Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Masochism or vicarious living?

Is it natural for a person to spend a 3+ hours getting annoyed, cursing, occasionally throwing object at t the floor, punctuating by expressions of joy but mainly those of frustration, but still looking forward to repeating the whole experience the next week? The answer depends on your culture.

To explain, as an expat, I relish watching my American sports, specifically baseball and football (the one with the larger athletes).  So, I reserve Sunday night at 8:00, Israeli time for the 1:00 pm east coast games, for watching sports.  I prepare properly, i.e., do not schedule any work, read the pre-game analysis, make sure there is a bottle of beer and some pistachios in the house and finish my daily telephone duty (calls to parents and daughter) beforehand.  Then, I go into my office, put my feet up, invite the cat to take a long nap on me, which he almost always welcomes, and begin the evening in the most cheerful of moods. My wife has learned to leave me alone for two reasons: I am “away” mentally; and she does not handle my emotional merry-go-round very well, whether voiced or not. Since I am a fan on the Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball and Cincinnati Bengals in football, not exactly elite teams in their sport, they are rather prone to playing poorly at times.

This is where culture comes in.  When I return to reality around 11:00 pm, generally disgusted with what I have seen, my wife looks at me and wonders why I insist on going through this seemingly unpleasant drama every week. It is clear to her to them that my behavior is irrational and possibly connected to some stupid American ingrained behavior. Granted, I have not conducted a study of attitudes among Israeli women to sport but I strongly suspect that this bafflement is the general rule among Israeli females. By contrast, if I had married an American woman, the odds are that not only would she understand my vicarious living, she might join me. To be perfectly clear, I am glad that I married an Israeli woman but still culturally mixed marriages bring out cultural differences, small and big.  In this case, my wife has no problem racking it up to background, not insanity.

So, I will continue to enjoy my Sunday nights, granted in an irrational manner, while my wife will knit away and try not to hear my mumbled curses. As we agree to disagree, the answer to the question whether it is natural or not is completely irrelevant.

Sunday, November 5, 2017


In a recent speech at a graduation, British comedian Tim Minchin gave the following advice: “be passionate about a pursuit of a short term goal.”  If I think about what characterizes truly extraordinary people, the intense desire to achieve a goal is an important factor. We may not understand that goal but we admire the drive and dedication.

This summer, I popped up to Portland, Oregon, a city that I left some 28 years ago to immigrate to Israel and where I had left beyond several good friends. An opportunity arose, a translation certification test, to see long, lost friends. In planning the trip, I discovered that I actually had lost a friend, to cancer some 15 years ago. It saddened and saddens me both because she died young, in her forties, a tragedy in any case, and because I had lost a kind of sister, a kindred soul, whom I was so looking forward to catching up on life and rekindling the connection.

Googling for any records, I noticed that Sarah J. Wrench, my friend, was invisible, i.e., with no records or pictures besides in regards to the book she got published. I would like to fill that gap. She was an extraordinary person in an extra-ordinary way. As Frank Sinatra would say, she did her own way. She adored opera and travelled to San Francisco once a year to catch several operas each time. She even wrote a fantasy book based on opera characters, which she got published – The Duke of Sumava (1997), an achievement in itself. She loved Balkan folk dance and danced with all her heart. Most of all, her brain was extremely sharp and imaginative, going down the roads less traveled. In the eight years I knew her, we never had a boring conversation. We shared a love of puns and dance as well as an appreciation of each other as humans. Finding a heart-mate is complicated but attainable.  Finding a soul mate is a rare phenomenon. In short, Sarah was not a conventional person but an extraordinary individual and willing to pay to the price for that.

As the speaker said, micro ambition often makes the man, in this case the woman. Sarah invested her ultimately short life into her passions, ignoring what others would think or say she should do. She lived, not merely existed. Albeit very belatedly, I say goodbye to a good friend and regret not having picked up the phone to have a chat when I could have. To paraphrase a well known expression, it is even worth doing passionately things that are not worth doing in the opinion of others.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

My Week as a Muslim – Comparison and contrast

Recently, the BBC showed a documentary entitled My Week as a Muslim presenting the experience of a very white English woman that not only stayed with a Pakistani Muslim family in England but also dressed up as a Muslim woman. To add drama to the situation, albeit unplanned, a major terrorist incident involving a British Muslim man occurred that week in the UK, increasing local racial tensions. The film created a discussion in the UK. As a Jew living in the Galilee in Israel, where some 50% of the population is Arab, if not necessary Muslim, and interaction between the populations is daily, I drew different conclusions.

To summarize that woman’s experience, she had lived all her life in a very white, i.e., non-immigrant, community with very little interaction with other British (as the Irish would phrase it). She was offended by the comments she received from people as she walked the streets dressed as a Muslim, such as to home to where you came from,  and gained an understanding of the impact on racism on the lives of its victims. More strikingly, she was completely unprepared for the cultural differences involved as living as a Muslim. From simple matters as not drinking to alcohol to more comprehensive ones as wearing “modest” clothing and the multiple daily prayers, she was clearly overwhelmed by the “adopted” culture. When combined with the fact that her hosts spoke perfect English with an English accent, were born in the UK and  were socially active in local charities, she was forced to realize that their external wrapping, no matter how foreign to her, does not make them less English than her.

Watching the program, I tried to imagine the experience of a Jewish woman spending a week as a Muslim in one of the villages in the Galilee. Many differences came to mind. First, modest clothing, especially covering one’s head, is common and accepted in Israel among many religious groups and would not be nearly as alien. Second, not drinking alcohol is much of a less of a big deal in Israel, at least for those over 30.  In general, it appears that Israeli Jews know more about Islam and Muslim culture than the average British even if large gaps of knowledge and misconceptions exist.

The issue of language was interesting. Among themselves but both within and outside the villages, Arabs speak Arabic, albeit with many Hebrew words. Most Arabs can speak Hebrew quite well, with the exception of older women from the village, but use Arabic as their daily language for communication with other Arab speakers. Unlike the situation in the UK, Muslims and Jews do not always speak the same language, but that difference is almost never a point of contention. 

The stickier point is national identity.  Some of the people in the film yelled “Go back to where you came from” in ignorance of the fact that many of the Pakistani have lived in the UK for more than three generations. Still, the Pakistani Arabs appearing in the documentary clearly identified themselves as British. By contrast, in the Galilee, nobody disputes the attachment of the Arabs to the area. The ambiguous and therefore tense area involves national identity. Israel Arabs are clearly officially identified as such since their religion and citizenship appears on ID cards. However, many, especially the younger ones, are highly ambivalent about their country of origin.  Very few want to move the PA for both social and economic reasons. On the other hand, many are not completely at peace at being labeled “Israeli.” The whole issue of identity is rather complicated for Israeli Arabs, especially Muslims.

In comparing the situation in the UK and Galilee, it appears that it is much easier culturally to be a Muslim in Israel. Due to the similarities between Judaism and Islam as well as natural interaction and government policy regarding language and non-discrimination, Muslims do not have their cultural values challenged by non-Muslims, i.e., no body tries to convert them or turn them away from their religion or way of life. On a political level, UK Muslims, at least the long established ones, appear openly and unashamedly British, which has still not occurred in Israel regardless of their formal civil status.

It is clear that a similar documentary shot in Israel would also show that a major cause of racism is ignorance.  At the same time, many of the reactions and experiences seen in the BBC documentary would look rather different in the Israeli version.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The peculiar case of the double negative in English

Around a year ago, I wrote a post deploring the use of negatives in English entitled Notty Tendencies . The main point was the use of negation to avoid being direct, i.e. such as saying such unappetizing food when you mean how bad it is. A year older and a year wiser, I wish to amend my remarks to say that there is an appropriate role for the double negative in English.

Most Latin-based languages expressed the negative by doubling it as in je ne said pas where the ne and pas are both negative markers. In fact, a lone ne in French does not expressive negativity but instead  inequality (see By contrast, in English, once is enough. It is acceptable to write I am neither hungry nor thirsty or I am not either hungry or thirsty but not I am not neither hungry nor thirsty. The reason for the rejection of the last one is that it includes two negative markers, not and neither/nor. So, double negatives do not make a negative in English but generally lead to frowns by English teachers and editors.

However, they sometimes create a neutral quality. To demonstrate, look at the following sentences:

a     .      The mask is not uncomfortable.
b     .      The girl is not unattractive.
c      .       The chap is not unpleasant.

In all three cases, there is a double negation, specifically the word not and the prefix un.  The justification for the apparent redundancy is the intended meaning. The writer does not wish to say that the mask is a pleasure, the girl is pretty and the man is charming. Instead, the implications are that the mask is tolerable to wear, the girl should be able to find a date for the prom and the man does have some social skills and uses deodorant. In these cases, the doubling most peculiarly creates moderation of the base adjective, i.e., comfortable, attractive and pleasant.

To a native speaker, this subtlety is obvious. However, foreigners can easily misinterpret the intent of the speaker or writer. Learning a foreign language is truly peeling an onion: there is always another layer to grasp and apply. On that note, it would not be unwise to stop, excuse me, advisable, to stop and let you consider the strange case of the double negative (neither with a barking dog nor written by Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle).

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The innocents aboard

This Rosh Hashana, the train arrived. I mean that the line between my home town, Karmiel, finally opened after many years of work, including a 2.3 kilometer tunnel, two new fancy stations with plenty of parking and bus lines from neighboring Arab villages to feed the stations. The Galilee is now connected directly by train to almost all of Israel, as far south as Beer Sheva. Given the ever worsening traffic jams in the once pristine North, it is a blessing for thousands of commuters.

Since it opened during the High Holidays and is free for three months to local residents, many people, including families with many children, have been taking advantage of the opportunity to travel for free.  It is interesting to see the excitement of many travelers, both young and old, when taking it for the first time. Although carriage and track transportation dates from 1825, the joy of countless faces was no less than that of playing with a new iPhone, a much more modern innovation. The exclamation “the train has arrived. I can’t believe it” is heard everywhere both on and off the train. The magic of the train lives on.

Unfortunately, in my eyes, Israelis behave in trains as they behave in home.  First, as a matter of comparison, I clearly remember a five hour train trip from Paris to Brittany. In addition to the quietness, possibly due to the fact that the cellular phone was not yet invented, I was shocked that I didn’t even notice that there were children in the carriage until some four hours in the trip.  Everybody sat quiet and passed the time in an unobtrusive manner. The Mediterranean being the Mediterranean, that self-control is not to be expected on an Israeli train. Aside from loud phone conversations and playing video games at full volume, parents let their children run up and down the corridor and play musical chairs. The blind, originally intended to block the sun, became a way of entertaining the smaller ones. The parents are not much better, albeit preferring to sit the whole trip.   Cutting the trip to Haifa to 30 minutes is nice but it is not that much more relaxing at this stage.

Still, I am optimistic that some of the excitement and annoying noise will decrease as people get used to taking a train. For all those working in Haifa and Tel Aviv or going to and from Ben Gurion Airport, the train is definitely a blessing. In the meantime, I may have to become modern and attach an earphone to my telephone and enjoy some music……

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

It ain’t necessarily so

Tourists and translators often struggle with local linguistic idiosyncrasies. Words and meanings seem at odds with each other, leading to misinterpretation (and worse).  The United States, being a large country, has a few terms that might confuse the newcomer.

The California stop is not a stop, but a slowdown. Specifically, when approaching  stop sign where everything is clear, California drivers, and not only them, have a tendency to slow down but not necessarily come to complete stop (out of concern for gas economy, of course) as they approach the stop line. After checking that the way is clear, they continue. While not considered dangerous driving, such rolling approaches are nonetheless against the law, probably worldwide. California stops are most prevalent where the chance of being ticketed is much less than the effort of the going against the momentum of the car.

An Arizona snowbird does fly on a seasonal basis but not necessarily using its own wings. Arizona winters are extremely pleasant by east coast standards. The weather tends to be slightly warm, sunny and lack any snow or even ice cold wind. As a result, many retired New Yorkers and other east coasters have taken to wintering in the West to avoid the harsh winters. They are even magazines dedicated to such seasonal migrants, featuring ideal rental and purchase homes.  Winter over, they return to their permanent residences to enjoy the wonderful summer humidity, but that is another story.

It is nice to receive applause d but a Bronx cheer is not a good sign of affairs.  The difference between a regular and Bronx cheer is the preceding series of events. In the latter case, the players, athletes generally, have performed so poorly that the fans are almost shocked that the schnooks can do anything right.  For example, during a recent football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns played in Cleveland, the home team was doing awful, with one specific receiver dropping passes left and right.  When he finally managed to hold on to the ball, the audience cheered him. The message was not positive, i.e., that was a great play, but instead highly critical, i.e., that is what you are getting paid to do, idiot. Cleveland fans, although not from the Bronx, New York, know how to give a Bronx cheer.

There is an Israeli example of this, albeit rather dated. During the first two decades of Israel’s existence, goods were rationed to ensure that everybody had something to eat. In addition, imports were strictly limited to the necessary. Alas, everybody’s definition of necessary is a bit different. For Jews from Iran and Iraq, rice is a necessity, almost a religion. Yet, the government limited importation of rice. Instead, they sold wheat cut into the shape of rice, a bit like pilaf, known as ptitim in Hebrew. Its unofficial name was Ben Gurion rice, after the long serving, first prime minister of the country. Curiously, decades after the import rules have been dropped and rice is plentiful in the stores, many people still enjoy eating Ben Gurion rice.

So, as that song goes, when you hear locals speak and cannot believe your ears, remember that it ain’t necessarily what its sounds like.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hazards of the trades

Too much knowledge can spoil the fun. Specifically, when a person has deep knowledge of a specific process or art, it becomes difficult to consider the element in its simplicity, as most people do. Instead, the connoisseur analyzes it, often to death.

One area you can see this is language. Most people are interested in the point of communication, not its form. By contrast, writers of all types are often more interested in the form and quite critical of it. For example, writers tend to judge text as much by how good it is written as what it is trying to day. Likewise, translators, including my wife and me, immediately notice over-literal translation and source text interference, especially in menus and signs. Musicians may not even notice the total sounds due to their focus on individual performances, good and bad.  Choreographers sometimes tear down complicated dances into their component parts, negating the effects of synergy. So, language experts insist on proper language, occasionally forgetting the ultimate purpose of communication.

In a world filled with visual information, certain experts immediately focus on a specific aspect. Barbers (or hair designers, as applicable) probably focus on the cut of the hair, with a bit of a critical note I imagine. In the same way, optometrists catch the form of the frame of the glasses, generally ignored by most people unless it is violently inappropriate. Since my wife is a knitter, I see how fast she checks out any knitted object and checks if it is machine or handmade, with a comment on the skill level if the latter. Potters do not see plates as objects on which you put food but instead as works of art, or lack thereof. Like flies and light, certain professionals are immediately attracted by certain visual clues.

This attention often enters the realm of judgment. After years of assessing damage, insurance assessors probably cannot pass a dented car without doing a calculation in their head of the cost to repair it. On my favorite cooking show, Les Carnets de Julie, I watched a baguette judge name the 16 tests, no less, of a proper French bread, of which only the last was taste. For this person, a baguette is not a loaf of bread by any other name. I pity dog breeders, who find it difficult to say “what a cute dog” without trying to figure out the breed(s) of the dog and how well it would do in a show.

There are many advantages of being an expert. However, sometimes, it would be nice to enjoy the world at its face value, without adding complexity or judgment. Unfortunately, once gained, knowledge is hard to lose. As Milton might say, it is paradise lost.