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 √† 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.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Valley Reflections (San Fernando)

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.  I have not lived there for more than 33 years now.  However, I do visit my parents and see many changes, some for the positive.
Here is a short list of impressions of “the Valley”:
1.       There are basically no more bookstores in existence.  How very sad that is, fundamentally.
2.      Every block has a Japanese restaurant and a “spa” of some kind.  It gets boring quickly.
3.      There is significant racial integration at work.  Blacks, whites, Hispanics and Orientals seem to get along remarkably well.
4.      People try to be so pleasant.  Curiously, my impression is that people are very lonely.
5.      I didn’t see any old ladies whose hair was dyed red or purple.  Believe me.  This is positive.
6.      Comparing the number of people working low-paid service jobs and the high prices of restaurants, many people must feel very poor there.
7.      The drivers are still mellower than in Israel and the Mediterranean.
8.      There is no place to buy a real French √©clair or Italian cannoli.  This is tragic.
9.      The Valley is getting older.  There are many small hospitals.  An alternative explanation may be the number of people doing plastic surgery.
10.   The Valley is still a great place to move to because nobody cares about your past and a terrible place to continue living because almost nobody really cares (in my opinion).

As these are only impressions, they may be totally off track.  I welcome any feedback.