Lessons from a building in Shanghai.
Among Shanghai’s many architectural gems is a sprawling, curved edifice that was once the largest apartment building in Asia, a building that more than half a century ago played a role in saving many thousands of lives. It’s set just on the north side of Suzhou Creek, a small river whose course has been hemmed in by concrete, and whose polluted contents are still routinely netted by illegal fishermen—mostly, to judge by their catch, in search of the famous Shanghai hairy crab. On the southern bank, there’s a small section of a walking path, which in the fall is hung with the heavy sweet fragrance of osmanthus blossoms, and which attracts elderly taiji practitioners, smoking office workers out for their lunch break, young couples, and a lone tenor saxophonist, who shows up every morning before eight and doesn’t leave until just before dark. Behind them is the heavy stone architecture of the Bund and a pair of neon gods, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the gigantic trapezoidal Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s eighth tallest skyscraper.
All this I can observe from a window overlooking the creek, the only window in my tenth-floor studio. The unrenovated apartments are stacked up next to one another, so only the apartments on the ends and around the curved courtyard have more than one window. The building draws breezes through central airshafts that have cleverly been left open, providing essential ventilation in the muggy Shanghai summers. People stack plants on the sills there and hang their laundry to dry in the spiraling wafts from below. Read More
A fortune teller greeted David Sassoon on his way home from synagogue one night in Baghdad and told him to leave at once for India. He would be blessed with immense riches, she said. He was the son of Sheikh Sassoon, chief banker for the Ottoman pasha and nasi, or leader, of Baghdad’s Jewish community. Fleeing the despotic Daud Pasha, who had it out for the wealthy merchant, Sassoon settled in Bombay in 1833, eager to trade under British protection.
Back in the 1830s, Bombay was a port city of seven islands, a relative backwater, but a place where Sassoon could live and conduct business in peace, thanks to the East India Company and in large part to its president, Gerald Aungier. Back in 1668, England, eager to pawn off the Portuguese territory, rented the company the worthless, swampy islands for £10 of gold a year. Aungier saw promise. He moved the company’s Surat operation 165 miles south to Bombay, established courts and added judges, guaranteed religious freedom and individual rights (and loans) to traders and artisans, encouraged racial and religious communities to have spokesmen, and built causeways, docks, and a mint. Aungier created the ethic of equal opportunity that Bombayites would cherish for centuries by urging justice to all “without fear or favor,” says Naresh Fernandes in his smart new biography of Bombay, City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay.
November is the fifth anniversary of the bombings at the Taj and Oberoi, two luxury hotels in South Bombay. The much-loved Taj was built by the industrialist Jamshed Tata in 1903, after another hotel turned him away because of his skin color. It’s a hotel that well-off locals grew up in, wandering the halls to admire its magnificent art collection, and lunching at the Sea Lounge, which overlooks the Gateway of India. (It was famously a watering hole for gambler and derbyman Victor Sassoon, David’s great-grandson, who lived at a suite at the Taj in the 1920s and 1940s.)
The targeted murders of Chabad Jews at Nariman House during the 2008 attacks were an odd turn of events. New Jews, known by few, they were not a part of Bombay’s historic landscape. They existed largely to house Israeli travelers, famously fond of long Indian sojourns. (Goa and the Himalayas are Israeli hubs.) The murders signaled not the arrival of anti-Semitism in India proper as much as it underscored the truth that anyone and everyone has always been welcome in Bombay. Though targeting Jews is no fluke anywhere, the real story is the story of Bombay’s Jews, which for all purposes started with David Sassoon. Read More
One of the best things I’ve ordered on the Internet recently is a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit. After getting lost in the mail in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it finally arrived: a medium-sized white-on-black paperback titled Der Hobit, with a dedication to the “workers and residents of the Newtonville Starbucks (my office).” The translator, Barry Goldstein, is a retired computer programmer, and reworking The Hobbit is only one of his hobbies. He is an arctic traveler who has taken several trips to Greenland, and he has rendered accounts of Shackleton’s voyages into Yiddish. He is also on the editorial team of a more momentous, if not quite as whimsical, project: the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, released in January by Indiana University Press. Now, thanks to Goldstein, I have the Yiddish Hobbit, and the means to read it.
A dictionary is meant to be a reflection of a language (or a prescription for it, depending on your view), but the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary reflects an entire culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, the dictionary received a grant from the Forward Association, which publishes the newspaper for which I work.) Unlike previous dictionaries, its audience is mainly English speakers, not Yiddish. It is aimed at readers of Yiddish literature (or Yiddish translations of children’s fantasy novels), rather than people who want to speak or write the language, though an English-Yiddish dictionary is also on the way. In the battle between descriptivism and prescriptivism it takes a middle path, erring on the side of the descriptive. Taken with its predecessors, it tells the story of Yiddish in America. Read More
An old Jewish man is hit by a car. As he lies in the road, dazed and bleeding, a woman rushes over, takes off her jacket, folds it, and puts it under his head.
“Are you comfortable?” she asks.
“Meh. I make a living.”
I was eight when my father told me this joke. I wasn’t sure I understood it. Jews worried more about making a living than being run over. Was that it? One thing I was sure of was that the road was in Golders Green, in northwest London, where I grew up and was bar mitzvahed.
Golders Green made me. Jews made me, with their jokes and their food and their pride and their warmth and their anxiety and their love of scholarship. I cannot be unmade, even though I haven’t been inside a synagogue since my bar mitzvah.
How far can you go from Golders Green and still be Jewish?