Sunday, December 9, 2012

On the way to Jerusalem or My Home is my Castel


Many Americans are interested in buying real estate in Israel, an investment supposedly guaranteed to rise in value over the years.  With Google Translate and English-speaking lawyers, there is no problem in reading the “for sale” notices.  However, there is a large gap between understanding the words and knowing what really what you are getting.

First of all, watch the room count number: an Israeli four room apartment has three bedrooms.  The family room, called the salon in Hebrew, counts as a room, although the kitchen doesn’t, for some reason.  Secondly, the sizes are listed in square meters, not square feet.  The ratio is a bit over 1:10, i.e. 100 m2 = 1076 sq. ft. and 150 m2 = 1614 sq. ft.  However, as Mark Twain would say, numbers can lie.  First, Israeli buildings are almost entirely made of brick.  They are measured from the external edges of walls.  Given the size of the bricks, that can add significant square meters to the total, to the joy of the building contractors and city tax collectors and at the expense of the actual living space.  More seriously, in many parts of the country, the ground is very rocky, making initial development costs expensive.  As a result, many apartments are built upward with multiple floors, 16 steps, or half floors (Miflasim).  The total area includes those almost useless stairwells.  So, not all 120 m2 apartments are created equal.

Speaking of floors, like Europe, most Israeli buildings have a ground floor.  The first floor requires walking up stairs.  Buildings up to three stories are not required to have elevators.  So, a third floor apartment, no matter how wonderful it is inside, can be a real physical condition builder when you have groceries to haul up of 48 steps.   Seriously, such apartments pose seriously problems for older people with limited mobility.

Another source of misunderstanding is the penthouse, which may bring images of a fancy place in Manhattan, but often means an average apartment spread over the top two floors of a building.  I suppose the residents of penthouses do not have to suffer from noise from the upstairs neighbors (unless their son or daughter has a room on the top floor), but they do get to enjoy the fruits (or mushrooms) of the first rain of the season when the roof starts to leak.

Lastly, an almost unique Israeli housing requirement is the mamad, the reinforced room.  All newer housing requires it, but many older houses and apartments lack it.  This room, which has reinforced cement and a special window and door, is very useful when Israel’s not-so-friendly neighbors starting reenacting those thrilling lines from the American national anthem:  … and the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air…  On the flip side, it is a real headache drilling a hole in those walls.  So depending on where you want to live, having a secure room could be on your check list.

So, as the expression goes, let the buyer beware.  Israel has no Brooklyn Bridge to sell, but it has its share of Potemkin village property.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Victory, Defeat and the Middle East


The Middle East is truly difficult for the Western World to understand.  It seems familiar and similar,  but peculiar and annoying differences keep on popping up.  For example, there are two words existing in all languages (to the best of my knowledge) with clear meanings: victory and defeat.   In regards to war, if your armed forces can or do take over the enemy’s territory, you win.  If you have to ask for mercy, you lose.  Every kid who ever had a fight in the schoolyard understands that.

However, in the Middle East, the words have become confused.  In 1948, 1956, and 1967, both Israelis and Arabs agree that the former won and the latter lost. Since then, Lewis Caroll has taken over, i.e. a word means what I intend it to mean.  In 1973, Egypt and Syria had to run to Russia and the UN and ask for a ceasefire because Israel had wide open roads to Cairo and Damascus.   Curiously enough, Israelis view the Yom Kippur War as a great defeat while the Egyptians regularly celebrate the anniversary of the great victory.  In the first and second Lebanese wars (the former officially known as Peace in the Galilee Campaign), the Palestinians and Hezbollah were forced to retreat, to the sea in the former case, granted while causing quite a few casualties for the Israelis.   Again, the sides seem to view the matter inversely, with the Israelis very uncomfortable with the memory of the conflict and the former two groups proud of their resistance. 

The latest of chapter of  this Go reversal game is the most recent tit-for-tat exchange in Gaza, otherwise known as the Pillar of Cloud operation, which ended some two weeks ago.  The Palestinians objectively were extremely unsuccessful in their goal of killing civilians while the Israeli air force destroyed most of their planned targets with minimum collateral damage, as civilian casualties are euphemistically called.  Predictably, Israelis are uneasy with the result while the Palestinians are celebrating their phantom victory, i.e. the vague promise to talk about opening borders.

Clausewitz wrote that war is another means of diplomacy.  I suppose that the claimed victories and defeats are actual if you taken into account the political goals of the parties.  Still, as Orwell suggested, the complete misuse of words eventually strips them of all of their meaning, especially in the Middle East.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

National Streets


Street names are culturally specific.  Some countries treat their streets as long strips of asphalt while others give them much more historical significance.

The United States as a rule shows little imagination but some practicality in naming its streets.  The most common names are trees (oak, elm, pin, etc), numbers, and letters.  The city of Portland, Oregon in its downtown area has all of its streets going north/south (to the best of my memory) named in alphabetical order according to the first letter, i.e. words beginning of a, b, c, etc.  It makes finding addresses much simpler.  The only real bit of history in most U.S. cities is the use of presidents, but it doesn’t go much farther than the founding fathers and a few exceptional ones, specifically Washington, Madison, Adams, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt. 

A French city map is a history lesson, especially Paris.  Anybody who is anybody in French history has a street, however small it may be, named after him or her.  There is almost always a small plaque stating a few biographical bits and pieces about the person.  The older city has medieval names whose origins are often completely lost, such as Rue de Mauvais Fils (The street of bad boys).  The distinction between ancient and modern Paris is sometimesmarked by the word “Faubourg” added  to a street name somewhere along its length, as in Rue St. Denis and Rue Faubourg St. Denis. All in all, for the interested explorer, its turns every stroll in Paris into a wonderful look into the past.

Modern Israel tends to name streets after history and nature.  No Israeli municipality is complete without a Rehov Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, Herzl, and Trumpeldor.  I live in a neighborhood whose streets are all military campaigns (most of which the younger generation has never hear of).  Ironically, it is bordered by a street called Derech Hashalom, meaning “The Way of Peace.” Fortunately, most residential streets are given the sweet sounding names of trees, birds, and flowers, such as Alon (Oak), Dukifat (hoopoe), and Harzit (chrysanthemum).  In many cities, such as Jerusalem and Zefat, the names of various rabbis and righteous people are noted.  By contrast, in many Arab villages, there are many “anonymous” streets, which I suppose adds challenge to the postal carrier’s job.

Of course, there is a joke about the high regard that Americans have for the late Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.  Almost every freeway in the United States is named Begin freeway.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Inverse Proportions – (Politically proportional or not)


An inverse proportion can describe a relation where the scales of effort and results are opposite, i.e. greater effort is used for less consequence.  It applies to the 80/20 rule, which states that 20% of the work attains 80% of the results while the last 20% requires 80% of the effort. 

This rule has a curious parallel in politics, specifically the actual voting process in general elections.  In the United States, voting during a presidential year can take great time and effort.  Voters place their booklet in the holder and then punch holes for the choice for the following positions, depending on the year, of course: president of the United States, senator  and representative for the U.S. Congress, senator and representative for the state legislature, representative for city legislature, governor, mayor, judge, police chief, local prosecutor,  sheriff, and board of education members, not to mention countless state propositions where allowed in that state (California, for example).  Voting truly demands concentration and several minutes of concentration.  U.S. citizens are naturally expected, even around half of them fail to do so, to find time during their working day to get to the voting stations. 

By contrast, the Israeli voters go their voting stations, generally a school within walking distance, show their ID to five people, who mark off their name on a list.  That is the hard part.  Then they walk into a curtain covered booth, take out an envelope, choose a piece of paper identifying the party of their choice, place that paper in the envelope, seal the envelope, exit the booth, and place the envelope in the appropriate box.  In fact, it took more time to write that description than to actually do it.  Ironically, Israelis get a day off to accomplish that complicated task.  Even then, a significant percentage of Israelis do not vote.
In short, Americans have to work hard to vote and don’t get any time off for fulfilling their civic duty.  By contrast, Israelis have almost nothing to do, aside from getting to the voting station, to pick their Knesset members.  However, as illogical as it sounds, Israelis get a day off.  It is truly inverse.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Well-Aged Geography


You can be as old as you look, feel, speak, and think.  You can also be as old as you remember geography.

I happen (a matter of accident of course) to be in my early 50’s.  I remember when the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia and controlled East Germany, whose major enemy was West Germany, the capital of which was in Bonn.  Of course, the Soviet fleet was based in Leningrad.  Peking was the capital of Russia’s major rival, China. At the same time, there was an interesting war going down in Rhodesia, which basically produced everything internally because no one would trade with a racist regime.  As for Asia, one of the poorest countries that never got into the news was Burma.

Oh, how things change, today the Russian Federation would never think of invading the Czech Republic , not the mention Slovakia, a separate entity.  The Germanies have been reunited with Berlin as its capital.  People take cruises to see Saint Petersburg and fly to Beijing.  Myanmar gets into the news as one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world.  As for Botswana, aside from occasional government changes, who in Europe and the United States reads about it, although I have heard that it is a beautiful country and worth visiting.

On the bright side, even if your hair is grey or non-existent and your skin is no longer baby-like, if you know that going to Croatia is not a trip to Yugoslavia and the Georgia Republic is not the home of Jimmy Carter, you are still young.  It could be worse:  you could think the capital of Germany is Weimar!  That would be a real grandfather clause.

Friday, October 19, 2012

New Words I like


On my recent family visit in L.A, I encountered two words that tickled my fancy.  They were actually incredibly sounding of combinations of common words.  Special circumstances brought these odd couples together, creating the need for a new catchy phrase.  Of course, the market provided the answer, even I don’t know who exactly came up with the phrase.

The first one appeared in this title “Teenagers who sext are more likely to get into trouble.”  The term “sext” combines text with sex.  I assume it means to send erotic messages to your chat partner.  I see the term in Hebrew is סקסמס, a term that combines לסמס  pronounced lesemes and means to send SMS messages and סקס  pronounced sex, which means what it means.  I imagine that in French would be envoyer un sexto.  By the way, nothing came up when I googled that term.  So, all of those are sexting, sexemsesing or sending sextos, you should watch out!

The other term is Carmagendon , actually Carmagendon II as this is the second time this event occurred.  Specifically, it was necessary to close a section of the main north-south freeway in LA, the 405, because of bridge destruction (no spelling error), for almost two days (a weekend).  The 405 normally resembles a parking lot from 8 in the morning to 8 at night as we witnessed from the comfort  of our hotel window.  So, the necessity of closing this pass was considered such a local disaster that the upcoming Carmaggendon was the main news item for more than two weeks. 

Of course, possibly due to the all of the talks of traffic jams and alternative ways, most Angelinos stayed home.  Disaster was avoided, with many children expected to enter this world in nine months.  Still, the combination of car and Armageddon is delightful.

I would like to hear more new hybrids arising to fill the need for the right term at the right time.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Separate But Not Equal?


What a difference an ocean can make!  Ask the British and the Americans, who formally speak the same language.   Alas, the same is for Judaism.  Israelis, even not religious ones, and Americans view practicing their religion in a different light.

For Israelis, Ben Gurion’s “temporary” status quo agreement with the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, which gave them exemption from army service, had other consequences.  The only form of Judaism that is regarded as proper is orthodox, somewhere according to the practices of the national-Religious vein.  This means keeping kosher, separate men and women in synagogues, and set standards of “modesty”, i.e. women keeping their knees and elbows covered, to mention just a few items.  Most Israelis, including the most anti-religious ones, accept this as the only way to practice Judaism if you are going to do so at all.  Only in 2012 has the government been forced to recognize non-orthodox rabbis.  So, in Israel, all is clear, even if often ignored.

By contrast, the United States is the land of skepticism and variety.   In a recent poll, the second largest religious “sect” is the group of people who have doubts about religion (but not about god, to be precise).  The Pope and the protestant preachers continue to scream at their wayward flocks for failing to toe the line.  Jews are not exempt.  The vast majority of American Jews is not orthodox, but instead conservative or reform, whatever that means.  Therefore, families sit together with koshrut being often partial, if kept at all.  (Granted, many American Jews keep kosher homes.)  As for modesty, well, during my recent trip to L.A., the second largest Jewish concentration in the United States, I happened to walk by the nearby synagogue on Yom Kippur.  The men wore suits and ties.  As for the ladies of all ages, they were tastefully dressed for the most part, but many were showing knees and elbows, if not more.  My Israeli-born partner was a bit shocked and upset by this.  She remarked:  “How can they wear that to the synagogue?”  My comment that not everybody shared her values was not comprehended.  The issue of a different but still acceptable standard of modesty was beyond her grasp.  (To her credit, she could understand why people in L.A. drive to the synagogue on Yom Kippur.)

As an American Jew who has lived in Israel for so long, I explain the difference in perspective to the general attitude of skepticism in the United States.  In my opinion, most of the people at the LA Yom Kippur services do not actually “buy” the rules of Judaism, meaning they fundamentally think they are bubbameisis (old wives’ tales), but agree to pretend on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Pesach in order to maintain some form of being Jewish.  By contrast, most Israelis believe that the Halacha, the Jewish guide to proper practices, is serious business, even if many openly ignore it.   Whether the two practices are equal, I choose to take the Fifth Amendment.

P.S. My apologies for the long break in writing.  I was on a family visit and then had to recover from it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Down and Up in Paris and London


English and French, sharing many of the same roots and differing in their development, have many “false friends”, i.e. words that sound like but may have subtle or not so subtle differences I meaning.   My favorite example from the financial world is the word exercise.  Very few native English speakers would even think that this term also can be translated as “fiscal year” in French financial documents. 

Somewhat related to the “false friend” issue is the matter of describing moods, both good and bad.  Sadness and joy in their many variations need to be expressed.  French and English tread slightly different paths.

On the dark side, Americans and Brits can feel a bit down or have the blues when their favorite team loses a game or their date cancels at the last minute.  It isn’t pleasant, but French speakers would also have le cafard for the same reason.  Now, of course, losing your job causes depression on both sides of the English Channel / La Manche.  A person who often feels low for no special reason suffers from melancholy, whatever your native language.  The English speaker might experience anguish at discovering that his/her spouse has been cheating for the last ten years, but it doesn’t seem to carry the sound and impact of the French angoisse.

On the bright side of life, eating a good ice cream might make you happy, but only a good job and home will make you content in the Anglo-Saxon world.  (Any parent of a teenage daughter understands the difference fully!)  By contrast, that same glace makes a Parisian content, but the newlywed French couple appears heureux.

So, free translation from French to English does not always express the speaker’s meaning.

By the way, to anybody who needs a good bittersweet laugh, I strongly recommend George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.  He makes starvation funny.

Friday, August 17, 2012

You are what you drink – In Israel


Society can be differentiated by a variety of factors.  In Israel, by knowing what a person drinks, you can often guess their socio-economic status.

Jews in the Diaspora were more known for their hard work more than drinking, even in heavy-drinking countries like Russia.  This tendency shows in older Israelis, over 55, who spent most of their lives in Israel, meaning not including the last batch of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  For example, I was recently at a Bar Mitzvah brunch.  I noticed an interesting cause and effect: most of the adults were “aunts and uncles”, i.e. over the age of 55; there was no beer or wine on the table.  Curiously, nobody seemed to care or even request any.  For many people of this background, the only alcohol they regularly drink is sweet wine on the Sabbath. Alcohol is not part of their social way of life.

Younger, non-religious Israeli-born adults between the ages of 30-55 do drink alcohol occasionally.  The aspiring upper-class often orders wine and beer at restaurants and serves them at parties with friends.  To be fair, Israeli wine is quite good, with good soil and no shortage of sun here, but can be quite expensive relative to income.  The middle class tends to order beer.  Israeli beer, Maccabi and Goldstar, are quite good lagers, better than most American beers but slightly inferior to the top European brews.  The draft version is rather refreshing after a set of tennis or a hot day hiking.  More traditional Israelis enjoy Arak, an Ouzo-like, anise-based clear liquor or a traditional whiskey. 

The large Russian immigration of the 1990’s brought a love of vodka to Israel.  Initially, only the immigrants themselves partook of it.  However, today almost every non-religious Israeli under the age of 30, male or female, drinks vodka, now available in every food and beverage store, including candy stores!  For these people, liquor is becoming a requirement at any social occasion.  Going to a pub has become a way of entertainment, like in Europe or the United States. 

So, as Israeli society is evolving, so are its consumption habits.  There are marked differences in what people drink depending on their age and status.  To paraphrase a French expression, cherchez la boisson.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Legally Put


As a legal translator, I am not intimidated by legal language, but I recognized that even most native speakers regard the language of Shakespeare and contracts in the same light: sounds impressive but what the hell does it mean?  Who, aside from attorneys, paralegals, and legal translators, actually reads all those words in small print?

However, there is a surprisingly variety of styles in legal writing, depending on the country, purpose of document, age of attorney, and general attitude of the writer.  Two examples of this variety involved the omnipresent legal concepts of need and permission.

All contacts describe the obligations and rights of a party (not including having a good time, of course).  The issue is how to express it.  The following sentences all technically express the same requirement:
a.      The Renter shall pay the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
b.      The Renter will pay the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
c.       The Renter commits to paying the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
- Added note:  On a sugestion from Janet Lerner, a fourth option is "The Renter is to pay the rent..."  Also very nice in my opinion.

Clearly, all three are clear and identical in meaning, with the difference being in the verb.  The use of shall as a determinative, not future, is based on the previously accepted distinction, at least by English teachers, between will and shall.  According to this archaic usage, the conjugation I shall, you will, s/he will, we shall, they will expresses the future while the conjugation I will, you shall, s/he shall, we will, they shall expresses a lack of choice.  In the case in hand, “The Renter shall…” means that the Renter has no choice.  Alas, for better or worse, I strongly doubt that many native speakers in the United States under the 30 know about this quaint rule.  In more modern English, the second sentence “The Renter will…” also expresses obligation.  The third option is less attractive both because it adds words and sounds like a translation.  However, language is a matter of taste sometimes.    As my father used to be a journalist, he ingrained in me a hatred of wasted words.

The second example involves expressions regarding the right to do something:
a.      The Lessor is entitled to cancel the agreement at any time.
b.      The Lessor has the right to cancel the agreement at any time.
c.       The Lessor may cancel the agreement.

Regarding the first, the word entitled is generally used for children and land purchases.  While technically correct, it is less applicable in this sentence.  The second is classic legal language, used in countless contracts.  However, the third is much less intimidating to the average reader and means the exact same thing.  There are disputes whether legal language should “go down” to the people.  The U.S. Congress has passed legislation ordering that.  Therefore, for reasons of simplicity, efficiency, and accessibility, I actually prefer the third option, although many lawyers would probably disagree with me.

So, no matter how you wish to legally put it, variety is the spice of life, or at least disputes, in the legal world.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shit Happens and It does Matter – Why Living is Israel is not like living in the United States


Visitors from Europe or North America travelling through Israel will see a remarkable number of similarities.  They will recognize many of the brands and stores.  They will read the signs in English.  People drive cars on the right (in both senses of the word) side of the road, albeit crazily.  Even social manners are reasonably similar, if a bit more expressive than Northern Europe.  All in all, Israel does not even feel like a completely foreign country.
At the same time, life here is different than that in the West.  Even after many years, it is hard to put your finger on the actual difference.  I have an unproved theory, a gut feeling (not always good, either):
Outside occasional deaths in the family and even more rare mass shooting events, most people in the United States and Europe are insulated from tragedy.  Most people don’t know anybody who actually has been shot and wounded, not to mention just shot at.  Most people don’t know someone who has served or is serving in an ongoing war.  Even 9/11, an iconic event, was more a symbolic blow to security than an actual personal loss for the vast majority of Americans.  I am not saying this is a bad thing.  It is a sign of a normal life.  However, one of its side effects is that the great American expression “Whoever has the most toys wins” becomes very dominant.  The goal of people becomes to collect things, big or small, according to budget and nature.  Keeping with the Joneses, Lees, Rodriguezes, and Ivanovs is an extremely popular game.  A person can make a success of a football (any type) team the focus of their life.  In other words, for the most part, there is the automatic routine of living and there is fun, quite simple really.
By contrast, in Israel, shit does happen and much too frequently.  The recent bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria was a not so gentle reminder of how frail life and happiness can be.  A person’s whole life can and does sometimes change in an instant.  Almost everybody in Israel has a family member or friend who is serving.  Almost everybody knows someone who has been wounded or killed in the line of duty.  Everybody naturally looks for unnatural behavior or objects, albeit in a calm, natural manner.  Israelis almost always stop talking for the first ten seconds of the omnipresent news broadcasts to be sure that nothing “important” has happened.  On a certain level, this constant worry is negative: tension, worry, and negative thinking.  On the other hand, it has certain positive effects in my opinion.  Life is lived more intensely here; every day is long and every week is short.  Also, people really actively value their families and friends since a whole world can be theoretically upturned at any time.  You cannot take the routine for granted.  Finally, the whole issue of having more toys is less dominant here because there are more important things, although competition is a part of human nature.
So, while you would think living in the historically unstable Middle East would ruin your life, it merely changes it and not necessarily for the worse.
I once met someone who had lived in Sarajevo.  I mentioned how dangerous that must have been.  His answer would be utterly understood by an Israeli: “No, the fighting took place in the block next to us, not where we lived.” Shit happens.  Cope with it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Tempest in a Teacup


The word “exotic” can be defined as that what is extraordinary.  For example, blonds are exotic in the Middle East but quite commonplace in Scandinavia.  When a phenomenon is exotic, it creates problems of description.  While the dictionary literally translates words from language to languages, the phenomenon they describe can in practice vary, as in the example of weather.
Rain in some quantity is essentially a global event experienced by basically all cultures.  So, the word storm exists in all languages. However, it means different things to different people.  I lived in (Western) Oregon, home of such classic jokes as “It rains twice a year, from January to June and June to January” and “Oregonians don’t tan; they rust” (To be fair, the same jokes are made about the northern half of the Pacific Northwest, Washington state).  If the weather forecaster mentioned a storm, it had to be more than the usual constant piss outside, something with high winds and torrential rain.  There was no purpose in saying there was a storm outside to describe the constant fall of water particles typical of nine months of the year (in a good year).  I imagine that the British also can relate to this.   By contrast, in the arid Middle East, a storm is anything more than a half a day of rain.  A whole slew of experts appear on television to advise the public how to prepare for the event, each and every millimeter of rain, in terms of dressing children, driving precautions, and staying healthy.  Two days later, the whole nation joyfully listens how the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) went up such and such millimeters and is this far from the red line.  The only real damage is a few more car accidents than usual and a few low lying areas get flooded (as they do every year due to non-existent drainage).  However, you have to watch out for that storm.
In contrast, there is the wonderful term heat wave.  In northern Europe and parts of the United States, a heat wave is anything beyond 30° C (86° F) for more than three days.  The main reason for this panic is the lack of air circulation within the cramped cities, air conditioners, ice, or any other means of getting cool, and general knowledge of how to react to heat.  Hundreds people in Europe actually died during a recent wave there.  In the Middle East, this is not a heat wave; it is the climate.  From May until October, the temperature is over 30° C, often even at night, not taking account high humidity in the coastal areas, an added pleasure as any New Yorker would know.  A heat wave, like we are having now, is a week of over 104° with some added high humidity.  Now that is suffering, as we say as we sit in our air-conditioned cars, offices, and houses.
On a final note, I once asked a group of newly-arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union what temperature they considered cold.  Apparently, most of them came from the Siberia region as their consensus was -30° C (-22° F).  They said that -20° C (-4° F) was quite tolerable.  To paraphrase Alice, a word means what I want it to mean.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Well-Grounded Coffee


The Middle East is a crossroad of cultures, ancient and modern, East and West.  Countless travelers, languages, foods and styles have passed through this gate between Europe, Africa, and Asia.  This blending of tastes is also expressed in coffee, more specifically in the types of coffee drunk by people here.
As befits an immigrant country, to drink coffee has different meanings to different people.  The ancient Arab way of drinking coffee is brewing strong black coffee, often several times, until it become quite concentrated and serving it sweetened in small porcelain or glass cups.  This tradition is alive and well and can be experienced in even the simplest of Arab restaurants, where the meal is capped with a cup of coffee and piece of Baklava.  I worked at a Druze school where there was an employee whose only job, as far I could ever see, was to prepare Druze coffee, granted extremely good, for the staff.  Imagine that in any Western school.
The modern, Israeli equivalent is a black coffee served in a normal cup prepared simply by pouring boiling water over the ground coffee and adding sugar, often called Mud for obvious reasons.  Traditional Arabs probably don’t consider this coffee, but it does have the virtue of containing caffeine, being easy to prepare, and not containing milk, which allows it to be drunk after a meat meal by those who keep Koshrut.
The Zionist contribution to coffee, if you choose to view it as a contribution, is Elite Instant Coffee or that of one of its competitors.  Elite is supposedly a pioneer in coffee processing technology and a world leader in coffee sales.  It is usually drunk with milk, similar to a café au lait.  As the French say, chacun á son gout, in English – to each his own, but it is not my cup of tea. However, to be fair, in terms of numbers, it is probably the most popular coffee in Israel.
The European influence is reflected in the omnipresent and quite good expresso bars in Israel. The smallest kiosk seems to offer expresso (as written in French) or cappuccino, even gas station convenience stores. Surprisingly, the quality is generally quite good. 
To set matters straight, I have a limited tolerance for coffee, but enjoy both its taste and its effects.  I drink either expresso (Nespresso machine at home) or an excellent French expresso instant made by Café Noire, for which I can’t seem to find any supplier that will ship to Israel.  I also can enjoy a good Arab coffee or Israeli black coffee, especially when traveling or hiking in the field.
So, if you want to visit Israel and are, for some reason, concerned about the available of good coffee, you have nothing to worry about.  Israel has adopted all the world has to offer in terms of coffee.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Important Room


A euphemism is a nice word for a concept that society does not want to talk about openly, even if it must.  Examples of this are dying, often known as passing away, among others (cf. Monty Python’s Dead Parrot routine for the best exposition on the subject), cancer, otherwise known as a terminal disease, and sex with its hundreds of synonyms.
One peculiar area where most societies prefer to shade the truth a bit is that room in the house or outside of it where people carry out those important bodily functions sometimes known mathematically as 1 and 2 or dimensionally as big and small.  In English, it can be called a restroom, where I suppose some people actually rest, a loo, derived from an old French term, a WC, standing for water closet, which at least is always present in the room, a toilet, a word emphasizing the clean afterwards of the experience, the bathroom, which often does not include a bath especially in small apartments, and the ladies and mens room for restaurant, a possibly justified euphemism.  I would agree that it is much more elegant to ask the waiter where the ladies room is as compared to ask where to go pee.
French shares la toilette, la salle de bain, and WC with the English.  However, it adds the charming “le petit coin” meaning the small corner.   Given the size of many if not most French toilettes, the description is precise in terms of area if not purpose. 
Hebrew has its own terms:   השירותים (hashirutim) meaning “the services”; בית שימוש (beit shimush) literally signifying “the house of use”; and finally המקום החשוב (hamakom hahashuv), which can be translated as “the important place.”  The latter may not be specific in function, but it is accurate in terms of status. 
So, I will end this post to allow you to go to, you know, the important place.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gunning for it


Guns are worldwide and universal.  Their meaning is not.  When people see a person with a gun, its impact often depends on its national context.
For example, guns of all kinds are quietly omnipresent in Israel.  Armed soldiers, male and female, are highly visible in all public areas generally because they are on their way to somewhere else.  To Israelis, this is banal while to foreigners, this is exotic.  People of all ages involved in security services freely circulate at all times, including at celebrations.  My father was rather shocked to see my father-in-law’s colleagues walking around with pistols at my wedding.  I did not even notice it.  Since guns are linked with military service and security duty, gun safety is taken seriously.  There are relatively few shooting accidents in Israel.  The truth is that after having to carrying around an M-16, even shortened, or a local made assault rifle for 3 or more years, very few people actually want to walk around armed and loaded.  
In France, gun control is strict.  Gun possession is mainly limited to police officers, soldiers, and hunters.  Therefore, seeing a gun makes an impression.  In the Jewish quarter of Paris near the synagogues, elite soldiers patrol the area.  Aside from wearing black uniforms and looking very serious (like they know how to actually aim the weapon), they carry submachine guns or machine pistols.  Their purpose is to intimidate potential terrorists. In the context of France, it works.
By contrast, in the United States, owning a gun is a protected, historical tradition.  The love of guns has been around for at least 400 years in the United States.  Many people in the United States in both urban and rural areas love to collect, shoot, and talk about guns.  It is a popular hobby.  Hunting is the main reason for existence for millions of Americans.  That means being around guns from a young age.  So, unlike Israel, guns are more entrenched part of everyday American life, for better or worse.  Therefore, the reaction of many people to guns is not shock, but curious as to what kind it is and how far it can shoot.
In summary, while guns are the same everywhere, people’s reactions differ from country to country.  I would be interested in hearing what reaction the sight of gun causes in your country.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Verb(al)izing


In root-poor languages, such as Hebrew, all roots are used to their maximum in terms of producing noun, verb, and adjective forms.  For example, in French, the root grand comes out grandir, grandeur, and grand in the verb, noun, and adjective forms, respectively.  Likewise, in Hebrew, the root גדל [gimel, dalet, lamed] produces גדול, גודל ,לגדול [legdol, godel, and gadol].  Therefore, a learner can quickly ascertain the pattern and make educated guesses as to the relevant form of a word.  This clearly makes learning to speak a language much easier.
Alas, English is extremely rich in roots, deriving them from a multitude of different languages and developing them at different times in history.  All this renders it very difficult to “guess” the verb form.  In countless cases, there is no verb while in others the change is unpredictable.  An example of the latter is the relation between effect and affect, advice and advise, and satisfaction and satisfy.
The following are a few patterns that allow a reader to guess the meaning of a verb:
a.      Ize  / (UK)  ise – Modern English tends to add this suffix to a noun or adjective to create an easily understandable verb.  Examples include capitalize, modernize, standardize, and that old law school classic, shepardize.
b.      En- or –en – Following old German grammar, adding an en at the beginning or end of some words transforms them into verbs, often adding the meaning to give: encourage and empower as compared to widen and threaten.
c.       ception -> ceive – All nouns that end in ception become ceive in the verb: reception – receive, conception – conceive, deception – deceive, perception – perceive.
d.      Drop the tion – By droping the tion in the noun form, many verbs are formed: relation – relate, construction – construct, investigation – investigate.
As mentioned, it is unfortunately quite difficult to verbalize all of the strategies for making verbs.  The best way to know the form is to listen and read English, learning intuitively.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Religion and Identity – (Middle) East and West


As an American who has lived some 23 years in Israel, I have learned to appreciate a certain reality which escapes people who have never been here, some of which who have to make vital policy decisions.
Religion in the West, meaning the United States and Europe, is a biographical fact.   Being born Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or anything else influences your values, your way of dressing, your ideal mate as far as your parents are concerned, and possibly your political view.  To be clear, I am not referring to actually practicing the religion or attending a house of worship.  The mere fact of having parents of a certain religion creates a part of your culture (with a small c).  In terms of understanding people, it is easier to relate to someone with same culture.  That being said, the parents’ background does not determine the children’s future in the United States. Since these countries view religion as a private matter separate from public identity, children can change or adapt their religion while still maintaining their status as an American, Italian, or Brit.  Thus, in the West, I am who I am and also have a religious culture.
By contrast, in the Middle East, religion is an identity, private and official, affecting all aspects of life.  ID cards list the religion of the carrier.  In Israel, a person’s faith, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze, determines that person’s social circle and public status in society.  In the Arab world, the situation is no different.  The Ottomans recognized and used this to administer the Middle East, letting each community run its own affairs as long as it paid taxes of course. Outside your faith, it is hard to be part of a community.
This understanding is vital for average citizens and decision makers.  Attempts to westernize the Middle East and make it religious in the Western way are doomed to fail.  People hold on strongly to their faith, even more today.  The zealots here may be crazy, but most honestly believe that they are right.   (See that ancient book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler for a potential explanation.)  More importantly, leaders and people in the street in the Middle East do not think like their counterparts in the West.  There is a wonderful story about John Dulles, the US Foreign Minister during the 1956 Middle Eastern crisis, who complained to reporters that he was shocked that Nasser lied to him.  This demonstrates the critical lack of understanding then and maybe now of Middle Eastern thinking.  Ignoring the power of religion just feeds that misinterpretation
The next time you hear about some “irrational act” in the Middle East or by someone from here, keep in mind that faith here defines both identity and ethics.

Monday, June 4, 2012

House and Home


As is well known, English has an unusually large and varied vocabulary for almost all matters, including the important issue of housing.  After all, shelter is one of the most basic needs.  Opening up the Thesaurus to the word home – noun brings up an impressive list of related words, each with a bit of a different context.
A home is a general word for a permanent place to sleep as compared to lodgings where a hotel guest may stay or quarters or a billet where soldiers spend their nights.  Of course, the home implies some emotional attachments unlike a house, which is merely four walls with some rooms in it. 
On a smaller note, a British flat becomes an apartment, if it is for rent, or a condo, if it is for sale and a bit fancy, on the other side of the Atlantic.  A studio is a fancy word for a small, one room place.  A penthouse has very high class pretentions that do not meet reality in Israel at least. 
The upper part of scale is a mansion, which assumes some staff to maintain all the rooms or possible a residence if it is official, as in the Prime Minister’s Residence, which is really a rather large flat.  Royalty did once live in palaces, but today the term is rather relative, to misquote Einstein, as in moving into a cottage of 240 meters after years in that quaint studio.  It does give the feeling of “making it.”  As that term cottage, it once meant a small country house, a bit like a Russian dacha.  Today, it is used indiscriminately any house with a yard, big or small.
The flip side of the equation is a tenement, a small crowded flat in a poor area.   Some people would call that a dump, but that is being negative.  On the other hand, if you are young, poor, and in love in Paris, you would call the 9th floor studio with no elevator a loft or even a pied-è-terre, even if it is far from the ground. 
So, as you walk in big cities and see homeless, reconsider your dwelling and remember that home is where the hearth is, no matter how small or big it is.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bilingual Cursing


As every kid, old and young, knows, cursing is fun.  It is emotionally satisfying both to express your feelings and grab the attention of the people around you.  The guilty pleasure of a shocked, unhappy face of an adult is the whipped cream to the already good feeling of emotional release. 
A good curse has three elements: content, sound, and context.  The content generally refers to sexual anatomy or God.  Sound is no less important.  Hard, accented sounds are the most effective, such as  sh, k, or an  accented u.  Finally, the cultural context is important. Cursing has to shock.  The F-word in English has become a banal modifier in many sub-cultures of the United States.  George Carlin’s brilliant comment about being able to say on television that your pricked your finge, but not the opposite is a classic demonstration of that.  On the subject of context, Umberto Eco of the Name of the Rose fame wrote a wonderful discussion of the art of translating a truly shocking curse in the various languages from the mild equivalent of God Damn in some cultures to explicit descriptions of sexual activity in other languages.  So, a good curse must have some meaning , sound forceful, and break rules of etiquette.
An interesting phenomenon is when curses are transplanted without translation into other languages.  Although the sound and maybe the context remains the same, the meaning is somewhat lost.  For example, in the Eretz Nehederet TV show, an Israeli satire program, in a series of skits on the Iranian nuclear treat, the scientists keeping on saying “pak it”, a clear reference to the English f-word.  However, the use of the word leads to laughter, not shock.  Israelis use a Russian curse K binimat to mean to go to hell.  The actual Russian is considered extremely crude, suggesting that a person return to his/her mother, physically.  My personal favorite of a bilingual and effective curse is my mother’s shit alors, which we both use on the tennis court after blowing an approach shot or overhead slam.  The French term merde alors neither sounds violent enough (d as compared to the t in shit) nor is understood by most people since French is not that much of an international language any more. The added alors raises a somewhat overused term to another level.  Best of all, we express our deep annoyance at blowing an easy shot and get the other players to look at us.  What can be better than that?

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Feast Culture

Feasting or festive eating with friends if you so prefer is a universal human pleasure.  People enjoy communal meals throughout the world, no matter how rich or poor the country, family, or land is. Of course, the food on the menu is clearly localized, generally including native and highly-valued delicacies. A more subtle difference between feasts is their styles.
For example, an American feast, such as Thanksgiving, is primarily judged on the size of the food: the bigger, the better.  People brag about the weight of the Turkey, the number of pans of sweet potatoes, and the diameter of the apple pies.  Of course, the settings, including the plates, knife, fork, spoons, and napkins, should be as festive as possible, ideally with some Thanksgiving motif.  People sit properly in their shares and stuff their face elegantly so to speak.  (I would add that they watch the Detroit Lions lose a football game, but that is not necessarily true now).
A French feast is a different scene entirely.  Not only are the settings fancy, but the food is measured by its fanciness and creativeness, defined as putting together foods and tastes that I never thought would go together.  What is lacking in quantity is easily made up in esthetics and time.  Enjoying food involves all of the senses, taking one’s time to appreciate each culinary work of art.  Of course, wine provides the transition from hors d’oeuvre to soup to main dish to salad to bread and cheese to desert to coffee.  The ideal meal is signaled by the fact that the diner cannot decide what the piece de resistance of the occasion was.  Also, curiously, although the meal took over two hours and involved a respectable amount of food, the diner is neither hungry nor stuffed, but instead just right. (Somehow, on the way home, the guests discuss at which restaurant they will eat the next day.)
Israeli feasts, being Israeli, reflect the ethnic background of the host.  Yekke (German) and mainland French families will be more formal while Sephardic families tend to be more relaxed.  The key is the variety of foods.  An example of this is the issue of salads.  Israeli weddings and picnics are measured by the number of salads to choose from.  The term “too much” is mentioned but not meant seriously:  there is no such thing as too much salads.  Anything that goes with Pita bread is fine.  Pickled, garlicky, salty, hot and sweet, red, green, white and yellow, variety is the spice of life.  Of course, the salads, a meal in themselves, are followed by barbeque, preferably steak.  It would appear eating chicken is a sign of poverty.  In house parties, the emphasis is on the variety of main dishes: meat, chicken, and fish (for those fish lovers out there).  Cakes of all kinds are the preferred dessert as compared to pies.
So, there are numerous manners of overeating.  Feel free to share any local feast customs.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Naturally Exceptional English

Learning a foreign grammar mirrors our experience growing up.  First, we are told that there are rules of correct behavior.  Then, we discover that some people don’t have to follow them.  Similarly, students learn verb conjugation tables – er, ir, re in French, the famous binyanim in Hebrew, to name a few, and then continually run into verbs that do not exactly follow those rules.  Like the confused child, the learner gets the impression that the rules were a big lie.
The first logical question concerns the reason for the very existence of these exceptions.  The obvious but true answer is that because they were always there.  Native speakers, even today, learn most of their grammar through listening and imitating, not formal study.  Most first language native speakers cannot explain their choice of verb tense logically, knowing what is correct by what sounds “good.”  In other words, it is correct if we are used to it, not if it follows some academic rule.  On the other hand, if people rarely use and hear a given verb, rendering them unsure of the correct form, they will go with the general rule.  For example, the past simple in English is made by adding ed to a word.  Therefore, when unsure, about a form, the speakers generally follows the rule or looks for a similarly sounding  known verb.  So, while it is clear to Americans and Brits that the past of sit is sat, most speakers would say that the past of shit is shitted, although the phonetic similarity would lead some to say shat.
In practice, this means that the verbs people use regularly have a nasty tendency to remain irregular.  Speakers who say “I goed” are corrected even though the conjugation clearly follows the formal rule.  On the other hand, confusing exceptions such as lie (lay, laid) and lay (laid, lain) are often mistaken (except by English teachers, of course) without causing undue comment.  Therefore, the key to irregularity is use.
An example of an exception proviing a rule is Hebrew.  Hebrew was basically static for some two centuries.  This period allowed scholars to devise rules to explain almost all exceptions.  This structure, called binyanim effectively organizes all Hebrew verbs.  Most languages, especially English, have never had such a period to allow the scholars to catch up with actual use.
A deeper explanation of why English grammar in particular has so many exceptions will be the subject of another post.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sporty Shibboleths

An example of a Hebrew root in English, a shibboleth is a word that only natives can say properly and thus identify themselves as friend and not an enemy.  Examples of shibboleths include the pronunciations of the words coax and Williamette (river).  Electrical people say co-ax, not coax while Oregonians say wil-lam-it, with accent on the second syllable.  On a practical note, during the Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers asked questions about baseball to discover which of the MP’s were actually dressed up German soldiers.  For these Germans, a simple question about who played center field for the Yankees proved that they were imposters, just as in the biblical story of saying the word shibboleth.
In fact, the understanding and appreciation of a certain sport is a cultural portal never passed by many immigrants even after decades of residence in a country.  These sports include baseball in America and Japan primarily, cricket in England and its colonies, petanque in France, sumo wrestling in Japan, and biathlon in the Scandinavian countries, to name a few.
Not all sports are so localized.  Football, soccer in America, has taken root everywhere.  It is hard to find a country that does not have a national football team, however incompetent.  American football shares enough with its distant cousins, rugby and Aussie football, to be understood by a wide variety of people.  Also, its basic attraction, crude violence, is universally appreciated.  The relatively simple rules of basketball as well as its ability to be played by people of all ages have made that sport a successful import to most countries. 
The telling sign of a sport-culture shibboleth is the demographics of its avid spectators.  Looking over a crowd of 50,000 people at a U.S. baseball game or U.K. cricket match, it would be safe to assume that vast majority of the people grew up in that country or another country where the game was played.  The number of late converts is probably extremely limited.  They have better things to do with their time, which means that they are simply not completely native.  That is the magic of a shibboleth.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Dear Sir or Madam

Modern informality may have made people closer, but it has certainly created gender confusion.  In the past, a person’s title in English included the obligatory Mr., Mrs, or Miss.  Also, before the days of the Internet, ordinary citizens didn’t correspond with people living in places across the ocean and having interesting stamps.  So, for the few people and few occasions when a writer had to address a correspondence to distant location, it was clear whether the respondent was male or female.
Today, we have created a global village of people addressing each other by their first name or at best by the first and last name, without title.  Granted, the vast majority of names are clearly male or female in any language.  Some languages make it easier by adding feminine endings to male names: Stephen / Stephanie in English; Jean / Jeanette in French; Joseph / Josepha in Hebrew; Yevgeni / Yevgenia in Russian.  Knowing the rules often give the writer a solid basis to know whether to use the masculine or feminine forms of words when such a distinction must be made.
However, it is often not quite so simple.  Sometimes, the writer is not familiar with the writer’s culture and does not know if the name is for boys or girls.  Even worse, some names, such as Billie in English and Tal in Hebrew can go both ways.  The worse situation is a name of a writer whose first name is only an initial, i.e. A G. Alexander.
One solution is to use Google pictures searching for the name in question.  If 95% of the pictures indicate a specific gender, it is safe to assume to make an assumption.  You could be wrong, but the person will probably understand.  Just recall that Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue. Of course, it is always possible, albeit a bit clumsy, to ask the correspondent with words to the effect: I apologize for any embarrassment, but would you mind telling me if you are a man or women.  The last option, granted a bit formal, is to write Dear Sir or Madam at the top of the letter and hope they understand.
Alas, those were the good old days….

Friday, March 30, 2012

Passing Over Holidays

In Israel, Pesach or Passover is approaching.  For those who never experienced the period before this holiday, it is both similar and different than the closest social Christian equivalent, Christmas.
Preparations begin four weeks before the actual event.  In fact, once Purim is over, it is time to get ready for Pesach, a bit like the time between Thanksgiving and Noel.  Pesach also causes stress and even depression as people have to decide which side of the family has priority this year (although there is a bit of a consolation prize in the holiday at the end of the Pesach for the losing side of the family).  People lacking or far from family seek invitations.  As the event approaches, people have to find appropriate gifts for the hosts, a challenge familiar to most Americans.  The last week involves multiple food shopping trips, hours by the stove, disagreements among parents and children about helping out, and massive cleaning of the house.
Yet, Pesach has its unique aspects.  On the one hand, the menu is fixed by the rules of the Haggadah, the book everybody reads during the Pesach seder, or ceremony.  That being said, there are numerous ethnic variations on the exact version of the required food, not to mention the grey area of foods that are allowed for Sephardim but not for Ashkenazis, such as rice. Second, a common topic of conversation is the exact number of guests who are coming.  A classic Israeli comedy show Zehu Ze once jokingly portrayed three women bragging about how many people they were feeding, with the last one claiming she had tables throughout the neighborhood just to seat all her guests.  As for cleaning, Pesach cleaning is a bit like spring cleaning, but all hametz, leavened bread products, must be removed from the house.  Of course, some take this duty more seriously than others. In some neighborhoods, you will ritual burning of bread and placing of pots and pans in boiling water as part of the house preparation.   As for the seder itself, the reading of the Passover story has three basic versions: read only selected parts and eat early; read everything and eat late; and read everything and allow unlimited additional commentary and eat VERY late, sometimes approaching midnight.  The actual atmosphere varies widely depending on the family and number and age of guests.  My grandmother used to read about our suffering in Egypt as if she was suffering right then.   Other people view the evening as an ideal occasion to catch up on gossip with cousins.
Pesach is as the French would say: chacun à son gout – to each his own.  However, like any good holiday, aside from causing an upset stomach, it creates a feeling of belonging to one’s family and religion.  Alternatively, it is as Tom Lehrer said in the song National Brotherhood Week, “Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Signs of the Times – The Power of English

There are many ways to measure the dominancy of a language.  These include the number of 1st language speakers, 2nd language speakers, and books published in or translated into that language.  Each benchmark produces different ratings.  For example, while Russian and Chinese speakers number in the tens of millions, neither language is considered to have worldwide impact.
I recently conducted an informal survey of the power of English.  I was eating lunch at a large successful shopping mall in northern Israel, the Kirion. I looked at the shop names around me, at least 30 if not more.  I was surprised and somewhat upset at what I saw.  Of the more than ten clothing stores, almost all of them the shop name appeared only in English.  The gift and novelty stores, around six of them, had their name signs in English only or with a large English sign and a small Hebrew sign.  The eating places, once again at least 10 of them, generally had a larger sign in English than in Hebrew.  I did not see a single establishment with Hebrew only sign or the name in Hebrew larger than that in English.  This mall is not in a tourist area by any means and is frequented exclusively by area residents.
I reached two conclusions.  English has achieved such a status that marketing wisdom is that a name must be English even if the product will never leave the home country.  I don’t believe that such a statement can be said for any language, with the possible exception of the tendency of perfume names to be in French.  From the patriotic point of view, this downgrading of Hebrew is disturbing.  The rebirth of Hebrew into a living language has been a labor of love and a great matter of pride for many people.  I don’t see any shame in a store name in Hebrew.  There are parts of the San Fernando Valley where you see more store signs in Hebrew!  The Quebec law requiring French signing has some logic, which could be applied to Israel and other countries. 
Signing is a matter of linguistic power.  English, at least in Israel, is King.  I am not so sure that I would say Long Live the King.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Words They are Achanging (or at least their meanings)

Since all aspects of life and society are dynamic, it is no surprise that words also evolve in terms of their meaning.  This phenomenon occurs in all languages.  In fact, one of the most amusing aspects of the generation gap is the striking difference in language use and its resulting linguistic confusion.  Sometimes, parents, not to mention grandparents, really don’t understand their children.
A very old example is that wonderful phrase from American history textbooks, the gay 90’s.  It refers to the 1890’s when people were more optimistic and happy, not intimately checking out the same sex more than now.  Readers of 19th century English literature may get the impression that the nobility was enjoying a tremendous amount of sex with all this making love.  In fact, all they were doing, at least in the books, was sending flowers, visiting, and other forms of courting.  Alas, it appears that noble men had to work very hard to gain the privilege of sharing a bed with noble women.
On a more recent note, while, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the word cool described an autumn evening, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it referred to wonderful and modern attractions, such as smoking pot, which technically involves heating if you think about it.  Likewise, whereas previous generations thought God was awesome, inspiring reverence, the 1980’s applied the term to more worldly phenomena of a positive nature, such as a really good movie or long touchdown pass.
Technology is strongly affecting connotations of words.  Today’s generation almost automatically thinks of computers when hearing the words mouse and drive.  My grandparents had an entirely different image in their mind of these words.
So, grasping words over your lifetime is like grasping a slippery object:  every time you think you got it, it seems to get away from you.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ethnic Humor

A major part of any culture is its victims in terms of jokes.  Logically, the more multi-ethnic a culture, the more multi-ethnic is its humor.  In any case, a given trait is attributed to a given group, forming the base of countless jokes.  Depending on the political and cultural background, people tell these jokes more or less openly. 
The major target of French humor is the Belgium people.  They are reputed to be simple-minded people.  An example of this stereotyping is the following joke:  God gave the Belgian people a choice between having oil (as in crude oil) and French fries.  The Belgians chose the French fries.
The United States, as an immigrant country, makes funny of everybody.  A nice example of the free-wheeling world of ethnic abuse is the following joke:   There were Tarzan, Jane, and the chimp Cheetah.  If Tarzan and Jane were Jewish, Cheetah would be a new fur coat; if they were Italian, it would be the other woman; if they were Polish, it would be the bright child.  On a similar note, the reason the Irish was on the roof of the bar because he was told that the drinks were on the house.  No group is safe from stereo types and humor, especially from comedians of the same ethnic group.  In terms of public comments, political correctness does apply.  However, in terms of entertainment, ethnic humor is par for the social course.
Israel is no different.  Every ethnic group has its label: Persians are cheap; Moroccans are primitive; Germans are overly formal, to name just a few.  Most Israeli humor is based on these stereotypes.  Like in the United States, making fun of a group of people seems to function as a release of social tension, a lesser of two evils as compared to open violence between ethnic groups.
I assume that all societies have some ethnic group to mock.  In the grand scheme of things, it is better to laugh than kill.