Thursday, April 19, 2018

Immemorial thoughts

Yesterday, in accordance with Israeli’s unique way of scheduling it right before Independence Day, Memorial Day for Fallen soldiers was marked in Israel. On this day, families visit cemeteries.  As in many countries, the media broadcast stories about fallen heroes and their families while a siren is sounded twice, once on the eve and once in the morning of the day. Stores close early on the eve with “heavy” music broadcast on radio all day long. The names of the fallen in chronical order of their death are read throughout the 24 hours.  Unfortunately, they are sufficient names to recite to fill the entire period.  All in all, it is a heavy, sad day broken at the end by the changing of the guard ceremony at the Knesset, which signals the beginning of Independence Day and time to light up the barbeques.

Yet, to a certain degree, I feel alien to this Memorial Day. I simply have no experience with death by fire in any form.  My father, still alive, survived World War II with no permanent injuries. My brother and I reached 18 after the Vietnam War and mandatory draft in the United States ended. I don’t know any one that was killed or wounded in military service, either in the United States or Israel. My daughter never served in the IDF.  The only deaths I have experienced at all were my grandmothers, who were quite aged, in their 80’s and 90’s.  I am still a virgin to bereavement. 

By contrast, most Israelis know what death is. They have had friends and family killed or wounded during military service or terrorist incidents.  My wife had a brother killed in service when she was a small child. Memorial Day carries significance to most Israelis, except for a few extra ultra-orthodox that do not consider themselves Israeli in any case.

I do not mean that I feel no emotion.  As I watch parents, children and siblings talk about their loss, I become very sad. Tear well up. I also sense the heavy atmosphere. Memorial Day is not like any other day. It has its own weight. Yet, to be honest, my sympathy is of the universal type, the feeling we can share for anybody that has lost a loved one, regardless of the circumstances.  Any decent human being can understand lost and empathize with an individual experiencing that loss.  Yet, I cannot imagine the pain of parents that must bury their own children.  It is clearly awful but beyond my comprehension.

Some would say that I should be grateful for being so fortunate as to have never experienced such pain. The fact is that my naivety results from pure luck. I was born after World War II and was too young for the Vietnam War and too old for IDF service. Neither I nor my family has ever been in the wrong place and time during my 28 years in Israel, including the rocket attacks on Karmiel during the Second Lebanese War.  As in all matters of luck, the past does not guarantee the future.  Still, at least for the present, all I can do is respect and empathize with those whose parents, children and siblings have paid the ultimate price for Israeli independence. For better or worse, I cannot identify with them. My hope is that in a generation or two, my experience will become the rule, not the exception, in Israel and the entire Middle East.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Usual sights

Israel is a unique country in many ways, including typical behavior.  The following is a short list of rather commonplace phenomena that visitors might see in Israel that would surprise them but attract no notice by the locals.

Looking around, it becomes obvious, especially in certain cities, that Israelis love children.  It is not extraordinary to people out and about with four or more children in tow and a baby in hand.  The religious and Arab populations in particular tend to have large families but, in general, the more the merrier applies to children here, including two rounds of them in order to avoid empty nest syndrome. Also, numerous people, not just soldiers, pack guns openly here.  My father was rather shocked at the amount of weaponry among the guests at my first wedding.  I stopped noticing this long ago.  In terms of shopping, security guards and bag checks are routine and standard at every store and mall. Women automatically direct their bags for a check. As for fashion, due to a noticeable religious presence, some level of “modest” clothing is the norm.  In other words, a woman walking with her breasts exposed tends to attract much attention, most of negative.

Israelis in public tend to be quite friendly.  They routinely say shalom to people they meet, including strangers. Curiously, even non-religious Jews use Shabbat shalom in Friday and Saturday communication.  If someone needs directions, Israelis are very helpful if not always so knowledgeable. It is not an accident that Ways was invited by an Israeli.  He was probably tired of receiving incorrect directions. If someone collapses in an Israeli street, people drop everything and try to help.  The odds are that at least one of them is/was a medic or medical staff member. It is well known that Israelis are so happy or relieved to land safely (or return) that they often clap after the plane lands. This is a perfectly normal thing to do, right?

Alas, not everything is rosy. Israelis, like most people in the Mediterranean basin, tend to be aggressive drivers. Woe to the sleepy driver at light that turns green.  A sharp honk is quick to come. Also, the parking shortage in many Israeli cities brings out the worst of its hypertense residents as expressed in countless shouting matches for precious parking spots.  Age and gender have no impact on the ferocity of these territorial battles. On a more dangerous note, certain groups for ideological reasons periodically express their opposition to others by throwing rocks at passing vehicles.  The most notable perpetrators are the ultra-orthodox on holidays on any car that dare disturbs their peace, including ambulances sometimes, and radicalized Muslim Arabs, generally youth, that want to emphasize their non-Israeli identity by punishing cars with Israeli license plates.  Fortunately, this is not common but still somewhat expected at certain times of the year.

I wish to add a few words on behavior.  In terms of food, Israelis find it perfectly normal to eat vegetables for breakfast and a large lunch, not dinner. In terms of main dishes, alongside the usual carnivores, Israel has the highest percentage of vegans in the world, which is good news for travelling vegetarians. In terms of travel, due to the limited size of the country, even those who own cars often choose to travel to another city by bus if not train.  Intercity flights are generally not practical. Israelis, even those try to ignore it, are addicted to the news.  No news is truly good news here but unfortunately all too rare. Hebrew being of limited value outside of Israel and a few spots in the United States, Thailand and Turkey, just about all Israelis know English, albeit not quite as well as they think they do. They happily apply this language skill in helping stranded tourists and ordering items from the Internet.

Granted, some countries share part of these behaviors but Israel is still a unique experience for a visitor.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The counter French revolution

In the eyes of many historians, the French Revolution of 1789 was the trigger for the most powerful ideological agent of change in recent centuries, nationalism.  It spread from Europe reaching Asia in the mid-20th century and created massive change throughout the world. Before it, people identified with their region, religion or social class.  After it, people gradually began to identify and be loyal to a nation, which included others of different regions, religions or social classes.  In other words, nationalism at its source was an inclusive force. Traditional nationalism aimed to welcome people to its large fold as much as local tensions and geography allowed.

In the last 20 years, nationalism has not disappeared but seemingly taken on an inverse direction: it defines nations by rejecting others, especially their culture and values. Whether as a reaction to countries becoming ethnically heterogenic or the need of politicians to attain and hold on to power, today’s nationalism is extremely xenophobic, rejecting anybody or any value considering alien. Trump openly espouses “America First” and wants to deport the largest immigrant group in the country, regardless of their contribution to the country.  Putin rejects any Western political values and oppresses and discriminates against minorities. Erdogan promotes a Turkish and religious agenda, openly crushing any laic or European-oriented opposition. These are only the most prominent of the new populist leaders. What is significant is not their existence but their popularity.  While for support these and similar leaders is far from 100%, they have all been elected with respectable majorities.  In other words, their restrictive world view reflects that of their voters.  It is an “us against them” world.

While traditional nationalism also divided the world into friends and enemies, these were geographical distinctions created by borders and history.  The enmity between France and Germany or Viet Nam and China are examples.  Still, any person willing to adopt the nationality and accept loyalty to the nation was welcome.  Today, in too many places, if you don’t fit the exclusive definition of the right citizen, whether in terms of race, philosophy or religion, you are a potential fifth column. That point of view, in my eyes, is an attempt to rewind the clock, generally a violent and ultimately ineffective act. 

I believe that the words of the Marseillaise are still relevant:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)

Or in English:
Arise, children of the Country,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny's
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Executive order

Words can sound good or bad not just in the sense of their auditory quality but also in their associational impact. By the latter I mean the emotional feeling created by that word, or at least one meaning of the word.  Of course, most words are neutral in themselves but life experiences shade the word. For example, a book is stack of papers bound together but a person’s experience may make render the association either positive, a wonderful tranquil experience, or negative, the objects that made my life at school miserable.  In some cases, even without first experience, the mere picturing of the word creates negative impressions. For instance, almost none of us have witnessed an amputation but the image of saw and lots of blood makes the process rather scary and unpleasant.

An interesting example of the associational complexity is the word execute.  For the average person, this word brings up the image of person standing against the wall or sitting in an electric chair, reinforced by repeated images in movies and TV documentaries (Woody Allen’s Love and Death and The Green Mile immediately come to mind). Even the most unsophisticated understand that execution is a once in a lifetime experience of a particularly bad type. Thus, execution has gotten itself a bad name.

Law has reinforced this attitude, at least for some people.  To execute a judgment means to carry it out, as in placing a lien on a bank account or repossessing a car or house.  For the recipient, it is clearly a traumatic experience even if not entirely unexpected at the time. Combined with the word’s first context, execution of a court order sounds like a death sentence.  For that reason, in England and the United States but not France, it is called enforcement. As Hannah Arendt explained in With Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was psychologically much easier to carry out the final settlement than murder.

Curiously, if the context is clear enough and other words are added, execution becomes much more palatable: Sports teams must execute the coach’s plan to succeed; it is the job of the President to execute the law; all persons are entitled to execute their right of attorney.  Most people do not grimace when hearing such phrases since death is far from their thoughts when hearing them.

So, alas, a rose is not always a rose; sometimes it is a thorn bush either due to a bee sting or possibly an allergy to roses. The why of our emotional associations to words is complex but nobody can deny their existence.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fear of flying

Having just returned from a family visit abroad, I had plenty of time, some 24 hours door to door, to reflect on the modern flying experience. While at one time, apparently, travel was exiting and almost magical, it has become unpleasant, even borderline insufferable.

The anxiety begins even before the trip.  Despite the plethora of options available to order airplane tickets, the sheer number of options in terms of airlines, types of connections, layover times and prices can be very daunting.  I have to admit that while for simple trips I use Expedia, for most trips I call the airline directly so I can compare the difference in price for specific days. It is far more time efficient. Unfortunately, the mere possession of the reservation guarantees no peace of mind. My flight paranoid has been justified on numerous occasions.  I have had flights delayed, cancelled and “disappeared” (never existed according to the airline, from Miami, of course). I have had to sit hours at the airport, been sent home from the airport and, just recently, even had to take a cab to another airport in order to make the connection.

The airport itself has become an obstacle course. Some airlines have self-checking in stands that easily confuse the easily confused. After checking in, US rules require a security process that is not far from a strip search and create long lines as each traveler gets his/her five minutes of unwanted attention. After that obstacle, in many airports, travelers of all ages can begin the long distance sprint.  Many airports, including San Francisco and Frankfurt, have kilometers of halls to pass to reach the golden gate of departure.  I have done it with an irregular heartbeat, a humbling experience.  I can imagine how older and less fit travelers feel.

The reward for having successfully reached the plane is sit in cramped seats like sardines in a can with generally efficient but not exactly friendly stewardesses and stewards, overworked themselves to be fair. Airplane food is rather infamous, justifiably. As for scheduling, officially, a half an hour late is on-time.  Try telling that to your boss. Some airports then play lottery with our luggage. Smart travelers try to avoid checking in luggage not just because of the cost.

Thus, traveling by plane involves stress to the third power.  Once upon a time, people were scared of flying because they were worried that the plane would crash.  The vast majority of Western flyers (not including Russian ones, I imagine) are now more concerned about what kind of physical and mental shape they will arrive at the destination.  That is the current meaning of the title of Erica Jong’s book.

Monday, February 19, 2018

English interference

Hebrew is not a difficult language to learn.  Due to several thousand years of forced stagnation, it failed to develop new roots and became quite regular.  The result is that each “root” learned allows the learned to understand countless new words.  To demonstrate, the root katav כתב  is used in many words, write, letter, address and dictate, to name just a few. Furthermore, there are only three tenses, past, present and future, simplifying grammar use.  The number of exceptions is rather limited and carefully organized into categories. Thus, despite its initial impression, learning Hebrew is not an especially difficult task.
That said, native languages always interfere in one way or another  with foreign languages. I have lived in Israel some 28 years and am quite fluent in both speaking and reading.  Yet, I continue to repeat certain errors despite all of my wife’s corrections. It is as if my brain insists on certain ways of doing things.

In my case, this inability to adjust to Hebrew comes out in three areas: letter pronunciation, syntax and gender chaos. Regarding the first, the transition from one language always involves some problematic sounds and letters.  For example, the French truly struggle with the English th sound. In the case of Hebrew, I pronounce the voiced and unvoiced h sounds, as represented by the letter heh ה, het ח and hof  כ almost without any distinction even though they are three different sounds in fact. Likewise, I massacre the difference between the sounds of the letters alef א  and ayin ע although I am cognizant of it.

Every language has its own syntax, its own way of framing the sentence, which can lead to misunderstandings when applied to another language. A nice example is the American expressing her frigidity instead of lack of body heat in the classic direct translation of English to French: Je suis froide when it should be J’ai froid. Regarding to Hebrew, since English sentences require a subject and verb, it is common and acceptable to add “it is” before adjectives to arrange the grammar while in Hebrew there is no need in some cases.  So, I constantly say זה קר בחוץ, literally it is cold outside, instead of just קר בחוץ , cold outside. It just does not seem natural.

Finally, the whole genderification of pronouns is a constant trap.  All pronouns, 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, have a male and female form in both singular and plural.  By contrast, English has he and she, with all other pronouns being neutral, such as I and they.  Not only that, the Hebrew verb must agree with the gender and number of the noun, unlike the non-gender specific forms of English verbs. The result is the constant need to consider the gender and adjust the grammar.  When speaking quickly or under pressure, these details can get lost.  In my case, everybody else in my house, i.e., my wife and daughter, is female, leading me to always use the female forms.  Unfortunately, quite often that rule does not apply out of the house, leading to people  to think “what a stupid American.”

In summary, language interference is a part of the learning process.  To a large extent, it can be overcome most of the time.  Still, no matter how long I will live her and how well I know the language, English will interfere from time to time.  Ultimately, it is not that important.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Bunker living?

Watching TV today is a bewildering experience.  With the formal choice of hundreds of channels and programs in multiple languages, both new series and reruns, recorded versions of missed programs and multiple means of viewing them, from 88” television screens to tiny telephones, deciding what to watch on a given evening can be a daunting decision. It almost is too much for a person tired from a long day of work and simply desiring to switch off the brain.

On a collective scale, aside from a few events, such as the Super Bowl or Academy Awards ceremony, it is impossible to guess what a coworker or friends watched the previous night.  It literally could be anything. The viewing experience has become extremely personal.  Before I can share my experience, I have to inquire what the other person’s choice was.
I remember of the days of limited choice, 1960’s and 1970’s. The United States had 3 channels (CBS, NBC and ABC), not including the rerun channels, which did not count. Israel had one while France had two. Cable and Internet streaming did not exist. The only alternative to TV was radio, not exactly a visual experience, and movie theatres, which required getting dressed and leaving the house.

While certainly lacking today’s choice and abundance of program options, the TV of yesteryear had a bit of a unifying effect.  Everybody knew who killed JR. In Israel, no weddings were scheduled on Sunday or Thursday night because of Dallas and Maccabi Tel Aviv European basketball games. Colleagues could begin a conversation by mentioning their impression of the last MASH with reasonable certainty that the other person had seen it.  A life basketball or baseball game (Saturday morning, PST) on TV was special. TV was not gourmet but most people shared the same taste, albeit not by choice.

It is not my intention to want to regress to the age of limited choice. I enjoy today’s luxury of being able to watch all 162 games of my beloved Pirates (although I am not that masochistic to actually do so). I would even argue that nothing has really changed in terms of content.  The Gershwin song was and still is relevant: we got plenty of nothing.  Yet, with this blossoming of media forms, society has lost of a bit of its cohesiveness, a shared experience linking young and old, rich and poor.  We did really care to know who killed JR, even in today most of us can no longer remember. In a certain sense, to quote Archie Bunker, “those were the days.”