Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Bridges of Christian Menn

Tabula Rasa, Volume 1: John McPhee is, and always will be, Abq Jew's most favorite writer.

John McPhee      Photo: Yolanda Whitman

For those of you, Abq Jew's loyal readers, who may not know of Mr McPhee or his work, Wikipedia tells us:
John Angus McPhee (born March 8, 1931) is an American writer, widely considered one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction
He is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category General Nonfiction, and he won that award on the fourth occasion in 1999 for Annals of the Former World (a collection of five books, including two of his previous Pulitzer finalists). 
In 2008, he received the George Polk Career Award for his "indelible mark on American journalism during his nearly half-century career".
Since 1974, McPhee has been the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.
Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction), to refresh our memories, is
a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as academic or technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact but is not written to entertain based on prose style.
John McPhee's writing reads like a novel (or plays, Abq Jew would suggest, like a symphony) but imparts facts (unlike a novel, which imparts truths). Or, in other words -

John McPhee tells stories.

And John McPhee often tells them in The New Yorker - as he did for the issue of January 13, 2020.

An item of Personal History, Tabula Rasa, Volume One is the beginning (of course) of Mr McPhee's reminiscences about all the great writing he just never got around to. Some works not completed; many others not even started. Which are now, says Mr McPhee,

Old-people projects.
Old-people projects keep old people old.
You're no longer old when you're dead.

Abq Jew knows exactly what John McPhee is talking about. But - did you know that Abq Jew, at one time, many, many years ago, was planning (and studying) to become a Civil Engineer?

It's true. So let's talk about bridges. Even better - let's let John McPhee talk about bridges. Don't care about bridges, you say? Makes no difference.

John McPhee can write about bridges - or any other seemingly dry topic - with such joie de vivre that you'll become bridges' (and John McPhee's) biggest fan.

All the words below (that is, until the *) are John McPhee's, as published in The New Yorker. The images of bridges are all from the Internet, of course. Please, copyright lawyers, consider this fair use - or even a free promotion!

Ganter Bridge ~ Simplon Pass

The Bridges of Christian Menn

Sinuous, up in the sky between one mountainside and another, the most beautiful bridge I had ever seen was in Simplon Pass, on the Swiss side. It fairly swam through the air, now bending right, now left, its deck held up by piers and towers, one of which was very nearly five hundred feet high.

Felsenau Viaduct ~ Bern

A bridge I saw in Bern, also in stressed concrete, was strikingly beautiful and reminded me of the one at Simplon. I was in Switzerland through the ­autumn of 1982, having arranged to accompany in its annual service the Section de Ren­seignements of Battalion 8, Reg­iment 5, Mountain Division 10, Swiss Army.

When I returned to Princeton, toward the end of November, I couldn’t wait to see my friend David ­Billington, a professor of civil engineering, who was absorbed by the art in engineering and the engineering in art.

Ganter Bridge ~ Simplon Pass

Breathlessly, and pretty damned naïvely—thinking I was telling him something he might not know—I said I had seen a bridge at Simplon Pass that was a spectacular work of art and another in Bern that reminded me of it. Puzzlingly, because he wasn’t speaking in print, he said,

“They are bridges of Christian Menn.” 

Christian Menn, he explained, was a Swiss structural engineer unparalleled in the world as a designer of bridges. Moreover, Bil­lington continued, he had a remarkable coincidence to reveal, given where I had been and what I had seen.

While I was with the Swiss Army and admiring the structures of Christian Menn, he, Billington, had presented at the Princeton University Art Museum an exhibit of scale models of the bridges of Christian Menn. He’d be happy to show me the models.

Shortly afterward, Billington published a book called “The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering,” with a picture of the Simplon bridge on the dust jacket. He brought Menn to Princeton to lecture on—what else?—bridges.

Menn was a professor of structural engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, where Albert Einstein got his diploma in math and natural sciences, where the mathematician John von Neumann got his in chemical engineering, and where the Chinese-­born paleoclimatologist Ken Hsü got his umlaut.

Menn’s Felsenau Viaduct, in Bern, was scarcely eight years old when I first saw it, his bridge at Simplon only two.

Leonard P Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge ~ Boston

In years that followed, I would come upon the Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, over the Charles River, in Boston, pure magic with its optical pyramids of cables coming down from its towers directly to the deck (a so-called cable-­stayed bridge), and the soaring Sunniberg Bridge, in the canton of Graubünden, and more bridges designed by Christian Menn.

Sunniberg Bridge ~ Graubünden

He finished his lecture at Princeton with blueprints and conceptual drawings of the bridge of a lifetime, an old-man project outdoing the plays of Lope de Vega or jumping out of airplanes.

Messina Straights Bridge
The design for the bridge as it emerged from two decades of design work. 

This was a cable-stayed suspension bridge crossing the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the Italian mainland.

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge ~ Kobe

At two miles, its central span would be the longest in the world, three-quarters of a mile longer than the span of the incumbent, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, in Japan, which connects Kobe with an island in Osaka Bay.

Back in the day, the Roman Republic developed plans for a bridge across the Strait of Messina. The Repubblica Italiana may get around to it in two or three thousand years.

Having conceived of the largest bridge in the world, Menn went on to compete for one of the smallest.

Prince­ton University was completing a group of four science buildings, two on either side of Washington Road, which belongs to Mercer County and bisects the Princeton campus in a dangerous way. The danger is to drivers who might run over students, who, staring into their phones, characteristically ignore the heavy traffic, not to mention the traffic lights, and seem to look upon Washington Road as an outdoor pedestrian mall.

The four buildings house the labs and classrooms of Physics and Chemistry, on the east side of the road, and Genomics and Neuroscience, on the west. A footbridge would, among other things, save lives. This was not a rialto over Monet’s lily pads. Crossing the fast vehicular traffic, it had four destinations.

Plan for Princeton Pedestrian Bridge

Professor Billington offered the university an immodest suggestion. Since the footbridge design was in such need of an elegant solution, why not engage one of the greatest bridge designers in the history of the world?

The university said that if Billington’s Swiss friend was interested in the job he would have to enter a competition like everybody else. Menn was interested in the job, and he took part in the competition. Oddly, he won. His footbridge is shaped like a pair of “C”s back to back: )(. The two sides flow together at an apex over the road, and its four extremities diverge, respectively, to Neuroscience, Genomics, Physics, and Chemistry.

Streicker Bridge ~ Princeton

For every time I cross that bridge on foot, I cross it about a hundred times on my bicycle. More often than not, as I go up and down its curves, I am reminded not only that this wee bridge—along with the Ganter Bridge, at Simplon, and the Felsenau, in Bern, and the Sunniberg, in Graubünden, and the Bunker Hill Memorial, in Boston—is one of the bridges of Christian Menn but also that I have never written a lick about him, or about David Billington, or a profile of Bil­lington containing a long set piece on Menn, or a profile of Menn containing a long set piece on Billington, or a fifty-fifty profile of them together, which I intended from my Swiss days in the Section de Renseigne­ments through the decades that have followed.

David Billington died in 2018, as did Christian Menn.

In the unlikely event that you, Abq Jew's loyal readers, are searching for something really Jewish in this blog post (John McPhee is not, alas, a MOT) - here is what Wikipedia has to say about the naming of the Leonard P Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge.
The bridge's full name commemorates Boston civic leader and civil rights activist Leonard P. Zakim who championed "building bridges between peoples", and the Battle of Bunker Hill.  
Originally, Massachusetts Governor A. Paul Cellucci sought to name it the "Freedom Bridge". In 2000, however, local clergy and religious leaders, including Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, requested the Zakim name shortly after Zakim's death from myeloma. 
Although Cellucci agreed to the naming, community leaders from Charlestown objected to the name as they felt that since the design reflected the nearby Bunker Hill memorial, it should be named the "Bunker Hill Freedom bridge".  
Dedication plaque for the Leonard P Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge
Allegations of antisemitism were leveled against members of the mostly white, Irish Catholic community as reasons for resistance to the Zakim name, based on some comments quoted in the Boston Globe. 
Several local neo-Nazis also complained about the honor for Zakim and launched an unsuccessful petition drive to drop his name from the Bunker Hill one (the petition needed 100 signatures to be reviewed by the Massachusetts State Legislature and only 20 people signed it).  
In response, several community leaders spoke out against the allegations in a press conference, stating that the claims, made by Professor Jonathan Sarna, were his alone and did not reflect the community's historical (not racial) basis of favoring the "Bunker Hill" name, though they dodged questions about the false claim that no Jews had fought in the battle of Bunker Hill. 
Eventually a compromise between the Boston City Council, the Massachusetts State Legislature and community activists brought about the current name. As with the Hoover Dam, different communities call the bridge by different colloquial names. 
Many people in the Charlestown area refer to it as the "Bunker Hill Bridge", while most, including the local press and traffic monitoring services, refer to it as the "Zakim Bridge".

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Talmud Before Sunrise

Never Too Early: To learn Daf Yomi! Some may prefer to learn on their own time, in their own space, with nothing but their computer and / or Talmud before them.

Others  choose to study in חברותא (chevruta) - a traditional method of study that is prevalent today in the Jewish - Yeshiva culture (and elsewhere) in which a pair of learners read and discuss the text together.

Still others prefer to congregate in large (or large-ish) groups and discuss what they have learned.

Abq Jew encourages everyone to learn, regardless of method. To do, as we say,

Goat with stoat in boat

Whatever floats your boat.

And then there's New Mexico's treasure, Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, who seems to be part of a newly-formed Daf Yomi group right here in Duke City. Says Rabbi Min:

Biggest book club in the world!
Thousands of people around the world, including some
in Albuquerque, are involved in learning Daf Yomi,
the effort to study one page of Talmud every day. 
Some people skim the pages in English, others spend hours
trying to decode the Aramaic - most people are in between! 
There are wonderful stories, jokes, obscure references,
and powerful ethical lessons in these pages.
There’s interest in getting together
once a month 
to talk about this -
so anyone interested can gather at:

Sunnyside Up Breakfast & Lunch Cafe
6909 Menaul Blvd NE Suite A
Menaul & Louisiana, next to the Sheraton
Albuquerque, NM 87110

Abq Jew is ... disappointed ... to announce that the first meeting of said ABQ Daf Yomi group will אי״ה meet on

Tuesday February 4 (so far so good)
at 7:00 am (not so good)

TimeandDate says that sunrise on that day will אי״ה take place bright and early at 7:03 am. And that following that momentous event there are some 10 hours, 34 minutes, and 27 seconds that before sunset at 5:37 pm.

Berachot 7
An Example of Daf Yomi
Email from My Jewish Learning
Friday, January 10, 2020

On today’s daf, the rabbis continue to probe the idea that God prays and ask a logical follow-up question: What does God pray?

Rabbi Zutra bar Tovia supplies the answer in the name of Rav. Here is God's prayer:
May it be my will that my mercy will overcome my anger, and may my mercy prevail over my other attributes, and may I conduct myself toward my children (Israel) with the attribute of mercy, and may I put them before the letter of the law.

In other words, God prays for patience and mercifulness in the face of human injustice. God prays not to be tempted, however rightly, to mete out just punishment for the wickedness of Israel.

Much of Western culture is steeped in the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible is jealous and vengeful. But here in the Talmud, the ancient rabbis imagine God very differently. Theirs is a God who has every reason to be angry — after all, there is a great deal of human wickedness in the world. Human beings started messing up almost from the very first moment, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God's direct command and ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

And yet, God does not punish people as they deserve, but practices merciful restraint — even prays to be more merciful.

Rav’s teaching isn’t so easily accepted. His colleagues challenge him: Does God really have difficulty overcoming anger? Can we even think of God in terms of such a base human emotion? Here too, the answer is "yes." God can be roused to anger; the rabbis find proof in the Psalms:
God vindicates the righteous, God is furious every day (Psalm 7:12).
So, yes, God gets angry, which is why God needs to pray for mercy. Otherwise, humanity would be obliterated in divine rage. (It nearly happened in the time of Noah.) But, the Talmud notes, God’s anger is exceedingly short. God masters anger in a fraction of a second — literally. The Talmud says God overcomes anger in “1/58,888th of an hour” (about 1/1000th of a second). So apparently prayer really helps.

Click here to sign up!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Singer Norma Tanega Dies at 80

Walkin' My Cat Named Dog: No, no, Norma Tanega was not a household name, even in the '60s. She only had one hit record. And she wasn't Jewish.

But, to paraphrase what Philip Blondheim (later known as Scott McKenzie) once said (see If You're Going to San Francisco) of his one hit,

If you're going to be a one hit wonder,
Walkin' My Cat Named Dog is the hit to have. 

Sports and Obituaries writer Richard Sandomir says, in The New York Times -
Norma Tanega, Who Sang About a Cat Named Dog, Dies at 80  She had only one hit record, but it was a memorable one: a quirkily titled song about freedom, dreaming and her cat, who really was named Dog 
In 1966, when Norma Tanega released her first single, rock fans were becoming used to unusual lyrics. But as it turned out, that song, “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog,” wasn’t as quirky as the title suggested: The song was inspired by her cat, whose name was indeed Dog. 
“I had always wanted a dog, but because of my living situation, I could only have a cat,” she said on her website. “I named my cat Dog and wrote a song about my dilemma.”
She turned that situation into a lilting song about freedom, “perpetual dreamin’” and “walkin’ high against the fog” around town with Dog (whom in real life she really did walk). 
Accompanying herself on guitar and also playing harmonica, she sang, in a low voice: “Dog is a good old cat/People what you think of that?/That’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m at.”
And, Mr Sandomir tells us -
Norma Cecilia Tanega was born on Nov. 30, 1939, in Vallejo, Calif., and grew up in Long Beach. Her father, Tomas, was a Navy bandmaster and musician. Her mother, Otilda (Ramirez) Tanega, was a homemaker. 
As a teenager, Norma painted, and gave classical piano recitals and taught herself the guitar. After graduating from Scripps College in Claremont and earning a master’s in fine arts from Claremont Graduate School, she moved to Manhattan to join the folk music scene. 
A job singing in a summer camp in the Catskills brought Ms. Tanega to the attention of a producer, Herb Bernstein, and to Bob Crewe, the songwriter and producer behind many of the Four Seasons’ hits, who signed her to his New Voice record label in 1965. “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” came out early the next year.
And Abq Jew was distressed to read -
No immediate family members survive.

Today begins, so to speak, the impeachment trial of our 45th president. While some of us are, for emotional support, rereading Franz Kakfa's The Trial ...

others, Abq Jew is sure, are rereading Ian Frazier's Coyote v Acme.

And so, to ease the mood, here is Norma Tanega singing her signature hit.

And here is a video of the same song, covered by They Might Be Giants.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A Daily Dose of Talmud

Daf Yomi for Everyone: Following the recent worldwide celebration of Siyum haShas, Abq Jew was bitten - as many of you were - by the Daf Yomi bug.

Yes! Abq Jew is committed to learning (as we say in Yeshivish; we never say studying) one daf (in Hebrew; or blatt in Yiddish ; or double-sided page in English) of Talmud every day for the next seven-and-a-half years. At which point Abq Jew may be considerably older than he is now.

Or, as they say, not.

As many of you may surmise, Abq Jew has been committed before. And although he has been committed - to a peculiar set of institutions, and to a particular set of values since ... well, a while ago - Abq Jew has managed to successfully complete a complete Counting the Omer cycle (49 complete days, for those of you counting) in only a handful of years. A very small handful.

Even though he started out committed.

So. Just to make sure everyone here is on the same page (Abq Jew apologizes; he just had to), here is Wikipedia's take on Siyum haShas.
Siyum HaShas (Hebrew: סיום הש"ס‎, lit. "completion of the Six Orders [of the Talmud]") is a celebration of the completion of the Daf Yomi (daily Talmud folio) program, a roughly seven-and-a-half-year cycle of learning the Oral Torah and its commentaries, in which each of the 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud are covered in sequence - one page per day.
The first Daf Yomi cycle began on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5684 (11 September 1923); the thirteenth cycle concluded on January 4, 2020 [the Siyum's official website says January 1] and the fourteenth cycle began the following day, to be concluded on June 7, 2027. 
The Siyum HaShas marks both the end of the previous cycle and the beginning of the next, and is characterized by inspiring speeches and rousing singing and dancing.

The biggest Siyum celebration in the USA was held, naturally enough, at MetLife Stadium, in Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Which is located eight miles west of New York City. If you've heard of it, it's because it's the home stadium of the "New York" Giants and the "New York" Jets.

Yeah. New Jersey.

Which is still some 42 miles closer to New York than Santa Clara (where the "San Francisco" 49ers play) is to The City By The Bay. Don't get Abq Jew started! So -

Some 92K people attended the Siyum celebration in New Jersey. About a zillion more attended Siyum celebrations all over the world, even though Israel's liberal HaAretz says that Daf Yomi may be the wrong way to study Talmud.

Oh yeah.
Waldo showed up at MetLife Stadium.
Really. The Times of Israel even covered it.
Waldo, BTW, turns out to be Jonathan Gray (@udontchap).

If you look at the photos and read the official Siyum haShas literature, you might come away with the impression that Talmud is for Agudath Israel (of America and the World) only. For frummies, as we say.

But that's just not true. Talmud is for every Jew.

As Abq Jew pointed out in 2014, when he taught The Talmud @ A Taste of Honey. See also

A Map of the Talmud Page:     1. Mishna     2. Gemara     3. Rashi     4. Tosafot

Judaism is a civilization; Talmud defines that civilization.
When you study Jewish history and language,
music and literature, you learn about Judaism.
When you study Talmud, you learn Judaism.

After looking at the above image of a page of Talmud, you may suddenly be inspired to ask

How come everybody who learns Talmud is on the same page? Why is a worldwide Siyum even possible?
By which Abq Jew means: Every Berachot 2a page is exactly the same* - word for word, letter for letter - as every other Berachot 2a page. Eliezer Segal explains it for us.
The page format of the Babylonian Talmud has remained almost unchanged since the early printings in Italy. Some twenty-five individual tractates were printed by Joshua and Gershom Soncino between 1484 and 1519, culminating in the complete edition of the Talmud produced by Daniel Bomberg (a Christian) in 1520-30. 
As 63-year-old Michigan school teacher Annie Edson Taylor said after
she went over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901: "No one ought ever do that again.”
These editions established the familiar format of placing the original text in square formal letters the centre of the page, surrounded by the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, which are printed in a semi-cursive typeface. The page divisions used in the Bomberg edition have been used by all subsequent editions of the Talmud until the present day.
Almost all Talmuds in current use are copies of the famous Vilna (Wilno, Vilnyus) Talmuds, published in several versions from 1880 by the "Widow and Brothers Romm" in that renowned Lithuanian centre of Jewish scholarship. While retaining the same format and pagination as the previous editions, the Vilna Talmud added several new commentaries, along the margins and in supplementary pages at the ends of the respective volumes.
Get Your Daily Dose of Talmud

For those of us who are definitely not Agudah-niks, but who want to participate in this fourteenth cycle of Daf Yomi - even if we're starting a few days late (with some 2,700 to go!) - there are many, many opportunities to do so. Yes, even via a daily email. You can Google it!

Among them, the one that Abq Jew has selected is the Daf Yomi subscription via My Jewish Learning. My Jewish Learning says:

Around the world, thousands of Jews read
the entire Talmud one page at a time,
on a set schedule called Daf Yomi
(literally “a page a day”).
The new Daf Yomi cycle has begun
 and My Jewish Learning is excited to help you
dive into this worldwide Jewish learning project.

We shall return to you, Babylonian Talmud!

Monday, January 6, 2020

A Fast Day for the New Year

A Mystery Explained: Yes, tomorrow (Tuesday January 7) many of us Jews observe the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet - one of our minor fasts, observed (only) from daybreak to nightfall.

We fast in order to mourn the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia - which culminated in the destruction of Solomon's Temple (the First Temple) and the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah.

The fast has no relationship to Hanukkah, but it always falls the week right after. Wikipedia also informs us that the fast - per its selichot liturgy - also commemorates other calamities that occurred throughout Jewish history on the tenth of Tevet and the two days preceding it:
On the eighth of Tevet one year during the 3rd century BCE ... Ptolemy, King of Egypt, ordered the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, a work which later became known as the Septuagint. Seventy two sages were placed in solitary confinement and ordered to translate the Torah into Greek.
Each sage emerged with the exact same translation.

Abq Jew wishes to point out that, traditionally -
Judaism sees this event as a tragedy, as it reflected a deprivation and debasement of the divine nature of the Torah, and a subversion of its spiritual and literary qualities. 
And on the ninth of Tevet, the Shulchan Aruch tells us -

Something happened - we don't know what.
But we presume it was something bad.

Did Ezra the Scribe, the great leader who brought some of us Jews back to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile and who ushered in the era of the Second Temple, die on this day? Perhaps. Nechemiah, too? Maybe.

But our Rabbis - and we - really don't know why the ninth is tragic. It just is.

In Israel, the Tenth of Tevet is observed as a "general kaddish day" - a day to allow the relatives of victims of the Holocaust whose yahrtzeits are unknown to observe the traditional yahrtzeit practices for the deceased.

There are too many of them.

Over four years, the Rev. Patrick Desbois and his group
have identified more than 600 common graves of Jews in Ukraine.

Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

There are also too many Holocaust victims whose final resting places are unknown. Especially those who were murdered in the Ukraine by the Einsatzgruppen, in what has come to be called the Holocaust by Bullets.

Father Patrick Desdois, a French Roman Catholic priest, has spent years searching for these unmarked mass graves. 

A Priest Methodically Reveals
Ukrainian Jews’ Fate
His subjects were mostly children and teenagers at the time, terrified witnesses to mass slaughter. Some were forced to work at the bottom rung of the Nazi killing machine — as diggers of mass graves, cooks who fed Nazi soldiers and seamstresses who mended clothes stripped from the Jews before execution. 
They live today in rural poverty, many without running water or heat, nearing the end of their lives. So Patrick Desbois has been quietly seeking them out, roaming the back roads and forgotten fields of Ukraine, hearing their stories and searching for the unmarked common graves. He knows that they are an unparalleled source to document the murder of the 1.5 million Jews of Ukraine, shot dead and buried throughout the country. 
He is neither a historian nor an archaeologist, but a French Roman Catholic priest. And his most powerful tools are his matter-of-fact style — and his clerical collar. 
The Nazis killed nearly 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine after their invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. But with few exceptions, most notably the 1941 slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, much of that history has gone untold. 
Knocking on doors, unannounced, Father Desbois, 52, seeks to unlock the memories of Ukrainian villagers the way he might take confessions one by one in church.

Father Patrick Desbois will be our guest
Sunday, April 19, 2020
Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laGevurah Observance
Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque

One final note: Due to the mysteries of the Hebrew Calendar (see Easter on Purim and Nineteen and Twenty-Eight), the current Common Era year (2020) will provide not one, but two opportunities to fast on the Tenth of Tevet.

The next Fast of the Tenth of Tevet will fall on

Go figure ....