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.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Power of No

Americans live in a certain and stable world.  The United States has elections every four years, no more, no less.  The French have even more time to think, six years.  Israel is a dynamic country.  There is an election whenever the situation requires, generally around every two years.  That does not mean that the actual government changes.  In most cases, the Prime Minister remains the same but the actual coalition is adjusted a bit left or bit right, whatever that means.  The most curious aspect of the Israeli politics is that the best way of staying in power is to say “no”.

To demonstrate, the prime ministers with the most years in power in the history of Israel are Ben Gurion, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir.  David Ben Gurion, who ran the country for 14 years total, is the exception to the rule because he had two advantages. First, he did not have the luxury of doing nothing because the country had just been born.  Second, his Mapai party had a majority by itself and didn’t have to put together a coalition.
The current Prime Minister, Bibi as he is known, has held the position for nine years.  In terms of Israeli’s territorial security or chances for peace, basically nothing has changed in that period, for better or for worse.  There admittedly have a few short conflicts, but more in reaction than as a long term strategy.  The trading off of concessions to the Palestinians and those who want a greater present on the other side of the green line (hard to say that neutrally) has equally frustrated the Israeli left and right.  Combined with a sane but not proactive economic policy, Bibi has managed to survive nine years in the hot seat by avoiding extreme action in any direction.

Yitzhak Shamir, a prime minister for seven years, was less diplomatic than Bibi, but much more forceful in saying “No”.  He was also consistent, refusing any all suggestion for action.  Ask any Israeli what Shamir actually did.  The answer probably will be silence.  Curiously enough, he was rather well liked, a bit like Eisenhower, who was elected to do nothing and did not disappoint. 

The power of this “nothingness” is not a product of the ideal situation in Israel.  Israelis, who love to complain anyway, can produce a long list of problems, including the price of housing and taxes, to name just a few.  Instead, in my opinion, it is the result of living in an area of the world filled with peril.  Any action, however well-intended, may in fact lead to the destruction of the country.  So the country is split between the pessimists, who believe that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, and the half-pessimists, who look for signs that something can be changed and hope not to be disappointed.  If this split seems to lack any sense of ideology, I would tend to believe that level of optimism is a more relevant differential between the Israeli left and right.  In such a world, the famous dilemma from Waiting for Godot seems so relevant for many Israeli prime ministers: Should we go anywhere?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Less than an universal language

The pace of globalization, whether regarding products or language, is not uniform throughout the world.  As many American tourists have discovered to their frustration, not everybody speaks English, even in civilized in Europe.  For example, in Budapest, even though it is the capital city, many store employees do not understand or speak English.

This issue came up in a recent trademark dispute between the French Chronopost and DHL. One of the matters in dispute was whether the term webshipping would be understood by the French to imply delivery of products.  The judges ruled that while the term web clearly referred to the Internet, the average French speaker in 2000 would connect the word shipping to movement by ships, not to mailing products in general.  In other words, shipping was an exotic foreign word, not a description of services.

The question arises whether such a ruling would be issued in other countries.  For example, In Israel, where English instruction begins in 4th grade, I strongly doubt it.  English is firmly ingrained in the daily language even in those less than successful in studies.  I suspect Germans would also have no problem understanding the term.  By contrast, it is possible that many native Spanish speakers, especially those in isolated areas in South America, would not know the meaning of the word.

The issue of the assumption of knowledge of a foreign language predates the Internet.  Tolstoy’s famous French dialogue in War and Peace was perfectly understandable to any pre-War World I Russian upper class individual, but significantly less those educated in the Soviet Era.  Thus, modern translations require explanation of the sentences in French.   Also, the time when a writer could quote Latin and be understood by the readers ended some 50 years ago.  However, there may be some English people educated in private schools that do understand them.  Then, there is the classic joke about David Levi, a former Israeli Foreign Minister who spoke French but not English.  Accordingly, it is told that he once returned an oven that he bought because it didn’t cook the of (chicken in Hebrew) when it turned in on off.   One can even argue the Internet language itself, so obvious to a certain generation, is still a foreign language to a significant percentage of the population.

I would be interested in hearing your impression of whether people where you live generally understand English.