Why the birds are getting the flu

In fact, the outbreak began as early as the first half of 2003, probably in China, health experts have told New Scientist. A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now under way.

The Passion done Crown Heights style

So I saw this play. (NB: I know Yankel Rosenbaum is not a Chasid. Blame The Man, or my editors. On second thought, don't blame my editors. They were very kind to the piece.)

What I wanted to say about Lenora Fulani is that she has called Jews "mass murderers." Either the Forward didn't want to be inflammatory, which I understand, or they don't consider the Anti-Defamation League a reliable source. Sez the ADL:

Despite its self-proclaimed multicultural vision and its avowed dedication to fighting racism and anti-Semitism, NAP has repeatedly bombarded its members with anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Taking the podium in 1985 at NAP’s regional convention in Harlem, Newman announced his views on the behavior of Jews after the Holocaust:

"As a people we [Jews] responded to that genocide by selling our souls to the devil.... The contract with the Jewish people, with the Jewish leadership, has been: 'We’re going to let you live. We’re going to let you survive. We’re going to make sure it never happens to you again as long as you function as the stormtroopers of decadent capitalism against people of color the world over!….' Jewish people, my people, profoundly oppressed for thousands of years, capitulated — not all Jews, but the Jews as a people."

Newman’s "deal with the devil" theory appears to have achieved the status of NAP gospel in the years since that initial speech. Variations on the theme have cropped up on numerous occasions. In 1989, Lenora Fulani told the National Alliance that Jews "had to sell their souls to acquire Israel and are required to do the dirtiest work of capitalism—to function as mass murderers of people of color—in order to keep it."


The Jew of New Haven

A friend of mine, Michael Wenthe, who's a graduate student at Yale (among other more exceptional and admirable qualities of his) has published a perceptive essay on Ben Katchor's graphic novel The Jew of New York. Katchor gave a talk a few years ago which included a deadpan reading of a list of names of small businesses and economic oddities of the sort that he favors in his regular comic, "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer":

On a cold Wednesday evening in late January, Ben Katchor stood at a podium before a few dozen people in the Proshansky Auditorium of the City University of New York, and read aloud a few entries from a 1960 edition of the Chicago Yellow Pages. “Artificial Flowers and Plants,” he began, in a somewhat gravelly deadpan. “Ionian, Illinois Trading Corporation, Importers of Polyethylene: Completely Washable Flowers and Foliage; They Look Real, They Smell Real. Lee Schubert Floral Arrangements: Trees, Hedges, Any size, Any shape; Nature's Plant and Floral Beauty Reproduced; Free Estimates.

“Coin Changing Devices," he continued. "Meyer and Wenthe Incorporated: Official Money Changers; Multiple Tubes; Any Throw Arrangements; Slug Rejecters.”

That's right, Meyer and Wenthe Incorporated. As Mike said in an e-mail:

Well, I'm the man to explain that! I have a freakin' Meyer and Wenthe ruler in my art table! For I am a lineal descendant of Gustav A. J. Meyer and Herman Wenthe, proprietors of said store!

I feel strangely proud . . .


Post-Modernism Is Serial Killing

That's the title of the second installment of Arik Glasner's series in Haaretz justifying higher literature. (I called him Eric in my last post on his article. How many Israelis do you know with that name?) I had hoped that Glasner would rather more closely and cogently justify literature's contribution to the world. He doesn't quite do that, choosing instead (as you can tell from his title) to attack post-modernism; I suppose Israelis haven't gotten the Derrida is Dead memo yet. Still, Glasner writes well in a general way about what literature (and, in particular, novels of the realist school) can contribute:

What is customarily called post-modernism is serial killing. It's the heir to the full severity of concepts like the "death of God." Emphasizing the "destruction of hierarchy," it also announced the "death of the subject," the "death of the author," and even the "death of art." Nevertheless, wonder of wonders, people keep being born and wanting to express themselves in complicated ways which will enrich their life. Literature's heroic experiment is the attempt to give some sort of order, to provide meaning to the world. Even if this attempt is doomed to failure, the very writing of the history of this struggle, the struggle for meaning and narrative, is better than yielding to chaos.


More birds and flu
Via ProMED-mail

Date: Thu 22 Jan 2004
Source: Bangkok Post online, Thu 22 Jan 2004 [edited]

Thailand: Three Suspected Human Cases of Avian Influenza in Three Provinces

Three Thais with pneumonia-like symptoms are being tested for avian
influenza, Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan said yesterday [Wed 21
Jan 2004]. Tests on blood and sputum samples were being run at the Medical
Sciences Department. Mrs Sudarat's admission follows rumours of confirmed
cases of avian influenza which were believed to have caused the drop in the
stock market index yesterday.

The government has repeatedly said Thailand is free of avian influenza
which has killed five people in Vietnam and devastated poultry populations
in several parts of Asia. Officials say thousands of local chickens are
dying of poultry cholera and respiratory disease, but some farmers accuse
the government of a cover-up.

The minister called an urgent meeting yesterday evening with senior
officials of the Disease Control Department, the Food and Drug
Administration and the Medical Sciences Department. She insisted that no
case of avian influenza [in birds], also known as fowl plague, had been
confirmed and that the country was still considered free of it. Results of
laboratory tests on the three suspected human cases, who had been
hospitalised, would be available in three days.

The three are a butcher from Nakhon Sawan, a child from Suphan Buri and a
farmer living in Kanchanaburi. The three provinces are reeling under
widespread chicken deaths which the authorities insist were not caused by
bird flu but fowl cholera and bronchitis. The Nakhon Sawan butcher has
suffered a high fever and lung infection since 7 Jan 2004, occurring after
the deaths of 70 chickens on his farm. He is in a private hospital in the
Central Region. The Suphan Buri patient was taken to a state hospital in
the province two weeks ago. The Kanchanaburi case was admitted to a public
hospital in Bangkok a few days ago.

The ministry initially listed 17 pneumonia patients who had come into
direct contact with chicken, either at farms or slaughterhouses, but 14
were excluded after tests confirmed their illness was caused by bacteria
and not a virus. Health authorities have expressed concern about the lack
of information from the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry and what they
see as its reluctant cooperation. The Public Health Ministry recently
launched its own monitoring system. "We don't know what has caused the
illness and death of chickens because that is the responsibility of the
Agriculture Ministry," Mrs Sudarat said. We are, however, concerned about
human health and have closely monitored the possible occurrence of bird flu
even though there was no earlier indications of it." She admitted that
farmers and butchers who came into direct contact with [infected] chickens
were at risk of being infected with bird flu. "We issued a list of initial
precautionary measures that need to be taken to the Agriculture Ministry
last week, but it seems the warning has not reached farmers," she said.
Poultry raisers were advised to wear gloves, shoes and masks every time
they come into direct contact with chickens, and to take a bath or shower
immediately afterwards. People should not fear catching the disease by
eating chicken because bird flu was not contracted this way, Mrs Sudarat said.

The Foreign Ministry would keep other countries informed about the
situation, spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said. Singapore has already
banned live chicken imports from Thailand, Cambodia which has banned
imports of poultry from neighbouring countries, and Laos which has banned
all poultry from Thailand and Vietnam. China has banned chicken imports
from South Korea and Japan, where there is confirmed bird flu, but not from

(By Aphaluck Bhatiasevi and Achara Ashayagachat)

[ProMED-mail acknowledges receipt of a similar press report forwarded by
EVER which is enigmatically entitled "Thailand
has three official confirmed suspect case of human avian flu". Since all
cases of human infection by avian influenza A (H5N1) virus in Vietnam are
considered to have occurred by direct transmission from infected poultry,
rather than by human-to-human transmission, confirmation of the human cases
in Thailand would be indicative of the presence of avian influenza in
poultry in Thailand. - Mod.CP (ProMED-mail moderator)]


Revisionist poetry?

Who knew Jabotinsky translated poetry from the Italian into Hebrew? Actually, that wouldn't be so interesting in itself, except his translation is impressively good. (Via Antinous.)


Why literature?

I don't have the answer. (For refunds, go around back, near the restroom with a lock on the door and the sign that says Beware of the Blog.) However, Eric Glasner, writing in this past week's Culture and Literature section of Haaretz, girds himself to take on the question in an article entitled "Why Do We Need Higher Literature? Because That's What Particular People Make." (It's in Hebrew, and unfortunately the English cult-and-lit section does not include a translation.)

His argument is somewhat scattered, and a full understanding (which I don't think I have) is dependent on an appreciation of the history of modern Israeli literature, and in particular the character, typical of a certain school of novel, of the talush or outsider. Glasner says that a number of new novels, written in the past few years, have returned to the talush from a new direction, as an escape route from the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary Israeli society: overidealistic Zionism and fundamentalist Orthodoxy.

After some paragraphs about critics and criticism, Glasner finally asks the question of the title. He considers and rejects two other answers (belles lettres are enjoyable; they're better than best-sellers) before settling on the third. Higher literature is necessary because it's the product of a certain professional class, novelists and such, who are engaged in it: a craft from the pens of craftsmen.

Though I'm not doing justice to the argument -- after all, I'm not translating the article verbatim or in full -- I'm not exaggerating its weakness all that much. It's a Wittgensteinian view, one might say, just as religion (according to such a view) is defensible because it's connected to a certain world, particular and unique. But Glasner never really gets around to saying what the purpose of function of this literature-producing class might be.

The article is continued next week, but I have a hunch that my favorite answer, or attempt at an answer (since I haven't thought about this in any detail) won't be addressed: higher literature is a moral agent, and the success of its calling depends on the seriousness and boldness with which it addresses moral questions, no matter at what level or with what philosophical suppositions. As I said, this wouldn't be an answer, merely a start at an answer. It's what many lay readers in the U.S., and probably in Israel too, would give as a fumbling intuitive stab at an answer. However, it might be asking too much for an Israeli critic, even with all the cultural and religious riches at his disposal, to explicitly link literature and moral aspirations. Too many associations, too many demons might be called up.

I might be proven wrong by this coming week's continuation. I hope so.


Blanca Berger Sollod!

Or, in Jewish: Beyle Nekhome bas Kale Khane!

Today, Sunday (24 Teves in the Jewish calendar), we gave her a name and had a party. She is named after two folks, olevasholem, worthy of esteem. Blanca (or Beyle) Seifter was a elderly Czech-Jewish woman who lived with her husband Dalek next to my wife Celeste while she was growing up in San Francisco. Celeste and the Seifters adopted each other: they were her surrogate grandparents, and since they had no children, she became their surrogate grandchild. It seems they had lived a hard life, and did not find the world a congenial place to bring new people into.

Celeste would flee to them when the burden of parental rule -- homework, for example, or being made to eat foods she didn't like -- became too much. The Seifters would ply her with pound cake, bananas, and tea, this last served in a little orange mug-and-saucer. The mug and saucer now have pride of place in our kitchen. We save used tea bags in it so that Blanca can go to college. (This is Celeste's theory of waste-not-want-not. You didn't hear it from me.)

My grandfather, Nathan (Nachum) Nemirow, was a hard worker of practical intelligence who made his living in different ways. Among other things, he was a navigator in a bomber during the Second World War (competing with other crews to see who could calculate the fastest), and owned a bar in Denver for some decades after the war. He liked a joke and a Scotch. He used to complain, "How can you be so good at school and so awful at chess?" It should be only days before Beylke will be able to beat my pants off.

As they say in Yiddish, I hope that they will be good intercessors for our child, and I hope she distinguishes their names as much as they did in their lifetimes.

You can skip the following if you don't need more details about the people in the photos. Incidentally, pictures of the party are thanks to my friend from Caltech, Andrew Grangaard. Thanks, Andrew! (Though NB: Berger Sollod is her last name.)

Pictures 1, 2, and 3: various views of the social hall downstairs at our shul. Picture 4: me 'n' her. (More pictures of her passim.) Picture 9: your host and his wife.

Thanks, readers, for indulging me. Hope to see you by her wedding canopy.

Enentation comments


Seder Shel Newborn

Kadesh: Kiddush over milk (or formula, bedieved) -- מלא לוגמיו. That is, until it dribbles down her chin.

Urkhatz: Wash the milk off her chin.

Karpas: What else is greenish (or yellowish) and sharp-smelling? די לחכּימא . . . (i.e. Verbum sap).

Yakhatz: Get the diaper apart. (Its tape is made to stick, not to separate.)

Magid: Tell her why she's crying. I.e., בכייה לדורות.

Rakhtzah: Wash her again. With a brachah, if you can figure out which one.

Motzi matzah: Find something to eat.

Maror: See Karpas, above.

Korekh: Diaper sandwich!

Shulkhan orekh: Hereby most strenuously resolve to finally outfit the changing table with the changing-table covers you bought at the nauseatingly overstocked baby department store. If only the table weren't used so often . . .

Tzafun: Where'd I put the last bit of her bottle?

Barekh: If she's not crying, and you've managed to eat, bentch as if you're being chased by something fast and fanged.

Hallel: "A happy mother of children"! Praised be, indeed.

Nirtzah: "The order of the seder is now finished." Until the second-night seder. And the third ...


Birds and the flu

From: ProMED Digest V2004 #19
Source: World Health Organization (WHO), WER and Epidemiological Bulletin
online, Tue Jan 13 2004 [edited]

Viet Nam: avian influenza A(H5N1) in humans and poultry
Laboratory results received on Sun 11 Jan 2004 have confirmed the presence
of avian influenza virus strain A(H5N1) in samples taken from humans. The
samples were taken from 2 children and one adult admitted to hospital with
a severe respiratory illness in Hanoi.

Since the end of October 2003, hospitals in Hanoi and surrounding provinces
have admitted 14 people with severe respiratory illness. The cases are 13
children and one adult, the mother of a deceased child. To date, 11 of the
children and the adult have died. It is not known whether all of these
cases were caused by the same pathogen.

At present, there is no evidence that human-to-human transmission has
occurred. No reports indicate that health care workers have been infected.
The presence of avian influenza A(H5N1) in samples from 3 of these cases
was confirmed by Hong Kong's National Influenza Center, which is a member
of the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network. Samples have also been
sent for analysis to Japan's National Institute for Infectious Diseases,
another member of the WHO influenza network. Results are awaited shortly.
WHO is providing support to Vietnamese health authorities in their
investigation of the cases and in the prevention of further spread to humans.

Avian influenza strains normally infect birds only. The first cases of
human infection with avian influenza A(H5N1) were identified in 1997 in
Hong Kong. The virus infected 18 people and caused 6 deaths. Genetic
studies subsequently linked the outbreak in humans to an outbreak of highly
pathogenic avian influenza in poultry. The immediate culling of around 1.5
million poultry in Hong Kong is thought to have averted a larger outbreak
in humans.

Other recent outbreaks of avian influenza in humans have caused limited
disease. An outbreak of H5N1 in Hong Kong in February 2003 caused 2 cases
and 1 death. An outbreak of H7N7 avian influenza in the Netherlands caused
the death of one veterinarian in April 2003, and mild illness in 83 humans.
Mild cases of avian influenza A(H9N2) in children occurred in Hong Kong in
1999 (2 cases) and in mid-December 2003 (one case).

Highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry
- --------------------------------------------
Last week, avian influenza virus A(H5N1) was identified as the cause of an
outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in two southern provinces of
Viet Nam. To date, the virus, which spreads rapidly and has a mortality in
chickens approaching 100 per cent, has resulted in the deaths of 40 000
chickens and the culling of 30 000 more.

The relationship between the human and poultry outbreaks of avian influenza
A(H5N1) in Viet Nam is not fully understood at present. WHO and Viet Nam's
Ministry of Health are undertaking investigations to determine the source
of the human cases and whether human-to-human transmission has occurred.
The situation is also being followed closely by the country's Ministry of
Agriculture and Rural Development.

An outbreak of avian influenza A(H5N1) occurred in South Korea in December
2003. On Monday, Japanese authorities announced the death of 6000 chickens
at a single farm as due to infection with the same strain of the virus.
These outbreaks mark the first cases of avian influenza in South Korea, and
the first cases in Japan since 1925. No human cases of infection with the
avian influenza virus have been reported in either of these outbreaks.

WHO regards every case of transmission of an avian influenza virus to
humans as a cause for heightened vigilance and surveillance. The
circulation of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses in large numbers
of poultry in a growing number of countries is of particular concern.
Influenza viruses are highly unstable. The co-circulation of highly
pathogenic animal viruses with human viruses could create opportunities for
different species-specific viruses to exchange genetic material, giving
rise to a new influenza virus to which humans would have little, if any,
protective immunity.

[A ProMED-mail correspondent in Japan has forwarded the information that
Japanese media are reporting today that the Japanese Ministry of
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has announced that the highly
pathogenic avian influenza virus responsible for the current outbreak in
Japan has been typed as avian influenza A (H5N1)virus. The recent spread of
avian influenza A (H5N1) virus through east Asia is an increasing cause for
concern, as are the isolated instances of transmission to humans. This may
reflects the expansion of poultry farming and greater opportunities for
contact between humans and domestic poultry. Although the present situation
is fairly stable, it may only be a matter of time before a reassortant
virus or mutant virus capable of human-to-human transmission evolves. -
(ProMED-mail moderators)]


Two poems
from Lila Zemborain's book Usted (Buenos Aires, Ediciones Ultimo Reino, 1998)
(translation by your host from the Spanish)

One thousandth

From one thousandth of his tangible body
escaped a drop with millions
of particles that could have been not me

And one of these was me

And one of these am I

* * *

Oh splendid night


Oh splendid night
who loved even the last fragment of his body
given over to life's deliriums

How many nights we stopped
in the light of your shadow to gaze
ecstatic at satellites

Oh night I gaze at you and gaze at you
with the sunstruck hope of meeting him
in some trace of my intermittent sleep


Oh night!
Empty the light of your concrete words
You evolve into afternoon like a sure blemish

You were there, it was daytime
but you were there
in the tremor of my writing

You were there while
the breaches of unloosed sleep
opened in my body

On that infinite night I wrote this poem
with voice in memory
and dreams in your grasp

It was a voice that talked of night and stars
and of his splendid death

It was a voice that talked of his
splendid death

And I understood
something unsaid

It was talk of moon
and of a fluid splendor


We walked hand-in-hand on that moonlit afternoon
and looked together at the sea

We looked together at the sea

Oh splendid father
The Gretsch Building done brisk 'n' breezy

For an entertaining and irreverent, yet balanced look at the hipsters-Hasidim hulabaloo in Brooklyn, take a look at this new article in New York Magazine by your host and Steven I. Weiss. Any light and airy qualities, mind you, are due more to editing (and I.'s contributions) than to my own writing. Myself, I prefer thousands of words of exhaustive pedantry. (It seems that the more prestigious and widely-read the publication, the fewer words one is allowed to squeeze in.)


A joyful aside

As I write this post, my daughter's lying in a nursery on the 13th floor of a local hospital. She's nearly twelve hours old.

My wife is sleeping soundly down the hall from her.

As for me, I feel a sudden sharp desire to change diapers.

Enentation comments
A revived interest in death

This week's Forward includes an article of mine on the resurgence of Jewish burial societies in North America. Your comments are encouraged.


The “Artists” and the Chasidim:
The reasons behind a culture war in Williamsburg

[A translation of my article in Forverts from a few weeks ago.]

How many Satmar Chasidim live in the U.S.? Their number is variously estimated between fifty and one hundred thousand – but everyone knows that a significant proportion live in Williamsburg, known by some as “Jerusalem of America.” Where do these thousands of Jews hang their shtreimels, and how can there be enough room in Williamsburg for all of them?

When the Satmar Chasidim, then not yet a mass movement, moved into Williamsburg in the 1950s and 60s, the economic decline of Brooklyn had just begun to gather speed. The reasons are many, but the story began with the construction of the BQE in 1954, an expressway which lowered property values across the area, particularly in Williamsburg. A three-fold crisis – economic collapse, drug use, and crime – embraced the region, and both business and middle-class apartment dwellers took flight.

This exodus was a favorable development for several ethnic groups, which took advantage of the depressed property values and began to move in en masse. But a sort of social paradox here came into play: although City Hall, in an attempt at urban renewal, had knocked down a number of dilapidated apartment buildings in the 1950s and 1960s – the plan was to build new ones – the number of new apartment houses was not enough to fill the needs of new arrivals. So it was that the residents of Williamsburg were forced to compete over a limited number of apartments.

From the 1950s until the mid-1970s, the Democratic political machine gave the upper hand to the Chasidim over Hispanic residents. That period also saw the development and maintenance in the Satmar community of a high level of political discipline, which voted en bloc according to directions from their rebbe. But when the Hispanics began to organize politically, and the Voting Rights Acts forbade excluding voters on the basis of English proficiency or education, the balance began to shift. The Chasidim and the Hispanics were at something approaching political equilibrium.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Chasidim and the Hispanic community were the political bosses of Williamsburg, and their frequent conflicts spilled over more than once onto the front pages of New York newspapers. The groups clashed over a matter of life and death (or at least real estate): where can you live, and how can you get the government to sponsor housing projects that are appropriate for your group (and not, God forbid, the other guy)?

The 1980s: the beginning of the end?

Several factors in this period noticeably worsened the real-estate situation for Williamsburg Chasidim. First, in 1979, came the demise of the then-Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. Though his nephew took over the leadership of the community, the grandchildren (Aharon and Zalman Leib) began quarreling some years after, driving a suspenseful soap opera that’s going on even now in Kiryas Yoel, Jerusalem, and Williamsburg. That Satmar split, together with the growth of other Williamsburg Chasidic groups (for example, Belz and Klausenberg), weakened the control of Satmar.

Secondly, “pioneering” bohemians, refugees from overpriced Manhattan real estate, began to move into Brooklyn. And third – perhaps itself caused by the bohemians’ “first wave” – came the legalization, in 1985, of loft rentals in Williamsburg. It may be that future historians of Chasidic Williamsburg will record that change as the beginning of the end of the community in its ultra-Orthodox incarnation.

The newest Williamsburg Kulturkampf: The War of the Artists

Those bohemians who began moving into Williamsburg in the mid-80s have one name in the Chasidim’s Yiddish. They’re called “artists,” and many Chasidim (who wish to remain anonymous) are suspicious of their ways. The “artists,” on the other hand, pay the Chasidim the same compliment. Any Web surfer literate either in Yiddish or the ways of Williamsburg hipsterdom can quite easily find Web sites, where young hipsters insult their Chasidic landlords, or Chasidim drop juicy hints about the undomestic habits of the artists.

Who are these “artists”? The group includes two types of people: first, actual practitioners of the visual or performing arts, real artists who’ve moved into Williamsburg to take advantage of the gallery, exhibit, and fellow-artist scene: all for prices that would be impossible in Manhattan. Artists, of course, want to be with other artists, and New York (and its various far-flung neighborhoods) is famous as a city which makes such communities possible and affordable. But the category “artists,” as understood by the Chasidim, also includes plain ol’ hipsters, young folk drawn to Williamsburg by a free-and-easy and entertaining way of life, full of clubs, bars, and all sorts of partying.

The current controversy centers precisely on this contrast between this youth culture and the culture of the Chasidim. In the past few weeks, small, independent (one could even say “marginal”) groups of Chasidim have mounted several demonstrations against the “artists,” or, to be more exact, against the owners of the apartment houses that are renting out to the outside hipsters. When one asks Chasidim why they do not approve of the “artists,” the responses are various: some say, that they are just “too different” – for example, they don’t have curtains on the windows, they have outlandish art on the walls, they walk dogs on the streets. Some say, on the other hand, that they’re “generally honest people” (“not like the criminal element” of other ethnic groups), but they’re taking over potential living spaces of Chasidim. They’re replacing Chasidic Williamsburg with theirs – a hipster-bohemian variety.

The demonstrations, and the future

It’s hard to get representative responses from the “artists” themselves, because they’re a variegated community. It’s quite plausible that they want the same thing that every New Yorker wants: cheap, attractive apartments that are fitted to their way of living. The problem is just that their lifestyle is quite different from that of the Chasidim – and that the owners of apartment buildings earn quite a bit more money by renting lofts to multiple occupants then they do by renting entire apartments to large families.

The demonstrators (who are actually small, non-official groups, “two or three people with a fax machine,” as one highly-placed Chasidic source put it) chose as their main target the Gretsch Building, the only one of the major Williamsburg apartment buildings whose owner is a non-Chasidic Orthodox Jew. It seems that the protests have indeed accomplished some of their mission: they prevailed upon the owners to assure that only “normal” businesses (i.e. no bars or clubs) occupy the lower floor, that no terraces be built, and that no swimming pools be visible from other buildings. But protesters have also attempted to influence other owners, non-Jews or non-religious Jews, who are likely to be less impressed by scrawled signs in imperfect English.

In certain Chasidic chat rooms people are waxing nostalgic about the “good old days” of Chasidic Williamsburg. Perhaps the invasion of the artists is only the first wave of the new population which will drive out the Chasidim, leaving them to wander in the desert until they find a new home.


Getting rid of polio

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Atul Gawande has an enlightening, compassionate article chock-full of local color called "The Mop-Up." It's about the World Health Organization's campaign to eradicate polio through en-masse vaccinations. (Unfortunately, it's not available on-line.)

Near the end of the article, Gawande voices some qualms about the project. It's a massive endeavor, after all -- couldn't the billions of dollars spent be put to better use in strengthening basic health care in the countries, such as India, where polio is still common? His conclusion involves a certain amount of hand-waving: eradicating polio is the Great Wall or pyramid of our age, a testament to our collective enterprise.

This last argument can be easily disposed of. If eradicating polio would be a Triumph of the Human Spirit, so then would any number of other significant health-care goals that might be achieved through appropriate initiatives: increasing life expectancy by five years for men and women of all races by the year 2025. Or reducing by a half the number of smokers. There is nothing unique about polio, by this aeshetic argument, which would put it at the top of the heap.

On the other hand, Gawande's cost-benefit concerns are quite relevant. Making them somewhat more specific than their formulation in the article is more difficult than it might appear, since they involve the complications associated with any such calculations. Which costs are counted? Which benefits? Over what time scale?

I found this article by K.J. Bart et al. of the Department of Health and Human Services, published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. For those disinclined to read the whole thing, here's the abstract:

A benefit-cost analysis of the Poliomyelitis Eradication Initiative was undertaken to facilitate national and international decision-making with regard to financial support. The base case examined the net costs and benefits during the period 1986-2040; the model assumed differential costs for oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) and vaccine delivery in industrialized and developing countries, and ignored all benefits aside from reductions in direct costs for treatment and rehabilitation. The model showed that the "break-even" point at which benefits exceeded costs was the year 2007, with a saving of US$ 13 600 million by the year 2040. Sensitivity analyses revealed only small differences in the break-even point and in the dollars saved, when compared with the base case, even with large variations in the target age group for vaccination, the proportion of case-patients seeking medical attention, and the cost of vaccine delivery. The technical feasibility of global eradication is supported by the availability of an easily administered, inexpensive vaccine (OPV), the epidemiological characteristics of poliomyelitis, and the successful experience in the Americas with elimination of wild poliovirus infection. This model demonstrates that the Poliomyelitis Eradication Initiative is economically justified.

Economically justified, that is, in the context of this paper's assumptions. There's nothing wrong with such assumptions, of course -- every piece of research is based on certain definitions and restrictions -- but it's nice to know where we stand before we agree with the conclusion of the abstract.

The big question mark in the study is this: while the benefits of eradicating polio are underestimated, so are the costs. Each "cost-dollar" is counted equally whether it is spent for polio eradication or for something else. But that begs the question. Is money more wisely invested in basic health-care than in large-scale eradication projects? I would like to see studies that compare, say, the results of a billion dollars of world-wide basic health expenditures with the benefits of a billion-dollar disease-eradication program.

The polio eradication project is a large and noble one, but I don't think that we know enough yet about its costs and benefits to be confident about further such endeavors.
Reddish-white nights

Here's a poem about St. Petersburg, Russia. I translated it from the Yiddish.

A White Night
Yisroel Nekrasov

Red evening drags quietly
till the dawn.
The milk, sticky, whitish,
drips on.
After the last streetcar,
The city frozen,
Maybe one can restart
What was gone.
No: again it's far
away, a space unfilled.
A girl stops a car
for a hundred-ruble bill.
Why don't you live with your own kind?

What follows is inspired by a post of Naomi Chana's.

On Sunday I attended a Chasidic protest in Williamsburg as research for a story that Steven I. Weiss (of Protocols) and I are working on. More on that later. From a sociological and psychological point of view, though, the visit provided yet another opportunity to marvel at how one can have a great deal in common with a group yet feel completely out of place among them.

No, this is not going to be an omphalocentric meditation on Identity, the Mystery that is Me. But I am going to talk about one of my preoccupations: the creation of an ideology that takes advantage of contradictory ideas without being beholden to the entirety of their sources.

Let me be more specific. I would like more Jews to appreciate the Yiddish language, and I would like to help strengthen and expand our almost nonexistent (but what an "almost"!) community of secular-minded Yiddish speakers. "Secular" is meant not as an exclusion of religion (I am observant myself), but as a denial of fundamentalism.

Since I am a Yiddishist, I am fascinated by the particular brand of the language characteristic of American Chasidim, both in its colloquial and literary registers. As Joshua Fishman has pointed out time and again in his articles in the Yiddish Forward and elsewhere, secular Yiddishists have one large thing to learn from the Chasidim: that speaking a language in the home-family-neighborhood nexus, not theater, newspapers, or literature, is what makes a spoken language intergenerationally transmissible.

So why don't I move to Borough Park or Williamsburg, where spoken Yiddish is a lot more secure than in downtown Manhattan? An acquaintance of mine, an intelligent ultra-Orthodox woman, asked me more or less this question after a talk I gave a few months ago at a conference in Baltimore of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. In response, I said, "I'm not a Chasid. I am not against Chasidim; I appreciate their use of Yiddish. But my religious observance and philosophical approach to Judaism is quite different, and I think it worth my while to try and build a liberally Jewish, philosophically cogent, Yiddish-speaking community where I live."

In other words, I am devoting time and frustration to a near-impossible contradiction in terms. I am a traditional Jew in an egalitarian Conservative congregation speaking Yiddish with my family. Such traditional Judaism, in my personal context, raises another contradiction. I am observant of the Sabbath and holidays and kashrut, and I study Torah regularly, albeit with a critical eye. Regular readers of this blog already know that I frequently despair about the Conservative movement's many flaws. Why then -- some of you might ask -- do you not flee to the Orthodox movement, or even take advantage of the Reform movement's increasing observance?

Such questions could be asked of many contradictions I live with. How can I support Israel while realizing more and more that American Jews need to find other, extra-Zionist preoccupations that invigorate their own community? How can I study epidemiology while retaining a healthy skepticism about the risk-free messianism peddled by so many advocacy groups?

To create an ideology, and then to try and convince others of its usefulness, one needs a modicum of stability. One cannot constantly migrate from group to group, even on the basis of deep-rooted frustration, until one is sure that the most fruitful frustrations are not to be found in one's current home. If I am dissatisfied by the multiple contradictions I negotiate, I am also inspired by what is possible precisely because of these contradictions. If I were completely satisfied by my community, something would be terribly wrong.