Saturday, April 19, 2008

Engines of our Ingenuity

Occasionally I pick up an episode of the podcast Engines of Our Ingenuity. This is a series of very short podcasts on the technologies of man. Speakers from the University of Houston in Texas speak their light monologue in issues that last less than 5 minutes.

I was surprised to find Hebrew and Yiddish as a subject recently. However, Hebrew is of course a in many ways a constructed language even if it is built on the age old foundations of a natural language. With the addition of Yiddish and an antiquarian find of the speaker, the point was built. His book discovery were two books from the 40s, one teaching Yiddish and the other Hebrew. The connection this essay makes with human constructions (loosely this fits in the technology framework of subjects) is how both languages were kept with the intention to help Jewish survival. One (Yiddish) through its cosmopolitanism and the other with its claim to re-vitalization.

In a 4 minute podcast, this opens up a can of worms, for those who are familiar with the subject. I am currently reading Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness and he is making this point with considerable irony and a sense of tragedy. The Jews of Europe in the early twentieth century were the first true Europeans, way before the gentile Europeans were to re-invent this idea and build a peaceful Europe and a European Union. The survivors wound up in Israel. Their cosmopolitanism actually opposes the use of Yiddish, as it has a provincial shtetl taste to it and embraced the newly living Hebrew, but got entrenched in a new kind of Israeli provincialism. Many of these old cosmopolitans, like the characters in Oz's book, do not so well in Israel. Not as well as they did in Europe.

There is this constant yearning for Europe. If the new Hebrews do not yearn for Europe, they yearn for the US. The promised land, for many, is not here with the Holy Places. This the Engines of Ingenuity doesn't fathom, but begins to point out, with the simple comparison of Yiddish and Hebrew.

Other recent issues that I recommend are Building Railroads (way before airlines and freeways, the tracks made the world small) and Tour de France (how we reduce man to a machine and what is gained and what may be lost by the example of the Tour de France).

An earlier review, in February, about Engines of our Ingenuity.

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