Sunday, February 26, 2006

What's that you're saying?

One of the most interesting aspects of living in Israel is the melting pot of native English speakers that one can encounter. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of spending time with Scots, Welsh, English, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and many, many Americans. As a result of this, my English has become a bastard mix of words from around the globe, to a point where I’m no longer certain as to what is proper for my own American English. It affects my speaking, my spelling, and my general writing style (would you put a comma after the word “spelling” as I have?), and consequently, I am often forced to consider my words and punctuation very carefully. It makes life wonderfully interesting, and I enjoy expanding my vocabulary this way.

While in university (which the Americans usually refer to as college, and in most countries outside the US, there is a difference between the two), I even wrote a paper on the subject, garnering an “A” for noting terms like “lorry” vs. “truck”, “lift” vs. “elevator”, and “eraser” vs. “rubber”, with the last of these generating an embarrassing mistake for a friend when he was in high school. This friend was born in Israel, living here until age 9. He then moved to England, where he lived until age 15. At that point, he was transplanted to Long Island. His accent was positively indescribable, though absolutely charming. Anyway, Guy was taking an exam in his American high school, writing in pencil. Upon making a mistake, he turned to a classmate and asked to borrow a rubber. As you can imagine, his request went down a treat, given that in the US (and perhaps elsewhere, I just don’t know), a rubber is not an eraser, but a condom. Poor Guy!

Being named Guy was no picnic in the US. It certainly didn’t help that when he moved to England, the officials spelled his given name of “Haggai” as “Chagay”, leading to endless pronunciation issues. But Guy is not a popular name in the US, despite its popularity in the UK. Interestingly enough, there are quite a few names that don’t work if you are hopping between English-speaking countries. What Brit hasn’t chuckled when meeting an American (male or female) named Randy? If my name happened to be Fanny (I swear it’s not!), I’d definitely be using a nickname when traveling around the UK. And of course, let us not forget the names that don’t transfer well to Israeli culture. I knew an American Jewish woman named Sheva once, many years ago. On the face of things, it sounds like a beautiful name, no? At least, if you don’t know what it means, it sounds beautiful. In Hebrew, “sheva” is “seven”. Yep. The number seven. And given that I met poor Sheva as we were participating in a year program together in Israel, you can only imagine what it must have been like to spend an entire year having people ask you why your name is seven. Less fun than you might think.

What caused me to dedicate a blog entry to this subject? Well, recently I learned a new word from a colleague who grew up in South Africa. Before I share the new word with you, I’d like to point out that South Africans, bless ‘em, use some very bizarre terms. For instance, did you know that in South Africa, a traffic light is known as a robot? I swear! Or when a South African tells you that he will be taking care of something “just now”, it means that he will be taking care of it at any time between now and, say, any old indefinite time period. Neat concept, eh? It took me a while to catch on to that one, when my South African colleagues would tell me that they would get to whatever it was that I was waiting for just now, and I couldn’t imagine what was taking so long. Do you know what a “braai” is? Why, it’s a barbecue, of course! If a South African invites you over for a braai, consider yourself lucky indeed, as these folks are unquestionable masters of meat, and you’re sure to leave quite sated. Which brings me to today’s new word. Brinjal. That’s right, brinjal. I can just see you, scratching your heads, quietly asking yourselves, “what the hell is a brinjal?” Well, depending on which English speaking country you’re from, it’s either an eggplant or an aubergine (probably good that I didn’t only use the term “aubergine”, as you’d probably start scratching your head with wonder again). I thought I’d heard it all. To be quite honest, I actually thought she was making it up, until she popped it into Babylon and showed me that it was a real word.

I seem to recall a quote that Steve Martin once gave. “Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything!” After the “brinjal” incident, I’m thinking it’s not only the French who are guilty here. Hey, what other “strange” words can you come up with?

Monday, February 20, 2006


I’ve been asked to get a bit more personal and write about my son. Well, I’m nothing if not accommodating (or at least try to be when possible), so here it goes! Our child is now nearly 20 months old (annoying isn’t it, how parents count the age of their children in months?), and needless to say he is the light of our lives, the apple of our eye, and pretty much any other drippy sweet platitude you can think of. It was a long, complicated, emotional journey to bring him into our lives, and we are doing our best to enjoy every moment (though some moments are admittedly more trying than others!).

The Little One is highly entertaining, as I would expect any child of mine to be, and he clearly has a sense of humor, laughing big belly laughs at anything he deems to be funny. He is, unfortunately, already enchanted by the “wonders” of television, and is particularly taken with a number of shows, especially "Brum" (causing him to smile delightedly and call out “Brum! Brum!” whenever it’s on), "Thomas the Tank Engine" (his grandparents just sent him a Thomas video and miniature train engine, and he runs around the house saying “Tómas? Tómas?”), "Balamory" (“Mory?”), and essentially anything else starring a tractor, truck or train. Oh, and by the way, with regard to the television, he's also taught us that it can be turned on by pressing the "Program" buttons on the set itself, as well as things we never knew about our stereo system...

Husband and I are speaking to the Little One only in English, as it’s important to both of us that he be as comfortable in English as he will be in Hebrew. His daycare center is also bilingual, so he’s getting additional English-language reinforcement there as well. The result so far is that most of his words are in English, with a smattering of Hebrew. Of course, in our attempts to improve the Little One’s vocabulary (and maximize his entertainment value), we have successfully managed to teach him a number of words and phrases that will undoubtedly help him in the future. When asked a question, the response will often be a confident “Oh yeah.” If the question involves cake, cookies, etc., the response becomes an emphatic” OHHHHHHH YEAH!!!” Upon waking from a nap in daycare one afternoon, the woman in charge told him that she’d call his father to come pick him up (we live close enough so that if he’s asleep when it’s time to go, Husband leaves, returning once he gets the call that he’s woken up). His response? “Oh, nice!” When planes fly overhead, he will point up at the sky and say, “the plane! The plane!” in a manner not unlike Tattoo from “Fantasy Island”.

Speaking of speaking, he’s also quite the little parrot, often picking up on certain words while we speak and trying to repeat them. Some of the more amusing examples would have to be “whayaname?” (“what’s your name?”) and “nipple” (don’t ask, because I won’t tell you). Other unusual words in his vocabulary include “cacti” (we have a large collection – it was one of his first words), “insect” (thank you, Baby Einstein!), “sushi” (courtesy of “First Book of Sushi” by Amy Wilson Sanger), and “manatee”. Husband, much to my dismay, has taught him to say “cusit” (or “babe”, in its less derogatory translation). He seems to have a problem connecting between “the cute things we teach him now” and “the cute things we once taught him that will certainly come back to bite us in the ass”, and “cusit” is certainly one of those things (another is described below). One afternoon, when Husband and Little One picked me up at the train station, Little One looked at me, gave a big, beautiful smile, and said “cusit!” Charming, no? Words fail me…

Husband thoughtfully (thoughtlessly?) taught him how to open the refrigerator, because he thought it would be cute when the Little One helps him make coffee by getting the milk. And you know what, it is cute. What could not be cute about a kid who, when you tell him you’re making coffee, looks up at you with wide eyes, says “coppee?”, and runs to the refrigerator to get the milk, shaking it before he gives it to you? Of course, what is less cute is that he seems to believe that the refrigerator is a special play area, from which it is possible to remove all sorts of items for his own personal use – wine bottles (had a harrowing experience once, where he grabbed a bottle of red wine and ran into the living room with it. I proceeded oh so cautiously, given the potential damage, and successfully retrieved said bottle), eggs, syrup, juice cartons, etc. And, if he’s not removing stuff, he’s casually sitting on the bottom shelf, feet on the floor, trying to pull the door closed (don’t worry, he can’t).

Sitting in the refrigerator, you ask? Well, it seems the Little One has a penchant for hiding. When he suddenly runs from the living room (usually yelling "running! running! running" as he runs), I race around the house quietly, listening for rustling sounds. He’s not afraid of the dark, and will often be found standing quietly in his dark room, grinning when he sees me, or hiding in a corner of our home office, kneeling quietly, either wedged between a cabinet and a bookcase or squeezed behind the vacuum cleaner. He thinks it’s hilarious (see belly laugh paragraph above), and I must admit, it certainly makes me smile.

Little One also loves to dance (though sadly, he seems to have inherited his mother’s unfortunate sense of rhythm), bouncing his little body up and down whenever a catchy tune is playing. His latest creative foray is in singing. What began with him imitating his mommy imitating Louis Armstrong (think small child running around his room saying “Cabalay, cabalay” in a fake gravelly voice, because he can’t actually say “Cabaret” yet), has recently turned into mealtime songfests, where, while sitting at the table, he suddenly takes my hand and Husband’s hand and, with the three of us holding hands, starts singing “la la la. La la la.” We have no idea where it came from, but given how the entertainment factor is a main feature of our relationship, we encourage it.

So, as you can see, we’ve been having quite a lot of fun with our little chap. We take him hiking so that he will develop a love for nature and the outdoors. We’ve taught him to love animals (especially dogs), though sometimes, he tries to love them with a bit too much gusto. We show him pictures of family and friends abroad so that they will be familiar to him when he sees them (thanks to this method, he recognized his grandparents at the airport straight away when they came to visit in October). Most important of all, we let him know how much we love him and how much he means to us, through lots of hugs, kisses, and attention. I look at him sometimes, and can’t believe he’s ours, can’t believe we managed to create such a beautiful, intelligent, loving little child after so much anguish. If he learns nothing else, he will know that his Mommy and Abba love and treasure him more than life itself, and that he will never be taken for granted.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Raining on your parade

I know we need the rain. Really I do. I just don’t need it right now, though. The walk between my office and the train station was simply dreadful today. God is spitting down buckets of the wet stuff, and I cling to my umbrella for dear life while navigating sidewalks that were clearly not created with any serious thought for inclement weather, pedestrians, etc. The water on the sidewalk has a slight element of depth to it, and the angles, dips and irregularities allow for fast-moving streams and currents. It feels like the sluice gates of a mighty dam have been opened, and I discover for the second time in two days, much to my dismay, that my beloved, uber-comfortable black flats are not waterproof (note to self – get waterproof shoes), and my toes are snugly engulfed by a mushy, cold black mass that used to pass for socks. Thank God for my long, black winter coat, which Husband laughed at me for purchasing several years ago in London, telling me at the time that I would never use it. Let me tell you, it is one practical item of clothing, and I can’t imagine getting through the winter without it. Likewise for my new umbrella (second one of the season), which seems to be as strong as promised so far.

The rain has a funny effect on Israelis. Every year when winter rolls around (as it inevitably does, given the nature of time, seasons passing, etc.), we are hit with a form of collective amnesia and act as though it’s the first winter we’ve ever seen. It’s quite astounding, really. We forget how to drive in the rain, tending to use surrounding cars and other obstacles to stop in a manner not unlike the way we used to use the wall to stop at the roller or ice skating rink (think “slam! ooof!”). We are amazed when we hear about the old streets and housing being flooded in certain neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, despite the fact that these same streets and homes flood every year when it rains; you could set your watch by the predictability of it all. Every year we have these floods. Every year we see the poor homeowners on the news. Every year we hear the officials promising to do something about it. Anyone noticing a pattern here?

Of course, the flip side of all this amnesia is that we are all absurdly happy when the first rains of the season hit. Following the rise of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) becomes the national pastime, with each additional centimeter being cause for celebration. We also flock in great hoards to all natural water sources in order to watch the torrent of waters rushing by. When driving around the Northern part of the country on any given Saturday during the winter months (as long as there has been some rain), it is quite easy to locate these rushing water spots, for all you have to do is watch for the places that are absolutely packed with cars parked haphazardly, either just off the roadside or all along the shoulder. If you hit one of these, rest assured, you’ve found the water.

Aaah, yes. Winter in Israel is such a happy time. Rainy, cold and windy one day, sunny and warm the next. The Israelis going water and wildflower crazy, and reaching one’s destination successfully is often a hit or miss situation, as already bad driving takes on mammoth proportions, assisted by poorly designed roads and potholes that mysteriously come out to play, adding a touch of excitement to every ride in the car. And those of us with a penchant towards pedestrianism get to have even more fun, dodging the waters spilling onto the sidewalks from building gutters while simultaneously trying to avoid being the victim of a drive-by drowning as cars splash by. Can you feel my joy? Can you? But alas, we really do need the rain. One of the few issues on which all Israelis can actually agree, so who am I to be the drippy one, the wet noodle? Who am I to rain on anyone's parade?

Here come those clouds again...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Respect, man! It's all about respect!

Is it just me, or does the world truly seem to be falling apart? Society, already frayed at the edges, is unraveling at an alarming rate, and instead of celebrating and learning from our differences, we are allowing them to suck us in and destroy us. I am, of course, referring to a certain series of cartoons, originally published several months ago in Denmark, and the chain of horrific reactions that has followed in their wake.

We all speak about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc. What form should this freedom take? Are there lines that should not be crossed - lines of good taste, lines of respect, lines of sensitivity? Does freedom of speech mean that it is acceptable to lampoon the holiest aspects of religion? And, let us suppose that it is legally acceptable to cross these lines. Is it morally acceptable? Are we not to expect that such actions will spark some sort of reaction, or are we to believe that those whose sensibilities were offended will quietly sit back and choose not to respond?

I cannot imagine that the newspaper editors in Denmark actually expected that the Muslim world would not react when the cartoon series was published. There is no doubt that the cartoons were intended to be provocative; it is one thing to poke fun at a nation’s politicians, but quite another to poke fun at a religion’s holiest icons or play up its stereotypes. Don’t we Jews become incensed by any television show, political cartoon or newspaper article that even hints at anti-Semitism? Have we not mounted massive campaigns in protest to the governments of Arab and Muslim countries that have deigned to portray Jews in the worst possible light, playing up all the usual stereotypes? Thankfully, those who resort to violence in response are few and far between. Most of us would never dream of holding an entire country accountable for the acts of one newspaper or any other media outlet, simply because it is irrational, and because we realize that the governments in most Western countries do not control the media.

And this brings me to my next point. The fury. The unbelievable, white-hot fury that has been unleashed and threatens to engulf us all. It has snowballed out of control, with property damages, injury and death, spreading from country to country, territory to territory. My question to these Muslims who are waging these battles is this – how is what one Danish newspaper (and subsequently other publications) “did” to you any different from what the Arab media “does” to Jews on a daily basis? Is your outrage more valid than ours? Are attacks on Jews acceptable, while attacks on Muslims are not? Is the chasm between Muslims and other religions so great that you cannot respect us, cannot accept our existence as equals? Can you not accept that all societies are not like your own, and that you cannot and should not try to control them? What purpose will be served by vilifying the entire nation of Denmark (not to mention Norway and a host of other countries)? Most Danes played no role in the publication of the cartoons. Why blame them? I never imagined that Denmark would become the new Israel.

This whole situation is disturbing on so many different levels that I am having trouble defining my own thoughts. What is right? What is wrong? Even if it is right on one level, is it wrong on another? And what about the repercussions? Do we show sympathy if it is not reciprocated in similar instances? I can’t decide. The only words I can say with conviction are that the violence is utterly deplorable, beyond all proportion, and serves no purpose other than to feed into the stereotypes portrayed in the cartoons. Whether people like it or not, we are all here on this earth, and nobody is going anywhere. We are a mishmash of religions and cultures that must learn to coexist and respect each other. One cannot just use violence against those with whom one does not agree, and demonizing or vilifying an entire nation or religion for any reason is just stupid. If the mob mentality wins, we will all lose. Live and let live, and for God's sake, respect your neighbors!