Sunday, May 28, 2017

Egyptian-French (Voice) Pipeline

The term “French singer” is associated with native French, such as Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, or at least those born in neighboring European countries, such as Serge Reggiani (Italy) and Jacques Brel (Belgium). In fact, some of the most famous French singers were not even more born in Europe or in French-speaking countries. Three singing stars were born in Egypt but managed to enrich French culture.

Two of the three did not even have a French parent. Dalida, née Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti, was the daughter of Italian parents, her father being a first violinist. George Moustaki, né Giuseppe Mustacchi, came from a Greek Jewish family. By contrast, Claude Francois, had a French father but an Italian mother. All three arrived in France young and raw but were fortunate to meet a person that believed in them and helped them begin their career, Lucien Morisse, George Brassin and Paul Lederman, respectively. They all reached star status as reflected in their records sales, packed houses and mass public.

It is interesting to note the effect of their colonial childhood. Dalida always sang with an accent and had many “Arabic” aspects on her stage presence. George Moustaki had more of an Italian presence while Claude Francois consciously imitated American singers, notably Elvis. The first two also recorded songs in Arabic. In terms of music content, the immigrant experience had the most impact on George Moustaki, who wrote and sang about it. The others were less engagé (politically involved).


I find it fascinating these three singers were highly successfully in France despite not having been born there or spoken French at home. Their Italian background may have helped them adapt and be accepted. After all, Italian born singers did well worldwide, including in the United States. Possibly, talent compensates for all disadvantages. Another explanation is that France is more tolerant than most countries of foreign accents. Whatever the reason, France owes a lot to its Egyptian born artists, however strange that may sound.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Russian certified cruelty

Having just translated a Russian Federation academic certificate and its accompanying transcript, I got a glimpse of how merciless a supposedly bland certificate can be, at least to American eyes.

To explain, I am a graduate of an American university, UC Santa Cruz, affectionately known as Uncle Charley’s Summer Camp, as well as an English institution, Leicester, quaintly pronounced lester.  I even have official graduation diploma to prove it. On these hallowed pieces of paper, my name, degree, subject and year of graduation are listed. What they prove is subject to debate but it is safe to say that I proved that had enough patience and discipline, not necessarily intelligence, to “meet the academic requirements for the degree.”

Of course, the diploma itself does not state how long I took or how well I did or even what at what age and which date I began my studies. As an illustration of the possible variations, during the Vietnam era in the United States, since college enrollment could be delayed by being drafted, one way to avoid serving in the army was to stay in college. Doonesbury’s classic character (whose name escapes me and Google search) gave new definition to the term 10 year plan as he kept on changed major just before completing the last course until he distressingly discovered that there were no majors to switch to. So, most diplomas merely inform the reader of the completion of the requirements.

I am aware that the Latin term cum laude does occasionally appear on Western certificates but I apparently hanged around the wrong group of people. My brother got this supplement while I did not receive it, deservingly so. In any case, I always had the impression that the term was used by owners of dogs named Laude to get them to go home after a walk. As Tom Lehrer would say, but I digress.


By contrast in that merciless motherland that is the Russian Federation (aka Soviet Union and Russia, by generation), students have no secrets. All of the embarrassing facts appear on the certificate leaving the student nowhere to hide. First, the critical eye notices that date and particulars of the previous academic degree. So, if you went back to college some ten years after high school, you have a lot to explain. Then, the certificate viciously informs the reader that the program should take x amount of years and this particular student took y number of years. That could really raise a red flag among employers, not a good thing. The most damaging detail on a Russian academic certificate is three nasty letters before the certificate number: всг and вса. These translate as Russian Diploma of Specialty without Excellence and Russian Diploma of Specialty with Excellence. In other words, at a glance, without even looking at your transcripts, the employer can tell if you enriched the university or the university enriched you.  Try explaining that away.  Alas, students are held strictly accountable. Such cruelty!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Military ribbons

I have lived in Israel since 1989, some 28 years, not including one year as a volunteer. I was 28 years old when I made alia, immigration, and have since spent half my in Israel. In many ways, I have become local, as colonials would say. I speak Hebrew, don’t stand on protocol and understand almost all of the jokes. That said, I recognize that I will never be 100% Israeli, mainly because of a lack of military service.

 I simply never went through baku, the enlistment center, and basic training. I arrived too old be an effective soldier. Thus, I was given a health exemption. I can’t say that I fought the decision as I was a newlywed. Neither I nor my first wife was enthusiastic about me away for long period of times or optimistic about my ability to even make a bed the army way. The IDF did not really need me either. So, I missed the Israeli male-defining experience of proving myself as a soldier, doing mandatory service and reserve duty. I also did not go through that male-bonding experience that leads to so many friendships in Israel.

The other military experience I missed is that of a parent of a soldier. I have a daughter who did not serve in the IDF, having received an exemption. As a result, I never escorted by child that same baku, see her come home on weekends exhausted with a pile of dirty clothes, drive her to base and appear in uniform with a rifle whenever she had leave during her duty. For that matter, I never had to wonder where exactly she was, what she was doing and if she was safe. There are many Israeli parents that would envy me on that matter.

On the other hand, I have done my civilian “duty.” I have sat through endless special broadcasts on TV, discussing the latest military campaign. I have celebrated my birthday by going into a “protected” room as a gift from Sadam Hussein (Gulf War). It was no gas, as they say. I have seen “the rockets’ red glare” during the Second Lebanese War and chosen to stay in my house despite the frequent sirens. In fact, I no longer count how many military actions I have been viewed as a civilian. However, to my credit or stupidity, depending on your point of view, I have never run to safer pastures, instead standing my ground in Israel. I “understand” what it means to be an Israeli civilian during war.

To clarify any confusion, I am neither proud nor regretful of my lack of military service. Given the circumstances, that was the reality. On the bright side, I and my immediate family have never had a bullet shot at them or even in our direction and have never been in danger of being killed or wounded in military action. Likewise, I would have liked my daughter to do military service but fully understand why that was not practical at the time. In the opposite sense, my life would be perfectly fine without knowing how to put on a gas mask or the size of a hole created by rocket on a road. For better or worse, I accept what I have been given.


Yet, no matter how long I live here, I will always have a bit of galute, Diaspora, in me, not only because of my accent, manners or way of thinking but also because I never experienced what it means to be an Israeli soldier.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Independently rough and wooly

Israel just celebrated its 69th Independence Day. Its beginning, as usual, was marked by a ceremony in Jerusalem starting at the end of Memorial Day (the day before) leading to the kickoff of the celebrations, from sad to joy in slightly more than an hour. I have been in Israel some 28 years and never fail to watch the ceremony on television. Honestly, it lacks the smoothness and elegance of state ceremonies in more established states. However, specifically due to its multitextural and honest nature, it faithfully represents all this good in Israel.

For those that have never watched it. It fitting takes place on Mount Herzl, named after the ideological founder of Zionism. The VIP’s (the Prime Minister, President, Chairperson of Knesset and Chief of Staff) are led to their seats and give permission to the ceremony to start. At that time, a small group of IDF flag bearers march around the square. To be honest, the marching is acceptable but would probably not pass the standards of a marine sergeant. Yet, I do not regret this lack of show as it is product of the IDF emphasis on combat performance not parade performance. A video of a short statement by the Prime Minister, Bibi, as he not so affectionately called, was then shown. It resembled election campaign material. This is natural as elections are always potentially around the corner here. A musical interlude followed, consisting of a short reading of a prayer followed by its musical rendition by a mass of purple-illuminated pianos, a duo of religion and art if you will. The Chairperson of the Knesset then gave his speech. It warned Israel (and the government) of the dangers of dividing the people, a rather critical statement at what is supposed to be an orchestrated state ceremony. However, in Israel, when you have two Jews, you have three opinions.  We still have democracy.

Then began a curious part of the ceremony, 12 people received the honor to light a flame (one for each tribe of Israel) with the theme being a united Jewish Jerusalem. It is always good politics to stand up to UNESCO and be in line with the ideology of the current government. The choice of the people was rather interesting, ranging from writers and teachers to soldiers and immigrants, including an Arab and a merchant at the famous Jerusalem open market. This wide variety of honorees reflects the diversity of Israel and goes beyond the traditional elite presented in state ceremonies. The soldiers accompanying the honorees were of all shapes, sizes and colors. Not all of them managed to maintain their dignity but that is typical of this country and its Mediterranean nature.

Music of various styles followed, including Naomi’s Shemer’s Yerusalem shel zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), the classic song about Jerusalem. Finally, flag bearers of all IDF units, wearing a cacophony of uniforms marched, creating a series of formations, joined frantically by the soldiers that would be awarded by the President the following day. Oh, how much I love the Israeli sense of order. The ceremony ended with the weary flag bearers and musicians marching off the stage and the release of the fireworks.


While I admit that it lacks the dignity and form of the French Bastille Day ceremony, the Israeli state ceremony provides a short focus on what is fundamentally good and important for Israelis. This list includes diversity, democracy, faith, achievement and, foremost, the joy of having our own country. As they say (albeit in a different context), next year in Jerusalem.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jeffersonian language drivers

George Carlin, a man obsessed by the search for truth, had a notable routine about the common misuse of phrases. In itself, it is quite interesting.  Among the phrases he mentions are the terms sour grapes, cop out and get a monkey off your back.  He points out that these terms have specific meanings that have been misused by public speakers. For example, a person with sour grapes is not jealous but instead rationalizes a failure. Likewise, to cop out is admit some guilt, not to find an excuse. A team cannot get a monkey off its back by stopping a losing streak since the monkey in this case is an addiction that controls its life. Nobody actually seeks to lose, rendering the expression inappropriate in the circumstances.  The full video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn9elWR13Z4.

Aside from the cleverness and information in this video, it raises a much more profound issue. Specifically, is correctness determined by a small group of educated people or, to paraphrase Carlin, the mass of idiots out there? In other words, the unspoken debate, as in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, is whether truth, linguistic in this case, is objective or subjective.

On the one hand, I would agree that poor language cannot be justified by the quantity of Google hits. As an English lecture, I insist on the non-use of but in the beginning of a sentence despite its frequent use there in journalism. Likewise, I correct effect to affect when it is used as a verb although countless native speakers don’t know the difference.  So, I support the insistence on language standards and calling a spade a spade.

Yet, when it comes to vocabulary meanings, I am not Don Quixote fighting the windmill of common use. People have always used terms as they sit fit even if the genealogy of the word did not justify such use. To take a modern example, the gay 90’s (1890’s) were happy times, supposedly, as compared to the gay 90’s (1990’s) when homosexuality became more accepted. The people of each period understood the term as they chose.  Beyond that, I even embrace the dynamics of language. Language defines each generation in terms of its thinking and technology. Cloud technology existed a half century ago but was used for creating rain as compared to today. The dynamics of language development is fascinating and legitimate even if it is driven by a bunch of “assholes” as my brother would say.

So, while I sympathize and appreciate the efforts of Carlin and others to maintain standards in a language, when it comes to lexicon, I am not in the camp of Hamilton but in that of Jefferson.  To explain, the meaning of the words is to be decided by the people, however uneducated they maybe, not by the elite, however superior they may be. Let the revolution continue, not that anybody can stop it.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kosher thoughts

Pesach leads to much conversation about kashrut. How many calories are expended in considering which calories to intake?  It borders on an infinite number.  Yet, many non Jews (and some Jews) are not completely aware how complex kosher can get and how much it affects food choices.

On the surface level, kashrut involves the manner of slaughtering animals, the prohibition of certain foods (pork and shellfish, notably) and prohibition of mixing diary and meat. Yet, it also takes into account the preparation or storage of the foods.  For example, traditional wooden wine kegs use a mixture of flour and water as glue, making the wine stored in them unsuitable for Pesach. Likewise, gelatin is commercially made from animal fat, pig or otherwise, affecting its use with dairy products or use in general.  Since a restaurant that is open on Friday night cannot by definition be kosher, an observant Jew must not eat there even during the week. At Pesach, more prohibitions come into play, including most if not all grains (rice is a matter of contention). This is not even the tip of the iceberg.  Kashrut rules make inheritance laws look like child’s play.

The truly controversial issue is the raison d’être of this corpus of religious laws.  Some justify the logic in terms of health or ancient methods of preservation (or lack thereof). Yet, even if kashrut were unhealthy or completely irrelevant in terms of food safety, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews would continue to keep it. Fundamentally, the observant perceive kashrut as a basis of Jewish life (not necessarily identity). To openly reject it is to betray the religion, no more, no less. (Maimodides named it as one of the pillars of Judaism) In other words, to embrace God, you have to embrace his rules and limitations. 

Of course, many Jews in Israel and abroad do not keep kosher to one degree or another. The expressions of rejection include eating pork and cheeseburgers to only eating “traff” (non-kosher food) in restaurants while keeping the house kosher, to name just a few.  To a large degree, this refusal is an ideological choice in the same way compliance is a matter of faith.


In the meantime, many Jews are putting up with matzo and its companying stomach effects until Tuesday while quite a few others found the ceremonial matzo on the night of the Seder more than enough for their religious conscience. In my case, I have no problem living without bread and beer for a week. I give up those foods not as a matter of principle but as a practical means to keep my wife happy.

In terms of the importance of keeping kosher, two bits of philosophy come in mind. Sartre said that a Jew is a Jew because the world views his/her to be such while Bob Marley said “don’t worry, be happy.” In other words, to the outside world, keeping kosher is of little importance but, if it makes you feel truly Jewish, enjoy.  In the meantime, I’ll have some gefilte fish with homemade khreyn (horseradish). It helps clean the sinuses. Oh, the joy of Pesach!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Waterworks

Being an independent business person requires you to deal with the ebbs and flows of business since the only constant about business is that it is not constant. Curiously, these various business currents are often described using other water-related words.

On the bright side, every entrepreneur likes a steady stream of customers, not too many, not too few. Some businesses, due to their seasonal nature, require their owners to ride the wave of orders until they can relax in the dead season. In any case, nothing brings a bigger smile to a factory owner than having orders pouring in, allowing them to generate full production capacity. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. While a torrent of work may sound like a good thing, the poor freelancer may find him/herself flooded with work, bogged down in various tasks, so swamped that s/he can do nothing else but work or so mired that orders must be refused.  The tidal wave can be simply too much for one person.

The other extreme is not any better. While a bit worrying, if work is trickling in or coming in dribbles, there is at least some cash flow.  A long  flat spell may be sign of changes in the market. The worst feeling is when orders start to dry up and the business is facing a drought. In such a case, it is hard to decide what to do, to have sunny thoughts and wait for a change in the economic forecast or to look for greener pastures elsewhere with less dark clouds.


As we can see, entrepreneurs and sailors must be optimistic about the weather but realistic about its chances.