Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success

How did Donald Trump’s German grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, come to settle in America, and change the family name to Trump? How did the family make its first dollars? How did they build their wealth into billions? What of Donald Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Scottish island of Lewis? What sort of father is Donald Trump? How has Donald Trump treated people? Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success by Michael D'Antonio delves into all that, and much more. It does not cover Trump’s current run for President of the United States or subsequent developments.

This is a juicy and entertaining biography, told largely in a non-judgemental and matter-of-fact style. D’Antonio is clever and lets Donald Trump’s actions speak for themselves. Readers may find this book amplifies their view of Trump. As his son, Donald Jr., says, “He’s a very polarizing guy.” Those who like him will enjoy reading of his many successes. Those who dislike him will read between the lines and enjoy the amusing parallels drawn by D’Antonio. For example, the author compares one of Trump’s speaking tours across the U.S. with that of the young and flamboyant Oscar Wilde in 1882. One can imagine Trump’s concealed annoyance over such a comparison.

A selection of photos and an index complete the book.

Friday, December 18, 2015

To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad

To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad by Christian Wolmar was a brief history and a fascinating, speedy read. I came across it, as I often do, since I am in charge of the new book arrivals in my department. I like trains and transit history and To the Edge of the World served as my first formal introduction to the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest railway in the world. 

For a nation as vast as imperial Russia, the country embarked on a system of railroad construction relatively late, when compared with Europe, the United States and Canada. Such a lengthy railway would link Moscow to the Pacific coast, bring raw materials out of the heart of the nation's central Asian mining region and bring products and services to the people of the interior. It could unite the country in a way that the Canadian National Railway linked Canada from coast to coast, an achievement that did not go unnoticed by those in power in tsarist Russia. However the main reason the Trans-Siberian Railway was built was not economical:

"The military imperative was also given a boost by the completion of the Canadian transcontinental in 1885, given the shorter journey time between England and Japan, which was seen as a potential military advantage. Psychologically, for the Russians, the construction of the Canadian transcontinental proved more important than its American predecessor completed sixteen years previously. Canada was a similarly vast, rather underpopulated country and its furthermost province, British Columbia, could well have seceded had it not been for the construction of the line across the new nation. The Russian Far East, like the Canadian West, was remote and semi-detached. If the Canadians could use a railway line to bind their country together, so could the Russians."

Thus imperialist Russia was compelled to build its transcontinental railway for militaristic reasons. By the end of the nineteenth century the country had already suffered a rebellion and tsarist Russia was showing signs of instability. A railway would strengthen the tsar's hold over the country from Moscow to Vladivostok. Yet with Alexander III as tsar, there was haste to complete the job. Workers and engineers risked repercussions by questioning him, and the earliest work on the railway was slipshod, requiring repairs or replacement almost as soon as it was completed. Wolmar wrote of two Trans-Siberian Railways being created at either end: the new track being laid down on its stretch eastward, and the replacement of track at the beginning of the line. The rush to complete the railway left minimal time to plan its route. Yet with 9288 km of track to lay down, you don't have to be an engineer to realize it would require years and years of planning and surveying:

"The survey work undertaken before construction began had been cursory in the extreme. There was no attempt to select an optimum route, but instead a four-verst belt was haphazardly drawn on the map by the administration in St Petersburg and consequently the surveyors in the field examined only this small swathe, irrespective of whether it appeared suitable."

The ten-year job to create the railway seemed like a daily comedy of errors, as workers stumbled across uneven ground, mountains, rivers and lakes. It took a century of corrections to realign the track so that it skirted around these natural hazards and features, instead of going directly through or over them. When the track reached a lake, like the massive Lake Baikal, a ferry carried the train to the other side. In winter, the frigid Siberian temperatures permitted track to be laid across the ice. I would be sweating bullets if I knew my train was crossing a frozen lake. I would not be confident that the most voluminous lake on the planet would be sufficiently frozen to support a train. Laying track in the Siberian permafrost posed the greatest problem, for when the disturbed permafrost melted, the tracks as well as the structures built around them like train stations quickly started to sink. 

Finding workers to build the railway was not easy since Siberia had such a sparse population. From imperialist times to the communist era under Stalin, prisoners deported to the Siberian gulags were sent to work. In the time of the tsars, however, prisoners received reduced sentences for their efforts. Conditions were unbearable, working six days a week in the coldest temperatures with nothing more than a tent as shelter. Working conditions were indeed primitive: 

"The true story, however, is that day after day, week after week, tens of thousands of workers mostly armed with little more than pickaxes and shovels created this monumental railway."

A century after the construction of the railway shows a necklace of large cities across Siberia. Where did these people come from? One aftereffect of railway construction was not foreseen:

"While the railway may have been conceived by its principal promoters as an imperialist and military enterprise, the impact on Siberia was no less profound. For all its failings and inadequacies, the Trans-Siberian had a transformative effect on the region, beyond even the expectations of its most ardent supporters. The clearest change was the rapid increase in population, thanks to increased migration from European Russia. The Siberian migration was, according to its chronicler Donald Treadgold, the greatest movement of people in history up to that time, other than the arrival in the United States of vast numbers of Europeans during the nineteenth century. While the increase in Siberia's population started before the railway was built, the pace of immigration rose dramatically as a result of its construction, and for a decade or so after the completion of the first section in 1896 there was a virtual stampede to settle in Siberia."


"Not surprisingly, this stream of people led to the transformation of the region; the very look and feel of Siberia changed forever through rapid urbanization and widespread settlement near the railway. This was inevitable given that settlement, with few exceptions, was confined to a swathe of land about 125 miles either side of the tracks."

To the Edge of the World was an exciting read about one of the world's engineering triumphs. After all the kinks had been ironed out and the track properly relaid, the Trans-Siberian Express became a land route to crisscross Asia taking originally from as long as six weeks to as little as six days. Wolmar took such a trip and added his impressions to the text. It was humorous to read that many of his impressions (especially complaints) were identical to travelogues from a century ago.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bar Mitzvah, A History

Bar Mitzvah, A History by Rabbi Michael Hilton is a 2014 publication which answered many questions I had about the Jewish ceremony. I noticed that this new book had arrived in our library and it looked inviting: it was a new publication, from 2014, had extensive endnotes, a lengthy bibliography and even a glossary for goys like me. I spent two weeks reading this, and took many notes for this review, which showed that I learned a whole lot of stuff about bar mitzvahs.

Rabbi Hilton starts by stating that bar mitzvah history is not as old as most people--even Jews themselves--think it to be:

"Both Jews and non-Jews attending a bar mitzvah ceremony or party imagine they are witnessing an ancient ritual."


"It is striking to discover that bar mitzvah is not as old as people imagine it to be; the evolution of such a misperception is interesting in itself. Partly it comes from a thought process that says that because it is Jewish, it must be ancient, and partly from a related idea that festivals and popular Jewish celebrations have survived unchanged through the centuries."

I have had the same reaction from the half dozen people I have asked about the age of bar mitzvah. All but one of the people I asked believed the ritual to date from biblical times. And had I been asked the question myself, I would have said the same thing. Rabbi Hilton uses the historical record to date bar mitzvah, and while he realizes that many traditions developed in stages over time, before one even considered them to be incorporated into future rituals, it was rare to write about their origins. He is aware that the origins of bar mitzvah likely predate their first historical recording, that from the mid-thirteenth century, in northern France.

A ceremony spanning over seven centuries constitutes what some might nonetheless still call an "ancient" ritual, but not as old as some people, including myself, originally thought. The format of the bar mitzvah ceremony has remained the same, with the boy of thirteen years being presented on a bimah (a word I learned from Scrabble, meaning a platform or form of podium) by his father who absolves himself of any future sins committed by the son. The ceremony developed into a ritual of voluntary acceptance of the age of religious majority. In preparation for the day the bar mitzvah boy, or simply the bar mitzvah, attended Hebrew school. Hebrew language instruction was offered in order to read from the Torah scrolls.

Religious instruction was meant to continue after the bar mitzvah ceremony:

"The simple ceremony of bar mitzvah marked the transition not to adult life but to the next stage of scholarly achievement."

Yet the opposite occurred:

"The concentration on the ceremony as the main motivator for Jewish education has led to an undue focus on a one-time performance, rather than enculturation to a unique way of life. This has led to an unacceptably high dropout rate after the ceremony, a degradation of Hebrew language learning, and too many celebrations taking place outside the traditional congregational framework, as part of a vacation or on a cruise."

So while the first bar mitzvahs took place in synagogues with a small luncheon afterward--yes, the emphasis on small--in time they spun out of control with the size of the parties and the families' preoccupation with guest lists, menus and themes:

"The gradual spread of the celebration across Europe was accompanied by controversy and tension between those who thought of it as a purely religious celebration and those who promoted its social aspects."

The focus of the bar mitzvah turned from a coming-of-age ceremony in the framework of one's lifetime of religious instruction to a single compulsory performance, the preparation for which was abruptly dropped once it was over. By the start of the twentieth century, rabbis and congregations from all Jewish sects looked at the ceremony with loathing. I could not believe that this ceremony, now regarded with such honour and respect, could have been reviled by the rabbis themselves. The tradition almost died out:

"The twentieth century witnessed the most remarkable changes in the history of bar mitzvah, with the tradition in steep decline up to the 1920s. At that time it could easily have disappeared altogether from non-Orthodox synagogues; indeed, it really had been dropped by most Reform congregations."

Why the decline? The event lost its religious significance for the families who participated in it. Rabbi Hilton wrote of the frustration many rabbis felt over the overall petty regard families had for the service, while focussing all of their attention on the party afterward. Congregations saw the bar mitzvah as just an excuse to hold a lavish party. It became the Jewish equivalent of keeping up with the Cohens:

"After World War II increasing affluence saw the start of themed parties, with lavish decorations and expensive entertainers. The 'bar mitzvah cake' with thirteen candles became a popular feature. Lavish parties in the United States provoked a good deal of criticism from 1950 onward, especially from Reform rabbis. Some critics were concerned with the disastrous effect on poorer Jews, who might feel they had to get into debt to host a bar mitzvah; others were concerned that the social aspects had eclipsed the religious significance or spoke out against irreverent behavior they had witnessed as guests at such parties."


"There was an underlying difference of approach between community officials, who were determined to regulate the celebrations, and wealthy families, who were equally determined to show off their sons to their friends."

Even by the start of the eighteenth century, rabbis were shaking their heads and sighing at the deplorable behaviour on display when you fill a temple full of thirteen-year-old boys:

"By the eighteenth century the social nature of many celebrations could lead to bad behavior by groups of children, as a Yiddish regulation from Hamburg-Altona makes clear: 'New regulation of 24th Sivan 5472 = 28th June 1712. Every time a lad is bar mitzvah there is a great commotion among the lads, which creates a bad impression. So from today onward no party may be held in the synagogue and no treats for the lads at all. Any transgression will incur a fine of 20 Reichstahler for the welfare fund, with no exceptions.'"

I can just imagine a frustrated rabbi trying to keep a group of rambunctious thirteen-year-old boys in check. No party! No treats!

Bar Mitzvah, a History was only 225 pages long, but it was printed in a small font which I am happy to say I was able to read without a magnifying glass. Thirty-three pages were devoted to endnotes, which got tiresome to have to constantly flip to in order to see the source the author cited. I would often wait to flip to the end after passing ten endnotes, then play catchup, in order to retain the flow of reading. I was intrigued by someone I thought to be a supercentenarian when Rabbi Hilton wrote about Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, giving his birth and death years as (1884--1996) but in fact he died in 1966. Rabbi Hilton provided a glossary but one word I had to define elsewhere. I learned the Yiddish word ungapatchka, which means "overly ornate, busy, ridiculously over-decorated, and garnished to the point of distaste", according to the Urban Dictionary. Rabbi Hilton used it when citing a description of modern-day bat mitzvah parties.

And it is that ceremony, that of the bat mitzvah, that I found most interesting in its history. Bat mitzvahs are a recent development, yet didn't spring up out of nowhere. Girls and boys were at one time confirmed at a later age, usually fifteen. It was believed that young Jews got more out of their religious instruction if they were older. I read plenty of stories in this book about boys who stood on the bimah in tears, or unable to remember anything they had been taught in Hebrew school, so I can understand why rabbis felt a later ceremony was appropriate. Keep in mind that after the bar mitzvah, a boy's religious instruction was meant to continue, and a confirmation was the ceremony to commemorate his latest completion of religious studies:

"The nineteenth century in Western Europe saw the decline of ceremonies for boys and the beginning of ceremonies for girls. Boys and girls often celebrated confirmation together. This ceremony, devised by teachers and modernist rabbis, emphasized belief rather than practice and becoming a good citizen rather than a traditional Jew. There was no need to learn Hebrew to have a confirmation, and therefore girls who had little or no Hebrew education could fully participate. But a heavy price was paid by the acceleration of the decline of Hebrew learning and Jewish knowledge. The history of bat mitzvah can only be understood in conjunction with the history of confirmation, a story that has been well studied but largely forgotten. Few today realize that confirmation was once common in Orthodox synagogues. Today's bat mitzvah grew so gradually out of the group confirmation ceremonies that no single date can easily be assigned to the change."

The ceremony of confirmation does seem to have been forgotten, as Rabbi Hilton suggests. No one I had asked in my informal bar mitzvah survey had even heard of it. There is plenty of evidence that proves confirmation was adopted from the Christian model, and Rabbi Hilton exposed some shocked reactions when Jews found out about its origin. Yet Reformers were quite open about copying Protestant models, so there was no sweeping of history under the rug when the ceremony was introduced.

The last fifty years have seen a revival in the religious aspect of bar mitzvah, while bat mitzvah is still a relatively new tradition that is still evolving. A higher proportion of Jewish boys is celebrating bar mitzvah than at any time in the past. The revival of bar mitzvah can be explained by a reevalution of the ritual by different Jewish sects:

"A clear turning point in the history of bar mitzvah came when many American communities in the 1930s decided to introduce formal educational requirements. This move was by no means inevitable; they could have allowed bar mitzvah to continue to decline and promoted confirmation as a modern alternative. But this was a time when Conservative and then Reform Jews began a long slow return to more traditional practices, which was boosted and reinforced by Zionism, the founding of the State of Israel, and the new usefulness of Hebrew as a living language."

Bar Mitzvah, a History was written for Jews and non-Jews alike, just as Rabbi Hilton stated. It has a lengthy bibliography and the endnotes are full of secondary sources and research material, so I know where to turn to find further answers.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle by Joanne Huist Smith is the feel-good easy-read Christmas story I needed. Smith lost her husband suddenly to an unforeseen heart ailment, and The 13th Gift is the story of her family's first Christmas without him. I myself was dealing with my first Christmas without my mother last year, so I was hoping to start reading this book before Christmas and not after the holiday. Amid all the Christmas preparations I was happy to find the time on Christmas Eve to start, and practically finish in one sitting, The 13th Gift.

Smith is the mother of three children who were between the ages of ten and seventeen when the story took place in 1999. She, more than her children, was dreading the approach of Christmas. The music, the shopping, the crowds and the universal happy mood all were too much to deal with when all she could think of was her dear husband Rick:

"I absolutely understand Scrooge now. I want to go to bed tonight and wake up on December 26."

While Smith was preoccupied with the quick coming and going of Christmas, hoping at least to give her children a happy day while leaving herself out of it, a daily succession of twelve gifts arrived at their front door. Accompanied by notes set to a verse like "The Twelve Days of Christmas", the gift-givers left Smith and her children small surprises like one poinsettia plant, then two days later three rolls of gift wrap, followed by eight cookie cutters then nine candles. Over the course of twelve days the Smith family grew to anticipate each gift, wondering when it would arrive and always wondering who the mysterious gift-giver was. The Smith children even camped out and devised various spying techniques to catch the givers in the act. These twelve days provided everyone with a festive distraction from the grief of losing their father or husband. The twelve gifts were not expensive, yet the response they generated was priceless. The Smiths were given the gift of joy, and an anticipation of Christmas when they would receive the twelfth and final gift.

The thirteenth gift in the title pertains to learning the identity of the gift-givers. The Smiths did not learn who these people were until thirteen years after their act of generosity, yet I won't be spoiling any part of the story by revealing that the family who secretly dropped off twelve gifts at the Smiths' door was in fact not the originator of the deed. The Smiths' gift-givers were themselves the recipients of twelve mystery gifts after they had endured a family tragedy. That family learned to overcome its grief and restore joy in the Christmas season when the various members discovered their own twelve gifts, and provided joy to many other families in addition to the Smiths.

The 13th Gift was a joy to read over Christmas, providing a quick pick-me-up and enhancing my feel-good spirit.