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.