Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Journalese in Yiddish

From my Jewish Post series:

* * * * * * * *

The Yiddish Forverts doesn’t publish a print edition anymore. They still have a pretty active internet presence, but that’s it. I used to check it out once in a while at the Rady Center library, but they stopped subscribing a few years ago. The only Yiddish paper I see nowadays is the Allgemeiner Journal at the downtown library.

They are two very different papers. The Forverts had a number of very capable Yiddishists on staff, which is to say cultured, intelligent writers with a serious attitude towards fostering the language for its own sake. The Allgemeiner Journal is different. As far as I can see, they want to put out a Yiddish paper that their readers will be able to understand…that is, to spread their word as far as possible into the English-influenced milieu of Orthodox New York. And so their writers make use of a Yiddish that the Forverts people would surely look on with horror. 

It’s something that I find fascinating to observe, and yet I’m not sure I can convey it to a general readership. But that’s what I’m going to try. Let’s see how far we get…

I have in front of me an article from last January written by Mendel Adler, one of two or three regular staff writers who are together responsible for 75% of the total content of the Allgemeiner Journal. Here he is, reporting on the evacuation of a Palestinian encampment from “Area I-1” between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim:

“Bei’m melden die evacuierung (in announcing the evacuation) vun die Palestiner vun die gezelten (tents), hât Premier Netanyahu gesâgt as “séi hâben nischt kéin ursach (they have no cause) zu gefinnen sich dort (to be there, lit. “to find themselves there”). “Mir hâben bafõhlen (we have ordered) zu schliessen die ganze gegent (to close the whole area), k’dey menschen sollen sich nischt versammlen dort (in order that people should not assemble there) un ver-ursachen umsüste reibungen (and cause unnecessary friction) un stören die ordnung” (disturb the peace).

Let’s see how this compares with the other guys. Now, the Forverts is really more of a news-magazine and so it focusses more on culture, commentary and historical topics; but so as not to compare apples and oranges, I’ve picked a recent news article, also relating to affairs between Israel and the P. A. As above, I’ve kept my translation as literal as possible so you can hopefully follow it word-for-word:

“Mittwoch bei nacht (Wednesday night) seinen vun der Yisroel-tephisa (prison) bafreit geworen 26 Palestiner terroristen – araus-gelâs’t (released) wie a geste vun guten-willen m’tzad (on the part of) der Yisroel-regierung (government). Bei der residentz vun der Palestiner Administrazia “Mukata” in Ramallah hâben sich zunauf-genummen arum tausend einwõhner (there came together around a thousand residents) zu bagegenen (to meet) die 11 bafreite, welche seinen über-gegeben geworen (who were given over) direkt in die händt vun der administratzia auf dem kontrol-punkt “Beituniah”.

Okay, looking over my two examples I see that I’m hardly proving my point. Maybe because their news-writers are more highly influenced by the wider world as compared to the culture writers, there’s not that much to choose between the two articles. To be sure, the Forverts has two Hebrew words (I’ve marked them with italics) to the zhournal’s one. But even the Forverts uses internationalisms like administrazia and direkt in die händt when there are much more Yiddischlach alternatives…verwaltung for adminsitration, and gleich in die händt. Or even better: über-gegeben geworen dem Instanz gleich in die händt arein. I like that.

And yet even so I find the Forverts excerpt, on some subjective level, to be a bit more flowing and natural than the other one. The very first words of the zhournal article grate on me…”bei’m melden : in announcing”…what’s that called, where the verb is used as a noun…a gerund? I don’t think that’s really an authentic Yiddish form as it appears here. And the –ieren­-verbs like “evacuieren” (another gerund I guess, but nischt dâs bin ich ausen…that’s not my point) where you take any international verb and make it Yiddish with the –ieren ending ….well, the zhournal is rife with them. 

I think the worst Yiddish is where they quote Netanyahu…you can tell it’s bad because you can calque it almost word-for-word right back into English. No one ever spoke Yiddish like that. But I have to allow them a little slack here. If you literally took Netanyahu’s words and converted them into a truly idomatic Yiddish, it would be very hard to avoid replacing the Israeli PM with Tevya der Milchiger. “Would it be so terrible if they should just go somewhere where they wouldn’t be making such tzuris  for us?” Maybe it’s just as well to let the zhournal stick to its journalese.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Anti-Weizmann

From my Jewish Post series:


When I was very young, I learned the story of the Balfour Declaration, and it went something like so: it was 1917 and England was at war; and a young Jewish scientist named named Chaim Weitzmann had recently developed a process that was of tremendous strategic importance. To reward him, he was brought before Lord Balfour who promised him anything he wished for. “Nothing for me,” replied Weizmann, “but for my people…” And in that moment the destiny of the Jewish People was forever changed, and set on a path which led to the creation of the State of Israel.

I don’t remember where I first heard the story; I only had two years of Talmud Torah before my parents put me in public school. But I’m guessing the story is still being told in our Hebrew schools today in very much the same way. It may be a bit of a melodramatization, but I’m not here to quibble with the details: in fact, the story is substantially true in its major outlines. But it raises two interesting questions: first, where would we be if Weizmann had not been in the right place at the right time…and secondly, what good would it have done if Britain had not won the war?

Oddly enough, it turns out things might not have been so different after all. Because it seems that Germany had its own Dr. Chaim Weizmann…the “anti-Weizmann”, if you like, and his name was Fritz Haber. The son of Jewish parents, he had converted to Christianity more as a symbol of allegiance to his adopted Fatherland than through any religious conviction. In 1911, he discovered a process whereby ammonia could be synthesized by direct combination of hydrogen and nitrogen…a process which today bears his name, and which has long since been adopted for the edification of high school students as the iconic prototype of how to calculate chemical equilibria in mixed reactions. By the second year of the war, Germany had been cut off by British blockade from access to Chilean saltpeter, until then the world’s primary source of industrial ammonia. The Haber process is credited with keeping Germany in the war for three more years. And if that wasn’t enough, Haber was an enthusiastic participant in the chemical warfare industry...a circumstance which led his beautiful wife, Klara Immerwahr, also a converted Jewess, to take her own life in 1915.

Post-war Germany was indeed grateful to Haber. As director of the Kaiser Wilhelm institute in the Weimar Republic, Haber’s scientific influence was unbounded. Indeed, even Hitler did not fire him after coming to power in 1933. But as director of the Institute, Haber became responsible for discharging all his Jewish colleagues and co-workers. And when it came to this, he found his loyalty to the Fatherland was stretched to the breaking point. After doing his best to secure alternate employement for his fellow Jewish scientists, Haber left Germany for good, finding temporary refuge in England. Here he accepted Weizmann’s offer of directorship of the Sieff Institue in Rehovot, and he departed for Palestine in 1934. But he was already in ill health and died enroute in Switzerland of a heart attack. (For more on Haber’s remarkable life, you can read an excellent biographical essay by Bretislav Friedrich which you can link to from the Wikipedia page on Haber.)

Weizmann and Haber…two very different men, destined by fate to play complimentary and contradictory roles in world and Jewish history. And what of their scientific legacies? Weizmann, of course, drifted away from science as the Zionist enterprise occupied more and more of his time and energies. Nevertheless, his process for the synthesis of acetone remained industrially viable until as recently as the 1980’s: using bacteria from the clostrida family, Weizmann’s process yielded a mixture of acetone, butanol and ethanol from ordinary starch. Eventually, this method was replaced by purely chemical processes whereby acetone is produced as a petroleum by-product. As for Haber Process, it is going strong to this day. It has had an enormous impact on the worlds food supply; it is said that one-third of the world’s agricultural production depends on ammonia created by the Haber Process. To put it another way, every other nitrogen atom in your body has at some time passed through the high-pressure steel cylinders of a Haber Process factory.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Feynmann Gets It Wrong

I don't know if there's a better book on physics than The Feynmann Lectures (in three volumes). I can't begin to say how important and valuable those lectures are. And yet he gets one thing very wrong, and it's a very important thing. It's the two-slit experiment.

Actually, he also gets the Stern-Gerlach experiment wrong in quite a fundamental way; I talked about this a couple of years ago in this blogpost where I show that the beam can't split in two: it has to fan out in a donut pattern. But the other day I was working with a student on diffraction patterns, and I was pretty shocked when we flipped open Feynmann and found this picture:

I wonder if you can see how wrong this is. It's not a little bit wrong. It's very wrong.

(EDIT Oct 2015: Actually it's not very wrong...it's a tiny bit wrong near the ends, but in the middle it's actually astonishingly accurate. I checked it with a ruler and the amplitudes line up really well. My mistake was to interpret the graphs as amplitudes instead of intensities. It's still a deceptive example in a way because it obscures the fact that you need a substantial overlap between the two patterns to get interference. Move those patterns any farther apart and the interference pattern disappears pretty quickly. But in this case, the graph is totally legit.

I'll leave the rest of my post undisturbed so people can see how wrong I was.)

The problem is in the (b) section, where he shows the intensity patterns you get from the slits taken independently...that is, with only one slit open at a time. He shows p1 and p2. If this is what you get with the slits open separately, then you cannot get the distribution  at (c) when you open both slits. It doesn't work.

I am going to let you think about why it is. I've drawn the correct distributions at (b) down below...that is, I've drawn the distributions you'd need in order for (c) to make sense. You can scroll down and see what I've drawn.....

....give up?....
OK: here it is:


Do you see why this way makes sense, and the other way doesn't work?

If you think I'm nitpicking (and I don't think Feynman would have!) then you don't understand the two-slit experiment.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bontshe Schweig

From my Jewish Post series:


“Bontshe Schweig” by I.L. Peretz is probably the most well-known and widely discussed short stories in all of Yiddish literature. It is the story of a humble and meek man who suffered in silence through all the indignities of his miserable life, only to be greeted in the next world with wild adulation by all the angels. His entry into heaven is a foregone conclusion, but nevertheless his sins and virtues must be tallied up in a kind of trial. First the advocate speaks, and it is only as he leads the tribunal through one horrifying episode after another that Bontshe is able to convince himself that they are actually talking about him. But even so Bontshe is afraid of what will happen when it is the prosecutor’s turn to speak. 

He can hardly remember the details of his past life...what kinds of sins might he have forgotten about? But when the advocate has finished and the prosecutor rises, he looks at the panel of angels and begins: 

Rabossey…”; then pauses and starts again, “Rabossey…er hât geschwiggen. Well ich auch schweigen.” (He was silent…I will also be silent.)

And then  a gentle voice begins to comfort him: “Bontshe mein kind…in that other word your silence was not rewarded, but that was oylam ha-sheker; here, in oylam ha-emes you will receive your reward”. 

And then to his disbelief he is assured that whatever he asks for will be his…anything!

The angels are waiting with baited breath to see what Bontshe will ask for. Bontshe still doesn’t believe it. “Takeh?” he asks. “Sicher!” he is reassured. “Nu”, he replies, õb asõ…will ich takeh alle täg inderfrüh (in that case I would like every morning)…a héisse boulkeh mit frische putter!”

And that’s where the story gets confusing. Because Peretz doesn’t tell us how we are supposed to feel about this. All he says is: “Dayanim un malachim hâben arâb-gelâst die köp verschämt; der kathoyger hât sich zelacht.” (Judges and angels hung their heads in shame; the prosecutor laughed out loud.”)

What does it mean? People have been debating this question ever since. Mock trials of Bontshe Shweig were once de rigeur wherever Yiddish literature was taught. Even translators got into the act; in Nathan Ausubel’s “Treasury of Jewish Folklore”, translator Hilda Abel gives this unbelievable rendering: “…slowly, the judge and the angels bend their heads in shame at this undending meekness they have created on earth. Then the silence is shattered. The prosecutor laughs aloud, a bitter laugh”. You don’t have to know much Yiddish to see that she’s making most of that up. But she’s in line with the general consensus: that the angles were appalled that life on earth was so miserable that a man’s horizons and aspirations could become so pitifully limited.

I think people are missing the point. Bontshe wasn’t so stupid. What was he supposed to ask for…seventy virgins and a boatload full of gold? At least if you knew you were going to get a hot roll with butter first thing in the morning, how bad could the rest of your day be?

I think the angels were disappointed because, like the Miss America contestant who’s supposed to wish for World Peace, they expected Bontshe, after that tremendous build-up, to wish for something great for all mankind, perhaps even the coming of Mashiakh. (Pretty much the Jewish equivalent of world peace, actually.) They were ashamed, and rightly so, because they realized they had wanted him to wish for something that they wanted, not something that Bontshe actually wanted. And I think that’s a pretty good lesson that a lot of sanctimonious and moralizing people could take to heart even today.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Why Does Light Travel Slower in Glass?

I just came across an old article I posted on stackexchange.com a few years ago. Someone asked why "photons" appear to travel slower in glass, and I wrote a really good answer explaining it using waves. I'm reposting the whole thing below.
I don't believe it is generally helpful to try and analyze these things in terms of photons, so I'm going to try and point out a few things about the classical picture.

The big difficulty from the mathematical perspective is that you're working in a continuous medium where the phase of the wave is  changing continuously. It makes the visualisation much easier to start off with if we restrict ourselves to a thin slab, where "thin" means small with respect to the wavelength.

We know that there is a dielectric constant which represents the tendency for charges to displace themselves in response to an external field. But how fast to the charges respond? Is it a quasi-static case, where the maximum field strength coincides with the maximum charge displacement? I think we will find that this is the case, for example, when light is travelling through glass.

Note that in this case the displacement current is leading the incident field by 90 degrees. This makes sense: as the frequency of light approaches the resonant frequency of the material, the phase lags more and more; when the phase difference goes to zero, you have resonant absorption. (EDIT: To be more clear, I choose to define the phase difference in terms of its far-field relation to the incident field!) In the case of the thin slab, you can see that the transmitted wave is the sum of the incident wave and a wave generated by the displacement current. Because you are absorbing, the phase in the far field must be opposite so that energy is removed from the incident wave.

It is instructive to do the energy balance. Let's say the displacement current generates a wave equal to 2% of the incident wave. Then the amplitude of the reflected wave is 2%, and the transmitted wave is 98%. It is easy to calculate (by squaring amplitudes) that almost 4% of the energy is missing. Where does it go? It continuously builds up the amplitude of the displacement current until the resistive losses in the material are equal to the power extracted from the incident wave.

Let's now go back to the case of the transparent medium. Take the same value for the displacement current, namely 2%. The reflected wave is the same, but the transmitted wave is different because now you are adding phasors that are at 90 degrees to each other, so the amplitude of the transmitted wave is, to the first order, unchanged.

It's the phase that's confusing. Because we are in the quasi-static regime, the phase is leading. In any case it must be leading in comparison to the absorptive case. Don't we want a lagging phase in order to slow down the wave? This is where you have to be very careful. Because we are adding a leading phase, the wave peaks occur sooner than otherwise...in other words, they are close together. This is indeed the condition for a wave to travel slower. It's all very confusing, which is why I took the case of a thin slab so the math would be simpler. Let the incident wave be


Then the wave generated by the slab will be


Note the cosine wave leads the sine wave by 90 degrees. If you draw these two waves on a graph and add them together, you can see that the peaks of the sine wave are pushed slightly to the left. This makes the wave appear slightly delayed.

The continous case is harder to do mathematically but you can see that it ought to follow by treating it as a series of slabs.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What Would They Do Without Us?

Another article from my Jewish Post series:

What would they do without us?

Prominent in my parents’ record collection back in the sixties was a collection of Edith Piaf’s Greatest Hits. Piaf, in addition to being a great singer, was a very compelling and iconic figure for France and for the world at large. Perhaps no one, not even De Gaulle, symbolized the courage and tragedy of that nation just emerging from its wartime ordeal as did the Little Sparrow.  “La Vie En Rose” is her most famous song, but many others are instantly recognizable: “Non, Je ne regrete rien” became a kind of anthem for the French Foreign Legion during the Algeria conflict. But my favorite was probably “Les Trois Cloches”, which became a hit in 1946. Briefly, it is the story of three milestones in a man’s life: the day he is born, the day of his marriage, and the day he dies. Each milestone is marked, in the chorus, by the ringing of bells: “une cloche sonne sonne…”.  The song is a homage to the steadfast, simple peasant and his faith in the eternal. Despite all, life will go on; and for that matter, France will go on, as is evident from the thrilling resonances of Jean Villard-Gilles intricate poetry as sung by Piaf. 

The French are of course inordinately proud of their language. And notwithstanding the universal appeal of the song as attested by its international success, one has to believe that the French must have felt a particular collective pride in the sharing of these very personal emotions through the medium of their national language in the hands of their national icon, Piaf.

I started including an instrumental version of the song in my solo piano repertoire around twenty years ago, and I very quickly noticed how audiences would perk up when they recognized the song. My version was probably more based on the American Country version, “The Three Bells”, popularized in the late fifties by Jim Ed Brown and the Browns (no relation to Little Jimmy Brown!). I learned the words and it became one of my most popular and requested standards during the years when I used to entertain at the Times Changed on Main Street.

It was only much later that I learned the history of the English lyrics made famous by Brown and his sisters. It turns out they were actually the brainchild of one Bert Reisfeld, and Austrian Jew who escaped Europe before the war. Reisfeld does not shy away from the Christian symbolism of the French lyric; in fact, he embraces it, making it if anything more particular and less universal by utilising specific phrases such as “lead us not into temptation/bless this hour of meditation”. As for the style, it is true that an English speaker looking at a French text will tend to overestimate is floridity on account of the Latinate forms which sound high-toned to our ears next to their homelier Anglo-Saxon equivalents; but even taking that into account, Reisfeld’s poetry is much more plain than that of Villard-Gillles. And yet it is no less moving for all that. The song reaches its emotional climax at the very end when Jimmy Brown has died and gone to heaven; the congregation meets as always in the chapel to the sound of ringing bells, and prays:

“Lead us not into temptation
May his soul find its salvation
In Thy great eternal love.”

I can’t get over the fact that it took a Jew to express in such a moving way some of the most Christian sentiments ever put to music. It is also fascinating to me that both versions of the song are so intensely evocative of virtually identical emotions in such very different cultural contexts, and that the transplanted American version is no less at home in its local context than the original French version was for Piaf’s listeners. From my own experience in playing this song for audiences, I have to believe that every listener, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew or even atheist, is responding in virtually the identical way at the emotional level.

Marty Green has recorded a Yiddish version under the title ”The Ballad of Yankel-Yisroel”. You can find it on his album “A Boy Named Sureh: A Collection of All-New Yiddish Classics”.