a loss of sound about 15 minutes in, but the talk quickly resumes.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 12, 2022 • 8:15 am

Well, this doesn’t count as wildlife, but it does refer to the excretory habits of one species of primate. As contributor Athayde Tonhasca Júnior notes, ” I strongly suspect that this subject has not been approached before in your website. . . ” Indeed!  Apparently these are loo-related photos from his travels.Athayde’s notes are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

A visit to the toilet (room), bathroom, restroom, washroom, or lavatory, is an opportunity for reflection and introspection, or to seek refuge, peace and quiet. Indeed, British men allegedly spend seven hours per year in the toilet hiding from their wives and children (according to “research” commissioned by a bathroom furniture company). But the loo – or bog, can, head, john, or latrine – can also be a place of amusement and learning.

A flamingo on duty to check your hand-washing technique in Bologna, Italy.

Unfortunately this educative and lyrical message was removed from a dentistry practice in Perth, UK:

A health warning in Scots, which is a language, a dialect or bad English, depending on who you ask (and their political views). The UK government and the European Union recognise Scots as a minority language, but many linguists place it somewhere on a dialect continuum. To the chagrin of nationalists, Scottish heavyweights Adam Smith and David Hume considered the use of Scots as an indication of poor education.

An emergency cord is great, but what if you want to order a pizza or dry your hair while bombing the bowl? (Hotel in Padua, Italy):

My travelling companion was displeased with the facilities in a Padua cafe. Squat toilets are terrible for the elderly or disabled, but they have a great advantage: you don’t need to touch anything. You learn to appreciate them when you hear the call of nature in the back of beyond. They are also better for your health, supposedly:

A latrine in the Housesteads Roman Fort, Britain, on the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire. Year 200 AC:

Marcus: Salve, Quintus.
Quintus: Ave, Marcus. Are you well? You look a bit green around the gills.
Marcus: Tell me about it. I think that batch of garum from Rome was off.
Quintus: I hear you.
Cornelius: I hear you too, Marcus. Loud and clear! Ha-ha! Say, chaps, wouldn’t you have a spare sponge on you?

A tersorium (a sea sponge on a stick) supposedly used by the Romans to wipe themselves after using the latrine. The sponge may have been washed in a gutter with running water, or in a bucket of water, salt and vinegar. But not everyone agrees with this popular tale (kids love it). According to Gilbert Wiplinger (Austrian Archaeological Institute), the tersorium may have been nothing more than a toilet brush. Read his gripping account in the Proceedings of the International Frontinus-Symposium on the Technical and Cultural History of Ancient Baths, Aachen, Germany, 2009.

Sign in a loo in an antechamber of Perth’s Sheriff Court House. One must be at rock bottom to shoot up before facing a sheriff (a Scottish judge with powers to fine or lock you up for up to five years). For the last seven years, Scotland has maintained the unenviable first place in Europe for drug-related deaths; drugs in Scotland have a death rate almost four times the rate in the UK as a whole. These figures – together with failing education, economy and health indicators – are secondary for people in power. The one-track-mind Scottish National Party cares for little else besides breaking up the union:

Epiphany inside a loo in Perth, UK:

The facilities in the family home (today a museum) of Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari (1903-1962) in the town of Brodowski, São Paulo State, illustrate a time when homes were not cluttered with stuff and had plenty of space to spare:

Collector, philanthropist and extremely rich Ema Klabin (1907–1994) needed the loo to store some of her many priceless pieces of art. Her house in São Paulo is a museum (Fundação Cultural Ema Gordon Klabin) well worth visiting. Entrance is free:

A replica of a once common warning to men in public urinals, hotels and railroad stations in the UK. Not doing-up all the buttons of your trousers (no zippers then) was a grave indiscretion:

That’s not nice. At all:

Able young non-pregnant adults can use the loo in the petrol station across the road:

In a cafe in the Brazilian coastal city of Ubatuba, you are not allowed to flush yourself. Presumably to prevent polluting the sea:

“Use the toilet as you have committed a crime: don’t leave clues behind” (loo in a São Paulo bookshop):

New documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, starts this evening

September 18, 2022 • 12:45 pm

It’s well known that the U.S. government didn’t care all that much about the Holocaust as it was happening in Europe, even though information about it was available. Nor did they make much effort to take in Jews or, especially, to rescue beleaguered Jews in Europe.  Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein are now about to present a six-hour, three-part series called “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, part of which explains this neglect.

The show starts this evening, so do watch it. (Check your local PBS schedule.) Here’s the one-minute trailer:

Somehow i have to find a way to see it (my crummy t.v. doesn’t receive PBS).

Below is a 26-minute “Firing Line” interview featuring Burns and Botstein.  You can hear it for free by clicking the screenshots:


Here are Burns and his other collaborator, Lynn Novick, on the Today show.

The New Yorker has a summary and review of the series, and its assessment is somewhat tepid. Why? Because Burns et al. didn’t make the film the New Yorker thought it should. What did they want? More about contemporary issues, something that Burns addresses in his comments above.

Here’s a bit of McAuley’s critique:

But if contemporary America is of interest, there is an important institutional story to tell here as well, about the U.S. government’s ultimate embrace of Holocaust history beginning in the late nineteen-seventies, when a commission established by President Jimmy Carter proposed the creation of a national Holocaust museum. And also a strange story about a civil society in which a very particular tragedy became universalized and mass-marketed, leading people who may have little or no connection to Jewish life to feel entitled to make a Jewish catastrophe about themselves. Examining the evolution of that uniquely American obsession might have strengthened the film in its final installment. After all, America is still responding to the Holocaust, and often in troubling ways.

The persecution and mass murder of European Jews between 1933 and 1945 loom so large in our culture that even our own homegrown brownshirts now have the Holocaust on the tips of their tongues. In recent years, a sitting member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has styled her enemies as “Nazis” and posted a video of a fake-looking President Biden with a Hitler mustache. Beyond the arena of electoral politics, a number of ordinary people wore yellow stars on their lapels to protest coronavirus-vaccine requirements. Given its interest in the contemporary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” might have confronted, or at least acknowledged, these fixations and distortions. They, too, turn out to be as American as apple pie.

There wasn’t enough about contemporary white supremacy and the Republicans, I guess. Well, I haven’t seen the show yet, an will find a way to do so. But what does the magazine mean by this?

. . . .a civil society in which a very particular tragedy became universalized and mass-marketed, leading people who may have little or no connection to Jewish life to feel entitled to make a Jewish catastrophe about themselves.

Is the answer in something that McAuley wrote earlier in the article?

The destruction of the European Jews, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s telling, was not really about the Jews: it was a parable for right and wrong, a “teachable moment” about perseverance in the face of adversity—could there be anything more hopelessly and terminally American than that? As Roosevelt wrote, Anne’s diary was among “the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read. . . . Despite the horror and humiliation of their daily lives, these people never gave up.” Anne, she concluded, “tells us much about ourselves and our own children.” Not once did Eleanor Roosevelt use the word “Jew”; the story of “these people” was not the point. By then, the Jewish catastrophe was everyone’s to claim, and the “lessons” of the Holocaust were already in the process of becoming a strangely American form of national self-help.

Typical New Yorker prose: a grandiose and eloquent conclusion that doesn’t seem to hold water.  An American form of self-help? How?