Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Rites of Spring

In Israel, due the vagaries of the Jewish lunar calendar, Purim has come and gone.  Aside from being one of the rare Jewish holidays with no sadness or restrictions (letting go is the rule, actually), it marks the unofficial end of the short three month winter here. 

In the next month, despite an occasional rainfall, the signs of spring will be felt.  Outside, calaniot (anemones) and pregim (poppies) will be joined by countless other spring flowers.  The Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), the national water reserve, reaches its high water point before it becomes depressing low again.  In countless Jewish houses, women, grudgingly helped by their mates and children, start the grueling spring cleaning that culminates in a spotless house just before Pesach, for religious reasons of course.  On the shoe front, starting with the younger women, winter boots of all kinds are placed in their summer storage places to be joyfully replaced by new or not so new open sandals.  For better or for worse, the smell of meat on barbecues becomes ever more common.  The sun is pleasant, with the nights being a tad cool.  Alas, the Israeli spring quickly melts under the summer sun, but it has to be enjoyed while it lasts.

The United States also its spring rites.  Aside from a badger, groundhog, or some other animal seeing its shadow, the usual sign is the opening of the baseball season and the Memorial Day.   Of course, the formal date does not always mean that winter has ended.  Having danced several times at the Folklife festival in Seattle, Washington, I can attest that the end of May often does not mean the end of the rain.  Still, in most parts of the country, the snow has melted while the humidity has not reached 90% yet.  As I once read, this season in Montreal is called le temps de lilas, the time of lilacs, the short period when it is neither freezing nor sickeningly hot.

In France, spring is signaled by Paques, Easter, and its accompanying extended holiday.  My father has a theory that French workers work, all 35 hours a week, between holidays.  In May in France, this is quite true.  Most curiously, the centralized heating in many French houses goes off sometime in May as if the winter is over.  This is one of the “wrongs” of spring.

As you see, I have strivinskied to describe the end of winter in places I have lived. If you live in a country has special spring rites, I would like to hear.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

These are a few of my favorite things

As a connoisseur of linguistic delights, I have learned to appreciate the unique ways each language approaches communication, often wishing that the “trick” could be copied to other languages.

Here is a partial list of my personal language favorites:

French – The word si expressing disagreement to a negative statement:  “You don’t want another piece of cake” “Si”, i.e. yes I do.

Russian: the pronoun свой [svoi], which refers to the person in the subject: I, you, s/he, we:, they see свой face.

Spanish: the upside down question mark at the beginning of a question: ¿You understand?

Hebrew: The intense use of roots, making learning new vocabulary much easier: write, dictate, address, letter, correspond all have the same root, כתב [katav].

English: the lack of agreement in gender and number between adjectives and nouns, massively reducing the chances of error in making sentences, as large hand(s), not large(s) hand(s).

Italian: The natural sing-song rhyme of the language that leaves you no option but to smile: Io amo parlare italiano tutto il giorno.

Alas, nothing is perfect; here are a few aspects of these languages I am less fond of, namely:

French: the lack of firm rules to know whether a noun is masculine or feminine, which has caused me to spend a lot of time checking dictionaries.

Russian: the awful tendency of Russian to have one page of exceptions for every page of rules; believe me on this point.

Spanish: the subjunctive mode will quickly change your opinion that Spanish is an easy language to learn.

Hebrew: the binyanim or verb groups have always defied my understanding; call this a personal taste.

English: The spelling system, based on a wide base of extremely varied pronunciation patterns, is beyond logic.

Italian: Listening to Italian, how can you take the message seriously?

So, while I am also fond of raindrops, whiskers, kettles, and mittens, those are also a few of my favorite things.

Monday, February 11, 2013

On close analysis, An Israeli Spectrum

Yair Lapid’s recent electoral success once again brought world attention to the religious/secular divide in Israel.  Some of the articles and news reports painted a rather polar picture of Israeli societies – black versus white; in this case, ultra orthodox against non-religious.

This image is clearly not accurate.  More specifically, Israeli Jewish society runs through the whole spectrum of attitudes and practices in regards to the Judaism.  On the farthest end are ultra-orthodox groups, a small minority actually, who reject the existence of the Jewish state on ideological/religious grounds, the Satmar.  If honesty counts, they also don’t accept money directly from the government.  Most ultra-orthodox (Haridim) accept the concept of a modern Israel and are very effective in getting the government to pay for its special needs, i.e. special schools (yeshivot), child allowances, etc.  While these groups accept the idea of the government, they believe that they are serving the country by praying and studying, i.e. the strength of Israel is in its faith, not its army or economy.  They isolate their members from secular and even less religious people to maintain their way of life.

Traditionally, the largest religious group in modern Israel was has been religious Zionists, who not only accepted the Jewish state but embraced and built it.  They work, serve in the army, and study Torah.  Many make some compromises with the Halacha, but consider themselves observant Jews.  A high percentage of officers and business leaders come from this group.  Another large sector is more secular Jews that follow some rules of the religion, either out of belief or tradition, but are not visibly religious until you visit their homes.  This large group of Israelis generally does not mix milk and meat and avoids tref (unkosher) food, at least in their homes. 

The most secular groups either ignore religious rules or flaunt them.  The difference is between eating a cheese burger because it is tasty or because it is not kosher.  The latter is much rarer, but growing in numbers. 

Therefore, Israel is not a clearly split along religious lines.  The majority of the population, including most religious Jews, supports mandatory army or civil service for everybody.  On the other hand, whether the trains should run on Shabbat is a much more controversial matter.  Jewish Israeli society is not a black and white picture, but a Technicolor drama. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Civil War is in the eyes of the Beholder

The current civil war, or is it the foreign intervention, in Syria is yet another example of a group of people fighting against their government with or without foreign help.  Whether such people are irrelevant rebels or national heroes depends on your point of view.  To remind some people who have never read the British version of the American War of Independence, the American rebels were a bunch of troublemakers who wanted British military protection but did not want to pay taxes for it.  Since then, ideology and weapons have become much more pointed and varied.  Concurrently, a whole array of vocabulary has been developed to describe those who are fighting for and against the government.  The correct word is never completely neutral and depends on the writer’s point of view.

For example, it is possible that a group of freedom fighters, revolutionaries even, are leading an insurgency against an oppressive government, i.e. the reactionary forces, which are employing fascist militias or terror squads.  These brave militants are often helped by sympathetic governments that support the former’s legitimate demands for political freedom and self-determination.

On the other hand, a group of fanatic terrorists, possibly Jihadist, communist or anarchistic (for those old enough to remember how scary that could be) financed by foreign elements, are conducting a guerilla war against the legitimate national government.  The latter is using loyal civil volunteers to help in the counter-insurgency operations and hopes to attain the “hearts and minds” of the population.

It could be that the supposed country is so divided by religion, economics, tribal/ethnic origin, or historical scars that it is a country in name only, but that might sound too analytical and cynical. I had better put on the correct pair of glasses.