Monday, December 29, 2014

Language Inequality or the Joy of Challenges - Part 1

Learning a foreign language can be one of the most satisfying or frustrating experiences.  Success depends on age, environment, motivation, innate skill and the language itself.  The latter is relevant because not all languages are equally difficult, with several factors influencing the “challenge” factor.

      A.      The first aspect a learner notices is the visual one, the alphabet.  Psychologically, unfamiliar alphabets seem quite daunting.  While they do require some effort, most alphabets can be mastered in terms of sound identification within a month using a decent book and some practice.  The most difficult system is the traditional Chinese (used to a certain degree in Japanese) character writing, which is strictly speaking not an alphabet at all since the pictures has no relevance to the pronunciation.  Even native speakers of Chinese require years to attain a decent vocabulary.  So, a strange alphabet can quickly become comfortable.

      B.      Spelling is a complicated issue.  The easiest languages to read and spell involve few letters, consistent pronunciation and minimum opportunities for error. Italian is a wonderfully easy language to learn how to read.  The rules of pronunciation and therefore spelling are simple, based on consonant/vowel combinations (co = /ko/ while ci = /chi/) and no letters with the same sounds. Other languages are not as easy.  Polish consonant use may be consistent but the combinations (cz, dz, etc) are confusing to foreigners.  It demonstrates by counter example how efficient the Slavic alphabet is, i.e. one letter for each sound.  French is also very consistent with its vowel pronunciation but has too many ways to make the same sound, such as the long “a” sound, which can produced by ai, é, ais, ait, aient, et al. Standard Hebrew avoids the latter problem by mostly not inserting the vowels and trusting the speaker to figure it out.  On the other hand, Hebrew has many letters that once were  pronounced differently but are less and less frequently being distinguished now, including tet and tov, alef and ayin, and het and hof, to name a few, complicating spelling for the foreigner.  English is the monster of the group, failing in all aspects.  There are many letter combinations, many of which are completely different than their component parts, as in the ti in the word “vacation”, pronounced sh.  It is famous for lack of consistency.  Try explaining how to pronounce “gh” in the words enough, though, and through.  The reasons are historical but that does not help the latter. Worst of all, it offers almost endless ways to make the same sound and confuse the foreign learner.  Thank god for spellcheck!

      C.      Verb tense structures vary from language to language and require different amounts of time to master.  The easiest ones have only three tenses: past, present and future. Semitic languages are a breeze in that respect.  Latin languages muddy up the waters by distinguishing meanings within those times and constructing complicated forms.  The ability to understand and produce these various tenses forms does take some time and instruction but learning time is quite finite.  Slavic languages are deceivingly simple, only having two tenses but at least two forms (perfect and imperfect aspect) of each verb, creating all three tenses.  The catch for the foreign learner is in the past form, where both aspects can work. It takes years to understand what a native speaker grasps intuitively in regards to the difference between the forms.  For example, depending on which form is used in the past, perfect or imperfect, if I closed the window, the window is now either open or closed.  So, the complexity of the tense structure does help determine the time and effort required to learn the language.

[To be continued]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Coexistence in the Galilee

Reality in the Middle East is either much simpler or complex than it appears.  Seemingly clear reality often becomes quite blurred when you start focusing on the details.  For example, the Galilee is divided more or less equally between Jews and Arabs and is an undisputed part of Israel.  Consequently, relations between the sectors are regular and peaceful. In other words, while there may not be integration, the Galilee is a place to show what coexistence can be. 

The problems begin with the definitions.  What are Arabs, just mentioning the main groups?  There are Moslems, Christian, Druze, Circassian and even Bedouin communities.  While all may speak Arabic, they share a long history of conflict and identify with different external communities.  Some serve in the army while others view the army as the enemy.  In fact, just recently, there was a large ethnic tussle in a village in the North between Druze and Muslims that resulted in many injuries.   On the other side, Jewish attitudes towards the local Arabs vary significantly depending on age (teenagers tend to be quite racist), life experience, ethnic origin (Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic), and political opinion. Moreover, many locals do not distinguish between the various communities. The level of trust (or distrust) as well as interaction can vary widely.

While it is clear that the Palestinians from the Judea and Samaria view all of Israel as Palestine, the attitude of the local Arabs is more complex.  According to studies and realities, they are proud of their Arab identity, speaking Arabic and not wanting to give up their community connection even if they do intermix with the Jewish population.  For example, at the college where I teach, the various Arabs speak Arabic openly and exhibit no “oppressed” behavior.  At the same time, I have never seen any refusal of students of different ethnics to work or talk with each other.  By contrast, there are certain limits.  Flirting with girls of the other religion is not looked on fondly by anyone.  Mothers of all kinds want their children to marry “one of ours”.  Recently, two local teenagers that reached the finals of a regional Arabic singing contest stated that they were from Palestine and expressed anti-Israeli opinions. From the other side, many Galilee residents do not view them as Israelis. It is clear that it is currently quite hard to maintain an “Israeli-Arab” identity.

The current coexistence is also far from uniform.  The dominant reality is that there is a strong economic necessity to live in peace.  Karmiel, the intended and actual capital of the Galilee, is surrounded by Arab villages.  Today, without Arab customers, most retail business in Karmiel would go bankrupt.  The same can be said for the businesses in the villages in terms of Jewish customers.  Even more, due to Shabbat labor laws and a better approach to service work, Arab workers provide an important source of employees, which helps the high standard of living in the villages.  Where economic interests apply, coexistence is the rule.  Yet, the police are very careful when entering the villages and arresting Arab thieves (one of the growth industries in the area).  Fights often break out on Friday night when Arab boys come to Karmiel and catcall Jewish girls.  Most seriously, every ten years or so, there are riots and rock throwing incidents, generally by younger people, “confirming” the distrust between the community. Still, according to a recent survey, almost 80% of Israeli Arabs would not move to a Palestinian state.  Apparently, life as an Israeli-Arab may be complex but has many positive points.

So, in fact the Galilee is an island of coexistence between Jews and Arabs, just as it seems.  In addition, it is also a spectrum of internal and external conflict between communities involving identity and interest that defies generalization.  In terms of future hopes, I can only quote the quaint Polish blessing, “May it not get any worse.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Is it a boy or a girl?

Once of the challenges of  the new global village is trying to determine whether your correspondent is a male or female. When interaction was limited to the local and known culture, the gender of the name was almost always known just through passive experience.  For example, in England, Jim was man while Jane was a woman.  Today, as a translator, I communicate with people worldwide, often leaving me clueless whether my interlocker is male or female. Googling the name in pictures often clears up the issue, but not always.  The cultural / language basis is also sometimes helpful.

For example, English names for girls often end in the ee sound, i.e. Julie, Mary, Stacie, Stephanie and Nancy.  Most other female names are traditional, such as Jane and Susanne.  Interestingly, it is very rare that a “girls” name is given to a boy, maybe for reasons expressed in Johnny’s Cash’s famous song “A Boy Named Sue” (See  if are not familiar with this classic song.). Given the omnipresence of Anglo-Saxon culture, most people can distinguish the women from the men.

In Metropolitan France, the letter e at the end of the name feminizes it.  Examples include Jean and Jeanne, Paul and Paulette, Henri and Simon and Simone, to name a few.  Also, since it was traditional to name children after saints (partly as part of policy to eliminate langue d’oc, a common language in France several centuries ago), French French names are easily identifiable.  Interestingly, African French names are wonderful hodgepodges of the two cultures: typical French first names and exotic (to Western ears) African last names. So, gender identification is generally not difficult for French names.

By contrast, Hebrew is quite a challenge, even for Hebrew speakers.  First, many names are unfamiliar to Western cultures, including Idan and Shiran.  Some names have specific and humorous meanings in English, such as Moran and Pines (a girl and a boy, respectively).  The only rule is that generally if a name ends in an a sound, it refers to a female.  Examples include Yosef/Yosefa, Ziv/Ziva, Ayal/Ayala and Michael/Michaela. Also, names ending in it are feminine, e.g. Ronit, Sigalit, etc.  The major problem is that, consistent with the stereotypical macho culture, girls are often given many traditional boy names (but not the other direction), creating mass gender confusion.  Some of the androgynous names include Tal, Chen, Gal and Chen. To given an idea of how confusing this is, I teach one class with three students named Mor, two of them female.  Alas, guessing the gender of a Hebrew name can be a crapshoot.

So, faced with foreign name without a gender-identifying title, correspondents have few alternatives. They can google the name as a word or picture; they can make a guess based on the ending of the name; or they can simply ask as politely as possible if the person is a boy or girl.  Hopefully, the respondent will understand that nothing is obvious in a global village.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rocky Road

Rocks are omnipresent.  They are found on every continent, including Antarctica. Given that that they come in many forms, English, being above all a precise language, boasts a large number of words to describe the specific types.

In general, rock and stone are almost interchangeable, describing both the material and form. When referring to a large stone, a boulder is more specific, implying a mass that is impossible or almost impossible to move.  By itself in the sea or the desert, a large rock is called an outcrop. By contrast, as part of a hill overhanging the sea or a valley, it is called a cliff.  A steep and rough patch of rock is a crag. Finally, a large hill-sized rock in a flat area is called a butte.

In the other direction, small rocks created by water or wind erosion are called pebbles, which are generally large enough to be held in a human hand and quite fun to skip.  By contrast, gravel is much finer, reaching the size of sand.  Scree is the pebbles and gravel that break off on hills that make climbing down them so dangerous because solid footing becomes impossible.

If the rock contains solid minerals, the specific section is called a vein (of gold or coal, for example).  However, if such rock contains mud and crude oil, it is called shale, a matter of great interest in the world today.

While a rose is a rose, a rock can be many things, rockabil(it)y, so to say.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Food conclusions

Translations without cultural explanation can be deceiving even for the casual tourist.  While food items may seem simple to guess or find in the most basic pocket dictionary, naïve readers may be unaware of what they will be getting.

For example, most cultures have meat as an essential part of any serious meal.  However, the term meat left unspecified has a clear significant for the locals that may not be known to visitors, mainly based on the most economic and prevalent form of it.  For example, in countries with significant quantities of land water, beef is the common main course of a dinner.  By contrast, if the media inn Israel talks about families that cannot afford meat during the week, it is referring to chicken, which is affordable to most families, as compared to beef products, which are expensive and not especially good (granted with a few exceptions).  New Zealanders, outnumbered by their sheep, do their best to reduce the quantity of the latter.  The Chinese, often living in cramped conditions or poor land (a high percentage of China is actually mountain or desert), assume that pork is on the menu.  Some countries, such as France, are blessed with a rich variety and quality of land. For them, meat is meat, i.e. derived from an animal source and needing to be specified. 

In the same vein, it is common to eat a salad with that meat but it is not always clear to visitors what they will get.  In the United States, lettuce with a few tomatoes is the standard fare.  In the Middle East, lettuce is exotic but finely diced tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley are served everywhere.  Europe tends to have sliced vegetables, including the basic crudités in France, which means the raw variety. South Korea is famous for Kim Chee, a fermented cabbage based dish. For that matter, steamed or pickled cabbage is the basic green in China (historically because the use of “night soil”, i.e. human feces, rendered eating raw vegetables quite dangerous).

We need our daily bread, or so it is said, but the form of that bread can vary from country to country.  The United States generally services some kind of white flour roll unless you are sitting in an upscale or foreign restaurant.  The baguette rules in Italy and France, curiously enough even in Chinese restaurants.  By contrast, good brown bread is available in Germany and Holland, but has to be ordered in the former.  Local Middle Eastern food, especially humus, is automatically accompanied by pitta, a pocket bread, except during Pesach where even Arab restaurants have matzo, unleavened bread, available for their somewhat observant diners. India is famous for na’an and other flatbread.

Finally, locals tend to drink different beverages.  The French love their wine with any meal, claiming with some possible justification that it leads to better health and sex.  The Chinese are famous for their tea.  In Eastern Europe including Germany, beer is inexpensive and good though I am not quite so confident of its positive effect on life expectancy and intimacy.  Americans, being the land of plenty, drink everything, including milk. Once soft drinks were once the norm in Israel, but the Russian immigration has brought with it greater consumption of alcohol of all kinds, for better or worse.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pride and Prejudice

Experts and non-experts often describe the behavior of both people and nations using the same terms.  A country can have its ego broken or act childishly.  Likewise, their relations with their peers are often affected by deep, long-standings perceptions of the world.  In the case of a country, clearly each citizen may have a somewhat different concept of the world around him or her, but some kind of underlying approach or consensus often dominates its culture.

For example, the United States carries with it this ingrained belief that America and American values are good and beloved.  This naivety may result from the perception that God is on its side in reflection of its heritage of being a haven for overly fervent Christians or from the sheer lack of personal knowledge of the rest of the world resulting from the fact even today many Americans have never left the country.  This faith is not by definition negative either since that the optimism has made it a pioneer in many fields of endeavor. On the other hand, American presidents, products of this ethos, always seem to be shocked that the rest of the world doesn’t want those American values, lies to America and solves political and diplomatic disagreements by violence, to name just a few disappointments. So, to be American is to believe in Pangloss’ optimism and expect that same from others.

Russia, currently known as the Russian Federation, has a completely different history.  A product of an Asian people, the Tartars, married to Europe by Peter the Great, it has always has a love-hate relationship with Western culture. These two poles are reflected in its two historical capital cities, Moscow and Petersburg (Leningrad).  In practice, Russian feels strong in its place in the Asian world, imposing its will with ruthlessness if required, as what happened in Chechnya.  By contrast, its relations with Europe, and by extension to the United States, are characterized by an inferiority complex, resulting in defensiveness.  Like a child unsure of itself, its behavior to the West goes from aggressive, i.e. threatening to invade Europe after World War II, to passive, the most famous example being Stalin’s agreement with Hitler.  Russia’s leaders, whether tsars, general secretaries or presidents, have to show its people that they are strong vis-à-vis the West while hiding its relative economic weakness.  Dealing with Russia is like handling a very prickly pear.

Israel behaves like an orphan.  On the one hand, it wants to be one of the nations. On the other hand, it doesn't feel like the rest of the world wants it to join that club.  This conflict leads to a perpetual internal debate whether Israel should be a “light to the (other) peoples” as the Bible says, showing them the ethical way to behave or do what it wants since it makes no difference anyway.  Israel and Israelis are baffled by the international criticism of its policy toward Arab countries and the Palestinians in particular since, in its eyes at least, it gets blamed even when it tries to do the" right” thing in European and American eyes, whose vision is quite impaired according to local opinion.  Israel is the tough kid with a wounded soul.

Thus, while a country is made up of a multitude of individuals, some kind of group pathos seems to pass on from generation to generation, creating a repeating pattern of international behavior.

I would be interested in hearing your reactions and psychological profiles of other countries.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Of Hearts and Minds

In those rare moments that I have time and choose to watch TV, I am faced with a common problem: despite the countless stations available, there is nothing of interest to watch.  It is hard to imagine but there is a limit to how many house renovation and cake baking shows one can suffer through.  In these moments of despair, I have an admittedly unusual habit (not downloading X rated movies – that is common):  as a comparative study activity, like to watch the religious programming channels. Fortunately, Israeli cable has three Jewish and two Christian channels.  For some reasons, the Moslems spiritual leaders do not broadcast in English here.  In my “studies”, I have noticed an extreme difference in how the Word is preached.

A word of background is required.  I personally am an atheistic Jew. This may sound contradictory since Judaism is a monotheistic religion.  However in practice, as Jean Paul Sartre said after the war, you are a Jew since the world views you as such.  I don’t deny my religious/cultural identity and even embrace it.  I simply believe that all religions are bubbemeisis, grandmothers’ tales, albeit with bits of wisdom here and there.

Watching those Protestant preachers, I first admire their oratory skills.  They expertly move their bodies, voices, and vocabulary to keep the audience’s attention and get the message to the crowd.  In terms of public speaking, they are worthy of imitation.  On a more spiritual level, the message, as delivered by at least 20 such TV preachers, is quite simple and intuitive: accept Jesus and your life will become better.  The emphasis is on the result, not the process.  I have never actually understood from them what special behavior is expected of a born-again Christian aside from listening to God and prayer, admittedly highly subjective bases for action.   The actual rules for living are a bit unclear. In short, for these speakers of the Word, faith is the key.

By contrast, the various rabbis striving to bring us doubters back into the fold appeal to our brains.  They explain the importance of every mitzvah, God-ordained good deed, by logic and demonstration.   Curiously, these rabbis admit that a true Jew is not capable of completely understanding the logic of each desired act of commission and omission, but they still try to persuade us that is for our own good to keep the Sabbath, leave the ground fallow every seven years, and visit a ritual bath, to name just a few. The emphasis is heavily on the rules of being a good Jew, some of which actually make sense in their own right.  By contrast, the biggest act of faith required of a Jew is to believe that Torah, its commentaries, and the Halacha are all written by the hand of God.  For these enthusiastic proselytizers, that fact is obvious and does not require reinforcement.  It should be stated that the oratory skills of the most Jewish TV hosts are seriously in need of improvement in most cases. 

In summary, if someone is looking for salvation and relief, it appears much easier to become a Christian because all you have is faith.  By contrast, being Jewish and happy takes intellectual effort and study.  Fortunately, those poor souls lacking sufficient hearts and minds can attain euphoria through the cooking channels and Adam eats America. Variety is the spice of life.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A country in a picture

Looking at an advertisement for a French language learning program, I realized the exclusive club to which France belongs: countries that have a picture of a building that is identified with that country worldwide.  That list includes the following:

The United States – the Statue of Liberty
England – Big Ben
France – the Eiffel Tower
Russian – the Kremlin
Egypt – the Pyramids
Israel – the Western Wall
Greece – the Acropolis

It should be noted that many important and/or ancient countries lack any true internationally recognized symbol, including Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Ethiopia, Japan, and Austria, to name just a few.

This exclusivity brings up the question of the requirements of a dominant national construction symbol.

Clearly, the edifice must be large, but not too large for the eye to frame.  As any visitor to Paris knows, it is possible to take a quite presentable picture of the Eiffel Tower from half of Paris.  Thus, that steel monstrosity is large enough to appreciate without requiring a helicopter to do so.  By contrast, the Great Wall of China is only distinguishable from countless other defense walls by its sheer length, best distinguished from space, not practical for the average tourist.

In addition, the building itself must be unique in purpose, not just a finer version of a relatively common building.  The Statue of Liberty is completely unique as are the Pyramids. By contrast, the Reichstag building in Berlin, the Sydney opera, or the Canadian CNN tower, clearly distinguishable from their lesser peers, are still not unique enough to make a universally clear link to its country.

Finally, the building must have some national, as compared to local, symbolic meaning.  The Western Wall represents for Israelis and Jews a reminder and a call. The Kremlin symbolizes Russian power and independence.   Contrast those meanings with a Venetian gondolier on his boat.  The image is clearly linked with Venice, which in turn is clearly linked with Italy.  Yet, it would be hard to say that this boat scene represents Italy.

A universally recognized national building is a major undertaking, taking its toll in blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention a huge amount of money.  Still, in this case, a picture is worth more than a thousand words.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The H-Bomb

Certain sounds serve as a shibboleth, a test, of a native speaker.   The “r” and “th” can vary or even be missing depending on the language.  Another interesting example is the sometimes non-sound “h”.  This back of the mouth sound with no teeth is pronounced with significant differences, depending on the language.

In English, the “h” is clearly but softly enounced: I am happy that the bag wasn’t too heavy.  The standard English “h” is not a throaty sound but nevertheless hearable.  That said, many English dialects either eliminate the sounds, as in my friend ‘arry, or involve the throat, as in go to [ch]ell. So, the differences in the English “h” are mainly due to dialects.

By contrast, French has two formal different pronunciations of “h”: silent and enounced.  In most French words, the h is completely silent: quelle heure est-il [quelur etil].  However, in a few words, mostly foreign, the h is aspirated and kept separate from the previous sound: la honte.  The latter is pronounced [la hont], not [lont]. It is the dubious pleasure of every learner of French to try to remember which h’s are aspirated.

Russian is extremely xenophobic about its h, which looks like the English x.  It sounds is a bit more throaty than the standard English h, but is not frequently used in words with Russian roots.  One use is onomatopoeia, such as the Russian word хахатать [hahatatz], to laugh.  In foreign words, it has been traditional to replace the foreign “h” with a Russian “g”.  An example of this Gollywood, the capital of the American film industry.

Hebrew is truly challenging.  There is the Hebrew ה [heh], which is the soft English h of hello. The ח [het] is released farther back in the throat, creating a sound like the Russian word above, often written in English as ch.  The Yiddish/Hebrew/English word that exemplifies that is chutzpah. Finally, the Hebrew כ [chof] is pronounced like the ch in Loch Ness and may be written with a kh.  Of course, these distinctions are more formal and in practice based on ethnic group.  Oriental Jews (from the Arab countries) traditionally have pronounced them more distinctly, presumably because they lived in Arab speaking populations with similar sounds.  In informal or quick speech, even many a native Israeli fudges the issue.

If speech is silver and silence is gold, the h, hidden, aspirated, or sent from the throat, is a real treasure for linguists.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Supreme legal joy

The pinnacle of any legal career is being appointed a judge at the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land.  In most cases, it is lifetime job with no fear of being fired. Still, the responsibility placed on these judges is by definition heavy since they only rule on the most important cases.  However, significant differences exist in different countries between the legal procedures for high court cases.

For example, in the United States, the US Supreme Court may, but is not required to, rule on circuit court (first level of Federal appeals) rulings.  The key word is may since the court itself decides, by a decision of four of the nine judges, to take on a case in a given year.  The criteria for “the ideal case” are as mysterious and discussed as the elections of a new pope.  For instance, just recently, the Supreme Court announced the 50 cases it would hear in the coming year.  Most of the public discussion was on the omission, i.e. it would not hear any of the pending appeals regarding circuit court decisions to effectively allow single sex marriages.  Two reasons for this choice to ignore this controversial issue have been proposed: all of the circuit courts have reached the same conclusion, meaning that there is no need for the Supreme Court to intervene; alternatively or concurrently, the four judges against single-sex marriage are not sure of the support of the other conservative judge to reach a majority and therefore choose to wait for a more propitious moment. On the other hand, the Court, in its wisdom, did choose to hear a fascinating case, at least in my eyes.  Some crooked captain of a fishing trawler, caught with undersized fish at sea and instructed to hand over said fish to the police upon return to the port, ordered the crew to replace the small fish with larger ones.  Applying a section of law aimed at organized crime forbidding destruction of evidence during an investigation, the district attorney wants to give that crooked captain 20 years in prison instead of a fine that he otherwise would have gotten.  That is an issue that amuses more than divides (albeit not that captain).  Thus, US Supreme Court judges have this wonderful privilege of ignoring what is not convenient, for whatever reason.

In Israel, the high court hears two kinds of cases.  One is appeals of rulings of the appeal courts, like in the US.  In practice, the Court finds countless procedural reasons for not discussing appeals, quite often justifiably.  Its other role is the High Court of Justice, in Hebrew “Bagatz”, which gets it into quite a bit of trouble.  Any person, including a foreigner or illegal alien, that believes that his/her fundamental rights are being breached may petition for a hearing.  More often than not, these petitions involve minority rights and controversial issues.  For this reason, many voters, including the religious sector, want the Knesset to legislate a limit to the Court’s power while their opponents love the fact that the Court can do what the Knesset is scared to do.  However, for the judges themselves, this center stage position in the societal conflicts is both hard work and sometimes uncomfortable.  I would imagine that they envy their US colleagues, who can hide behind the shadows.

So, to paraphrase Orwell, the life of all Supreme Court judges is not created equal, even if the US Constitution says that we are.

N.S. My late great uncle, Simon Rifkind served as a Federal District Judge and took on a special assignment for the Supreme Court to rule on water distribution of the Colorado River.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Necessity is the step-mother of (language) invention

In his blog on tennis players and language proficiency,,

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hurry up and wait

As an American immigrant to Israel, many Israelis are honestly baffled why I would choose to give up the good life in the good old USA and come to live in this “tough” country.  The actual, albeit not rational, answer to that query is that I feel at home here for whatever reasons.  Yet, beyond that question is an assumption that everything is better in America.  While some things are better, the comparison is far from black and white.

Two issues struck me when I came back from LA this time, the lack of chairs for the supermarket cashiers and poor quality of the freeways in LA. Regardless of the level of the store, the cashiers there were provided no chairs on which to sit.  The poor women, in my mind, have to spend their entire shift on their feet except during their allotted breaks.  By contrast, even the most modest grocery store in Israel provides a stool or chair for its cashiers.  I recall that when I was young, there was a massive boycott of grapes because, among other reasons, the field owners would not provide long handles for the hoes of its workers, thus forcing the fieldworkers bend over the entire work day.  I believed that was petty and cheap of the part of the employers. The same appears to be true in regards to supermarket owners.

The other shocking difference was the quality of the freeways.  I am aware that the State of California has had budget problems for many years, but it has let its freeways deteriorate drastically.  LA freeways are the lifeblood of the metropolis, the almost sole way from travelling from one part to another.  Yet, their pavement is so broken up that it often requires both hands held firmly on the wheel to keep the car in the lane.  Driving at 100 km/h, that sounds like a recipe for disaster.  By contrast, due to the growing problem of accidents in Israel, the country has invested significant funds in improving the roads, even in the periphery.  I could literally feel the difference as the taxi took us from the train station to our house at the end of the trip. It was a pleasure to roll down the highway in Israel.

So, the land of milk and honey is better than the land of opportunity at least if you want to drive down the road and have to work at a supermarket.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Handicapping it

In my just completed family trip to LA, I had the pleasure, yes pleasure, of taking my handicapped father to a Dodger game at Dodger Stadium.  To be precise, my father is not wheelchair bound, but walks with great difficulty, requiring the rental of a wheel chair for the purpose of this game.  American law requires wheel chair access to all public locations but that does not necessarily imply ease of access, especially in older buildings such as Dodger Stadium.

Thus, my father was very concerned about the amount of hassle involved in this whole endeavor. We were both surprised and delighted by the experience.  First, the parking is right next to the entrance, with a flat plain and no more than 30 meters to get the seats.  The seating is exclusive to handicapped people, involving no stairs and designed with movable seats to allow easy access.  Moreover, there was a dedicated employee in the section helping with all our needs, including bringing some replacement fries when ours fell on the ground.  The concessions and bathrooms were right behind us for easy convenience.  Handicapped sections exist in most areas of the ballpark, allowing for all budgets.  I have to admit I bought expensive seats, but I don’t imagine the conditions are different in the other sections aside from the need to take an elevator.

I am an anti-Dodger fan, but I have to respect the Dodger organization for catering to a growing percentage of the population that has limited mobility.  Unlike many theaters and restaurants that technically have handicap access, this sports organization understands how to integrate a significant segment of people into a group experience without impacting the experience of the general population.  I honestly hope that this approach will become the rule if and when I need it.

To sum up my “handicapped” experience, my father ended the pleasant evening by saying, “Let’s do this  again next year.”  What more can be said?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

September Dreaming

As the first of September approaches, young and old cannot feel neutral about the new moon.  The actual events of the month differ from place to place but it cannot be denied that change is acoming, to paraphrase Bob Dylan.

In the United States, Labor Day marks the official end of the summer.  After this holiday, salvation or hell is coming, depending on which side of the parent-child duo you are, as students of all ages go back to school.  It also means the approaching end of the summer heat, to be replaced by the cool but pleasant weather of the fall.  Hikers and garden owners will soon get to experience the changing of colors of the leaves and their covering on the ground, albeit with different reactions, at least in the Northeast and Northwest.  Another result of the change of weather is the opportunity to wear the beloved sweater that has been buried, undesired, in the closet for many months.  For those who bought new boots on sale at the end of the last season, it is now time to show them off.  In the Pacific Northwest at least, the hunters and fishermen start planning their “campaigns”.  Most of this is in the future, but anticipation is biggest part of pleasure. In terms of spectator sports, (American) football fans fully wake up from their hibernation, with everybody allowed, for the moment, the illusion that his or her team really can win the Super Bowl.  By contrast, baseball fans go to completely meaningful or meaningless games, depending on the standings.

In Israel, September, the Hebrew months of Alul and Tishrei, it is also a time of change.  Like in the United States, children from nursery school to high school start the school year.  However, most curiously, this is only a dress rehearsal for the school year since once the “holidays” hit, i.e. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, they get another extended vacation.  Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, the actual Gregorian date, but not the Hebrew day, of the holidays wanders a bit, with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, occurring somewhere between early to late September.  This is quite meaningful for university students since university studies, logically in my mind, begin after Sukkot, meaning sometime between the end of September to close to the end of October.  This year for example, it begins on October 26 at the college where I work.  In terms of the weather, September brings with it the infamous “hamsin”, 50 in Arabic, referring to those horrible hot eastern desert winds that take your breath away.  By law or tradition, on Yom Kippur, a day of avoiding intake of food and beverages, it must be hot and miserable to add to the suffering. Those of faith would say this suffering brings you closer to God.  Curiously, it is also tradition, clearly not as dependable, that it must rain on Sukkot.  I regret to say that the last year’s Sukkot shower only succeeded in getting everything wet but failed to secure a good rainfall for the winter.  Religious people invest in mitzvot, good deeds, like taxpayers invest in December, since their fate for the upcoming year is in the balance until Yom Kippur.  By contrast, non-religious people merely worry about surviving the numerous family feasts and the cost of keeping the children busy during Sukkot. In regards to getting out those winter clothes, there are at least two months to wait.  As Tom Jones might say, change is the air.

So, September is the transition month from summer to fall.  If you have any local September traditions, I would love to hear about them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Phrasal verbs or the Set oxymoron

The hardest part of learning English involves phrasal verbs, the combination of a verb and preposition, because any sense of logic or order is completely lacking.  Therefore, the only way to learn them is abuse them as Ziva in NCIS would do. A nice example of this randomness is the word set, which means fixed or placed, among other meanings, but whose sheet variety of meanings when combined with preposition is quite unsettling to non-native speaker.

It can take minutes or hours to set up a machine, meaning to get it ready, but a writer may set down his/her thoughts, that is record them while baseball pitcher may set down the other side in order, getting all three batters out.  Many younger people set out on a journey, trying to reach a goal, but unfortunately become set in their ways when they become older, not willing to make changes. For that matter, if you set off an alarm, you actually cause it operate.  Setting your alarm forward causes you to wake up earlier, which could be a set back to your sleep.  Curiously, before eating a family meal, someone has to set the table, getting out the tableware, but to set a bar has nothing to do with alcohol, instead referring to establishing a new challenge.

So, the only effective way for a foreigner to learn phrasal verbs is to listen for them, try them and reset their meanings after someone corrects (and laughs at) you.  That is how children do it. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Tale of 3 Cities

Being a Jew in the United States, France, and Israel are distinctly different experiences and something that I have experienced.  During the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza, which is hopefully finished, I saw the status of Jews faced with a vocal anti-Israeli/Jew local population in all three countries.  I intentionally linked Jew/Israeli because in the eyes of our “enemies”, the terms are in effect synonymous.  To paraphrase J. P. Sartre, a Jew is a Jew because the world considers him so.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, most of the population was Jewish, meaning the high school was basically empty on Yom Kippur.  That being said, this Jewishness was against an empty background because almost all non-Jews in the area do not care about it.  This lack of contrast means that most American Jews have to “exaggerate” in some way to define themselves as Jews.  Some are politically active, especially in raising money for Israel and expressing Israeli’s interest in the U.S.  Others become religious in a country where keeping the Sabbath is truly a challenge (outside New York).  Some even join the Israeli army, as the late Max Steinberg, who died in Operation Protective Edge. Some strive to install some kind of Jewish identity in their children.  Many do nothing and fully blend into the American landscape, often marrying non-Jews (it happens to the best of families).  Being Jewish in the United States is an effort.

By contrast, being Jewish in France, at least in my experience, is fate.  Being Jewish in an overwhelmingly Catholic country has never been easy since anti-Semitism has always been part of the Catholic Church culture.  If you add a Muslim element to the mix, the situation can turn nasty quickly.  The attack on the synagogue during a recent anti-Israel demonstration is a prime example.  If parents tell their children not to wear a kipppa on their way to school as a matter of safety, it shows that Jews in France feel like a threatened minority, even if the silent majority of French strongly prefer the Jews to the Arabs.  As a French Jew, you have two options, tread softly in France or immigrate to Israel.

There, Jewishness is printed on your ID card and gives you automatic membership in a tribe, whether you want it or not.  The Middle East has always been a tribal society: Jewish, Arab (Muslim or Christian), and Druze, to name the most dominant.  A Jew walking in to an Arab village or an Arab walking in a Jewish city is identified as such even if no hostility is intended or shown.  It is a matter of identification, not racism.  In its crudest term, Hamas makes no distinction between left and right or religious and secular Jews. The person’s actual believes are irrelevant.  In comparison to the United States and France, Jews in Israel identify themselves and are identified as Jews as a basic part of social life.  This does not necessarily prevent relations with the other tribes but clearly sets the scene. Being Jewish in Israel happens quite naturally and creates a feeling of strength.

You can be Jewish in Los Angeles, Paris or Tel Aviv.  Granted that it is an individual decision, I feel Israel is a much more natural (if not always easier) place to be Jewish. To paraphrase George Orwell, I would rather be down and out in Tel Aviv (or Karmiel) than Paris or London.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

War culture

Part of the Israeli experience, unfortunately, is the going through these overly frequent periods of mass military operations as a civilian.  The British of World War II and the North Vietnamese of the 1970’s are quite familiar with the sensations of random violence from the air.  It creates, no pun intended, a heavy atmosphere for even the most banal activity, regardless if your town is subject to or spared from the missiles.  For purposes of context, I live in Karmiel in the northern part of Israel. In my 25 years here, I have experienced on a first hand basis missiles during the two Iraq wars and the Second Lebanese War, including helping young daughter get through this.  I admit that my somewhat limited exposures does not compare with those living in Sderot  in southern Israel or Kiriat Shmone in northern Israel, but does provide some intimate knowledge of the joy of rockets in air.  Also, as in all crises, reactions are individual, varying from person to person.

The randomness and helplessness of being a civilian creates several common phenomena.  First, using official and unofficial information, people creates their “rules of safe behavior”.  On one extreme, this can mean never leaving the safe room.  On the other extreme, some individuals assume that life and death are just a matter of luck and go everywhere since it makes no difference.  My attitude under fire was that, based on my analysis of the cases of actual death by missile, my home is my castle, i.e. stay inside as much as possible to be safe. I believe that I am correct, at least statistically.

For those that leave the apparent safety of their house, the next issue is what to do if you are “caught” by an alert while driving or doing shopping.  Yes, people do need to eat even during a war.  In the former, there are several attitudes.  I admit that I used to keep on driving, counting on the laws of probability to keep me safe.  In other words, I have much less chance of dying from a missile than I have from a car accident.   The home front department advises otherwise: pull over, get out of your car, and hit the dirt or, if possible, get near a wall, covering your head with your arms.  I don’t feel scared enough to do that, but it does make sense.  If out in the city running errands, some people first check where the nearest safe room or stair case is, similar to parents with small children checking where the bathroom is. The opposite reaction is quite “human”: turn on the Smartphone video and film the whole event.  Logically, it is probably the most dangerous way to react, but instinctively it takes over if a person believes in immortality and is not actually frightened by the rocket.

The last issue I will address is dealing with the tensions.  People release their tension through one or more of the following physical manners: mashing teeth (dentists are quite busy after the war), eating more or less than usual, talking about their fears or insisting that the endless tension has no effect on them, constantly or never watching the news, or playing video games, to name a few.  I know that this stress does leave a scar on a person’s psyche, but so do one’s parents and childhood years in general for that matter.

So, war is hell, but a personal hell for civilians.  It is also part of an Israeli’s identity, distinguishing him or her from most other people.  From time to time, people will list the “wars” they gone through.  Sadly, my list is getting longer and will probably expand in the future.  As that optimistic Israeli goes, we also get through that.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My daily bread

Despite the endless rows of other food that fill up supermarkets, the most important corner of any grocery store is the bread racks.  Tens if not hundreds of types of bread products tempt and confuse us. Linguistically, some very common stables have interesting histories of which most people are not aware.

Some breads were for special occasions. A kaiser or Vienna roll was made for the Emperor Franz Joseph’s birthday.  A pretzel was for lent since it required no eggs. People often gave bagels as a gift, including Jews over 600 years ago. 

Some flours have quaint backgrounds.  Graham flour, from which Graham crackers are made (ideal for smores, a wonderful sandwich with chocolate and marshmallows melted over the open fire), was invented by a pub owners who wanted his clients to drink more and came up with a whole wheat flour that helped absorb the alcohol.  Pumpernickel, a component of expensive breads today, was once supposed rejected by Napoleon for his personal use and left for his horse and is allegedly translated as “the devil’s fart” for its effects on the digestive system.

Some desert favorites have also come from far away.  Crepes, my personal favorite (with Grand Marnier, sugar and lemon), come from the Latin crispa for waved.  The Bretons make a whole wheat crepe adding meat, which I strongly recommend.  Their name is either les galettes or les saracens, i.e. moors since the wheat grew in the moors.  As for the classic American doughnut or donut, one theory of the name is that the bakers added nuts in the middle since that dough tended to be undercooked there. 

It is true that you can’t live on bread alone but you sure can gain weight on it.  While you are enjoying its satisfying taste, look up a bit of its history, food for the mind you could say.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

By sea and by air

Long forgotten by recent generations, including mine, taking a plane to travel long distance was a distant third preference to zeppelins and, mainly, ships.  In commercial language, at the beginning, air transportation was an “extreme” alternative to the comfortable and proven world of ships.  This genealogy has had a strong impact on the vocabulary of planes in English to this day.

A group of planes is called a fleet while the chief pilot is an aircraft is a captain.  The plane itself is divided into various cabins, located aft and stern, not to mention the kitchen galley, where the food is warmed up (prepared would be too kind of a word).These calories are served by stewardesses, the female version of the ship stewards, to add some sex appeal.  The outside of the airplane is a hull. In the airport, like for a ship, are docking spaces.

To be fair, passengers board and exit the plane, not embark and disembark. While a ship is a she, a plane is an it, even for the crew, to the best of my knowledge.  The amount of leg room in an economy seat and ship lounge chair cannot be compared while the space of even the smallest sleeping cabin on a ship involves a pretty penny for a flight.

In retrospect, aside from speed and time issues, travel by ship still seems a more pleasant experience, even taking into account the seasickness problem. If most of us cannot afford in terms of time and/or money the journey by sea, we can at least linguistically experience it by flying.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Racism and the “Dash” problem

Pluralistic countries, such as the United and Israel, suffer from a human identity problem.  In the US, the people walking in the streets are black- Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish Americans, etc. while in Israel there are Russian, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Druze, Arab, etc. Israelis.  Most countries of the world share the same situation to one degree or another, including such previous essentially homogenous countries of France and Denmark.  The issue is the emphasis: what is more dominant, the “species” or the “genus”. In other words, when people see different citizens of their country, what enters the mind, their shared or differentiated cultural values?

To demonstrate, I live in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Northern Israel.  The culture of origin of my neighbors is obvious from the clothes they wear, the odors coming from their kitchen, and the manner in which they say shalom.  They include Ethiopians, both immigrants and second generation, Russian, Caucasians (from the Russian Caucuses), North African Jews whose taste in music and clothes has not been radically changed by the three generations of living in Israel, and local Arabs who choose to living in a Jewish town for personal reasons, to name only a few.  A white Ashkenazi potential apartment buyer here could have at least two reactions.  On one extreme, this person could the see the differences of life style as a threat; these people are not really “Israeli” enough; “I” don’t fit or want to fit in with “them”.  The opposite attitude is to view the inhabitants as people who have chosen, for whatever the reason, to make their life in Israel and face common challenges, specifically making a living, raising a family, and enjoying life as much as possible.  The choice of keeping the Shabbat or not or the style of Friday night dinner and even the color of the skin are minor details.  When the VAT goes up, we all suffer. 

That said, some issues, often fed by opportunistic politicians, divide people by ethnic background.  Controversial trials, such as those of OJ Simpson in the US and Arie Deri in Israel, highlight ethnicity not  nationality.  International events often create a dilemma of loyalties, perceived or real, for the group in question.  These include threats to fellow members in another country, such as war in the Middle East or a massacre of group members elsewhere. Finally, actual racist behavior directed at the group specifically can separate its interests from the collective interest.  The best example is violent police behavior directed at a member of that ethnic group.  So, the ultimate melting pot is an ideal, not a reality.

Still, the key to a tolerant and non-racist society is seeing beyond obvious visual and behavior differences and noticing the common culture shared by all Israeli, Americans, and even French and Germans, to name just a few.  The excitement of parents on the first day of kindergarten of their children or fans as their team wins a World Cup games transcends individual differences as does the sadness of parents of a soldier on his final journey or frustration of commuters trapped in a traffic jam.

Bill Cosby, in an early and not very “funny” routine demonstrated the stupidity of racism ( as did MAD magazine several decades ago in which a racist was described as someone who loves America but hates 98% of the people who live there.   Hopefully, in the future, people will learn to drop the dash permanently.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Renting and Leasing

The most confusing concepts are those that are quite similar but not identical.  In some cases, the subtle difference blurs, rendering the terms interchangeable.  On other cases, purists, often jurists, insist on the difference even if the general public does not quite grasp it.  An example of this phenomenon is the word pair rent and lease.  Clearly derived from different roots, they both mean in a general sense to allow temporary use of asset, mobile or stationary, in compensation for a regular monthly fee.

In English, the difference remains distinct. A lease, whether of a car or an office, is a fixed duration agreement during which the tenant pays a  predetermined and unchangeable amount during the lease period.  In some case, such as automobile leases, these payments may create some type of potential ownership rights, but this provision does not define a lease.  By contrast, a rental agreement is a renewable short term agreement, daily to monthly depending on the context, whose payment rate may change at each interval.  For example, people may rent a car for a week or day or an apartment on a monthly basis.  Neither side is bound to renew the agreement nor is any ownership rights allowed.  To rent is simply to get short-term temporary use of an asset with minimum legal obligations.  In terms of grammar, each word has a noun and verb form, i.e. lease and rental/rent, respectively.

In French, the distinction has become muddled (see .  The word bail [buy] means lease while location [locasion] refers to a rent, but are in fact used interchangeably.  The verb form for bail, bailler, according to the above source, has given way to donner à bail or louer, the latter based on the abovementioned location. To distinguish the long term use of a car, French dealerships use the English term le leasing because louer is ambiguous (and sounds less special, maybe).

Hebrew does have two separate words, שכירות [Schzerut] and חכירה [Hachira], loosely translated as renting and leasing. In practice, under Israeli law, the former is for a period less than five years while the latter is for five years or more. See for more information.  In terms of the verb, as in French, one verb,  להשכיר [lahaskir] is primary used for both uses, although להחכיר [lahhakhir] does exist.

So, sometimes the difference between a lease and rent agreement is no difference.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

On (corporate) mothers and daughters

Business language has its peculiarities, including expressions that only make sense to those who use it daily.  One interesting example is the description of that slave-like relation between the controlling company and the controlled company, .i.e. when one company owns 100% of another company.  Curiously, there seems to be slight but meaningful differences between languages on how to describe this relationship.

English refers to the company owning the shares as the parent company, reflecting the fact that non-animate nouns do not have a gender in English.  By contrast, since the word for company is feminine in Hebrew and French, the parental relationship is expressed through the mother with a small difference, i.e. חברת אם [hevrat em], mother company, in Hebrew and maison mère, mother house, in French.  Spanish assumes the blood connection and  emphasizes the main point, the power, using  empreza matriz, meaning master or founding company, derived from the word for womb. Russian, for some unknown reason, opts to express all the options, i.e. компания-учредитель [kompaniya uchhyeditel], компания владеющая [kompaniya vladtyushaya], материнская компания [materinskaya kompaniya], and родительская компания [roditelskakya kompaniya], meaning founding, leading, mother, and parental company, respectively.

On the other side of the coin, English refers to the owned company as a subsidiary, from the Latin subsidiarius meaning help or support.  Spanish follows this lead, referring to such a company as a subsidiara. Keeping with the parental connection, Russians and Israeli treat their subsidiaries as daughers, using the terms дочерная компания [doshernaya firma] and חברת בת  [hevrat bat], respectively.  The French call it a filiale, which is linked to the Latin word for son, but generally refers to children in general. 

If Turgenev about physical fathers and sons, who will write a book about mothers and daughters of the legal body variety?

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Foreign Feeling

Millions of people have immigrated as adults to countries whose official language is different from theirs.  The minute they say they open their mouths, people identify them as foreigners, regardless of how many years they have lived in that country.  As a personal example, my mother has lived in the United States for over 60 years while I am in Israel for 25 years.  We are still foreigners and identified as such.  Our experience applies to the millions of immigrants around the world.

Israelis are very accepting of immigrants since almost everybody is not more than a generation or two removed from that status.  Still, without intending to offend, some Israelis treat non-natives in frankly annoying ways. For example, they significantly slow down their speech and use overly simple words, as if we are small children with limited understanding. In other cases, they switch to my native tongue, English, not even giving me a chance to prove that I know Hebrew. The most annoying comment I have received is “You still have an accent.”  Most people who immigrated as adults keep their native accent to one degree or another, without any connection to their knowledge of the language.  Henry Kissinger was a good example of that.

Other attitudes don’t bother me.  I have no problem with a mortgage counselor reminding me to ask if I have any question. Even native Israelis have problem with legal/banking language, incidentally my specialization in translating. I don’t mind friends correcting my Hebrew mistakes.  Otherwise, how would I improve my language?   I find it completely natural to ask a native speaker to review anything I write in Hebrew.  I want to make a good impression and know that pride has a heavy price.  So, I ask my wife to edit my Hebrew.

So, for most immigrants who came as adults, the second language never completely becomes the first language.  We have our mistakes, hesitations, and accents, which nothing to do with our intelligence or knowledge of the language itself.  As Aretha Franklin sang so well, all immigrants want R E S P E C T.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Who's got that holiday feeling?

What is a holiday feeling?  To people born, raised and living in the same country all their lives, the emotions and rituals associated with each holiday, whether anticipated or dreaded, are part of the flow of the year and to a certain degree obvious.  However, to expatriates, foreign residents, and other culturally confused people, there is no obvious emotional connection.

I was raised Jewish and have lived in Israel for 25 years.  Yet, my manner of experiencing the national and religious holidays of Israel is different from Sabras.

I grew up in an atheist Jewish house.  To explain that apparent contradiction, my parents did not practice or believe in Judaism, but insisted on building my Jewish awareness through a minimal Jewish education, active identification with being Jewish, and basic holiday rituals, specifically Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Pesach.  Therefore, at least for those three holy days, I experienced their rhythm.   Granted, fasting on Yom Kippur meant only not eating, not as in Israel where it means not eating and drinking.  As for the rest of the Jewish holidays, they mean nothing to me, including the joy of Purim, the ecstasy of Shevuot, or the mourning of Tisha b’Av.  These days are emotionally ordinary days, not special days as they are for religious Jews.

In terms of national holidays, I did not grow up here.  Israeli is going through its week-long catharsis consisting of the Holocaust Memorial Day, Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and Independence Day.  As my mother was in Europe during the war and lost her father, among others, the first does have meaning, even if I am slightly ambivalent about the endless run of depressing movies and documentaries.  In terms of the Memorial Day for soldiers, I did not serve in the military.  Moreover, I have never known anybody who died in a war.  My father was wounded twice in World War II, but luckily came home safe and sound.  So, I have no one to remember on this day. It is a heavy day in terms of the national feeling, but without specific thoughts for me.  Tomorrow is Independence Day in Israel.  The feeling of wonder and excitement of being a country that characterized this holiday in the early years of the country is gradually disappearing.  Instead, almost every Israeli takes part in a mass feeding frenzy of barbecued meat.  That reminds me of July 4, without the Boston Pops and Soussa marches of course.  So, I can relate to the national experience. 

As I once said to my parents, I have the privilege of being able to live in three different societies (US, France, and Israel) without belonging 100% to any of them.  In terms of holidays, being socially confused makes you an outsider on holidays.  It is a bit like being an only child: not a tragedy but a situation.  I just have a different holiday feeling.