The generosity of scholars

Aside from my volunteer work at the Cardiac ICU Family Waiting Area, my Friday morning drawing class, my almost daily exercises at the gym, reading, volunteer work for local Franklin Democratic Town Committee, binge watching of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”and “The Bodyguard”, I continue doing research in my spare time.

While I’m retired from that line of work, I’m still curious, still interested in all kinds of subjects and want to continue challenging myself to search and discover answers to questions and problems, efficiently and accurately. This month it seems to be about doing research on my possessions.  I’ve been sorting through my basement, finding artwork, prayer books, silverware, steins, military memorabilia, glassware, porcelain, bronze wall hangings and more. Some of the content I will save, some of it I will donate to charity, give to a family member, and some might find its way into a consignment shop. I don’t like discarding any books, especially Jewish ones, and they will either be kept, or donated to my synagogue or shared with a family member for future generations.

So for example, there are four German-Hebrew prayer books copywritten 1906, a German language book of drinking songs, a directory – Ein Gedenkbuch (A Memorial Book of Jews fallen from the German Army and Marine (1914-1918) published by Reich Association of Jewish Combat Veterans, in 1932.  The German language books are either inscribed by my mother (when she was an adolescent) or by her father, my grandfather, a dentist, from Landau, Germany, near the border with France.  I must have inherited the “collector gene” from him, as I have numerous items saved for reference.  He also believed one didn’t have to memorize everything; it is perfectly fine to know you could look up an answer, or search in a book to find the answers.

So I called John Rybski, a Chicago antiquarian bookseller about the 1932 book, as it as listed for sale on Amazon for $95. Glumly he said there was no interest in the book, as he took the opportunity to bemoan the state of the used bookmarket today. He mentioned a book in his collection, “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers”, published in 2005 by the University of Kansas Press. Remarkably, it’s about German-Jews who served in Hitler’s Army. Just when I thought I had heard it all, in the midst of the 25th anniversary release of Schindler’s List (the movie), I learn about this odd book. No thank you, I don’t want to read about that!

Over the past two weeks, I have investigated the script of a manuscript that my sister in law gave us as a gift a few years ago. Physicially, it is about 70 pages long, 18”x 7”x 3”, with two covers of gold (not real gold) and black, one with two serpents and the other with two fish. Both the serpent and fish are symbols of fertility, transformation and change.  There are plastic beads of green, red and clear in the corners and sides of the covers along with tin or plastic petals of a flower design.  The pages are accordion-style and folded in a style which is known as Parabaik and common to Southeastern Asian manuscripts.

The first order of business is to determine the script; we were told it is Burmese, but a number of scholars from Thailand, Laos, Australia, China, US, Singapore and England have said otherwise. One scholar thought it was Mon, another Pali, but a couple scholars were more definitive and say it is Shan, even though there are other scripts in China that are similar to Shan. To further complicate matters, I have learned from these academicians that Shan, which is a Tai language spoken in Shan states of Burma, is also used in the Xishuangbanna (Dai Autonomous Perfecture of Yunnan province ) in southwestern China, and is used in Northern Thailand too.  Shan is also known as Tai-Yao, Tai-Long.  (Nothing is easy; but once I learn the nature of the script, I’d like to learn the subject of the manuscript,)

Apparently the British Library has the largest, most diverse collection of documents and manuscripts outside of Burma.  (As a former British colony, this should not come to any surprise.  British rule lasted until 1948 says Wikipedia.)   With the assistance of Arthur Weiss, a business strategist and independent researcher in London, and Auerbach International, a translation services provider headquartered in California which I partnered with in the past when I ran Halpern Info Services, a business research services firm (catchy name, isn’t it?), I learned of  I then searched for collections, scholars and academicians who were involved with Buddhist and Northern Thai scripts and languages, to make sure the script was correct.  Now that this has been achieved, I’m going to follow up again with these same scholars, hoping for more revelations about the manuscript.  What’s the subject?  Is it about the Buddha? Is it about famous nuns, monks or royal family members?  Great battles or —something more mundane?  What’s it’s probable age?

I posed that question to Dr Justin McDaniel, Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who was principal in cataloguing 6,137 manuscripts in the Digital Library of  Northern Thailand Manuscripts (, and to the Chiang Mai University Library in Thailand.  Dr. McDaniel responded, but said he was in transit, traveling over the holidays, and would double check whether it’s Shan, when he returns to his office.  Nonetheless, I am now working with Professor McDaniel, sharing close-ups of the script, and he’s sharing information and his assessment of the manuscript.

Other academicians, curators and scholars around the world have been responsive to my queries and have referred me on to their colleagues elsewhere through their generosity.  Academicians and PhDs in general love to talk about their specialties I have found over the phone and through email, less so through social media like LinkedIn, though many of the people I’ve been in touch with are on LinkedIn too.

If you have a query, a good pointer for anyone searching for credible answers to nagging questions, is to do a quick search in Google or for an association or society, as there’s likely to be an association and/or society that concerns itself with your query. Oftentimes the director or assistant is responsive and willing to be of assistance.  People like to help people, and the thirst for knowledge is universal.

I’m still waiting for answers from the Shan Literature and Cultural Association and the Mon National Education Committee, and the Inya Institute and Buddhist Publications Society in Sri Lanka, but didn’t want to wait for them before sharing this post.


























There are four German-

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

One thought on “The generosity of scholars

  1. dd that a book on holocaust survivors hails from 1932–before the holocaust…?? and why no interest in the other book re hitlers jewish soldiers? that actually sounds amazing.

    I like how u interweave the diff strands re so many off-beat books.


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