Keeping tradition alive

I’ve recently been digging into Twain’s Innocents Abroad. I carry it around on my phone’s Kindle app, so usually I read a few “locations” at a time while waiting in line in the supermarket or killing time somewhere. Today I came across a marvelous passage about the shiftless population of the Azores. It sums up what is the matter with so much “traditional” culture:

The good Catholic Portuguese crossed himself and prayed God to shield him from all blasphemous desire to know more than his father did before him. The climate is mild; they never have snow or ice, and I saw no chimneys in the town. The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy. The people lie, and cheat the stranger, and are desperately ignorant, and have hardly any reverence for their dead. The latter trait shows how little better they are than the donkeys they eat and sleep with.

The only well-dressed Portuguese in the camp are the half a dozen well-to-do families, the Jesuit priests, and the soldiers of the little garrison. The wages of a laborer are twenty to twenty-four cents a day, and those of a good mechanic about twice as much. They count it in reis at a thousand to the dollar, and this makes them rich and contented. Fine grapes used to grow in the islands, and an excellent wine was made and exported. But a disease killed all the vines fifteen years ago, and since that time no wine has been made. The islands being wholly of volcanic origin, the soil is necessarily very rich. Nearly every foot of ground is under cultivation, and two or three crops a year of each article are produced, but nothing is exported except a few oranges—chiefly to England. Nobody comes here, and nobody goes away. News is a thing unknown in Fayal. A thirst for it is a passion equally unknown.

You know and I know that there are still many places like this in the world today (more or less). Now every time someone makes an argumentum ad antiquitatem I’m going to envision this desolate scene and humans sleeping in the same room as donkeys.


On books, bookshops and Kindle babies

Edward Gorey, television junkie

I’m reminded, now more than ever, of something Arthur Miller (yes, that Arthur Miller) told me as we sat together in his kitchen on 68th St. in Manhattan. “One day in the future” — this was around 1999 or 2000 — “someone will have an idea of genius. They’ll decide to put books in a store and allow people to come in and browse them. It’ll be called a ‘bookstore.'”

You’re probably asking yourself what I was doing in Arthur Miller’s kitchen. My then-employer, Gotham Book Mart, had sent me to get five or six large boxes of rare and not-so-rare books signed by the renowned playwright. One of the ways the sinking bookshop stayed afloat was by milking its proximity to famous authors. Signed books sold like hotcakes. They were a boon in a dying market, and if they couldn’t come in to sign and schmooze, we went to them.

The most remarkable such trip was to Provincetown, Massachusetts. We drove up from New York to spend the weekend with the famously hermetic illustrator Edward Gorey at his mansion on Cape Cod. Overgrown weeds had ambushed the house on all sides. Thorn bushes crowded the walkway up to the front door. Inside, the house reeked of cat urine.

Everywhere there were books: on sagging shelves, piled on top of tables, in stacks on the floor, cluttering up every conceivable surface. Any square inch not occupied by books was occupied by an equally endless collection of trinkets: I recall a rich assortment of colored glass bottles of every size along the many windowsills of Gorey’s great home. From the stairwell the theme song of “Cheers” resounded down through the sitting room. In contrast to the spooky, ethereal persona he projected through his books, the man was a television junkie.

Both Miller and Gorey have since died, and everywhere there are signs that bookstores are about to follow them to the grave. Of course, people have been talking about the death of God for a very long time, and the old bugger is still with us. So I’m not going to get all sentimental just yet. Bookstores — and, let’s just say it, books — may yet survive the online onslaught.

There was a time when I proudly stated I’d never buy a book from Amazon. A vacuous statement, and easy to say by someone who at the time lived in the vicinity of countless English-language bookstores. This was the same mouth that had proclaimed at various points in its history that it would never a) eat onions; b) kiss girls; c) speak a language other than English. The contradictory adage “Never say never” never seemed more appropriate.

Now that I’m living in a place with no access to anything in English but bestsellers — and even those must be hunted down — Amazon has begun to makes sense. It’s all so perfect. You go online (if you’re like me, you’re there already), find the book you want, click and wait for it to arrive at your door. All you need is an Internet connection and a mailing address. So why does clicking “Add to cart” make me feel so unethical?

I’ll chalk it up to having spent most of my working life in bookstores. I’ve breathed in so much of their dust that they’re part of me. The weirdo who comes wandering in off the street with Ziploc Baggies full of pennies and complaining about his rabbi will never infiltrate the virtual walls of online commerce (which is probably a good thing.) But neither will the Arthur Millers and Edward Goreys. And neither will all those odd and interesting people I’ve met over the years who simply happened to ask the right question to the right clerk at the right moment. Some of them are — yes, thanks to the Internet — still my friends.

Sure, you can have fun writing reviews and posting them to Amazon. There are all kinds of interactive ways of sharing your passion for books online, too. For me, however, they don’t quite measure up to the serendipitous experience of stumbling upon a book that changes you forever.

My personal library is like a large-scale model of the mental world I’ve inhabited for the past 20 or so years. I pride myself on being able to remember where and when I got just about every book in my collection. Downloading an e-book to my Kindle app is exhilarating for it’s speed and simplicity, but I doubt it will leave me with much after I’ve read and digested the text. Books have always been about more than just content, haven’t they?

Maybe I lack the visionary imagination of a Steve Jobs, but books are simple things in the end. They come in all shapes and sizes and they can take abuse. I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw a Kindle. A woman came into the bookshop, pulled the broken device from her purse and explained that she needed to buy back the books she’d lost when it slipped out of her hand onto the pavement. She was crestfallen.

As I muse on the demise of bookstores and the much-prophesied disappearance of the “dead-tree book” I watch my daughter flip the pages of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” She’s enjoying the colorful pictures of fruit and the feel of the cardboard in her hands. She pokes her fingers through the tiny holes. She’s just as taken in by the physical properties of this book as she is by the content — more, actually, as she can’t yet read.

What, I wonder, would her first experience with books be if she were to fondle a Kindle “Baby” reading device?

Another tough Egyptian woman

Mona Eltahawy was beaten and sexually assaulted yesterday by Egyptian police. They broke her left arm, her right hand and “surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers.”

These women out there on the front lines deserve our support. Let Mona explain what happened, though:

Making sacrifices

A Catholic government?

“Mario Monti has guaranteed sacrifices for everyone. Now we expect him to trim the more than 5 billion Euro a year in public funds which are diverted to various guises of the Catholic Church.” – Raffaele Carcano, UAAR

It seems almost unbelievable that an Italian government could be even more Catholic than Berlusconi’s banished crusaders, but the Mario Monti’s new technical government didn’t get the Vatican stamp of approval for nothing. So basically everyone is expected to make sacrifices except the clergy and, of course, the politicians who propose making sacrifices. And round and round we go…

Now why does that little word “sacrifice” sound so artificial to my ears?

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy has my support

A courageous woman

In my view, there are few issues as pressing as secularism. In Europe we largely take it for granted. While religions still benefit from enormous privileges in probably every country and society (see here for Italy), its influence has been largely attenuated in recent centuries. While secularism has had many victories, it has by no means won any wars. Its principles must be staunchly guarded even where they appear most entrenched, as religious dogma is always waiting for the right moment to pounce on individual freedoms and tear them to shreds. We who live in (largely) secularized societies have the duty to defend them from predators. Either that or we will eventually lose the ground we have gained and go hurtling back to less enlightened times.

Secularists in secularized countries have it easy, though, compared to those living in places where religion is still extremely powerful and soaks through every pore of society. These are places where it isn’t just unpopular to be an atheist, secularist or humanist, but it’s downright dangerous. So those fighting against religious tyranny in places like the Middle East and Africa deserve our support. They are the ones on the front lines, risking their lives to protest against Islamism and its hydra-headed bigotry.

Maryam Namazie writes:

Student, atheist and blogger, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, 20, posted naked pictures of herself on her blog to show her “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy”. Showing her body particularly at a time when Islamists in Egypt are trying to secure power is the ultimate act of rebellion. Don’t forget Islamists despise nothing more than a woman’s body. In case you didn’t know, women are the source of corruption and chaos and must be covered up at all times and not seen and not heard.

Aliaa has also received the support a number of Israeli women. (Incidentally, most of these women have covered themselves.)

Appropriately, there is a call for “Nude Photo Revolutionaries” at Namazie’s blog.

I give my unconditional support to these courageous women.

[via Ophelia Benson]

Extra! Extra! Pope smooches imam!

The Freethinker brought this to my attention:

Apparently the BBC wouldn’t risk reproducing the image on their website, and even Benetton removed it from theirs. The ad is part of a campaign pitting “world leaders who are often at loggerheads, such as President Obama and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, locking lips.” What’s so controversial about that?

I don’t know if the imam’s people went apeshit over the ad, but you can just imagine those pasty fellows over at the Vatican pulling their hair out over it. No respect for the Holy Father! Lolz.

I think it’s pretty hilarious, and I long for the day the religions can no longer throw their weight around in defense of “the feelings of believers.” Considering that Catholics are spoonfed homophobia from a young age as part of their church’s doctrine, I don’t think they have the right to have such “feelings” respected.

Making stuff up

Watch Jerry Coyne get pugnacious on theologian John Haught. If ever a theologian was his own worst enemy, it is Haught. (Just try and follow his logic; you’ll get nowhere.) Coyne’s verdict: theologians “make stuff up.” (At the end of the first part, Coyne goes through a list of awful things that Catholics have done to the world thanks to their adherence to the arcane doctrines of their church. Haught is a Catholic theologian.)

Read Ophelia Benson’s view of what theologians do here. (Update: the videos appear to have been removed. Update: Now it’s back.)

Jewishness without god

The following short essay was written for Moment Magazine’s 2011 “Elephant in the Room” contest. The question put to all contestants was, What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? 500 words isn’t much space to elaborate in, but here is my entry. 

I didn’t win the iPad 2, which was the main reason I entered the contest (truth be told). My essay was excerpted, however, under the heading “Finalists” on their website. You can read the three winning essays there as well.


I grew up secular and came to my Jewish identity as an adult. When my Jewishness first struck me, I regretted not having had a religious education. I was so unfamiliar with the Bible I didn’t even know it was about the Jews. There was much to catch up on.

The next four years were spent teaching myself to be Jewish. Living in Rome, my options were limited. I went to an Orthodox synagogue. I frequented a struggling group of Reform Jews. I studied Hebrew at the local JCC. I constructed an ad-hoc form of kashrut, which seriously damaged my relationship with a dying aunt. I read deeply in Jewish history and the history of anti-Semitism, which didn’t make me many friends at parties. However, I did feel I was beginning to understand what being Jewish was about: feeling uncomfortable in the world.

In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like “Baruch Hashem” (“Blessed be the Name”) and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. “Idolaters!” I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.

Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.

First I began to notice how many fellow Jews were atheists. They were everywhere: Spinoza, Einstein, Freud, Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov and Amos Oz. Even the so-called “New Atheist” movement was brimming with Jews: David Silverman, Jerry Coyne, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Weinberg and Susan Jacoby. These Jewish atheists were sensible, creative, highly-motivated people. And free of the superstition that so annoyed me.

I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. “And how long have you been studying Talmud?” the rabbi asks. “Five years.” “Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?” (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for “atheist”, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)

As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called “God.” If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.