Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Four Days' Battle of 1666: The Greatest Sea Fight of the Age of Sail Paperback – May 2, 2018 by Frank L. Fox (Seaforth Publishing/ Pen & Sword Books)

This is an excellent study of the campaign and battle of June 1666 – ‘the greatest battle in the Age of Sail’, fought between the Royal Navy and the United Provinces during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The book is told primarily from the English view, due to the nature of the sources, but the activities of the Dutch, French and Danes are adequately covered, and the narrative is not biased.

The Contents are:
P001: The Generals
P015: The Royal Navy
P036: The Ships
P051: Guns, Flags, and the River Thames
P066: Preparations
P083: Lowestoft
P102: The Indian Prize
P120: The Other Side of the Hill
P136: The Division of the Fleet
P153: Rupert’s Expedition
P168: The French
P182: The Morning of the First of June
P198: The First Day
P219: The Second Day
P236: The Third Day
P251: The Fourth Day
P271: The Aftermath
P287: The Sequel
P304: Epilogue
P313: Appendices A – M
P363: Notes
P387: Sources
P392-404: Index

There are 32 pages of illustrations, and many excellent tactical maps, and the endpapers have a map of the battle area, with the various days’ positions marked, and excellent details of the shoals and banks which defined the area involved.

The book is well laid out in structure, the opening chapters introducing the main (English) characters, the ships and their outfitting and the development of tactics from the previous war. The first major battle of the war in 1665 was at Lowestoft, followed by an attempt to seize the Dutch merchant fleets sheltering in Denmark – with the connivance of the Danish king, who neglected to inform his subordinates of his treachery, and so foiled his own plans. Then there is a study of the Dutch fleet, followed by the English strategic decision to divide the fleet in the face of French intervention and a possible invasion of Ireland, leading to an under-strength fleet being left to face the Dutch. The battle is described day-by-day in great detail, with excellent and informative maps of the fleet manoeuvres. Rupert’s division returned just in time to save the English from disaster on the third day, but eventually numbers tell, and the Dutch manage to win the day on the final day of the battle. Despite being severely outnumbered in ships, the tactics and greater firepower of the Royal Navy managed to keep the battle going for four days, and there were several occasions during the battle when a victory for both sides was feasible. We also see the ‘breaking of the line’ achieved several times, by both sides, and we see demonstrated successes that in later line-breaking sea fights could only be dreamed of by the victors.

This is a well-written and readable account, though it desperately needs a Glossary for those who are not familiar with the terminology of sailing warfare; you can still follow the action quite easily, but it would not have been difficult to provide one. The author spent twelve years studying the original sources, and the wealth of detail is superb. This is an essential book for anyone interested in the age of fighting sail.

In the second edition, there are 32 pages of illustrations, and many excellent tactical maps, and the endpapers have a map of the battle area, with the various days’ positions marked, and excellent details of the shoals and banks which defined the area involved. The original edition of 1996, which is a large-format book, similar to the author's Great Ships (see link below), contains an extensive set of colour plates of contemporary paintings of the ships and their battles.

British Battleships of the Victorian Era Hardcover – June 15, 2018 by Norman Friedman (Naval INstitute Press / Seaforth Publishing/ Pen & Sword Books)

Despite some annoying publisher flaws, I enjoyed Norman Friedman's "The British Battleship 1906-1946" immensely and was severely disappointed when the publication of its follow-up/prequel was repeatedly delayed. To me, the mid-to-late 1800s are probably the most fascinating period in warship development. Ships, armor, and guns all developed at a breakneck pace, revolutionary new weapons and ships were obsolete within years, naval architecture developed into an established science, and warship design was hotly debated in public and in the halls of government.

Although it sometimes gets bogged down by the author's odd tangents, I mostly found this to be a fascinating read. The first couple chapters lay the groundwork for the rest, explaining British naval strategy and the structure of the Admiralty, and the evolution of fleet tactics, guns, armor, and steam machinery during the Victorian era. The rest of the book gets down to the nitty-gritty details of ship design, naval strategy, the often strained relationships between British naval planners, naval architects, and politicians, and to a lesser extent, that of Britain's main potential future enemy, the French. Although it covers the entire period from the earliest steam-powered converted first-rates to the Duncan-class pre-dreadnoughts, Norman Friedman's main focus is on the Watts, Reed, and Barnaby eras. The post-Naval Defence Act battleships are also described, but not in quite as much detail. Not terribly surprising, as R.A. Burt did an excellent job describing them in his own work, and the ships were more evolutionary then revolutionary in nature.

It's worth pointing out that this doesn't set out to replace Parkes' British Battleships, Brown's Warrior to Dreadnought, or Burt's British Battleships, 1889-1904, which are all classic works in their own right. What Dr. Friedman has done is condense those three books into a single volume while applying his trademark stamp to the proceedings. As usual, this is an extremely dense work; the text tends to be rather tersely written and is largely devoid of pretension, photo captions occasionally go on for paragraphs, and the footnotes occupy 49 pages and contain enough detail for another book. This isn't beach reading, and like the author's other works, it's worth setting aside at least two weeks to properly assimilate it.

On a visual level, it corrects some of the annoying issues of its predecessor. Very few of the photos run through the binding, and of those that do, the masts and funnels don't fall into the gutter. Although some of the wartime images are rather rough looking, most of the photographs are of excellent quality and seem to have been scanned from the original negatives. The lack of plans by AD Baker III is perhaps the biggest disappointment, although this is made up for by the inclusion of numerous original "as fitted" plans and a number of deck plans. Highlights include an exquisitely detailed plan depicting the loading arrangements of "Inflexible"'s forward 16-inch turret, plans and sections of "Devastation," large-scale drawings of, among others, "Alexandra," "Captain," and "Royal Sovereign," and a full-color gatefold depicting "Camperdown" in 1900.

Unfortunately, there's a couple elements that don't totally work. The last two chapters, focusing on ironclads built for export and of the pre-dreadnought's wartime experiences, are extremely sketchy and perfunctory in tone. The latter chapter includes some interesting insights into the ships' ability to survive underwater damage, but the level of detail is extremely disappointing considering how in-depth the rest of the book is. At the end of most chapters is a four-or-five "addendum" describing French developments in ironclad design and strategy during the period described by the rest of the chapter. Although they provide a necessary counterpoint to the British side of things, they also feel rather tacked-on, rather than properly incorporated into the text. Finally, and rather frustratingly considering the number of publication delays, there's a large number of typos and oddly structured sentences which left me scratching my head.

Although it's not a flawless masterpiece, this should make an outstanding reference for anyone fascinated by the design of British warships in the second half of the 20th century. With a little tightening here and there, and some careful editing, it would have been a true five-star classic.

River Gunboats: An Illustrated Encyclopedia Hardcover – Illustrated, September 1, 2018 by Roger Branfill-Cook (Naval Institute Press/ Pen & Sword Books, Seaforth Publishing)

Seaforth has been on a roll the last few years, pumping out one high-quality naval reference book after another, each one packed with rare insights and excellent photography. This one was originally scheduled for a mid-2016 release but kept on getting pushed back until now. While it definitely has some high points, it's a rare disappointment from the publisher, and I'm left wondering exactly why it was delayed so long.

First, the good stuff. It has a tremendous amount of depth and scope, going all the way back to the earliest steam gunboats to modern day riverine craft. It's very much a naval reference in the style of the Conway/NIP books of the late 70s and 80s. Very lean, efficient, no BS. With some polishing, this would have made an excellent companion to Conway's "All the World's Fighting Ships" quartet. Flipping through it quickly, I've come across entries on the Finnish Lake Ladoga gunboat 'Aallokas,' the German "Siebelfahres," the converted Paraguayan yacht 'Adolfo Riquelma,' and the Soviet armored river gunboats that fought at Stalingrad. Most of the craft receive a specifications table, a brief history, and one or two photographs or diagrams. Many of the most famous riverine battles and campaigns are described in detail, as are the careers of the more famous gunboats.

Although I can see this book being an excellent jumping off point for further research, it's too flawed to be a truly classic reference. While the historical elements are excellent, there's almost nothing on the design, development, machinery, or weapons of any of the craft depicted. Some boats are so sketchily detailed I'm not sure why they were even included. Considering Seaforth's usually high standards, the visual presentation is a mend. The photographs tend to be extremely small and of poor quality with blown-out contrast and compression artifacts, and the diagrams are frequently tiny and useful only for getting a basic idea of a boat's general arrangement. Although I'm not the type who demands pretty color images of gray and white boats, the lack of color photographs outside the two appendixes is a disappointment. Quite a few of the photos and diagrams are credited to internet forums or have links to Pinterest pins that probably won't exist in two or three years from now. What good will they do a researcher in 20 years?

As much as I'd love to give this a higher rating, it's too sloppy to truly recommend. Although it presents a truly fascinating collection of obscure craft, the lack of care in presentation and the lack of technical details make this one for hardcore gunboat fans only. How ironic that a book on river gunboats would be a mile wide, but only an inch deep!

Ocean Liners: An Illustrated History Hardcover – Illustrated, April 19, 2018 by Peter Newall (Seaforth Publishing / Pen & Sword Books)

A beautifully produced book with a interesting and eclectic selection of ocean liners from around the world. The joy of this book is in the photography - the subjects, some of which were predicatble selections while many others were unuasual and even unheard of. The selection is backed up by the fine quality of the printing. A well researched text accompanies the photographs, although of course the full story of the long and eventful careers many of the ships featured could not be fully told due to space constraints.Before the advent of the jet age, ocean liners were the principal means of transport around the globe, and carried migrants and business people, soldiers and administrators, families and lone travelers to every corner of the world. Though the ocean liner was born on the North Atlantic it soon spread to all the other oceans and in this new book the author addresses this huge global story. 

The account begins with Brunel's Great Eastern and the early Cunarders, but with the rise in nationalism and the growth in empires in the latter part of the 19th century, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the colonial powers of Spain, France and Germany soon established shipping lines of their own, and transpacific routes were opened up by Japanese and American lines. The golden age between the two world wars witnessed huge growth in liner traffic to Africa, Australia and New Zealand, India and the Far East, the French colonies and the Dutch East and West Indies, but then, though there was a postwar revival, the breakup of empires and the arrival of mass air travel brought about the swan song of the liner. 

Employing more than 250 stunning photographs, the author describes not just the ships and routes, but interweaves the technical and design developments, covering engines, electric light, navigation and safety, and accommodation. A truly unique and evocative book for merchant ship enthusiasts and historians.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Great Presidents Audio CD by Allan J. Lichtman (The Teaching Company)

The creation of the executive branch of government was one of the most audacious decisions in American history. The story of our greatest presidents create a narrative as compelling as an historical novel, and these 48 compelling lectures look at the lives, the achievements, and the legacies of those generally considered our 12 greatest presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. Drawing on a wealth of revealing anecdotes and inside stories, Professor Lichtman sheds new light on how the individual characters and historic decisions of each president made a major contribution to shaping our developing nation. You'll study the critical role these men played in America's founding years, Westward expansion, the struggle over slavery and the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, the perils of the atomic age, and more. These 12 leaders can be seen as giants of the most powerful elective office in the world. But through Professor Lichtman's eyes we see them as they really were, contradictions and paradoxes included. These lectures give the "inside stories" from our highest office, and they reveal 12 leaders with varying styles, personalities, and beliefs, but they all had in common an unsinkable ambition, a deep affinity with the American people, and a strong inner core of guiding values and principles.

The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present Hardcover – September 10, 2018 by Allan J. Lichtman (Harvard University Press)

If you grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, watching (albeit through a child’s eyes) the civil rights movement notch victory after victory, you could be forgiven for thinking at the time that that happy condition was normal. By high school, in the late 1970s, I began reading some history and learning about the struggles people endured to win the right to vote in this country. I thought then that these battles were over and done and won—that a new consensus had been achieved.

This state of affairs extended into the 1980s, and my view was reinforced by the observation that even conservative Republicans seemed to share in that consensus. Ronald Reagan backed the Voting Rights Act, signing into law in 1982 significant amendments to the original 1965 act. The most notable change made it easier for plaintiffs to sue states and localities under the act’s Section 2, which affirmed that they did not need to prove discriminatory intent in voting laws, just discriminatory effect. Jesse Helms mounted a lonesome filibuster in the Senate, but even he stood down. The bill passed both houses of Congress by large bipartisan margins. “As I’ve said before, the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished,” Reagan remarked when he signed it.

But in retrospect, that moment, in June 1982, may have represented a zenith for voting rights in the United States. Even as Reagan was signing those amendments into law, others on the political right were devising ways to reverse this progress. The standard method was to challenge the Voting Rights Act in court, which produced mixed results at first but in recent years has met with great success, from the Republican Party’s point of view: in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled 5–4, in Shelby County v. Holder, that certain burdens imposed by the act on states and localities with a history of discrimination in voting laws no longer reflected reality—that such discrimination was no longer a problem in the United States. That assessment was a bit optimistic. One measure: in heavily black and Latino counties covered by the Voting Rights Act, there were 868 fewer polling places in 2016 than in 2012, according to a report by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights. (Before Shelby, covered counties had to get Justice Department approval before they could make such moves.)

In other words, from the moment that black Americans finally won voting rights equal to those of white Americans, a significant number of white Americans started fighting to undo them. My teenage self was quite naive. Forty years later, it appears that what I thought was the new normal was in fact an aberration, a quick little burst of sunshine punctuating an otherwise bleak sky. There is no new consensus and never has been. There is just the old racist consensus, which was successfully pricked for a couple of decades but reasserted its dominance with the help of the many millions of dollars pumped into right-wing foundations and think tanks and activist groups like the Federalist Society.

Most of this activity emanated from the places you might expect—Texas, notably, and the deep South (Shelby County is in Alabama). There were and are some northern states involved, when their governors’ mansions and state legislatures have been taken over by Republicans. Wisconsin under its current governor, Scott Walker, is the most conspicuous northern state to attempt various voter suppression efforts, including one of the country’s strictest voter ID laws, a newer weapon in the arsenal. A study by two University of Wisconsin political scientists found that the state’s ID law kept perhaps 17,000 citizens away from the polls in 2016, in a state Donald Trump won by around 23,000 votes.1 (Walker is seeking a third term this year, and as of late September was trailing his Democratic challenger, Tony Evers, by four or five points.)

But the brutal ground zero of the voting wars, their Stalingrad, is North Carolina. This might come as a surprise, because North Carolina, though southern, is no Mississippi: it has lively cities and a diverse population and great universities and funky, artsy Asheville. It is surely among the most cosmopolitan of the states of the former Confederacy.

But it is precisely for these reasons that the state is contested. Unlike in South Carolina, Democrats can win there sometimes. Barack Obama won there in 2008. His narrow victory over John McCain was the first for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 (Bill Clinton never won the state), and only the third in the previous twelve elections. It demonstrated how a Democrat can win in North Carolina: generate a high turnout among African-Americans, somewhere close to 25 percent of the overall vote, and win almost all of it; then take at least one third of the white vote. Obama’s win was narrow—less than a percentage point—but it showed that the state was suddenly in play, no longer reliably red. Also around that time, thanks in part to George W. Bush’s unpopularity, Democrats improbably controlled as many as eight of its thirteen congressional seats. Republicans wanted to shut this down.

In the following few elections, after the rise of the Tea Party, the Republicans roared back to power in North Carolina. In 2010 both houses of the state legislature flipped from Democratic to Republican control, a result in part of the Republican Project Redmap.2 Once they had those majorities, the Republicans drew new congressional districts for the 2012 elections to give them ten of the thirteen seats, and ten is the number they now hold. Also in 2012, the incumbent Democratic governor chose not to run for reelection, and Pat McCrory, an extremely conservative Republican, won that office. Obama lost the state to Mitt Romney that year by two percentage points, despite having brought the Democratic convention to Charlotte that summer. Then in 2014, Democratic senator Kay Hagan lost to Republican Thom Tillis, lately observed speaking up in defense of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

With their new power, North Carolina’s Republicans began implementing a radical agenda, one that stunned many observers. They made large cuts to social programs and public education. They tried to pass a bill ostensibly combating Sharia law, to which they attached several abortion restrictions; when that bill failed, they attached many of the same restrictions to a motorcycle safety bill. They passed the infamous “bathroom bill” calling for the policing of public restrooms to prevent transgendered people from using the facility of their choice, which brought recriminations from even the NCAA and the National Basketball Association. (Tillis, incidentally, was the state house Speaker who helped push all this through.) It was in early 2013 that the state’s progressives started their “Moral Mondays” sit-ins at the capitol in Raleigh, led by the charismatic Reverend William Barber II.

The biggest issue of all, though, was voting rights. North Carolina’s Voter Information and Verification Act (VIVA) of 2013—which the state’s Republicans felt emboldened to pass, it should be noted, after the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision—was a sprawling piece of legislation that included some noncontroversial modernizations. But it also limited early voting, excluded the use of certain forms of identification, and took a few other steps clearly aimed at reducing black turnout as much as possible. Republicans denied this, of course, insisting that they were trying to fight voter fraud. But voter fraud, as numerous studies have shown, is wildly inflated by Republicans and in fact virtually nonexistent. A 2014 Washington Post study turned up only thirty-one credible instances of a voter intentionally impersonating another voter—out of one billion votes cast.3

Allan J. Lichtman discusses VIVA at length in a chapter late in The Embattled Vote in America, while his earlier chapters provide a rich historical background to the law. Lichtman is a historian at American University who has been a long-time commentator on current affairs. He turned heads in 2016 for being the only prominent election prognosticator to predict that Donald Trump would win, based on a formula he’d used since 1984 built around the popularity of the incumbent party. The next year, he published a book predicting Trump’s impeachment.

I would imagine that to most suburban white people who drive to their jobs and thus have valid driver’s licenses, the demand that voters get a license or some other kind of ID doesn’t sound especially onerous. But we often forget that one needs documents to get documents. To secure a driver’s license in most states, a person needs to show a birth certificate and proof of residence, and perhaps a Social Security card. In the case of people who move frequently—young people, college students, poor people, all of whom lean Democratic—the addresses on these cards may not match. Older African-Americans born under Jim Crow may not even have been issued birth certificates.

Lichtman draws attention, as some journalists have, to the case of Rosanell Eaton, who grew up in North Carolina in the Jim Crow era and joined an NAACP lawsuit against VIVA as a plaintiff. In a book that is mostly a straightforward history-from-above narrative, Eaton’s story provides one of the more gripping passages:

In 1942, Eaton rode for two miles on a mule-drawn wagon to register to vote at the Franklin County courthouse. Three white male officials confronted her. They ordered her to stand up straight, keep her arms at her side, and recite from memory the preamble to the Constitution. She did so word for word and then passed a written literacy test, becoming one of the few African Americans of her era to vote in North Carolina.

Seven decades later, Lichtman writes, “Eaton had a much harder time qualifying to vote under North Carolina’s new law.” She had a driver’s license, but the names on her license and her voter-registration card did not match exactly. She made eleven trips to the Department of Motor Vehicles, two different Social Security offices, and three banks before everything was rectified. “I was hoping I would be dead before I’d have to see all this again,” she said.

In 2016 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down VIVA. The court’s ruling charged that the state’s Republicans “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.” So that effort at voter suppression is off the books. The district lines that Republicans drew in 2011, meanwhile, the ones that gave the GOP an overwhelming majority in the state’s congressional delegation, are still in effect and are the subject of court battles. The Supreme Court may hear a case challenging them next spring.

The great value of Lichtman’s book is the way it puts today’s right-wing voter suppression efforts in their historical setting. He identifies the current push as the third crackdown on African-American voting rights in our history.

The first came in the early days of the republic. In some state constitutions that dated to independence, Lichtman notes, some blacks, usually those few who met certain property qualifications, were granted suffrage. But protests were often immediate when they did vote. In 1803 in Wallingford, Connecticut, losers of a local election complained that “a Negro fellow by the name of Toby” had been allowed to vote for the winners. This affront was compounded, they alleged, because this “Black night walker” had once attempted to rape a white woman. By 1814, the state legally limited the franchise to whites.

And so it went. In Maryland, the original state constitution of 1776 actually allowed property-owning African-Americans to vote. Then their numbers increased, and by 1802, the legislature banned them from voting. New Jersey followed a similar arc, allowing blacks to vote under its original constitution but ending the practice in 1807. In New York, some blacks could vote under the 1777 constitution. A rewriting in 1821 stopped just short of explicitly limiting the vote to whites, but it imposed a property qualification “which we know they cannot comply with,” as one delegate put it.

A civil rights activist teaching a woman to write in order to be able to vote, Petersburg, Virginia, 1960

The second crackdown came after Reconstruction, which ended in 1877. During Reconstruction, blacks in the South gained full citizenship rights, which were enforced by occupying Union soldiers. But even then, the national will to safeguard those rights was scant. In 1875 President Ulysses Grant and some of his fellow Republicans—the good guys, at that time—sought to pass a bill to “redeem” the words of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the franchise to persons previously held as slaves, by legislating meaningful enforcement provisions. Joseph Gurney Cannon, a leading Republican congressman of the day for whom one of the three House office buildings along Independence Avenue is named, argued, “Will we protect these men [African-Americans] or will we leave them to be overborne and butchered?” The House passed the bill, but the Senate didn’t act on it. Even in Lincoln’s party, opinion was divided on how far they were willing to go to protect and defend black people’s rights.

Once the Union troops left the South, African-Americans’ rights were stripped by means both legal and violent. The violent means—the rise of the Ku Klux Klan—everyone knows about. Somewhat less well known are the legal efforts—the state constitutions passed by southern states that explicitly enshrined white supremacism in law. “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” said the Mississippian James Vardaman of that state’s 1890 constitution. “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics.”

That was led by the Democratic Party, which was then a white supremacist party (in the South; in the North, it was the party of immigrants). But, as Lichtman writes, it’s not as if the Republicans fought for blacks. After Reconstruction, they ended their efforts in the South, leaving the region and its people to the Jim Crow Democrats. Those African-Americans who could vote were loyal Republican voters for obvious reasons, but over the course of the early twentieth century that loyalty waned. From 1896 to 1932, Republicans controlled the White House for all but eight years, and Congress for much of that time; yet, writes Lichtman, they could never rouse themselves to pass an anti-lynching law. The National Colored Republican Conference complained in 1924, “In the party’s willingness to be fair, many have no confidence, and a change is imperative.” Four years later, when Herbert Hoover proved more tone-deaf than usual on race and civil rights, African-Americans were already prepared to bolt the party for Franklin Roosevelt—belying the idea that the Depression prompted them to switch sides.

As awfully as blacks were treated, the white men who ran the country took their plight more seriously than they did that of women. The Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to citizenship for blacks, also said, in Section 2, “But when the right to vote at any election…is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State…” It was the first insertion of the word “male” into the Constitution, as Lichtman notes, and it happened over the clear objections of the great women’s leaders of the day. Susan B. Anthony demanded that Republicans “hold the party to a logical consistency that shall give every responsible citizen in every State equal right to the ballot,” but even the most progressive-minded male leaders argued that they could pass legislation enforcing voting rights for blacks, but if they included women’s suffrage, it would fail. “I know that the time will come,” said Ohio senator Benjamin Wade, one of the most radical of the Radical Republicans. “Not today, but the time is approaching.” Women would hear this for another six decades, and they continue to hear it in different forms today.

Still, at least when women finally did win suffrage, the right was largely recognized. This was never so for African-Americans. Nothing that Republicans are doing today is new. In the early days of the republic, Lichtman writes, members of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party raised regular allegations of voter fraud and sought to require men to bring to the polls proof of their property qualifications. As for “ballot security,” as the Republicans sometimes call their efforts, the GOP rolled out “Operation Eagle Eye” back in 1964, the first modern election in which the party sought to appeal to the racist vote. Eagle Eye targeted heavily Democratic, mostly minority precincts in thirty-six cities. It was based on a program that had already been tried in Arizona, which involved voter intimidation, the circulation of handbills warning that if you had outstanding parking tickets you couldn’t vote—the usual tricks. It didn’t work, but no one was ever known to have been caught and prosecuted or punished for it in any way. One of the participants in the Arizona program, William Rehnquist, was “punished” a quarter-century later by being confirmed as the sixteenth chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Today, as we approach November and a highly anticipated anti-Trump wave at the polls, Republicans in jurisdictions they control are getting more and more brazen in their voter-suppression efforts. The most darkly comic attempt emanated from Georgia, where election officials sought to close seven out of nine polling places in one predominantly African-American county because they weren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Citizens protested. County officials at first insisted that they absolutely had only the county’s disabled voters in mind, until a national outcry forced them to reverse course.7

In North Carolina, the stakes are unusually high. The state legislature, Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice told me, will be elected according to new district maps, the old ones having been tossed out by a court because of racial gerrymandering. It’s unlikely the Democrats can win enough seats to capture a majority, but they can win enough to end the Republican supermajority, which would mean the legislature could no longer override vetoes by Democratic governor Roy Cooper.

The congressional elections, however, will still be based on the districts the Republicans drew seven years ago. On August 27, a panel of three federal judges in the state found those districts to be unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering, but it also said that it was too late to draw new ones by November 6. Nevertheless, depending on the strength of Democratic turnout, the party could gain as many as three House seats there.

Voting-rights advocates had hoped that the Supreme Court would hear the challenge to the North Carolina districting while Anthony Kennedy was still on the bench, which could have given them a fighting chance at a decision that would ban partisan gerrymandering. A victory in that case would have had thunderous ramifications. The Court may still hear it, but with Kavanaugh now filling Kennedy’s seat, the already slim hope of success would seem to be nonexistent.

Beyond 2018, Democrats, liberal nonprofits, foundations, and donors simply must be more focused on these issues and put more resources into fighting Republicans. There should be a broad push, for example, for amending the Constitution to include a basic federal right to vote. Some people are surprised to learn this isn’t in the Constitution, but it is the sort of thing the founders left to the states. A federal right would make all these state voter-suppression laws eminently more challengeable.

Right now, however, the general posture of these groups is that they don’t want to tinker with the Constitution; doing that is “their” issue (i.e., the right’s). This is astonishingly shortsighted. One day, given the way polarization is testing the limits of our system of checks and balances, a public consensus might well emerge acknowledging that some changes to the Constitution are needed. The right has its list; it is topped by a federal balanced budget amendment, which would decimate domestic spending or entitlements or both. Is the left just to remain silent when the time for that debate arrives?

If the current third wave of voter-suppression techniques is halted, history suggests that there will be a fourth and a fifth. Today’s Republican Party is not simply trying to win elections. It is simultaneously trying to rewrite the rules—gerrymandering and voter suppression are crucial to this effort—so that it never loses a federal election again. Too many liberals can’t bring themselves to acknowledge this. I hope that on this issue, as has happened on some others, the age of Trump will finally cause the scales to fall from their eyes.

Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer Margalit Fox Random House 2018 352 Pages

In 1893, the world was shocked to learn of the death of one of its heroes: Detective Sherlock Holmes had fallen off of a cliff while battling his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Holmes's creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had tired of the character, and killed him off in the story "The Final Problem.” His death was met with such widespread backlash, however, that Doyle revived him. The public's thirst to read about the brilliant British detective and his adventures has barely waned since.

In Fox's new book, Doyle, not Holmes, is at the center of a long-forgotten criminal episode that reads like one of his mysteries. Fox, a former obituary writer for The New York Times (she composed over 1,400 obits), details the investigation of, and fallout from, the murder of a wealthy Glasgow woman in 1908. The lead suspect, Oscar Slater, a German Jewish gambler, ended up being wrongfully convicted, and imprisoned for close to twenty years, in a case dubbed "the Scottish Dreyfus affair" for the pivotal role Slater’s ethnicity played.

Fox explains that the crime took place when the field of criminology was in its nascent stages. The discovery of DNA was decades away, and even fingerprinting by the police was only slowly starting to be implemented. This is the context into which Doyle entered and began his involvement in the case, eventually successfully freeing Slater from prison.

In this captivating tale, Fox traces the development of Doyle's career—including the fact that once his literary creation became so famous, requests flooded in for him to solve actual mysteries—through his efforts on behalf of Slater. In a particularly cinematic instance, a letter smuggled out of prison in a fake tooth seals Slater’s freedom. Fox's writing, clearly honed by her years writing obituaries, effortlessly balances expertly-researched historical and archival data with the pathos and emotional nuance of any great drama. Like a classic Holmes yarn, Conan Doyle for the Defense is full of shady underworld characters, thievery, inept police officers, and a mystery whose historical setting belies its deep relevance to our own era.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt Stanford University Press; Volume 1–8, $60; Volume 9, $80

Cover of Zohar Complete Set by Translated by Daniel C. Matt
Daniel Matt’s magisterial translation of the Zohar begins:

Rabbi Hizkiyah opened, “Like a rose among thorns, so is my beloved among the maidens” (Song of Songs 2:2). Who is a rose? Assembly of Israel. For there is a rose, and then there is a rose! Just as a rose among thorns is colored red and white, so Assembly of Israel includes judgment and compassion. Just as a rose has thirteen petals, so Assembly of Israel has thirteen qualities of compassion surrounding Her on every side. Similarly, from the moment [אלה״ים] (Elohim), God, is mentioned, it generates thirteen words to surround Assembly of Israel and protect Her; then it is mentioned again. Why again? To produce five sturdy leaves surrounding the rose. These five are called Salvation; they are five gates. Concerning this mystery it is written: I raise the cup of salvation (Psalms 116:13). This is the cup of blessing, which should rest on five fingers—and no more—like the rose, sitting on five sturdy leaves, paradigm of five fingers. This rose is the cup of blessing.

I will return to the meaning of this deep and dizzying passage: What is the “Assembly of Israel” and what does it have to do with the lover and beloved of the Song of Songs? Are roses both red and white? And so on. But first let us ask a more general question: What is a great translation?

In his classic essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin distinguishes between a translation that successfully transfers information from one language to another and the far more profound kind of translation that arises from the organic life and afterlife of a great work of art. Such translation is part, in fact a necessary part, of the cultural unfolding and flowering of the original work:

The history of the great works of art tells us about their antecedents, their realization in the age of the artist, their potentially eternal afterlife in succeeding generations. Where this last manifests itself, it is called fame. Translations that are more than transmissions of subject matter come into being when in the course of its survival a work has reached the age of its fame. . . . [S]uch translations do not so much serve the work as owe their existence to it. The life of the originals attains in them to its ever-renewed latest and most abundant flowering.

The lifeblood of the original work—that which motivates the act of translation in the first place—spreads through the arteries of a living cultural organism, wherein the past is made present again and again. The great translation of a classic work
depends not only on its ability to accurately capture the meanings of words for the reader unable to access the text in the original but also on its ability to render what Benjamin called “the unfathomable, the mysterious, the ‘poetic,’ something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet.”

The Zohar is not only the central classic of the Kabbalah, it is one of the most extraordinary productions of human creativity in the history of the world. But it was not until our own time—some seven hundred years after its original composition—that this work found its great translator in Daniel Matt, who has succeeded masterfully in recapturing and conveying the unfathomable, mysterious, and, especially, poetic aspects of this “book of radiance” (the literal meaning of Sefer ha-Zohar). In fact, Matt’s first translations from the Zohar, published some 35 years ago in the Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality series, were in verse. Thus, he translated the beginning of the Zohar’s commentary on Genesis 1 as:

When the King conceived ordaining
He engraved engravings in the luster on high.
A blinding spark flashed
within the Concealed of the Concealed
from the mystery of the Infinite

The Zohar itself was not composed in verse, but in Matt’s early effort he was already working to capture a deep truth about this transcendent text, with its unique, sparkling language, symbolic imagery, and poetic cadence. (His equally brilliant prose translation of these lines is: “At the head of potency of the King, He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity.”)

Arriving on the heels of a century of kabbalistic creativity in southern France and northern Spain, the Zohar is the crowning achievement of medieval Jewish mysticism and perhaps the single most important body of literature—it isn’t a book in the conventional sense—in the entire history of Jewish spirituality. While nearly all other kabbalistic works of the period were written in Hebrew and generally claimed by their authors, the Zohar was pseudepigraphic and written in Aramaic: It represented itself as the product of the 2nd-century Galilean sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The earliest references that we have to the text describe it as “midrasho shel Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai,” a mystical midrash that had arisen in medieval Castile after centuries of concealment.

The text of this work was new-old—at once infused with the language and texture of ancient tradition and a radically original mode of imagination and expression. The choice of an inventive Aramaic was not only an attempt to reproduce or channel the voices of ancient sages, it was also part of the authors’ efforts to cast a veil of mystification and wonder upon its audience—to invite the reader to bask in the mists of spiritual consciousness. Indeed, the Zohar is itself a fascinating attempt to translate and express the poetry and mystery bequeathed to it by a distant world.

In the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his disciples read the Bible as a coded, symbolic document in which every element of earthly reality alludes to a hidden mystery within the divine world. These interpretations are interwoven with an episodic tale in which the disciples wander about the ancient Galilee in quest of mystical wisdom. Given that it was written by Castilian kabbalists of the 13th and 14th centuries, what we have in the Zohar is thus a deeply imaginative fictional creation—an invented world of holy men and spiritual adventures wrought in the fires of stunningly innovative medieval minds.

Let us now return to the opening passage of the Zohar. Rabbi Hizkiyah’s explication of the famous verse comparing the poet’s beloved to a rose among thorns presupposes not only that the Song of Songs is an allegory of divine love, as the classic rabbinic tradition taught, but that this love is, as it were, within God. That is, it is a relationship between certain sefirot, which are the 10 divine emanations or potencies, through which the mystery of the infinite is projected into the world. Thus, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s disciple is reflecting on the inner dynamics of the divine self. The rose, he is telling us, represents the tenth sefirah, the Shekhina, referred to here as the Assembly of Israel (Keneset Yisrael), which is identified with the Jewish people and understood to be female. “Just as a rose among thorns is colored red and white,” we are told, “so Assembly of Israel includes judgment and compassion”—that is to say, she receives and filters the divine forces that flow downward from the sefirot Chesed and Gevurah.

Rabbi Hizkiyah also ruminates on the symbolic allusiveness of the natural world, comments on the mystical meaning of familiar ritual (“This is the cup of blessing, which should rest on five fingers—and no more”), and takes the reader into the transcendent mythology of the sefirot—all while weaving together verses from Song of Songs, Genesis, and Psalms. Matt’s translation opens up the meaning of the Zohar’s original Aramaic while retaining both its spiritual mystique and its lightness of touch. Of special note is his running commentary in the footnotes, which cites rabbinic antecedents and kabbalistic parallels while lucidly explaining the text and often illuminating its broader historical and literary context. Thus he notes that while the “rose” (in Hebrew, shoshana) of the verse is probably actually a lily or a lotus, “Rabbi Hizkiyah has in mind a rose,” and then goes on to explain what he means by describing it as both red and white:

colored red and white    As is Rosa gallica versicolor (also known as Rosa mundi), one of the oldest of the striped roses, whose flowers are crimson splashed on a white background. The striping varies and occasionally flowers revert to the solid pink of their parent, Rosa gallica. The parent was introduced to Europe in the twelfth or thirteenth century by Crusaders returning from Palestine. Both parent and sport were famous for their aromatic and medicinal qualities. Elsewhere (2:20a–b) the Zohar alludes to the process of distilling oil from the petals of the flower to produce rose water, a popular remedy. During this process the color gradually changes from red to white.

The notes that follow explicate the dense web of kabbalistic symbolism embedded in such phrases as “thirteen petals . . . thirteen qualities of compassion” and so on. “A rose blossom,” he informs us, “can have thirteen petals in its second tier. . . . God’s thirteen attributes of compassion are derived from Exodus 34:6–7. . . . According to Kabbalah, these qualities originate in Keter, the highest sefirah, the realm of total compassion untainted by judgment.”

In important ways, Matt’s project is heir to the tradition of Zohar scholarship from its earliest days. One of the great exemplars of early translation of the text into Hebrew is a turn-of-the-14th-century kabbalist named Rabbi David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, who was the subject of Matt’s doctoral dissertation at Brandeis. Among the many other partial translations over the centuries are those made into Latin by or for early modern Christian kabbalists such as Pietro di Galatino and Guillaume Postel through 20th-century productions such as the dry and relatively unusable English Soncino translation (available online) and Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s Peirush ha-sulam. Ashlag, who translated the text into a lucid Hebrew with an embedded commentary, was influenced by the 16th-century Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria, and his edition was an attempt to disseminate esoteric knowledge to a world that he believed could no longer survive without it. Another precursor to Matt’s translation, and for many decades the most significant scholarly translation project devoted to the Zohar, was Isaiah Tishby’s Mishnat ha-Zohar, translated into English by David Goldstein as The Wisdom of the Zohar. Tishby translated a wide array of passages, accompanied by informative introductions and extensive annotations. Despite the importance of Mishnat ha-Zohar for generations of scholars and students, however, the anthologized texts were ultimately only excerpts from a dramatically larger textual stream. Thus, Matt both continues a long tradition of translation and charts new territory.

When the philanthropist Margot Pritzker (an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune) enabled Matt to retire from the Graduate Theological Union and devote two decades of his life to translating the entire Zohar, it wasn’t just to fill a scholarly desideratum. It was to continue what Benjamin called the “potentially eternal afterlife” of an undeniably great work.

For much of the 20th century, Gershom Scholem’s conclusion that the Zohar was largely the work of a mystic named Rabbi Moses de León in late 13th-century Castile held sway over scholarly opinion. Scholem’s theory was compelling and far from unfounded. As Matt notes in the very first footnote to the opening passage just discussed, there is a parallel passage in de León’s Sefer ha-rimmon, and Scholem and others have noted many parallels of language and doctrine between the Zohar and de León’s works. In testimony quoted in a late 15th-century text, the kabbalist Isaac of Akko is represented as saying that de León’s widow told him that the work was entirely from her husband’s hand. The 19th-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, who was opposed to mysticism of all kinds, described the Zohar as a forgery. Scholem set out to disprove Graetz but concluded that he was correct in spite of his rationalist prejudices, though Scholem understood well that pseudepigraphy was not forgery but a phenomenon of premodern religious creativity, the spiritual identification of a later author with a revered figure from times of old.

This consensus has been shattered in recent decades. First came Yehuda Liebes’s path-breaking theory that a group of Castilian kabbalists including de León, not unlike the imagined circle of disciples around Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, were responsible for the composition of the Zohar. More recently scholars have argued that there were likely several groups of authors in successive decades and even generations, each of whom edited and added to what we now know as the Zohar (among them, that early translator Rabbi David ben Yehudah he-Hasid). This evolution in the theory of authorship has gone hand in hand with a greater appreciation for the relationship and tension between the existing manuscripts of the Zohar and the text as it was first printed in 16th-century Italy.

As the research of Daniel Abrams, Boaz Huss, and Ronit Meroz has shown, prior to the 16th century, there were a range of disparate, overlapping, and incomplete zoharic manuscripts that were weaved together into a new whole by the editors of the Mantua and Cremona printings in the late 1550s. There was no single manuscript still in existence (if there ever was one) that preserved everything we now regard as being a part of the Zohar. So what text did Matt translate?

The manuscripts were all incomplete or problematic in different ways. Therefore, it would not do to use one of these as a “diplomatic” text, supplemented by notes indicating manuscript variances, as has become common practice in the production of critical editions. Matt instead chose to use the established printed edition (which was essentially the Mantua printing combined with variants from the Cremona printing) as a starting point, substituting superior readings from a host of different older manuscripts where he saw fit to do so. Matt has characterized this work as a “scraping away” of accumulated “scribal accretions and glosses” to try to get as close as possible to the elusive original (or, perhaps, originals), and he has noted these changes in an online Aramaic edition on the website of Stanford University Press, which itself is a major contribution to scholarship.

Not everyone agrees with this “eclectic critical method,” since it must be admitted that the base text established by Matt is one that quite likely never existed in this exact form before. In my own opinion, given the choices that Matt had before him, this was the right way to go, since it offers what he regards as the best possible textual reading in each case. When the full textual apparatus is eventually published online, researchers will be able to follow and debate his choices.

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition itself spans 12 thick and handsomely produced volumes, the first nine of which were composed by Matt and the remaining three by Nathan Wolski and Joel Hecker, under Matt’s editorship. (Wolski translated and annotated volume 10, Hecker did the same for volume 11, and the two collaborated on volume 12.) Of particular note in Wolski’s work is his elegant translation and learned annotation of Midrash ha-ne‘elam, thought to be the earliest stratum of the Zohar; an especially notable section of Hecker’s translation is his richly poetic rendition of the Matnitin and Tosefta sections. In this essay, however, I have chosen to reflect on the accomplishments of Matt in the first nine volumes, which comprise the material often referred to as guf ha-Zohar (the body of the Zohar), along with several other classic sections. Let us turn now to another famously resonant passage, in which Matt’s zoharic English virtually reincarnates the text, emerging organically from the living organism of its source:

When Israel enacts the unification of the mystery of  ישראל שמע (Shema Yisrael), Hear O Israel! (Deuteronomy 6:4) with perfect intention, one radiance issues from secrecy of the upper world, and that radiance strikes a spark of darkness and scatters into seventy lights, and those seventy flash into seventy branches of the Tree of Life.

Then that Tree wafts fragrances and aromas, and all the trees of the Garden of Eden waft fragrances and praise their Lord, for then Matronita is adorned to enter the canopy with Her Husband. All those supernal limbs unite in one desire, in one aspiration, to be one with no separation. Then Her Husband is arrayed for Her, to bring Her to the canopy in single union, to unite with Matronita.

Therefore, we arouse Her, saying ישראל שמע (Shema Yisrael), Hear O Israel! (Deuteronomy 6:4)—Adorn Yourself! Behold, Your Husband is near You in His array, ready to meet You.

YHVH our God, YHVH is one (ibid.)—in one unification, in one aspiration, without separation; for all those limbs become one, entering into one desire. As soon as Israel says one, arousing six aspects, all those six become one. This mystery is ו (vav), one extension alone, with no other attachment, expanded by all, one.

At that moment, Matronita prepares and adorns Herself, and Her attendants escort Her to Her Husband in hushed whisper, saying “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever!” This is whispered, for so must She be brought to Her Husband. Happy are the people who know this and compose the supernal arrangement of faith!

The striking poetry of zoharic myth is captured in this description of the divine mystery behind the central Jewish affirmation of faith. Divine emanation is described here as the mysterious emergence of light from the depths of cosmic hiddenness—the striking of that primordial, paradoxical “spark of darkness,” a moment of wondrous divine blacksmithing. This image of the cosmic spark of darkness (butzina de-kardinuta) appears in several passages as a kind of flashing brilliance in the transcendent universe above, as well as in the deepest recesses of the human contemplative mind.

But here it is the inner-divine Tree of Life that flashes into revealed form as the metaphysical expansion and embodiment of the splintered sparks of supernal darkness. It is a divine sparkling, and then an aromatic overflow, that results from the human act of reciting the Shema “with perfect intention.” This is theurgic ritual—human actions that provoke reactions in the divine world—at its most dramatic and sensory, at once visual and olfactory. The Jewish people call forth the emanation of luminous divine energies from the upper sefirot, and it is the power of their prayerful intention that causes the eruption of an explosive brilliance within God. They ignite the divine Tree of Life, an erotic union of male and female within the dynamic divine self.

Matt’s own poetic craft is visible in his translation choices here: “itpaleig le-shiv‘in nehorin” becomes “scatters into seventy lights”; “inun shiv‘in lahatei be-shiv‘in anafin” is translated as “those seventy flash into seventy branches”; and “ha-hu ilana seleik reichin u-busmin” is rendered as “that Tree wafts fragrances and aromas.” Deep knowledge of the resonance of each Aramaic word is at play here, but so too is the artistry of achieving the cadence, nuance, and crispness of zoharic mythopoesis in English. As with the first example we considered, Matt’s richly learned commentary in his notes fills out the picture, citing rabbinic sources and zoharic parallels, and unpacking the bold mythic eroticism of the text: the sacred union between the sefirot Tiferet and Shekhina that lies at the heart of the Zohar. Like his translation, Matt’s notes are heir to the grand tradition of Zohar scholarship, from Rabbi Moses Cordovero’s massive commentary Or yakar to the handwritten notes in Gershom Scholem’s annotated Zohar and the notes to Charles Mopsik’s great French translation, Le Zohar. Indeed, Matt’s commentary may be the most significant and comprehensive line-by-line exegesis of the Zohar to ever appear, given its fusion of wisdom gained from the older religious commentaries and the fruits of modern critical scholarship.

Part of the power of the Zohar’s myth is the way in which it both explains and infuses religious practice with metaphysical meaning. Thus, for instance, the Zohar emphasizes the deep significance of the requirement that only the Torah reader’s voice be heard during the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue. For the Zohar, this ritual stipulation is understood to be a reflection of the inner divine harmony and unity of the sefirot: “With the Torah scroll, one voice and one utterance should be heard.” After detailing the “arrangement to be prepared by the Holy People on this day and all other days for the Torah scroll,” including “a throne (kursayya) called ‘a reader’s desk’ (de-ikri teivah),” taking out the Torah and laying it on the reader’s desk are depicted as directly comparable to the revelation at Mount Sinai:

When the Torah scroll is lifted onto there, the whole people should arrange themselves in awe and fear, trembling and quaking, all below, intending in their hearts as if they were now standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. They should listen and incline their ears. None of the people, nor anyone else, is permitted to open his mouth with a word of Torah, and certainly not with any other word. Rather, all of them in awe, as if they had no mouth, as has been established, for it is written: As he opened it, all the people stood up (Nehemiah 8:5); and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Torah scroll (ibid., 3).

In Matt’s skilled and artful hands, the English formulation conveys the original Zohar’s atmosphere of mystical experience—where the routine ritual of the synagogue is infused with the hush of revelation, the fear of receiving the divine word. The Aramaic phrases le-sadra garmaihu be-eimata, be-dechilu, be-retet, be-zei‘a are transformed into “should arrange themselves in awe and fear, trembling and quaking.”

Once again, Matt’s commentary on these pages adds a great deal. Notably, Matt offers a historical-textual revision, commenting on a segment of text that is one of the most famous passages in the Zohar, known as the “Berikh shemeih de-marei alma” (Blessed is the name of the Lord of the universe) because of its prominent place in the Sabbath morning liturgy before the reading of the Torah. Matt argues that this passage is actually a much later addition by manuscript copyists and quite likely not part of the original composition. I will quote the note to give a glimpse of the depth of textual scholarship in his commentary.

Remarkably, the prayer (together with the preceding paragraph: “Rabbi Shim’on said . . .”) is a later addition to the Zohar, as indicated already by Cordovero (Or Yaqar) and as evidenced by the fact that it appears in none of the following manuscripts: C9, M5, M9, Ms24, N10, N41, O17, P2, R1, T1, V5, V7, V18, nor in the text accompanying Or Yaqar. In O2 a bit of it is inserted by a later copyist, while in the Cremona edition it appears in a smaller, different font. The passage appears in full in the Mantua edition and in nearly all subsequent editions (those that are based on Mantua). In a fifteenth-century kabbalistic manuscript containing various compositions (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, heb. MS 835, 114b), this prayer is attributed to Naḥmanides. Nevertheless, because of the prayer’s historical, cultural, and religious significance—and because it is so widely known—I have included it here, placing the entire passage in brackets.

Following this bracketed translation of the “Berikh shemeih” passage, Matt renders the continuation of the Zohar’s portrait of the Torah reading in which one person should be heard chanting and the rest of the congregation should listen in rapt silence “as if they were receiving it at that moment from Mount Sinai.” Only afterward they should hear the voice of its public translation, an old rabbinic custom.

Another should stand next to the one reading and be silent, so that only one utterance exists, not two. The holy tongue is one—one and not two; if there are two with the Torah scroll, the mystery of faith is diminished, along with the glory of Torah.

One translator, and this mystery is shell and kernel: mystery of this world and mystery of the world that is coming.

The singularity of each voice has metaphysical implications for the Zohar. Confusion below leads to diminishment above in the realm of the sefirot, which the Zohar often refers to as “the mystery of faith” (raza de-meheimanuta). Here, the interplay between holy tongue and translation—between Torah reader and public translator—is framed in distinctively mystical terms: The Hebrew original of the Torah is likened to the inner kernel, while the translation corresponds to the outer shell. While the holy tongue represents the hidden dimension of the heavenly world to come (alma de-atei), the translation channels the revealed dimension of this lower world.

Translation is actually necessary, then, to protect the vulnerable inner core, the fragile essence of divine reality, but it is also only by way of that outer shell of translation that the deepest spiritual truth can be accessed in this world. As Matt puts it in his commentary: “Just as the divine kernel is protected by a shell in order to be manifested in this world, so the Torah is accompanied by translation in order to be understood by all.”

The work of the translator is a creative act in which the otherwise hidden language is filtered and revealed through the prism of a new poetic revelation. The translation draws its sustenance from the life force of the original, and yet it is only through the exegetical bridge of that translation that the untouchable spirit of the first text can enter into the world. It is not too much to say that Daniel Matt’s work discloses the mysteries of the Zohar in this same way: with a fresh light—an organic, new-old speech of secrets.

Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922 edited by Angela Lampe Prestel Publishing, 288 pp., $60


In his poetic first autobiography, Marc Chagall called Vitebsk “My joyful, gloomy city.” He was remembering the place of his birth and fin-de-siècle childhood, while simultaneously reflecting on discordant feelings about his departure. The Vitebsk of his early years was a provincial river city, a district capital in the northeastern corner of the Pale of Settlement. Rising off of river banks, it had worn and sloping cobblestone streets, electric streetcars, two large synagogues, 60 prayer houses, and 27 churches. A pedestrian bridge connected the stylish side of town with its neoclassical, Russian-style Governor’s Palace and its fashionable stores, including a pastry shop, to the other side of Vitebsk, where there were warehouses for shipping, a railroad junction, and a scattering of squat brick dwellings standing adjacent to shabby log buildings. Domes and bell towers illuminated the low horizon.

At the turn of the century, Vitebsk had a population of about 66,000 people, more than half of whom were Jewish. Although memories of the Russian pogroms of the 1880s lingered, many Jews were becoming professionals or moving into the middle class, joining Russian intellectual and political (even radical) circles, or taking part in the Jewish cultural revival with its flourishing Yiddish literature and theater. In his memoir, Chagall combined irreconcilable feelings about this complex place, allowing them to hang in opposition to one another like the two halves of his subject’s head, one reddish and the other blue, in his painting Anywhere Out of the World which he had completed a few years before.

From the start, Vitebsk had been a rich source of inspiration for Chagall’s visual storytelling. He raided it for his earliest subject matter when he expressively painted his bearded father wearing eyeglasses and a working man’s visor cap or, in contrast, his stylish emancipated fiancée with her hands covered in elegant black gloves. He reimagined it when he was a young man in Paris, creating a private iconography for what seemed a faraway and exotic setting, filling it with humanized cows and houses with peaked roofs that sometimes flipped upside down.

In 1914, he returned home for his sister’s wedding shortly before the beginning of the First World War. When the border suddenly closed, Vitebsk became a refuge for the war wounded, as well as thousands of Jews expelled from their homes on the eastern front. He documented their suffering, drawing and painting soldiers and displaced Jews. The following year, in the fine Vitebsk home of his wife’s parents, he was married, “under the wedding canopy, in the proper way,” and Vitebsk became the city he immortalized in Over the Town, in which he and his wife float above doll-sized houses and fences, gliding together in a cloudy sky.

After the revolution and because of his Paris friendship with the intellectual revolutionary Anatoly Lunacharsky, Chagall—somewhat implausibly—became plenipotentiary for the affairs of art in the province of Vitebsk and chairman of the city’s commission, entrusted with decorations on the first anniversary of the October Revolution. Buoyant with hopes for a more just and tolerant society, Chagall instructed both housepainters and art students to make wall murals, cloth banners, posters, wreathes, and red calico bows to adorn the city. An extraordinary 60,000 people took part in the events captured on a film commissioned by city authorities.

 This summer, at Centre Pompidou, visitors were able to gaze at the still-impassive faces of cavalry soldiers in Vitebsk’s festooned Freedom Square one hundred years after the festivities. Soon after the celebration, in January 1919, Chagall became the founder and director of the Vitebsk People’s Art School. Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922 revisits the phenomenon of postrevolutionary Vitebsk, where, against all probability, the avant-garde bloomed in a provincial Russian city dominated by Jewish culture. The exhibition ran from March 28 through July 16, 2018 at Centre Pompidou and traveled in a modified form to the Jewish Museum in New York, where it is on view from September 14, 2018 through January 6, 2019. The handsome accompanying catalog, edited by Angela Lampe, is available in both French and English.

Visitors should not be misled by the exhibition’s name; it contains more than just the three artists listed, giving us a glimpse at the work of the many artists Chagall brought to the school’s faculty, as well as the students, inspired by Kazimir Malevich, who became part of the UNOVIS collective (an abbreviation for what has been translated as “Affirmers for New Forms in Art”), which made public art for Vitebsk and other cities. The exhibit in Paris was lavish, with 250 objects, paintings, works on paper, books, ceramics, and sculpture, including a life-sized construction of Lenin’s Rostrum, based on the design developed in the architectural studio of Lazar Markovich Lissitzky (he renamed himself El Lissitzky in homage to El Greco) at the Vitebsk People’s Art School. It also displayed postcards, letters, photographs, and journal extracts, enlarging our ability to reimagine the spectacular collision between modernism and revolution that occurred in a provincial capital for a fleeting moment before it was extinguished by history.

Due to the multiyear Russian embargo on art loans to the United States, materials from the Tretyakov Gallery, the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin State Museum cannot travel to the New York show, which will thus be missing several spectacular Chagalls, as well as Robert Falk’s beautiful painting of Vitebsk. Falk, a Russian Jewish postimpressionist, depicts the city’s white stone walls glistening in contrast to shadowed rooftops tinted in hyacinth, emerald, and vermillion. Though not all the artists were Jewish—Malevich, most significantly, was born into a Roman Catholic, Polish-speaking family in Ukraine—the story of Vitebsk emanates from the suffering, aspiration, and cultural vibrancy of Russian Jews whose creativity was entwined with the history and disturbed universe of modernism.

As the provincial plenipotentiary, Chagall encountered numerous difficulties from the start. This was the beginning of the bloody and chaotic period of War Communism, when businesses, factories, and food supplies were seized by the government, sending the country into economic chaos. With widespread shortages, events for the first anniversary celebration had to be limited. Though the festivities were a great success, Chagall was reprimanded by authorities for extravagant wastefulness and criticized by skeptics who found the revolutionary art, with its unrealistic colors, lack of proportionality, and distorted perspective, unintelligible. While hardly any of the decorations, from the first celebration have survived intact, we can look at David Yakerson’s sketch for Panel with the Figure of a Worker and imagine how it baffled spectators, with its sharp lines and architectonic angles depicting a laborer, in an Egyptian-looking pose, who seems about to move forward on impossibly large feet.

When the art school opened, it was simultaneously praised for the opportunities offered “for the working masses” while being disparaged for its “right-wing ways.” Chagall, who was never dogmatic, invited a broad assortment of artists, painters, graphic artists, designers, and sculptors representing many different trends to become part of the faculty; some, like Falk, were still making more-or-less representational art, while others, like Ivan Puni and Vera Ermolaeva, were more avante-garde. Many of the artists Chagall brought from Petrograd, where he had formed many friendships in the arts, stayed for barely a semester, and replacements had to be found. It didn’t take long for Chagall to feel overwhelmed by his administrative responsibilities. As early as April 1919, it was reported, “The artist Chagall appealed to the Center to release him from his duties as the Province Plenipotentiary on Matters of Art.” A curt telegram instructed him to “remain in his post,” but by May his request had been accepted, and another artist, Aleksandr Romm, took over as provincial plenipotentiary, with Chagall staying on as director of the Vitebsk People’s Art School. But even this was no small task; during the first semester, the school took in about 120 students, mostly boys in their teens, Jewish children of laborers. Again in September 1919 he tried to resign, but an assembly of students appealed to him to stay on, and he relented.

 The real problems began when Lissitzky and, to a greater degree, Malevich joined the faculty. As in the culminating Passover song, Chagall invited Lissitzky to teach in Vitebsk and Lissitzky invited Malevich to join the endeavor, and Malevich brought disaster. In his official summary of the school’s first year, Chagall described his intention to maintain artistic diversity in the studios, “within our walls, the leading artists and workshops of all trends—from left to ‘right’ inclusively—are represented and function freely.” But the revolutionary and metaphysical arguments of Lissitzky and Malevich against figurative representations forced all of the teachers and students to take sides.

Lissitzky had known Chagall since childhood, when both were students at Yuri Pen’s art school in Vitebsk. Chagall’s magical expressionism strongly influenced his early work, which was also impacted by his training as an architect and his exposure to European art during travels abroad. Looking at the “Then Came a Fire and Burnt the Stick” page from his famous Had Gadya suite of colored lithographs, you see how Lissitzky integrated the new Cubo-Futurist style with everything that had come before for him: fire and firebird, Jewish tradition and Russian, word and image, Jugendstil and Chagall-like tumbling-over village houses, all conflated into the spiraling, red conflagration that symbolized revolution. But this balance was short-lived. After 1919, he dedicated himself to radical social utopianism and created the design for the Central Committee’s first flag, as well as the now iconic Constructivist poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, in which bold typography, a simplified palette, and symbolic geometry delivered the Bolshevik message with a jolt.

Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, had become the most famous of Russia’s avant-garde artists by the time he arrived in Vitebsk in 1919. Even today, much about Malevich’s artistic theory is impenetrable. Early on, he rejected the use of organic shapes in art and eventually even color vanished from his paintings. He thought of his 1915 painting Black Square as a “total eclipse,” and when he progressed to his red phase and then to white on white, even color vanished from his paintings. During the years he was in Vitebsk, he almost completely stopped painting and dedicated himself to theorizing about a new system of art, developing ways in which Suprematism would be applied to the world at large. In Vitebsk, he was armed with written rules, postulates, lectures, and a curriculum proclaiming the end of individualism in art. Under his influence, Lissitzky created a new, symbolic architecture on the painted surfaces of his canvases. Inventing the term “Proun,” “project for the affirmation of the new,” Lissitzky described his experiments using the new jargon from the factories; they were “the interchange station between painting and architecture.”

The Vitebsk students were captivated by the commotion generated in the workshops and mesmerized by Malevich’s charismatic, if not megalomaniacal, personality. The exhibits include photographs showing how they wore the emblem of the black square sewn on their sleeves to honor their teacher’s “great discovery,” and there’s a trove of memorabilia such as the 1920 manifesto for the UNOVIS collective and the 1922 diploma awarded to the young Suprematist Lazar Khidekel. It didn’t take long for many of Chagall’s students to transfer to Malevich’s studio.

Today the experience of viewing Malevich’s Black Square or Lissitzky’s Proun canvases, with their rough and splotchy surfaces, is similar to looking at antique weapons. The blades are still sharp, but the world they were intended to cut down has evaporated even as they persist as witnesses to its history. At the time, these weapons were strong enough to drive out Chagall and his quest for a pluralistic modernism. In June 1920, Chagall made his final resignation from the school. There’s no doubt he experienced his colleagues’ ideas as a personal attack; their Manichean tendencies were completely contrary to his own inclinations. In his autobiography, he wrote that he had been “expelled” from Vitebsk like the Jews who had been evacuated from the border towns in 1914 and found themselves homeless. He concluded his thoughts about the betrayal with a beautifully complex simile: “I shall be silent about my friends and foes. All their masks are piled up in my heart like lumber.”

Despite the school’s short life, for a time the work of the Vitebsk People’s Art School overflowed into the city. Working together with local craftsmen, UNOVIS adorned offices and workshops of the

Vitebsk Committee for the Struggle against Unemployment, the State Committee for Foodstuffs, and the Vitebsk City Theater with Suprematist panels, enormous signboards, and banners. One of the pleasures of the exhibit is to look at the rarely exhibited and spirited work of some these students, many of whom became artists in their own right. With its tiny flags, Nikolai Suetin’s Wagon with the UNOVIS Sign looks like a fanciful boat or, perhaps, a spaceship. The Suprematist compositions by Ilya Chashnik and Lazar Khidekel show utopian artists rebalancing geometrical arrangements to usher in an ideal world.

Not long after Chagall left Vitebsk, Lissitzky followed. Malevich stayed on to see the first and last class graduate, but departed in the summer when local Soviet authorities closed the school down. Many decades later, Chagall wrote in Memories: “They thought that if they could take possession of my school and all the students, a black square on a white canvas could become a symbol of victory . . . But a victory over what? I personally found none of the enchantment of color in this black square on its drab canvas background.” (With the rise of Stalin in the late 1920s, Malevich’s ideas suddenly became bourgeois and counterrevolutionary, but he managed to remain a Suprematist to the end, and his ashes were buried under a grave marked with a black square in 1935. Lissitzky died a Stalinist exponent of Social Realism in 1941.)

Chagall, who in 1915 had painted Anywhere Out of the World with those two red and blue halves of a single, if separated, head, was completely undoctrinaire. As a young artist in Paris, he had felt challenged by the brilliant experiments of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Staking out his own idiosyncratic and eclectic style, he intuitively bathed his fragmented work in illogical colors, filling the framework of his canvas with fantastical figures and objects that pleased him. Part of the strength of his work in Vitebsk, and later for the Moscow Yiddish Theater, came from the way he integrated Suprematism, Cubism, and Constructivism while simultaneously pushing back against the ideological pressures. He spoke directly of the world vanishing under his feet, and so his characters fly over a city that is being stamped out by modernism, revolution, and history to come.