Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Raphael Finkel, November 6, 2017

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:02 - Ancestry and family immigration history--Part I

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Partial Transcript: Hello, our names are Michael Di Girolamo and Jacob Rankin and as students in Dr. Fernheimer's WRD112 Fall 2017 Writing Jewish Kentucky class, we are conducting this interview...

Segment Synopsis: Raphael Finkel discusses his family lineage and their countries of origin. Both his mother and father, Miriam and Asher Finkel, were born in Chicago, Illinois. His grandparents all migrated to the United States from different European countries including Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia around 1890. His parents raised him along with his three brothers David, Barry, and Joel in Chicago.

Keywords: Barry Finkel; Bialystok; Chicago (Ill.); Chicago, Illinois; David Finkel; Europe; Finkel; Grodno; Joel Finkel; Milwaukee (Wis.); Miriam Posner; Poland; Russia; Ukraine; Uman; Zidikai, Lithuania

Subjects: Families.; Family histories.; Genealogy; Immigrants; Jewish children; Jewish families.

GPS: Chicago (Ill.)
Map Coordinates: 41.878, -87.629
00:03:11 - Childhood in Chicago

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Partial Transcript: We understand that you were born and grew up in the city of Chicago. Could you please tell us a little bit more about your childhood, particularly relating to your school-related experiences?

Segment Synopsis: Finkel describes his childhood growing up in the community of Beverly Hills, Chicago. His family chose to settle there due to the neighborhood's close proximity to The University of Chicago and The Argonne National Laboratory. His family attended a Reform congregation called Beth Torah. In his public school education, he often felt left out of the Christmas assembly at school and the celebration of other Christian holidays.

Keywords: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Argonne National Laboratory; Beth Torah; Beverly Hills, Chicago (Ill.); Catholic; Christmas; Conservative; Hanukkah; Mrs. Liebner; Protestants; Saint Patrick's Day; University of Chicago

Subjects: Childhood; Families.; Holidays.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

GPS: Beverly Park, Chicago (Ill.)
Map Coordinates: 41.7081, -87.6845
00:10:50 - Ancestry and family immigration history--Part II

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Partial Transcript: Moving back to your family a bit, um, is there anything else you would like to tell us about your family's background?

Segment Synopsis: On the paternal side of Finkel's family, his great-grandfather was once a rabbi in Canada and Milwaukee. However, after writing three very strict books, he was not renewed. His family obtained land in Idaho under the Homestead Act. Most of his family spoke Yiddish, but as a child, he did not know the language so he often felt left out.

Keywords: Anti-religious; Bialystok; Boise (Idaho); English; Grodno; Homestead Act; Idaho; Milwaukee (Wis.); Montréal (Canada); Morozhenoye; Pulpit rabbis; Responsa; Ukraine; Yiddish

Subjects: Families.; Family histories.; Genealogy; Jewish families.; Jewish leadership; Judaism.; Rabbis; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

00:15:47 - Jewish family traditions

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Partial Transcript: Okay, um, could you tell us a bit about some of the religious traditions your family held when you were a child? Are any of them less practiced today?

Segment Synopsis: Although Finkel's mother was not very religious, his family still celebrated the Sabbath each Friday night by eating together and buying food from a local Jewish bakery. Finkel celebrated Purim in the springtime by reading The Book of Esther. He recalls celebrating Hanukkah and receiving Israeli coins as gifts from his father. A special tradition for the high holidays included buying tickets to the Park Synagogue to see Rivn Ticker perform.

Keywords: Adar; Argonne; Ashkenazic; Becher; Book of Esther; Brokhoys; Challah; Chicago (Ill.); Davidson's Bakery; Fridays; Hamentashen; Hanukkah; Hanukkah gelt; Hebrew; Israeli; Kiddush; Menorahs; Motzi; Park Synagogue; Purim; Rivn Ticker; Rosh Hashanah; Sabbath; Siddur; Synagogues; Yom Kippur

Subjects: Families.; Family histories.; Fasts and feasts--Judaism.; Holidays.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

00:24:13 - Secular life in high school

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Partial Transcript: Um, now going back to just, g, general, um, life growing up in this--in the greater Chicago area, did you ever notice any major divisions in the Jewish community in the region?

Segment Synopsis: Finkel describes life in high school and mentions that about 20-30% of his classmates were Jewish. However, Jewish identity didn't play a huge part in his everyday life because he was not associated with a youth group. He attended the University of Chicago High School and took calculus at The University of Chicago.

Keywords: Argonne; Congregations; Hyde Park; Jewish identity; Professor Lamb; University of Chicago High School; Yarmulke

Subjects: Childhood; Education; Jewish children; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.

GPS: The University of Chicago
Map Coordinates: 41.788, -87.598
00:27:17 - Extracurricular activities at The University of Chicago

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Partial Transcript: Then I got a scholarship actually to attend the University of Chicago which made it, uh, possible for my parents.

Segment Synopsis: Finkel was able to enroll at The University of Chicago because he received a large scholarship. While he studied, he was involved with extracurricular activities such as conducting Carmina Burana and joining the astronomy club. He attended the Hillel House during the high holidays and studied Yiddish under Rabbi Tickton.

Keywords: Astronomy; Astronomy clubs; Carmina Burana; Conductors; Davenport (Iowa); Davenport, Iowa; Extracurricular activities; Hillel; Latin; Private institutions; Rabbi Tickton; Rosh Hashanah; Ryerson Lab; Scholarships; University of Chicago; Yiddish; Yom Kippur

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Education; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

GPS: Hillel House at The University of Chicago
Map Coordinates: 40.741, -73.989
00:30:45 - Undergraduate math studies at University of Chicago

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Partial Transcript: Okay. Um, we heard that you got your undergraduate degree in math. What led you to choose to do that?

Segment Synopsis: Finkel explains that he arrived at his decision to pursue a degree in math because those courses interested him the most. He also took many language courses such as Latin, Yiddish, and Greek. After speaking with his advisor, he decided that he should pursue a degree in math because he is skilled in the subject. He did not continue in his formal languages studies because he wanted to keep language learning and not pursue it as a career.

Keywords: Argonne National Labs; Biology; Carmina Burana; FORTRAN; Greek; Hensel's lemma; Latin; Robert Ashenhurst; University of Chicago; Yiddish

Subjects: Education

00:35:01 - Graduate school at Stanford University

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Partial Transcript: Well, our next question was actually going to be why you chose to study computer science, um, in graduate school at Stanford, correct?

Segment Synopsis: Finkel was advised to apply to three graduate degree programs and was admitted to all of them. Ultimately, he chose to attend Stanford because it was farther away from home and he wanted a break from life in Chicago. Stanford offered him a scholarship from the National Science Foundation.

Keywords: Carnegie-Mellon; Cornell University; Graduate schools; Michigan State University; National Science Foundation; PhD; Scholarships; Stanford University; University of Chicago

Subjects: Education

GPS: Stanford University
Map Coordinates: 37.427, -122.169
00:36:53 - Sabbath observance at Stanford / Learning zemiros

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Partial Transcript: Well, okay, um, could you tell us a bit about your journey with Judaism at Stanford?

Segment Synopsis: Finkel describes meeting his best friends in college at the Hillel House and through his computer science courses. They would meet in his friend's dorm on Friday night for Sabbath dinner. At these Sabbath dinners, he learned new melodies and table songs. Then, he recalls a memory of his father teaching him standard melodies sung at a leisurely meal.

Keywords: Aramaic; Arvin; Bible; Dr. Beth Goldstein; Golden age; Hillel; Israeli; Judaism; Lewis; Melodies; Poetry; Repertory; Sabbath; Stanford University; Table songs; Yuri Bont; Zemiros

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Education; Families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

00:40:29 - Becoming a prayer leader for a minyan

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Partial Transcript: These two friends started a, uh, a minyan. Minyan has several meanings. The underlying meaning in Hebrew means count, but here it means a group of people that gets together for the purpose of prayer.

Segment Synopsis: Finkel's two friends started a minyan and he originally joined because they needed a tenth person. He began to enjoy the group and soon became a specialized prayer leader who also made up his own melodies. Soon, the minyan grew and was able to use the lobby of a bank to meet. He was also involved in the Havdalah group where he would meet at a friend's house to discuss the Torah reading for the week.

Keywords: Aramaic; Beth Torah; Haba rabah; Havdalah; Hebrew; Melody; Minyan; Moses; Nusach; Palo Alto Orthodox Minion; Parshat; Pesukeidezimra; Phonetics; Prayer leaders; Prayers; Quorum; Richard Tucker; Yeshiva

Subjects: Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

00:47:08 - Jewish observance and career development at The University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Partial Transcript: Um, now let's transition to your early career. So, um, what were your early career experiences shortly after graduating?

Segment Synopsis: After graduating from Stanford, Finkel began working at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He became associated with Hillel. He also began keeping Kosher. The minyan that he was a part of was very egalitarian and the women were allowed to be a part of the ceremonies. Soon, he was a regular prayer leader and Torah reader.

Keywords: Cantor Tucker; Careers; Divide; Egalitarian; Hebrew; Hillel; Kosher; Mechitzah; Minyan; Orthodox; Pesukei dezimra; Prayer leaders; Prayers; Rabbis; Reform; Rosh Hashanah; Separation; Stanford University; Torah; University of Wisconsin-Madison; Wisconsin; Yom Kippur

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

00:53:11 - Gender and conservative Judaism

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Partial Transcript: After a few years, I stopped going to Hillel and I started going to the local conservative synagogue.

Segment Synopsis: Finkel decided to attend a synagogue closer to his home in Wisconsin so that he was able to walk there during Sabbath. It was more conservative than his previous Hillel and The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Therefore, he joined a committee in order to help the services become more egalitarian. He discusses gender roles in the synagogue and his responsibilities as a prayer leader.

Keywords: American; Beth Israel; Conservative; Egalitarian; Gender roles; High Holidays; Hillel; Jewish; Madison (Wis.); Melody; Obligations; Orthodox; Passover; Reform; Rosh Hashanah; Sabbath; Sefer Torahs; Shacharis; Synagogues; University of Wisconsin-Madison; Wisconsin; Women; Yom Kippur

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Jewish leadership; Jewish women; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Map Coordinates: 43.073, -89.401
00:58:42 - Moving to Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Okay. Um, so moving on a little bit, um, we understand that you came to Lexington for work after spending ten years as a professor back at the University of Wisconsin.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Finkel tells a story of a Sukkah, the construction of which his wife contributed to before he even knew her. He describes the challenges in moving to Kentucky, such as losing his tenure. The benefits were that they were both able to pursue a career while having reliable childcare for their newborn daughter, Penina. He says that the reasons they have not left after 31 years include being a great place to raise children, and his children consider it to be their home.

Keywords: Beth Goldstein; Dates; Dual academic careers; Dual careers; Herman; Interviews; Jobs; Judy; Kentucky; Madison (Wis.); Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Penina; Steve; Sukkah; Sukkos; Synagogues; University of Kentucky; University of Wisconsin; Wife; Wisconsin; Work-life balance

Subjects: Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Lexington (Ky.)

01:05:19 - Early interest in Yiddish language

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Partial Transcript: Um, shifting subjects again--(laughs)--we were interested in asking you a little bit more about your interest in Yiddish.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Finkel delves into his early interest in Yiddish as a language and as a connection to his family's past. He explains how the Beth Torah congregation decided to use a Sephardic style for liturgical purposes. Dr. Finkel was disappointed in this decision because his family had hoped to uphold their tradition of using the Ashkenazic accent.

Keywords: Ancestry; Ashkenazic; Biblical; Congregations; Eastern Europe; Family; Galilean; Grammar; Hebrew; History; Israel; Judaean; Languages; Mark Olf; Martha Schlamme; Modern; Sephardic; Singing; Theodore Bikel; West Germanic; Yiddish

Subjects: Families.; Family histories.; Genealogy; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

01:10:44 - A brief history of Yiddish and Hebrew

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Partial Transcript: So, for many, Hebrew is a really politically charged language. How do you feel Yiddish compares to this aspect?

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Finkel comments on the politics behind the many languages used in Israel in particular, and the history of Yiddish and Hebrew there as Dr. Finkel knows it. He describes the differences between modern Israeli languages, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Since he feels that Hebrew has won what he calls "a culture war," he is more confident speaking Yiddish and less judged by the Jewish community.

Keywords: 1950s; America; Anti-Yiddish; Arabic; Australia; British Columbia; Canaan; Catalonia; Century; English; Forbidden; Hebrew; History; Iranian; Israeli; Jewish; Judeo-Iranian; Languages; Native; Native American; Palestine; Palestinians; Politically charged; Settlement; Spoken; Yiddish; Yishuv

Subjects: Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

01:14:33 - The culture of Yiddishkeit

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Partial Transcript: So part of that is a discussion about language, part of it is a discussion about culture and, um, uh, so anyway Yiddish also gives one the feeling of belonging to a particular culture.

Segment Synopsis: Finkel discusses the culture of Yiddish, both past and present. Then, he discusses the motivations behind designing a dictionary program for translating Yiddish. He wanted a place for writers to be able to access the newly standardized spellings of words in Yiddish and more easily search for their usages and definitions.

Keywords: Belonging; Boston (Mass.); Buenos Aires; Categorization; Communities; Culture; Dictionary; Europe; Forverts (The Forward); Integration; Israel; Languages; Latin; Melbourne (Vic.); Melbourne, Australia; Mexico City; New York; Newspapers; Peter Deutsch; Programs; Software; Standardized; Vokh; World Wide Web; Yiddish

Subjects: Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

01:21:00 - Computer programming in Yiddish in the 1990s

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Partial Transcript: Um, so, uh, that led to other things.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Finkel explains how he connected his two passions: Yiddish language learning and computer programming. During the 1990s, the computer programming community had standardized a coding system for English but not for other minority languages such as Yiddish. He developed a code that converted and standardized a system that would allow Yiddish letters to be coded.

Keywords: 1990s; ASCII; Alphabets; BIDI; Bidirectionality; Binary; Browsers; CP1253; Coding; Converter; Documents; EBCDIC; Embedding; Field data; French; HTML; Hebrew; IBM; Idiosyncratic; Languages; Letters; PDF; Pictures; Programming; QTEXT; Shide mashinka; Tuyunz; Unicode; Univac; Websites; Word; Yiddish

Subjects: Computer programming.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

01:25:19 - Creating a Yiddish dictionary

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Partial Transcript: And I've never changed it into a more modern, uh, version of Unicode because it's a historical document. It was from '97 or so.

Segment Synopsis: Finkel continues to describe his programming endeavors, particularly his dictionary project for Yiddish. He describes how they filter what gets put on the program, and how they have found the meaning of some items in the program. He started this program to help a friend curate an online newspaper after Yiddish spellings finally became standardized.

Keywords: Aleph; Capiague; Cell; Community; Das Hyzalah; Dictionary; Honeycomb; Mark Twain; New York; OCR; Online; Poems; Programs; Sholem Aleichem; Solomon Rabinovich; Songs; Stelnik; Ukraine; Vacations; Vays achevra; Vocabulary; Vokh; Workshops; Yiddish

Subjects: Computer programming.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion

01:31:06 - Keeping Kosher and day-to-day religious observance

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Partial Transcript: Um, we're going to kind of transition a little bit now we've talked about your professional life, um, and the way Judaism and Yiddish are intertwined with it.

Segment Synopsis: Finkel provides details of how he and his family kept kosher. They remain "more strict" than others he knows, and abide by the no-lights rule for Sabbath; in other words, meals are prepared beforehand in order to avoid using the electricity of the oven or stove. Religious observance was very important to Finkel and his family. Consequently, each day they would say prayers in the morning before eating breakfast while wearing a tallis and tefillin.

Keywords: Arvin; Cognizant; Commandments; Corners of garments; Fringe; Jewish observance; Journey; Kosher; Lewis; Lights; Loopholes; Meals; Meat dishes; Milk dishes; Neutral dishes; Observant; Ohavay Zion; Orthodox; Pareve; Rabbi Smolkin; Rabbis; Sabbath; Sabbath rules; Strict; Synagogues; Taliesin; Tallis; Yiddish

Subjects: Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

01:40:27 - Raising Jewish children in Lexington, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: So, um, we understand you chose to raise your children as native speakers of Yiddish. And it--um, in what other ways did you raise your children to grow up with a strong Jewish identity?

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Finkel provides a quick overview on how he raised his children in the religion. He and his wife made it a priority to attend synagogue services with them as they grew up. Reading his children verses from the Torah was a part of their nightly routine after they turned three years old.

Keywords: "Oldsters"; Adam and Eve; Asher; Bereshit bora; Community; Daughters; Genesis; God; Hebrew; Hebrew schools; Homeschooling; Jewish; Jewish Day School; Jewish summer camps; Joseph; Kids; Kosher; Musaf; Observant; Penina; Religious; Saturday; Services; Sons; Sunday School; Synagogues; Torah; Yiddish Vokh; Yiddish translation; Young people

Subjects: Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Lexington (Ky.); Religion; Worship (Judaism)

01:45:43 - Finkel's children attending college

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Partial Transcript: It kind of--you mentioned, um, they got to that rebellious point where they, um, weren't as, as, uh, intent with, with reading.

Segment Synopsis: Continuing with how he and his wife raised their children, Finkel discusses how the kids brought their faith to college. He mentions that his daughter adhered to her faith at Tufts University whereas his son was not as involved in the Jewish community at the University of Pittsburgh.

Keywords: Asher; Beth; Chemistry; Colleges; Computer engineering; English; Friends; Hebrew; Hillel; Influences; Jewish; Kids; Lexington (Ky.); Math homework; Mississippi; Ohavay Zion; Penina; Rebellion; Sabbath; Services; Soccer; Special education; Synagogues; Teenagers; Teens; Telephones; Tufts University; University of Pittsburgh; Yiddish

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

01:50:17 - Jewish communal involvement in Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Um, could you tell us about your involvement with the Jewish community? Um, in particular we've heard that you've led a Talmud study group as well as lead services as lay cantor at, um, Ohavay Zion Synagogue.

Segment Synopsis: Finkel is very involved in his local community, teaching young children in the synagogue on Sundays. On varying days of the week he also participates in reading of the Talmud after leading morning services. He started a small group called The Wednesday Morning Group which meets on Fridays in order to study the Talmud, pray, and eat together.

Keywords: "Page-a-day"; Advanced; Babylonian exile; Belief; Bible; Breakfast; Community involvement; Gender differences; Groups; Hebrew; Hebrew schools; Iraq; Jewish text; Joseph; Madison; Men; Mishnah; Morning services; Ohavay Zion Synagogue; Orthodox; Pickled herring; Positive value; Prophets; Pumbedita; Rabbi Smith; Rabbinic; Studying; Sura; Synagogues; Talmud; Teaching; Wisconsin; Women; Zemiros

Subjects: Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Lexington (Ky.); Religion; Worship (Judaism)

01:56:11 - Lexington Chavurah / Young people's involvement

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Partial Transcript: Um, we understand from Dr. Jan and Beth that you're a member of the Lexington Chavurah?

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Finkel talks about his involvement in the egalitarian and conservative community Chavurah. Finkel shares his concerns about the dwindling number of young adults within the Jewish community who attend. He mentions that there are hardly any members of the synagogue ages 6-25 who attend a Saturday service.

Keywords: "Young professionals"; 1970s; Anti-war; Beth; Chavurah; Conservative; Dr. Jan; Egalitarian; Friendship; Generational; Hashanah; Jewish organization; Kids; Left-wing; Madison; Meetings; Memorial services; Personal; Rabbi Smolkin; Schools; Stereotypes; Sukkah; Sukkos; Synagogues; Talmud; Yizkor; Yom Kippur

Subjects: Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Lexington (Ky.); Religion; Worship (Judaism)

02:03:02 - Community tensions regarding Israel

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Partial Transcript: Um, I know you touched on this a little bit, uh, towards the beginning of the interview, but what were your, um, attitudes toward Israel and how do these compare to those held by others at, um, at your synagogue?

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Finkel briefly discusses his ever-evolving attitude towards Israel. He mentions that he does not approve of what he perceives as the anti-feminist culture there. He explains his ambivalence toward the Israeli government's actions and his motivations for donating to The New Israel Fund, because it is a liberal organization that helps promote a more inclusive political culture in Israel. Finkel describes the ways different generations of Jews relate to Israel and his hypothesis for why.

Keywords: "One-up you"; America; Arab; Carols; Chabad; Changing; Choices; Congregations; Conservative; Culture; Democracy; Division; Feminism; Feminists; France; Generations; Government; Hebrew School; Holidays; Israel; Israeli; Israeli mentality; Jesus; Jewish; Jewish National Fund; Laws; Liberal; Macho attitude; New Israeli Fund; Non-denominational; Ohavay Zion; Organization; Orthodox; Pro-Israel; Rabbi Litvin; Rabbi Smolkin; Rabbi Wirtschafter; Rabbis; Reform; Rule; Sexist; Tension; Toxic masculinity; Turf; Tuscon; Unaffiliated; Wildcats

Subjects: Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Lexington (Ky.); Religion; Worship (Judaism)

02:09:57 - The Jargon File / Shape Note

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Partial Transcript: Um, do you have any other questions you'd like to ask, um, Jacob?

Segment Synopsis: Finkel answers a final question about his involvement in "the Jargon File," a popular programmer's book. He then shares his thoughts on a form of music he enjoys called "Shape Note."

Keywords: "Blecherous"; "Cuspy"; "Fa so la"; "When in doubt, dike it out"; AI lab; American; Artificial intelligence; Boston; Brekhn; Bruh; CUSP; Christian; Christmas; Definitions; Hacker's Dictionary; Hebrew; Hymnody; Jargon File; Jesus; Jewish texts; Linguistics; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Music; New York; PP11; Performance art; Portuguese; Revolutionary War; Shape Note; Shape-schemes; Sholem Ibn Gabirol; Sing; Stanford University; Yiddish

Subjects: Computer programming.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion