Sunday, December 10, 2017

Spot the difference

The Galilee is the home of many cultures, interacting and even living together. These cultures include Jewish of all types, including Ashkenazi, oriental, Yemenite and Ethiopian, as well as Moslem and Christian Arabs, not to mention Circassians and Druze.  The terms “Jewish” and “Arab” almost lose their meanings given the constant mixing of value that occurs here.  For example, Israeli “Arabs” can barely speak pure Arabic, interspacing their mother tongue with Hebrew on a regular basis, while Eastern Jews are proud of their food and music traditions that are very similar to the ones of the Arab countries from where they families came from. Appearances can be very deceiving.

In term of culture clash, a trip to Acco is most educational.  Jews, Muslims and Christians have lived together in Acco for generations, thus providing a great view of this cultural mix.  One of the interesting cultural aspects involves the manner of dining and celebrating. When dining in a Jewish owned restaurant, everything is more restrained. The music may be “Arab” but the volume is kept low. The people enter and greet each other quietly, without great ceremony. Men and women generally sit together and talk quietly.  Also, the ban on smoking in public spaces is enforced. The atmosphere is quiet.

By contrast, going to an Arab restaurant is a public celebration, even if the actual table is private. The music tends to be louder; the greetings noisier, and signs of affections, real or otherwise, more dramatic. When large groups or families gather, you can often see seating by gender and/or status. A meal is intended to be a happy ceremony and is so performed. It is an occasion to express warmness and affection.  Smoking hookahs is often tolerated, making such restaurants a bit challenging for those used to a smoke-free environment. Diners enjoy their food, essential the same food as in the Jewish-owned restaurants, but are much less restrained in their expression of the social pleasure.

Given that all human beings, regardless of their faith and culture, view eating as a central part of their social life, a dinner in Acco is a wonderful opportunity to view the different styles of public dining. Which is better?  Chacun à son gout.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Cheese – A tale of three countries

A rose is a rose is rose but cheese is not fromage, which is not גבינה  [gvina]. While the translation is correct, the meaning is fundamentally different in the United States, France and Israel.

All types of food, including cheese are available, in most places in the United States.  However, the word cheese on a menu generally brings up the yellow flat pieces known as American cheese, although fancier places will use cheddar. Supposedly, there is some milk-based material in American cheese but I have to take that on faith.  Instead, it is used as a taste element, albeit rather high caloric, to supplement various dishes, including omelets and hamburgers. In Israel, people use powdered chicken broth for the same purpose. Regarding it as a cheese and not a texture-element, I wonder how many people eat slices of American cheese au natural, without bread or some other accompaniment. Other cheeses are considered foreign and exotic, either attracting or turning off Americans according to their food bents and budget.  So, in America, for many people, the term cheese brings up an image of a flat, yellow slice.

By contrast, cheese in France is not food item but instead a world into itself. A visit to a French cheese shop is a voyage through France with all its smells, colors and tastes. Experts can identify a brie or camembert by area or even village. The more striking the cheese is, whether in smell or taste or both, the better.  Mild cheese is for wimps or certain cooked dishes. That Anglo-Saxon adventurous choice, cheddar, is an also-ran in the competitive arena of a fromagerie. Even less sophisticated French appreciate a good chèvre (goat cheese). So, in France, le fromage is a microcosm of the country.

Israel is developing country in terms of cheese.  Once upon a time, for economic reason, the only cheese available were two types of גבנ"צ [gavnatz], yellow cheese. Since the opening of the country and arrival of millions of Russian immigrants, the sky is the limits.  Countless types of cheese are not easily attainable, albeit for a pretty penny.  Still, for everyday use, people use the standard yellow cheese. I have to say that the Israeli standard is significantly higher than the American standard cheese and quite tasty in itself.

When in Rome do like the Roman but don’t go too far and do something stupid.  In France, visit a fromagerie. You may like it (or may run away for that matter). In the United States, unless you like it, do not order cheese unless they tell you which cheese.  To be fair, there is nothing wrong with a good cheddar. In Israel, you won’t be disappointed by the standard cheese but go to a Russian supermarket and enjoy the wide choice of tastes, if not smells. Say cheese!

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……