Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tyranny of the Majority

American school children are taught many dry facts about the making of the U.S. Constitution.  Some of them appear rather historical, i.e. no longer relevant.  Only with time can we see that those apparently outdated issues somehow have never disappeared.  One example is the fear of the tyranny of the majority, meaning the need to limit what the majority party in a democracy can impose on the minority.

The American historical context was the dispute over approval of the new constitution, which gave significantly more power to the federal government than under the previous system, which required allowed one state to veto any action.  Since all the taxes that had driven the American colony to become independent had in fact been voted for by the English parliament, the American leadership understood that legitimate processes do not always make for legitimate decisions.  Alexander Hamilton wrote the famous Federalist Papers to persuade the delegates to approve the new system. In the end, the convention had to add the first ten amendments, which are all limiting provision, to gain the required approval. Thus, the American revolutionaries had a great fear of the actions of the majority.

As I see it, they were correct. Let’s put aside the fact that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini, the 20th century’s leaders of the hit parade of murderers, were formally elected.  You can argue that the economic conditions and their gangster tactics tainted their election. More relevantly, too many of the today’s major world leaders have manipulated their political systems and majority voters to destroy true democracy, i.e. any limitation on action or protection of minority views. As an example, the Russian people have elected Putin many times (for both president and Prime Minister). He has destroyed the opposition parties, free press and any serious challenge to his power, even killing the opposing candidate.  His tactics must be convincing Stalin that democracy is not so bad after all. Almost in a similar manner, Erdogan has taken over Turkey, supported by the conservative population, imposing his view on more secular Turks.  Ataturk must be turning over in his grave seeing how things are turning over above his grave, not that his tactics were so much different. Israel, my country, still has a functioning democracy, but the press and opposition have been severely weakened by government policies.  Overall, it is very hard to find a healthy democracy today.

The basic causes, then and now, are twofold. It is natural for a person choosing to become a national leader to have an agenda, which by definition will have its opponents to one degree or another.  This inherent conflict creates obstacles, which any leader would like to reduce or eliminate in order to facilitate implementation of the policy. This power struggle, between majority and minority, is omnipresent and inevitable. On a more sinister note, power is the most addictive of drugs.  Few leaders willingly give up their position. It is extremely tempting for heads of state to guarantee your continuation of power by abusing the power of the majority and weakening institutions of criticism.  The best and most well intentioned have fallen in this trap.

Still, to see or, even worse, to live in a sick democracy is a sad sight. Once again, the American solution, albeit almost two hundred years later, seems the best one. No American president can serve for more than two terms, period. The best protection is one that de Tocqueville described in his book Democracy in America in 1840: educated citizens must not allow their leaders to deprive citizens of their rights, even if they disagree with the expression of these rights. Let’s hope for more tolerant people and a better world.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

John and Mary things

A name is a name is name, except when it is a thing.  Very few first names ever become common nouns but the process does occur occasionally.  In English, the major beneficiaries are John and Mary.

John is one of the most common first names in English, which is reflected in its appearance in standard dictionaries. For example, a john is a toilet, possibly due to Sir John Harringon, who wrote erotic risky poetry and improved the flush toilet of his time. It is also a customer of a prostitute, who is rarely ever mentioned by name. For the same reason, a John Doe is a nameless person while a Johnny Reb is a nameless soldier of the American Confederacy. John Bull is the symbol of Britain created by, surprise, John Arbuthnot, a pamphleteer of the 18th century. It is always unpleasant to receive a Dear John letter, informing you in a rather distant way that your girlfriend has decided to leave you, a World War II phenomenon that proves that distance does not always make a heart grow founder.  Finally, the new kid on the block is a Johnny come lately, probably based on old British military term.

Among girl’s names, Mary is the prominent representative. At a bar, you can drink a Bloody Mary or even a Virgin Mary, if you are the designated driver, that is a mixture of vodka and tomato juice and its non-alcoholic healthy cousin, respectively.  Every baker uses a bain Marie, which is a double boiler, to melt chocolate, a direct transfer from the French term, or can make a Mary Jane cake, a type of pound cake apparently dated from the 1950’s. Continuing that thread, being a plain Jane, i.e. having an unremarkable physical appearance, origin unknown, is a bit of a mixed blessing.

A few other names have also entered general language. Everybody knows that Uncle Sam is not a relative but instead a synonym for the U.S government. Likewise, a lazy Susan does not lack character but instead is useful for serving food on a large table.  Once again, the origin is unclear.  In these cases, every Tom, Dick and Harry will understand what the words mean, which is the point of the matter.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Rice Worship

One way sociologists divide the world is by religion. In other words, they identify the dominant religious belief in an area and analyze its way of life.  Of course, monotheistic religions are distinguished from “pagan” religions.  Even among the same set, such as Christian or Muslim, the faithful and researchers find different branches, which of course argue among themselves on which is the most correct version of the Truth.  Yet, by defining religion only as a belief in out-worldly figures, sociologists miss unofficial religions, those formally not recognized as such but whose presence triggers worship-like behavior.

One of these is rice, the simple grain grown in paddies throughout the world.  Of course, the world has its pagans, who think that rice is a uniform white grain that you cook in water with a bit of a salt or, even worse, a starch packed in a bag that you put in pot of water or, blasphemy,  a microwave.  These pagans, not knowing better, are happy in the ignorance and don’t think twice about the matter.

However, in civilized locations, such as Iran, Iraq, Japan and China, rice defines a person’s approach to life. All rice is not created equal. Various varieties exist, each with its own personality, cooking characteristics and taste. The form of the rice can vary, from unshelled brown to processed short white, with many nuances between them. As for the cooking, an entire theology exists. For example, my ex-Iraqi mother-in-law thoroughly cleaned the rice, lightly fried it and only then boiled it, with the aim, almost never achieved, to have each grain fluffy but separate. Chinese and Japanese, because they use chopsticks, aim for starchy rice that sticks together. Whatever the ideal, properly brought women must master the art of preparing rice as it should be or face family ridicule.  Of course, good sons and husbands, not to mention daughters-in-law, must promptly and sincerely praise the rice each and every time it is served, not an easy feat for someone that didn’t grow up in the culture.

As in theology, praise of your own rice leads to criticism of others.  Faults can involve the selection of rice, the seasoning, the cooking or just the feeling that  “we do it better.” Also as in religion, mothers gain great pleasures seeing their daughters-in-law learn to cook it right, i.e. their way. Converting can be so satisfying. Finally, rice even serves a purpose in death.  Some people are remembered for their cookies (even on tombstones!), but how can that compare with the memory of the taste of your grandmother’s rice? Nobody made rice like her!  Even the bravest fear to contradict that.

So, while extremists in some religions may call  for “death to the unbelievers” and act on it, rice worshippers never call for starvation to potato heads or pasta freaks.  The faithful may disapprove of the atheists but do not become violent.  Rice worship is indeed better than god worship. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Movie Language

As a popular mass media, movies have had a considerable impact on language.  For example,many famous lines from cinema classics from years ago are still remembered if most people have never seen the actual movie.  In some cases, the movie title or its star is transformed into a standard English term with a meaning derived from its source.

A recent example of such is a description of a terrorist event as a “Rambo attack”, meaning a brave but foolish assault by a lone individual.  One of solutions proposed for solving such attacks was a “Terminator” approach, meaning a tactic allowing for no mercy. An older but still relevant use of movie titles for actual warfare was Reagan’s famous “Star War Defense”, which involved using lasers in space to stop ICBM’s.  Armies worldwide are still trying to design effective Star War, i.e. laser, guns.

Yet, movie names do not only have violent connotations. While also a famous play and ballet, everybody knows why a couple is called a real “Romeo and Juliet.” Watching nature programs with captive animals sometimes evokes Free Willy comments, referring to the movie about the release of an orca back into nature.  

Sometimes the actors themselves gain a linguistic identity. Despite their being in the grave for a long time, everybody envies a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodger on the dance floor, i.e.  beautiful dancers. Fading in recent years, a Lana Turner has beautiful long legs, still an ideal of feminine beauty.

So, movies not only give immortality on the silver screen but also occasionally a permanent record in the dictionary.  Live long and prosper.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Relative Equality

One of Orwell’s most quoted lines, from Animal Farm, refers to the fact that while everybody is created equal, some are more equal than others. The context of this criticism was so-called egalitarian societies, i.e. the Soviet Union but, unfortunately, this relative equality applies in all its ugliness to Western perception of modern events.

To demonstrate, Wikipedia (,_2015) presents a long list of terrorist attacks that have occurred this year.  Some of them have truly been horrendous and barbaric.  The attacks in Kenya and Mali can only be described as barbaric. Yet, in terms of world coverage, the attacks in Paris received more press lines than all the others combined.  Ideally, every human life is equally precious. In practice, a European (or French or Australian, et al) life is much more highly prized in terms of its loss. In simple terms, 3rd world people can die like flies. Yet, the fight against barbarism, Islamic style, is a universal fight with any victim, regardless of their country of residence, regretted. May all their memories be blessed.

Likewise, the US Anthropological Association just overwhelmingly passed a motion calling on the academic boycott of Israel.  As an Israeli, I would be the last to claim that Palestinians have equal footing to Jews in Israel.  In fact, I would have no problem understanding such a motion if said association also decided to boycott Jordan, which refuses to give Palestinians any citizenship rights and has massacred them in the past, Lebanon, which keeps them in refugee camps, Egypt, which has closed its border with Gaza and flooded the tunnels with sea water, and Syria, which merely kills them. In fact, the only country where Palestinians have some legal rights and political autonomy, not to mention economic stability, is Israel. So, if an organization feels that human rights are the highest priority, such a policy should be applied equally.  Otherwise, an observer might believe that the decision was not based on high principles but instead on low-level anti-Antisemitism.

Applying  the Serenity Prayer, the one about the courage to change, serenity to accept and wisdom to know which situation applies, the question arises regarding what a person that is less equal needs, courage or serenity. Personally, I would like the knowledge of how to change so we can have a world where everybody is created equal, period.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Only your brother (sister) can beat you up, linguistically

One of the great cultural complexities of language use is the knowledge of when you can use a term. It is not only a matter of meaning and register (formal or familiar) but also of status. For example, in English, every idea has at least two different words to express it, if not more. Sometimes, the choice of word depends on your relation to the person to whom the idea is addressed.

It may be depend on your gender.  For example, if a woman tries on a dress that may have fit her when she got married but that was many years ago,  a man asked his opinion of the dress in front of the salesperson and feeling obliged to tell the truth would have a hard time phrasing his answer in a respectable manner.  He might say “It’s a bit small on the top.” A woman, especially a friend, can get away with being direct: “Your tits are hanging out.” Brave is the man that tries that line. While men can use the word “tits” behind a woman’s back or in a certain context at home, woe is he that uses it in front of her in public.

Likewise, ethnic labels are sometimes reserved to the member of that ethnic group only. The classic is that outdated racist term “nigger.” The fastest way for a white person to get abused, verbally and/or physically, is to use that term directly to an African-American, correctly so as the expression is insulting.  However and most peculiarly, black comedians can and often use the word when referring to their “brothers”. This reflects street use by some African Americans among themselves, when it is not intended as an insult but instead of a social comment. As Richard Pryor once said, there are no niggers in Africa (but there are in Detroit).

Finally, there are some terms that we use in private, only to be spoken directly to ourselves when nobody else is around.  Countless people get up the morning, look at the mirror and say out loud “you are fat, ugly, dumb and lazy,” or at least some of those terms.  If anybody else made that comment to us, we would find it quite rude.  Yet, rules of etiquette don’t apply to conversations with private conversations.  Terms such as portly, big boned, learning challenged, and a bit slow, to name a few have no place in our private world nor should they. As Detective Friday used to say, say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So, knowing the right word to use is often much than a matter of linguistic knowledge. Cultural knowledge is often also required.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sisterly Complex

I just recently participated in the wedding of my wife’s daughter.  To clarify, both I and my wife have a daughter from a previous marriage. I had the honor of escorting the bride, for which I am grateful and appreciative.  In the “Family Room” before the ceremony, I noticed how complex modern families are.  Aside from the bride, groom and their respective parents, there was the daughter of her biological father’s second marriage, my daughter and the two sisters of the groom.  Each “sister” is different in some essential way.

In English, the bride invited her half-sister, step-sister and sisters-in-law, respectively. English, being a very precise language, distinguishes between the actual blood connection of one parent and trappings of marriage with no blood connection. Also, the in-law additive specifically defines the connection of those sisters to the bride.  It should be noted that the need to describe these relations is not actually modern since the death rate of mothers historically was very high, necessitating many second marriages and their incumbent variations.

In French, the distinction is less clear, not surprisingly. The term demi-soeur applies to both sisters acquired through remarriages, not distinguishing the presence or lack of blood connection.  Also, the French term for sister-in-law, belle soeur, is strange to a non-French speaker since belle means beautiful. Woe to the husband or wife that fails to say the spouse’s sister is pretty, especially if she isn’t. So, it is not 100% clear whether the sister attained her title before or after the wedding.

Russian also does not make a distinction in blood. The term сводная сестра [svodbodnaya sestra] can be literally translated as an “associated sister”, which makes sense without going into too many details.  On the other hand, the last sister in this case are accurately described as the сестра мужа [sestra muja], literally “the sister of the husband” There is no confusion there.

For our sisters of longer term, Hebrew follows the English lead. A half sister is a  אחות מחצה  [ahot le mahaza] while a step sister is אחות חורגת [ahot choreget]. It should be noted by exchanging the first letter in second word to a heh, a softer h sound, the step become killing, which would really be quite unfortunate but occasionally justified. As for the sister-in-law, typical for Semitic languages, Hebrew has a distinct word without any hint of a sister, גיסה [gisah].  In this region, apparently, a spouse’s family is far too important a matter to make it a half thought.

To avoid any misconception, the wedding was quite successful. The food was tasty or so people told me as neither the bride and groom nor the parents ever really get much of a chance to eat. People stayed late. The music was only loud, instead of intolerably loud. The weather was beautiful. Finally, the bride, of course, was beautiful.  A good time was had by all, even all those sisters.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Alice Speak – Terminology in the Modern Middle East

Alice, the speaker of the wonderful sentence “Words means what I want them to mean,” would feel at ease today in Israel.  After each and every senseless act of violence, supposedly intelligent people use words to mean exactly what they want them to say, freely ignoring their dictionary meaning.

The first example is the description of act of taking a knife and attacking an Israeli.  The Israeli press refers to such foolhardy individuals as terrorists.  Historically, terrorists, like most criminals, had no intention of being captured or killed, hoping to live another day.  IRA hit men and anarchist troublemakers are classic examples.  In fact, the only groups that have ever been willing to die for their cause on a mass basis are the Japanese and the Arabs. The dictionary terms would be kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers (or knifers, as applicable).  By contrast, when the families of the deceased suicide knifer are interviewed publicly (we don’t know what is said privately), absurd words leave their mouths.  The cable guy from East Jerusalem had no intention of running people over but instead had an accident.  Of course, the family is now a hero in the eyes of many Palestinians. Since when has getting into an accident made you a hero? Another quote from the bereaved families in East Jerusalem is that the son or daughter did it because of the occupation. The word occupation implies a serious lack of economic and political freedom.  Curiously, Arabs living in East Jerusalem have more such rights than anywhere else in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.

Then, there is a matter of age.  Traditionally, modern Western societies have labeled by people by birth date.  Children are under 13 while youth or teenagers are from 13-18.  A person becomes an adult at 18.  This assumes of course that some restraining family structure is present to prevent those not-yet adults from acting on their impulses. Alas, in the current situation, Palestinian culture, including parents and teachers, encourages act of violence against the external enemy (but not against local Arab leadership). So, is a 13 year or 15 year old trying to stab a soldier, unless he had a long sharp knife by accident of course, a youth or a responsible adult? It is impossible to say that s/he is rebelling against society. On the contrary, society approves the act. There is a classic definition of chutzpah: a person that kills his mother and father requests mercy because he is an orphan. Similarly, how can a 13 year old that follows “adult” rules be considered too naïf to be judged? Are the 17 year rock throwers youth or adults?  Even Western law has problems defining that one.  It is all in the eye of the dictionary writer.

Alice would definitely appreciate how everybody is bending words to fit their political agenda.  On my part, I find it disturbing and depressing, almost Orwellian. I somehow prefer the intellectual honesty of a real murderer, shamelessly admitting he killed someone because of jealousy or a debt. Killing is killing regardless of how and why it is done.  Yet, somehow, I have more respect for those who are honest with themselves. Alas, such individuals in the Middle East are rare.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Puttin’ Putin in his (historical) place

I recently translated some articles on Putin, the elected dictator of the Russian Federation.  It brought up two seemingly separate memories.  Once is a book dated written in 1978 by Alexander Yanov describing the Russian new right in the then-called Soviet Union. He discusses the ideology of the right-wing opposition to communism, as personified by the Solzhenitsyn, noting its absence of any enthusiasm for democracy and pluralism. The other is a joke about Russian thinking: a Russian peasant, when given the choice of anything he wanted on condition that his neighbor gets twice as much, chose to have one eye removed. My thoughts during this translation were how Yanov was correct about the historical cycle of Russian politics and how tragic it is.

To explain, Yanov noted the bipolar behavior of Russian national politics from extreme terror by an individual (Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin, to name a few) to irresponsible leadership by small class of elite (Moscow boyars, post-Soviet industrialists). He noted the historical lack of ruling elite trusted by the mass of people to act in the overall good of the country.  As a result, populist leaders, such as Putin, have had no problem gaining support in suppressing any organized opposition to totalitarianism. He contrasted this with the UK, where the British aristocracy had (barely) enough wisdom to see that the only way to guarantee their dominance was to ensure a decent life for the common folk. 

This consideration for the general welfare in England allowed for the gradual development to complete democracy. By contrast, Russia is once again in its dictatorship mode, creating “equality in poverty”, i.e. nobody has any real freedom. For those that would like to see a confident, not paranoid Russia and believe in the intellectual potential of Russians, this situation is a depressing tragedy, a bit like watching a drug addict trying to kick his habit.

I would to find some good Russian expression putting some silver lining to this cloud, but, alas, Russian proverbs tend to be as pessimistic as the current political situation.  Instead, I will do as most Russians have historically done, wait patiently until something changes but without any great hope.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

California Hope

Recently, I have spent time in the hospital with close family members suffering from UTI’s (Urinal Track Infection) in Israel and California. I will relate the differences in the hospital environment as the Japanese treat height differences: the person next to the tall one, i.e. accentuating the positive.

California, with all its problems, often is willing to invest in a vital need even if the budget is tight.  For example, under current California law, a nurse in a regular ward takes care of no more than four patients.  In practice, this meant that the nurses treating my father were attentive and patient. They were able to use their sense of humor to lower high tension situations.  Not only that, the fact that the ward was equipped with electrical IV pumps meant that they did not have constantly check the IV flows of their patient.  This meant that even at the end of their 12 hours shifts, they were pleasant and professional.  As has been said about going to prison, the punishment is being to the hospital; no more is needed.

On the same note, it should be noted in California’s favor that, albeit imposed by the judicial system, the prison system is finally starting to try to treat the sources of problems of its inmates instead of just incarcerate them.  Granted, there is a large disproportion between the amount of available resources and scale of the problem. However, there is no doubt some prisoners are not born criminals but instead people that need help. 

Alas, nothing is perfect. The condition of LA roads continues to shock and distress.  The veins and arteries of Los Angeles are truly clogged by cholesterol of awful surfacing (as well as cars of course).  The state government could clearly do a better job maintaining them.

California is well known for being ahead of its time in terms of seeking solutions. The development for electrical cars began as a mandate from California decades ago when it realized that it could never really “beat” air pollution over the long term. This attitude is clearly preferable, as an example, to that of the government of Venezuela, which has decided to deal with the problem of high inflation (68% annually) by not publishing inflation data. It would be funny if it was not tragic.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Orwellian Thoughts

During my just completed family visit to Los Angeles, I had the rare chance to spend many hours reading a book as I was sitting next to my father in the hospital.  By chance, I had purchased the first volume of George Orwell’s essays, reviews and essays, encompassing the years 1930-1940.  During these years, he wrote about poverty, both in the UK and abroad, and the Spanish Civil War, some of his passions. He also wrote about ideologies of the day, namely fascism, communism, socialism and capitalism, from his independent point of view.  During 1930’s, people had much more hope and passion in politics.  Among the articles he wrote in 1939, one titled Not Counting Niggers caught my attention not because of its currently unacceptable name but instead to its content, surprisingly still relevant 70 years later.

In this article, he critiques a long-forgotten book by Mr. Streit entitled Union Now calling for a complete union of “good” democracies to fight the “bad” bullies of the time, notably Germany, Italy and Japan. Orwell does not reject offhand the need for such a union and even sees a logic to it.  He also does not challenge the assumption that the latter three countries are morally evil.  However, he does question how pure the democracies are.  In 1939, France and Britain had huge empires which provided them with the economic resources to support their standard of living at home.  The “dependencies” as they were called had almost no economic or political rights of their own, a fact equally acceptable to both socialists and conservatives of the time.  In other words, while the crimes in the fascist country were clearly different in kind, Orwell questioned just how innocent the Western democracies were.  He should be noted that he completely supported the war when it broke out but did not turn a blind eye to the existing stains.

Today, Western democracies no longer have empires.  The UK has a Commonwealth, a formally voluntary union of former colonies while the France has arrangements for its former colonies. Instead, current Western standards of living are substantially based on low wages, not to mention poor working conditions, in China, Bangladesh and India, to name just a few third world countries.  To demonstrate, the price of basic of garments would be significantly higher if they were actually made in the US or UK.  Unfortunately, “out of sight, out of mind” often still applies.  Since people do not actually see those sweat shops, they don’t exist, just as Orwell wrote.  Awareness has increased in recent years as a result of some shocking newspapers. Nonetheless, Orwell’s belief that political and labor rights should be universal is still far from being prevalent.

In my view, George Orwell is among the greatest writers of the English language in the 20th century. While some of issues he treated are no longer relevant, his enlightening point of view and beauty of language still provide a ray of light in the 21st century.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Musical Roots

It is true that a rose is a rose is a rose, but why is it a rose? The answer to that is like Tolstoy’s description of an unhappy marriage: each one has its own story.  Music styles have come and gone, leaving behind a rich and forgotten history of how that style got is name.

Some are easier than others.  For example, ragtime music, currently most represented by the songs of Scott Joplin, comes from the word ragged.  According to the Wikipedia article, composers took a standard 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm and made it ragged, i.e. put the emphasis on the offbeat. There was even a gerund form describing the process of taking a standard 4/4 song and make it ragtime: ragging.  There is one amazing historical note in many senses: in 1895, Earnest Hogan, an African American no less, published and sold ONE MILLLION of copies of the first known sheet music of a rag, called (I am not making this up): "All Coons Look Alike to Me." I don’t know what is more amazing, the million copies at the time or the social commentary.  I am glad times have changed.

In other cases, the key is the sound.  For example, the origin of reggae, once again according to Wikipedia, is probably an attempt to express the offbeat emphasis of its rhythm, possibly working off an existing Creole word, streggae, a loose woman. Other explanations, more academic exist, but intuitively it sounds quite probable.  Slightly more obscurely, the term hip hop,, apparently comes from a musician making fun of a friend that had just enlisted in the army.  The phase was used with the sting being how you have to “hip hop” in the army. He (and we) got quite an earful.

The most obscure word origin I have ever heard regards a wonderful form of Cajun music and dancing (I really enjoy watching the dancing: ( called Zydeco.  According to the usual source, the name comes from the French phrase Les haricots ne sont pas salés, meaning the snap beans are not salty, whatever that means, with theories not lacking.  The music and instruments are not sophisticated but very homey. I strongly believe that 97 out of 100 people anywhere except in Louisiana have no idea what Zydeco music is, let alone the origin of the term. Ignorance is not bliss.

Feel free to send me any wonderfully obscure musical origins so I can add a post-post, accent on the first beat.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Regionalization in the Galilee

I have lived for almost 30 years in Karmiel in the Galilee. A recent shopping trip brought into focus a major change in the area: it is become an economic region, not the sum of a series of small towns and villages.

To demonstrate, my wife was looking for a dress for her daughter’s wedding. Searching on the Internet, she found some interesting dresses on a site for a store in a nearby Arab village. We went there and found a store that in terms of size has nothing to be ashamed of even if it were in Tel Aviv or Haifa.  At least half of the customers were Jewish.  Likewise, a few years ago, I needed some urgent tests on my heart. I was sent to a fully-equipped clinic staffed by a hospital cardiologist in an Arab village. 

This phenomenon is occurring throughout the Galilee. Beit Jann, once famous for providing recruits to the police and military, now specializes in cultural tourism, marketing its Druze heritage to tourists in Israel and abroad. Arab village businesses, whether restaurants or building supply stores, depend on Jewish customers.  Likewise, clothes stores in Karmiel, a “Jewish” town, cater to the local Arab taste in terms of color and style. A high percentage of the sales people are also local Arabs.  There is even a glatt (high level) kosher restaurant attached to a major Arab shopping center. This type of marketing attests to the wide customer base of all Galilee businesses.

The reasons for this economic linking include greater population, income and mobility.  The population of the Galilee has grown rapidly due to immigration and a high birth rate among Arabs. As education has improved in the area, so has income, allowing people to purchase more and fueling the regional economy.  Cars and drivers licenses are simply much more common. Owning is a car is now much more affordable than it was in the past. Moreover, Arab women are now getting drivers licenses, allowing them to expand their shopping base from outside their home villages.

The process in the Galilee is not “apartheid” as those ignorant critics accuse Israel, but unprecedented integration, which has created economic interdependence. I don’t expect this trend to stop in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

What do you do for a living??

Work is work, everywhere in the world.  For most people, it means showing up somewhere at a given time, fulfilling doing specified duties and getting paid more or less money for the pleasure.  However, the name for a given job description varies from place to place and language to language.  Some professional titles are understandable only to the locals.

For examples, if you are employed in an American office as a gofer, you do not make holes in the floor.  Instead, you are a low paid employee, often the offspring of a regular employee, whose jobs is to bring items from one place to another, i.e. go for this and go for that.  For young people with proper legs and sufficient energy, it is not a bad way to make some money.  By contrast, if you are a sanitation engineer, the work involves waking up early, lifting weights and dealing with foul smelling items.  In simple terms, the person is a garbage man, an admittedly less attractive title.  At least in compensation, thanks to strong local union, such engineers do earn a nice salary even without the formal education.

In France, a verbicruciste plays an important role in society. S/he helps hundreds of thousands of people pass the empty moments of life in buses, trains, toilets and doctors’ waiting room, to name just a few, by writing crossword puzzles for their entertainment.   No doubt, every country has such selected public servants, but not many give them such a wonderful title. 

In Israel, every large organization, especially kibbutzim, must have a pkak.  Literally meaning a cork, such person must be a jack of all trades and master of none.  If he were the latter, he would not be a pkak. The job description is extremely wide and varied and can best be defined as doing anything that has to be done that is not specifically assigned to anybody or whose designated employee is not available for any reason.  In other words, the pkak does any job that has to be done now but for which there is no person to do it.  Having once worked as a pkak, I can say with certainty that the job is varied and appreciated.  In baseball, he would be called a utility infielder.

I would be interested in hearing about other unique professional titles in any language.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

All in the family

I recently attended a festive occasion arranged by my wife’s family.  They celebrated the aunt’s 90th birthday, her daughter 60th birthday and the birth of three grandchildren during that month.  The atmosphere was joyful, accented by homemade food, specially written poems and a presentation of the aunt’s rich life. Experiencing the gathering as an outsider, three major themes of Israeli family life stuck out, especially in comparison with too many American families.

First, all five of the aunt’s children attended and talked with each other.  In other words, whatever disagreements they may have, communication is maintained.  The willingness to forgive if not forget is typical of many if not most Israeli families. 

Second, three of the five children and many of the grandchildren lived close to the aunt.  Two of the daughters lived within walking distance.  From what I overheard, many of the grandchildren had lunch and did their homework with the grandparents.  Thus, the generational connection goes beyond formal bounds.  This binding of multiple generations leads to emotional connections.

Last, based on the stories that were told, the aunt and uncle did not buy their respect.  They did not have much money when they were raising their children.  However, they invested time and energy in their children, instilling them with their values and ambitions. These are not latch key children.  In the West, good parenting often seems to be equivalent to having a good income. The reality is truly quite different.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed the good feeling of the birthday celebration. I admit that I felt some envy, not for the first time, watching the warm relations between the people there.  However, to make myself very clear, I heartfully wish them and everybody many such events.  They make life worth living until the age of 90, at least.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Summer Dreams and Nightmares

Students and teachers are often sure that the best season of the year is the summer. The former believe so because they can sleep late and not go to school while the latter get paid of doing nothing, at least in theory.  Yet, for some parents, summer vacation is a three month period of service as entertainment director, ATM and community police officer.  No wonder, most parents view September 1 as the real independence day.

Geography also plays a part in seasonal feelings.  Residents of countries in the far northern and southern hemispheres, such as the Scandinavian countries, as well as those with long rainy winters, notably Oregon and Washington where I lived, long for the bright sun of long summer days. Such people spend every possible minute outside soaking in the rays.  By contrast, in Israel, where I live now, and other hot places, the summer means that you can only be outside for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening due to the grueling temperatures.  Like those suffering parents, we long for the coming of the autumn, when air conditioning and three showers a day are no longer necessary.

Sentiment regarding to the summer is also affected by one’s profession.  To work year round, a person would have to be both a ski instructor and life guard.  Farmers and hotels make hay in the summer, sometimes literally.  By contrast, all that coat and boot producers can do is hope for a cool fall and winter.  Firefighters must have similar feelings.
Age confuses the issue.  Almost nobody remembers being too hot as a child.  Whether this lack of recollection is because summers were less hot, people’s memory are short or kids don’t suffer from weather, I don’t know.  By contrast, the older we get, the more the temperature seems to affect us, both cold and heat.  This sensitivity is quite sad, but apparently unavoidable.

Finally, there are those for whom it makes no difference.  People with jobs in malls and offices exist in controlled temperatures whose work load is basically unaffected by the outside world.   This is the exact opposite of police in the street and construction people of any kind, who are intimate with their daily weather.

So, if beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is our perception of the summer.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Middle Eastern Languages

National languages seem like inevitable facts. The language of your country is like your dominant hand. You don’t choose it.  However, the modern Middle East shows how that seeming passiveness is an illusion.  Due to the area serving as a corridor between Asia, Europe and Africa, the Middle East has been host to countless empires, each imposing its own language.  To choose to speak a language different from your occupiers is a political statement.

Egypt, for example, was technically part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries until World War I.  Its administrators were Turkish, often Kurds.  Thus, Turkish was the official language of communication in Egypt.  It was only in the 19th century that a few intrepid Egyptians starting publishing newspapers in Arabic.  The Turks gave Arabic the same status as the French have given French Creole, a bastard language at best.  As part of the nationalist movement in Egypt, Arabic was used as a way of expressing Egyptian pride. So, the fact that Arabic is the official language of Egypt is an act of will.

That will is even more evident in the status of Hebrew in Israel.  Hebrew was a hibernating language for 2000 years, maintained only as in its written form.  Variants of Yiddish and Ladino were the lingua franca of Diaspora Jews in addition to the official language of the land.  The revival of Hebrew as an active language was an explicitly political act to create a Jewish identity and part of the overall program to create a Jewish state, a wild dream in the 19th and early 20th century.  The Turks, followed by the Brits, ruled this area until 1948, imposing their language for administrative purposes.  To learn and speak Hebrew in the 1920 and 1930’s was a statement of identity.  Later, the imposition of Hebrew became part of the plan of creation of the New Israeli (as compared to the Diaspora Jew),  a Jew whose cultural and linguistic past was cut off.  For practical purposes, to be Israeli meant and means that you try to speak Hebrew.  Accent and accuracy are irrelevant – listen how many of the Israeli’s early leaders spoke – as long as a person showed the intention to “fit in.” Still, the reality for the early generations of Israelis was quite different.  To demonstrate, in the Technion, there was a serious proposal to make German the language of instruction as most of the professors were German. Today, even Moslem, Christian and Druze Israeli, who daily language is Arabic, all speak Hebrew to the point that their Arabic has many Hebrew words inserted into it. The choice to make Hebrew the daily language was a conscious use of a language to establish identity, which was successful.

So, as people shape the physical world around them, they also influence their linguistic space.  There is nothing inevitable about it, especially in the Middle East.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Heads of state

An alien arriving on our planet would have a hard time understanding who the boss is in the countries of the world.  Titles and powers seem to have no consistency and are completely dependent on the country and year.

For example, the United Unites has a president and a vice president but no prime minister.  The president has all of the executive powers but delegates funeral visits in foreign countries to the vice-president, probably in application of the principle of out of sight, out of mind. Following the long reign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a president is limited to two terms of four years, i.e. eight years of power, which is much healthier for the president and the country.

By contrast, France has a president and a prime minister, but the president has all the powers and changes the prime minister like many women change their hair stylist.  After all, someone must be responsible for the high employment and taxes.  Designed for the larage ego of General de Gaulle, the term of the presidency is six years and limited to two times, i.e. 12 years, 50% more than in the U.S. As a result of this long exposure to toxic power, most French presidents start believing they are Napoleon.  At least, the French president does go to the funerals of foreign leaders, at least most of the time.

England has a prime minister and a royal figure, generally a queen in the last two centuries.  The former is the true political leader of the country while the latter mainly handles ceremonial details and provides sufficient material to the tabloids so that the government can do its business without undue interference from the media.  This system seems to be more stable than the opposite system used in many European countries until World War I whereby the royal figure had the power and the prime minister was a bit of an errand boy.  Granted, Bismarck and Metternich were rather efficient gofers for Prussia and Austria but that was not the rule.

Israel, like France, has a president and prime minister but has the opposite relation. The Prime Minister has the power while the president goes on fun trips abroad and entertains the foreign diplomats.  Alas, Israeli presidents in recent decades been very deficient in distracting media attention from the government.  On average, elections occur every two years or so.   On the other hand, Israel tends to stick with the same prime minister for many years.  Apparently, the devil you know is preferable. By contrast, the news generated by the presidents has been less than flattering to Israel.  From Ezer Weizman’s politically incorrect comments about various groups in society to Katzav’s conviction for rape, the situation has gone from bad to worse.  Fortunately, the current president is humorously irrelevant, a clear improvement.  At least, he says the right things.

The confusion gets really thick in Turkey and Russia, where there are presidents that used to be prime ministers. They both had to resign from the latter role because of constitutional terms limits and then got themselves elected as presidents.  The situation would be much simpler, if not better, if they just did like many African presidents, elect themselves for life.  That way, we all could now who really runs the show.

So, the variations in nomenclature for the 1st citizen of a country are numerous and puzzling. For that matter, we humans seem to like it that way.  What difference does it make?  There are no visiting aliens anyway, right?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Wedding Season

Summer has arrived in Israel with all its attendant events.  These include summer camps, shopping in the mall, water parks and, gasp, weddings.  

The latter tend to bunch up in the summer months for several reasons.  First of all, Jews cannot get married from Pesach to Shevuot (except for Lag Veomer, but that is a long story), a period of seven weeks in the spring, and the three weeks before Tisha Be'av, which is in the summer. So, the Jewish couple wishing to get married looses almost two months, creating a bit of a log jam on the wedding halls.  Arabs, whether Moslem or Christian, do not get married in the winter.  The reasons for this are more practical than religious.  The wedding celebrations tend to be several days long and involve large amounts of people, requiring outside space.  Therefore, rain and cold wind would be a real downer to the event.  The result of these circumstances is that the average Israeli, even the not notably social ones, is invited to a series of weddings.

Attending them is not such a simple matter.  First of all, there is the matter of the size of the gift.  Several methods exist for determining it. The simplest, based on what the person can afford, is only allowed for those truly in financial need.  The modern system is to check any of many sites in which you enter in the important details, which will then inform you of the size of the proper gift.  The more traditional way, still quite prevalent, is to check the list recording the amount which that person given by the family of the bride or groom when your son or daughter got married. Whatever the method, it is clear that several summer weddings can wreak a lot of damage to the budget.

The guests also contribute time and sleep.  Weddings can be quite pricey, especially in large cities.  So, many younger couples search for more affordable wedding halls, often in very interesting locations.  These often involve a long drive over curvy, dark roads.  Adding in some rush hour traffic, getting to the wedding can easily involve two hours.  Even if the couple picks a convenient location for most of the invited friends and family, some unlucky guests will find themselves with a long drive because they live far away. You can’t please everybody, right?  Often the biggest cost is paid on the following day.  According to Judaism, there are no weddings on Shabbat (Friday evening to Saturday end of day).  At the same time, Sunday is a regular work day.  The consequence is that unless the wedding is on a Thursday night, all of the guests have to get up and go to work the next day.  What we do for our friends and family!

The wedding itself can be enjoyable or boring, depending on the individual circumstances.  Yet, certain negative effects are unavoidable, especially for us older folk.  The music will undoubtedly be too loud, often to the point of driving people to sit outside or even bring earplugs. A pleasant conversation without screaming is a dream.  Secondly, Jewish and Arab weddings must have a cornucopia of food. The guest with a limited appetite (especially at 9:00 in the evening or later) would easily have enough to eat with the initial buffet, generally quite excellent and varied in Israel.  Unfortunately, the initial appetizers are followed by fish, meat, vegetables, potatoes, rice, and copious salad, not to mention a parve (non-dairy) desert. It takes a strong will not to overeat. A summerful of such meals can be a weighty issue.  So, attending a wedding sometimes results in ringing in the ears, a hoarse voice and a feeling of being stuffed. 

Still, all this irrelevant since the only important point of a wedding is that the couple getting married have a good time, with all their family and friends to share their joy.

NB: I got married for the second time a year and a half ago in February (not summer) and celebrated with 20 friends and family in a nice restaurant in Zichron Ya’akov, with very low background music.  It was the best wedding I ever attended.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

I do not like [green eggs and] ham

A recent report from Israel has hit the world press, confusing many readers: Israeli soldier arrested for eating a sandwich with pork.  A person unfamiliar with Middle Eastern culture would find this as absurd as a New Zealander being arrested for having a chicken salad lunch.  In fact, the act of eating pork in Israel, among other regional countries, in any form in public is a political statement with the incumbent risks.

Judaism is as much a way of life as a religion, meaning there are rules for every aspect of living from the most spiritual to the most banal.  An ultra religious Jew strives to follow every rule, quite a challenge. Most Jews in practice make choices, either out of knowledge or ignorance.  For example, a significant percentage of Jews in Israel will not eat a cheese burger because such an act would violate the ban on mixing meat and dairy in the same meal even if they do not go to synagogue.  Thus, a person’s choice of public behavior, at least, defines the level of acceptance of Judaism’s rules.

On the extreme end of accepted are the rules of Yom Kippur and pork.  Only a total anti-religious person would go play tennis on Yom Kippur (I had an uncle that did that, actually.) That choice does not reflect enjoyment of tennis but instead states a philosophical point of few, i.e. I view the rules as complete bubameisis (grandmother’s tales).  Similarly, pigs and pork are persona non grata in Israel, including by the Muslims and Druze.  The name of the meat is even camouflaged, referred to as “white meat.”  The only places that sell it are Russian and Christian Arab stores.  I recently discovered that many of my engineering students had never heard of the story The three pigs and the wolf.   Even Israelis that blatantly consume shrimps and cheeseburgers back down when it comes to bacon, occasionally surreptitiously tasting it abroad. The stigma is so strong that when Dr. Seuss’s book “Green Eggs and Ham” was translated in Hebrew, the ham was left out entirely (as were the green eggs), the title being instead  לא רעב ולא אוהב [lo ohev v lo ohev], meaning I am not hungry and I don’t like it.

So, only the most anti-religious or ignorant Israeli would not agree with Sam-I-Am.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Memorially Different

One of the effects of being an expatriate is perspective on how certain occasions are marked and celebrated.  A good example is Memorial Day, however it is called.  Universally, it is intended to remember the soldiers, sailors and pilots that died for the country.  In practice, it is marked by distinctly different customs.

In Israel, the date of remembrance of fallen soldiers is symbolically the day before Independence Day. It is clearly a day of mourning with all the incumbent symbols.  People visit cemeteries where ceremonies are conducted. Starting from eve before, the name of each fallen warrior is recited as well as his/her date of death.  The TV broadcasts programs about various brave young men and women that gave their lives for their country.  The radio plays “quiet” (and beautiful) music. There is a siren and moment of standing silence on the eve and in the morning of the Israeli Remembrance Day.  Then, rather peculiarly or maybe poetically, as the end of the day approaches, the TV broadcasts the exchanging of the flags at the Knesset (annual changing of the guards from military unit to military unit). At the end of this ceremony, there are suddenly fireworks: Independence Day has begun.  Everybody can be happy now.  Of course, for some, that is not such an easy task, but Israel, in following its Jewish roots, imposes joy as an antidote for endless mourning.  Israeli Remembrance Day is truly a day of remembering.

By contrast, in most of the United States, it mainly marks the beginning of the summer. In military towns in the United States, such as San Diego and Norfolk to name just two, Memorial Days is marked by official military ceremonies.  However, for most people, it is a long weekend.  (By law, it must fall on either a Friday or Monday, which says something about the United States).  People go on trips, to baseball games or shopping. People smile and laugh, but not necessarily from disrespect. The number of WWII vets is very small today.  The Korean conflict was more than 65 years ago.  Even the Vietnam War is already a distant time some 40 years ago.  Several thousand American soldiers have died in the latest batch of Middle Eastern operations but, alas, it only directly affects a small number of families.  My feeling that most of the United States has little sense of loss, leaving most Americans with the feeling that Memorial Day is a fun holiday.  Have a good time.

Lest you think that I find that entirely wrong, Israeli would be a happier, albeit different, place if there were no names to recite on Remembrance Day.  Yet, like a resident of any small town in Europe looking at the long list of fallen soldiers from World War I located in the corner of every church, it reinforces for me how terrible but sometimes necessary war can be.

I would be interested in hearing on how Memorial Days is marked in other countries.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

More Salad

My daughter’s first sentence was “I want more salad.” This begs the question of the actual contents of the salad since every country has a different default definition for a salad. In other words, certain ingredients are used unless specified otherwise.  That choice is dictated by the land and history of the region to a certain degree.

In Israel, salad generally implies some mixture of tomatoes and cucumbers.  Not native to the region, the warm weather and advanced agricultural techniques guarantees a yearlong supply of them.  The actual proportion depends on the relative price of those two components; a heavy proportion of cucumbers hints that tomato prices are high at the moment. Personal choice affects the choice of any additional ingredients, such as peppers and onions, and dressing. With the internationalization of food, some restaurants call this “chopped salad.”  So generally you won’t get lettuce unless it is specified in the description.

By contrast, an American salad is generally lettuce, most often iceberg, with a few token tomatoes. To be fair, lettuce in the United States is generally inexpensive and of good quality.  For the eater, the typical dinner salad does present good volume, giving the impression of value for the money.  Impressions can be much important than reality.  I have to admit that I strongly prefer my “adopted” salad over that of my birthplace mainly because of taste.

The French, strangely enough, have no particular salad but instead local specialties.  In small cafés, les crudités (a plate of raw vegetables, not foul language) is often served. Nicer restaurants may offer slices of tomatoes with mozzarella cheese.  In the south of France, a salade Niçoise, containing lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, green beans and tuna, is available everywhere.  As is the French tendency, why make it simple if you can make more it fancy (and complicated)? 

In northern Europe, due to the cold weather, cabbage is much more economical than lettuce.  There are countless cabbage dishes, coleslaw for example, served with meals.  Besides being hardier than lettuce, cabbage has much more taste, albeit a bit bitter.  The use of various dressings, such as mayonnaise and vinegar-based pickling, adds a variety to the cabbage experience.

In Asia, the norm is pickled salads.  China, Japan and Korea all suffer from a lack of agricultural land relative to their population.  Also, China traditionally used “night soil” (human waste) as a fertilizer.  Thus, vegetables are generally good but expensive relative to income.  I have heard the Japanese market prices are quite “wild” from a Western perspective.  So, the salads come in small pickled dishes with choice vegetables.  Examples include Korean kimshee, Japanese pickled daikon and Chinese pickled vegetables.  These are smaller but much tastier than their Western equivalents.

So, a salad is what the land gives to the people in plenty.  I would like to hear about your local salad.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Language Interference

Immigrants all over the world suffer from it: they can no longer speak a pure sentence in their native tongue.  Over time, bits and pieces of the local language invade their speech until it becomes a hybrid language only understandable to their children and fellow immigrants, a personal “Creole.”
The first foreign element to sneak it is vocabulary, generally local (and important) institutions.  Please note the following phrases heard in various places in Israel:
Il n’avait pas au beit merkahat.  
Пошел в купат холим.  [Poshel v kupat holim]
I spent six months at the Mercaz Klita.
For the ignorant, the beit merkahat is a pharmacy; kupat holim is the medical clinic; and the Mercaz Klita is Absorption Center.

To be fair, this invasion goes both ways. Our native language forces itself into our version of the local language.  One of the classic mistakes by English-speakers in French, one that eludes a rather surprising response especially for females, is the literal translation of the term I am full into Je suis pleine.  The French reaction may be to look at the belly and say politely “congratulations” since that phrase in French means I am pregnant.

Surprisingly, not all of the pratfalls autocorrect over time.  I still, after 25 years, cannot always recall that the English expression I ate it (meaning I paid the price) is not אכלתי את זה  [achalit et ze] but instead אכלתי אותו  achalti oto].  So, immigrants continue to mangle their new language.

Moreover, applying roots from one language and grammar from the other language, immigrants create their perfectly logical (to them anyway) vocabulary.  My father loves his creation obviousment, made up of the English root obvious and the French adverb suffix (equivalent to the English “ly”) ment.  No such French word exists in Le Petit Robert, affectionately known as “Little Bob” but actually a French dictionary, but who cares? We understand him.

All this give and take means that over time immigrants create their own personal language, fully understandable to a select few.  The process is called language interference but I would prefer to label it cross pollination since the result is a magical and unique.  On exhibit, I present one of my mother’s classic sentences to her mother, containing no less than three languages in no more than five words: pick up a bissel pain – or for those who don’t understand this Creole (English, Yiddish and French, respectively), pick up some bread. Now that is a thing of beauty!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

פעמיים כי לא טוב [poamim ke lo tov] Or Twice is not good

For airplanes and shuttles, redundancy is beneficial while for languages, it is traditional and mindless.  In other words, certain expressions are used without most people even considered the meaning of their individual parts.  If they did, they would understand that the second term adds no value.

Two classic legal examples are null and void and terms and conditions.  If an attorney wrote that the terms were null since they were unconstitutional, the meaning would be crystal clear with the exact same as when using the standard pairs.  Similarly, when receiving an order to cease and desist, it makes no difference whether you cease or desist.  Finally, there is the last will and testament, but either will arrange matters after your death.

Politicians are also guilty.  The Congress has the Ways and Means Committee, the Budget Committee in other words, in which it tries to find the way (or is that the means) of paying for a budget item.  Each and every citizen should be represented when either of them would include all Americans.

Even common folk are not completely innocent.  Keeping something under lock is no different than keeping it under lock and key since without the key, well, there may be a problem. Your feel just as uncomfortable feeling pins as it would be pins and needles.   Looking in every nook and cranny to find your glasses will lead to the exact same results as searching every nook or cranny.  Finally, if everybody and his third cousin know about it, so does everybody.

Sometimes there is logic to doubling up.  You need both nuts and bolts to attach something, even if the expression means the basic elements.  Likewise, when older people talk about aches and pains, there is a difference between them, mainly in terms of the duration and strength of the unpleasant feeling.

So, as in poker, doubling up can be tempting but may not be the right decision.  Think before you use a pair of synonymous words.

I would be interested in hearing if such useless pairs also exist in other languages.  Let me know.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Disappearing garbage

In my town in Israel and most towns worldwide, ten years ago, the husband (or other family member if he was not available) took out the garbage because, obviously, the garbage was full and possibly smelly.  Today, in Israel, without carrot or stick so to speak, garbage has shrunk to the point that the garbage bin smells long before it fills up. My main garbage bag in the kitchen contains what used to collect hourly in the small bag in the “triangle” by the sink.  In other words, at least in the house (but unfortunately not on television), we produce less and less refuse.

To explain, all large plastic bottles are put in a box to be transferred to recycling bins located in every neighborhood. Plastic wrapping and other food packaging goes to a recently introduced bin in our neighborhood recycling center.  We use the few plastic bags that we bring home, mainly when buying fruits and vegetables, for our cats’ waste. Glass and plastic beverage bottles are collected and brought to the supermarket for a rebate.  All paper, which my office produces too much of, is placed in a recycle bin in that same center.  Organic material without fat is put in our compost bin in our garden.  The neighborhood cats happily consume the chicken fat or bones, no waste there.  All that is left is the tissues consumed fighting my seasonal allergies and some scraps from the plates, which eventually create an unpleasant odor and have to be dumped.

In Israel, the placement of neighborhood recycling centers has quietly made this revolution possible without financial rewards, except in the case of beverage bottles, or penalties.  Admittedly, not everybody recycles but the sheer convenience of it gradually is bringing along, even the most insular families.  The proof is that the recycling bins fill up very quickly. In Los Angeles, the city provides three garbage bins, one each for household garbage, garden waste and recyclables, with the first being the smallest. In the West, garbage reduction has become necessary and possible.  Other cities set the garbage fee based on volume.  I am happy to admit that this is one culture change that I fully support.

I would be interested in hearing on how your locale is treating the issue.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

House culture

A man’s (or a woman’s) house is his castle, or so they say.  It can also be his status symbol, social hall or just dormitory, all depending on the individual person and group culture.

The original expression in English means that the owner of the house may design and decorate the house as s/he pleases, of course as long it does not violate any housing codes or block any views of the neighbors.  This medieval law also allows you to refuse access to any person that you choose, especially salespersons, to the point of being able to shoot intruders in some countries and circumstances. Even the police technically have to attain a warrant to enter a house.  All that is missing is a moat.

In many countries, such as the United States and Israel, it is your statement of income.  Whether you have one bedroom or fifteen does matter in the eyes of society. It determines your social circle and basically announces your tax bracket.  Regardless of the formal price and currency, only the rich can afford a large estate with gardens and pools while only the poor stay in government housing projects, with the possible exception of the few remaining communist countries such as North Korean, where there is basically equality in poverty.

In the Mediterranean and other regions, the house is your social center.  Families and friends generally gather at their houses, not at restaurants.  In these places, houses and apartments are fairly big while restaurants are expensive relative to income.  For example, many Israeli families get together on Friday or Saturday nights around a nice meal, sun flower seeds and tea to share time together. The atmosphere and cost are truly family-friendly, better than any restaurant.

By contrast, in Paris and other large cities, where apartments are small, dark and expensive, the preferred meeting place is restaurants.  Likewise, in many parts of the United States, it is common for people not to invite people over as a matter of principle, as if your house was your castle against the world.  In this case, the house is a place to eat, sleep and watch television.  What counts is the noise level outside, distance from public transportation, available parking and proximity to shopping.  Granted, all those feature can cost quite a fortune in a city like New York, but still, the aesthetics of the location are much less important. The house is more a less an inflated dorm room, minus roommate.

So, your home is what you make of it or others make of it. Do not take it for granted.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Pesach is coming (run for your lives)

For Jews everywhere including in Israel, Pesach (Passover)  is a unifying holiday.  Jews of all strides celebrate it, from atheists to ultra-orthodox, albeit with significant differences of style and length.  As in most important events, the events with the most impact, at least emotionally, are before the actual occasion.  The week before Pesach is a curious play on the words said on Pesach eve: עבדים היינו [avadim hahnhnu] , once we were slaves:

Grocery store employees spend hours rearranging shelves and putting paper over the sections with foods that are  חמץ [hametz], forbidden to eat during Pesach.
Women spend a whole week doing a comprehensive spring cleaning of the house while trying to keep up on their other chores and of course, go to work.

Family members spend hours waiting in line in stores to buy the various items required for the Pesach meal.  The most dreaded sound is that last call on the morning of the Pesach when “she” suddenly remembers that some vital product is missing or discovers that she ran out of something. Husbands now have no excuses to postpone household repairs.  The dreaded day to tackle the long list of minor but time-consuming maintenance tasks has arrived.  Cleaning the house suddenly seems quite attractive.

The females have the standard issue of deciding and maybe purchasing new clothing for the holiday.  At least half of the population will understand how stressful that can be.  Religious Jews that can afford it buy clothes for the entire family.  Now that is an interesting family activity.

Generational arguments break out regarding the mythical quality of the grandmother’s cleaning and/or cooking, the choice to serve any of those ethnically-allowed foods such as rice and, often the most destructive, with whom the married son or daughter will spend the first night, with us or them, the in-laws (who have no idea how to properly make gefilte fish).

Everybody gets to complain about the weather.  If it is cold, it doesn’t feel like the spring.  If it rains, it makes it impossible to put the furniture in the garden when cleaning.  If it is windy, it redistributes the dust that you just supposedly cleaned.  If it is nice, you complain about what you would rather be doing on such a beautiful day.  Successful bitching is guaranteed.

The people working in retail not only put extra hours to meet the exaggerated demands of the Israeli consumer but are expected to prepare a proper Pesach and smile that evening.

Even those who are so fortunate to go to someone else’s house have the difficult task of finding an appropriate gift.  Of course, you cannot arrive with empty hands.  The pleasure begins even before you arrive because finding a parking spot at a shopping mall can be finding a needle in the haystack. Once you do, you have to think of a gift that the host does not have too many of already, would be appreciated and costs the appropriate amount. 

The fun reaches its peak in the hours before the Sedar.  The whole family gets to participate in the great shower wars, involving how much hot water each member of the family uses, obviously at the expense of the others.  Then, for those who are travelling, the whole happy family gets into the car and joins the countless others in a giant traffic jam, everybody hoping to the Sedar on time.

However, once the first cup of wine is drunk, all that is forgotten.  People smile and say חג שמח וכשר [hag sameach ve kasher], a happy and kosher holiday.  It was all worth it.