Monday, June 19, 2017

Not your grandmother’s Poland

My wife and I just returned from a week’s trip in Poland, taken for the purpose of my attending a Law and Language conference in Bialystok (see previous post). I have to admit that I had never felt as uneasy before a trip as I did prior to this trip.  I could not put my finger on what exactly was disturbing me but told myself that I would take things as they are in the present. That said, I made a conscious decision to travel on my Israeli passport and speak Hebrew. The greatest response to past anti-Semitism and mass killing is to return as a proud Jew.  I did not regret that decision and was quite surprised by the reaction. Not only were there no negative reaction or incidents, people expressed interest, with one person, in his 40’s, apologizing for the actions of the Poles in the past, something we did not expect or request.

The Poland I saw in that week, granted a short time, is a complex society. It consists of three distinct generations: pre-war, Soviet and modern Polish. The first is hard to see as that few of that generation is still alive and most of the buildings of that period, at least in Warsaw, were destroyed by the Germans. Yet, it is engrained in my mind from stories and movies. The second was symbolized by the Stalin’s gift to the Poland, the imposing cement Palace of Science and Culture in the city center. No less reminiscent of that era is the stone-faced “charm” of the border guards and train clerks, who do their job in the proper Soviet manner. The current generation is more European and western. On the train from Bialystok to Warsaw, delayed by two hours, we spent a magical 4 hours with five 18-year olds returning from vacation. Aside from the respect they gave us, we were amazed by their knowledge, curiosity, English and goodness. We talked for four hours without effort and did not regret the train delay in the least. If this group is the future of Poland, I am very optimistic. This interlacing of different educations does not lead to easy conclusions about the past, present or future but makes for a fascinating trip.

In terms of the Polish language itself, I left with the impression that in six months I could be functioning quite well in it. It took some three days to figure out the pronunciation/spelling matrix. However, once I understood how to say the words, it was wonderfully (to me, not the Poles) similar to Russian, which I know, and therefore easy to understand. I was amused by the Elmer Fudd letter, specifically Ƚ (an L with a cross in it). I learned that is pronounced wa, reminding me of Elmer Fudd saying, “I am going to shoot that Wabbit.” I mean no offense to the Polish but often use humor to help remember.


The food was generally excellent. There was an abundance of non-mainstream meats, including duck, bison, venison and wild boar. The Polish are justifiably famous for their perogi with various fillings, with our favorite being those filled with blueberries in a sauce of sour cream. I loved the herring, especially in cream and served with onion, a taste acquired from my mother. On the other hand, Poland lacks the fresh vegetables so common in Israel. The one “Israeli salad” we saw (at the hotel breakfast) was so small and minimal that it engendered pity not desire. The service in restaurant was prompt and professional at least until the main dish was served. At that point, for reasons we never understood, the waiter would disappear as if he did not want to disturb us from digesting our food. At least twice we gave up on the dessert as we had become somehow invisible to the server. Admittedly, not eating a dessert is not a tragedy, at least at our age.

I must say a few words about hair.  The Middle East is known for dark, often curly, hair for women and the non-hair for men. Many of my students, in their 20’s, already have expanded foreheads. In Poland, the large majority of women were blonds, most of them natural. Curly heads must be considered very exotic. We also noted that they were much more elegantly dressed than in Israel. As for the males, they must either have the right genes or lead peaceful lives as even older men had full heads of hair.

In short, my trip to Poland, regardless of my anxiety beforehand, was extremely memorable and worthwhile. I do not claim to have become an expert on the country but at least I gained some insights on modern Poland and my grandmothers’ Poland. To any Jew considering a visit there, I would recommend it, but doing so neither forgetting the past nor ignoring the present. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bialystok - Law, Language and People

I had the honor and pleasure of attending and giving a paper at the Language and Law Conference in Bialystok, Poland organized by the Legal Language department of the University of Bialystok. It was a two day event focusing on a wide variety of topics, including legal genres, language teaching and translation.  Lecturers came from all of Europe, including three from Israel, and represented all professions interested in legal languages.

Due to the fact that the conference has four rooms simultaneously running, it was impossible to hear all lectures. I would like to mention a few among those that I could attend that deserve special mention. Juliette Scott discussed the covert-overt spectrum in translation, specifically how much a translation should show the syntax and errors of the source documents, depending on the type and purpose of the document. It enlightened me in regards that seamless translation is not always the ideal. Later that session, Alexandra Matulewska elucidated the way legal texts often involve non-legal genres, including medical and engineering, thus creating a challenge and dilemma for legal translators forced to stray from their field of expertise. Andreas Abegg presenting a linguistic analysis of long term changes in Swiss administrative laws, demonstrating how that type of law had gone from declaring its rights by frequent use of we and our to specifying its range, applying a wide variety of domain terms. Later on that session, Joanna Kozlovska gave an interesting analysis of the problem of translation EU laws into Polish, comparing the single word “hunting” in English and its two possible translations into Polish with the accompanying linguistic and legal consequences. Later on that day, Ondreu Klabal and I provided complementary perspectives on the use of shall in English legal writing.

The second day was marked by a truly fascinating lecture by Dr. John Ollson on forensic linguistics. Citing real cases, he showed how linguistic analysis can determine the truth or lack thereof regarding authorship of written texts ranging from police confessions and suicide notes to phone text messages. It was not only interesting scholarship but also a fascinating story. The conference ended with a trip to a Polish village in the forest, complete with a carriage ride, an excellent BBQ and an encounter with friendly Polish mosquitoes. My wife and I came as strangers and left as friends.

My most personal experience from this conference was visiting the birthplace of my grandmother (who left Bialystok in the 1920’s) and giving a lecture in the building where she may have studied. I hope she is smiling up there.

I wish to thank the organizers, Dr. Halina Sierocka and her assistants, for a well organized, friendly and intellectually fascinating conference. I cannot imagine how many hours of works it involved, but the result was a truly fine event.


My next post will relate my overall experiences of Poland.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Childlike musings

Two events have occurred that have changed the audio environment of my office. First, summer has arrived, meaning the windows are now always open. Secondly, the municipality has completely refurbished the local play ground, located next to my office (in my apartment), including swings, slides, a roof, artificial grass and (just) enough open space to play football.  As a result, I get to listen to the sounds of children all day long.

As a matter of explanation, I live in a neighborhood that could be described as lower middle class. A series of low apartment buildings, with apparently random addresses, surround this playground. The residents, a typical mixture of a periphery city in Israel, include Russians, Ethiopians, religious and non-religious people, Arabs (yes, there is no Apartheid in Israel) and more established Israelis.  Unemployment is minor but nobody could be considered rich. The cars in the parking lot are run of the mill while the sizes of the flats range from 90 to 140 square meters.  We chose to buy here because of the apartment size and garden. So, the neighborhood is alive but not dangerous.

Back to the playground, this diversity is reflected in the various “shifts.” In the morning, the older residents and mothers/grandmothers watch the babies and toddlers enjoy the facilities. As the school day ends, teenagers hang out and talk their own special nonsense and release stress. In the late afternoon, once it cools off, the parents send their kids out, creating a scale microcosm of the area: from white to black, first to 12th grade, boys and girls, comfortable to modest dress. From my “observation” of the sounds emitted from the area, I have noticed the following:

1      Regardless of language and culture, the song “na, na ,na na, na” is intended to annoy.

2     There is the always the “Godot” kid, the one everybody is calling but I have never           actually seen. In my case, it is a girl named Zoar. Someone is always calling for Zoar to come.

        It may be genetic but, whatever the reason, give kids three open square meters, they will start playing football and arguing, mainly the latter.

4     Kids never tire of hide and seek (call tofeset in Hebrew). I can’t figure out that many places to hide there but it does not stop the endless count up from 1-20. Children in this neighborhood quickly learn how to count in Hebrew and English.

        No afternoon is complete without a good cry. Specifically, at least one day, one kid has to experience catharsis by sobbing.  Often, s/he is the one previously saying “na, na, na na, na.”

6      I have been there and done that but it does not help. I really hope the teenage boy whose voice is changing finishes the process soon.

7    The bossy girl lives on. We can hear give orders for hours and get upset when discipline is lacking.

8      Kids find cursing fun. In this case, the foul words are in Hebrew, Russian and English.

9     The various ethnic/religious/family groups tend to initially keep to themselves, but you can count on football and hide and go seek to bring everybody together.


This concert or cacophony may not seem to be the ideal background for work requiring concentration. It is true that I or my wife have considered various methods of silencing a few individuals. Still, for the most part, the mind can ignore the high pitches from outside or even appreciate the youthful spirit. Personally, I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles, without any communal playground. Everybody was locked in their castle. I sort of regret that I didn’t grow up in such a neighborhood. So, even if would rather not listen in, I try to remember that the communal playground plays an important and positive role in growing up and developing social skills (and thick skin). So, I just grin and bear it.

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.