Sunday, May 19, 2013

Being First Does Matter

As Nike would like to remind us, almost nobody remembers the second person to walk on the moon (Buzz Aldrin). Clearly, being the first to achieve something does have its privileges. Here is short list of those winners and what they received:

The English came up with the first stamp, allowing the UK to be only country whose postal stamps do not state the country of issue.  They also invented the first way and technology to calculate latitude (pre-GPS), i.e. comparing noon in London with the local noon. This required an accurate clock, not a simple endeavor at the time, to keep London time.  Consequently, all time zones are related to GMT, which is located in England.   By the way, there was no daylight saving time to confuse the issue then.

The United States created the first operational telephone system, meaning that the international prefix (1) refers to the United States.  Even more brashly, it also created the Internet, giving American sites the privilege of adding only .com, not,, etc.  I suppose the British would say having the time zone is more practical.

In more intellectual matters, other European powers, former and current, have created the standards.  Cooking terms are in French because nobody else invested so much effort in codifying the culinary processes.  Philosophy would be much poorer and require fewer letters if Germans had not invented the right word for each complex concept.   Has anybody ever head of an opera translated into Italian?  I would agree that Italian is a wonderful language for song, certainly sweeter than German or English. 

Other cultures also have their achievements. Japan also has its claim to fame:  The sun rises there.  Although you can’t eat or send the sun, it is an illuminating asset from the Japanese point of view.  The Chinese invented thousands of items centuries before the Europeans ever even though of them, such as gun powder and noodles.  However, alas, as is typical of the last few centuries, the West brazenly stole their ideas, improved them, and used them against the Chinese.  As the expression goes, might makes right apparently.

So, the first country to invent time travel or telepathy will have its privileges too, maybe, since sometimes, as Nike says, just win.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Weather of My Life

As a stereotypical wandering Jew, I have been privileged to experience many types and descriptions of weather in my life.  On a linguistic note, the most interesting aspect is the terminology or lack thereof describing them.  I present a brief autobiographical weather tour.

I grew up in L.A., a city loved by many but not by me.  In LA, in the sixties, we had the famous Sig Alert, a measurement of smog, a wonderful American combination in itself of smoke and fog.  As I recall, at Sig 1, it was recommended that people with breathing problems stay home; At Sig 2, the schools were closed; at Sig 3, factories were closed.  I understand that pollution SIGgy days no longer occur in LA or they just don’t report them.

I lived in Paris for six months.  Maybe because I was young, I don’t remember anybody talking about the weather at all.  Apparently, they were too busy talking about the latest restaurant or the previous/next vacation.  There is something to be said for this approach.

I then moved to Oregon.  The Pacific Northwest, western Oregon and Washington, offers a long list of jokes about the climate: it rains twice a year, from January to June and June to January and Oregonians don’t tan, they rust, to name a few.  In reality, a good year is three months without rain while a bad year is one month without rain.  Granted, generally the rain is not strong, closely resembling a permanent drizzle.  Similar to the Japanese approach to describing a short person, avoidance, i.e. the person next to the tall man, Oregonians talk about the sun, not the rain: There may be sun today or No chance of the sun breaking through today.  This is an example of reference by ignoring.

I now live in Israel, where rain is a blessing and reason for a blessing.  In fact, interestingly, there are words to describe the first and last rain of the season, יורה [yoreh] and מלקוש [malkosh], respectively.  At this moment, I am enjoying a late version of the latter on Shevuot, rendering me a bit sad that I won’t hear the sound of rain drops until October or November.  Alas, instead we will have חמסין [hamsine], an Arabic word meaning 50, or שרב [sharav], the Hebrew word referring to days with a hot, eastern desert wind, which sucks out all of the oxygen and drives everybody crazy.  This phenomenon is more common worldwide, called the Santa Ana winds in L.A. for example.  Yet, it does have a special word locally.

So, if you have a unique weather term in your part of the world, let me know.  I will be happy to share it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

You know it is a Jewish holiday when…..

Compared to most religions, Judaism has a large number of holidays, albeit not equally distributed during the year.  Each holiday has its script and rules, which are sometimes rather complicated even for observant Jews to understand.  In fact, practicing Jews spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what is allowed and forbidden on these occasions. 

An interesting aspect of these holidays is the unwritten rules that have become part of them even if no mention of them can be found in any religious book.  For non-religious Jews, they may much more significant to the holiday than the formal practices.  Here is a short list of how to identify the various Jewish holidays in Israel:

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year): the search for tasty apples to serve with the honey.  This is often accompanied by comments such as “When I was a kid, apples were really tasty.  Today, they are like plastic.”

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement): Riding bicycles.  Since even non-religious Jews avoid driving on this day, children take over the streets, riding their bicycles all over the town without any fear, which is paradoxically the source of the packed emergency rooms in hospitals in Israel on that day.

Sukkot: the collection of children’s artwork.  Since families like to decorate the walls of the sukka, the temporary shelter symbolic of the holiday, the various scribbles and attempts at artwork by the children and grandchildren are encouraged and greedily taken for use as decorations.  To be clear, the children are more than pleased to cooperate.

Hanukah: smell of levivot (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts).  It is a tradition to prepare these two dishes at least once during the holiday.  People generally unsuccessfully avoid the latter as not being worth the calories, but levivot are always tasty, if not very low-calorie.  On the other hand, who diets during a holiday?  In any case, Israelis use much cooking oil during this holiday.

Purim: children smoking cigarettes.  This holiday involves putting on costumes and acting out.  The tradition is the children can get away with anything but murder on this day.  So, many children in religious families, even younger ones, smoke cigarettes openly. 
Pesach: spring cleaning.  The rules only require removal of hametz, leavened bread products, from the house.  However, many families, even non-religious ones, conduct a thorough cleaning of the house, including windows and shelves, often beginning a month beforehand.  Of course, there is always some nice desert wind which comes around and gets the windows all dirty again, but it is the effort that counts, right?

Log Baomer: collecting wood in shopping carts.  Most Israelis, especially those with children, participate in mass bonfire parties.  However, first the kids, of all ages, have to collect the wood. Potatoes and hotdogs are the standard fare, but some go much fancier.  On the bright side, it is a chance to talk with the neighbors and meet the parents of the other kids (funny how the parent acts and looks the son or daughter).  On a less charming note, the pollution level jumps sky high with some children learning the hard way about “the burnt child dreads the fire.”

Shavuot: water fights. This holiday is supposedly a harvest festival.  The younger generation seems to think it is an open invitation to get other people wet.  I have no idea why and wish it was not so.

Tisha be Av: no restaurants.  This is a day of mourning over the destruction (twice) of the temple in Jerusalem, but the tourists seem to pay the price for it.  Try not to arrive on the evening of the holiday.

So, like the packed stores and overuse of red and green on December 24, holidays in Israel are clearly marked, if not necessary as כתוב בתורה, as written in the Bible.