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The discovery near Motza, Israel

The discovery near Motza, Israel

The discovery near Motza, Israel

The main highway running east to west across Israel’s width is Highway One. It connects Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the Jordan River Valley, near Jericho.

In 2012, highway contractors working 5 kilometers west of Jerusalem near the town of Motza uncovered a Neolithic town, home to perhaps 3,000 people at one time.

A new thing, an interstate highway, led to a discovery of an old thing, a town.

Tel Motza is now the largest Neolithic site in Israel. Archaeologists define a Tel as “a mound or small hill that has built up over centuries of occupation.” Excavators dig down through the layers until they find a bottom layer.

Archaeologists uncovered stone tools made of flint—arrowheads, axes, sickle blades, and knives—as well as human bones, clay figurines, grain silos, and a temple.

Radiocarbon dating on the artifacts found in Level 6, the bottom level, fall between 8600 and 8200 BC, which means that families were living at Motza 10,000 years ago.

To put this into context, Biblical scholars place Abraham near 2000 BC, Moses near 1400 BC, and David and his son Solomon, who built Jerusalem’s Temple, near 1000 BC.

Motza was a flourishing town several millennia before any Israelites arrived, and, according to language scholars, perhaps well before any Canaanites arrived.

I find it tragic that archaeologists failed to find any historical records. Unknown and unnamed countless numbers of people lived and died at Motza, generation after generation, and no one knows much about them.

The writer James Michener remedied this absence of historical records at a Tel by writing a massive book of almost 1000 pages, that he titled, “The Source.”

In each chapter, Michener tells a fictional story of the men and women who lived at each of the several levels at Tel Makor, which means “the source,” as time sped by.

To stare at the photos of Tel Motza and think back to human existence 10,000 years ago puts our lives into context. How tiny is one human being’s life! At most 100 years.

What can we speculate about the multiple generations who lived at Motza?

First, I would like to believe that they were concerned about how to best raise the next generation, their children, how to steer their boys and girls onto the right path.

Second, they paid homage to previous generations, to their parents and to their grandparents, burying them with decency and respect.

Third, the fact that they built a temple indicates that the ancient ones practiced a religion, one that connected the generations together into a faith and a moral code.

Fourth, the grain silos indicate that they were concerned about food, and the numerous stone walls point to a concern about shelter.

As for the stories, the histories, the biographies, we can only guess, a tragedy.

This month of September I celebrate another birthday, one decade ends and another begins. After 35 years of reading, writing, and thinking about the past, and churning out biweekly columns for that long, I wonder, “Is doing history worthwhile?”

One historian who answered that question five years ago is Peggy K. Liss, historian of Spain and Latin America, who died on March 17, 2023, at 95 years of age. She said, “Yes, it is. The human past seems indispensable to anchoring the present.

“Without a reliable history, the resulting vacuum invites nostalgia for a past that never was. The past we know is sloppy. What we historians do is straighten up a selected part of it as best we can.”

A novelist, Alison Acheson, who wrote a fictional tale about life in London in 1526, wrote, “If history does have some particular shape, it might be less a circle, and more some spirally sort of thing to get tangled in.”

Harry Truman used to say, “The only thing new in the world is the history that you have never read.” To Harry’s words I would add, “something new in the world would be the history that was never written, that never can be written.”

For an example, think upon that history at Motza, a town from ancient Israel.

Books and censorship

Books and censorship

Books and censorship

The list of banned, censored, and challenged books is long and illustrious.

“Decameron” (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, and “Canterbury Tales” (1476) by Geoffrey Chaucer were banned from U. S. mail because of the Federal Anti-Obscenity Law of 1873, known as the Comstock Law.

That law “banned the sending or receiving of works containing ‘obscene, ‘filthy,’ or ‘inappropriate’ material.

William Pynchon, a prominent New England landowner and founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, wrote a startling critique of Puritanism, that he mailed to London and had it published there in 1650. He entitled it “The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.”

When copies of the printed book arrived back in New England, a dramatic and public scene ensued. Puritan leaders burnt Pynchon’s copies in Boston Common.

Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) was also banned because of the Comstock Law.

Other banned titles due to other U.S. laws included: “Candide,” (1759) by Voltaire; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe; “Elmer Gantry,” (1927) by Sinclair Lewis; “Grapes of Wrath,” (1939) by John Steinbeck; and the “Pentagon Papers,” (1971) by Robert McNamara and the U. S. Department of State.

Other titles censored or withdrawn from public or school libraries in recent years include: the “American Heritage Dictionary”, the “Bible,” works of William Shakespeare, “Where’s Waldo?,” “Batman,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jaws,” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

When Mark Twain learned that the Concord, Massachusetts library had removed a copy of his most recent book, “Huckleberry Finn,” from their shelves, he responded,

“A committee of the public library of your town [of Concord] has condemned and excommunicated my last book and doubled its sales. This generous action of theirs must benefit me in one or two ways.”

An ugly example of wholesale book destruction occurred in Nazi Germany on May 10, 1933, when students at 34 universities across Germany heaped book after book onto a burning pile, some 25,000 volumes, to “synchronize a literary community.”

Books by the following authors, among numerous others, went into the flames that day: Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud.

According to a survey dated May 2, 2023, by U. S. News and World Report, the 10 Best States for Education include, in order: Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Connecticut, New York, and Washington.

Although Florida ranks number 1 in its educational programs, the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, pushed through Florida’s legislature at least three laws in 2022.

The laws grant authority to school boards to withdraw from the shelves of school libraries books that the boards’ members deem objectionable.

What is objectionable are frank discussions about race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Three reporters from the New York Times investigated in Florida and then reported, on April 22, 2023,

“Some teachers and librarians say the policies are vague, with imprecise language and broad requirements, leading to some confusion, but they are trying to comply.”

The three also discovered, “Efforts by Florida’s 67 public school districts to put the new regulations into practice have been uneven and often chaotic. Some districts have taken no major action. Others enacted blanket removals that gutted libraries.”

Board members at one Florida school district chose to remove two books from circulation: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

School is now back in session this year, and one wonders, “where will this politicized censorship and book banning end?” I hope well short of a book burning.


A summer’s day

A summer’s day

A summer’s day

Popular song writers will, on occasion, dub into their lyrics references to summer.

In 1970, Mungo Jerry sang, “In the summertime, when the weather is high, you can stretch right up and touch the sky.” In 1972, Bobby Vinton sang, “Yes, it’s going to be a long, lonely summer.” In 1973, Terry Jacks sang about enjoying his “Seasons in the Sun.”

In 1977, in the film Grease, John Travolta and Olivia Newton John sang a back-and-forth duet about their “summer days drifting away, to summer nights.”

Then, in 2002, Sheryl Crow declared, “I’m going to soak up the sun.”

Including references to summer in a song is not a recent innovation. William Shakespeare began his most well-known sonnet, number 18, with familiar words, “Shall I compare thee to a summer day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

He asks a question and then says that the object of his love is “more lovely” and “more temperate” than is a summer day. What is wrong with a summer day?

Shakespeare points out the obvious in the next six lines: that winds can blow in May, that the sun can bear down too hot, that clouds can overshadow the sun, and that “summer’s lease” is over too quickly.

A summer day is not always “lovely” and “temperate,” and it ends too soon.

Then, in line 9, the poet changes course and focuses upon the object of his love, that nameless person to whom he is writing the sonnet. He writes,

“But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Then, in a couplet, the final two lines of a sonnet, Shakespeare insists “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see; So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” By the word “this,” the poet means the sonnet itself.

Once written, a sonnet may live forever. Like a snapshot, it captures in an instant a youth full of life, swept up in a series of blissful summer days. But if this sonnet lives, then it will give an “eternal summer” to that nameless person whom the poet adores.

Structure of a sonnet is rigid.

A poet lays down fourteen lines. He or she rhymes lines one and two, “day and May,” as he or she does in lines two and four, “temperate and date.” This pattern of a rhyme at the end of every other line he or she follows throughout the first twelve lines.

Then, he or she rhymes the last two lines, the couplet, “see and thee.”

A poet writes a sonnet using iambic feet or meters, where each foot or each meter contains two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed, like a heartbeat. “So long / as men / can breathe / or eyes / can see.”

Note that in a sonnet, a poet will lay down in each line five of these two alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, creating a pentameter composed of ten syllables, five beats per line. Each sonnet contains 70 beats in total, no more, no less.

Iambic pentameter is the code that the best English poets used with great skill.

Erik Didriksen is a software engineer who lives in Astoria, New York. For a hobby, he takes lyrics of popular songs and converts them into sonnets, using iambic pentameter. He wrote a book, Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs

For example, Taylor Swift’s song, “Shake It Off,” Erik ends with a couplet, “O gentleman well-coiffed! I thee entreat / to hither come and dance to this sick beat.”

For the Spice Girls’ song, “Wannabe,” Erik ends with a couplet, “I’ve told thee what I want, what I’ve desir’d; / thou want’st a spicy lass, ‘tis what’s requir’d.”

Erik says, “I really love the form of Shakespearean sonnets. Everything from length to word choice is dictated by its requirements.”

I will end with Shakespeare’s different thought on summer and sun and youth, in verse other than iambic pentameter. “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages; Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust.”

70th Anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement

70th Anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement

70th anniversary of the korean armistice agreement

Last Thursday, July 27, 2023, North Korea’s leader Kim Jon Un presided over a military parade that celebrated the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean conflict, from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced, in bellicose language, that “the 21st century would see the irrevocable termination of the U.S.

“Should the U.S. choose to offend our Republic, we will annihilate them by using all our military power that we have gathered so far.”

The 1953 armistice called for “a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed forces in Korea, until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” No official ever achieved a peaceful settlement. No official ever drafted or approved a treaty.

The armistice created a demilitarized zone (DMZ) that runs at an angle through the 38th parallel and separates North Korea from South Korea. It is 2.5 miles wide and is the most heavily defended national border in the world.

Two U.S. / NATO officers, William K. Harrison and Mark W. Clark signed the armistice; as did two North Korean officials, Kim Il Sung and General Nam Il; and Peng Dehuai, a Chinese military official.

No South Korean signed the armistice because South Korea’s leader in 1953, Syngman Rhee, refused. He held fast to a dream that with U.S. help he could recapture the entire Korean peninsula. That never happened.

Because the armistice was only a military document intended to stop the bloodshed, a unique feature of the armistice is that “No nation is a signatory to the agreement.” The armies agreed to an armistice, “a cessation of hostilities.” Nothing more.

The DMZ across the Korean peninsula sticks out like a gaping wound in international affairs, a potential trigger point of conflict with lethal, possible nuclear weapons poised on both sides, aimed at each other. For 70 years, it has remained an unresolved issue.

Two weeks ago, on Tuesday, July 18, a U. S. serviceman, Travis T. King sprinted across the DMZ, into North Korea, “willfully and without authorization.”

A possible motivation for his rash act was that he was facing disciplinary action once back in the U.S. His action raises tensions to a high level again on the Korean peninsula.

A close-to-home story.

On September 1, 1950, in Sterling, Colorado, my dad and mom married. In mid-October, my dad left for basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, because the 45th Infantry Division of the Oklahoma National Guard had drafted him.

During the month of April 1951, a ship carried him and his fellow servicemen through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to Hokkaido, Japan, where they trained.

By December 1, 1951, he and his unit were based at a U.S. Army camp near the front lines in Korea, and there he remained for the next eight months, working on jeeps in the motor pool. By September of 1952, he was back home, done with the military forever.

The war, the army, and the months away from my mother embittered my dad, but it was his memories of his commanding officers that drove him into paroxysms of rage. He often said, “I never saw one of the officers sober. They were always drunk.”

If he ever heard someone talking in a cantankerous or unreasonable manner, my dad would say, “He talks just about like a first sergeant in the army.”

It is likely that others who served on that cold Korean peninsula came away with a similar bitter attitude. He may have suffered from PSTD, but there was no treatment.

Instead, my dad dealt with his memories his own way, hard work in construction.

Months after those five officials signed that armistice in Korea, I was born.

Abraham Lincoln: infidel or faithful?

Abraham Lincoln: infidel or faithful?

Abraham Lincoln: infidel or faithful?

The two books that Abraham Lincoln read often and loved the most throughout his life were the King James Bible, published in 1611, and William Shakespeare’s works, first published as the First Folio in 1623, both the best of English literary works.

There were some—including his law partner in Springfield, Illinois, Billy Herndon— who were convinced that Lincoln displayed little religious faith whatsoever, that he was a skeptic, a thinker who scoffed at organized religion.

Hence, Lincoln’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s works. At times Lincoln was a thinker.

Yet, there were others who knew Lincoln, who chose to believe that he was a believer, that he was a Christian martyr, who accomplished an immense amount of good—the obliteration of American Slavery—through his political achievements.

Hence, his appreciation for the King James Bible. At times Lincoln was a believer.

“No sooner was Lincoln dead than some of his countrymen began to fight about his soul,” wrote Richard Current in his 1958 book The Lincoln Nobody Knows.

Where can anyone position the sixteenth president? As a free-thinking skeptic, or as a Christian believer? He was unique because he stood taller than two easy categories.

Current wrote, “Lincoln read the Bible and prayed, but still belonged to no church.”

Lincoln himself wrote, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.

“It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the ‘Doctrine of Necessity.’ The habit of arguing thus, however, I have, entirely left off from [for] more than five years.”

Scholars now see that Lincoln’s faith changed as he grew older. In the White House, trying to preserve the Union, living with his irascible wife Mary Todd, and working to win a war with a great slaughter on both sides, Lincoln sought direction from the Bible.

In the summer of 1864, Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed happened to catch Lincoln reading his Bible. Lincoln told Speed, “Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”

The death of Lincoln’s 12-year-old son Willie, drove Lincoln to find solace in the Bible.

The writer Joshua Zeitz just released his newest book, Lincoln’s God: How Faith Transformed a President and a Nation. A review of Zeitz’s book appeared in the New York Times on July 9, 2023.

Ted Widmer, the reviewer, wrote, “Lincoln’s philosophy was anything but certain; he hoped that he was right with God, and that was enough. His faith will never be simple to decipher, and that’s as it should be; it was, as the founders intended, a private matter.

“Zeitz weaves between the [two] dogmas, revealing a complex thinker who deftly merged religious language with political goals, and underwent a spiritual renewal during the Civil War.”

On March 4, 1865, six weeks before John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln, the president delivered his Second Inaugural Address. “One scholar estimated that ‘266 of its 702 words were quoted verbatim from the King James Bible.’”

In it, he tried find a divine purpose as to why the war had lasted for four years.

He said, “The Almighty has his own purposes. Every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass listened as Lincoln spoke that day, and later remarked that the Address sounded, “more like a sermon than a state paper.”

Yet, Lincoln also quoted from Shakespeare. From Hamlet, Lincoln would often recite, “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.”

King James and William Shakespeare. Lincoln loved the two books’ language the best.