Thursday, April 28, 2016

Politics then and now

One of the advantages of public libraries is the opportunity to read books that you would never could justify buying. Currently, I am reading a book of the speeches of Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Speaks published by Path Finder Press, 1972). On the one hand, it rather dated material, covering the period between the 1905 revolution through the October revolution and Russian Civil War all the way to his exile. Yet, on the other hand, the speeches provide a fascinating contrast to the current US election, more than a century later.

Reading the written text, it is not hard to hear the fervent tone beyond the words. Trotsky honestly, albeit naively, believed that the proletariat would create a better world and that human relations were essentially class relations. His speeches have much less hate and are much more positive than those of Lenin.  He is out to persuade people to do the right thing (in his eyes) and was quite successful in doing so. He believed that, however bad the current situation is, the science of Marx and Engels and good sense of the workers will eventually overcome all problems. The latter cannot be said for later communist leaders, such as Brezhnev and those following him.  Thus, Trotsky’s words leave you with a sense of hope, even more than 100 years later.

In 2016, the world is watching the presidential campaign of the US Democrats and Republicans with fascination. They are providing a variety of visions, each so different from that of Trotsky and reflecting the post 20th century lack of faith in any ideology.  On the Republican side, you have a modern anarchist. Trump basically says the system should be destroyed and people should be allowed to do what they want to do. On the other extreme, Cruz wants a “return” to world that never existed, based on the Bible as the source of all laws and actions. Like many Islamic visionaries, they are implying that in the absence of a modern vision of a better of the future, we should use implement policy based on an “already proven” model, even if no such state has actually existed. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is the extreme realist, explicitly rejecting radical change and defining politics as the art of the possible. While practical, it does inspire great hope for those less fortunate. On her left, Sanders wants to clean up the villains in America without trying to get rid of the figurative baby. As is the case of many socialists, economics is not his strong side.

Regardless of their differences, none of the candidates offers much hope for today’s working poor, Trotsky’s proletariat. Nobody can create the belief, be that an illusion, that in five, ten or fifteen years their world will be much better. There are many factors for the low voter turnout in the US in recent decades but, in my opinion, one of them is fatalism, the lack of faith that any ideology can fundamentally affect their reality. I would not vote for Trotsky but feel nostalgic for the days when people believed that a man and his ideology could make a major difference. That is the difference between politics then and now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fresh thinking

Words, specifically the use of them, are a bit like rivers. The authorities may try to plan to their movement but they have a will of their own.  An example is the word fresh. Its standard meaning is similar to new or young, as in fresh start or fresh fish. Yet, in English we also have fresh water, which has a low salt content as compared to sea water, fresh vegetables, which are in contrast to cooked vegetables, and fresh children, who are not polite.

As a matter of contrast, French avoids any mention of freshness. River water is douce, a word whose general translation into English is soft. At a restaurant, you can order crudités, with the contrast with processed vegetables, such as steamed or sautéed ones. If your kid asks you why, it may because he is culotté, a reference to his underclothes, a bit like being cheeky.

Examining a language not based on Latin, Hebrew refers toמיים מתוקים  [maim metukim], literally sweet water. In terms of the vegetables, it is very rare to find  ירקות התוכות [yerakot hatuchot], literally cut vegetables in a restaurant.  Instead, chopped salads are the norm. Finally, when it comes to behavior, Israelis go straight to the issue. The kid is חצוף [hatsuf], having gaul, generally like his or her parents.

I hope I brought your attention to some fresh, albeit irrelevant, information.  Now go out and enjoy some fresh air!   

Friday, April 8, 2016

Holy academic scheduling

I have been an English lecturer at Ort Braude for over 25 years.  One aspect of academic life in Israel that is unique to the country and very peculiar is the schedule of non-classes in the second semester. 

To explain, as in the United States, each semester has 14 weeks. An additional factor is that the Jewish calendar, which determines the actual date of the religious holidays, is based on the moon, which means that an extra month, Adar B, is frequently added to keep it in line with the solar year. This means that their dates vary from year to year but within a certain range.

The first semester begins after Sukkot. In practice, that means any time from the end of September to latter part of October. Once the semester begins, it lasts 14 consecutive weeks with no holidays except for maybe one day for Hanukah (some institutions give more).

Alas, the second semester is a matter of occasional study between days off.  To illustrate, this year, it began on March 6.  Students got one day off for Purim on March 24, two and half weeks later. They actually have to study another almost four weeks until Pesach, which lasts from April 22-29. Immediately after readjusting to academic life for not even a week, they get a late afternoon off, on May 4, for Holocaust Memorial Day. Not to worry, one week later, there are no classes, from the late afternoon on May 10th for Memorial Day straight through to the 12th, for Independence Day.  This break is followed by two actual weeks of study, until, no kidding, Students Day, from noon of May 25th to noon of the 26th. By this time, even the students want to get some learning in. There is a limit on how much you can eat. Yet, on June 12, the students can catch up on homework on Shavuot. There are no more holidays or days off until June 20th, the end of the semester, unless they are sick or called up for reserve duty.  

I should clarify that the plethora of holidays is not the fault of the management and is applicable all over the country.  It should be noted, to nobody’s surprise, that the vast majority students appreciate the extra time, especially at an engineering college.

If you are wondering how the faculty can actually teach anything, the management has calculated 14 full weeks of study here. It is undoubtedly true but who can count with so many holes?