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.