Wednesday, May 18, 2016

New York Society for General Semantics

So, back in January, I became president of the New York Society for General Semantics. And I know what you're thinking⎯why did I wait until now to let you know about it? Well, the organization had been inactive for a couple of years, and it's taken some time to get it started up again.

Actually, it's still in the process of re-organization, but I've set up a new website at which has a modest amount of resources, as well as general information about the organization and what it represents. Go check it out. And please feel free to subscribe for updates on events and other news, especially if you are in the vicinity of the New York Metropolitan Area.

Here's the new logo for the NYSGS, courtesy of my old friend Peter Darnell of Visible Works Design:

As you may know, that letter A with the bar or line over it is a symbol for not A or null A, which is short for non-aristotelian, general semantics having been developed as a non-aristotelian system by its founder, Alfred Korzybski. What he meant by that was a kind of post-Aristotelian logic that could take its place as principles of thought alongside the new non-Newtonian physics and non-Euclidean geometry that were associated with Einstein's paradigm shifting revolution in physics in the early 20th century. Science fiction fans may also recall the Korzybski-inspired null-A novels by A. E. van Vogt.


Anyway, when I first became associated with the NYSGS many years ago, it was run by Allen Flagg, and held monthly meetings that generally consisted of a speaker, or other kind of presentation, on topics of interest, such as language, symbols, media, and technology, communication, consciousness, and culture. I don't know very much about the early history of the organization, I'm sorry to say, except that it was founded in 1946, on September 9th of that year to be exact. And its name indicates a connection to the larger Society of General Semantics that was founded three years earlier by English professor S. I. Hayakawa (later to become notorious as president of San Francisco State College and then United States Senator from California), and communication scholars Wendell Johnson and Irving Lee. In 1948, the SGS changed its name to the International Society for General Semantics, a name it retained until it merged with the Institute of General Semantics in 2004.

The NYSGS has had a long association with the IGS, including serving as a co-sponsor of the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and the symposium that follows, which is almost always held in New York City. And given the New York connection, there is also a significant association with Neil Postman, who was the former editor of ETC: A Review of General Semantics for over a decade⎯ETC was founded by Hayakawa and published by the SGS/ISGS until the merger, after which it has continued to be published by the IGS, most recently under the editorial helm of my friend, Ed Tywoniak. And among the resources that are available from the site are Postman's piece on media ecology and general semantics from the 70s, and a wonderful document entitled, Instant Pep* for Language (*Postman Enthusiasts Project) by the Staff of Fort Meyer Elementary School, Arlington, Virginia, originally published by the ISGS in 1968. And there's more of interest on the site as well, but I'll leave it for you to explore.

So, my plan is to hold events at The Players, a club in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan that was originally founded by Edwin Booth, the most famous stage actor in 19th century America, and brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, along with Mark Twain and other notables, back in 1888. According to their website, "The Players is a private social club that draws its membership from the international theatre community, the related fields of film, television, music, and publishing, as well as respected patrons of the arts." This should add some creative energy and synergy to our programs.

Our programs will begin in earnest in the fall, but we'll be holding a preliminary meet-up at The Players on June 2nd. It's free, but registration is required. All the information is over there on, so let me wrap this up right now, so you can stop wasting your time over here, and go take a look, and maybe sign up. And otherwise, stay tuned! 

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Lifelong Learning Community

Back when I started this blog in 2007, one of my earliest post was entitled The Fragile Community, which was about a book co-authored by my friend, the distinguished communication scholar, Larry Frey. Subtitled, Living Together with AIDS, the book is based on ethnographic research Larry and co-author Mara Adelman conducted on a residential community for people with AIDS.


The reason this came to mind is that one of my former MA students from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Margaret Roidi, recently published an article in Synergy: The Online Journal for the Association for the Tutoring Profession. According to the website, Synergy "is the national peer-reviewed online journal for ATP; the mission is to provide an avenue for scholarship and discussion to further the knowledge of learning processes, tutoring practice and the administration of tutoring services." As for the article she published, its title is: "Tutor Training Procedures in Higher Education: Creating a Community of Lifelong Learners" (and yes, it's available online, I've conveniently linked the title to it, so just feel free to click away).

Now, aside from congratulating a former student on a significant achievement, I do want to acknowledge the important role that tutors play in the university setting, a role that often goes unremarked. Sometimes students need something more than class sessions can offer, some degree of individualized help, and this is where tutoring comes in. It can make the difference between student success and failure. As a faculty member, I do want to note that we try to give personal attention to students who need it. But much depends on class size, and even at an institution like Fordham University, where there are almost no large lecture classes and a tradition of cura personalis, there is only so much that a faculty member can do.

So, tutors are an essential component of any institution of higher education. That much is clear. But when you think about what tutoring entails, generally working with students on a one-on-one basis, it seems almost the antithesis of community. And yet, more and more, there is an emphasis in higher education on building communities of learning. As Roidi discusses, tutors are, or ought to be, an important part of these learning communities, to improve their teaching skills, and outcomes with students, and the university as a whole. As she puts it in her conclusion, "a community of tutors can benefit tutees, institution of higher learning, academic support programs, and the community at large" (p. 12)

Educational technology is an important component of this kind of initiative, as she also notes: "Tutors as well as instructional designers must possess a highly adaptive leadership mindset that can be influenced heavily by the rapidly evolving technological environment (McLuhan & Gordon, 2003)" (p. 3). Certainly, a media ecological observation!

And I think that the basic statement that Adelman and Frey make in The Fragile Community is worth repeating here: "Communication is... the essential, defining feature⎯the medium⎯of community" (p. 5). This is as true for learning communities as it is for residential communities, if not more so.

Building community⎯there once was a time when we could take it for granted as a basic function of communication, and the basis of all human life. Here and now, we find it more challenging than ever before, and therefore more essential.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Angel of Death and the Choice of Life

Here's my latest op-ed to appear in the Jewish Standard, published in the April 22nd edition of the weekly paper. Published just in time for Passover, it's a reflection on the significance of the holiday, entitled, The Angel of Death and the Choice of Life:

Passover is a celebration of freedom, a holiday marking the defining moment in Jewish history, our liberation from bondage.

Passover represents the birth of a nation. The clan of Jacob, just an extended family, becomes a multitude, the children of Israel.

And the story takes us through a revolution against an unjust monarch and an escape from tyranny, to the framing of a constitution at Sinai. No wonder that the holiday resonates so powerfully here in the United States. The Jewish story of slavery’s abolition even includes a civil war of sorts, with the confederacy that turns to worship the golden calf.

The powerful injunction to remember that we were slaves in Egypt stands in sharp contrast to the mythologies of other peoples of the ancient world, which cast them as the descendants of gods or otherwise of supernatural origin. Passover establishes the foundation of Jewish ethics—not simply to value freedom, but in the words of Micah, “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” You can’t get much more humble than being a slave.

Birth is a common theme for holidays that incorporate the rites of spring, as does Passover, with the rebirth of nature symbolized by the green vegetable and the egg on the Seder plate. The other side of birth is death, a topic we don’t like to think much about. But death, unlike taxes, is unavoidable for each and every one of us, whether we acknowledge its existence or not. The very name of the holiday Passover, or Pesach, refers to the Angel of Death passing over the dwellings of the Israelites.

The escape from servitude only occurs after the escape from death. First there must be life. Only then can there be hope, and the potential for freedom. But what is left unsaid is that the escape from death is only a temporary reprieve. Does this imply that the same might be true of the escape from bondage? Certainly, there is no permanent liberation from the inevitability of death.

The Jewish-American anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of the 1974 book The Denial of Death, argued that we human beings are the only forms of life on earth that are aware of our own mortality, and that awareness represents a crushing blow to our self-esteem. The function of human culture is to provide some form of compensation, through beliefs in various kinds of immortality, and by providing us with heroic roles to play in the lives that we lead. Of course, when it comes to the denial of death, religious beliefs have played a major role, especially in the very specific conception of an afterlife that many provide.


Passover stands out from all of the other traditional holidays on the Jewish calendar in its direct confrontation with death. By way of contrast, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we pray that we may be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, with barely a mention of life’s opposite. On Passover, however, death is personified in the guise of an angel. Since an angel literally means a messenger, this implies that death is a message from God, the same God who exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to keep them from eating from the Tree of Life and becoming immortal.

The message is one of choice. In Deuteronomy (30:19) God tells us, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you may live.” While we do not choose to be born or to die, there are choices still to be made. The Pharaoh chooses death time and time again, beginning with his order to kill every newborn Hebrew male, continuing with his refusal to let the Israelites go, resulting in the death of the Egyptian firstborn. The Pharaoh’s choice of death culminates in the decision to pursue the escaping Israelites, resulting in the drowning of the Egyptians army.

Pharaoh’s choices come as no surprise, insofar as he represents an ancient cult of death. We may marvel at the pyramids and Sphinx as wonders of the ancient world, but we also should recall that they were built with the blood of forced laborers, and that they are enormous tombs carrying the embalmed remains of the Pharaoh along with those who served him in life and were sacrificed so that they might follow him in death.

While the Pharaoh chooses death, the Israelites must make an active decision to choose life. When it comes to the tenth plague, the Angel of Death will not discriminate automatically in favor of the Israelites, will not spare anyone by virtue of their descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or because they are circumcised, or because they worship Adonai. It is not Jewish blood that saves the Israelites, but the blood of the sacrificial lamb. This requires, first of all, being a part of the community. If you were not, how would you learn about what had to be done? It also requires choosing to follow the instructions.

We may have replaced the sign made with lamb’s blood with mezuzahs long ago, but the lesson remains: choose life, that you may live.

The Angel of Death who executes the tenth plague is no Adversary. It is not the equivalent of the Christian Satan or Lucifer, nor is it a lord of the underworld along the lines of the Greek god Hades. The personification of death quite naturally is a frightening figure. Its depiction as a creeping darkness in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments, usually broadcast on television at this time of year, has been the stuff of childhood nightmares for six decades now.

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I recall being disturbed, in my youth, by the image of this angel in a Haggadah that illustrated a Passover song, Chad Gadya. That the “Holy One, Blessed be He,” finally “smote the Angel of Death, who slew the slaughterer, who killed the ox…” clearly communicated the hierarchy, but this didn’t change the fact that both the slaughterer and the ox ended up dead.

Which brings me back to the point that Passover is a holiday that confronts death rather than denying it, and offers the alternative—to choose life. The Angel of Death is neither an object of worship nor the embodiment of evil. The personification of death is frightening, without a doubt, but as God’s messenger, it is at the same time an Angel of Justice, under certain circumstances an Angel of Mercy, and without a doubt an Angel of Humility.

Ernest Becker eventually came to the conclusion that in our contemporary culture, we have come to place too much emphasis on enhancing self-esteem. Humility serves as a counterweight to that tendency, the humility that comes from remembering that we were slaves, and the humility that comes from remembering that our lives are finite.

Passover is a celebration of redemption and renewal, but above all it is a celebration of life, whose meaning and value can only be understood through its contrast with death. So as we drink our four cups of wine at the Seder, let us also remember to say L’chaim! To life!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Space Travel and Religion

The March 18th issue of the Jewish Standard carried a feature article that I played a part in, in suggesting the topic and providing a quote and some background information. The piece, written by reporter Larry Yudelson, is entitled Bound for Glory (and yes, click on the title to read it online). It continued with the following subtitle: "Leonia rabbi, shul president contribute to anthology on space travel," shul being the Yiddish word for synagogue, the shul in question being Congregation Adas Emuno, in the town of Leonia, in Bergen County, northeastern New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, and the shul president is none other than your humble host here at Blog Time Passing. Oh, and the anthology you may remember from my previous post, Interfacing With the Cosmos.

Here's how the article looked in print, by the way:

Of course, it's a bit hard to read, that way, so let me help you out out by providing the text:

When Barry Schwartz was 11 years old, he begged his parents to let him stay up way past his bed time so he could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Outer space seemed close at hand in the summer of 1969. President Kennedy’s promise of landing a man on the moon within the decade had been fulfilled. Hollywood imagined routine Pan Am space shuttles to orbiting space stations by the year 2001.

That promise was not fulfilled. Pan Am went under, and the Challenger exploded, and though tickets have been sold to the optimistic and rich, tourist flights to space have yet to launch. The astronauts of Apollo 17 left the moon in the winter of 1972, and nobody has returned.

Barry Schwartz dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, but when he grew up he landed not on Luna but in Leonia, where he is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno. This month, with the publication of Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion, a new anthology from Fordham University Press, Rabbi Schwartz finally finds himself bound up with astronauts both real and fictional, if only in the pages of a book.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The volume begins with an interview with astronaut John Glenn, conducted by one of the editors, Dr. Paul Levinson. Dr. Levinson is a professor at Fordham University’s Department of Communications and Media Studies. He has published several science fiction novels and was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but it was a nonfiction work, 2003’s Real Space: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, On and Off Planet, which was the springboard for this new anthology.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One of the topics he explored in that book, Dr. Levinson said, was “how come we made such little progress in getting off the planet since the ’60s? Even now no human beings have been back to the moon. We haven’t been to Mars.”

This got him thinking about people’s expressed motivations for exploring space. There was the military motive that fueled the Cold War space race of the ’60s, the pull of scientific curiosity, and more recently, the view that there is money to be made in orbit.

What was missing in these discussions, he realized, was “something that underlies all these motivations, the almost spiritual exploration of knowing more about who we are in the cosmos. Getting out to space satisfied the yearning every sentient being has, to learn a little more about what this is all about, what are we doing here, what part of the larger picture are we part of.”

And thus was born “an anthology where people from different religious backgrounds and people who are not religious at all write about this intersection of space travel and spirituality,” he said.

Dr. Levinson’s interest in space travel, like Rabbi Schwartz’s, goes back to childhood. “I was absolutely riveted when the Soviets launched the first sputnik,” he said. “I thought it was amazing.”

The book includes an essay from the Vatican’s astronomer, an anthropologist considering the symbolic meaning of objects taken to space by astronauts (including the Torah scroll taken by astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman), and scientist and science fiction writer David Brin giving an original midrashic reading of Genesis to justify scientific discovery and creativity. The book’s fiction includes a seder-in-space scene excerpted from one of Dr. Levinson’s novels and a story by Jack Dann, the editor of Wandering Stars, a 1974 anthology of Jewish science fiction, about a far-future rabbi on an alien planet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As for the actual rabbi in the book—Rabbi Schwartz entered the anthology via Dr. Lance Strate, Dr. Levinson’s colleague at Fordham who is president of Rabbi Schwartz’s shul. Dr. Strate—who is a Jewish Standard columnist—has an essay of his own in the volume, which mentions Maimonides but takes a somewhat more skeptical stance toward space exploration than the other contributors do.

In his essay, Dr. Strate suggests that the desire for space travel reflects a “longstanding desire to look upward, perhaps a returning to the trees,” he said. He quotes Lewis Mumford, who condemned the space program during the Apollo era as a rerun of ancient pyramid building, in which “a select few individuals were the subject of an extreme amount of labor and resources to send this select few to that culture’s conception of the heavens.” Mr. Mumford argued that “our time and effort and resources would be better spent dealing with our needs here on earth. The overall thrust of the essay is that space travel is about the search for transcendence but we’re not going to find it.”

Rabbi Schwartz, however, argues in his essay that astronauts found transcendence in space—and that they were able to bring it home with them and share it with the world.

“Our journey into space is really about our journey back home,” he writes in an essay that began as a High Holiday sermon in 1989, 20 years after the first moon landing. The essay looks at how the views from space changed our view of earth.

He quotes Saudi astronaut Bin Salman: “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”

When Rabbi Schwartz first delivered the sermon, he ended by holding up a photograph taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts that showed the blue globe of the earth.

“From outer space we have gained an inner understanding; a fresh perspective,” Rabbi Schwartz writes. “We are one community on one Earth; a dazzling bundle of interdependent life, hurtling through the void. We are one human race; and must we not join hand in hand across the globe, to care for this our home?”

That's how the article ends, but let's also note the little box that comes right after the piece's conclusion:

Yes, on Saturday, April 9th at 10 AM Congregation Adas Emuno will be hosting a special edition of our weekly Sabbath morning Torah study session, with Paul Levinson joining us for a discussion that's sure to be out of this world! I'm looking forward to it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Happy Purim!

Tomorrow evening is the holiday of Purim, a minor holiday on the Hebrew calendar, often described as the Jewish mardi gras. I wrote about it in a previous post, My Purim Spiel, so you can read more about it there, if you care to.

In that previous post, I also mentioned how one of the traditional ways of celebrating Purim is to put on a Purim spiel, a play based on the biblical Book of Esther, which in turn is the basis of the Purim holiday. Purim spiels usually are humorous, loose adaptations that might include parodies of popular songs, movies, TV, Broadway shows, etc.

And in that previous post, I mentioned that I had written a Purim spiel, my first, which was performed last year at Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia. The title of the spiel is The Schnook of Esther, and we have since made it available to read online. You can click on the link to see a PDF of the spiel. (There's also a note about how anyone wishing to perform the play can do so, all we ask for is a donation to the Adas Emuno Social Action Fund. Most congregations purchase their spiels in this way, although usually without the opportunity to read them first.)

So, in celebration of Purim, you can read the spiel, and also read along with the admittedly amateurish performance we put on last year, twice, actually. The first version was also included in my previous post, but I'll include it here as well:

And here's the second version:

And just in case you're in the neighborhood, you can stop by Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia to see my new spiel, Shalom Shushan, performed tomorrow night, Wednesday, March 23rd. Here's a link with all the info: Purim Time! And I hope to share the new spiel here on Blog Time Passing before too long. Until then, Happy Purim!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sanders and the Yiddish Speaking Socialists

In my previous post, Grandpa Bernie and the Millennials, I made reference to another Sanders, Edward Sanders, no relation to Bernie, and not to be confused with the English movie star. The Ed Sanders I'm talking about is described on Wikipedia as, "an American poet, singer, social activist, environmentalist, author, publisher and longtime member of the band The Fugs. He has been called a bridge between the Beat and Hippie generations. Sanders is considered to have been active and 'present at the counterculture's creation'."

Originally from Kansas City, Sanders took up residence in Greenwich Village towards the end of the fifties, and among his many other activities, opened the Peace Eye Bookstore on the lower east side in the early sixties, an important center for the local counterculture. He also is the founder of the investigative poetry movement in the seventies. I pick out these points from his biography, which in truth are overshadowed by many other achievements, because they are relevant to the point at hand.

The point being one of his poems in particular, "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side," which I quoted a few lines from in my op-ed. The poem tells the story of an important chapter in the history of the United States, New York City, American politics, and the Jewish-American experience. The focus is on the first two decades of the 20th century, and the rise and fall of a democratic socialist movement spearheaded by the Jewish immigrants living on the lower east side.

The poem concludes with the failure of that movement, but its influence was felt, in part through the participants that were still alive in the postwar period, in the protest and counterculture movements of the sixties, especially as one of the main centers of the movement, as it was called back then, was in Greenwich Village and New York's lower east side. Perhaps these things run in cycles, so we're seeing a revival of that sensibility from the turn of the 20th century and mid-20th century today in the teens of our new century.

Whether that's the case or not, the poem provides a quick and easy way to understand the milieu that Bernie Sanders come from, both the politics of his parents' generation and the political movement that he took part in as a young man.

The poem also communicates in a clear and stylish manner what democratic socialism is, and was, about. Not communism, socialist dictatorships, or totalitarianism. It was about human rights, many of them rights we take for granted today, rights denied to working people at the beginning of the century. In the spirit of general semantics, it is vital to avoid having knee-jerk reactions to particular words, and instead try to understand what people really mean by them, and that includes socialism. From that perspective, it is indeed heartening to see how that term has been rescued and resuscitated in Bernie's election campaign. In the words of that great socialist president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and that is especially true when it comes to words.

So, now, I am pleased to give you two options for accessing "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side" right here and now. You can read the poem on the online Woodstock Journal that Sanders maintains, here's the link: The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side.

Or you can listen to a semi-musical recording of Sanders reading the poem, accompanied by an electronic instrument of his own invention, the Bardic Pulse Lyre. The recording was originally put out on vinyl, but there is a nice YouTube version with the printed words as the visuals, so you can enjoy the best of both words worlds.

I would suggest that this poem is quite helpful in understanding where Sanders the candidate is coming from, and perhaps also why his campaign is not reducible to simply winning or losing caucuses and elections. As for Sanders the poet, over on the Woodstock Journal, as of this writing, his most recent post is a new poem entitled, One Reason Hillary Clinton Should not be President. I guess we can infer from that where he stands on the Democratic primaries...