Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hazards of the trades

Too much knowledge can spoil the fun. Specifically, when a person has deep knowledge of a specific process or art, it becomes difficult to consider the element in its simplicity, as most people do. Instead, the connoisseur analyzes it, often to death.

One area you can see this is language. Most people are interested in the point of communication, not its form. By contrast, writers of all types are often more interested in the form and quite critical of it. For example, writers tend to judge text as much by how good it is written as what it is trying to day. Likewise, translators, including my wife and me, immediately notice over-literal translation and source text interference, especially in menus and signs. Musicians may not even notice the total sounds due to their focus on individual performances, good and bad.  Choreographers sometimes tear down complicated dances into their component parts, negating the effects of synergy. So, language experts insist on proper language, occasionally forgetting the ultimate purpose of communication.

In a world filled with visual information, certain experts immediately focus on a specific aspect. Barbers (or hair designers, as applicable) probably focus on the cut of the hair, with a bit of a critical note I imagine. In the same way, optometrists catch the form of the frame of the glasses, generally ignored by most people unless it is violently inappropriate. Since my wife is a knitter, I see how fast she checks out any knitted object and checks if it is machine or handmade, with a comment on the skill level if the latter. Potters do not see plates as objects on which you put food but instead as works of art, or lack thereof. Like flies and light, certain professionals are immediately attracted by certain visual clues.

This attention often enters the realm of judgment. After years of assessing damage, insurance assessors probably cannot pass a dented car without doing a calculation in their head of the cost to repair it. On my favorite cooking show, Les Carnets de Julie, I watched a baguette judge name the 16 tests, no less, of a proper French bread, of which only the last was taste. For this person, a baguette is not a loaf of bread by any other name. I pity dog breeders, who find it difficult to say “what a cute dog” without trying to figure out the breed(s) of the dog and how well it would do in a show.


There are many advantages of being an expert. However, sometimes, it would be nice to enjoy the world at its face value, without adding complexity or judgment. Unfortunately, once gained, knowledge is hard to lose. As Milton might say, it is paradise lost.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The price of (ex)patriatism

For some people, the grass is definitely greener on the other side. Such adventurers leave their place of birth and circle of family and friends to settle in some far off land. The motivations for such a move may include income, climate, culture or lifestyle. Whatever the cause, expatriates plant their roots far away from parents, but ultimately pay a price for their act of freedom.

Some costs are relatively temporary.  Difficulties involving language and cultural interaction decrease over time, depending on the level of integration chosen. Ex-patriots generally attain a reasonable standard of living by local standards even if the income numbers may not compare with those of their land of birth. If they arrive young enough, immigrants can start their own family and enjoy their grandchildren in their old age. All these issues are manageable and tolerable.

However, there is one cost of residing abroad that cannot be mitigated. As parents age, expatriates find themselves distant and unable to physically help. Of course, telephone and Skype provide affordable communication.  However, the simple acts that elderly people appreciate cannot be provided from a distance. They include trips to the doctors, help with computers, picking up heavy boxes and even sitting together and watching a football or baseball game on television. Isolation and physical weakness are companions of old age, especially in the American context and after the age of 90, as is the situation of my parents.


Having just returned from a bi-annual trip to my parents, I am much more cognizant than ever of this price. I do not regret my life choice nor do my parents reproach me for it but nothing in life is free. Yet, I have never been more aware of the price of the cost.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Of words and truth

Can a name of an object be true or false or does custom determine its virtue. I was surprised that in a Plato dialogue Cratylus, cited in translation to English by Anne Fremantle in her Primer of Linguistics (1974), the issue of the essence of words was discussed. Interestingly enough, words were described as an instrument just as a shuttle or an awn. In other words, any person can use these tools but only experts know how to use them correctly. A linguistic example is the use of the word basically. While it does have a specific and correct meaning, many people throw it in as a breath stop, without meaning.

Plato through Socrates in the dialogue argues that instruments should be defined by the wise, i.e. experts in their use. In regards to words, he specifies politicians but apparently they were a bit more educated in his days. Nobody would praise the precision and truth of the words that politicians use today. The closest current institutions are the various national language institutions, such as in France and Israel but not in the United States. They attempt to establish correct usage and meaning, with varying degrees of success.

The problem is that language, including the name for an essence, is almost always established by popular consensus, i.e., how people use it.  A modern example is the acceptance of blog for web blog. No academy proposed or approved it but it is the correct word. On the other hand, funnest is still incorrect (as far as I know) even if thousands of children say it.


In terms of the classic debate between Hamilton and Jefferson, the people always decide but the former would say that they don’t always do correctly while the latter would say that argue collective wisdom. In other words, can one million references in Google be wrong? Yes and no. The debate continues.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Place in the Sun

Festivals are very important for the life and identity of small towns. They provide exciting, around the clock life to quiet and staid villages for a few days, which is generally enough for most of the locals, and an important source of income for the area. More importantly, they create an identity for that place: X, home of the Y festival. It doesn’t make a difference how unusual the theme is. What counts is to have a fun event to attract outsiders and break the monotony of the summer. Some of my favorite ones are the Scandinavian Festival in Junction, California, where everybody turns into a Viking; the fire ant festival in Marshall, Texas, where virtue is made out of necessity; and the garlic festival in Gilroy, California, where everybody is welcome except for vampires, I suppose.

Karmiel, my home for the last almost 30 years, is a small town of some fifty thousand people.  It is a great place to raise a family but, alas, rather quiet after nine o’clock in the evening. Fortunately, for the last 30 years, for some three days in the summer, it is filled with several hundred thousand dancers and dance lovers enjoying numerous venues, big and small, to both dance and watch dancing. The major theme is Israeli folk dancing, with dancing around the clock, but also includes Balkan (my favorite), salsa, ballroom, hip hop, to name just a few. In terms of performances, all styles of dance are available starting with the top Israeli groups and branching out to foreign ballet troupes, Israeli and world modern dance troupes, national dance companies and unique styles, such as flamenco. This year, my wife and I saw a modern dance version of Carmen by a Hungarian group and a performance by the Georgian national company. For three days, there was music in the air and lots of happy feet. The organizers even got lucky with the weather, which was much more pleasant than in most of the country.  I imagine quite a few of the visitors were not looking forward to returning to the humidity of the Tel Aviv and surroundings. Then, it ended.


Karmiel has returned to being a nice, quiet place to live. Still, when I mention my home town, people generally say, “Oh, where the dance festival is. What a beautiful place!” So, as I wait for my aching leg muscles to recover and the tennis courts to be restored to their normal function after the dancing, I appreciate the beauty of a good festival for both visitors and locals.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Imitation and flattery revisited

All languages are not created equal as each has a different creator. The context here is neither the virtue nor beauty of languages but instead their structure.  Many translators in their loyalty to the form of the source language err by applying it to the target language. I will demonstrate by showing three differences between French and English form.

It is accepted use and quite logical in terms of logic to capitalize last names, places and company names in French.  For examples, in a French legal document, there may be a reference to M. Jacques COLON, residing in NICE working for the SONY company. This use of large letters makes it easy to identify key facts. By contrast, in English, capitalization of all letters in a word is the written equivalent of screaming, only to be used to accentuate in extreme cases. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME NOW? Therefore, applying French capitalization rules in English makes the text sound verbally violent. Mr Jacques Colon, residing in Nice, works for Sony. That is all.

Some punctuation rules are also not equivalent. The French, for reasons unclear to me, put a space between the word and the following colon, as in “les explications :” By contrast, in English the extra space is generally after the colon as in “the explanations:  fatigue…” Retention of the redundant space is generally the sign of an overzealous translator or non-English native speaker.

Finally, prepositions and articles must be restated before every noun in a series in French. Note the following sentence: Je suis protecteur de la liberté, de l’egalité et de la fraternité de chaque citoyen français.  By contrast, English tends not to repeat shared elements of parallel structure. The same sentence in translation would be: I am the protector of the liberty, equality and fraternity of each French citizen. Of and the are not repeated because they are redundant.


It may seems proper and even flattering to copy the exact formatting of the source language but it is neither correct nor professional to do so in all cases. As the French say, vive la difference!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Confrontational politics

As children, we are taught to tell the truth. As adults, we learn not to. Specifically, as we grow up, it becomes more and more evident that the price of being frank is often frankly high: losing friends, getting people angry and even social isolation.  In other words, most people either do not want to hear or are not ready for criticism and bad news.
Culture plays a major part in establishing acceptable behavior. Many societies highly value social cohesion, including Japan, main stream America and Britain and Arab countries. By contrast, “hotter” countries accept temporary unpleasantness, leading people to develop thick skin. The best examples are the Mediterranean and Latin American countries. There, people are allowed to yell and scream without serious social consequences. You get used to “rude” people or leave for more civil (civilized to some) places. Of course, the adjectives used by such locals are hot and genuine as compared to the cold and fake of more gentile countries. As the French say, chacun à son gout (to each his own). The challenge occurs when cultures meet.

I was at a conference when a woman from an Eastern European country gave a 25 minute presentation while sitting down behind a desk and reading into her paper. I don’t understand how the largely non-native speaker crowd understood anything as I found it difficult to catch any words. Not only that, it reminded me of the Yves Montand song, le telegramme (http://www.jukebox.fr/yves-montand/clip,le-telegramme,qvqu0p.html), in which an operator completes ruins the most romantic telegram by rendering it monotone. The method ruined the message. After some 10 minutes of suffering, I got up and left the room.

The problem arose at the next break when that same lecturer approached me and asked me why I had left early. I faced a cultural schizophrenic dilemma: my American side told me to mumble something about having to go the bathroom or the like while my Israeli psyche took the question literally. The latter prevailed. I told her the truth, trying to soften my words. However, she was not stupid and understood exactly what I meant. The end result was her getting quite upset and me becoming quite confused.


My issue was and is the best way to handle that situation in the future. Should I, as a colleague, defuse the tension by avoiding the issue or take the question at face value, i.e., if you want a critique, you will get one? For comparisons sakes, I had a similar situation a few hours previously but the person agreed with my criticism and thanked me. I tend to think that I will take the latter route as I live in a Mediterranean country where confrontation is a norm. Still, I recognize that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.  Alas if knew which part.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Law of the Land, modern style

There is an Israeli play entitled I am here because of my wife.  In that manner, I was present this week at a lecture by Or Yohanon called 150 pay slips. The topic was mortgages and how to choose the correct one. I don’t regret attending it as I improved my knowledge of mortgages, relevant vocabulary in Hebrew and modern means of communications.

In terms of content, house financing in Israeli is vital and complex. I myself barely understood it until this lecture even thought I took out a mortgage only a few years ago. The basic reason is the relatively high cost of housing in terms of apartment prices and income. In simple terms, starter housing is out of reach for most young Israelis without significant help from parents. Furthermore, the majority of Israelis cannot keep a budget as proven by the extraordinariness of anyone not in overdraft. Delayed gratification in terms of spending is not a developed concept in Israel. Finally, Israel has suffered from inflation, leading to the indexing of certain types of mortgages. This has and can lead to the principle actually increasing over time and even the doubling of monthly payments. That is how the dream house turns into a nightmare.

Aside from the informational aspect, the sociological view of society was fascinating. First, the speaker himself represented the new generation. He referred to himself by his first name, wore a very faded tee shirt and jeans and used language filled with Hebrew slang and terms in English. He immediately admitted that he had no formal financial education and was an IT engineer in practice. That said, he appeared completely knowledgeable about the material and made it clear when he was not sure nor did he try to tell people which specific type of mortgage to offer. Yet, I find it hard to imagine some 20+ years ago, any financial adviser would have given a lecture to some 100 or more people looking, acting and speaking like a college student at UC Santa Cruz, my alma mater. People would not have taken such a person seriously, rightly or wrongly.

On the other hand, I could sense a bit of the Banana Slug (the UCSC mascot) spirit, albeit in a modern form. He viewed his effort to educate people about how to get a livable mortgage as a personal crusade against the banks and media, which choose not to prepare people for their most important financial decision of their life. While he lacked Marxist fervency, the speaker clearly had a personal agenda to prevent banks from overly enriching themselves at the expense of naïve young and not-so-young Israelis. On the other hand, his modus operandi was perfect for his audience, including through Facebook, an Internet site (150 pay slips) and forums. His technique is apparently successful as his lectures are generally booked a week in advance. He speaks of the language of his audience, both in terms of words and means.


So, even thought I was there for the ride to ensure marital bliss, I learned about mortgages and modern communication. I honestly wish Or success in his efforts to educate people about this topic.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Toned News

Listening to the news in Israel is a cultural norm.  Summaries are broadcast every half an hour on ratio as well as during morning and evening news-related programs, making it virtually impossible to escape the voice of the news announcer. Contrary to foreign reports, Israel enjoys many days without terrorist incidents.  Actually, traffic accidents are the major non-health related killer in the country but that would not surprise anybody that has ever had the pleasure of driving in a Mediterranean country.

Curiously, it is not even necessary to hear the words to know how good or bad the day has been. The most important story is always first and sets the tone, literally and figuratively, for the rest of the broadcast. If the voice is clearly happy, the lead story is an Israeli winning the bronze medal in Judo or something similar (Israelis have low expectations of their athletes). If there is excitement in the voice, however restrained, another politician is being investigated by the police, with the peak being him entering prison. There is nothing the fourth estate enjoys more than having its accusations proven correct. The flat voice is reserved for economic data since employment and inflationary statistics are notoriously dry regardless of their actual effect on people’s lives. The dreaded tone is serious and quiet, reserved for terrorist incidents and their immediate reporting. Listeners everywhere become quiet, sensing that bad news is about to follow, for the umpteenth time. After an hour or so, when the reporters start interviewing the third cousin of a witness because there is nothing new to say, the announcers struggle to maintain their earnest tone and become more businesslike.


Just as there is a science in reading faces or, in the past, reading the Soviet government owned newspapers, listening to the news in Israel is an acquired talent, going beyond understanding Hebrew. It is all in the tone.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Internet alternative plots

“How did people manage before Internet” is a rather common question today. The blunt answer is quite well and much happier but no one under the age of 30 will believe it. A much more interesting issue is how Internet would have changed the world if it had been around some 1000 years ago.

Historically, its impact would have been huge.  Clearly, the Spanish and Mongols would not have launched their Armadas to conquer England and Japan, respectively, if they had been able to access a long term weather forecast.  Logically, Alexander Graham Bell would have never invented the telephone for the simple reasons that there was no need for it. The list of world-changing potential effects is endless, limited only by a person’s imagination and knowledge. More intriguing would have been the Internet’s impact on entertainment, specifically how its existence would have changed the plots of the stories.

For example, communication issues would be much simplified. Simenon’s Maigret would not have to wait for wires and wake up operators in the middle of the night to receive the information he needed. The whos of Horton and Dr. Seuss fame would not have had to organize everybody but instead simply could have sent a message via whatsapp or tweeter.

Furthermore, characters would be more certain of where they are. Dorothy would have been certain, not merely having a feeling, that she was not in Kansas anymore anda checked for return flights instead of taking the yellow brick road. Likewise, all those characters in movies whose vehicles ran out of gas would have known where the next gas station was.

Logistics and travel would have been much easier. Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and Passepartout could have ordered tickets for all their means of transportation in advance, significantly reducing their stress. For that matter, if Brad and Janet from the Rocky Horror Picture Show had done a proper search for a well-rated B&B, their honeymoon would have much ordinary. On a humanitarian (or is that canine) level, wouldn’t it have much simpler if Lassie had been picked up by a local farmer, who published her picture on the Internet, leading to either a nice ride back to her original owners or, at worst, a new home?

How much suffering the Internet could have saved. Algernon, of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys, could have read the result of the trials on rats and realized that his increased intelligence was only temporary. Moliere’s Imaginary Invalid would have known that the last doctor is a quack, thus avoiding premature death.

I should note that I could not think of a single Shakespearean plot that would have “benefited” from an Internet retrofit, but that may be from lack of knowledge or imagination.

It is clear that the plots of countless tales would be completely different if the Internet had existed at the time of their writing. However, different does not mean better. I prefer the non-www version of these stories as they are somehow quite richer and more focused on the essential. I could argue that so was pre-Internet real life in many ways but that might sound dinasaurish.


I welcome any ideas for alternative “what if” plots.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Twenty thousand views under the see (column)

(My apologies to Jules Verne)

This week, I eagerly watched as my number under pageview column on my blog statistics approached and reached 20,000. It was both a meaningless and momentous moment. On the one hand, some blogs reach that number within two or even one post. I cannot and do not try to compete with these popular writers. On the other hand, given the number of people that begin blogs and effectively stop writing after three months or so, I have achieved something, however modest. So, on this special occasion, possibly for the benefit of those seriously considering a blog, I offer some random but relevant comments.

I write three times a month and have so for a few years. This frequency is related to the writing process. I need to think of a subject that lights up the neurons in the brain, not always an easy process. So, if the goal is one post per week, I allow for lack of inspiration and therefore am never disappointed in myself for not writing that week. As they say, success leads to success.

In terms of subject matter, I almost never write about politics. It is a great way to boost view numbers but, at best, creates simultaneous monologues. People almost never change their political view due to what they read. Therefore, my ideas would have essentially no impact. Instead, I try to provide a perspective about culture and language. At worst, some people find it irrelevant. At best, I may enrich their perspective. In any case, they gain knowledge.

As for popularity, I have learned that it is impossible to predict which posts will create the most interest. My most viewed post is entitled Non-trite eating and delineates the meanings of the various synonyms for the word eat, not exactly an earth-shattering topic. Others that I believed to be thought provoking received few views. It could all be a matter of timing and coincidence for all I know.

In regards to the statistics themselves, I am still confused about the actual meaning of a pageview. I understand that not every page view is an actual read nor is every actual read reflected in this number.

However, fundamentally it makes no difference. I have discovered that I write for the pleasure of writing, the same way that I dance for the pleasure of dancing. It is the process of artistic creation that is no less magic than the creation itself. Naturally, it makes me happy to see large numbers of people read and react to my posts. Yet, that is the essentially the cherry on top. The real satisfaction is in creating the post. That is what motivates me and has helped me reach the number, impressive or not, of 20,000 views.

To all those that have read my posts, I thank you and hope you will continue to follow me. I honestly hope that I have entertained you at times and maybe provided you with a new perspective. If I got you to laugh a bit, I have truly succeeded. Please let me know what your favorite post was.


I now look forward to pageview number 40,000.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Not your grandmother’s Poland

My wife and I just returned from a week’s trip in Poland, taken for the purpose of my attending a Law and Language conference in Bialystok (see previous post). I have to admit that I had never felt as uneasy before a trip as I did prior to this trip.  I could not put my finger on what exactly was disturbing me but told myself that I would take things as they are in the present. That said, I made a conscious decision to travel on my Israeli passport and speak Hebrew. The greatest response to past anti-Semitism and mass killing is to return as a proud Jew.  I did not regret that decision and was quite surprised by the reaction. Not only were there no negative reaction or incidents, people expressed interest, with one person, in his 40’s, apologizing for the actions of the Poles in the past, something we did not expect or request.

The Poland I saw in that week, granted a short time, is a complex society. It consists of three distinct generations: pre-war, Soviet and modern Polish. The first is hard to see as that few of that generation is still alive and most of the buildings of that period, at least in Warsaw, were destroyed by the Germans. Yet, it is engrained in my mind from stories and movies. The second was symbolized by the Stalin’s gift to the Poland, the imposing cement Palace of Science and Culture in the city center. No less reminiscent of that era is the stone-faced “charm” of the border guards and train clerks, who do their job in the proper Soviet manner. The current generation is more European and western. On the train from Bialystok to Warsaw, delayed by two hours, we spent a magical 4 hours with five 18-year olds returning from vacation. Aside from the respect they gave us, we were amazed by their knowledge, curiosity, English and goodness. We talked for four hours without effort and did not regret the train delay in the least. If this group is the future of Poland, I am very optimistic. This interlacing of different educations does not lead to easy conclusions about the past, present or future but makes for a fascinating trip.

In terms of the Polish language itself, I left with the impression that in six months I could be functioning quite well in it. It took some three days to figure out the pronunciation/spelling matrix. However, once I understood how to say the words, it was wonderfully (to me, not the Poles) similar to Russian, which I know, and therefore easy to understand. I was amused by the Elmer Fudd letter, specifically Ƚ (an L with a cross in it). I learned that is pronounced wa, reminding me of Elmer Fudd saying, “I am going to shoot that Wabbit.” I mean no offense to the Polish but often use humor to help remember.


The food was generally excellent. There was an abundance of non-mainstream meats, including duck, bison, venison and wild boar. The Polish are justifiably famous for their perogi with various fillings, with our favorite being those filled with blueberries in a sauce of sour cream. I loved the herring, especially in cream and served with onion, a taste acquired from my mother. On the other hand, Poland lacks the fresh vegetables so common in Israel. The one “Israeli salad” we saw (at the hotel breakfast) was so small and minimal that it engendered pity not desire. The service in restaurant was prompt and professional at least until the main dish was served. At that point, for reasons we never understood, the waiter would disappear as if he did not want to disturb us from digesting our food. At least twice we gave up on the dessert as we had become somehow invisible to the server. Admittedly, not eating a dessert is not a tragedy, at least at our age.

I must say a few words about hair.  The Middle East is known for dark, often curly, hair for women and the non-hair for men. Many of my students, in their 20’s, already have expanded foreheads. In Poland, the large majority of women were blonds, most of them natural. Curly heads must be considered very exotic. We also noted that they were much more elegantly dressed than in Israel. As for the males, they must either have the right genes or lead peaceful lives as even older men had full heads of hair.

In short, my trip to Poland, regardless of my anxiety beforehand, was extremely memorable and worthwhile. I do not claim to have become an expert on the country but at least I gained some insights on modern Poland and my grandmothers’ Poland. To any Jew considering a visit there, I would recommend it, but doing so neither forgetting the past nor ignoring the present. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bialystok - Law, Language and People

I had the honor and pleasure of attending and giving a paper at the Language and Law Conference in Bialystok, Poland organized by the Legal Language department of the University of Bialystok. It was a two day event focusing on a wide variety of topics, including legal genres, language teaching and translation.  Lecturers came from all of Europe, including three from Israel, and represented all professions interested in legal languages.

Due to the fact that the conference has four rooms simultaneously running, it was impossible to hear all lectures. I would like to mention a few among those that I could attend that deserve special mention. Juliette Scott discussed the covert-overt spectrum in translation, specifically how much a translation should show the syntax and errors of the source documents, depending on the type and purpose of the document. It enlightened me in regards that seamless translation is not always the ideal. Later that session, Alexandra Matulewska elucidated the way legal texts often involve non-legal genres, including medical and engineering, thus creating a challenge and dilemma for legal translators forced to stray from their field of expertise. Andreas Abegg presenting a linguistic analysis of long term changes in Swiss administrative laws, demonstrating how that type of law had gone from declaring its rights by frequent use of we and our to specifying its range, applying a wide variety of domain terms. Later on that session, Joanna Kozlovska gave an interesting analysis of the problem of translation EU laws into Polish, comparing the single word “hunting” in English and its two possible translations into Polish with the accompanying linguistic and legal consequences. Later on that day, Ondreu Klabal and I provided complementary perspectives on the use of shall in English legal writing.

The second day was marked by a truly fascinating lecture by Dr. John Ollson on forensic linguistics. Citing real cases, he showed how linguistic analysis can determine the truth or lack thereof regarding authorship of written texts ranging from police confessions and suicide notes to phone text messages. It was not only interesting scholarship but also a fascinating story. The conference ended with a trip to a Polish village in the forest, complete with a carriage ride, an excellent BBQ and an encounter with friendly Polish mosquitoes. My wife and I came as strangers and left as friends.

My most personal experience from this conference was visiting the birthplace of my grandmother (who left Bialystok in the 1920’s) and giving a lecture in the building where she may have studied. I hope she is smiling up there.

I wish to thank the organizers, Dr. Halina Sierocka and her assistants, for a well organized, friendly and intellectually fascinating conference. I cannot imagine how many hours of works it involved, but the result was a truly fine event.


My next post will relate my overall experiences of Poland.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Childlike musings

Two events have occurred that have changed the audio environment of my office. First, summer has arrived, meaning the windows are now always open. Secondly, the municipality has completely refurbished the local play ground, located next to my office (in my apartment), including swings, slides, a roof, artificial grass and (just) enough open space to play football.  As a result, I get to listen to the sounds of children all day long.

As a matter of explanation, I live in a neighborhood that could be described as lower middle class. A series of low apartment buildings, with apparently random addresses, surround this playground. The residents, a typical mixture of a periphery city in Israel, include Russians, Ethiopians, religious and non-religious people, Arabs (yes, there is no Apartheid in Israel) and more established Israelis.  Unemployment is minor but nobody could be considered rich. The cars in the parking lot are run of the mill while the sizes of the flats range from 90 to 140 square meters.  We chose to buy here because of the apartment size and garden. So, the neighborhood is alive but not dangerous.

Back to the playground, this diversity is reflected in the various “shifts.” In the morning, the older residents and mothers/grandmothers watch the babies and toddlers enjoy the facilities. As the school day ends, teenagers hang out and talk their own special nonsense and release stress. In the late afternoon, once it cools off, the parents send their kids out, creating a scale microcosm of the area: from white to black, first to 12th grade, boys and girls, comfortable to modest dress. From my “observation” of the sounds emitted from the area, I have noticed the following:

1      Regardless of language and culture, the song “na, na ,na na, na” is intended to annoy.

2     There is the always the “Godot” kid, the one everybody is calling but I have never           actually seen. In my case, it is a girl named Zoar. Someone is always calling for Zoar to come.

        It may be genetic but, whatever the reason, give kids three open square meters, they will start playing football and arguing, mainly the latter.

4     Kids never tire of hide and seek (call tofeset in Hebrew). I can’t figure out that many places to hide there but it does not stop the endless count up from 1-20. Children in this neighborhood quickly learn how to count in Hebrew and English.

        No afternoon is complete without a good cry. Specifically, at least one day, one kid has to experience catharsis by sobbing.  Often, s/he is the one previously saying “na, na, na na, na.”

6      I have been there and done that but it does not help. I really hope the teenage boy whose voice is changing finishes the process soon.

7    The bossy girl lives on. We can hear give orders for hours and get upset when discipline is lacking.

8      Kids find cursing fun. In this case, the foul words are in Hebrew, Russian and English.

9     The various ethnic/religious/family groups tend to initially keep to themselves, but you can count on football and hide and go seek to bring everybody together.


This concert or cacophony may not seem to be the ideal background for work requiring concentration. It is true that I or my wife have considered various methods of silencing a few individuals. Still, for the most part, the mind can ignore the high pitches from outside or even appreciate the youthful spirit. Personally, I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles, without any communal playground. Everybody was locked in their castle. I sort of regret that I didn’t grow up in such a neighborhood. So, even if would rather not listen in, I try to remember that the communal playground plays an important and positive role in growing up and developing social skills (and thick skin). So, I just grin and bear it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Egyptian-French (Voice) Pipeline

The term “French singer” is associated with native French, such as Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, or at least those born in neighboring European countries, such as Serge Reggiani (Italy) and Jacques Brel (Belgium). In fact, some of the most famous French singers were not even more born in Europe or in French-speaking countries. Three singing stars were born in Egypt but managed to enrich French culture.

Two of the three did not even have a French parent. Dalida, née Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti, was the daughter of Italian parents, her father being a first violinist. George Moustaki, né Giuseppe Mustacchi, came from a Greek Jewish family. By contrast, Claude Francois, had a French father but an Italian mother. All three arrived in France young and raw but were fortunate to meet a person that believed in them and helped them begin their career, Lucien Morisse, George Brassin and Paul Lederman, respectively. They all reached star status as reflected in their records sales, packed houses and mass public.

It is interesting to note the effect of their colonial childhood. Dalida always sang with an accent and had many “Arabic” aspects on her stage presence. George Moustaki had more of an Italian presence while Claude Francois consciously imitated American singers, notably Elvis. The first two also recorded songs in Arabic. In terms of music content, the immigrant experience had the most impact on George Moustaki, who wrote and sang about it. The others were less engagé (politically involved).


I find it fascinating these three singers were highly successfully in France despite not having been born there or spoken French at home. Their Italian background may have helped them adapt and be accepted. After all, Italian born singers did well worldwide, including in the United States. Possibly, talent compensates for all disadvantages. Another explanation is that France is more tolerant than most countries of foreign accents. Whatever the reason, France owes a lot to its Egyptian born artists, however strange that may sound.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Russian certified cruelty

Having just translated a Russian Federation academic certificate and its accompanying transcript, I got a glimpse of how merciless a supposedly bland certificate can be, at least to American eyes.

To explain, I am a graduate of an American university, UC Santa Cruz, affectionately known as Uncle Charley’s Summer Camp, as well as an English institution, Leicester, quaintly pronounced lester.  I even have official graduation diploma to prove it. On these hallowed pieces of paper, my name, degree, subject and year of graduation are listed. What they prove is subject to debate but it is safe to say that I proved that had enough patience and discipline, not necessarily intelligence, to “meet the academic requirements for the degree.”

Of course, the diploma itself does not state how long I took or how well I did or even what at what age and which date I began my studies. As an illustration of the possible variations, during the Vietnam era in the United States, since college enrollment could be delayed by being drafted, one way to avoid serving in the army was to stay in college. Doonesbury’s classic character (whose name escapes me and Google search) gave new definition to the term 10 year plan as he kept on changed major just before completing the last course until he distressingly discovered that there were no majors to switch to. So, most diplomas merely inform the reader of the completion of the requirements.

I am aware that the Latin term cum laude does occasionally appear on Western certificates but I apparently hanged around the wrong group of people. My brother got this supplement while I did not receive it, deservingly so. In any case, I always had the impression that the term was used by owners of dogs named Laude to get them to go home after a walk. As Tom Lehrer would say, but I digress.


By contrast in that merciless motherland that is the Russian Federation (aka Soviet Union and Russia, by generation), students have no secrets. All of the embarrassing facts appear on the certificate leaving the student nowhere to hide. First, the critical eye notices that date and particulars of the previous academic degree. So, if you went back to college some ten years after high school, you have a lot to explain. Then, the certificate viciously informs the reader that the program should take x amount of years and this particular student took y number of years. That could really raise a red flag among employers, not a good thing. The most damaging detail on a Russian academic certificate is three nasty letters before the certificate number: всг and вса. These translate as Russian Diploma of Specialty without Excellence and Russian Diploma of Specialty with Excellence. In other words, at a glance, without even looking at your transcripts, the employer can tell if you enriched the university or the university enriched you.  Try explaining that away.  Alas, students are held strictly accountable. Such cruelty!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Military ribbons

I have lived in Israel since 1989, some 28 years, not including one year as a volunteer. I was 28 years old when I made alia, immigration, and have since spent half my in Israel. In many ways, I have become local, as colonials would say. I speak Hebrew, don’t stand on protocol and understand almost all of the jokes. That said, I recognize that I will never be 100% Israeli, mainly because of a lack of military service.

 I simply never went through baku, the enlistment center, and basic training. I arrived too old be an effective soldier. Thus, I was given a health exemption. I can’t say that I fought the decision as I was a newlywed. Neither I nor my first wife was enthusiastic about me away for long period of times or optimistic about my ability to even make a bed the army way. The IDF did not really need me either. So, I missed the Israeli male-defining experience of proving myself as a soldier, doing mandatory service and reserve duty. I also did not go through that male-bonding experience that leads to so many friendships in Israel.

The other military experience I missed is that of a parent of a soldier. I have a daughter who did not serve in the IDF, having received an exemption. As a result, I never escorted by child that same baku, see her come home on weekends exhausted with a pile of dirty clothes, drive her to base and appear in uniform with a rifle whenever she had leave during her duty. For that matter, I never had to wonder where exactly she was, what she was doing and if she was safe. There are many Israeli parents that would envy me on that matter.

On the other hand, I have done my civilian “duty.” I have sat through endless special broadcasts on TV, discussing the latest military campaign. I have celebrated my birthday by going into a “protected” room as a gift from Sadam Hussein (Gulf War). It was no gas, as they say. I have seen “the rockets’ red glare” during the Second Lebanese War and chosen to stay in my house despite the frequent sirens. In fact, I no longer count how many military actions I have been viewed as a civilian. However, to my credit or stupidity, depending on your point of view, I have never run to safer pastures, instead standing my ground in Israel. I “understand” what it means to be an Israeli civilian during war.

To clarify any confusion, I am neither proud nor regretful of my lack of military service. Given the circumstances, that was the reality. On the bright side, I and my immediate family have never had a bullet shot at them or even in our direction and have never been in danger of being killed or wounded in military action. Likewise, I would have liked my daughter to do military service but fully understand why that was not practical at the time. In the opposite sense, my life would be perfectly fine without knowing how to put on a gas mask or the size of a hole created by rocket on a road. For better or worse, I accept what I have been given.


Yet, no matter how long I live here, I will always have a bit of galute, Diaspora, in me, not only because of my accent, manners or way of thinking but also because I never experienced what it means to be an Israeli soldier.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Independently rough and wooly

Israel just celebrated its 69th Independence Day. Its beginning, as usual, was marked by a ceremony in Jerusalem starting at the end of Memorial Day (the day before) leading to the kickoff of the celebrations, from sad to joy in slightly more than an hour. I have been in Israel some 28 years and never fail to watch the ceremony on television. Honestly, it lacks the smoothness and elegance of state ceremonies in more established states. However, specifically due to its multitextural and honest nature, it faithfully represents all this good in Israel.

For those that have never watched it. It fitting takes place on Mount Herzl, named after the ideological founder of Zionism. The VIP’s (the Prime Minister, President, Chairperson of Knesset and Chief of Staff) are led to their seats and give permission to the ceremony to start. At that time, a small group of IDF flag bearers march around the square. To be honest, the marching is acceptable but would probably not pass the standards of a marine sergeant. Yet, I do not regret this lack of show as it is product of the IDF emphasis on combat performance not parade performance. A video of a short statement by the Prime Minister, Bibi, as he not so affectionately called, was then shown. It resembled election campaign material. This is natural as elections are always potentially around the corner here. A musical interlude followed, consisting of a short reading of a prayer followed by its musical rendition by a mass of purple-illuminated pianos, a duo of religion and art if you will. The Chairperson of the Knesset then gave his speech. It warned Israel (and the government) of the dangers of dividing the people, a rather critical statement at what is supposed to be an orchestrated state ceremony. However, in Israel, when you have two Jews, you have three opinions.  We still have democracy.

Then began a curious part of the ceremony, 12 people received the honor to light a flame (one for each tribe of Israel) with the theme being a united Jewish Jerusalem. It is always good politics to stand up to UNESCO and be in line with the ideology of the current government. The choice of the people was rather interesting, ranging from writers and teachers to soldiers and immigrants, including an Arab and a merchant at the famous Jerusalem open market. This wide variety of honorees reflects the diversity of Israel and goes beyond the traditional elite presented in state ceremonies. The soldiers accompanying the honorees were of all shapes, sizes and colors. Not all of them managed to maintain their dignity but that is typical of this country and its Mediterranean nature.

Music of various styles followed, including Naomi’s Shemer’s Yerusalem shel zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), the classic song about Jerusalem. Finally, flag bearers of all IDF units, wearing a cacophony of uniforms marched, creating a series of formations, joined frantically by the soldiers that would be awarded by the President the following day. Oh, how much I love the Israeli sense of order. The ceremony ended with the weary flag bearers and musicians marching off the stage and the release of the fireworks.


While I admit that it lacks the dignity and form of the French Bastille Day ceremony, the Israeli state ceremony provides a short focus on what is fundamentally good and important for Israelis. This list includes diversity, democracy, faith, achievement and, foremost, the joy of having our own country. As they say (albeit in a different context), next year in Jerusalem.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jeffersonian language drivers

George Carlin, a man obsessed by the search for truth, had a notable routine about the common misuse of phrases. In itself, it is quite interesting.  Among the phrases he mentions are the terms sour grapes, cop out and get a monkey off your back.  He points out that these terms have specific meanings that have been misused by public speakers. For example, a person with sour grapes is not jealous but instead rationalizes a failure. Likewise, to cop out is admit some guilt, not to find an excuse. A team cannot get a monkey off its back by stopping a losing streak since the monkey in this case is an addiction that controls its life. Nobody actually seeks to lose, rendering the expression inappropriate in the circumstances.  The full video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn9elWR13Z4.

Aside from the cleverness and information in this video, it raises a much more profound issue. Specifically, is correctness determined by a small group of educated people or, to paraphrase Carlin, the mass of idiots out there? In other words, the unspoken debate, as in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, is whether truth, linguistic in this case, is objective or subjective.

On the one hand, I would agree that poor language cannot be justified by the quantity of Google hits. As an English lecture, I insist on the non-use of but in the beginning of a sentence despite its frequent use there in journalism. Likewise, I correct effect to affect when it is used as a verb although countless native speakers don’t know the difference.  So, I support the insistence on language standards and calling a spade a spade.

Yet, when it comes to vocabulary meanings, I am not Don Quixote fighting the windmill of common use. People have always used terms as they sit fit even if the genealogy of the word did not justify such use. To take a modern example, the gay 90’s (1890’s) were happy times, supposedly, as compared to the gay 90’s (1990’s) when homosexuality became more accepted. The people of each period understood the term as they chose.  Beyond that, I even embrace the dynamics of language. Language defines each generation in terms of its thinking and technology. Cloud technology existed a half century ago but was used for creating rain as compared to today. The dynamics of language development is fascinating and legitimate even if it is driven by a bunch of “assholes” as my brother would say.

So, while I sympathize and appreciate the efforts of Carlin and others to maintain standards in a language, when it comes to lexicon, I am not in the camp of Hamilton but in that of Jefferson.  To explain, the meaning of the words is to be decided by the people, however uneducated they maybe, not by the elite, however superior they may be. Let the revolution continue, not that anybody can stop it.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kosher thoughts

Pesach leads to much conversation about kashrut. How many calories are expended in considering which calories to intake?  It borders on an infinite number.  Yet, many non Jews (and some Jews) are not completely aware how complex kosher can get and how much it affects food choices.

On the surface level, kashrut involves the manner of slaughtering animals, the prohibition of certain foods (pork and shellfish, notably) and prohibition of mixing diary and meat. Yet, it also takes into account the preparation or storage of the foods.  For example, traditional wooden wine kegs use a mixture of flour and water as glue, making the wine stored in them unsuitable for Pesach. Likewise, gelatin is commercially made from animal fat, pig or otherwise, affecting its use with dairy products or use in general.  Since a restaurant that is open on Friday night cannot by definition be kosher, an observant Jew must not eat there even during the week. At Pesach, more prohibitions come into play, including most if not all grains (rice is a matter of contention). This is not even the tip of the iceberg.  Kashrut rules make inheritance laws look like child’s play.

The truly controversial issue is the raison d’être of this corpus of religious laws.  Some justify the logic in terms of health or ancient methods of preservation (or lack thereof). Yet, even if kashrut were unhealthy or completely irrelevant in terms of food safety, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews would continue to keep it. Fundamentally, the observant perceive kashrut as a basis of Jewish life (not necessarily identity). To openly reject it is to betray the religion, no more, no less. (Maimodides named it as one of the pillars of Judaism) In other words, to embrace God, you have to embrace his rules and limitations. 

Of course, many Jews in Israel and abroad do not keep kosher to one degree or another. The expressions of rejection include eating pork and cheeseburgers to only eating “traff” (non-kosher food) in restaurants while keeping the house kosher, to name just a few.  To a large degree, this refusal is an ideological choice in the same way compliance is a matter of faith.


In the meantime, many Jews are putting up with matzo and its companying stomach effects until Tuesday while quite a few others found the ceremonial matzo on the night of the Seder more than enough for their religious conscience. In my case, I have no problem living without bread and beer for a week. I give up those foods not as a matter of principle but as a practical means to keep my wife happy.

In terms of the importance of keeping kosher, two bits of philosophy come in mind. Sartre said that a Jew is a Jew because the world views his/her to be such while Bob Marley said “don’t worry, be happy.” In other words, to the outside world, keeping kosher is of little importance but, if it makes you feel truly Jewish, enjoy.  In the meantime, I’ll have some gefilte fish with homemade khreyn (horseradish). It helps clean the sinuses. Oh, the joy of Pesach!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Waterworks

Being an independent business person requires you to deal with the ebbs and flows of business since the only constant about business is that it is not constant. Curiously, these various business currents are often described using other water-related words.

On the bright side, every entrepreneur likes a steady stream of customers, not too many, not too few. Some businesses, due to their seasonal nature, require their owners to ride the wave of orders until they can relax in the dead season. In any case, nothing brings a bigger smile to a factory owner than having orders pouring in, allowing them to generate full production capacity. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. While a torrent of work may sound like a good thing, the poor freelancer may find him/herself flooded with work, bogged down in various tasks, so swamped that s/he can do nothing else but work or so mired that orders must be refused.  The tidal wave can be simply too much for one person.

The other extreme is not any better. While a bit worrying, if work is trickling in or coming in dribbles, there is at least some cash flow.  A long  flat spell may be sign of changes in the market. The worst feeling is when orders start to dry up and the business is facing a drought. In such a case, it is hard to decide what to do, to have sunny thoughts and wait for a change in the economic forecast or to look for greener pastures elsewhere with less dark clouds.


As we can see, entrepreneurs and sailors must be optimistic about the weather but realistic about its chances.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Deceiving appearances

English is a mélange of roots and forms from various languages.  This creates a rich language but unfortunately quite a lot of confusion. It can make guessing the meaning of word a bit of a crap shoot.
Here are some examples in the form of a short quiz.
1   “Appositive” is
a.      A type of blood
b.      Another name for something
c.       Negative
2 “Tortuous” is
a.      Curvy
b.      Painful
c.       Tasty like a cake
3  An infamous person is 
a.      Unknown
b.      Well known in limited circles
c.       Known for doing awful things
     An “inflammable” substance is
a.      Gasoline
b.      Water
c.       A gasoline can
To “ululate” is
a.      To constantly be tardy
b.      To sing Swiss mountain songs
c.       To imitate the calls of wolves
     A bimonthly magazine appears
a.      Twice a month
b.      Every two months
c.       Both a and b
A positive charge in electronics has
a.      Lost electrons
b.      Gained electronics
c.       Sometimes a and sometime b
A parkway is a place
a.      To park
b.      To drive
c.       To play football
A scarified road
a. has been the scene of many deaths.
b. is in the middle of repavement
c. has many warning signs.


In all honesty, if you didn’t know any of the answers, you probably still can express yourself perfectly well.  Still, English scholars, i.e., those who enjoy using the language to its best, actually enjoy the peculiarity of the language. As for the answers, to be really nasty, I won’t give the answers.  That way, you will remember what the word means! However, if you are unsure about any, write me.